To each new star
It’s early enough and calm enough on a Monday morning that there must be at least someone somewhere that still believes today will turn out to be a very good day.
Bucky, who is three universes from home and fighting jetlag, doesn't have such high hopes.
The jetlag itself is actually a lot more serious and far more relevant than it sounds. Serious because intergalactic jetlag is no joke, and relevant because it's an unfortunate side effect of how he's come to be here, appearing in a shower of purple stars onto a cold corner of Leicester Square, London.
But Bucky hasn’t spent the last thirteen months jumping through portals, cheating time and skipping through dimensions to be bested by jetlag, and he wouldn't risk pissing off Time for nothing — not when he’s been on the receiving end of one too many of her revenge pranks.
This quest though. This quest is worth it.
Bucky pulls his collar against February’s bitter chill and knows that while he’d wanted to call it a day and go home after the last planet — an exhausting place where everyone seemed obligated to smile all the time — he'd never live it down if he gave up now. He’s so close. Just this one last stop, then home.
And so to Earth, a charming planet painted into creation when the angels were done making the milky way with half a palette of oil colors left to spare. With what remained, a bright marble of swirling blues and greens was born. Planet complete, the Sun was told to shine down on it so the artists could admire their genius at any time around their eighty four hour clock. They got distracted making Saturn soon after, and gave up on the whole solar system shortly after that, but the Sun took its job seriously and stayed, even if it doesn't feel much like it to Bucky right now.
Earth's about as far away from home as Bucky can get, and the further from home he is, the more he feels the tug of the stretched-to-breaking elastic that holds his magic together. He has a way of keeping it in check, of course. All of his kin do, and Bucky’s… well, Bucky's is coffee. Ground beans that look like velvet and smell like mornings. Without it, his magic and mind spin out, and with it, with every sip, he balances out.
Bucky calls it a trick and Wanda calls it a dependency, but either way, coffee works. So this quest might not be grand and it might not be altruistic, but finding the best coffee in the cosmos is a task Bucky takes very seriously, because if he finds it, he'll snap the band that ties him home and smothers all his wanderlust to dust.
It's not like the coffee so far has been bad, but there's always been something missing. He just hopes that the people of Earth know their stuff, that this lively little sphere is the last and greatest bastion of coffee. But where to start? Bucky's an expert so he's not just going to walk into the first hole in the wall he sees, thank you. But as it happens, the first he sees is a stylish looking place called The Brew, which makes Bucky think of coffee-making potion masters and feels like a full-beam homing beacon.
A small smile ticks at the corners of Bucky’s mouth as he starts moving towards the shop. The first step he takes melts the crunch of ice under his boot. The second has a warm wind kicking up from nowhere. Another stride turns the leaves green.
You see, the world feels a spark when Bucky arrives, and it will simmer every day he stays. Just as Bucky comes to Earth looking for something, to find it and to steal it away, the Earth gets something in return.
For now though, Bucky — who for all his many talents, is not a prophet — obliviously heads in the direction of coffee. And with each stride, he breaks the stranglehold of winter, unleashing summer on this tiny spot of London.
By the time he opens the door to a gush of heated coffee shop air, steam is rising off the baked road behind him, and the sun is so warm on his back that it could easily be a heatwave in July.
Steve is polishing the coffee machine with half an eye on his iPad as Facetime rings and rings, trying with all its might to connect him to Clint. But this is Clint and it's before midday, so Steve knows that Facetime could be trying with all its might for the foreseeable future.
Eventually the screen triumphantly presents a mess of honeyed chestnut hair and the sound of early morning disgruntlement.
“Morning,” Steve says, trying not to laugh as the little square of Clint’s sleepy right eye shakes about while he repositions his phone so that Steve can feel the full force of his glare.
“Yeah. So it is,” Clint agrees through clenched teeth. “Have to admit it's not something I expected to see today. What with it being my one day off a month.”
Because Clint has known Steve longer than his own father, he knows the normal response to this would be an unmoved expression followed by a pointed comment about how Clint is actually scheduled to be off for the rest of the week (quit complaining). So when Steve straightens up from retrieving the register's cash drawer, looking guilty but not because he's woken Clint up, Clint’s eyes are already squinted in suspicion.
“Why do I get the feeling that I’ll be seeing this time of day tomorrow as well?"
Steve winces apologetically. “Clint, I'm sorry but I might have to cash in a favor. Elle’s called in sick, and she's probably not gonna be in for the rest of the week. I can handle today but..." He sighs. "You know I wouldn't ask if I didn't have to. I'll pay you double time.”
“You’re such an idiot,” Clint grumbles. “I'm not gonna make you pay me double time."
It makes Steve feel worse to know that while Clint may grumble sometimes, he doesn't really mind. He fits this job in around his masters degree and really doesn't need to be working all the hours he does.
Steve himself has had less than a handful of days off in the three years since he signed the lease on the tiny disaster of a building that he’d eventually turn into the coffee shop come book shop he proudly stands in now. He doesn't complain nearly as much as Clint, but it's his business to make work.
It's hard, but it's working. Every teapot, every aged spine, it's all worth it, and Clint has been there since the beginning. Since Steve met him and Natasha at University College London and bonded over transatlantic funding issues.
“I wouldn't say no to cake,” is Clint’s counter-offer. “Cake whenever I want it. All day long.”
“Deal," Steve commits easily.
Clint stalls, apparently expecting more resistance. “I’m not joking,” he stresses. “I want to hear you swear to it.”
Steve side-eyes the screen. “I promise to let you eat yourself into a diabetic coma and not judge you.”
“I believe less than half of that sentence,” snorts Clint.
Steve grins. He has so much to say to that, but just as he readies a retort, he feels an odd warmth down his left side; a sudden spill of hot air that makes the rest of him goosebump with cold.
It's strange because the heater is on his right, and he hadn't heard the door open, and it's bone-gnawingly cold outside anyway.
Before he can think about how ridiculous it is, he remembers how Peggy swears blind that the store room is haunted — Peggy, who isn't one for melodrama — and a shiver slips down his spine.
Then the ghost says, “Good morning,” and Steve only just stops himself from jumping a foot in the air.
He whips his head around, eyes darting towards the sound, and notices two things in very quick succession.
The first is that the speaker is not, in fact, a ghost. Steve's relieved sigh gets caught in his throat though, and it's entirely the fault of observation number two: nearly six foot of beautiful boy, leaning nonchalantly against the counter with a dangerously disarming smile on his already disarmingly beautiful face.
Of course, number one was never going to be a bad thing. Number two, however… well that very well might be.
Steve’s brain seems to agree, powering down like it's trying to protect itself and leaving Steve stranded with a dazed expression and the declaration of, “You're not a ghost.”
Right. So, number one is going to be more of a problem than at first thought. And Steve, who is blessed with a voice that syrups over only the lower registers, is thankful that at least the sentence doesn’t present itself as an embarrassing squeak, but that's literally the only saving grace here.
His cheeks are burnt pink and Clint is spluttering what the fuck? but before he can think about flinging himself in the Thames, the guy’s face is lighting up right in front of him, blue eyes sparking.
“That’s… true,” blue-eyes confirms, a bit amused and a lot confused. “I didn't realize that fact was in question. Do I smell like one?”
Steve blinks. “No, I— what? Do ghosts smell?”
“Yes," the boy blinks back. "Like bergamot.” He tips his head whimsically. “How do you not know this? Nevermind, you don't need to answer that. So if it's not smell, is it that you think I look like one?”
A tiny frown is divoting his forehead and Steve is too busy resisting the urge to kiss it away to wonder about the weird conversation he's about to make weirder. “Well, what do ghosts look like?”
“Death,” the boy answers blankly, voice flat like he thinks Steve is being ridiculous.
Steve feels kind of ridiculous as he clears his throat and mutters, “I guess that makes sense.”
The boy seems simultaneously intrigued and amused and offended — he has a very expressive face — and hums thoughtfully before neutrally observing, “You don't know much about ghosts do you?”
Steve doesn't think he knows much of anything right now, except that this person definitely doesn't look like death, and actually doesn’t look much like a boy either. He has a cheeky boyish grin and enthusiastic eyes, but that’s about where the boy stops and the man starts. He’s tall and lean and solid, defined cheekbones and a sharp charcoal coat. His brown hair is shot through with caramel and soft where it brushes his face, and his smile... well, his smile is far from innocent.
