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Dream a Little Dream

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 Steve does not believe in moments written in the stars – until a rainy morning on a Tuesday, when he starts giving the notion second thoughts.

 He doesn’t mean to oversleep, but the gray clouds crowding out a weakling sun make him burrow under the covers for just an hour or two more. He doesn’t mean to run out of coffee and orange juice at the same time, two staples that he doesn’t like to do without and thus needs to replenish. He also didn’t think that on this not-so-fine day he would consider it essential to buy more sketching supplies, but it’s the first thought that pops into his mind when he finally manages to wake up. It makes sense– it’s a day off and luckily the world’s not ending, and a little rain surely won’t make him melt. He doesn’t mean to be cocky and leave his umbrella behind either; that’s just in his nature.

 When it starts raining, it pours– a torrential storm that floods the streets in minutes. People duck under awnings, rush inside stores for dear life. Steve, however, thinks himself impervious and waltzes his way on.

 The hail comes soon after.

 Steve slips inside the first door he sees as discreetly as possible, dripping puddles on the floor and clutching his bag of sketchbooks close to his heart as though cradling a defenseless child. He looks up to find himself inside a small bistro– a quiet little corner of Brooklyn. He ruffles his wet hair in a futile attempt at drying it, prepared to ask for a bucket and a mop before the employee that he hears approaching gets a chance to rightly cuss him out.

 He lifts his head about to voice a greeting, and a moment that feels damn near written in the stars, the sky, the very universe since its first grain of existence smacks him in the face with a shrill cackle and knocks all breath out of his chest.

 The ‘Moment’ is 6 feet tall and handing him a stack of napkins. The Moment has pink upturned lips, silky hair drawn back into a low bun at the nape of his neck, and gray-blue twinkling eyes that mesmerize Steve into oblivion.

 The Moment exhales a soft amused breath and pulls back his offering of napkins with a little aborted movement, while Steve just stands there, mouth half-open in an undignified startled look.

 “You’re right, these are probably useless,” the Moment concedes with a smirk, apparently mistaking Steve’s reaction for a remark on the inadequacy of the paper napkins. “Let me grab something better.”

 It’s instant, nearly paralyzing: his voice awakens something dormant that Steve didn’t even know he had in him anymore; his soul soars as though recognizing someone familiar.

 The Moment –the man, Christ, Steve berates himself, the waiter– grabs a towel from the counter, before he’s stopped by a woman with dark hair held back by a purple headband, who’s currently standing behind it.

 The woman clicks her tongue as she snatches the towel back. “Bucky, for fuck’s sake, that one’s dirty.”

 The Moment, the man, the waiter, Bucky leans over the counter to grab a clean towel from somewhere on the woman’s right. Steve accepts it on autopilot, his mumbled “Thanks” only a reflex that finally serves its use after years of carefully inculcated manners.

 “Raining like hell out there, huh?” the woman asks.

 Her voice comes from far away– Earth, if Steve is pressed to guess, because he has definitely ascended to a different plane. The effort of ungluing his gaze from Bucky to look at her, as is polite, makes Steve’s eyes physically ache. “Uh,” he manages eloquently.

 “Kate, there’s like a rain river going down the street,” Bucky points out.

 “Damn, I forgot my ark at home,” the woman –Kate– says, smacking her hand against the counter. She eyes Steve, who’s eyeing Bucky, who’s eyeing Kate, in an awkward triangle of staring.

 All words in Steve’s mind have booked it for the hills. His throat is closed and dry, an admittedly good thing, since it stops him from embarrassing himself with mewling, unintelligible sounds.

 The repression leads to his face definitely doing something though, because Kate’s eyebrows knit together and she twists her lips. “I could lend you my umbrella if you’re in a hurry. But only if you promise to bring it back.”

 That does it. Steve jolts out of his revenant reverie, and fast. “Oh no, no – no,” he says, hand against his chest as he speaks in earnest, “no, I couldn’t possibly – you’ll need it. I’ll just hang around here till it stops raining. Seems like a good place to be stranded in,” he adds with a half-smile, eyes wandering over the interiors and carefully, decisively not landing on Bucky.

 “Okay, then. I’m Bucky and I’ll be your server today,” Bucky says playfully, bouncing on his heels. “I’m obligated by store policy to tell you that today we’re offering two specials: one, Tea-smoked Jasmine Bruschetta, and two, Strawberry and Bacon Ricotta Cheese Pizza.” He finishes with a small cough, visibly amused at the words leaving his mouth.

 It’s entirely possible that Kate and Bucky don’t recognize who Steve is. Most people expect Captain America to be taller, bigger, more imposing, strutting into rooms as though he owns them and exuding vibes of ‘I’m gonna kick someone’s ass, quite possibly yours, son’. Steve actively strives for the exact opposite. But, as much as these two people don’t seem to recognize him, he doesn’t recognize any of the food combinations that he’s been offered either– or at least he doesn’t recognize them as advisable.

 He drops his eyebrows into a small frown. “I’m Steve, and–” He stops. “Strawberry bacon – what?”

 Bucky and Kate snigger.

 “Told you it didn’t sound appealing,” Kate remarks, arching an eyebrow at Bucky.

 “It sounds special, ‘cause it’s today’s–”

 “Don’t,” Kate pleads.

 “Special,” Bucky finishes smugly.

 “No, it sounds wrong,” Steve blurts out before his brain can catch up with his mouth.

 Bucky tilts his head to look at Steve. A slow grin stretches across his face and makes his eyes crinkle at the corners.

 Steve swallows down a gulp and hopes it doesn’t sound as loud as it does in his own ears. He hopes he isn’t staring too hard into Bucky’s eyes, though it definitely feels a few seconds too long. He drops his gaze to Bucky’s soft-looking lips –still grinning that grin that now Steve perceives as cheeky– and Steve quickly finds that to be the wrong move, if the way his skin tingles and raises into goose bumps is any indication. He glances at the counter, spotting his saving grace in the form of a food menu. He grabs the flimsy thing with hasty movements, clearing his throat as he puts on his seriously-studying-the-dishes face.

 “I’m sure I can find something that makes sense.” He forces his voice to come out even. He refuses to look up at Bucky’s breathy chuckle.

~~~

 The downpour is over in less than forty minutes, lowering to a drizzle and then coming to a stop – albeit temporarily, if the heavy clouds still looming over the skyline are anything to go by. Steve has gone through his very simple order of a sandwich, and his soaking clothes that have dried only a little, as well as the continued well-being of his new sketchbooks, dictate that it would be best to get home before round two begins.

 All sense says it’s time to go, but he doesn’t want to, petulant eyes falling on Bucky’s form as he leans against the counter, cross-checking things on lists. A wisp of hair falls on his eyelashes and he tucks it behind his ear with a gloved hand– one glove, Steve notes, has noted for some time now. Some kind of scar Bucky doesn’t feel like sharing, he assumes, or a tattoo maybe, if the place is too strict to allow it.

 Thunder rumbles in the distance.

 Steve suppresses a sigh, gathers his bags and sits up, wincing at the wet mess adorning his chair and corner of the floor, courtesy of his soaked shoes and dripping clothes.

 Bucky turns to him with a smile when Steve approaches.

 “I made a mess there. I could clean up?” Steve suggests sheepishly, partly because it’s right, and partly because it’ll give him a good reason to linger here.

 “Nope,” Bucky says, shaking his head.

 “Dude, go,” Kate urges. “You’ll catch a cold or something, look at you.”

 Bucky straightens and lifts a finger, his lips upturned into a curl. “Before you go, hold on one sec.”

 ‘One sec’ is more than fine. Steve loiters.

 Bucky dashes through the kitchen doors and returns quickly, pushing a take-out container in Steve’s compliant hands. “You gotta give it a try,” he says. His smirk is far too pleased for the advice to bode well.

 “Not the franken-pizza!” Steve says with exaggerated dread.

 “Now you can go,” Bucky says. Thunder rolls and lightning strikes, making his gleeful grin appear ominous.

 Steve does go, heeding the sensible advice. Once he’s home, he shoves himself under the cold shower, begging the water to cool his burning cheeks, though there’s little it can do to simmer down the sparks inside him. He takes his time dressing into dry clothes, dawdling on his tablet, doing dishes– delaying what he knows is inevitable: the tasting of the food concoction he’s been given to try.

 He eyes suspiciously the roasted strawberries and the browned cheese, or maybe onions. He sniffs the piece of pizza and scrunches his nose at the confusing smell of sweet, sour and herbs he can’t identify. He takes one small hesitant bite, and then another. He chews, swallows and finishes the thing with a groan, firmly comparing the experience to battling brainless Chitauri, and not entirely sure which of the two is worse.

 Given the arduousness of his experience, it’s not completely unjustifiable that he should go back to the bistro the next day to have a word with Bucky. He spends a long minute choosing what to wear, opting for a sweater that reportedly brings out his eyes. He spends an even longer time attempting to style his hair. He scoffs at his reflection, ruffles his uncooperative mop, calls himself out for being silly and moves to grab his keys. He backtracks and spares a second to at least spike the tips with inexperienced fingers.

 “That thing was horrible,” he says the second he steps inside the bistro, heading straight for Bucky, who’s cleaning up a table at the back. The place is thankfully empty of other customers, allowing for Steve’s dramatic entrance.

 Bucky looks up and bursts out into laughter at Steve’s words; it’s a delighted crescendoing giggle that Steve instantly commits to memory.

 “I told you it was wrong, from the very first minute, and I was right,” Steve goes on, encouraged by Bucky’s positive reaction. “You just wanted me to suffer, didn’t you?”

 “Maybe you just lack a refined palate,” Bucky drawls teasingly.

 “I nearly lacked a palate altogether after that,” Steve quips.

 Bucky hands him a menu, the crinkles around his eyes belying his pleasure. “So, what can I get you that won’t send you into a fit?”

 “The… Bistro Chicken Salad?” Steve says after a quick glance at the menu, choosing the first most recognizable meal.

 “Y’mean you don’t want the Poached Blueberry Cockles?” Bucky suggests with a smirk.

 Steve huffs. “What have I ever done to you?”

 Bucky shrugs, eyebrows raised in mock innocence. Customers enter. Kate talks. Steve can only focus on the mischief in Bucky’s bright eyes, and at the faint whirring sound in the air.

~~~

 It only takes a week for Steve to become a bistro regular. It also takes a week for Steve to start dreaming of Bucky.

 Although the departure from his customary end-of-the-world/everyone-dies nightmares is welcome, the dream-world Bucky in Steve’s bed, surrounded by nothing but creased sheets, leads to a rapidly sinking feeling in Steve’s stomach when he wakes up to an empty bed. Steve throws off the covers and groans as he stands, rubbing his eyes to chase away the image of Bucky’s long hair fanned out on Steve’s pillow, the echo of his warm weight dipping down the mattress. It’s been a week, Steve muses with a grumpiness that somehow makes him smile, a testament to how confusing this all is. He’s fast progressed from feeling an unwarranted connection, a pull at first glance, to dreaming of a man that he barely knows. Whichever way he looks at it, Steve is definitely screwed.

