It starts off completely innocently and with the purest of intentions, you swear.
You’re standing in line at your favorite neighborhood coffee shop, waiting to get your morning fix, when you hear the guy in front of you start talking to himself. He isn’t super loud or obtrusive and the ambient noise probably covers him up to anybody else, but you’re close by, and bored and nosey, so you listen in.
“That looks really good,” he mumbles, staring longingly at the lemon bar currently on display as the day’s special. He’s not wrong– this may be a coffee shop above all else, but their baked goods are better than most bakeries you’ve been to. “Maybe if I…I have enough…I think…”
The guy is kind of adorable about it, counting out his money like he’s a kid who isn’t sure mom and dad gave him enough. He really shouldn’t look so cute– even covered with a well-worn jacket, and gloves, and curved into himself, the guy is tall and bulky with muscles.
Still, as he bites his lip and says, “No, I…I don’t deserve it,” you feel your heart break a little because he sounds so sad and you’ve been there; hasn’t everybody?
So when he orders three drinks that he has to read off a piece of paper, and one black coffee, you’re set to go. He shuffles away and your favorite barista, a woman who is named ‘Rainbow’ and dyes her hair to match, greets you cheerfully. You make your usual order of your favorite drink and treat, and then lean in and add, “And let me buy a lemon bar for that guy who just ordered.”
“Aw, that’s nice,” she says as she rings you up. “You want him to know it’s from you?”
“Nope. Just a random person who thought he deserved something nice,” you say. Once you pay, you go to the crowd at the receiving station to wait for your drink. They’re a bit backed up so you pull out your phone to while away the time with idle internet browsing. The sad guy is joined by a friend after a minute and they talk too low for you to hear. Well, until–
“Excuse me, I didn’t…order this,” he says when the woman hands him the lemon bar in a little paper bag.
“Oh, someone else paid for it for you. They said they thought you deserved something nice,” she says. She then calls out another order, and a harried-looking businesswoman rushes past you, and the man, to get it.
The guy frowns intensely. “But–”
“C’mon, Bucky, let’s get outta the way,” his friend says.
“But Sam,” ‘Bucky’ says as they come over to get cream and sugar. You scoot out of the way but stare at your phone with single-minded purpose.
“What’s wrong?” Sam asks gently.
“Someone else bought this for me. I can’t– what if it’s–”
You wince. You didn’t mean to send the poor guy into a panic. Thankfully, his friend is pretty good at calming him down. “Easy,” he says once Bucky is breathing again.
(It feels a little mean to think, but– that can’t seriously be his name, can it?)
“Nobody touches the food but the people behind the counter. If you can drink something they made, you can eat the food. I mean, Natasha doesn’t even watch them make her drink anymore,” Sam says. “The only thing the stranger did was pay for it. It’s not unheard of. Hell, it probably made their day.”
“Because they’re nice.”
“Nobody’s just nice.”
Ouch. Thankfully your drink comes up but you still have to wait a little bit for your food. Once you’ve got that, though, you pass those two guys on your way to a table and the tone they share is a lot friendlier. Sam jokingly offers to test for poison and Bucky replies, just as light-hearted, that he’ll break his hand if he tries.
So at least it works out?
You look up, wondering who is talking to you (and why) and you find yourself staring at the sad g– Bucky’s friend, Sam, from the other day. Shit.
“Can I help you?” you ask nervously.
His smile is kind, though, and he waves the hand holding the coffee cup (securely lidded, thankfully) like the answer to your question isn’t big enough to merit words, even as he pulls over a chair to sit next to you. “I saw you reacting when my friend got his food the other day, so I figured you’re the one nice enough to buy it for him. I just wanted to thank you and maybe apologize.”
“You don’t have to apologize. I, uh, I didn’t mean to freak him out,” you say.
“You didn’t,” Sam says firmly, like it’s a fact. “My friend– he’s a little skittish for a lot of very good reasons. But what you did– once he got over the surprise of it– made a good impact on him. He really did appreciate it.”