“I don’t know anything about ghosts, to be honest,” Steve concedes. What he does know is that he can work his way round a mug of coffee while reading a book, mostly asleep, on his deathbed, or in any other completely distracted state. It's a pointless talent, but one he feels is going to come into its own any minute now. “I know caffeine,” he says finally, a little too proudly all things considered.
“Thank the stars,” the guy sighs towards the ceiling before fixing Steve with a very desperate, “Yes, please.”
Steve clears his throat. “Right. What can I get you?”
“I need….” The man trails off, unsure. His gaze roams the chalkboard behind Steve's head and then across the counter, stalling slightly near the Kilner jar of chamomile tea.
There's not a single hint of recognition on that pretty face. Steve should know because Steve is looking.
Inquisitive eyes prompt him to nudge floral scented calmness into the space between them, only to snatch it back almost immediately when it evokes a grimace.
“God no,” the man breathes like he's just dodged a bullet. “Err... what's that one?"
Steve follows a pointer finger to his own cup. “Oh. Coffee.”
The relief is so palpable in the way his whole body relaxes that Steve hazards, “Strong coffee?”
The responding smile is a screaming yes.
“Alright,” Steve grins. “Do you want creamer?”
Steve is stared at for a few long seconds.
“Creamer?” the guy repeats, the word slow and curious and like cream itself.
Steve clears his throat. “To go in the coffee.”
“Are you telling me that people,” he raises his eyebrows, “... dilute it?”
A laugh bursts from Steve's lips. “Well, yeah.”
“I don’t—” He still looks confused, and maybe like he's trying to suppress a shudder. “I mean... why?”
“Not everyone agrees on the best way to drink coffee, I guess,” Steve hedges. “But, I have this theory.”
“Oh god, not the theory.”
“Clint, hang up.”
“I like a theory,” the guy protests despite being clearly baffled as to where to address his response. His eyes quickly get bored of searching — seemingly happy to accept that Clint’s voice doesn't appear to come paired with a body — and tick back to Steve expectantly. “Tell me more.”
“Everyone starts with the latte,” says Steve, turning his back — which isn't easy, but the guy wants a theory and Steve will not let him down — and starts packing coffee into the group heads, lining up a cup before flipping the switch, “Because nobody sees the danger in a milky coffee,” he continues, turning back to rest his elbows on the counter. “But the latte... is the gateway drug.”
The guy's eyes dip to drink in Steve’s playful grin, lips quirking upwards.
“Then it’s all downhill to,” Steve slides the cup into grateful hands, “a triple shot espresso.”
The man looks up through his eyelashes, voice low when he asks, “Do you always sound this serious?”
“Coffee is pretty serious.”
Blue eyes shimmer, and six foot and the kind of hot that has to be seen to be believed licks his lips and sighs, light and airy like Steve gets him. Right-to-the-core gets him. “Yes it is," then he starts emptying his pockets onto the counter.
“What are you doing?”
“Settling my debt,” comes the very distracted response.
Steve watches fluorescent orange gems spill onto the counter and tinker to a stop against gold coins that are far too big to be sterling, or anything Steve faintly recognizes. While he tries to work that one out, weird glowing marbles are running down the sides of the work-in-progress junk mountain and stumbling onto his floor. Quickly added are a mirror, an emerald ring and tiny vials of god knows what. It all piles up and none of it is legal tender, probably anywhere.
“What’s this?” Steve asks, inspecting a bronze cuboid.
The guy, who is shaking out a scroll as though there’s a chance it might be concealing a five pound note, briefly glances over. “It's, er, Bulgarian currency.”
Steve frowns because it's absolutely not, but Peggy has warned him not to talk back to customers, so.
The scroll, which looks like a map and has El Dorado written on the top — it probably doesn’t but Steve had fallen asleep in his ledgers sometime around 3am that morning — is rolled away with quick hands and shifty eyes.
Steve laughs a little and holds his hands up. Meanwhile, the guy flicks around in the pile of stuff that surely never fitted in his pockets in the first place, searching, searching, then huffing in defeat.
With a delicate looking frown, his gaze hooks on Steve’s card machine, and, “Aha! Please use this piece of plastic to settle what I owe you for your potion.”
Steve isn't so stuck on ‘potion’ that he doesn't instinctively grab the straw being brandished in front of his nose, or notice the fact that it morphs in his grip until it resembles a legitimate looking debit card.
He could be suffering from some kind of beauty induced paralysis, but it's probably more like extreme fatigue, because what the fuck was that? To his knowledge, authentic Visas don’t just materialize out of thin air, and he tries not to act too surprised when the payment successfully goes through.
“Steve, turn the screen will you? I can’t see."
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve sees a flash of red join Clint. He reaches out to disconnect the call with a huff, sparing a thought for how punchdrunk he must be that he didn’t think to do it earlier.
But then kinda weird dude says, “There, all settled,” a little too smug to be gorgeous but somehow it works. “I'll need another,” he informs. “Right after this one, please.”
“I'll bring it over,” promises Steve before blinking in the light of a wonderfully conceived opportunity. “I should take your name,” cue clearing of throat, “For the order, I mean.” Later he'll have a hard time reconciling this question with the fact that there is literally no other customer in the shop. (He won't lose any sleep over it though.)
Their eyes meet and Steve knows he’s been made. The guy grins anyway. “It’s Bucky," he says. "My name’s Bucky.”
Bucky nods faintly like he's collecting up the name and storing it away for safe keeping, and with that, he takes his drink and his fine self over towards the book shelves, muttering, “Is that a library?” in a sort of awed whisper that makes Steve smile.
“That was something else.”
When Steve turns to glare, Natasha has gone and Clint is pretending to inspect his fingernails.
“Why didn't you hang up?”
With one glance at Clint’s face, Steve has his answer.
“You could have helped me out,” he remarks, even though that was never going to happen. Clearly nothing was going to bring Clint more joy than sitting back and watching the whole scene play out.
“There's no saving you from yourself,” smirks Clint.
Steve scowls, one part joking to two parts fuck right off and takes at least a little pleasure in saying, “I'll see you tomorrow.”
Clint’s smirk disappears. “Urgh, alright. See you at nine."
“I know you meant eight.”
Clint’s sag of defeat lasts only a second before he's leaning towards the camera with an air of intense focus. Steve does not like the look of that gleam in his eye. “I hope you got that dude’s name down okay. Wouldn’t want to get his drink mixed up with all those other orders.”
Steve gives him a flat look. “Make that six.”
Call finally disconnected and coffee in hand, Steve follows the rustle of pages to find Bucky sat with his back to one of the tall book stacks and a leg stretched out towards the other. He seems calm and serene, surrounding himself with books and looking like he’s jumped straight off the pages of one of them.
The pages, coincidentally, are fluttering on their own and it doesn't seem to matter to them that there isn't a wisp of breeze. It’s kind of spellbinding to watch them flicker, but more so to watch Bucky stare into his coffee like it holds answers to questions that Steve would never even think to ask.
Steve’s never seen someone look at something so dreamily. Steve, of course, wouldn't know about that sort of thing. The way he's appraising Bucky’s sun-kissed cheekbone is solely subjective. No need to feel guilty as he snatches his eyes away a split second before Bucky catches him.
The view out the little Tudor window is fascinating, or so Steve would like Bucky to believe considering he's now trying to appear enamored with it. He's almost suckered in himself when he sees dandelion fuzz floating past the glass. Which is interesting, being February and all that.
“How's the coffee?” Steve asks, risking a glance back at Bucky and finding that he's already looking up at him with a reverent expression on his face.
“It was the very best coffee of my life.”
The statement seems a bit of an overreach but Bucky does indeed look as though his life is now complete. Steve can't help but buzz under his admiration.
“But in the name of a fair and valid trial, I need to be sure,” Bucky adds begrudgingly, ever more confusingly, and like Steve should know precisely what he's talking about. “Can you recommend other potion sellers? I mean, coffee selling… establishments?”
Despite the strangeness of this entire exchange, and maybe even because of it, Steve’s starting to really like this guy, and a small teasing smile spreads across his face. “Well, we don't usually suggest customers take their money elsewhere.”
