Steve Rogers missed life before the ice.
He missed his Ma, buried under the earth long before Project Rebirth. The missed the Howlies. Peggy before time took its toll, her hair falling in dark waves, her lips like cherries. He missed the way everything moved slower, and people looked at you, started up conversations with you in line at the movie theater. Things weren’t so fast or so bright or so loud.
He missed all those things and more, a man out of time. Adrift. Lost at sea.
But it was the taste of bread he missed most of all.
It was such a little thing at first, barely noticeable in the clamor and noise of the future. Bread. It was nothing really, nothing compared to all the advances in medicine and technology. Men had walked on the Moon and polio barely existed anymore. Movie theaters were huge, and cost a month's rent.
And food was better. Barton seemed to consider it a personal mission to introduce Steve to the culinary wonders of the modern world; bowls of noodle soup so fiery and packed with chillies that Steve could barely breathe, mopping his brow and gulping down glass after glass of water while Barton laughed and offered him ice cream. Fat, juicy burgers piled high with onion rings and fried pickles that you’d need to dislocate your jaw to take a bite out of. Waffles stacked into towers and drenched in syrup. Slices of pizza crusted with blistered cheese, puddles of oil soaking into the flat, square boxes they were delivered to the tower in.
All the wonders of the modern age, and what Steve craved was a slice of good, plain bread.
The future had bread. Pretzels and bagels and rounds of San Francisco sourdough, chewy and dense. The stores were piled high with sliced loaves, wrapped in plastic. But whatever he picked off the shelves and took back to his quiet apartment turned to paste in his mouth. It seemed to dissolve on his tongue, sweet and spongy, no bite and no flavor beyond salt and sugar.
He dreamed of the bread they gave out at the Mission under Brooklyn Bridge. Heavy, thickly crusted loaves that stuck in his teeth, bitter and blackened on the underside from too long in the ovens. He remembered the lines that stretched around the block, the desperate and the hungry. They ran out of bread before they ran out of the hungry, and more often than not he’d be sent away with an empty belly, freezing from standing so long in the cold.
It seemed ungrateful, in a world of excess, to ask for a slice of plain bread.
No one in Avengers Tower seems to eat bread, at least Steve hasn’t noticed any when he goes in for debriefings or training. At meetings there is always a table to one side laden down with fresh fruit and pastries. He sits beside Romanov with a cup of black coffee and watches Barton work his way through acres of sticky, deep fried dough, and wonders how the man is still alive.
Steve makes the mistake of asking Pepper for advice, sensible, dependable Pepper who seems to keep Tony on an even keel, and ends up getting a forty minute lecture on how gluten is poison. Steve nods silently as Pepper warns him about inflammation of the bowels and bacterial fermentation, and swears to himself to never ask her anything again.
The next day he gets a delivery of gluten-free bread to his apartment, and finds that the worst example of modern bread, wrapped in plastic and sweating under the grocery store lights, doesn’t compare to the horror of millet bread.
Steve chalks it up to one of the things in the future that he’ll just have to get used to, like music and 24 hour news channels, until Natasha takes him to one side and tells him about a place. He doesn’t ask how she knows what he’s been longing for, just scribbles down the address in his notebook.
It’s in Brooklyn, of all places, just off 8th Avenue.
“Check it out, Rogers,” Natasha smirks. “It’s almost as old as you are.”
Steve doesn’t go right away, he’s been disappointed too often to really get his hopes up. But he files the information away, and gets on with his work.
It’s less than a week before he gets a free morning to himself, and rather than spend it in the Avengers tower’s gym beating reinforced punching bags senseless, he goes for a run around Prospect Park. He wears sweatpants and a t-shirt, topped with a baseball cap, hoping for anonymity but painfully aware that the serum gave him a body that’s hard to miss. In the back of his head he can hear Natasha laughing at him.
It’s early when he starts running, and he watches the sunrise through the trees as he circles around the long meadow, heading south to the lake before the dog walkers start showing up for their morning run.
He slows down as he circles the water, taking his time to cool off before calling it a day and taking the exit onto Prospect Park West.
He finds the bakery exactly where Natasha said it would be, and smiles to himself.
It’s a tiny little place, with large windows and a red awning reading Barnes Bakery. Below the wooden framed windows are red and black tiles down to the sidewalk. There are even wooden benches either side of the red painted door, facing out onto the street. A sign in the window proudly proclaims that the bakery was established in 1921, with three generations of Barneses providing bread, working to an old family recipe.
Natasha hadn’t been lying, it was almost as old as he was.
Steve pushes through the red door, flinching at the clanging overhead. He looks up and sees an old-fashioned tarnished brass bell hanging over the doorway, the opening of the door sending it jangling. The sound is a little stab of nostalgia, a fine blade pushing between his ribs, and he quickly pushes the door shut before he’s accused of dawdling.
Inside there are a couple of little square tables pushed up against the window, their matching chairs tucked neatly underneath. There are more tables lined up along the left wall, and opposite is a glass fronted counter with a display of cakes and pies inside. There are a handful of people waiting patiently in a line, and Steve shuffles in to join them, taking in the framed pictures that decorate the bare brick walls.
Behind the counter there is possibly the most… arresting man Steve has ever seen. He’s wearing a flour-dusted black apron over jeans and a t-shirt, his shoulder-length dark hair tied back in a bun. With his icy blue eyes and sharp cheekbones he looks like he should be on the cover of a magazine, not pulling loaves of bread from the shelf behind him and wrapping them up in paper.
Then the customer he’s serving makes a joke, and the baker laughs.
The world seems to tilt on its axis, that’s the only explanation for why Steve suddenly feels so dizzy, his heart tripping and beating in double time.
When the man smiles he is devastating. His eyes crinkle and his mouth stretches wide, displaying even white teeth. His nose scrunches up as he drops the customers purchases into a bag and hands them over, shaking his head as they pay for their goods.
It’s been a long time since Steve has had an asthma attack, but he remembers. He remembers the struggle to draw breath and the pain in his chest. But his cheeks never burned, his stomach never swooped and plummeted. He takes a step back from the line, sucking in deep, unsteady breaths as he tries to pull himself together, and pretends to study the display of fruit pies.
Maybe he should leave, just turn around and walk away. Get used to the taste of bread.
“What can I get you, pal?” A voice, low and amused, pulls Steve from his thoughts.
Steve’s head snaps up, and he glances around. The place has emptied out, and it's just him and the baker standing behind the counter.
“Uh…” Steve tugs the brim of his cap down, and tries to make himself look smaller.
The man smiles, bright and beautiful. “Spoiled for choice, huh?”
Steve flushes a slightly darker shade of red, and mumbles incoherently.
“Take your time,” the baker says, sweet and reassuring, and sets about making fresh coffee.
Steve kicks his heels, and walks slowly along the counter, taking a closer look at the display of brownies.
“So, you new in town?” the man asks over his shoulder. “I haven’t seen you around, and I would definitely remember you.”
Steve tugs at his cap. It’s a little easier to speak with the guy’s back to him, and Steve’s gaze lingers on his broad shoulders. “Old, actually. Used to live here as a kid and moved back recently. I think I might have come in once or twice.”
When I could afford to eat.
“So you can talk.” The man glances back briefly, before refilling the coffeemaker and leaving it to percolate.
Steve casts around for something to say. “You must be Mr Barnes, then.”
“Hah, Mr Barnes is my father.” He points to a picture on the wall behind him, a smiling man in front of a counter, his apron dusted with flour. “There he is, spinning in his grave with all these Paleo diets and cauliflower pizzas.”