 Between training sessions, Steve happily tries out mushroom pasties and classic bistro buns, discussing the merits of the original Cornish pasty –which Bucky hasn’t tasted– in relation to the very much tasty but definitely not Cornish variation that the bistro serves. Before Avengers meetings, he suspiciously nibbles on chicken and waffle sandwiches as Bucky snickers his fake disdain at Steve’s food snobbery (or rather, at Steve’s wariness of this gourmet-like food). He steals covert looks at Bucky as he goes about his business, frequently exchanging heartwarming smiles with him when Bucky looks his way. After SHIELD ops and the subsequent debriefings, Steve treats himself to fries and pizzas with uncomplicated names and finds that his life has assumed more vibrant colors, and an eagerness to meet the future that Steve had almost written off for good.

 On a first that Bucky doesn’t steer him wrong for fun, Steve is treated to a stuffed chestnuts and risotto dish that catches him pleasantly off guard.

 “You should try trusting me a little every now and then,” Bucky remarks smugly, his hands resting on his hips as Steve gorges on the unexpected culinary delicacy.

 “I–” Steve grabs a napkin to wipe his lips. “You cheat because I trust you.”

 Bucky breathes in a dramatic gasp. “How dare you? I never cheat.”

 “Waffle sandwich,” Steve reminds, forking the one remaining chestnut on his plate.

 “Don’t diss the waffles!” Bucky retorts.

 “Waffle chicken sandwich–”

 “Keep it up and I’ll order a waffle burger special just for you,” Bucky interjects, pointing a gloved finger at Steve’s direction. His stern expression cracks quickly, giving way to a grin that unsurprisingly lights up Steve’s day. “Dammit,” he breathes with a self-deprecating giggle.

 “Real scary,” Steve remarks.

 Once he starts carrying sketchbooks with him, Steve feels the need to press the point that he doesn’t cook and that is decisively why he pops over this often, though neither Bucky nor Kate question any of his habits.

 “I don’t cook at all,” he says emphatically, pulling a handful of pencils out of his backpack. “Never learned how. Just know how to boil a few things.”

 “Boring,” Kate says with a small shudder.

 “I’d say it’s right up his alley,” Bucky chimes in with a lopsided smirk. He eyes Steve’s pile of art supplies on the table. “You moving in?”

 Steve follows his gaze and lets out a startled chuckle.

 “’Cause if so let me know, I’ll bring some blankets and we can make a fort,” Bucky says.

 “Sometimes a person is just an artist with a lot of… stuff,” Kate points out dismissively.

 “Sometimes,” Steve agrees pleasantly. “But in this case, we can be roommates. I’ll bring my couch cushions.”

 “Perfect,” Bucky says with a definitive nod. “I’ll never want to leave this place again.”

 He jokes, or so Steve insists, to save himself from the emotional toil of nitpicking at potential hints and innuendoes. Still, Steve can’t help but helplessly share the feeling.

~~~

 Steve works diligently on his newest drawing, lulled by Bucky chatting up customers and memorizing orders in the background. He balances the sketchbook on the edge of the table and replicates what he can see through the partially closed drapes over the windows. The customers speak in quiet voices; Bucky murmurs their orders to Kate. Steve sinks pleasantly into his seat, shoulders relaxed and mind at ease, as though the bistro is an extension of his own apartment. He takes a sip of his black coffee and scratches lightly at his cheek. He flinches as he almost pokes himself in the eye with the pencil that he didn’t bother to set down.

 Someone nearby clicks his tongue. Steve doesn’t have to look to know it’s Bucky, but lifts his head anyway. He raises eyebrows when Bucky’s eyes meet his own.

 “You smudged yourself again,” Bucky says, gloved finger pointing at the corresponding spot on his own cheek.

 “I– what?” Steve says, rubbing frantically his face. He hoped no one had noticed the other couple smudges that he himself discovered only when he had gone home after his previous visits. Apparently, based on that ‘again’, someone had.

 “It’s gone,” Bucky reassures once Steve feels like he’s scrubbed his skin raw. “You don’t mind? Smudging your sketch when your hand drags along? I always wonder.”

Always? Steve almost squirms. How many times has he left this place with sloppy smudges all over himself anyway? “Nah,” he says with his best fake-nonchalance expression. “It softens the lines, gives texture.” It’s mostly true, but more often than not it’s just inadvertent.

 Bucky licks his lips. “Can I see?” he asks, voice laced with gentle hesitation, lips minutely curled upwards into the ghost of an uncertain smile. “You’re always sketching and…”

 Steve’s mind flashes to the sketchbook he always leaves at home, the one with an undignified number of drawings of the man currently waiting for an answer.

 “Mm hm,” Steve mumbles, propping the sketchbook upright as Bucky steps around. “Always have.”

 He turns back pages to show his very innocuous sketches of buildings and a bridge, and his less innocuous –but completely justifiable– sketch of a classic bistro scene: Bucky, with his back at the tables and his palms set on the counter, talking to Kate, who’s fixing drinks with her head ducked low. Steve figures it’s enough true-to-life without sporting too many details, and without the guiltily, adoringly filled in particulars of Bucky’s face, that Steve can share it without getting caught out.

 “Good for you, you have a gift–” Bucky’s voice, husky and low in Steve’s ear, suddenly turns up a notch when he sees the bistro scene. “Is that us?” He leans closer over Steve’s shoulder, hand reaching out to gently touch the page. “Holy shit, Steve, that’s…” He leans down even further, nose scrunched as he inspects the sketch.

 Steve’s heartbeat spikes up in response to the proximity. The smell of teakwood, soap and something altogether Bucky reaches Steve and he breathes it in, lungful after lungful in a greediness that Steve takes care to keep noiseless, lest Bucky notices.

 Oblivious, Bucky traces the paper just to the side of the penciled lines. “It’s so realistic.” He turns, his face inches from Steve’s own, his body radiating a warmth that scorches Steve’s skin.

 Steve’s breathing quickens. “It’s almost like I’m good at it,” he murmurs, acutely aware of how his breath ruffles the escaped strands that frame Bucky’s cheek.

 Bucky drags his tongue over his lower lip. His eyes, gaze intense and pupils dilated, are fixed on Steve’s. He bents a little closer, or at least Steve thinks so, because the space that separates them turns electric. Steve wills his heart to stop hammering so loud, and possibly stops breathing altogether.

 It’s Bucky that blinks first, breaking the contact; the moment – if it even was that, because Steve cannot be sure– dissolves as he smacks his towel on the table. “You’ve a gift,” Bucky says with one last look at the sketch.

 “Well, I–” Steve gives himself a small shake as Bucky turns his back. “I was sick a lot when I was young,” he says, cracking voice carrying in the otherwise empty space. “Had lots of time to practice,” he adds as Bucky practically lays on his stomach on the counter to retrieve something from behind.

 “Steve has a gift,” Bucky tells Kate, his words muffled by his posture, tinged by low metallic undertones that Steve has come to expect every so often, sounds reminiscent of Tony Stark’s tiny machines.

 “Feel free to make me your unwitting subject any time,” Kate says, popping her bubblegum with an audible smack.

 Steve smiles at her, eyes drawn to Bucky as he straightens up, now carrying a slightly beaten down bouquet of red roses. The tissue paper has seen better days, the roses too, but they’re fresh, bold and impressive. Steve rests one leg over the other as he watches Bucky carefully pluck out flower after flower, folding each neatly within dark-colored napkins and setting one on every table. Steve arches an eyebrow to Kate looking for cues, but she appears thoroughly unperturbed.

 “What’re you doing?” Steve asks.

 Bucky lets out an amused hum. “We had a little drama going on this morning.”

 “Dude proposed to Girlfriend, she literally cussed him out for it,” Kate chimes in. “Dude even dropped down on one knee and everything, but she was livid. There were tears.”

 “She stormed out, Dude stormed out, after hurling the roses on the floor,” Bucky says.

 “I wish she had hurled the ring too,” Kate remarks with a shrug. “Have you any idea how much I could’ve sold it for?”

 Bucky shoots her an unimpressed glare. “So I’m repurposing.”

 “For decoration,” Steve clarifies.

 Bucky hums his ‘Yes’.

 “Well, don’t tell anyone,” Steve recommends, leaning back in his chair. “Someone superstitious might say it’s bad luck. Failed proposal, tainted roses.”

 Bucky looks up at him mid-rose set. “Are you superstitious?”

 The right answer is clearly ‘no’, if Bucky’s almost glower is anything to go by. Luckily, it’s also Steve’s own truth. “No.”

 Bucky nods his approval. “It’s not bad luck,” he says, voice dripping with contempt at the suggestion. “They get to have a second chance.”

 “Yeah, go on, give ‘em a better life. Sap,” Kate says flatly, attention turning to her phone.>

 Her reaction –although probably more appropriate– is in stark contrast to Steve’s: he has gone moony-eyed at the act of kindness and can easily see stars flying out his eyes. Fortunately, Bucky is too busy with his flowers to notice. Unfortunately, a stretch toward a table makes his sweater hike up, exposing his lower back, a band of dark blue underwear and a smooth narrow strip of skin.

 Steve’s Bucky-sketches turn rather explicit after that.

~~~

 “And the specials are Avocado Pizza and Tarte au Citron,” Bucky says. “Steve?” he prods after a moment.

 “Huh?” Steve flicks his eyes up to Bucky’s face then down again, cheeks heating up with guilt.

 “Lemon tart, man,” Bucky mumbles, resigned. “It’s just a lemon tart.”

 “No, I know,” Steve answers through his teeth.

 “You look like you’re regretting all your life choices,” Bucky points out.

 Steve does regret his choices a little– at least from the last six hours. Waking up alone, without Bucky, hurt a bit more than usual this morning, and Steve had indulged in temporarily soothing but eventually torturing fantasies of domesticity: of a relationship, a partnership, shared dinners and walks in the city, night-long conversations and lazy afternoons of movie-watching; a semblance of a life less lonely, if such a thing could be possible with the kind of high-stakes life that Steve has. Heaving himself out of bed with a sigh, Steve had set on working on a sketch of what Bucky would probably look like lying next to him. The semi-naked sketch led to a fully naked Steve indulging into… things, and now, he can’t look at Bucky without flushing. But he’s not about to admit that.

 “Why don’t you just call it lemon tart,” he says awkwardly, running his fingers through his hair. Hair gel that he forgot he applied sticks on his hand and he winces; for all his efforts, his hair still probably ends up looking like a mess.

 “You heathen,” Bucky teases with a mock stern look. He clutches at his chest, apron rumpling under his glove. “You break my heart.”