“Oh.” That makes you smile. “I’m really glad to hear that. Tha– thank you for telling me.”
He grins and extends his hand. “Sam Wilson.”
You shake his hand and tell him your name, though you feel a little awkward about it. “Um…do you mind not telling him it was me? Not that he knows me, but I don’t want him to come in one day and see me and think he has to pay me back or something.”
“You don’t want him to know he has a secret admirer?” Sam asks teasingly.
“Um, no.” You laugh a little. “He’s cute but he’s some random guy in a coffee shop who looked like he needed a pick-me-up. Don’t worry; your friend has nothing to fear from me.”
Sam’s smile is dimmer and he looks over you a little too…closely. You shrink down. “Sorry, um, did I say something wrong?”
Sam jolts, like he just realizes what he was doing. “Nah, sorry,” he says, back to relaxed joviality. “I was just thinking of something.” He stands and adds, “Sorry to take your time like that.”
“No, it’s fine,” you say quickly. “I’m glad he liked it.”
“Oh yeah. He even smiled when he told the story to another friend of ours.”
“Really?” You can’t imagine his perma-frown as anything else. All you did was pay for a little treat, but you can’t help but puff up with pride. He liked it. It made him happy. That’s really all you need, and more than you often get.
Sam is smiling so big he looks like he might start laughing, but he holds it back and nods at you. “His name is Bucky, by the way. James Barnes, but he goes by Bucky.”
“Oh.” It’s still a weird name and Sam seems to be awaiting a reaction, but you still don’t know how you stepped in it before, so you clamp down on anything that can be construed as offensive. “Okay.”
Sam bites down on his lower lip before walking away. “See you around.”
Shaking your head at the odd encounter, you go back to what you were doing. But a little happier than before.
Still, the next time you see Bucky, alone, you can’t help but hear “nobody’s just nice” in that sad, almost broken tone. This time he looks at a cookie– one of their excellent sugar cookies with pretty blue sprinkles– and when he’s at the counter he doesn’t order it. Just gets a black coffee.
Rainbow’s on food running duty and she knows you well enough by now– Bucky’s not the first random person you’ve bought something special for– that she looks at you when his back is turned and you smile in the affirmative. The best part is that he’s a few people ahead of you but the women give him his cookie right away.
“But I didn’t…but nobody else…” Bucky looks around in near-frustration but he’s got a tough job of it– there are a lot of regulars that come to this coffee shop and you know at least five of the occupants were here the last time he was too, and you’re the last person in line.
“Don’t worry; it’s taken care of,” Sid says and gives him a bright smile as she hands him his coffee. “Have a nice day!”
He pouts. You bite your lip almost savagely and stare at the menu as he passes by, grumbling under his breath. Once you reach the counter, though, you and the three women share a laugh.
“Did he seriously pout?” you ask and pay up.
“He’s such a sweetheart,” Amber says. “He’s so nice– ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘ma’am’– but when some douchebag tried to get on me about my tattoos and piercings, he, like, murder-stared at him until the asshole got so uncomfortable he had to leave.”
“Nice.” You definitely feel vindicated at you toss some money into the tip jar. ‘Nobody’s just nice’; bah.
The next couple of times you see him you let him be. When he only gets his coffee he lingers for a moment. Then he looks relieved. Then he looks disappointed. Both times. And goodness help you, it’s sort of hilarious. The next time he comes back in with his friend Sam you catch Rainbow’s eye and hold up two fingers. You’re off at a table near the end of the counter where the employees come in and out of and your back is to the two men, so when Rainbow glances at them, and then grins at you, you smile back just as fiercely.
You’re sipping your drink when you hear Bucky, loud over the quiet music, exclaim, “I thought they stopped!” in a tone that is part dismay, part frustration. You have to swallow your laughter lest you choke, but a couple of the baristas giggle.
“Thank goodness they didn’t! Mm mm mm, chocolate muffins,” Sam says in delight and the women out and out laugh.
“Who is doing this,” Bucky demands.