Steve grimaces. Pepper had told him about Paleo diets too. “Pretty sure cavemen didn’t drink kale smoothies.”
Steve didn’t think it was possible, but the man’s smile somehow gets brighter.
“You think they had little cavemen Nutribullets too?” he laughs.
Steve coughs out a surprised chortle.
“James Barnes,” he introduces himself. “But everybody calls me Bucky.”
“Steve,” he replies, not offering a last name. Steve resists the urge to tunnel into his clothes. He feels horribly underdressed in his sweatpants and t-shirt, and folds his arms across his chest.
“You want some coffee while you think?” Bucky asks, fetching a cup from the stack by the coffee maker and filling it before Steve has a chance to answer. He nods dumbly as Bucky pushes it across the counter.
“There ya go.” Bucky winks at him as the bell over the door rings, announcing another customer. “You want anything else from me you gotta use your words.”
Steve takes his coffee and steps back, moving out of the way of the two women who have come in to buy bread and ogle the baker a little. He takes one of the tables across from the counter, and watches as Bucky sweet-talks his way through their orders.
His heart sinks a little. So, there was nothing behind all those smiles and flirtatious comments, he must do that kind of thing with everyone who comes in. It stands to reason, Steve tells himself, Bucky is charming and handsome, and if it gets him a few extra sales-
Steve glances up from his coffee, and sees the women heading for the door. They both turn at the sound of Bucky’s voice, and then fix on Steve. He squirms in his seat under their scrutiny. Before the serum, no woman ever looked twice at him, but after he couldn’t escape. Women and men, all devoured him with their roaming, predatory gaze.
Bucky seems to sense his discomfort and flaps a dishcloth in their direction.
“Shoo,” he mock-scolds them. “Go on, scat.”
They hurry out the door, giggling to themselves, and pause at the window to wave and blow kisses.
Bucky waves them off, and turns back to Steve, still hunched over his coffee.
“So, what you looking for, Steve?” Bucky keeps his eyes on the counter, cleaning down and rearranging his display case.
Steve takes a sip of coffee. It’s good coffee, rich and smooth. “A co-worker recommended you, said you made a really good… zava…”
He pauses, hoping that Bucky will take pity on his terrible pronunciation.
“Zavarnoy.” Bucky turns to the shelf behind him and pats a round loaf of rye bread. “Absolute bastard to make.”
Steve coughs out a laugh, and Bucky looks far too pleased with himself. Steve can hardly remember the last time he has laughed out loud. He used to laugh all the time with the Howlies, clustered around a sticky barroom table in whatever Allied territory they were in that night, spilling beer and telling tales.
“Where you at?” Bucky asks with a new smile, this one softer around the edges.
Steve blinks, and mentally shakes himself. His mind wanders too much, returning to the past when he should be looking to the future. He takes another sip of coffee.
“I don’t know,” Steve admits. “Absent friends.”
Bucky tips his head to one side, narrowing his eyes. “Nostalgia, huh?”
For a moment Steve thinks he’s been made, and steels himself for the inevitable. Questions about the old days, about the war, about the comics. But Bucky just turns to the rack of loaves behind him, tapping his steepled fingers against his pursed lips.
“Okay, so we got the usual suspects; white, wholemeal, stuff covered in birdseed.” Bucky points to the loaves piled on the shelves. “There’s cornbread with roasted poblanos, but I’m guessing that's not what you’re after. Or the spelt and honey.” He appears to come to a decision, and picks out a large, oval shaped loaf from the bottom shelf. “This is the one for you.”
He drops it into a paper bag, twisting the open end up in a neat little tie with a well-practiced flick of the wrist, and drops it on the counter. “Family recipe, no fancy flours, no fast-action yeast. I keep it on the shelf for the old-timers.”
Steve finishes his coffee and returns to the counter. He looks down at the paper bundle. Maybe it’s worth getting his hopes up one last time.
“What do I owe you?” he asks, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet.
“Ah no,” Bucky shakes his head. “I ain’t taking your money.”
Steve scowls, his brows creasing up at the thought of charity. Bucky doesn’t seem intimidated by his ire, which is frankly even more annoying.
“Free sample. You like it, come back and buy more.” Bucky’s grin turns sly. “You don’t like it, you come back and try something else.”
Steve chews on the inside of his cheek. “And what if I don't come back at all?”
“Oh, you’ll come back.” Bucky tucks his tongue into his cheek.
There is nothing predatory in Bucky’s eyes, no avarice, but a sense of appreciation. It’s certainly nothing like the looks he’d given his other customers. Steve drops his gaze, glancing down at the display of fruit pies.
They look good, the fruit jewel-bright under the glaze, the pastry crisp and golden.
“I’ll take a cherry pie,” Steve announces, pulling out his wallet and setting it on the counter decisively. If the guy puts up a fight again he’ll just… Steve isn’t sure what he’ll do. Knock him out and leave money on the counter?
Then I can’t come back again.
Steve pulls out a twenty and slaps it on the counter next to his wrapped loaf. The counter wobbles slightly, but the aged pine doesn’t splinter under the force of his hand. Steve takes a step back, silently chiding himself. Why can’t he even buy a damn loaf of bread without getting into a fight?
“That I can do, the pies are made by a girl I know.” Bucky takes the money, much to Steve’s relief, and rings up the sale. “She’s a good kid, goddamn genius at pastry. Runs Maximoff’s, the patisserie down on Varick Street?” Bucky leaves the change on the counter, and waits for Steve to take it before he slides the pie into a box and puts it in a bag, setting the loaf on top. “There you go.”
“Thanks,” Steve murmurs. There’s no reason to stay, but he doesn’t want to leave. His feet betray him, planted right there in front of the counter. Steve picks up the bag, and tries to think of something to say.
The doorbell jangles, and a woman appears in the doorway, struggling with a stroller. Her hair is in disarray, her face red as she tries to maneuver into the store.
Steve rushes over to help her, propping the door open and taking the front end of the stroller. He lifts it easily and the baby girl inside, bundled up in miles of pink fleece, squeals with delight as she’s carried into the bakery. Steve puts her down carefully, pulling a face at her that makes her laugh again.
The woman hurries in after, and checks over her baby as she offers a garbled thank you.
Steve starts to assure her that no thanks are needed, and realises that he’s in the doorway, his bag in his hand. He glances up at Bucky, who is already moving chairs around and helping her guide the stroller into a corner.
It’s almost painful to watch, the way he talks to the little girl, puffing out his cheeks and widening his eyes while she chortles and flails her little arms. The woman puts her baby bag on the table and shrugs off her coat, taking a few precious moments to catch her breath.
Steve pulls the door closed, careful not to ring the bell, and leaves them in peace.
He drops the bag on the table when he gets to his apartment and goes to the kitchen to make coffee.
He doesn’t rip open the bag and tear off a crust of bread to chew while he’s going through his mail, though he wants to. He checks his email while he drinks his coffee. For all Tony’s jokes about him being clueless when it comes to modern technology, he finds most things pretty intuitive and easy to grasp. A damn sight easier than flying a plane, anyway.
It’s not that he believes in delayed gratification, he’s just not in a rush to be disappointed.
When he has run out of distractions, he sits down at the table with a chopping board and a bread knife. He takes the loaf out of the bag and unwraps it slowly, feeling the crisp, firm crust crack under his fingers. He sets it on the board, and cuts off the rounded end before cutting a thick slice.
It smells yeasty and savory, not like milk or sugar, and he takes a cautious bite.