 Steve just barely stops himself from answering, ‘Likewise.’

~~~

 “Ooh, look who’s here,” Tony says, completely unsurprised because all he has to do is ask JARVIS and he knows where anyone is at any given time inside the Avengers Tower. “Just the people I wanted to bump into.”

 Steve heaves his shield up his forearm with a small smirk. Natasha leans against the wall, folding her arms.

 “Bimonthly Be-Prepared meeting,” Natasha says. “Romanogers in action.”

 “Roma– what now?”

 “An Internet thing,” Natasha tells Tony mildly.

 “We’re practicing Natasha-tossing,” Steve says sunnily, indicating his shield.

 Natasha arches an eyebrow at him.

 “Running late too,” he continues. “Someone Sleeping Beauty-ied through their alarm clock.”

 “Excuse you?” Natasha says, her tone amused.

 “Someone could come live here and wake Sleeping Beauty up himself,” Tony reminds, hands tapping against his chest with replete energy.

 “He means himself!” Natasha exclaims, lips stretched in a bewildered grin. “He just called himself out.”

 “Here’s the thing,” Tony says, addressing a smirking Steve. “I’ve been working on new gauntlets, sans suit. I wanna test them out. Come play with me?”

 “You wanna test them on me?” Steve asks.

 “Test them? Not on his pretty mug,” Natasha gripes with an exaggerated pout, lightly pinching Steve’s cheek.

 “That’s assuming that he gets me, which is already assuming too much,” Steve remarks cheerfully. It’s possibly the most cheerful teasing he’s ever laid on his fellow coworkers, but he can’t help his good mood– which is of course in no way connected to the fact that he’s dropping by the bistro later. Of course.

 “Okay, offended,” Tony says, holding up a hand. “And also, I just want to test their flexibility in hand-to-hand combat, so just come on,” he says, beckoning as he leads the way.

 “What’s your secret, Cap?” Natasha asks in an undertone.

 Steve looks at her in question.

 “You’re unusually chipper,” she elaborates. “You discovered frozen yoghurt or something?”

 “Ah,” Steve says with an amused shake of the head.

 “3D cinemas? Kindle?” she goes on, relentless. “Pixar? A person?”

 Tony whips around, walking backwards. “What person, Cap met a person?”

 “You’re not usually this chirpy,” Natasha tells Steve, pressing her lips in a line that should be remorseful, considering her indiscreet dragging, but is anything but. “I should know. I’m a spy.”

 “How could there be a person,” Steve deflects, tapping into the thought that’s been doing the rounds in his mind lately and hoping for an honest answer, “that could keep up with this?”

 Tony stops in his steps, expression turning serious. “This?”

 Steve waves his hand. “This. The missions, the publicity, the dangers. If sometimes it’s hard for us, for someone who didn’t sign up for it–”

 “But they did sign up for it,” Tony says. “If they sign up for you, they sign up for it, it’s tied together. You, it, them.”

 “Yeah, but,” Steve says, “it’s asking for a lot.”

 “Yes, it does,” Natasha agrees. “I’d say it’s really damn hard to keep up. But,” she goes on, “you’re not the one who gets to decide.”

 “Sure, we have a few extenuating circumstances going on for us, but it can be done,” Tony insists– as far as Steve knows, the only one speaking from experience. “People make their choices. Some of them choose us.”

 “Pepper made a bad one,” Natasha says with a smirk, “but I’m sure the person that chooses Cap will be luckier than her.”

 “Oh please, Pepper never makes bad choices, give her some credit.” Tony turns to Steve. “So, who is that person and are you banging them? Should I run a background check?”

 “No person,” Steve insists mildly, though his unwitting crooked smile renders his point unconvincing.

 “Okay, see, because I’m gracious and benevolent, and I respect my elders and I have a soft spot for geriatric love, I’ll go easy on you with the gauntlets. Don’t want to send you to your date with bruises,” Tony declares.

 “No date, no bruises, you ain’t getting me,” Steve says, untamable smile firmly in place.

~~~

 Steve turns up to the bistro with a bruised eye.

 Bucky raises his eyebrows. “You good?”

 “Yeah,” Steve says with a self-deprecating groan.

 “Interesting story?”

 Steve almost laughs. Not interesting, not by a long shot– it wasn’t even an honest prank made in poor taste for Steve’s presumed ‘date’. Natasha got the better of Steve during Tony’s testing session, and Tony, who didn’t see it coming, carried by his momentum, socked Steve in the eye. Even if Steve wanted to flaunt about heroics and successful missions, this would be an awful opportunity to do so.

 “Nah,” he says instead. “How’s your day been?”

 Bucky huffs and to Steve’s utter elation throws himself down into the opposite chair. He runs his hand through his hair so hard that he undoes his bun, and frowns at a strand that he twists between his fingers. “Fucking awful.”

 “Who slighted you?” Steve asks, lips twitching as he swallows down a grin.

 Bucky sizes Steve up in speculation. “I’ve got split ends,” he says wryly.

 “No, you don’t,” Steve asserts, sinking back into his own chair.

 “No, of course I don’t.” Bucky rubs a weary hand over his face. “The day I get the right to refuse to serve people is the day I’m gonna throw a fucking feast. Champagne galore. Confetti everywhere.” He trains his eyes on Steve, expression murderous. “I’m even gonna get me a unicorn. A rainbow unicorn,” he adds, eyebrows arching up.

 Steve presses his lips together, trying and failing to suppress an amused smile. “It’s also probably the day the place will go bankrupt,” he remarks. “But I feel your pain.”

 “It’s like we’re non-people sometimes,” Bucky says, jiggling his foot and crossing his arms over his chest. “These jerks just spew their asshole-ish hate toward each other or – or at the very existence of humanity, and you’re just sitting there, expected to take it, until they decide to sneer their order at you.” He tilts his head. “We don’t get that many assholes here, but when we do… Oh boy. The stories.”

 “You could write a book. Expose them,” Steve suggests with a small shrug.

 “I could, but then again I could write a book about the good people, the nice ones, and spread that instead of asshatery,” Bucky says, then twists his lips in a grimace. “Both are tempting just about the same.”

 Steve sends a commiserating tight-lipped smile his way. “What can I do?”

 Bucky’s eyebrows draw together in a frown, shaking leg coming to a halt. “What d’you mean?”

 Steve lifts one shoulder. “What I said. How can I help? You need a vent? Or would you rather I leave, seeing as” – he looks around to make sure – “I’m the only customer around?”

 Bucky’s frown grows deeper.

 Steve goes on valiantly, “Or d’you want me to help out with something? Bring you a cocoa, I dunno…”

 The grooves between Bucky’s eyebrows cannot possibly go any deeper.

 “That’s– that’s what– when someone’s upset, it’s either cocoa, whiskey, or both,” Steve babbles, the suggestion a comforting habit that he’s picked up from the Avengers. It seems to lift most spirits at least a little, or maybe it’s because Steve never had as much cocoa as he’d liked as a child. “Both is good!” he remarks uneasily, and yes, those grooves can sink deeper, after all. Steve clears his throat, uncertain.

 “You’re distractingly nice,” Bucky remarks dryly.

 “Oh no,” Steve deflects, palms up as he sounds out a chuckle.

 “I mean to sulk, but then you go and say things like that and I can’t sulk if you go and restore my faith,” Bucky says with a pouty scowl.

 “Nope,” Steve assures with a smirk, “I’m just buttering you up for free coffee and snacks.”

 “Ah,” Bucky says with a small nod. “There’s the sass.”

 “Can’t hide for too long,” Steve replies.

 Bucky bites the inside of his lip, mouth quirking in a half-smile. “What d’you want?”

 “Just sit, hang out, it’s fine,” Steve says dismissively, feeling like he is living his best 21st century life.

 Bucky rolls his eyes to the heavens. “You must want something. Spill.”

 Steve heaves his shoulders in a helpless shrug. “Coffee?”

 “Kate, some coffee?” Bucky calls without turning.

 “And an apple tartlet?” Kate calls back.

 “Yeah,” Bucky replies, eyes firmly locked on Steve as the leg jiggling resumes. “Distract me,” he demands.

 Steve shoots him a sly grin. “Anything goes?”

 “Punk,” Bucky scoffs. “Tell me how that shiner didn’t happen.”

 Steve licks his lips, smiling with delighted eagerness as he flattens his palms over the table and settles in to tell the tale. “Well, first I look out my window to see this huge scaly dinosaur…”

Chapter Text

 Urgent work calls on a Monday morning. Steve dons a Stark-ified suit, grabs his shield, and flies to Greenland with Natasha, Clint and Tony to retrieve stolen sensitive documents acquired during an elaborate heist.

 It sounds like an easy mission for four Avengers; something that should be over and done within a day at most. It’s not. The mission leads them to a wild goose chase across three time zones, a treasure hunt in a remote town, and a showdown in a fortified cell carved in the base of a mountain heavily populated by goats. No goats are harmed during this process, which Steve deems no small feat and Clint a damn miracle, although many of the creatures do end up getting cussed out at by a disgruntled Iron Man.

 They come back to the country exhausted and bedraggled, only to be dragged into a press conference by a kind but firm Pepper Potts. It’s for an upcoming fundraiser and the cause is good, but it’s a little hard for Steve to think of it that way when he can barely string two words together. He wants to go to bed, or lie down on a couch. He’d take a quiet corner on the floor, even, anything to get a little sleep for an hour– or nine. He’s not picky.

 But it is what it is, the press conference scheduled weeks ago when no one could have known that the Avengers would be fresh off a mission. Regrettably, the glamour and significance of the occasion are somewhat undermined by Clint’s slurring speech, and Tony’s face that’s largely speckled by a number of small scratches. Natasha pulls them through it with the grace that only she can muster, posture and attitude impeccable even though she just stepped off the quinjet like the rest of them and only had time for a change of clothes.

 When all is said and done, Steve declines the offer to sleep it off in his room in the Avengers Tower and heads for home, seeking out the comfort of what’s familiar. He fumbles with the lock of his front door in a drowsy haze, distractedly drops his keys onto the table. He groggily rummages through the fridge, taking advantage of what remains of his peanut butter to fight off with an energy boost the sleepiness that grates on his nerves. He takes out his phone, in desperate need of a charge. His eyes catch the date on the lock screen; the numbers make him freeze.

 Somehow, amidst the flights, the fights, and the time zone changes, that fact that today is the anniversary of Sarah Rogers’ death slipped right through Steve’s gradually numbing fingers.

 Steve drops against the fridge with an ‘oomph’. He hasn’t visited his mother’s grave for years– hadn’t had much of a chance to do so after the serum, a regret that soon just became habit. After he came back, there was barely time for the thought of visiting to cross his mind. He doesn’t even know if her grave is still intact, after almost a century, if her name had faded or the stone had simply crumbled.