“Sorry sweetheart; sworn to secrecy,” the new girl says and oh boy, it sounds like this is getting around to all the employees. Still, you don’t mind it too much. You keep focused on your computer and imagine the scowl on his face. “Oh please; I’ve worked retail and food service in New York for ten years now. You’ll have to do better than that.”
Sam laughs and it is a delightful sound, made only better by the disgruntled muttering his friend does as they leave. You give it twenty minutes and as you’re leaving, you drop money to cover it plus a little extra for tip.
“You’re really getting a kick out of this, aren’t you,” Rainbow says dryly, but she’s smiling.
You shrug. “Can you blame me?”
As it turns out, just about none of them can.
You don’t see Bucky for a little while. But you do see someone else.
He’s big, blonde, and just as muscled but instead of the baggy comfy coat Bucky likes to wear, he favors tight t-shirts and hoodies and comes in every now and then after exercising, if his outfits are any indication. The store is half staffed by lesbians but even they are utterly charmed by him in every way. Not that it matters, since one time you saw him kiss Bucky just outside the coffee shop. With the way Bucky has taken to the little local store, you figured it was only a matter of time before his boyfriend started coming in.
Only a matter of time indeed. You realize he’s a plant when you’re right behind him in line as he hems and haws over the food display case. So much so that when he gets up to the counter Amber comments, “You look like you could use a recommendation. Again. Are you going to get something today?”
He ducks his head like he’s embarrassed. “No, ma’am, sorry; those scones look delicious but maybe next time.”
God but he’s so obvious it’s painful. You roll your eyes and after he receives his drink he goes to one of the tall tables and sits like he’s waiting for something. He is. The worst spy. And as you are super awkward even on a good day, you think that’s saying something. He doesn’t bat an eye when you or anyone else orders and receives their purchased items, and after a while he leaves.
He comes in the next day. And the one after that. On the third day you’re already sitting when he comes in and gets his drink. As he’s about to leave, though, the new girl, Yuna, calls him back and hands him a muffin in a brown sleeve.
“The message is from the person who paid for it, by the way, I just wrote what I was told,” she says.
What is written, according to your instructions, is, ‘For the Worst Spy Ever,’ with a heart drawn next to it. The man snorts and goes to the part of the counter where Yuna is. “I don’t suppose you can tell me who I can thank for this?”
“Steve,” she says, with a down tilt to her voice. “Do I really look that stupid?”
He is immediately flustered. “No, no, I–”
“Then don’t treat me like I am,” she says sweetly, with an underlying edge to it, and Steve, essentially, runs for his life. Well, walks quickly, but the effect is the same.
You chuckle into your cup and turn the page of your book. Thank god for city baristas.
After that you don’t see Steve without Bucky. They both seem to enjoy the coffee shop fine, razor sharp women behind the counter notwithstanding. Or maybe that’s an attraction; Steve is friendly towards Yuna in a very genuine way. Still, the next four times they come in, you arrange to buy something for Steve and only Steve. The first two times he’s amused, much to his boyfriend’s annoyance. By the third time that amusement has cooled down some. The fourth time he is doing his best to wheedle any information out of the women working. Rainbow is still out of town, but her ladies are just as tough as she is.
“But Amber,” Steve practically whines. “Aren't we friends?”
“I hope that’s not the only reason,” Amber says.
“Of course not,” Steve says so earnestly you smile into your cup. She’s only teasing, but he doesn’t sound like he’s tuned into that yet.
“Come on doll,” Bucky says, easing into a casual drawl that screams something so old fashioned it makes you almost look. “We just wanna do something nice for them. Can we buy something and have you give it to them?”
“No can do. Standing agreement– no repayments,” Amber says.
“Is it really so bad that somebody wants to do something nice for you?” Sid says. “I promise they’re good people. They’ve bought things randomly for other customers before.”
Bucky grumbles, “Friggin pastry ghost.” The women have a good laugh at that, and Bucky smiles at them, a little shy, but very handsome. He shrugs lightly and says, “Feels a little targeted, still.”
“That’s not always a bad thing, sweetie,” Amber says, and Bucky seems to think that over for a good, long while.