He's reaching for his notepad because as much as he wants Bucky to come back and as territorial as he feels right now, he doesn't want to frighten him off.
Halfway through scribbling down number five on his list of favorite London baristas, it occurs to him that Bucky might not want to go south of the river for this. “How far are you willing to go?”
“Well I thought I’d stick to Europe today. Maybe cover some of Asia.”
Steve lifts amused eyes only to be met with perfectly serious ones.
They watch each other for a couple of lazy seconds while Steve’s mind whirrs. He takes in Bucky's steady sincerity, his oddness of speech, the rose gold sun high in a sky that was threatening snow not an hour ago, and forces himself to weigh up what is most likely accurate with what is also clearly insane.
“If you want coffee in the sun, you won't need to go far,” Steve comments eventually, nodding towards the baking heat on the street.
“I wouldn't know anything about that,” Bucky breezes, but the way his eyes are crinkling with mischievous amusement tells a different story.
Steve must look dubious because the next thing he knows, the room is buzzing with a quiet burst of bright laughter, warmer than the air outside as Bucky pushes a hand through his hair, tousling it with his fingers.
Steve can picture the silky strands in his own hands all too easily, imagines letting them fall through his fingers as the world falls away.
After a few moments, Bucky's laugh trickles out into a devilish grin. "What I can tell you is that you'll still need your coat when you leave here, because this,” he gestures an unfairly elegant hand to the window, “is localized.”
His hand comes to rest on his chest and Steve gets the distinct impression that what he actually means is: localized... to me.
“Oh, and before I forget... you should try aloe,” Bucky advises out of nowhere which makes Steve blink. “Ghosts don't like it. Completely humane. He'll probably be glad to see the back of your store room anyway.”
Steve decides it's probably best to think about that one later. For now, Bucky is pushing himself off the door frame with a charming little bow and, “Farewell.”
He takes his leave and it seems to Steve as if he takes the sun with him. Minutes later, when a customer complains that it feels like he’s eating breakfast in the Arctic Circle, Steve cranks the heat back up and wonders how impossible it would really be if Bucky actually had.
That was the first cup of coffee Bucky would drink on Earth. And, as he’ll be entirely unsurprised to find out later, the best.
That first coffee hadn't been easily acquired. Humans call it so many different things that there had been dozens of words flowing over The Brew’s chalkboards and not a single one of them had read coffee. Bucky hadn't remembered which of the names Wanda had told him to ask for, and he’d been a little distracted. Fortunately, coffee turned out to be coffee after all.
He’d taken that still steaming mug of salvation into his hands, bumped the rim against his bottom lip and tipped the dark liquid onto his tongue with wholehearted enthusiasm, but somehow, despite the quest, the caffeine desperation, and all instinct to the contrary, Bucky hadn't even tasted it.
It's just that he'd never seen anyone quite like Steve before. Steve who was tall and solid, eyes gleaming, lips full and pastel pink, and Bucky couldn’t work out for the life of him why he'd left this planet till last.
By the second sip though, Bucky couldn't do much else but taste the smooth, rich heaven dancing on his tongue and swimming in his bloodstream. Couldn't feel anything but the shivers rolling down his spine and the soothing slow-down as his energy stopped its rabid snap around his fingers. The benchmark for magical calm had shifted significantly, and he downed his next cup quicker than he’d ever drunk anything in his life.
The rest of the world turned out to be pretty anticlimactic in comparison. An americano in Florence came close, but it was a fraction on the bitter side and Italy was too humid, too bright, and it didn’t have a Steve.
Steve is certainly proving to be a complication, and one that Bucky feels he’s brought upon himself. He’d wanted to go home, he blamed Earth, and Earth gave him Steve. It feels like a punch in the balls and a petulant whisper of, You thought we were fucking with you before…
Turns out, Earth has grown a bit too big for its boots of late.
Sure enough, Bucky’s second visit to The Brew has him third in line and queuing behind people that don't seem to share his urgency. It's frustrating but he's smiling, eyes slipping down the line to watch Steve make magic bubbles in milk and shower pixie dust on top of snow-white foam. He tells himself that this is how he always susses out a new culture, how he’s benchmarked norms in every new territory he’s visited. Only by watching the locals can he learn behaviors, mimic dialect and speech patterns.
It’s the truth, if not, in this instance, the whole truth. But the only truth that really matters is that Bucky loves coffee and the people that make it for him. Some, evidently, more than others.
Inching his way to Steve, one coffee tourist after another, he finally gets his hands on the counter.
“Hi,” he says, just about tempering his voice before the greeting can warrant an exclamation mark. Being the sole focus of Steve’s attention again is enough to make him dizzy.
“You're back,” Steve observes, relaxing back into Bucky’s company as though he’d never been without it. In twenty two hours, Steve thought he might have embellished the memory of him, but here he was, all twinkling eyes and caffeine addiction and legs for days, exactly as Steve remembered him.
“I’m back,” Bucky confirms with a dry sense of theatre. “Eighty two coffee shops later.”
“Eighty two? In one day?”
Bucky tips his chin proudly.
"Alright," Steve accepts after a handful of skeptical thoughts and a fair few misgivings, shoulders hitching with a let's go with it shrug. “Any good?”
“No, they were terrible,” Bucky scoffs. “But I'd guessed they might be. Want to know what else I discovered?”
Steve raises an eyebrow. “That terrible coffee is better than no coffee?”
In a rare moment of being less that earth shatteringly beautiful, Bucky scrunches his face up in disgust. Steve is laughing even before Bucky bites out, “Absolutely not,” in a voice that is firm and unyielding.
The sentiment leaves Steve feeling oddly content because Bucky shouldn't have to settle for anything. He should have the best coffee, in arms reach, whenever he wants it.
“I discovered,” Bucky says slowly, drawing Steve out of his thoughts and back to him like a super powered magnet, “that pigeons are not very nice.”
Steve lets out a low chuckle. “The key is not to feed them.”
“Yes,” Bucky agrees, fixing Steve with a dark look that hits a note somewhere between humor and accusation. “Unfortunately that's advice I could have done with yesterday.”
“I'm a firm believer in letting people make their own mistakes,” Steve informs, lips curling. “So you drank terrible coffee, got mobbed by pigeons and now you're back."
“Yes well, the biggest discovery of yesterday was that your coffee is by far the best in all the realms.”
Steve chuckles and attempts to hide his blush in the bright stars immortalized in his granite. “I can tell you with absolute confidence that it’s not.”
“I can tell you with tried and tested certainty that it is,” Bucky disagrees. “I’ve done my research.” He pauses, searching for something in Steve’s eyes that apparently isn't obvious because he proceeds to ask, "So how do you do it? Do you charm the beans?”
“I mix the beans.”
Bucky’s not so easily hoodwinked. “Nice try but I’ll find out your secret eventually,” he tells him. “You must have a special ingredient or— Wait, it’s a spell isn’t it?”
Steve shakes his head. It’s starting to feel like bewilderment is becoming his new norm. He never thought he'd like the feeling, but now he hopes he'll get to feel it again tomorrow. And the next day, and the next. Which is why he needs to keep Bucky talking. If he doesn't, Bucky might go elsewhere, furthering his ‘research’ and realizing that he doesn't need Steve, or his coffee, after all.
“So what brings you to London?”
Momentarily diverted, Bucky’s mouth curves in a slow, addictive smile. It's a heady mix of sinful and sweet; maple syrup and a slick shot of whiskey.
Eyes bright, Bucky answers, “I’m fulfilling my life's purpose."
Steve bites down on a smile, kind of hoping that this is the start of a very bad pick up line.
“I'm on a quest to find the best coffee,” Bucky clarifies. Steve raises his eyebrows in curiosity but doesn't look impressed enough for Bucky’s liking, so he adds, “In all the universes.”
There’s a very big part of Steve that thinks he should laugh in disbelief. That he should be seeing an explosion of red warning flags any second now. But he’s face to face with a man that radiates heat, magics bank cards out of straws and can render Clint speechless. All of which is generally considered impossible.
“You're not from around here are you?”
Bucky grins, so sudden and all consuming it’s as if he thinks it's the answer to Steve question. Maybe it is; just not this one. At least Steve knows now that it's entirely possible to be spellbound.