 A pang of homesickness claws its way inside his chest. He pulls on his jacket, and makes for the cemetery.

~~~

 For one long, painful moment, Steve worries that Sarah’s grave has been removed, replaced during Steve’s long absence. Then he realizes that the spectacle of a monument he’s facing as he steps to Sarah’s final resting place is actually the modern version of his mother’s grave.

 Gone is the gray headstone inscribed with merely a name and two dates because 18-year-old Steve couldn’t afford or find it in him to do more, his grief too raw to engage in ‘You will be missed’ and ‘We love you’ negotiations. Something new sits now where once Steve sat on countless afternoons, drawing and gritting out curses against the world that did him wrong, or dripping blood on the dry grass after another mismatched fight, hating himself for tainting his mother’s grave with it.

 A fenced statue now stands in that grave’s place, high, rectangular and made out of marble, that carries a hunched Madonna-esque figure on the top. A carved star-spangled shield lies in the middle of the stone, below Sarah’s name and her role as ‘Mother of Captain Steven G. Rogers’, as though she was nothing more than that; not a fierce, resilient woman of her own, a savior of many during her tenure as a nurse.

 Steve’s skin prickles with something close to horror and disgust at the quote inscribed below the shield: a lengthy passage exulting bravery and honor, inspiring but never actually uttered by Sarah, who was always brief and succinct in her words. Steve recognizes it as a quote from the propaganda comics, from one of the first issues exalting the alleged and principally untrue origins of the bold and unafraid Captain America.

 None of it reminds of Sarah– the shield, the words, the statue, the plants and flowers that people have misguidedly albeit kindly set inside the fenced grave. The intentions might have been decent, but all Steve can see is the fanfare celebrating the birthing figure of a symbol way larger-than-life, way beyond what Steve is– could ever be or would care to be. In his world, Steve was always a furious nuisance, a stubborn son, a dancing monkey; “Steve” in the mouth of a female British could-have been, “Cap,” “Hey, you lil’ asshole, what base are we storming now?” or even “Pass me some of that whiskey, you hog!”

 In hindsight, he was glorified even then, but he was too busy fighting a war to take notice. Now he sees it, hears or reads about it every day, knows it every time someone spots him: the legend, the paragon, the pillar – but even that was not enough. The world had to objectify his family; had to turn it into a modern, yet grossly false shrine.

 This place doesn’t belong to Stevie’s ma. Steve clenches his fists with a sudden urge to punch a hole through that fence, to break the offensive slab in pieces, return Sarah’s last habitance into the plain but loving thing it was supposed to be, put together by all that knew and loved her.

 A stranger to the remnants of his past, Steve dashes out of the cemetery on autopilot, spots of seething anger dancing in his eyes. He misses the couple guys making their way inside the gate, accidentally knocks shoulders with the tallest of the two.

 “Sorry,” Steve mumbles, palms up in quick apology.

 The guy appears to be in a sour mood. He grabs Steve’s shoulder, pinning him in place as his face contorts into an ugly scowl. “Watch where you’re goin’, pal.”

 Steve suppresses a sigh. “Absolutely,” he grits through his teeth, keen to avoid the uneven confrontation.

 “Don’t like gettin’ slammed,” the guy snarls, his grip on Steve’s shoulder tightening.

 “Dude, stop,” the tough guy’s friend hisses. “It’s Captain America.”

 Tough Guy’s eyes pass over Steve’s face as Steve pins him with a steely look. Once he verifies Steve’s identity, his expression changes in an instant, angry lines turning to smooth compliance, snarl turning to cooing as he pats his hand over Steve’s shoulder and lets go. “Oh, man, sorry. My bad, I didn’t– you look bigger on the television, you know.” He laughs an awkward, discomfited chortle.

 “What if I weren’t?” Steve asks, mouth beating him to words he doesn’t mean to say.

 The man raises his arms, taking a step back. “Look, man, I don’t want no beef with an Avenger. It’s good, it’s all good.”

 “You don’t want no beef with anyone,” Steve says; his voice is hard enough to make the other man wince.

 “For sure,” Not So Tough Guy agrees, expression sullying as though he just swallowed something sour.

 Steve gives a curt nod, a final preemptive wordless warning.

 He treks his way back, feet stomping on the pavement as he channels his malcontent into his steps. He doesn’t consciously choose a destination, aware that he should get some sleep and rest, but nerves too shot and skin too itchy to stay confined in his apartment. His legs –maybe predictably so– lead him to Bucky.

 The bistro isn’t crowded, it never really is, but there’s a considerably larger crowd than usual, consisted of young children and their parents. There’s cake involved, tiny teacups, petit-fours and birthday hats. The kids are surprisingly not more raucous than the grown-ups, the vibe of the place laidback as per the norm. Steve plops down at a table with his back to all the others and fiddles with the sugar packets, lips pinched in a tight, thin line that makes his mouth hurt.

 Bucky makes a beeline for him, the faint familiar metallic bistro hum following him as he approaches Steve’s table. “Man, can you believe these children?” he says in lieu of greeting, glancing at the tea party as he wipes gloved and ungloved hands on his apron. “I’ve been trying to give them extra snacks all morning and no one’s taking any.”

 Steve nods at him absently, eyes trained on the sugar packets he’s slowly destroying. It’s silent for a moment. Steve hears the ruffle of clothes as Bucky shifts.

 “I tried to do you a solid, asked for a soup for tomorrow’s specials,” Bucky says, more tentatively now.

 Steve appreciates his effort to communicate, even if he can’t properly reciprocate at the moment.

 “I thought, how complicated could it get?” Bucky continues. “Turns out: a lot. Hamburger  Hash Soup.” His eyes widen in mock dismay as he verbally gently prods Steve to engage. “You hate me yet?”

 Steve opens his mouth to say something, anything, as his fingers crumple sugar packets and his brain scrambles for the right words to suppress or express his pressing question. Ironically, it comes out at the same time that the tiny package in his hand gives way, spilling sugar grains onto the table: “Do you know me?”

 Bucky jerks back, startled. “Uh.”

 Steve gives his head a small shake, rephrasing. “Do you know who I am?”

 Bucky lets out an uncertain sound. “You’re Steve…?” He twists his mouth, perplexed at the question.

 Steve licks his lips. “I’m Captain America,” he states, stomach turning as he says the words. The title of it makes him sick. It makes him feel conceited, and the weight of it is almost too much to bear.

 Bucky’s eyes narrow, mystified. “Yeah…” he says, tone akin to explaining quantum physics to a child, “which is codename for Steve, who doesn’t trust food with complicated names, draws eerily realistic sketches while getting graphite all over the place, has a very endearing affinity for leather jackets, is patently a smartass, and–  honestly?” Bucky sets his hands on the back of the chair in front of him, leaning in close. “I’m not that starstruck about Captain America,” he informs, eyes twinkling and lips twitching as though he tries not to laugh. “The Howling Commandos is where it’s at anyway, right? Mere humans diving into the jaws of death like there was no tomorrow– there’s something really tragic about that, y’know?”

 Steve lifts his chin with every intention to reply, but the sudden lump inside his throat makes it impossible to lay down words without a sob. Bucky’s sentiments over the Howlies –whether teasing, truthful or both– echo Steve’s own thoughts. The invisible wound in his heart from waking up without them, without a means to them apart from visiting graves spread all around the globe sends out painful vibrations that make Steve dizzy. He blinks to clear the blurriness that’s clouded his vision and sniffles, trying to get ahold of himself.

 “Hey,” Bucky says softly, sliding into the chair. He sets his hand over Steve’s own, then draws it back with a little flinch. “Hey. You alright?”

 Steve tries to look at him, but the endeavor proves too much. The concerned fondness in Bucky’s open, earnest expression makes the lump in Steve’s throat rise up more; it makes a kind of loneliness that cries out for comfort surge up into his chest. He drops his gaze to the table, to his sugar-flaked hand. He swallows, the gesture horribly audible, and presses his finger pads against Bucky’s own, the gentle contact a distraction, a grounding point, a tiny thing that makes him crave for touch.

 “You’re brooding.” Steve doesn’t answer; Bucky curls his fingertips around Steve’s. “I’m off in a little less than an hour. D’you wanna wait and we can walk it off? I’m not gonna pester you to talk about it, I promise.”

 Steve sniffs again, and gives Bucky a nod. He mentally chastises himself to get a grip as Bucky stands to go, chides at his erratically-beating heart and orders it to get its shit together as he takes in deep, measured breaths. Bucky returns with a warm cup of coffee, a kindness that Steve might not have asked for but clings to with a desperate sort of need. An apple tartlet follows promptly, and what appears to be a stolen piece of birthday cake with the letters ‘a’ and ‘y’. Bucky wraps up the special treatment with a quick squeeze of Steve’s shoulder as he returns to work.

 Steve draws the cup close and breathes in deep, the strong scent soothing for his mind. Being looked after was never something he desired or really accepted, but in this new age he’s changed, or he needs it more than he let himself believe before. It’s a restful thing, allowing someone else to care once in a while, to provide a shelter from the world and Steve’s own self.

 In a little less than an hour they are off, and Bucky keeps his promise. They walk up and down streets in comfortable silence, Steve with his eyes trained on the ground and his hands shoved deep inside his jacket, Bucky with purpose in his step and strands of hair escaping his bun as he goes forth leading the way.

They leave the populated areas, bypass crowded parks and malls, stride past a sports field, cross a nearly empty parking lot and still Bucky walks. They tread through a long expanse of green and continue to go forth, Steve merely content to follow Bucky to whatever destination he has in mind.

 Bucky only starts to slow down when they reach a thinning grove. As they break through the trees, Steve sees the rocky shore that winds along the side of a gently sloshing creek. Bucky climbs down a rickety pier at the mouth of the inlet and turns his head to check with Steve, who’s fallen back, wondering at the untamed, wild beauty of this place, a secret haven so close to home.

 Bucky jumps from the pier down onto weathered rocks that jut out every which way, serving as both a shoreline and a functional –if rough– sitting spot. He picks a rock that is sufficiently free of moss to sit on, and Steve follows his cue. The softly lapping water is the loudest sound in this serene seclusion, only occasionally interrupted by the rustling and creaking of the leaves, and the tiny chirps as birds hop along tree branches and the undergrowth.