Rainbow is back the next time you buy something for Bucky. You aren’t going to, but you can tell he’s talking himself out of the chocolate peanut butter bar by the way his lips are moving, even in the din of a rush coming to its end. It’s entirely too good to pass up. Even better, the guy behind him is the most stereotypical Mr. Obnoxious Cell Phone Man you have ever seen. If Bucky seriously thinks that guy would do something nice you are going to a) feel bad and b) laugh your ass off.
Sid catches your eye and you give the smallest nod. She grins and gets to it.
When he’s long gone (after some awkward glances at Obnoxious Cell Phone Man, prompting a defensive, “what?!” and a mumbled response of, “nothing,” with facial expressions that are as hilarious as you had hoped for), you’re up to pay.
“I hear you found out about his boyfriend,” Rainbow says as she hands you your card.
“Oh yeah; big, blonde, comes in the shape of an Adonis? I know.” You dumped an amount equal to the cookie into the tip jar. You’re not above buying someone’s silence. “He is equally vexed by random acts of kindness.”
Rainbow laughs and picks up a rag to wipe down the counter. “How long are you going to keep this up, anyway?”
You shrug. “I haven’t thought that far ahead. When it stops amusing me, I guess.”
“Are you going to tell them when it does?” she asks.
“Probably not,” you say. “It sort of defeats the purpose of staying anonymous this whole time, but I won't rule it out. We’ll just have to see how it goes.”
It has been a really shitty week. So of course it’s topped off by a really shitty day. Everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong, big and small. Your brand new umbrella even broke in the middle of an unexpected rainstorm, about ten minutes after you bought it. It’s all hilariously cliché, or would be, if you didn’t feel like a frozen drowned rat. You’re going to go straight home to crawl under the covers (where you will hopefully stay for the next two days) but you’re passing the coffee shop and think, fuck it, you deserve one good thing. You stop in and your mood lightens a little bit, in a warm place that smells like coffee and cookies.
While you’re standing in line, though, you remember one aspect of this ‘super fun ultra-awesome’ week has left you without your card until you can get to the bank tomorrow. You only have enough cash for your drink, and definitely not enough for one of those amazing, fresh out of the oven cookie batches that also happen to be your absolute favorites. Yeah, that fucking figures.
The women behind the counter are busy, but they’re sympathetic to your quiet misery and size up your drink without charge or comment. It smells delicious and feels warm in your hands, and you scope out the shop for a table. The place is packed, of course, but there’s one table and chair stuffed in the back corner. The table is a little wobbly but you’ve seen people sit here before and Rainbow wouldn’t leave something in her shop that didn’t function, even if it was extra seating. So you sit down, and go to place your cup in front of you.
That’s when it slips out of your hands and hits the table near the edge, where the lid pops off and the contents of the cup pour out onto your lap. The sudden burst of heat on your cold, rain-soaked pants makes you yelp and jump up. It burns but not that badly that you can’t stare at the mess pooling on the table and floor.
You’re pretty sure you’re going to cry.
“Here.” Someone shoves a handful of napkins at you and you can only hold them in shock as two people– Bucky and his boyfriend Steve– hurry to lay down napkins so more of the drink can’t spill on the floor. You sniffle and try to rub off the beverage currently all over you. Not that it makes much difference since you’re already wet from the rain, but the heat lingers.
“Go and try and get the coffee off before it burns you, okay?” Steve says, his hand on your shoulder.
“It’s okay, we’ll take care of this,” he says and gently pushes you in the direction of the bathroom. You’re too worn down to argue, so you do what he says, going in and using cold water to make your pants bearable to wear again. When you come out the spot is freshly mopped, the table is gone entirely, and Bucky and Steve are standing at the next table over, talking to Rainbow. Bucky sees you coming and gives you a small nod.
“Oh, sweetie, I am so sorry,” Rainbow sighs and leans on her mop. “I should have taken that table out ages ago.”