Eventually Bucky’s grin makes way for something softer as he draws a face in some rogue cocoa dust with an absent minded swirl of a fingertip. “No I'm not,” he meets Steve’s eyes. “But neither are you.”
Steve’s elbows join Bucky’s on the counter as he smiles conspiratorially and says, “Reckon I'm closer to home than you are though.”
The cheeky glint in Bucky’s eyes does nothing to deny it but he doesn't take the bait and volunteer more information until Steve settles on a stool and raises his eyebrows in expectation. The lack of coffee-making gets Bucky's attention.
“That's a dirty trick.”
Steve laughs under his breath. “Call it an incentive.”
“Think I'll call it blackmail,” Bucky decides.
They size each other up until Bucky cracks a smile.
“Fine,” he sniffs. “You're right — I’m not from around here. Now please hand over the coffee.”
Steve remains exactly where he is.
Bucky heaves a very put-upon sigh, but Steve can see the laughter underneath. “Where I'm from, everyone is expected to choose a mission,” he looks up flatly. "Apparently it's character building."
He unhooks the buttons on his jacket, which today is a deep plum. Before he can discard the jacket over a nearby chair, Steve glimpses pink cherry blossom embroidered into the inner lining. For some reason, it makes him smile.
“Anyway, my magic feeds off coffee, so I thought, what better quest? To find the very best in all the dimensions. It seemed like a good idea at the time... taking the road untraveled, venturing into the great unknown. Gets a bit tiring, truth be told."
“What happens when you find it?” Steve asks, casually going about grinding coffee beans as though it's any normal day and Bucky is not in fact a time-travelling universe-hopping wizard. "The best coffee."
“I take it home,” replies Bucky. “People write fables about my achievements. I was never doing it for the glory though.” Bucky swallows. He hadn't thought he was doing it for the guys either, but there you go. "Wouldn't turn down a sonnet though."
"In honor of you or the coffee?"
" 'Or'? That you'd even suggest separating us like that..." Bucky starts, finishing with a flashy gasp of imagined hurt.
Steve doesn't fight his grin as affection swoops warmth into his belly like a gently giggling wave lapping at his feet. “So who's the one to beat?”
“Aah," Bucky starts, leaning closer. "Now that would be Hades.”
Well, that sounds intimidating. “In that case, I think I’ll forfeit,” Steve says, tipping a shot of gingerbread syrup into the mug.
“No chance,” Bucky scoffs. “And don’t get ahead of yourself because you haven't won yet. I need to verify my findings after all.” He grabs at the mug Steve’s finished topping with a ginger shortbread only to flex around empty air when Steve pulls it out of reach. “I mean, it can't hurt to be sure, right?”
Steve grins, finally setting down the drink and sliding it into the cradle of Bucky’s waiting hands. "Yeah well, let’s hope Hades isn’t a sore loser.”
“Don't count on it. He's very proud," Bucky warns, hiding his poorly concealed amusement behind his mug before straightening up and pulling himself out of the comfort of Steve's space. "And he has a three-headed attack dog."
Steve just smirks and Bucky looks delighted.
“I should go," he says next, sighing out what sounds a bit like disappointment but could be Steve wishful thinking. "Your friend is probably getting bored of eavesdropping on our conversation anyway.”
Steve looks over in time to see Clint jump to attention, elbow slipping off the table he's meant to be cleaning and making him curse.
Bucky snorts and Steve takes back the space between them. “I can guarantee that this conversation is the most entertaining thing that’s ever happened to him.”
Ten minutes later, Clint has stopped giving him the cold shoulder. And Steve is starting to wish he hadn't.
“That dude is weird."
Clint scoffs. They're holed up in the possibly-haunted store room and peering out, watching Bucky stare deep into the rich ripples of coffee he makes as he blows across the surface. “That's not what you were thinking.”
“It's not all you were thinking,” Clint points out, before sticking his head round the corner of the doorframe to study Bucky for what seems like an age. Finally, he steps back into the tight space with some sage words of warning: “You're not gonna be able to handle him," he promises.
Steve purses his lips and resolves to say nothing. He doesn’t really want Clint to know how very strongly he disagrees. Or how desperately he wishes that he could test the theory.
“‘The best coffee in all the dimensions’,” Clint repeats skeptically the next morning during pre-service.
Steve shoots him a look but doesn't stop icing cupcakes. "Ask Bucky if you don't believe me.”
“You're right,” Clint returns as he wipes down the trays, “he's absolutely the voice of reason here.”
“I'm going to have it written on a plaque,” Steve muses, purely to wind Clint up.
“Has Nat met him?” Peggy asks over the glass dome of muffins she's replenishing. She looks very serious as she waits for the answer. As though Nat’s is the only opinion that really counts.
“If spied on our conversation via Facetime counts as 'met',” Steve grumbles, “then yes.”
“I recorded it,” Clint waggles his eyebrows at Peggy. “It was priceless. Anyway, Nat bet me a vacation that Steve won't be able to resist him.”
Steve has a fleeting moment in which he feels incredibly insulted before Peggy catches his eye, brow wrinkled. “You've just paid me to sit and listen to you talk about this man for the best part of an hour. It doesn't sound like you want to resist him.”
“I— well, it wouldn't be right, would it? He's a customer.”
Peggy laughs but she looks confused and Steve can't blame her. “I admire your professionalism Steve, but I don’t think barista-customer relations are frowned upon.”
“I heard they are,” Clint ventures. “Probably why he keeps coming back. He's got some type of, what’s it called, Stockholm Syndrome. You should cut him off before it's too late.”
“You're dead set against this aren't you?” Peggy squints at Clint suspiciously. “Does it have anything to do with an all-expenses-paid trip abroad?”
“You try turning down a bet with Nat,” Clint dares, before turning to Steve and whispering. “Don't let Peggy peer pressure you, Steve. You're right, it would be entirely inappropriate. I've got your back.”
Steve feels his face scrunch up. Clint’s wearing what he probably thinks is a passable expression of moral support. It's sincerity isn't the problem, it's that Steve and Peggy might vomit any minute if the situation is allowed to continue.
“Yeah well, you've already lost,” Steve deadpans. “Bucky's it for me.”
“No Clint,” Steve says, rolling his eyes. It's a shame in many ways that he doesn't feel as confident as he sounds. “Honestly, I just met the guy.”
“I knew that,” Clint defends, reinstating his supportive bro face. “Love at first sight goes against everything you believe in.”
Steve snorts. “So’s employing you.”
Before Clint can curse at Peggy for cackling, there’s a knock at the door.
“Sorry, we're closed,” Peggy calls in the direction of the noise.
“Closed?” comes a familiar voice drifting in through the letterbox. “As in… no coffee?” There’s a beat of silence, then an incredibly astounded, “Why?”
“Who is it?” Steve asks even though he knows the answer and is already making his way to unbolt the door with a smile.
"You've got this,” Clint hisses after him with two thumbs up. “Resist.”
“Dear god,” Peggy sighs tiredly.
“It's Bucky,” answers the voice from outside.
A second later, Steve opens the door to glossy blue eyes and a charming little smile, and prides himself that he still possesses the ability to walk and talk as he leans against the wooden frame and smirks. “Who?"
Bucky purses his lips on a grin and narrows his eyes. Behind him, there's a fog as thick as smoke, filtering the sun until the streetlamps automatically cut in. It's gloomy and apocalyptic and squirms a bit like excitement in Steve’s stomach.
The only color in the patchwork of grays is a bright red flower tucked cheerfully into Bucky’s buttonhole.
“Is the sky falling?” Steve asks, nodding at the swell of dark looming over them.
The way Bucky’s face drains of color is almost comical. “God, not again,” he groans, twisting to look over his shoulder for a second before he makes a little oh of relief. “Nah, that’s just fog,” he corrects happily. “Beautiful isn’t it?”
“I like it,” Steve agrees.
Bucky beams and the fog wraps around them tighter and tighter until even the glow of the streetlamps disappears.
Bucky huffs a hollow laugh. “You think that's dramatic, better hope you never actually see the sky falling in. So... can I trouble you for some coffee?” he asks, lighting up like he could coerce Steve with one of those sunshine smiles of his.
In answer, Steve holds the door open.
“'Closed',” Bucky tuts in mock reprimand, slipping past Steve and into the shop.