The crust is rough against his tongue, and bite alone is not quite enough to cut through it, he has to twist a little, pulling the slice away as he tears off a rough chunk with his teeth. His mouth fills with the taste of wheat, and the slightest hint of salt. Steve sits back a little in his chair, something settling deep in his bones. The bread is dense and chewy, not so tough that it makes his jaw ache, but enough to satisfy something primal, some ruminant urge that he can’t place. He swallows, and takes another bite, letting out a soft hum of satisfaction, and finishes off the slice in slow, savoring mouthfuls.
He should go to the store.
The thought has never really occurred to Steve before, beyond picking up milk and coffee from the bodega across the street from the apartment. He didn’t care that his cupboards were empty.
But he needs tomatoes, deep red and ripe, and cheese. He needs a good cut of steak, something he can sear and tuck between two slices of bread, soaking up the juices without turning to mush.
The bread is his, and his alone, but the pie he takes to Avengers Tower the next morning, putting it on the table in the middle of an argument over some nebulous threat from one of the Nine Realms.
Tony snorts at the presentation of a cherry pie, and asks why it’s not apple, but falls into a rare silence when given a slice and a fork.
Natasha gives Steve a knowing look, the corner of her mouth quirked up, and he gives her a cherry jam stained smile.
It’s a temporary peace, but it is peace.
It takes three days to finish the loaf, eking it out slice by slice, and it takes all of Steve’s resolve not to go back to the bakery and ask for more the second the last slice is finished (toasted and spread thickly with salted butter, to hell with what Pepper says).
It’s just his damned luck that the morning he sets aside to go down to the bakery again, a mad doctor and his army of killer robots shows up in Brussels. It takes several days to track him down to his lair (and it is a bona fide villain’s lair in the cellars of a Bavarian castle) and take him down.
Steve sits in the rubble, hand pressed to his ribs as they grate and shift. His ears are still ringing, though not loud enough to drown out Tony and Bruce arguing about whether the doctor was a mad scientist or a mad engineer. Steve lets his mind wander, tired and sore from having a damn clock tower fall on him. He pulls off his mask and shakes it out. There’s chips of stone in his hair, and grit has worked its way under his costume. He scratches and tugs at the red, white, and blue, trying to shift the irritations into some place less uncomfortable.
“Rogers,” Tony calls over. “Hey Rogers! C’mon, we’re gonna get some moules frites. I know a place.”
Do you fondue? A ghost asks him, and the world seems to shift, the old projected over the new, like a newsreel playing on a warped, torn sheet.
Steve blinks and shakes his head until Howard Stark is no longer flickering across his son’s shit-eating grin. “No thanks.”
“Aww, come on,” Tony wheedles. “Team-bonding, mission debrief, all that…” he shrugs. “Come on, man.”
“What the hell is a ‘mool’?” Clint asks.
Steve reluctantly agrees, though ends up turning down the offer of shellfish and fries in favor of a sandwich. The bread is good, dense with a soft crust and sharp tang of ale. Steve eats it grudgingly, though refuses to actively like it out of a misplaced sense of loyalty.
Clint’s order of fries comes covered in mayonnaise, which goes down as well as can be expected.
The following days are filled with debriefs (actual ones, that involve paperwork and statistical analysis, rather than Clint getting upset over condiments). Steve’s body heals, the broken bones knitting together and the bruises fading, until there is no outward sign that he was ever injured.
Steve makes his excuses and gives himself the morning off, pretending to not understand text messages rather than answer Nat’s questions about his plans for the day.
He decides against wearing running gear again, but doesn’t look too closely at his reasons why, and glares at the meagre contents of his closet. Khakis and plain shirts glare back at him.
Maybe he should have taken Nat up on the offer of clothes shopping. She isn’t scheduled to work today, so he could call her. She’s a spy, she could probably figure out a way to make him… make him…
Steve bites the inside of his cheek, hard enough to draw blood, and picks out a pair of pants and t-shirt at random. Why does it matter what he wears, anyway?
He grabs his jacket and wallet, and leaves before he can change his mind.
The bell jangles overhead as Steve pushes the door open, clattering again as he closes it behind him.
The bakery is quiet and empty, and there is no sign of anyone behind the counter.
“Be right with ya!” a familiar voice shouts from the back room, and Steve’s heart rate kicks up a gear.
He opens his mouth to answer and an odd little eep comes out, so he clamps his mouth shut again.
Bucky appears a moment later with a tray of fresh rolls. He smiles at the sight of Steve hovering by the door, his nose scrunching up with delight. “Hey, you came back!” Bucky pushes the tray of rolls onto an empty space on the shelf. “I was starting to wonder.”
Steve doesn’t trust himself to answer, and Bucky takes his silence as a request for coffee, grabbing a cup from the stack and filling it from the carafe. “So how was the bread?”
Bucky sets the cup on the counter, and beckons Steve over.
Steve wills himself to move. He’s faced Nazis and aliens, he can handle a single New York baker offering him coffee.
Bucky doesn’t wait around while Steve is warring with himself, and goes out back to fetch another tray. Steve picks up the coffee, cradling it in both hands, and breathes in the scent of it, rich and bitter.
“So come on,” Bucky reappears with a fresh batch of cinnamon rolls, sticky with artfully drizzled icing. “Don’t keep me in the dark, how was it?”
Steve must have been staring, because Bucky moves one of the spiced buns onto a plate, and pushes it towards him.
“I…” Steve starts.
“Don’t go giving me any lip, pal,” Bucky says softly, and starts arranging the rest of the buns in the display case.
“It was the best bread I’ve eaten in years,” Steve says in a rush.
Bucky grins, and he clenches his fist in triumph, but not going so far as to pump it in the air. He gives Steve a mock-stern look. “You had me worried, Steve.”
Steve is momentarily thrown by the fact that Bucky remembers his name.
“Oh. Yeah,” he says weakly. “Been away. Work.”
Bucky nods sagely. “Anywhere nice?”
Steve takes another sip of coffee, buying time while he figures out what to say.
“Eat. You look like you need it.” Bucky pushes the cinnamon roll towards him.
He picks it up obediently and takes a bite, sugar and spice bursting on his tongue. It’s everything the loaf of bread wasn’t; sweet and buttery where it was savory and plain. Pillowy and light, the soft crust barely resisting as Steve bites into it, instead of dense and toothsome. Steve lets out a soft moan as he swallows, barely registering the sound of Bucky dropping his empty tray.
The bun is gone in four bites. Four indecent, jaw-unhinging bites, and Steve sucks the last traces of lemon and icing from his fingers with a low, throaty sound of satisfaction. He glances up at Bucky, who is leaning against the counter and watching him with avid fascination.
“Um…” Steve says around his index finger. There’s still a little icing on the bed of his fingernail, and he stops trying to work it off with his tongue.
“You know those movies where the girl eats an eclair or something, and it’s really, like, sexually charged?” Bucky asks.
Steve pulls his finger out of his mouth. He’s never seen that kind of movie, but the thought of Bucky eating an eclair is certainly… well, it lingers. “Uh?”
“Yeah, well that was the exact opposite.” Steve scowls, and Bucky cackles gleefully. “You are something else, Steve.”
Steve lingers far longer than he means to. The first time another customer comes in, Bucky tells him to hold up, and runs through their purchases, smiling and nodding while they tell him their plans for the weekend. When they leave he pours more coffee, and Steve figures it would be rude to refuse.
He describes the bread he ate in Brussels with as much detail as he can while Bucky listens intently. There is something almost intoxicating about having his full attention, as if the rest of the world has faded to black around them.