 “I used to come to here to sulk,” Bucky explains apropos of nothing, once they both have settled and taken in the view. “It was tough times. I sulked a lot, needed a place, this one proved good. So I thought...” He trails off and gives a small shrug.

 “That you could bring me here to sulk,” Steve finishes for him, lips pressed in a rueful line. “Well, you’re not wrong.”

 Bucky opts to stay silent at that.

 “My ma died today,” Steve states, his eyes trained on the ground as he scuffs the rocks with his foot. His ache to share what’s close to him with Bucky pushes aside his innate stoicism and certainty of more loss. “Close to a hundred years ago today. But this day’s always hard. She died too young, y’know? She wasn’t ready. Well, she was. I wasn’t.” He scoffs, knowing how dramatic he must sound and not caring in the least. “I know it’s been a long time– even in me years, not just in actual years, but just…” He idly scratches fingernails against his rock, the task of talking of what hurts slightly easier by not having to confront Bucky in the eye. “They changed her grave. Renovated. I didn’t take it well. You know the story, what went down, and since then–”

 “What story?” Bucky interjects.

 “Mine,” Steve replies. “The ice, the defrosting, the Capsicle,” he quotes the Internet nickname of which he is oddly somewhat fond.

 “No…” Bucky says slowly, again with that tone of explaining something complicated in the simplest way. “I know what the books say, what people say, I don’t know your story. I know theirs.”

 Steve shoots him a quick glare, the twisting of his lips a mix between impatience and something warm.

 Bucky shrugs.

 “When I came back from the ice,” Steve complies, “everyone said I was the man out of time. That technically I don’t belong here. Some people don’t even know that I can text.”

 Bucky snorts out a chuckle. “Don’t tell me you also own a laptop!”

 “Ah, the answer might shock you,” Steve says, earning a dramatic gasp from Bucky. “I even lurk on Twitter.”

 “Steve, no, that’s like giving access to the void,” Bucky chides dryly.

 “Doesn’t change the fact that I…” Steve swallows tightly. “That I existed in a vacuum for a while. Stranded, sort of, in time, space. Just separate. It – it takes a little to get used to, and this, today, it just reminded me of that. That the world went on, and I missed it.”

 He stops and waits for Bucky to speak. After Bucky remains silent for a moment, the unusual lack of a response unnerving, Steve lets out a nervous sort of cough before he nearly begs, “Say something.”

 “I don’t actually have a comment for everything, Rogers,” Bucky replies mildly.

 Steve gives him a flat look.

 “Okay,” Bucky amends. “I don’t think you’re a man out of time.”

 Steve raises his eyebrows, disbelieving.

 Bucky gives him a one-shouldered shrug. “You’re here. So this is your time, by default. And it’s a grievous thing, and it’s a wondrous thing, and you might as well make the most of it. It’s a second chance– you might’ve not have asked for it, but you have it. Might as well make it count.”

 “Grievous and wondrous,” Steve says with a lightness that’s only partially forced, the hard knot in his chest slowly softening. “Someone swallowed a dictionary.”

 “Yeah, it’s you ‘cause I shoved it down your throat for being a smartass,” Bucky shoots back. “You asked, you punk.”

 Steve lets out a quiet chuckle.

 “She was good, yeah?” Bucky says after a moment. “Your ma?”

 Steve nods. “Yeah.”

 “Patience of a saint, I’ll bet,” Bucky says, wagging eyebrows jabbing at what a handful Steve clearly is.

 Steve scoffs, amused. “Yeah. And now I can’t even talk about her without feeling like an idiot.”

 “You’re fine,” Bucky says, tone so quietly assertive, expression so assuredly calm that Steve finds himself inclined to believe him. “It’s hard because it matters.”

 Steve cocks his head, ceding the point. “Doesn’t mean I’ll be able to look you in the eye in the near future after this heart-to-heart, but yeah.”

 Bucky snorts. “Quid pro quo, then?”

 Steve’s cheeks flush, head snapping upwards in alarm. “You don’t have to do that. That’s not what I meant.”

 “I don’t have to, I want to,” Bucky says, eyes crinkling in amusement. “You’re all opening up, so I’m gonna share something, like you shared something, so that it can be carried by two. Less strain on both sides, y’know? No, of course you don’t know, you have no idea how the hell that works, not look me in the eye my ass,” he amends quickly, startling a barking laugh out of Steve. “Cool, okay,” Bucky says, satisfied with the effect of his sarcasm. “Exposition: I have a metal arm.”

 Steve blinks. “Hm?”

 Bucky flexes his ever-gloved left fingers. The bistro’s familiar metallic hum sounds in the air.

 “Right!” Steve exclaims, expression brightening at the unexpected revelation of the source of the soft whirring. He watches Bucky’s curling and uncurling fist, then follows Bucky’s hand as it falls limply on his thigh. Steve frowns. “That’s it?”

 Bucky laughs, that comforting melodious giggle that cocoons Steve’s soul in a bubble of warmth.

 Steve assumes an offended scowl. “I bare my soul to you and I’m not even gonna get to see the arm?”

 “Jesus, you really are dramatic,” Bucky says with a snicker as he pries the leather glove off his hand.

 The silver prosthetic underneath gleams dully when the metal catches the sun. Deep grooves and thinner lines weave around the palm and wrist, forming patterns that showcase artistic symmetry. Bucky pulls his sleeve up to his elbow, exposing more of the prosthetic. It looks like it goes all the way up to the collarbone or so, as Bucky indicates with a roll of his left shoulder. Steve watches, fascinated, as the narrow plates shift and recalibrate with a gentle buzz. His fingers twitch with the desire to hold Bucky’s hand, to trace the patterns, know the arm’s cold rigidity or lack of it, so much so that Steve feels himself mentally salivating.

 His face must give away Steve’s awe, because Bucky swiftly lifts his arm and boops Steve’s nose with a brazen grin. Steve throws his head back on reflex and makes a grab for Bucky’s hand. He hesitates for a second, gauging for any signs of displease, but Bucky beams at him, grin growing broader. Appeased, Steve slowly strokes his thumb over the silver thumb, presses his fleshy palm over the metal palm beneath his own.

 “Can I ask?”

 “Hiking accident,” Bucky guesses the question. “Fell off a cliff and down into a ravine. Don’t remember much. I do remember,” he says with a tight smile, “fumbling for my phone– it survived more intact than I did, these things are damn sturdy. I meant to call someone, and there was a message from my sister, asking what I wanted us to do for my birthday and I, uh…” He breathes out a chuckle, biting the inside of his lip as he watches Steve lace together their fingers. “I laughed. Maniacally. It just seemed so funny, ‘cause I didn’t even know if I’d live until my birthday– or any birthdays after.”

 Steve’s stomach twists at Bucky’s words –more importantly, at what Bucky doesn’t say– and he can’t form an eloquent response for a few seconds. He knows the fear and pain Bucky must have felt as he lay there, as he waited for his death. It’s not an image that is unfamiliar. He clears his throat and swallows hard. “I’m glad you’re still here.”

 Bucky flashes him a grin, wiggling in place with content. “Signed up for an experimental treatment, got the arm. Fully functional. Can feel pressure but can’t feel temperature, which is handy for hot dishes.”

 “The patterns,” Steve says, “are they random?”

 “Don’t know. You should probably ask your buddy, Stark,” Bucky replies, grin turning into a cheeky smirk.

 “Wait– Stark?” Steve exclaims. “That’s his work?”

 “Yeah” – Bucky nods. “But I just met him twice. He poked me, prodded me and talked at me, definitely not to me, a thousand words per minute, none of which I grasped then and none of which I can recount now.”

 “Sounds like him,” Steve allows.

 “See, now we’re even.” Bucky pulls his hand free, propping his palms on the rock to lean backwards. “A soul story for a soul story.”

 The loosened knot in Steve’s chest agrees, his easy breathing confirms for certain. The sharing allows Steve to feel less adrift; it’s a steady hand that catches him when he staggers, caresses his weak moments and turns them into strength. “Thank you,” he says.

 “Didn’t do nothing to thank, Rogers,” Bucky replies, eyes trained on the shimmering water, his gaze calm. He tilts his neck to bask under the mellow late sun; the loose strands of his hair sway gently in the gust of breeze.

 Steve smiles a soft smile and quietly, just to himself, begs to differ.

Chapter Text

 Technically, after the somehow quite successful fundraiser hosted by the Avengers for a small but wealthy crowd, Steve doesn’t really have a reason to go to the bistro. He’s well-fed, well-hydrated, socialized to the point that he almost feels like a socialite himself.

 Down to the bistro he goes.

 Bucky jerks his head when he sees Steve walk through the door. He forgoes reciprocating Steve’s amiable greeting, eyebrows raised and hands coming up to cross before his chest as Steve takes a seat beside the window. He walks at Steve’s table at a dragging pace, expression almost sour as he gives Steve a deliberate onceover. He slowly takes in the elaborate hair styling courtesy of a YouTube tutorial, the overly put-together outfit that Steve opted for after ejecting most of his closet’s contents on his bed.

 “Huh,” he says, voice as flat as if he were assessing the relative liquidity of soup. “Fancy.”

 It’s comments like this that confuse Steve. For fleeting moments, he gets glimpses of a Bucky that is perhaps attracted to him, maybe, if Steve isn’t merely indulging in wishful thinking. A not strictly necessary touch, or a lingering look that could be something more than friendly.

 And then there’s this.

 Even Natasha, who is not attracted to Steve in any manner, was more enthusiastic over his appearance– no thinly veiled criticisms at all this time.  Heck, Tony’s DUM-E spins around in more lively circles when he’s excited over something. And Bucky isn’t one to shy away from emoting.

 “You going on a date?” Bucky inquires stiffly.

 “Can’t a guy just dress up nice?” Steve retorts.

 Bucky lowers his eyebrows, unimpressed. “That’s a date look.”

 Steve’s lips twitch into a smile. “Then I have terrible styling skills ‘cause I was at a fundraiser that called for semi-formal attire.”

 “Huh,” Bucky says noncommittally, once again appraising the outfit, eyes hovering –if Steve isn’t just hallucinating things at this point– a little too long over Steve’s chest. “Well, you can’t waste this. Let’s go out.”

 Steve opens his mouth to argue that he didn’t waste anything, he already attended an event, when his brain catches up with Bucky’s words and makes him halt. It’s comments like this that confuse Steve even more; Bucky’s face is virtually unreadable. “Like…”

 “Like for dinner, or I don’t know, a drink. I have the day off tomorrow, I don’t care,” Bucky says, sounding unconcerned about whether he gets a yes or no answer.

 “Like…” Based off of the fact that this is a ‘date look’ – like a date? “Because I’m in fancy clothes?”

 Bucky clicks his tongue impatiently. “I just thought that our walk the other day was fun, but if you don’t feel like it

 “No, I’d like that,” Steve says quickly.

 “Well, great,” Bucky says with a nod. “I’ll see you tonight then.”

 “Great,” Steve echoes weakly, trying to tamper down the excited sound that threatens to escape his throat.

 Bucky hovers, eyebrows arching to his hairline when Steve just stares at him in silence. “So what can I get you now?”

 Steve scoffs out a startled chuckle. Right. Bistro. “The usual?”

 Bucky nods. “One cup of coffee, coming up.”