He’s not proud of himself, but Steve’s finding it impossible not to notice that somewhere along the line, Bucky has understood what it is to be human. His interpretation of blending in as a present day Londoner apparently involves tiny jeans that lend themselves to fantasies in which they are tugged down and kicked off. By the time Steve’s brain is back online, Bucky is negotiating a coffee out of Clint.
“Need to get this fired up first,” Clint is saying, gesturing to the coffee machine. “Give it ten minutes.”
Bucky must hate this answer because he turns to Steve in search of a different one.
“Ten minutes,” Steve echoes gently. “But I got a surprise for you."
Bucky looks wary.
"It's worth the wait. I promise you'll be excited.”
“Alright,” Bucky breaks out a mischievous little smile, "excite me.”
The thing is, Steve genuinely can't work out whether the words are intended to carry innuendo or whether it's Bucky’s grin — the one that says I'm such a little shit almost all of the time — that just makes it seem that way. Or it could be the fact that he’s punctuating the sentence by breathing his bottom lip between his teeth. Or it could simply be Steve.
The wait for coffee appears to be worth it, at least. Bucky seems happy when he tastes the new blend Steve’s created and during the hour that follows, he sips and smiles, and Steve finds his eyes wandering to him without conscious thought.
The camellia flower gradually makes its way from Bucky’s buttonhole to his fingers to his hair, and Clint is mildly irritated when he points out that these are the finer details Steve shouldn't have spared the time to observe, not when there were queues of customers waiting to be served.
Eventually the fog disappears, and so does Bucky.
Bucky is deep in conversation, belly flipping with excitement from Steve just being Steve, when he gets some very bad news.
“I should get back to work,” Steve says as if it’s nothing.
“Quit,” suggests Bucky, deeply unhappy.
Steve looks back at him, eyes crinkling. “I can’t quit my own shop.”
“This...” Bucky starts, eyes widening. “Is it all yours?”
“Yeah,” Steve says and Bucky notices the proud straightening of his spine. “I studied in law but this was always the dream." He tips his head. "I guess you could call it my quest.”
“You had to work hard for it,” Bucky says. He can tell as much from the hurricane in Steve’s eyes.
Steve shrugs. “It was tough but—” He cuts himself off, turning to face Bucky properly. “I didn’t want to ever have to say that life got in the way, you know. And I got lucky too.”
Bucky watches him with a warmth in his chest. Thinks about how they’re both stellar oddities. “You made it happen.”
Steve nods down at Bucky’s mug, where his fingers are absently ghosting over the lip. “I've been reliably informed it was all worth it."
“Indeed,” Bucky laughs. “Lawyer Steve would be no use to me whatsoever.”
Steve grins and watches Bucky try not to mirror it around a mouthful of sponge cake. He finds himself entranced as Bucky chews, wondering when the humble jawline became such a thing for him. He stores the information away, caches it in some part of his mind with all the other things he'd never realized about himself.
“Excuse me, Steven,” Clint calls over, arms folded over his chest. “I can see you’re really busy, but when you’re ready I could use some help here."
Laughter is brimming in Bucky’s eyes when Steve insists, “I am busy.”
“Well you can be busy making a macchiato instead,” Clint snips.
The days come and go with Bucky a permanent fixture in The Brew.
Steve makes him ever more complicated coffees and he downs them all like he lives for it. His smiles still spark like flints catching, he still dresses for a costume ball, and he still bows like some throwback to Victorian Britain. Another week passes and he’s no less flamboyant or charming, and it gets no easier for Steve to pretend that he's not insanely attracted to him.
Bucky doesn’t always make his presence known, and sometimes he’s so still, so quiet, that Steve could almost forget that he’s there. (He doesn’t). More often than not though, Bucky's getting himself into mischief while insisting that he's keeping Steve out of it.
“Where’s the clean cloth?” Steve asks, tired and irritable from another of those nights slept at his desk with a pillow of spreadsheets. “The one with the red stars.”
Clint jumps on the question and Steve immediately knows he's not going to like the answer.
“Bucky has Maria von Trapp-ed it into a bracelet.”
Oh for fucks sake. “What?!”
Clint points to the window seat where Bucky is holding a book open in one hand. His other palm is spread on the closed cover of another, and Steve gets the impression that he’s somehow reading that one too.
When Bucky catches Steve’s gaze, he hides his right hand and adopts an innocent smile that Steve doesn’t buy in the slightest.
Bucky’s worse than a devil. And there's no way of proving that he literally isn't.
“I need that,” Steve sighs. The sentence is halfway out his mouth when he's hit in the chest with a cloth of cheerful orange polkadots.
“In case you thought you had an excuse to go over there,” Clint explains, flicking his eyes to Bucky.
Steve flings the cloth back in Clint’s face. “Don't need an excuse.”
“Watch,” Bucky commands softly.
In fairness, it’s hard to look anywhere else. It's Bucky after all.
One by one, Bucky is stacking little round tins on top of each other until he has a precarious Eiffel Tower of coffee. “They’re samples of some of the coffees I’ve tried,” he tells Steve excitedly. “The best one from each dimension.”
It’s probably unfair to say that Bucky is happy today, because he’s always pretty sunny natured, but today he positively lights up when Steve greets him at the counter. As much as he’d like to think it, Steve can’t let himself believe this reaction has anything to do with him; not when Bucky's seen all there is to see and Steve must be so boring in comparison.
It’s nice to be around him when he’s so animated though. It’s nice to be around him full stop.
“I’ve collected hundreds,” Bucky continues, indicating to his hoard. Every tin is etched with a name and each is rated in relation to the others with neat scratches. “The rest are in my pocket. It means about 4% of my energy is constantly upholding the extension charm, but…” He shrugs like it’s nothing he can’t handle.
“Did you decide then? Are we the best?”
Bucky bites at the side of his lip, eyes smirking. “I wouldn't have stayed this long if all London had to offer was second rate coffee.”
Steve holds Bucky's gaze a beat too long to be normal. “Is that true though?” he asks eventually, heart kicking as he waits to see if Bucky will get the hidden meaning; the silent question of whether Steve is worth sticking around for.
Maybe it's a bit too brave, flies too close to the sun, but Steve’s buoyed up on Bucky’s little hits of laughter, and what's the point in life if not for taking a few calculated risks or acting on the odd gut instinct.
The fiery glint when it lights Bucky's eyes is worth the torturous two second delay. “No,” he says, working hard to stop what would, no doubt, be a truly stunning smile from erupting across his whole face. “The rest of the city’s pretty addictive too.”
“I'm sure,” Steve agrees mildly. “Must be the pigeons.”
Bucky startles a laugh before schooling his face into a wonderfully haunted expression.
“Come on,” Steve chuckles, guiding Bucky off his chair, “up you get.”
“What are you doing?”
“It's not what I'm doing, it's what we’re doing, which is showing you how to blend the different beans so you can make your own coffee,” Steve explains before Bucky can think he’s being evicted and cry; Steve would never forgive himself. “If our coffee really is the best, then you need to know how to make it, or else it sounds like the rest of your life is gonna be pretty disappointing.”
Steve spends the minutes that follow trying to block out the way Bucky fits against his side, and instead wishes he were doing anything other than packing ground coffee beans into an empty tin ready for Bucky to whip up and skip off into another universe with.
“Here you go,” says Steve as he stacks his tin on top of the rest. “Now you can do your thing with them.”
“Study them in great detail like a true scientist,” Bucky elaborates.
“Drink them,” Steve interprets.
Bucky shrugs, lips tipping in a half smile. “I never claimed the methodology was complex. Test it, collect it, take it home.” He gives Steve a conceding look, “Drink it.”
Steve should be bathing in the glossy shimmer of another shared moment of friendly banter, but—
It’s a small word but it makes Steve’s heart beat a single heavy thud.
Thing is, it’s not like he hadn’t seen this day coming from the first. And really it’s only right that Bucky should have the best coffee in all the realms and feel at home when he drinks it. Of course in the end he'll want to take his coffee and go.
But then Steve won't have anyone to appease his ghost, or repurpose his cloths into head scarves, or make him smile quite the same way again, probably.
Steve's only saving himself when he says, “We should probably keep the rest of that conversation for another day.” He can't decide whether Bucky’s wavering smile makes him happy or sad. “I better serve some customers before Clint cuts me out of my own takings.”