When Steve glances up at the clock on the wall and sees that it’s almost lunchtime, he’s tempted to say nothing. But Bucky follows his gaze, and catches sight of the time, cursing sharply under his breath.
“Ah, damn.” He holds up his hands. “You’ll wanna get going, lunchtime rush an’ all.”
Steve nods, keeping his expression neutral. “Can I take a couple of loaves? And an apple pie?”
“Sure thing.” Bucky packs up the pie in a box and puts it in a bag. He drops a loaf into a paper bag, grabbing the corners and twisting them with a flick of his wrist. He adds the single loaf to the bag, and rings up the items on his register. He doesn’t charge Steve for the coffee or the bun.
“Hey, I asked for two.” Steve pulls out his wallet and drops it on the counter.
“Tough,” Bucky replies, whip-fast. “You’re only getting one.”
“Why?” Steve feels an odd little surge in his breast, hot and sharp and strange.
“So you’ll come back sooner.” Bucky’s mouth stays in its usual upturn, but his eyes crinkle up in silent laughter.
“Jerk,” Steve mutters, handing over his money.
“You love it,” Bucky counters, handing over his bag.
Steve flushes, and steps away from the counter. He has mustered armies, faced down unimaginable horrors, but gets tongue-tied whenever Bucky flashes him that teasing smile. He mumbles something incoherent, and leaves Bucky to get on with his day.
It’s been a long time since he last picked up a pencil. When he was doing his promotional tour of the US, punching Hitler and selling war bonds, Steve sketched all the time, filling his lined notebook with anything that caught his eye. With the Howlies there was less time to sit idly, but he would still find the odd quiet moment; Dugan laughing at his own stories around a campfire, Morita slumped in the back of an British Army Landrover, dozing as they sped through country lanes to their next mission.
Modern paper is another thing that he’s not used to, bleached bone white and oddly smooth. So Steve seeks out an art supplies store on his way home, filled with an urge to do… something.
He walks helplessly through the aisles, blinded by choice. His bag, filled with bread and apple pie, knocks gently against his leg as he wanders up and down, brushing his fingers over the displays of sable paint brushes and half pans of watercolors.
A member of staff takes pity on him, taking him over to the drawing supplies and detailing the merits of cold-pressed paper over hot-pressed, of weight and teeth and all manner of words Steve has never associated with paper before.
He picks out a selection, a hard-backed sketchbook in two sizes, a putty eraser, and a fistful of pencils and pens, his eyes watering a little over the cost, and resolves to return soon.
When he gets home he empties out his purchases across the table and opens his new sketchbook. He likes the shape of it, the weight of it. Likes its thick, black card cover, its coarse sheets of off-white paper. He’s not limited to whatever stub of pencil he can swipe from the SSR offices either; there are graphite pencils and soft pastels, and flimsy sticks of willow charcoal that crumble to powder in his grip, staining his fingers with grey smudges.
He sits by his window overlooking the city and relearns how to draw, eating his loaf of good, plain bread slice by slice. It’s hard to feel disappointed when the bread and his favored pencil have been shaved away to stubs by the end of the second day, and resolves to get more in the morning.
They say that announcing your plans is a sure-fire way of hearing God laugh, and Steve is startled awake before dawn by a call in. And by the time Bucky is unlocking the door to the bakery and opening up for the day, Steve is in a Quinjet bound for Texcoco.
After three days of chasing a guy with a crocodile skull grafted to his face around Mexico City, they have to call for reinforcements, and Sam pulls in a couple of guys from San Francisco.
Steve recognises Lang from his work with the Pym particle, but the excitable friend he brings with him is new. Steve doesn’t have any issues with non-enhanced people on the team. Sam has his wings and military training, Tony his suits and intellect. He’s not sure about Nat, and harbors suspicion that there’s some form of serum wrapped around her DNA, but Clint’s only superpower seems to be that he’s too stubborn to die.
Scott’s friend Luis talks. He talks a lot.
Crocodile Guy may or may not be a resurrected god, Zipacna. Before the ice, Steve would have had little patience for such things, any belief in a merciful god died when he put his Ma in the cold ground. But meeting Thor and Loki has forced him to reconsider.
Luis is full of stories about four hundred boys that are some kind of metaphor for alcohol (which at least ties in with the crocodile guy targeting every bar in Mexico City and razing it to the ground), and a crab that represents… well at that point Steve decides to leave the meeting and get a breath of fresh air.
For all the talk of gods and monsters, Zipacna turns out to be a man, though one with unusual strength and the ability to shift tectonic plates. Scott manages to corner him in a well, and his friend punches him hard enough to shatter the crocodile skull.
Steve eats tamales for the first time. He has a quiet word with Scott’s friend, and they take a walk across the city to a bakery, Pasteleria Ideal. It’s nothing like Barnes Bakery, huge and sprawling, with tables piled high with brightly colored pastries and cakes. Under Luis’ guidance he buys a bag of conchas - sweet bread rolls - to take home with him.
After all, he owes Bucky an apology for being late again.
Bucky practically launches himself over the counter at the offered bag of rolls.
Steve laughs, low in his gut, at Bucky’s forensic examination of their patterned crust. He holds a concha up to the light, carefully pressing his thumbs into the base and tearing the roll in half.
“Will you look at that,” he mutters, pushing his fingers into the soft, spongy bread and watching it bounce back. “Perfect.”
He takes a bite, walking back and forth behind the counter as he chews, while Steve sips at his coffee and tries to keep from laughing.
Bucky thrusts the other half of his concha under his nose. “Eat.”
Steve takes the roll, still smiling as Bucky goes back to his pacing. “You trying to figure out what’s in it?”
Bucky nods, his mouth full, and waves at Steve to eat.
Steve takes a bite. The shell patterned topping is sweet and crunchy and crumbles in his mouth, coating his tongue in butter and spices. The bread is sweet and rich-tasting, with a lingering bitterness like-
“Molasses,” Steve says without thinking.
Bucky points at him. “Yes!” he takes another bite, urging Steve to do the same.
Steve chews his next bite more slowly, savoring the taste. “Some kind of spice?” he hazards.
Bucky rolls his eyes, and Steve has to concede that one.
“I don’t know, Buck. They taste good.” He dabs at a last flake of sugary crust with the tip of his finger. “Are you gonna try making them?”
Bucky shakes his head. “Nah, it ain’t my place to.” He breaks another roll, this one dark brown in colour, into two piece and hands one half to Steve. “I just like figuring out how they’re made.”
Steve bites into his concha. “Chocolate,” he mutters.
“Aw, hell yeah,” Bucky agrees, his mouth full.
He leans against the counter, and for a minute neither of them speaks, chewing in comfortable silence.
“You could try,” Bucky says out of nowhere.
“Hmm?” Steve eyes the last two rolls in the bag, and feels guilty for eating so much of Bucky’s apology rolls. They are really good.
“You could make them yourself,” Bucky clarifies. “Well, something like them. Enriched dough, the sugar paste shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, it’s kind of like the topping on a Pineapple bun but without the baking soda.”
Steve frowns. He maybe understood half of that. “I don’t know how,” he says reluctantly.
“What,” Bucky straightens up. “You don’t know how to make bread?”
“Nope.” Steve hunches over his coffee cup.
“That is a goddamn tragedy, Steve.” Bucky sucks air between his teeth in mock-seriousness. “You’re breaking my heart.”
“Come on,” Steve snorts derisively. “And anyway, wouldn’t it be bad for business, everyone making their own bread?”
“Making bread is a life skill, Steve,” Bucky tuts.
“And yet here I still am.”
“Well, that settles it.” Bucky slaps his hand down on the counter. “I have to teach you how to make bread. You free Sunday?”