~~~

 Bucky waltzes up to their appointed meeting place in tight-fitting dark jeans, a fuzzy-looking sweater and a leather jacket, hair loose and bangs framing his cheeks and jaw. His gaze darts from Steve’s face to his arms that hang limp and awkward and to the pavement, looking uncertain on whether to go for a cheek peck or a handshake. He settles for a radiant grin.

 “I know a place,” he says. “C’mon.”

 Steve is still not sure whether this is a date.

 They get a table in the back, mostly private from prying eyes although no one in the low-lit bar-restaurant seems to particularly care. They order drinks and huddle close for practicality, not keen to scream themselves hoarse to be heard over the soft rock music.

 Steve is relaxed, Bucky even more so, gestures wide and tongues loose as their knees knock against each other under the small table each time they shift. Neither of them shies away from the touch. Bucky even cracks a grin that makes his cheeks dimple and roughly rubs his palm on Steve’s knee once, exuding an unadulterated vibe of affection that almost makes Steve swoon. It doesn’t inform him too specifically, still, if he’s on an actual date or if he’s making a new good friend.

 The third round of drinks has Bucky giggling, flustered, and Steve feeling pleasantly snug as they share a plate of nibbles and ludicrous I-probably-should-not-have-done-that stories. Their legs are permanently locked together, their mouths constantly in various stages of a grin. Steve’s world only consists of Bucky’s eyes and his thrilled voice as he currently riffs off of Steve’s “I probably shouldn’t have stolen a car in Nazi Germany” to a “I probably shouldn’t have hidden my sister’s car when she was too drunk to drive because next morning she went into hysterics while I was asleep” story of his own.

 “And I honest to God thought she would grab the kitchen knife and murder me,” Bucky says animatedly. Carried by his exhilarated energy, he smacks the heel of his hand against the table and lets his fingers fall on Steve’s.

 The contact makes Steve’s laughter come out pitched higher than he’d intended. Bucky smirks, taps his fingers on Steve’s knuckles, then chances a mischievous glance at Steve himself. It’s probably a testament to their light-hearted conversation, to how soul-warming the night has been, that Steve merely bursts into uncontrollable laughter, helplessly snorting and wiggling in his chair.

 Bucky’s smirk spreads into a grin that quickly turns into flat-out giggling, whether catching Steve’s joy or laughing at Steve, Steve doesn’t care much either way. Steve shifts forward, attempting to compose himself, and Bucky leans in to grab his drink – a moment of unexpected synchronicity that makes their foreheads bump against each other.

 Steve chuckles huskily, but doesn’t pull back.

 Bucky lifts his eyes, the rise and fall of his chest quickening. There’s no amusement now in his gaze, just dilated pupils and parted lips, an electrifying invitation as his knee leans heavily against Steve’s, as his fingers press down on Steve’s own.

 Steve tilts his head the same moment Bucky does.

 He still isn’t sure if this started out as a date, but it sure as hell has just become one.

 It’s a chaste kiss, testing, exploring; it’s warm lips on lips, a soft caress as Steve captures Bucky’s bottom lip with his own, grazing his teeth on it when Bucky leans in a little. Bucky sucks in a breath, his mouth enticingly parted, his eyes intense as they open and lock on Steve’s.

 Steve licks his lips and tastes the taste of bliss, heart hammering fast against his chest. He bites down hard on the inside of his cheek to stop himself from moving in for more.

 “Wanna get out of here?” he breathes.

 Bucky grins. “Yes.”

~~~

 Bucky pins Steve against the door of Steve’s apartment the second it is closed and Steve gives in, keys blindly thrown on the floor as he reciprocates the hungry kiss that makes his skin flush and tingle. He softly nibbles Bucky’s lower lip, bites down harder at the ungodly moan that the move elicits. Bucky shucks his glove and runs both hands over Steve’s chest, his arms, his hips, his breath warm on Steve’s face, his lips softening under the roughness of their kisses. He’s everywhere and yet not near enough, and Steve is panting in anticipation that almost aches.

 Fingers threaded through Bucky’s hair, Steve presses against Bucky’s crotch; the whimper Bucky moans in Steve’s lips is low and exhilarating. Steve tries to move them to the bedroom, but he aborts when Bucky stops to take his jacket off. He succumbs easily to Bucky’s pull as Bucky tugs him close, knees weak and mind fuzzy. Hot and cold fingers both touching him at once set every nerve on Steve’s sensitive skin on fire. He can feel Bucky’s growing erection press against his own, and it’s all Steve can do not to just rip his shirt off on the spot, letting Bucky undress him with frantic hands instead.

 Clothes fall on the floor while Bucky slides his tongue inside Steve’s mouth; a trembling gasp escapes his lips when Steve runs hands down his hips. Bucky blinks at him in a half-lidded daze, skin flushed and hair a tangled mess, a mesmerizing painting of lust that makes a feral grin spread on Steve’s face. Bucky grins back and lets out a hoarse chuckle and Steve is kissing him again, unbuckling his belt, pulling off his sweater. Steve’s fingers roam over newly exposed, smooth skin and defined muscles, teasing, nibbling, kissing the veins that jump out at Bucky’s neck as he tilts his jaw to reach Steve’s lips, breath stuttering and turning hard as Bucky’s hand strokes Steve’s hard-on.

 In a frenzy of touches they move, knocking against the doorframe and falling heavily onto Steve’s bed. Bucky lands on his back and yanks Steve close, his gleaming eyes speaking of imminent devouring. His lips part with ease as they allow Steve’s tongue to slide in, legs bent apart allowing Steve to press in close. Steve grinds his hips, the friction over their underwear igniting, the involuntary arch of Bucky’s back more so. Steve’s lips trail over sweaty skin and thin raised scars. He touches ravenously every part of Bucky he can find, dragging down metal plates and knuckles to reach flesh, then up again to come to rest on Bucky’s collarbone –

 Bucky stills, unnervingly so.

 Steve stops. He lifts his head just as Bucky squirms, prying his fingers loose from Steve’s grip. His reddened lips twist into a grimace that makes Steve’s eyebrows knit together in alarm.

 Bucky exhales a wavering breath at Steve’s crestfallen expression. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles. “Stop, I’m sorry.”

 Steve props his hands on the mattress, back taut and legs away from Bucky’s as he avoids touching any part of him. He helplessly watches Bucky’s face contorting in what looks like pain, his eyes shining as his right fingers curl and uncurl in a loose fist.

 “You okay?” Steve asks hoarsely.

 Bucky huffs out a miserable-sounding breath.

 Steve climbs off him. He drops on the other side of the bed, keeping a large and careful distance.

 “I, uh.” Bucky’s voice comes out quivering. “Have you–” He lets out something close to a chuckle, but it comes off hysterical. “Have you even done this before, with a guy?”

 Steve blinks, bewildered at the belated question. “Uh, yeah,” he says. “Not– not now, but back in the day…”

 Bucky nods, lips pressed together and eyes sharp, plainly reading more to this than what Steve actually says.

 “Y’know,” Steve elaborates slowly, wary now, “moments behind alleys, never to be spoken of again.”

 Bucky clears his throat. “Inconsequential,” he breathes.

 “Yeah,” Steve says, voice equally low. “That’s how it was back then, we didn’t really dare…” He lets out a sigh. “I wasn’t exactly lust-worthy either. But none of them ever… I didn’t care…” I didn’t really care for anyone before you is his truth, not for a man, and not for any woman other than Peggy. The moment isn’t exactly fitting for that kind of confession, not when Bucky is on a rollercoaster of affection and despondence.

 Bucky nods, then gnaws on his lower lip in a manner unlike Steve has ever seen him, a ball of nervous energy. He nods again, this time to himself, then heaves himself up on his elbows. “I’m – I’m sorry, Steve, I have to go.”

 Steve straightens up, muscles tensing and eyes widening in alarm. “What’s happening?”

 “It’s me,” Bucky says, gesturing vaguely at himself. “I thought I could, but–” He shrugs, pressing his lips in a rueful imitation of a smile. “I haven’t since–” he lifts his left shoulder. “So I’ll go,” he concludes, shifting to get up.

 “It’s the middle of the night!” Steve grabs Bucky’s wrist in his protest, immediately dropping it once he registers what he’s just done.

 Bucky exhales an exasperated breath, his eyes far too fond given the context. “We can touch, Steve. Just not…” He gestures at the bed. He looks so small and Steve hates it.

 “You don’t have to go like that, it’s fine, we’re good,” Steve says, desperate to fix this, words tumbling out fast. “You can sleep on the couch, we don’t have to– We’re good. It’s good. It’s late,” he repeats dumbly.

Bucky bites the inside of his lip, thinking before he gives Steve a small smile. “Okay. Couch.”

 Steve nods, too eager for his comfort. “There’s clean clothes on the dryer in the bathroom, I’ll…” He realizes his own near-naked state and trails off, suddenly awkward. “I’ll bring you some sheets.”

~~~

 Of all the possibilities and fancies that have crossed his mind, Steve has not once entertained the idea that waking up with Bucky in his apartment could actually mean that he would be out on the couch, alone.

 Half-scared that Bucky has snuck out while Steve was sleeping, his heart settles when he pads out to the living room to find it isn’t so. Bucky is still asleep, curled on his side. The clothes that Steve and Bucky so eagerly tore off each other the previous night now lie folded in neat stacks on the armchair. Steve swallows down a mirthless chuckle. He went to bed confused, and woke up doubly so, unsure of whether he’s already been rejected and should just let the matter rest. Slipping in the kitchen, he quietly works on the coffeemaker. He files a pending self-pity session in the back of his mind, hoping for a cards-on-the-table discussion with Bucky now that hormones aren’t clouding their heads.

 Bucky rouses, soft rustling sounds reaching Steve as he gently throws aside the covers and sits up. Steve gives him a minute, filling up coffee mugs with a clatter to alert Bucky to his presence. He rummages for something edible to offer, but nothing ready-made is available.

 “Morning.” Steve walks to the couch, swallowing around the thickness in his throat. He brushes aside the way his heart does somersaults at Bucky sitting there, hair tousled, clad in Steve’s sweatpants. He rubs a hand over his sleepy face and Steve feels like he’s been punched. “I just have coffee,” he says, offering Bucky a mug. “I could, um. I could make pancakes?” He hates how his voice falters to a question at the torn look passing over Bucky’s face. “Uh,” he stammers on, as Bucky tentatively takes the coffee off his hands. “I can’t cook anything fancy, but maybe you can?”

 Bucky twists his lips in a grimace. “I don’t cook that well,” he rasps, his voice rough from sleep.

 Steve frowns, bemused. “You don’t… You give me shit for my taste–”

 “I know how to eat it, not cook it,” Bucky mumbles, a blush creeping up his cheeks. He cradles the mug in his metal hand, rapping his flesh knuckles against it with unease. “I should–”

 “Hey,” Steve cuts in hurriedly.

 Bucky lifts his head to look at him, expectant, pleading even– but for what, Steve can’t currently decipher.

 “Do you wanna maybe go get breakfast?” Steve says, voice coming out thin. “Get some air, talk it out? Or not talk it out?”

 Bucky inhales a long breath that he holds in as he takes a moment to consider; it’s a moment of eternally long proportions, a moment during which Steve traces frame by frame the trajectory of his heart as it plummets down into his stomach.

 Bucky gives him a small nod. “Okay.”