By mid-week Steve is challenging himself to go cold turkey. He's been getting too attached, he knows. Too emotionally invested in someone he's going to lose.
Creating distance seems the only solution, but he'd be lying if he said he isn't relieved that he has a shop to run, a shop that Bucky is quite fond of. At least Steve won't suffer from complete withdrawal.
“Don't use me as a distraction,” Clint reprimands as soon as Steve comes to stand at his side. “Every time he looks your way, you come to me. It's making me feel cheap.”
Steve ignores the real issues and responds with, “Believe me, you're anything but cheap. It’s expensive enough just keeping you fed.”
Clint's only defense is a wry grin.
Distracted, Steve blows out a quick breath. “He's not looking at me anyway,” he says, because he just can't help himself.
Grinning wider, Clint laughs, “You're kidding right? He doesn't do much else.”
On the other side of the room, Bucky’s sitting by the bagels, monitoring the exchange and trying to work out why Steve’s been acting so strange today. He's just thinking about how there must be a way to magic an end to it, when a customer approaches the counter.
Bucky’s attention is mostly taken up with Steve, has been for days, but he has enough presence of mind to remember his manners.
“Hi. I'm Bucky,” he greets, sparing a polite smile for the aloof newcomer who apparently has no intention of returning the favor.
What he does offer is a disdainful look.
Bucky raises an eyebrow, smile slowly fading from his face. There’s just enough caffeine in his bloodstream to make him feel generous, so he puts the customer’s rudeness down to pre-morning coffee blues. Bucky can sympathize with that at least. But then—
“Is Bucky a real name?” the man queries, placing an odd emphasis on the word ‘real,’ as though he’d elect to disagree. Overall the question is light but his lips are twisted, and Bucky wonders if this is what Clint calls passive-aggressive.
“As real as any other,” Bucky replies waspishly, no longer feeling very sympathetic. He can already tell this guy is out to ruin his day.
The guy laughs, and not kindly. “Why would your parents do that to you?”
Bucky blinks. “You know what, they didn't exactly take me through their thinking,” he replies flippantly, keeping his voice level.
In truth, he’s completely taken aback. More so when he realizes that critical brown eyes are traipsing over him and locking onto the silk scarf he'd tied so happily this morning into a glorious twist knot.
Bucky scowls hard and feels validated when Unwelcome Customer shifts uncomfortably under the weight of it. After a few seconds, the man huffs derisively and pointedly turns away.
Sure that he's no longer being watched, Bucky's fingers self consciously pull the scarf from his neck, moss green in his hands when he looks down at it with new eyes.
He knows not everyone gets on with each other in this world. Steve had told him so, a few days ago when Bucky had asked why Peggy’d encouraged him not to share his secret with anyone he didn't truly trust. Later, when Bucky was lost in dark thoughts that made him feel lonely and scared, Steve told him that if anyone gave him trouble to send them to him.
A faint smile follows Bucky out of the memory as he looks up to see Steve worriedly glancing over at him from behind the counter. He may have missed the reason why, but he can probably tell that Bucky's off kilter.
“Morning Harvey,” Steve mutters in a flat tone that seems to go unnoticed by Harvey himself who's suddenly flipped disposition like he’s switching between two obscenely opposed theatre masks and has conjured up an excessive, but seemingly genuine, smile for Steve.
The real fascination is that the smile Steve gives in return is one that Bucky has never seen before, and one that can only be described as forced.
“Hi Steve,” Harvey replies, dark eyed like he wants to be in Steve’s space. “The usual, please.” He pauses, smirks, and adds, “You know what I like.”
There’s hardly any blue to be seen by the time Bucky’s done narrowing his eyes.
Steve starts preparing the drink and a bit of Bucky’s hurt evaporates to see that he's completely disenchanted. All the same, Bucky bows his head and tries not to think too much about Harvey and how Steve knows what he likes.
His peaceful appreciation of the waxed cedar is interrupted by the sound of Harvey collapsing his upper body over the counter and declaring, “I've been waiting for this all morning.” In Bucky’s opinion he could reasonably be referring to the coffee, Steve, or the way he's acting like a complete dick. “I've had the morning from hell.”
Bucky rolls his eyes because there's not a single chance this guy knows what a morning in Hell feels like, and his irritation sets the milk in Steve’s jug bubbling. The spectacle is quickly hidden by Steve’s body and it's not the first time Bucky has thanked whoever will listen for those broad shoulders.
It's only that Clint slips Bucky an espresso, subsequently consumed in record time, that stops the milk boiling over. That, and the fact that Steve is looking distinctly unmoved as he's regaled with woeful tales of busy gyms and granola-less breakfasts. Both of these are only temporarily reassuring and their time is up when he catches Harvey’s eyes roaming where they shouldn't be.
Bucky grits his teeth and an entire shelf of books flies onto the floor.
“Sorry,” he whispers is a rush of breath, hoping Steve will hear.
Shaking off the apology, Steve smiles reassuringly at him. From the expression on his face, Bucky figures he must look as torn up as he feels. He knows he’s bitten his lips red to keep from snapping out.
Steve’s eyes flick to Harvey and back, and Bucky’s nerves would jump under the thoughtful study if it weren't for Steve’s final glance at Harvey which makes it obvious where his caged thunder is directed.
“Wait,” Steve stops Harvey mid-sentence, holding up an authoritative finger in the universal sign of shut the fuck up.
The sound of Steve's voice tugs Bucky from dark thoughts about summoning a one person flash flood, or maybe a plague, and his heart wants to beat free because Harvey’s mouth is gaping open in silent outrage but it does nothing to stop Steve moving away.
“You forgot your sugar, Buck.”
Now, Bucky doesn't take sugar. Which means that the big hands curling around his cup with a redundant sachet of demerara is a ruse for the thumb sliding over Bucky’s knuckles and the way Steve leans close and whispers, “Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” Bucky whispers back, smiling so hard he thinks he might break. “You?”
Steve looks relieved. “Am now.”
It's a tiny proclamation but it's so bright it feels like the words could fill the galaxy itself.
Bucky knows he's smiling and while it's not perfect — because he and Harvey are still inhabiting the same planet — he reasons that there are worse things. He could be dragged into a soulless, Steve-less dimension from which he may never resurface, for example.
The thought floats around his head for a while, then with a sickening punch, he realizes that what he's just described sounds an awful lot like home. It makes him want to clamp a hand over his mouth and scream into it because he’d promised himself he wouldn’t get attached, his walls had one job, and now look.
The signs had all been there, in every way that Steve had stunned him; strong and smart and sass in F Major, more colorful than all the known universes and the forgotten ones too, but Bucky had been so hell bent on swerving them.
It’s all been a catastrophic lapse in judgment. Even now, when for the life of him he can’t resist matching the smile Steve sends him as he places a mug in front of Harvey and takes his money.
It's not until Steve shoots him a quick wink that he notices Harvey’s drink is the weakest looking latte going.
Bucky wakes up two mornings later to gray skies split with rain.
He groans as if it’s somehow not his fault when he knows full well that it is. With his face squished into the unsympathetic hotel pillow, icy droplets rapping at the window, Bucky starts the inevitable process of accepting sole responsibility for the storm whipping through the streets of Westminster.
It's only happened like this a handful of times before. When his magic starts fretting, simmering with stress and picking arguments with every atom in the near vicinity until the universe snaps and fights back.
The more attached he gets to Earth, the more he realizes that he doesn’t belong. He's pushed and pushed against the order of things and now even The Elements are pissed at him. She wants him to sort his shit out, but the obstacles seem insurmountable; the thought of facing the problem in order to solve it, overwhelming.
He knows what he needs to do. Just like he knows with absolute certainty that he wants Steve. Wants his coffee and his safe hands and the air he breathes.
But want isn't need, and he needs to go home. By stumbling upon Steve and his very-best-ever coffee Bucky has shaken off the ties that bind him home, but he still has a mission and he needs to go home, if only to say he's done it: he's completed his quest. It doesn't make it any easier to accept though. Not now he has every reason to stay.
On the contrary, it would be the easiest thing in the world to grow roots and never think about leaving again. But then he thinks about how Steve had a quest and succeeded, and wonders what Steve would think if Bucky gave up on his. Steve, who’s never held much of a candle to easy.