Steve’s cup rattles in his hand, black coffee sloshing onto his wrist. “Uh. Probably? If something doesn’t come up at… work.”
Bucky takes another concha out of the bag, and tears it in two. “What d’you say, Steve?” He offers half a roll. “I could come by your place, say ten? Teach you a few tricks?”
Bucky winks, and Steve has a coughing fit, covering his mouth to keep from spraying bread crumbs everywhere.
Bucky doesn’t push, and as soon as he sees Steve’s discomfort he waves it away. “Forget about it, just a dumb thought.”
“No,” Steve says quickly. He hesitates, picking his words carefully. “No, I’d like that. I just…”
Bucky picks at the sugar crust of his roll, not meeting Steve’s eye. “It’s fine, I shouldn’t have pushed.”
“I’m Captain America,” Steve blurts out.
As soon as the words leave his mouth Steve wishes he could snatch them out of the air and crush them to powder. Cram them back behind his teeth where they belong.
This will change everything. Bucky won’t look at him and see Steve, he’ll see the ridiculous costume and the comic book patriotism. He probably had to watch all those terrible propaganda films in high school, or got dragged around the Smithsonian exhibit on a family vacation.
Steve rubs his thumb in the wrinkle between his brows, and shakes his head.
“I’m Captain America,” he repeats.
He looks up at Bucky, words of apology, of goodbyes, crowding on his tongue. Bucky smiles at him, soft-edged and amused.
“Was it supposed to be a secret?”
“What?” Steve recoils. “You knew?”
Bucky bursts out laughing, slapping his hand on the counter again and wheezing for breath.
“Hey!” Steve gives his shoulder a gentle shove. “Not funny.”
Bucky wipes his eyes and tries to say something, but dissolves into a fresh burst of cackling, while Steve crosses his arms over his chest and scowls. He had been scared. When was the last time he had felt scared? And there’s Bucky acting like Steve letting the truth slip out isn’t the worst thing to ever happen.
“Aw, Steve,” Bucky swipes at his watering eyes. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh. It’s just…” He waves at Steve, encompassing his broad shoulders, trim waist, and square jaw in a single sweeping gesture.
“Yeah, I know,” Steve grumbles. “You’ve seen my picture everywhere, I’m not exactly inconspicuous.”
“Nah, that’s not it.” Bucky smiles, lazy and… there it is again, that spark of something. “I’d never forget a face like yours.”
“Bucky,” Steve covers his face to hide the dull flush spreading across his cheeks.
“And you’re such an asshole,” Bucky adds.
Steve lets out an indignant yelp, which sets Bucky laughing again. Steve swats at him, and Bucky dodges out of reach. He leans against the back wall and tugs the band holding his bun in place, snapping it onto his wrist while he combs his fingers through his hair.
“What d’you say, Steve?” Bucky gathers his hair up again. “Sunday?”
Steve’s gaze is drawn to the column of Bucky’s throat, the curve of his jaw as he tilts his head and twists his hair into a knot, several strands falling loose and framing his face. Bucky glances at him, that soft smile playing on his lips.
“Sure,” Steve breathes. “Sunday.”
The Fates take pity on Steve, and there are no alien invasions over the weekend. By Sunday morning he would gladly take a robot army over sitting in his apartment for another minute.
He paces back and forth, watching the clock as the seconds tick past.
Nervous doesn’t come close to it, Steve feels like he’s vibrating out of his skin. He rolls up the sleeves of his check shirt, then rolls them down again. He should have gone out clothes shopping, found something that didn’t make him look ninety years old. Or gone to a barbers. He doesn’t even know if people have barbers anymore.
Steve checks his phone one more time. Maybe all that talk of… what had Thor called them, the creatures from one of the Nine Realms? Ice-elves? Night-Aucs? Maybe Steve’s gotten lucky and they’ve landed in the middle of Washington, and he has a reason to postpone.
Steve picks up his shield from its usual place by the front door. Perhaps he should put it away somewhere. Yeah, Bucky knows who he is, but that doesn’t mean Steve needs to rub his face in it.
There is a knock at the door, and Steve nearly drops the shield. He puts it down, propping it up against the wall, and goes over to answer.
He takes a minute to fidget with his hair, wiping his damp hands on the thighs of his cargo pants, and opens the door.
Bucky grins at him from the doorway, and holds up a canvas bag.
“Hey,” he shoves the bag into Steve’s hands. “Figured you needed a bread starter kit.”
Steve grabs the offering and steps back, ushering Bucky inside. He’s wearing black jeans and a grey t-shirt, topped with a soft, forest green jacket that brings out the blue of his eyes, and for a moment Steve is struck dumb.
Steve had thought Bucky handsome when they’d first met, with features that belonged on a catwalk or the pages of a magazine, not behind the counter in a bakery. Right now Steve wants to break out his pencils and draw. Trace the shape of Bucky’s fingers, the line of his jaw, in pencil and in charcoal and in ink. Then with his lips and his teeth and his tongue.
“Where you at?” Bucky asks quietly.
Steve shakes his head. He doubts there is a name yet for where he is.
When it becomes apparent that Steve is just going to stand around clutching the bag, Bucky takes it back from his unresisting hands. “Okay, you wanna get started?”
Steve nods, and finally remembers his manners. “Yeah. You want some coffee?”
“That would be great,” Bucky looks around, slipping off his jacket as he walks over to Steve’s dining table. “Set up here?”
Steve nods, and goes to the tiny kitchen to put on fresh coffee.
“I figured you wouldn’t have any stuff,” Bucky drapes his jacket over the back of a chair and puts down the bag before following Steve. He glances around, taking in the spartan kitchen, and picks up a dishcloth sponge and bottle of spray cleaner from by the sink. “So I brought everything.”
Steve watches him return to the dining table, clearing the few papers still lying on it and cleaning it down. His heart clatters against his ribs at how at ease Bucky looks in his cold, sterile apartment, whistling to himself as he folds over the washcloth and wipes down the table. How much warmer the place feels, how much brighter with his presence.
Bucky comes back to return the spray and rinse out the cloth, silently nudging Steve out of the way of the sink with a bump of his hip.
“Lucky for you bread is just flour and yeast,” Bucky smirks. “And salt, tell me you got salt?”
Steve nods, flustered. “I have salt.”
“Damn right,” Bucky goes back to finish cleaning down the table, and Steve pours them both coffee.
“I don’t have any bowls, I don’t think.” He holds out Bucky’s coffee. “I’ve got a cereal bowl?”
“One bowl, one spoon eh?” Bucky grabs the coffee and takes a sip. “Steve, you’re breaking my heart.”
“I have more than one spoon,” Steve mutters.
Bucky is right, though. In the year he’s been back he has only bought the essentials. His shelves are empty, but for a handful of books and an old turntable bought from an antique store. The kitchen has milk and coffee and a half empty box of cereal, and little else.
Bucky opens a cupboard before Steve can stop him, but says nothing about its contents or lack thereof. He just picks up the container of salt and goes back to the table to unpack his bag.
“I’m not kidding,” Bucky glances up as Steve comes out to join him. “Flour and yeast and salt, that’s all it comes down to.”
He puts a large bag of flour in the middle of the table next to the salt, along with a small tub of yeast. The last item in the bag is a large preserving jar filled with some kind of pale slurry. Bucky holds it out to Steve.
“This is a momentous occasion, Steve. I’m passing on to you, like an eternal flame or some crap, a piece of history.”
Steve accepts the jar. It’s heavy, and the contents slide and wobble within, foaming and viscous. “Uh?”