“It’s all right, it was just an accident,” you say. She gives you a kind smile and pat on the shoulder, then goes back to help with the ongoing rush. With her gone you look at the table to see your bag in one chair, and on the table in front of the other one is a drink identical to your lost one, as well as one of your favorite cookies.
“Steve and I were leaving, so you can have our table,” Bucky says.
For a moment all you can do is blink at them. “I– you– th–” You take a deep breath and fight back tears of another persuasion. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“We know. But…we wanted to,” Bucky says.
“Why?” you ask, unthinking.
“It’s kind of a long story but…” Bucky smiles slightly. Only slightly, but you can see a glimpse of how nice a bigger one might be. “We’re just paying it forward.”
“Oh.” You’re mildly stunned at this karmic turn, but it’s the best thing that’s happened to you in a while. You smile back, and don’t mind the tears brimming at your eyes. “That’s…so nice. Thank you.”
Bucky’s smile grows into something real, something really heartfelt and kind. “Don’t mention it.”
It’s several days later and things are looking way up. It’s a beautiful day, you’re feeling rested, and you can spend some time in your favorite coffee shop without anything pressing in on you. Steve, Bucky, and Sam enter the shop and greet you with polite nods, which you return. You keep an ear open on the counter. It’s a good thing it’s so slow, because you can tell even without looking that every employee present is lining up as Bucky and Steve read the wrappers around their respective treats.
‘Thanks again. Who knew paying it forward could come full circle? Love, your friendly Pastry Ghost.’
They both swear loudly and laughter rises up from that part of the store. You can’t hold back your smile as you hear Bucky practically hiss at Sam, demanding to know if he knew, but Sam is laughing so hard he can barely breathe. You lift your head and Steve is staring at you. You give a slight shrug and small smile, and the one he returns is bright and beautiful. He grabs Bucky and drags him over, and then both of them are there, standing in front of you, and everything is too quiet.
Bucky shoots them a look over his shoulder.
“Oh, hell no,” Rainbow says.
“What she said,” Sam adds.
Bucky rolls his eyes and Steve chuckles. But Bucky is still appraising. Apparently not all is forgiven, yet. “Why did you start buying me things?”
You shrug. “Because it was nice.”
He honestly just sounds so confused. “Because I like the way it makes me feel?” You hold up your hands, at a loss. “I don’t know how to answer that.”
“So you didn’t do it just because of who I am?” Bucky gestures at Steve and Sam. “Because of who we are?”
You stare at him. “What?”
Bucky and Steve both stare back at you.
And then, they both laugh.
You’re a bit startled– until Steve extends his hand to you and says, “I’m pleased to meet you, miss; my name is Steve Rogers. I’m also known as Captain America.”
You’re frozen, but on a gentle lift of his hand, you shake it and stammer out your name. Bucky is next. “James Barnes. Formerly known as the Winter Soldier.” He’s a little less steady than Steve, especially as you take a moment to process.
Holy shit you’ve been antagonizing Avengers and you had no fucking idea.
“Oooohhhhhhh,” is all you can say. The randomly teasing remarks made by the baristas that you ignored as ‘unimportant’ suddenly make a lot more sense, as does Sam’s initial scrutiny. The aforementioned women and Sam all laugh together again and you have no idea what to do now. What exactly does someone say to that? Bucky and Steve are still there, though, and you try to clamp down on your smile. You fail miserably. “What? I already bought you some muffins. What more do you want?”
Steve laughs and Bucky looses the tenseness and slowly grins. “How about your company?” he asks.
That’s a turn you hadn’t expected. And yet, you don’t feel overwhelmingly awkward about it. You gesture to the open seats and they settle in. Sam’s talking with Sid, from the sounds of it, so you don’t worry about stealing them away from him too much. Plus, if he wants to join you, there’s still an open seat.
“By the way, thanks,” Bucky says after a moment of silence. He holds up his muffin. “For the food.”
Even though you’re all a little quiet, it doesn’t feel like a bad silence. Somehow, this already feels comfortable. You lean back in your seat, let out a little laugh, and say, “Don’t mention it.”