Moaning into the bedsheets, fleetingly wondering what it would feel like if he could do the same in the space between Steve’s shoulder and the mattress, the tight band around Bucky’s lungs pulls tighter. His eyes burn.
There's a clatter of metal bins blowing along the pavement outside, and Bucky knows he needs to get a hold of himself. Preferably, he thinks as thunder cracks the sky, before the world gets so pissed with him that the tornados start turning.
The storm clouds roll in two minutes before Bucky is due to arrive at The Brew. It's not alarming in itself — Bucky’s weather whims don't necessarily mirror his emotions — but as it turns out, the rain matches Bucky’s mood perfectly. His face, when Steve turns to see water drip from his fingertips, is so downcast that it looks like the big black clouds have ghosted him inside.
It hurts to see this much sad on a boy so hopeful. The same boy that only a few days ago stood so close, smiled so bright.
Steve just feels relieved to see Bucky again to be honest. When he hadn’t turned up yesterday, he’d feared the worst: that this was the day he saw coming, the day in which Bucky would simply be gone. But now he's here. However unhappy, however waterlogged.
Clint makes a huffing noise of protest. “I'm not sure we have enough coffee for this.”
“Hey Bucky,” Steve says in an attempt to drown out Clint and resuscitate Bucky at the same time. “Didn't know if we'd be seeing you again.”
“Would you believe it if I said I missed you?”
Steve’s face flickers. “I'd believe it if you said you missed my coffee.”
Bucky laughs quietly down at his shoes. When he looks up, he’s plastered a smile on his face and none of it reaches his eyes.
Steve feels his own smile die as he looks at him; as he looks right into Bucky’s pain and wants to crush it.
“Alright,” he nods decisively. Damage control. “I'll make you a drink. Then you're gonna to tell me what’s wrong.”
Bucky’s shoulders lose some of their tension in a wash of relief, in the comfort of one less decision to agonize over.
Once Steve has made them a drink each, he stashes a cupcake into a paper bag and tucks the top of the wrapper into his back pocket. By the time he’s made his way over to the window seat, Bucky’s busy doodling planets in the condensation on the glass.
There are two spheres, as far away from each other as the constraints of the window frame will allow. They're cute, but Steve’s fond smile wavers when he gets close enough to make out the story they tell, and his chest tightens to see Bucky prod the smaller one, circumnavigate it twice, before his finger takes a westward trajectory, bound for home.
“You feeling homesick?” Steve asks softly, the way people do when they know they're nudging at a danger zone.
Bucky’s eyes stutter upwards, lips hovering around his response as if he has something to say that isn’t yes. His expression is teetering between truth and self-preservation.
“Maybe.” He says it so lightly that it shouldn't make Steve's gut squeeze. “Either way, I need to go home soon.”
Steve breathes deep and watches Bucky’s face storm. “What's your planet called?”
"It's not called anything,” sighs Bucky, offering an apprehensive shrug. “I know that's weird for you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because everyone here feels like they have to name the things that are important to them." He clasps his hands together in front of him and looks up as he explains, "People, pets, places. Emotions. Humans name everything they love. It's not really like that for us. Where I'm from we're only given names because other planets expect it of us, but other than that, sentimental things don't have names, just feelings..." Bucky trails off, draws in a ragged breath and looks away. “Can we maybe not talk about it?”
Nodding faintly, Steve thumbs at the corner of his mouth in contemplation. "It can be like that here too sometimes. There aren't always the right words."
Bucky blinks slowly but says nothing.
Outwardly, Steve’s calm and still, patiently waiting. He nods and he'll wait as long as it takes for Bucky to feel comfortable enough to speak, but inside he wants to know what’s wrong with his boy.
While Bucky finds patterns in the raindrops, Steve slides a coffee closer, watching when he takes the mug to his lips and savors the rich rush of it on his tongue. He tells Steve it helps and Steve imagines it soothes some of the frantic jar of energy that stings his skin. It helps, Bucky says, not all... but some. Steve would like to make it his job to take care of the rest.
For now, he hands the cupcake to Bucky and watches the cheerful lemon frosting turn a glum shade of blue.
Bucky slumps. “Maybe it wanted to be blue,” he hopes, reaching for his pocket.
“You don't need to do that,” Steve says quickly, waving Bucky off when he realizes he's looking for money, “it's a gift.”
“I can pay you,” Bucky frowns. “If you keep giving stuff away you'll go out of business.”
“Think of it as an investment,” says Steve with a warm smile. “I can’t have you being sad in my shop. The customers will think my coffee is spiked with misery. If I don’t cheer you up with cake, you’ll bankrupt me.”
The cloud clears a little from Bucky’s face and his lips quirk, ends tipping up in a hint of a smile. “I wouldn't let you go bankrupt.”
He places a finger on a wayward sugar crystal, sliding it across the table towards Steve. By the time he’s taken his finger away, the grain has become a shiny pound coin. The second grain evolves in exactly the same way and Steve is so amused that he doesn’t think to stop Bucky from committing counterfeit fraud until he has a row of fake coins in front of him.
“Not okay?” Bucky guesses, eyebrows raised and eyes lit like he doesn't really care if it's not.
Steve’s not sure he cares much either, particularly when it's got Bucky to crack his first real smile of the day.
The disgruntled coins get demoted back to their sugary origins anyway.
“Well, your plan is flawed,” Bucky tells him. “People aren't gonna come here to see me smile.”
“I'm not so sure,” Steve replies, playful but sincere, and the latter makes it hard to maintain eye contact because as much as he wants to, he knows he can't ask Bucky to stay. “I can't rely on your charms to lure people in forever though — you’ve got your own job to do. I mean, that was always the plan right? That’s how the quest ends. Going home.”
Bucky seems to crumple a little, lip going white under the sharp pressure of his teeth. Steve frantically thinks of what he must have said to make Bucky hurt again. More than anything he wishes he could rewind and take it all back.
Bucky's jaw is set. He’s curled a little bit too tight like he’s trying to draw strength from the pepper shaker. “Do you think,” he starts, pausing for a hurried lungful of air, “that there's ever a time when it's okay to say that life got in the way?”
Steve takes a second to recognize the words as his own, to play back the conversation. He thinks and rethinks, because this seems somehow important. Finally, he figures that he's nothing if not sincere, and quietly says, “I think that there are times to stick to a plan and times to be a bit more flexible. Sometimes the quest has to change a bit. It takes courage to go with it.”
Slowly, painstakingly slowly, Bucky starts breathing again. He unfurls, stretches out the tension in his fingers from clutching inanimate objects too tight, and rubs his palms off on the tops of his thighs. Then before either of them can think too much about it, he reaches a hand across the space between them to brush the back of his pointer finger against Steve’s hand.
Just as slowly, the room begins to decompress around them. Customers come and go as they talk, and before Steve knows it, dusk is tapping at their window.
In the time that’s gone by, he’s torn his attention away from Bucky a total of once, and that was only to thank Clint for putting a mug of hot chocolate in Bucky’s hands.
He’s thinking about tomorrows, about how if he let himself he could love this man to the bone, when the man himself takes a sip from his mug and melts into his seat.
Despite looking more relaxed than Steve has ever seen him, his eyes are wide and intent. “What’s this?” he asks sharply.
“You’ve never had hot chocolate before?”
Bucky doesn’t answer. He continues to admire the mug, its contents, and the way the cream melts into the sweet ochre of milk and chocolate powder.
“Chocolate,” Bucky enounces carefully, taking another tentative sip. “My magic is calm. Like, really calm. Like a whisper,” he says, looking awed. It’s incredibly endearing. “How did you— What did you— Steve this is amazing.”
“I can’t take any credit. It’s just hot chocolate.”
“Then it must be laced with something.”
“Yeah,” Steve chuckles, “Chocolate.”
Bucky rolls his eyes and flicks a still-wet strand of hair off his forehead. Steve thinks about twirling it around his finger.
“Well it's incredible,” Bucky breathes and Steve silently vows to buy him a bar of Lindt.
He leans back in his seat with a grin. “Maybe it’s the company.”
Bucky snorts. “Settle down,” he retorts, low and silky.