Bucky taps the lid proudly. “This guy is older than you.”
Steve holds the jar up and peers at the contents. A bubble forms on the surface, slow and ponderous, and wobbles briefly before popping. “What… Is it bread?”
Steve shakes the jar, and the contents slop around within, coating the glass in a thick film. “Are you sure?”
“None of your lip, Rogers,” Bucky teases. “This old bastard traveled across the sea with my great-grandfather. He started the bakery with it.”
Steve glances up at Bucky. “Seriously?”
“Nah,” Bucky laughs at Steve’s scowl. “I mean, that’s what my old man always told people, but honestly? It’s a philosopher’s axe kind of deal. A batch would go slimy, or get fruit flies, or a funky smell, and he would grate up a heel of yesterday’s bread and start over again.” Bucky shrugs. “So yeah, it’s the same, but it’s also not. Still, I don’t hand this stuff out to anyone.” He gives Steve a pointed look.
“Okay,” Steve looks at the jar in a new light. “What do I do?”
“Well, you’re not gonna be baking every day I’m guessing?” Steve shakes his head. “Keep it in the fridge. Once a week take it out, divide it into two portions and stir in a cup each of flour and water with what's left in the jar. The stuff you take out you make into bread. You think you can make a loaf of bread once a week?”
“Yeah.” Steve gives the jar a little shake. He likes the idea of a little piece of Bucky’s history in his kitchen, in his home. “Yeah, I can do that.”
“Alright then,” Bucky claps his hands together. “Wash your hands and we’ll get started.”
Steve pays close attention as Bucky measures out flour by eye, pouring it straight from the bag onto the table. He holds the bag to Steve, who pours out his own mound of flour alongside it.
They work side by side, shoulders brushing, Steve copying Bucky’s slow, clearly telegraphed movements. A measure of yeast, enough to fill the crease of his cupped hand, goes onto the flour, and the same again of sugar. A healthy pinch of salt, and then Bucky pushes the side of his hand into the flour, and makes a well.
“Water.” Bucky measures by eye. “Hand hot, to get the yeast working.”
He pours warm water into the well, and starts to draw in the flour with the tips of his fingers. “You should be good at this bit,” he tells Steve with a smirk. “You’ve got the muscles for it.”
Bucky is hardly lacking on that front, and Steve bites back the urge to tell him so, focusing instead on the sticky lump of dough forming before him. He worries a little that he’s doing something wrong, his hands are covered in thick, lumpy batter, but Bucky’s dough looks no different, and he is whistling contentedly.
“Okay, so kneading is all about stretching the gluten, yeah?” Bucky scrapes the worst of the dough off his fingers. “You can do it any way that works for you, but I just push and pull it.”
Bucky demonstrates by putting the heel of his hand in the middle of the dough and pushing forward, spreading it in a thick smear across the table. He digs his fingers into the paste and drags it back again.
Steve copies his actions, but can’t seem to claw back any of the dough. Bucky scatters a little flour over the dough, and scrapes it back with the flat of a butter knife.
Each time Steve repeats the process, it gets a little easier, a little more familiar. He lets his thoughts wander, taking in the bunch and flex of Bucky’s biceps as he works his own dough, the movement of muscles under his thin t-shirt as he leans into the kneading.
“Most people will add a little oil to their dough.” Bucky’s voice snaps Steve back to the task at hand. “Makes the crust softer, and it lasts a little longer. But you like it simple, yeah?”
Steve nods, bringing his dough into a tacky ball. There’s hardly any clinging to his fingers now, and the dough has started to take on a smooth, almost silky appearance.
“You can make it without salt too, but what’s the point of that?” Bucky clicks his tongue. “A life without salt is a life without love, like the story?”
“Story?” Steve pushes his knuckles into the dough. “What story?”
“I love you like salt,” Bucky replies.
Steve nearly puts his fist through the table. It wobbles violently, and the half-empty bag of flour tips over. Bucky rights it, scooping up a little of the spilled flour and sprinkling it over Steve’s dough.
“So there was a king, and he had seven daughter,” Bucky begins. “Now this guy had issues. I mean serious issues. Insecurity, like, off the charts. So he calls his daughters together and says ‘How much do you guys love your old man, huh?’ Can you believe that shit?” Bucky looks to Steve for agreement, and doesn’t continue until Steve shakes his head. “So they’re all ‘I love you more than candy, papa!’ and ‘I love you more than wine, papa!’ and so on. The youngest, she goes ‘I love you more than salt.’. And the king is not impressed.” Bucky brushes a stray hair out of his eyes, leaving a smudge of flour on his cheek. “‘Salt?’ he says. ‘Salt?’” And tells his servants to abandon her in the jungle. Father of the Year right there, y’know?”
“Sounds like a peach,” Steve mutters, and Bucky chuckles.
“So the princess goes walking through the jungle, and meets a variety of assholes, and a lot more kings and princes than you’d expect to find in a single jungle. But while she’s gone, every grain of salt vanishes from her father's kingdom. No salt for their meat, or for their broth, or their bread.” Bucky smooths his fingers over the warm, pliant dough. “You can get by on bread and water, but it’s not living, it’s just surviving. You need salt, something bright and sharp on your tongue, else what’s the point?”
Bucky turns to face Steve. Strands of hair have come loose from his bun, falling down to frame his face, and Steve aches to touch him. He reaches up, only meaning to brush away the smudge of flour on Bucky’s cheek with the pad of his thumb, but once his finger settles against Bucky’s skin, warm and slightly scratchy with stubble, he can’t bear to stop. Bucky’s smile softens, his eyelids fluttering closed as he presses into Steve’s touch.
They lean in to each other, slow and easy, and Bucky’s lips are warm and damp when they meet Steve’s.
The first kiss is barely even a touch, just breath ghosting across his parted lips.
The second is more sure of its welcome, a sweet, lingering press and parting, and Steve’s fingers cup against the firm line of Bucky’s jaw reverently.
The third kiss Bucky opens up to him, drawing in a sharp gasp as Steve pushes his tongue between his teeth.
“Mpf,” Bucky pulls back a little, his fingers digging into Steve’s hips as he breaks the kiss.
“What?” Steve panics, snatching his hand away.
“No, no,” Bucky soothes. “It’s fine.”
“What?” Steve stiffens up, and hates himself a little for getting so riled so easily.
“I’m guessing you’ve not done this before.” Bucky’s hands on his waist are gentle, reassuring.
“I’ve kissed people before,” Steve glowers. Bucky looks unconvinced. “I have.”
Bucky kisses the corner of his mouth. “I know you have. Just… it’s like salt, y’know?” he kisses Steve’s plump lower lip. “A little goes a long way.”
Steve frowns. “My tongue is like salt?”
“Mm-hmm.” Bucky scrapes his teeth across Steve’s lips, nipping and sucking until they are pink and tender.
It should be painful, it should feel strange, but Steve’s heart trips and stumbles, heat pooling at the base of his spine.
Bucky's hands work their way under the hem of Steve’s shirt, flour-spattered fingers splayed at the small of his back. He tips his head back, inviting, the seam of his lips parting, and Steve bows to meet them.
They trade kisses, slow and sweet, and Steve follows where Bucky leads, framing his smiling face in hands sticky with drying dough.
Bucky’s tongue darts between his teeth, playful and brief, flicking across his lips and over his teeth. In his turn, Steve ventures deeper, licking up the bitter taste of coffee as Bucky whines, low in his throat, sucking and biting in equal measure.