 Steve, miraculously, does not whoop.

~~~

 “Listen,” Steve says, falling in step beside Bucky as they walk down the sidewalk, “things don’t have to be weird, I–”

 He barely suppresses a groan at his own words. It’s probably bad etiquette, trying to convince a failed-attempt-at-sex partner to remain friends. It’s probably a horrible decision for Steve’s mental stability as well, seeking friendship from someone he has dreamed of having in every possible way, but at the end of the day, it is what it is, and Steve hasn’t felt this at home in this century since– well, home. He has to give it a try, whatever ‘it’ is.

 “I can stop coming to the bistro if you want.”

 Bucky removes a strand of hair that sticks in the corner of his mouth with a low whine. It’s patently unfair, because now Steve’s eyes dart to those lips he got to kiss and then was denied.

 “I don’t want to give you any trouble at your place of work,” Steve goes on valiantly, “and at the interest of –again– not making things weird, I won’t if you just say the word, but I–I like you, as a person…” He clenches his fist, willing himself to stop babbling formal nonsense and get to the point.

 Bucky shakes his head. “Steve, I like you too, as a person, but last night–”

 He falters, stopping on his tracks as he turns the corner. He throws out his arm to stop Steve from going forward, but the warning is unnecessary: Steve has already clocked the scene of controlled mayhem and freezes at the sight.

 The tiny, usually quiet part of the borough has been overrun with masked men and four coarse-looking androids, fighting Natasha Romanoff and a handful of SHIELD agents. In the midst of it all, a white-haired short man flaps his arms and screeches. The androids blindly grab anything in their path –cars, trash cans, street signs– and tear them in half. Fleeing civilians rush away as gunshots are exchanged in rapid succession.

 Natasha spots Steve in an instant. Her eyes turn hard when they lock on his. Steve is spared from further reaction as she turns to shoot at masked assailants, forcing them into hasty retreat. Steve swallows through a dry throat; there are probably literal calls of duty for him on his phone– the phone that he hasn’t checked as of last night, since his maybe-date with Bucky. An issue to be dealt with later, Steve scouts the scene to gauge where he’s of most use.

 “Whoa, Black Widow.”

 Steve and Bucky glance at the direction of the prepubescent voice. Two young boys gawk as Natasha wraps her garrote around an enemy’s throat.

 “I’d rather see the Hulk,” the other boy grumbles.

 Bucky gives him a flat look. “Are you sure?”

 Steve waves his hand at them in urgency. “Go!” he orders as he maps the fastest way to reach Natasha.

 “Yeah, c’mon,” Bucky tells the boys. “Now.”

 He quickly herds the starry-eyed children away from potential danger, and Steve, placated, bolts. He runs at full speed toward Natasha. He goes past the screeching man that’s dragged behind a car by a disgruntled SHIELD agent and ducks behind a column as Natasha’s victim passes out on the ground.

 “Don’t check your phone much these days, do you,” Natasha observes, passing him a spare gun.

 Steve licks his lips, opting for guilty silence.

 “You wouldn’t even have to drive far from home,” Natasha remarks. “See that guy freaking out and screaming?”

 “Yeah.” Steve watches the short man currently pulling at his hair as androids rip out doors from cars and bash in drains.

 “That’s a very idiotic smart person,” Natasha says. “See those androids? They’re connected to him and emulate his feelings. He’s horrified now they accidentally got loose and wreaking havoc, also terrified that we will damage them” – Natasha shoots at a masked man running away – “so they’re taking in that fear and lashing out.”

 “Can’t he just stop that mind-hive thing?” Steve aims at the man that escaped Natasha and gets him on the thigh, sending him to a staggering stumble. He scopes the scene for something he can use against the robots more effectively than bullets.

 “Only if he removes the microchip surgically, which he is doing once we’re done,” Natasha replies coolly. “The shooters got wind of the androids and came to steal them. We’ve set up a small perimeter, we’ve got it all contained. Clint’s up high. Who’s the guy?”

 “What?” Steve says distractedly.

 Natasha jerks her head to indicate. “The guy.”

 Steve turns to see Bucky, unnervingly close to an android’s pathway as he helps a woman dislodge herself out of her car.

 “Dammit,” he breathes.

 He cocks the borrowed gun, huffs out his indignation and rushes to a nearby car that’s almost cut in half. He rips the car door off its last hinges, an improvised shield against stray gunshots – though those are now mostly contained at the other end of the perimeter. He rushes back toward the androids, growling at the sight of Bucky’s recklessness.

 “D’you think you should be somewhere else maybe?” Steve jams the car door against the nearest android, making it waver a little, but not hindering its aimless stride.

 “Not really, no, but thanks!” Bucky gives him a thumbs-up as he supports the hobbling woman leaning heavily against him. “There’s a nurse just around the street,” he tells her, eyes on the deep gash across her leg.

 “Go!” Steve urges.

 He wheels and punches the android’s sternum, his fingers numbing at the forceful impact of metal against skin. The android takes a few steps backwards, rights itself and reaches out in zombie-like manner, blindly searching for something to annihilate. In a whoosh, an arrow lodges firmly inside a gap at the android’s neck. Steve barely has time to lean away before the arrowhead detonates. He chokes out a cough at the thick smell of melting wires. He waves his hand to clear the air around him as he looks upward. He spots Clint perched on a high rooftop, aiming at his next target. The android crumbles down at Steve’s feet, writhing as its circuits fry.

 “No!” the Idiotic Smart Man shrieks.

 A spare android grabs and demolishes a parked bicycle. Another one flails its stiff arms and shatters a store window, shards of glass scattering around its metal feet.

 Steve turns furiously toward the man. “You’re making them crazy!” His eyes dart to the man’s left, and sure enough, there’s Bucky. He certainly did heed Steve’s advice to leave, but apparently he found it sane to return, now minus the injured woman. Steve grimaces, mouthing an impatient What the hell.

 ”You’re destroying them!” the Idiotic Smart Man gripes. He whirls around in a frenzy, looking like he is about to make a run for it; it would be a brave if certainly unsuccessful effort. He’d probably have tried it too, if he weren’t stopped on his tracks by the sight of a menacingly grinning Bucky planted firmly on his feet.

 “Hi!” Bucky says with a little wave.

 The man squeals. The remaining androids emit forebodingly grinding sounds.

 He is a liability and has been allowed to complain for too long. Steve drops the car door on the ground and lunges toward him, considering a sleeper choke. He reaches the same moment as Natasha, who jumps her way to the man over the hoods and roofs of cars. Landing hard, she drives the butt of her gun on the man’s head. The impact renders him unconscious; he falls to the ground with a heavy thud.

 Instantly, the androids halt in their destroying fury, robot arms relaxing, mechanical shoulders slouching. They start to slowly meander around in an eerie, somewhat peaceful-looking trance.

 “Beat you to it,” Natasha tells Steve, cocking her head with a small shrug.

 “Maybe you should have done that sooner,” Steve says tightly. He watches Bucky as he rummages inside the half-ruined car of the woman he’d been helping out, not looking too concerned by the surrounding fray. “Bucky,” he calls, his voice coming out harsh.

 Bucky comes up with a small purse and a satisfied smile. “What?” he says at Steve’s stern gaze. “She was trapped, I couldn’t leave her here.”

 Steve pointedly looks down at the purse in Bucky’s hand.

 “Meds, she needs them; I had to come back,” Bucky explains quickly. “That way clear?” He points to his right. “There’s this” – he indicates the purse – “and then there’s some idiots live-blogging the whole thing near crossfire, I gotta stop them.”

 “No– you’re not stopping anyone!” Steve argues. “You go somewhere safe, you’re not–”

 “I’ll just stay low and close to cars for cover, yeah?” Bucky interjects.

 Steve clicks his tongue, ignoring Natasha’s appraising hum behind his shoulder. “Bucky!” he shouts at Bucky’s already retreating back.

 Bucky turns, tilting his head in an unspoken question.

 “Don’t get hurt,” Steve pleads quietly.

 Bucky throws him a quick salute, lips curling into an insolent grin as he goes.

 “Bucky,” Natasha remarks with predatory glee.

 Steve huffs out a sigh, squares his shoulders and throws himself into the fight.

~~~

 With the remaining androids casually strolling down the street instead of bringing on destruction and distraction, the fight with the masked men wraps up quickly. The civilians come out of their hiding spots as soon as the gunfire ends, curious to inspect the scene or worried about their material possessions.

 Steve himself goes in search of Bucky. It’s not a hard feat to achieve, as Bucky mirrors him, jogging towards him and meeting him halfway.

 “Hey,” he says, running a hand through his hair.

 “What were you thinking?” Steve snaps, mouth pressing into a hard line.

 “I was thinking that someone needed help,” Bucky says, his gaze daring Steve to challenge him.

 Steve groans his irritation. “You should have–”

 “You don’t seriously expect me to say, Oh, you’re so right,” Bucky cuts in, his voice mockingly melodramatic, “I should’ve turned my back on it all and ran instead of – you know, actually helping out people?” he finishes on a steelier note. “You’re not seriously about to have that discussion, right?”

 Steve opens his mouth to answer that yes, he is indeed about to have that discussion, but snaps it shut promptly. It’s what he would have done, if he were in Bucky’s place and not Captain America. He probably would have done worse, if he were honest. He’d probably not limit himself to saving civilians; he’d fight bad guys, androids, and would likely be going at it with whoever tried to scold him into staying put as well.

 “Good,” Bucky affirms, catching the softening on Steve’s face.  He turns his gaze to an android that’s approaching them in slow, almost tranquil motion. “Well, that’s not creepy,” he says with sarcasm.

 “Better than what they did before,” Steve remarks, keeping an eye on the docile robot in case it somehow gets violent ideas.

 “Were there casualties?” Bucky asks.

 Steve shakes his head. “Not that I know of.”

 “Most of what people I saw hid out in that store,” Bucky says, pointing. “There was a guy that wouldn’t stop yapping about damage to his car; went into hysterics, so the nurse gave him a sedative. Some kid’s waiting a dad that should be coming soon, I left her with the vloggers.”

 Steve catches the sharp, familiar whoosh of an incoming arrow. He takes a step back, and reaches out, hand splaying on Bucky’s chest and prompting him to do the same.

 The arrow –another one of Clint’s explosive ones– lodges on the android’s exposed neck parts as intended. The android falls backwards onto the concrete, the contained blast making its body sizzle and twist. Its metal parts twitch feebly as the smell of frying wires permeates the air once again.

 “Neat,” Bucky remarks, looking up in time to see Clint zip lining his way to the ground. He crouches over the fallen android and inspects it for a second, then consolingly pats its metal foot as its circuits burn. “Unwitting villains.”

 “I’m sure their spare parts will be useful to Tony,” Steve says cynically. A certain degree of jadedness comes with the territory, if the territory is battling criminals and oddities on the regular. He lets out a nervous cough all the same, embarrassed under the scandalized look that Bucky shoots him.

 Bucky stands up, straightening his jacket. “You okay, yeah?”

 “Unharmed,” Steve replies. “You?”

 “Unharmed,” Bucky says, taking in the sight– the NYPD hauling the shooters inside police cars, the agents carefully picking up what remains of the androids.

 Steve gives him the onceover just in case. He does appear unharmed, albeit ruffled, with his clothes dusty and his hair a tangled mess. Steve barely restrains himself from reaching out to smooth it.

 “So what’s next?” Bucky asks, folding his arms.

 Steve shrugs. “Cleanup, paperwork. SHIELD compensating for the damage.”

 Bucky nods. “Business as usual?”

 “Business as usual,” Steve confirms with a tight smile. He hesitates for a second, unsure of whether it’s a good time to resume their pre-mayhem discussion. He’d do it with Natasha, Clint or Tony, people used to battles, people who keep up running commentaries and casual discussions under the most grueling circumstances– but maybe asking this of someone who doesn’t do this on the regular is asking for too much. Maybe; in the off-chance that it doesn’t, Steve still gives it a shot. “So, uh.” He flinches under Bucky’s curious gaze; he should’ve prepared for this before speaking up. “We… Before this, we were – where were we?” he asks with an uncomfortable exhale, slipping his hands inside his pockets.