Bucky tilts his head to one side, fitting their mouths together like two pieces of a puzzle, and the heat in Steve’s gut sparks and flares up. It burns through his veins, searing his skin, hotter and brighter with every touch and taste.
He presses closer, all that sweet desire turning ravenous in a hearts beat, and Bucky stumbles back at the onslaught, arms wrapping around Steve’s waist to keep from tripping and accidentally breaking the kiss. Steve drops his hands to Bucky’s shoulders, backing him up against a wall hard enough to make him gasp, a soft exhalation that Steve swallows up like a starving man.
Bucky doesn’t push him away, doesn’t tell him to stop, his fingers tracing along the curve of Steve’s ribs.
Steve’s foot connects with something leaning against the wall beside them, knocking it to the floor with an odd ringing sound.
It’s like a slap across the face, like a dousing of cold water.
Steve recoils, and for a moment is held in place by his hands on Bucky’s arms, by Bucky’s thumbs tucked under the waistband of his jeans.
Bucky, quicker off the mark than Steve could ever hope to be, tilts his head to one side, desire warring with concern in his eyes.
“Steve?” he murmurs. “What is it?”
Steve shakes his head, and slips out of Bucky’s embrace. It’s like stepping away from the heat and light of an open fire, and into the cold shadows. Steve walks over to the shield, his movements stiff and hesitant, and picks it up.
He turns the shield over in his hands, and the painted convex surface seems to mock him. Red and white concentric circles. All the years he’d spent running around with it, he’d never realised he was carrying a target.
“Steve?” Bucky says again, far more concerned this time.
Steve turns to him, and is struck anew with how beautiful Bucky is, more so with his lips bitten and his clothes rumpled. What would happen to him when word got out about them? Or the bakery that has stood for a hundred years. What would happen to them.
“I can’t,” Steve looks down at the target in his hands. “I can’t do this to you.”
For a long moment Bucky says nothing, just follows Steve’s gaze to the shield. “Steve? What are you talking about?”
“What do you think the press would say if they found out Captain America was…” Steve can’t even say it.
There would be outrage, Steve would never hear the end of it. Press releases and opinion pieces and calls for him to give up the shield. And Bucky? The whole world would know about him, and how long before some homophobic piece of crap put a brick through his window? Cornered him when he was walking home and...
“Screw the press,” Bucky says sharply. “It’s none of their business who you’re with.”
“You don’t understand,” Steve’s grip on the shield tightens. “Captain America can’t be-”
“Fuck Captain America,” Bucky snaps. “I don’t give a damn about Captain America. I care about Steve Rogers. What does he want?”
“I have a duty to my country-”
“You have a duty to yourself.” Bucky takes a step towards him. “You’re not a comic book character, you’re not a damned history exhibit, you’re a person. You’re allowed to want things. What do you want, Steve?”
If you asked him, he would stay with you. It would ruin him, and he would stay.
“I want you to leave.”
Bucky turns pale, and in that handful of words all the fight seems to drain out of him. Steve hates himself for it.
Bucky slumps back against the wall, and swipes the back of his hand across his face. “Fuck,” he murmurs.
He looks winded, wounded, as if reeling from a punch in the gut.
Steve tastes bile in the back of his throat. He clenches the shield tightly, hard enough to buckle any other metal. His fingers whiten under the pressure, and the vibranium alloy scores deep marks in the palms of his hands that slowly fade as he sets it down on the floor.
He walks over to the table and reaches past the two mounds of dough, past the salt, and picks up the jar. He turns it in his hands, and can hear the sound of Bucky moving around behind him, slow and weighted down. There is the slide of cloth as he pulls on his jacket, the sharp, suppressed intakes of breath as he gathers himself together.
It doesn’t feel like kindness, no matter what Steve tells himself. It feels like poison creeping through his veins, thick and bitter.
Steve waits until Bucky’s breathing steadies, and turns around.
“I’m sorry,” Steve murmurs.
“Yeah,” Bucky chews on the inside of his cheek. “Kinda makes it worse.”
He tries to smile, crooked and crumbling, and Steve hates himself a little more when he holds out the jar.
“I can’t take this.” Steve can’t bear the look on Bucky’s face, but doesn’t let himself turn away. “I get called away on missions with no notice, I can’t even keep a plant alive.”
Bucky nods, his jaw still working, and reaches out to take the jar, careful not to let their fingers touch.
“I’m sorry,” Steve repeats. It’s not enough, not nearly enough, but it’s all he has left.
“Asshole.” Bucky sighs, and wraps Steve up in his arms.
Steve lets himself be held, but doesn’t dare to hug back. He might never let go if he did. He tries to stand stiff and immobile in Bucky’s arms, as hard and heartless as stone, but crumbles in his embrace, pressing his face to Bucky’s shoulder and breathing in the sweet, earthy scent of him.
Bucky cradles the base of Steve’s skull in his hands and presses a hard kiss to his forehead.
“You are Steve Rogers, remember that.” Bucky kisses his brow one last time. “Be Steve.”
Steve screws his eyes shut, and doesn’t open them when Bucky finally lets him go, doesn’t open them until he hears the door open and close again.
He rubs the heel of his hand against his eyes, and tastes salt.
The world keeps turning.
Bruce or Tony, Steve isn’t clear on the details, opens an interdimensional rift in Malibu. The light show is impressive, but the hoards of armoured lizard-men that pour through the tear in space and time are less pleasant.
The lizard-men they can deal with, but the rift is a bigger problem, and requires calling in some kind of wizard. He looks like a Vegas reject, with a goatee and a red cloak that Clint swears moves independently. He’s also a contender for World’s Biggest Ego on a team with the reigning champion, and by the time the rift is finally sealed, Steve is about ready to throw himself through at the last minute and try his chances with the lizard-men.
A few days later, some aging wrestler type with a laser whip shows up in Times Square, and slices a tour bus in half.
Steve loses track of the days, of the weeks, until he looks out the window of Stark Tower and can’t be sure if it’s spring or fall.
He forgets the taste of bread, but salt lingers on his lips.
Thor’s warning about danger from the Nine Realms turns out to be more than just talk. A portal opens in Manhattan and an skeleton army pours out into the streets.
Steve has seen a lot of weird stuff in his time, but the Norse Queen of Helheim, in her black robes and helm of broken bones, probably ranks in the top three, just after the sight of Schmidt peeling his face off.
Her touch brings death, and she rides a giant wolf down Fifth Avenue, her crumbling army of the damned, the long-dead and half decayed Asgardians who were turned away from the halls of Valhalla, at her heels.
There are few who can be touched by the Queen and live; Thor, and Tony is his suit. They take on the Queen while the rest of the Avengers scatter, moving out from the central battle to clear the streets of the walking dead. They may not possess the touch of death like their Queen, but they have knives and swords, and rattle through the streets spreading mayhem and murder like a terrible Halloween parade.
Clint and Natasha head north. As far as they can tell, the undead don’t cross running water, so they use the Hudson and East River to their advantage, creating a blockade up in Harlem. While the hoards are reluctant to cross over water, they seem to have no trouble going underneath, so Steve runs over to cover the Holland tunnel while the Hulk guards the Lincoln tunnel. Sam flies overhead, sending out his little red-painted drones to watch the melee from above.
“Tony?” Steve yells over the comms as he sends his shield spinning through a cluster of sword-rattling skeletons. They crumple to the ground, clanking and groaning, and Steve tries not to wonder how they are still able to make sounds.
“Kind of busy, Cap!” There is a roar, and a heavy clank of metal. “NICE DOGGY!”
“Tell me Thor is getting somewhere.” Steve puts his boot through the skull of one of fallen damned. Clint had warned him early on, a pitch of hysteria in his voice, that they needed a heavy blow to the skull to bring them down. ‘Beat ‘em or burn ‘em, they go up pretty easy’ he had chanted before being cut off.
“BAD DOG!” Tony screams. There is another heavy, metallic sound, followed by a much quieter “Ow.”
Steve shakes his head, and bashes the edge of his shield into another creature’s skull, splitting it in two. It drops to the ground with a sound like bamboo wind chimes.
“Sam?” Steve throws his shield into another group, knocking them down like bowling pins. “Give me an update?”
“Blockade’s moving south, just like we planned.” Sam sounds triumphant. “Hawkeye and the Widow are clearing Midtown, picked up a couple of friends along the way.”
Steve takes aim, quickly running through the list of known contacts. The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, and… Cage, was it? The world is filling up with superheroes these days. He throws his shield again, ricocheting it off the edge of a building and slicing through another hoard. Too low, it only cuts through their legs, and he jogs over to finish the job.
“Thanks, Sam,” Steve calls. “Hulk, get down to Battery Park, guard the tunnel there.”
Hulk grunts an affirmation, and Steve drives his shield through another twitching decaying skull.
“Shit,” Sam mutters.
Steve straightens up. A splinter of ice trickles up his spine. “What?”
“I don’t know how I missed them,” Sam mutters another curse. “How the hell did they get over there?”
“Sam, what?” Steve asks a little more sharply.
“There’s undead in Brooklyn,” Sam hisses. “Going over the Brooklyn Bridge. I guess they can cross water.”
Steve swears loudly. It was too much to hope for, that they could trap the undead army in a dead end and dispatch them quickly.
“How many?” Steve asks.
“A hundred, maybe more, headed southeast.”
Steve shakes his head. Regroup. “Hulk, change of plans. Get down to the bridge, stop any more from crossing. Clint, Nat, you still with me?” Clint cackles gleefully over the coms. “Push the blockade south, we need to ringfence the army in, finish them off.”
That splinter of ice keeps working its way up Steve’s spine. “Sam, the stragglers in Brooklyn, where are they?”
“Headed down Flatbush, no further east than Prospect.”
The splinter of ice shatters, sending a thousand tiny shards through Steve’s heart.
It is five miles from Holland Bridge to Eighth Avenue.
Steve doesn’t pause to give instructions, doesn’t plan the quickest route. He grips the shield tightly in his right hand, bows his head, and runs.
Five miles. Five miles of feet pounding against the sidewalk. Five miles of ragged breath and burning lungs, the streets and the city lights a blur around him. He crosses water, clambering over the cars abandoned on the bridge as people escape the oncoming army of the damned. He doesn’t slow when he sees the shambling hordes up ahead, throwing his shield as he runs and slicing through them, their brittle bones crunching under his boots. He keeps running, deaf to the curses and the cries, to the sound of cameras clicking.
Above him he can hear the steady whum-whum-whum of engines, News helicopters in pursuit, and the unmistakable sound of an arc reactor.
Over the comms a war rages. The deep roll of thunder and the whir of Starktech. A Queen’s defeat and exile to her realm. Steve’s heart hammers in his ears, and he keeps running.
When he rounds a final corner and sees the bakery up ahead at last, at last, he stumbles to a halt. The street is littered with signs of a recent fight, piles of rags and bones lying in the street where undead soldiers had been taken down. Someone fought back.
Steve picks his way through the debris, walking slowly towards the bakery, his heart pounding in his throat. The bakery door is wide open, tables and chairs overturned, but there is no one inside.
“Bucky?” Steve calls.
You’re too late.
There is a rattling, clanking sound, and Steve turns, coming face to face with one of the undead. It shambles towards him, skin hanging from its exposed bones in ragged, decaying clumps. It snarls, its mouth opening impossibly wide, and before Steve can lift up his shield to protect himself, a baseball bat comes swinging round in a wide arc, knocking the creatures head off its body.
Steve stares dumbly after the rotting skull as it bounces down the street, coming to rest in the gutter.
Steve lets out a choked sound of surprise, and Bucky salutes him with the baseball bat. “Next time my mom complains about spending too much time on computer games, I’m gonna remind her about this. You ever play Resident Evil?”
Steve shakes his head, his mouth working but no sound coming out. Bucky is still wearing his apron, coated with flour and ichor and bone dust.
“Hey,” Steve says finally, not knowing what else to do.
“Hey.” Bucky smiles at him, soft edged and bittersweet. “What you doing out here?”
“I…” Steve glances back the way he came. There is a breadcrumb trail of damage, crushed cars and crooked street signs, and clipped buildings leading to where he stands. “They broke through the perimeter. Intel said they were headed towards Prospect and I…” Steve swallows.
“You came here,” Bucky says slowly, his gaze settling on the trail of destruction. “You left the fight and… came here.”
Steve swallows, his mouth suddenly dry as Bucky reaches up to tuck a strand of hair behind his ear.
“You came to rescue me.” Bucky’s eyes crinkle up at the corners.
The news helicopter that Steve managed to outrun earlier buzzes overhead.
“I… I mean...” Steve stutters.
“You were worried about me.” Bucky’s mouth twitches up.
“Yes.” Steve gives a single, sharp nod.
“Aw, Steve,” Bucky swings his bat, .This is nothing. Now if they had been giant cockroaches?” He mock shudders.
Steve’s heart gives a single, painful thump. “Yeah, well…” He shifts from foot to foot, feeling ridiculous in his costume. “You didn’t tell me how it ends.”
Bucky tilts his head to one side. “How what ends?”
“The story.” Steve moves closer, as if pulled by a magnet. “About loving someone more than salt. How does it end?”
“Oh, the princess.” Bucky steps closer, meeting him halfway. “She went home. And the king, well it took him losing something to realise how precious it was. Because he was a jackass.” Steve coughs out a laugh, and Bucky’s smile widens. “The end.”
Steve bows his head, and feels Bucky’s breath on his lips. “This won’t be easy.”
Bucky drops his bat and grabs hold of the front of his suit. “Nothing worth a damn ever is,” he rasps, and crushes their mouths together.
In Steve’s ear Tony Stark curses a blue streak, and Steve can’t find it in him to care. Bucky’s mouth against his is hot and fervent, his teeth pressed to the swell of Steve’s lower lip. Steve cups his hands against Bucky’s jaw, the leather of his gloves catching against stubble, his thumbs tracing the working of Bucky’s throat as he closes his mouth around Steve’s tongue and sucks.
“CAP!” Tony yells.
Steve would have bitten through his own tongue if Bucky’s teeth weren’t in the way. He breaks off the kiss apologetically, his hands moving to Bucky’s shoulders.
“Kind of busy, Tony.”
“I noticed,” Tony sounds… impressed. “Got incoming, heading your way down Union.”
“Damnit,” Steve mutters. He looks around for his shield and finds it lying on the ground at his feet. He hadn’t even realised he’d dropped it.
“Duty calls?” Bucky asks, reaching down to retrieve his bat.
“Yeah.” Steve fits the shield onto his arm. “Wait here, I’ll come back when it’s done.”
“Oh, like hell I am.” Bucky checks his grip and swings the bat. “Union, was it?”
Bucky grins, wide and bright and beautiful, and Steve will never tire of kissing that smile.
He doesn’t ask if Bucky is up for the challenge, if he’s sure. He knows it, deep in the marrow of his bones, in the double-thump of his beating heart.
“Let’s go,” Steve takes off at a run with Bucky at his side, to whatever the future holds.