 Bucky breathes out a small chuckle. “Right. Business as usual.” He clears his throat, his eyes turning soft as he goes on, “We like each other as persons, I believe.”

 “Mm hm, right,” Steve mumbles, a sheepish blush warming his cheeks.

 “Sure, okay, resuming,” Bucky says calmly. “You deserve an explanation, and I couldn’t give it to you last night, so. For what it’s worth. I haven’t been that close to anyone in a long while, that part was true, but it’s not all. You’re important. To me,” he says, looking up at Steve. “And you were so– so…” He lifts his shoulders as he fumbles for words. “So devoted, so loving, it felt like you really meant it –”

 “Because I did mean it,” Steve notes, uncomprehending.

 “I could really love you, Steve,” Bucky says, words tumbling out fast and voice going gentle as his mouth tightens in a pained smile. “But what you want and what I want aren’t the same things.” He bites down on his lower lip with a wince, gaze darting to the contained wreck now on cleanup.

Oh. It’s about that.

 It isn’t exactly earth-shattering as a concept, but actually hearing it in Bucky’s own voice makes Steve’s heart engage in an unpleasant round of trampoline with his stomach and gut. He shoves his hands deeper into his pockets, surveying the damage that the block sustained in a chaos wreaked merely due to someone’s silliness– not even due to a deliberate master plan of terror. It’s Steve’s life, the one he chose and still does, but he can’t ask anyone to be dragged in it, not when he can barely offer even a semblance of protection against it.

 “I thought,” Bucky continues, swallowing around the quiver in his voice, “if I do this– last night, if I do this, I’m not getting over you that easy. It’s gonna be hell.”

 “No, I get it,” Steve says morosely. “I get it, it’s– it’s not easy,” he affirms, jerking his head toward the messiness that’s wrapping up. He has nothing to say for himself in the face of this, the irrefutable exhibit.

 “It’s not– why’re you changing subjects?” Bucky says, with a hint of annoyance.

 Steve looks at him, unamused. “I’m not.”

 “I’m spilling my guts here, and you’re telling me the cleanup isn’t easy?” Bucky snaps, raking a hand through his hair. “You started this, and I’ll be done in a minute–”

 “This is part of what I want, it’s what comes off it,” Steve stops him crossly; this sure as hell isn’t easy for him either. “It’s unpredictable, it’s dangerous, I get it–”

 “I’m not talking about that!” Bucky exclaims, his face contorted in a grimace of indignation. “I’m not your damsel in distress, Rogers! Your heroics don’t scare me. I just– I don’t want just a one-night-stand with you, I’d want more. It’s not that hard to get. I’m trying to protect both of us here, work with me.”

 Steve blinks. “Who the hell said anything about one night?”

 Bucky sighs, barely managing to not roll his eyes. “It’s not a thing you necessarily say,” he replies slowly, a tutor explaining the alphabet to a child. “We didn’t plan any of it, and every other time you’d been with a guy it was circumstantial, so I surmised–”

 “Because they didn’t mean anything, you do!” Steve snarls. “You do,” he repeats, lowering his voice to a seething hiss, glancing around to check if anyone’s staring. “You surmised. I’ve been grinning like an idiot every time I think of you since the second I met you and you –are you fucking with me– surmised?” 

 Bucky scowls. “Are you flirting or fighting, man?”

 Steve falters. He blinks, takes a deep breath and gives Bucky a curt nod of acquiescence. “I’m sorry.”

 Bucky shakes his head, a deep crease forming between his eyebrows. “You couldn’t have mentioned that last night?”

 A whine of protest escapes Steve’s throat, high-pitched and frustrated. “I thought it was pretty obvious!”

 “I mean, you wanna keep a guy around, maybe don’t tell him how all your other guys have been insignificant, or maybe point out that he’s different, I dunno,” Bucky retorts with a mock nonchalant shrug, negated by the worried crinkling around his eyes. He looks at Steve, teeth digging into his lower lip. “I got so scared, honest to God,” he says. “And then angry, at myself; ‘cause it wouldn’t be your fault, and I should’ve known better.”

 Steve pins him with a stern gaze that doesn’t seem to faze Bucky in the least. “I want to figure this out,” he says on a hard exhale. “I want to know more about you, I want this to work; really, really want it. That obvious enough for you?”

 Bucky scoffs out a chuckle, his face a picture-perfect impression of fond impatience. “We’ll figure it out,” he says. “We can do that.”

 Steve lets out a shaky, relieved breath. “There’s a debriefing,” he says, “which means we can’t do that breakfast– although technically I wasn’t here, I didn’t get the call–”

 “You were here,” Bucky says flatly. He tugs at Steve’s tattered, dirty sweater. “Wasn’t me that did that.”

 Steve catches Bucky’s fingers in a quick squeeze before he pulls back. “Tonight then?”

 Bucky grins. “Yeah. I know a place.”

~~~

 Steve drops his keys on the table and pulls Bucky close, their lips crushing together in a slow caress. He sweeps Bucky into his arms in a fluid motion, and Bucky wraps his legs around Steve’s waist, looping his arms around Steve’s neck. He hums, mouth curling slowly into a smile.

 “What?” Steve murmurs.

 “You taste like tiramisu,” Bucky breathes.

 “Refined palate,” Steve says around a nibble of Bucky’s lip.

  This time it’s not about rough, hurried movements driven by an aggressive urge; this time it’s about exploring, discovering, about a need that extends beyond the physical, a need to be close in every way that life permits. Steve lays Bucky gently on the bed, leans down when Bucky pulls him close. He takes his time sprinkling pecks on Bucky’s neck, gives Bucky time to return the favor, heart skipping beats at every touch and stroke. Hips arching to press against Steve’s crotch, Bucky tangles flesh and metal fingers in Steve’s hair as Steve exhales shallow breaths on Bucky’s jaw. With roaming hands Bucky finds the hem of Steve’s sweater and tugs it upwards, earning himself a winded chuckle.“

 What?” Bucky asks with a dazed frown.

 “This our second chance then?” Steve teases with a grin. “It’s a running theme with us, so–”

 Bucky scoffs out a laugh and rolls Steve over, crawls over him with a gleeful, greedy gleam in his eyes. He grinds over Steve’s growing erection and Steve whimpers, grabs Bucky’s wrist to pull him close. He presses kisses on his knuckles, he moans when Bucky leaves teeth marks on his neck; he rumples slowly dampening sheets when Bucky’s hands move to undo his buckle, back arching and groin pushing into those nimble hands. The dizzying, intoxicating caresses turn Steve’s every coherent thought into a numbing mush, pour all the longing and the desperate affection into an endless, breathless chant of Bucky’s name.

 There’s too many layers of fabric separating them and Steve draws Bucky in a deepening kiss as he fumbles to pry off the clothes keeping them apart. Bucky takes mercy on him. He roughly yanks off his sweater and throws it to the side, lets Steve pull off his jeans and underwear as he dusts kisses all over Bucky’s skin.

 Bucky settles back onto Steve’s lap, rubbing against him, burying moans into Steve’s neck. Nothing separates them now but skin, too much and somehow insignificant as they meld into each other with every passing second, with every kiss, low gasp and bite.

 It’s a fever dream in its intensity, every sensation amplified by feeling, every touch exhilarating in its adoring need. Breaths intermingle, hands brace against shoulders and the bed, their cries echo in the dark room. Whispered ‘Steve’s, moaned ‘Oh God’’s, desperate ‘Don’t stop’s and the world has long-melted away; has zoomed in to this moment, these fingers that were meant to fit between Steve’s own, the quiver in Bucky’s voice when he shivers and calls out Steve’s name.

 The unrestrained tenor sends tremors down Steve’s spine and his legs, his hands and knees unsteady as he rides out the sensation, smothering his moans in Bucky’s sweat-glistening skin. He collapses, spent and filled with joy that elicits out of him a rough, whimpering burst of laughter as fingers trail up his arm. A hand splays on his chest and stays as Bucky props himself up on his elbow and seeks Steve’s eyes. Damp tangled hair falls in a curtain by his face, his gaze vulnerable, doting, filled with everything that Steve never dared hope he’d have. Bucky tilts his head and kisses him, a brief, soft butterfly kiss that seals what is already theirs.

 They fall asleep together, bare skin on skin, sheets drenched and dirty, bodies entangled in the physicality of a connection that runs much deeper.

~~~

 Sunbeams slipping through the window wake Steve up first. His drowsy mind wonders if last night was yet another dream, but the light weight on his clavicle tells him it was real. He looks down and sees Bucky’s curled hand resting there as he sleeps sprawled on his stomach, head resting on his metal arm. Steve follows the planes of Bucky’s back reverently as his body moves gently with each slow breath. He doesn’t touch, doesn’t want to disturb the sight, the hope that’s come to life that kept Steve company on so many endless dream-filled nights, on so many mornings that dawned empty.

 This, he realizes, is what has been missing from his intimate sketches of the man occupying his bed, although Steve never knew so: the faint ghost of stubble after a day of not having shaved; long, curving eyelashes; the way the ends of Bucky’s hair slightly curl every which way, the bangs the length of which Steve mostly miscalculated because of Bucky’s usual bun. The sketches miss the quiet intimacy that radiates from Bucky’s peaceful form, the comfortable sense of his belonging here that soothes and patches up the torn parts of Steve’s heart.

 His fingers tingle with the itch to draw, to commit to paper what Steve hasn’t been able to pinpoint through fantasy alone. He gently pries Bucky’s hand from his chest and slides out of bed. He barely makes any noise as he pulls on sweatpants, grabs a sketchbook and settles on the floor, pencil dancing over the page with fervent purpose, hand swift and confident as he creates this image that’s begging to be drawn.

 Bucky stirs not too long after, lost for a second when he doesn’t see Steve. His lips curl into a smile, his eyelids fluttering closed in trust when he spots him on the floor. He spreads his arm to Steve’s side as though to get as close as possible, then opens drowsy eyes and observes.

 Steve gets to filling in the gaze in Bucky’s eyes, shadows and light capturing the fond look, the gentle kindness. He almost wishes he could paint in color, memorialize the brightness of his stare and the sunlit highlights on his hair, carry the painting with him and show the world what it is missing; what Steve somehow lucked out on and can call his.

 “Steve,” Bucky says, his voice husky from sleep.

 Steve’s face splits into an easy grin, fingers hurrying as he puts the last touches on his sketch and bites his lip. His heart flutters inside his ribcage with a newfound youthful sense of glee.

 Bucky exhales an amused breath that’s laced with fondness. His lips quirk upwards. “C’mere,” he murmurs, fingers parting in open invitation.

 Steve nods, untamable grin firmly in place and getting broader. He sets aside the sketchbook, takes Bucky’s hand and crawls in close.