He holds Steve’s gaze for a full five seconds before his lashes flutter shut and he busies himself with rearranging his Henley, plucking at the wet material where it’s soaked through and sticking darkly across his broad shoulders.
“Maybe it is,” he concedes once the maroon cotton is suddenly miraculously dry. “I do like your company.”
“I like your company too.”
“Come on, Steve,” Bucky snorts skeptically. “My company made the frosting sad.”
Another laugh bubbles up and Steve’s preparing to tease — something about Bucky acting like to world is tilting off its axis when he should know better than anyone else that it isn’t — but then a serious little frown dimples Bucky’s forehead.
“Are we friends?” he asks, out of the blue and straight into Steve’s heart.
Bucky’s gaze is heavy when it lands on him. His eyes are so familiar, Steve struggles to think of a time before him. It must have been an age ago; once upon a time, when Steve could still think in full sentences and knew how to make his voice say them.
Pursing his lips after one too many seconds of silence, Bucky tips his head. “This is the part where you either say, ‘Yes we are,’ or, ‘We’re not. I’m just occupationally bound to smile at you.’”
“Yes we are,” Steve promises.
It’s the easiest question he’s ever been asked.
“I know it's hard,” Clint says to Steve when all their customers have left, “but we are so close. Hang in there.”
Steve bolts the door and flips the sign. “Close to what?”
“To me sunning myself in the Maldives,” comes the unapologetic reply. “That bet, remember? Please tell me you’re not caving.”
Steve avoids Clint's gaze, eyes roaming to where the last of the rain clings to the windows, to the empty table where the stray crumbs on Bucky’s plate had returned to a bright, buttercup yellow long before his last bite.
Smiling, Steve figures that there are a few unpalatable truths that he will unflinchingly, guiltlessly deny. That he’s totally gone for Bucky isn’t one of them.
“Shit. I backed you,” Clint groans, downing an aspirin. “Why the hell did I back you?”
Bucky’s been on this mission for thirteen months. An hour here, a day there, never more than thirty six hours in one place. Until now.
In all that time he's never found another version of himself, and he's never found another version of Steve. Not in any of the source dimensions, and not in any of their fourteen mirror dimensions. He doesn't know why, or what it means, but he knows enough about the inner workings of the many universes to know that it definitely means something.
A day isn’t a long time to come to terms with a new destiny, but Bucky’s done it. And it’s fine. He’s fine. He’s falling in love with this sad little globe of land and sea and Steve, and that’s fine too.
He has more tricks now than he'll ever need to keep his magic under control, and he feels light with it. His magic is hot chocolate calm, he’s clung to Steve’s view on accepting changeable quests like a lifeline, and after sufficient groveling, Elements has forgiven him and left him alone to do his thing. All of this means that as Bucky approaches The Brew today, the rain clouds whistle innocently and run along to some other stretch of unsuspecting sky.
“When are you going to bring us some snow?” Clint asks not a second after he’s cracked the door open.
“Probably never,” Bucky replies dryly. “It dampens my aura.”
Clint snorts and looks at Steve, who has Bucky’s coffee in one hand and the fate of the rest of Bucky’s life in the other. Bucky takes one and waits for the outcome of the other.
“Dampens his aura,” Clint echoes dryly.
Steve watches Bucky smirk around the rim of his mug, and it's Bucky, so it's easily the hottest thing to happen to the world.
Every minute for the next twenty, Steve’s eyes dart away from whatever he's supposed to be doing and fall on Bucky. They’re not the worried glances that might be expected in the wake of Hurricane Bucky yesterday. Instead, they're packed with heat, longing, and the urge to cross the distance between them.
Steve’s just about to flip the sign to open when that subtle charge gets too much, and Bucky finds himself shifting in his seat. He so rarely shows signs of nerves that Steve immediately spots it.
Noticing eyes on him, Bucky clears his throat, drawing in a dragging breath as though there are words sitting ready at the tip of his tongue. Like he just needs to breathe life into them and let them tumble.
Steve waits, eyes fixed on Bucky's lips, tracing the cupid bow sweep. "Bucky?" he prompts, gently.
Thoughts collide in Bucky's mind as he glances up at Steve, who looks hungry and at the same time, uncharacteristically hesitant. It's that alone that kick starts his brain and drags the words out into the open.
"It's going to be hard to leave,” he says, loaded, soft and terribly honest. “It’s never been hard to leave anywhere before.”
“I want to stay,” rushes out of his mouth before Steve can derail him for better or worse. He takes a quick breath, thinks, Shit I really said it, and, too late to back out now, then throws himself into the fire. “I kinda thought you might want me to stick around too.”
Hearing the words out loud feels like whiplash, a stumbling forward and a sudden stop, but even if Bucky wanted to run, he couldn’t, because Steve's eyes are keeping him pinned in place.
“You don't want to stay for me, Buck,” Steve says eventually, regretfully.
Bucky stares at him incredulous, simultaneously flooded with fondness and indignation. One is a calm wave and the other smacks him down with irritation.
“I don't?” Bucky gasps, loudly and all for show. “Thank god. That makes life so much easier.” He throws a thumb over his shoulder. “I'll be off then."
Steve’s brain grinds to a screeching halt as he stands there thinking of his next move. All he knows for sure is that he can’t fuck this up. That’s all he has to do. Not fuck it up.
“If you don't need me, I think I'll be taking that day you owe me,” is Clint’s way of helping. And to be fair, it's probably for the best.
Steve barely looks his way as he hangs his apron on the hook and backs out of the door mouthing good luck. He's probably dying to remind Steve that he told him so, and for keeping that to himself, Steve owes him more than a day off. Maybe even a vacation.
“I was actually being sarcastic,” Bucky clarifies as soon as the door bangs shut. He sounds tired, his voice rougher.
“Yeah, no, I got that,” Steve says carefully. “The thing is Bucky… I don't…”
Before Steve can find the right words, something complicated flashes across Bucky's face and he reels back a little, suddenly looking unsure. His eyes are flighty, no longer the two bright pools of hope he walked in with, and they blink quickly, like Bucky’s thinking about trying to escape, or reverse time, and because Steve worries he could successfully do either, he jumps in.
“I don't want you to go, Bucky. Far from it. But I can’t let you give up your life to stay here.”
“I can't watch something bad happen to you because you stayed here for me.”
Bucky looks none the wiser. “Something bad?”
“You— you said you had to go home. I figured it was one of those things where if you don't go back, you'll … wither away. Or disappear.” He trails off, clears his throat uncertainly, “or something like that.”
Bucky stares at him in unquantifiable confusion, but when the penny drops it hits so hard it feels like a punch in the gut. Only, the nice kind. If there is such a thing.
“You’re kidding,” Bucky breathes, not quite believing his luck because if this is the only thing standing between them, then there’s nothing between them at all.
He’s not playing coy; his sigh of relief is probably detectable from his home planet.
“‘Wither away or disappear’,” Bucky repeats curiously. “Or maybe just... miss it a bit? Which is the worst that can happen by the way.”
A smile is unfurling on those red, red lips. As easy as that. As if he hasn't just shaken the ground Steve walks on.
“Oh,” Steve says, hearing Bucky’s words, seeing his relief, and knowing he must look as shocked and hopeful as Bucky does. “That doesn't sound so bad.”
“Not bad at all really,” Bucky affirms, still nurturing that lovely smile. “Not that I wouldn't voluntarily fly apart or melt into a puddle for you, of course.”
The words shock a laugh out of Steve, and it feels glorious. “Of course,” he snorts, before his face settles into something more serious. “So you’re staying?”
Bucky steps forward and kisses him squarely on the lips. “Does that answer your question?”
If it doesn't, Bucky will never know because Steve is already rocking back into his space, chasing after his lips.
Bucky's laugh gets caught in Steve's sigh, and his magic is so chilled that for a second he thinks it may have upped and left. Bucky's head on the other hand, is sweet messy chaos. And all he knows for sure is that there isn't another potion maker in any universe quite like this one.
The hands that come up to cup the sides of Bucky's face can't seem to decide where they want to settle. They skid back down Bucky's sides, pressing greedy fingertips into his waist and lower back, pulling him flush as Steve breathes in kiss after kiss. He's holding so tightly that Bucky wants to laugh and cry from the desperation in it. He’ll probably feel it later, a bruised kidney protesting, but Bucky won't be complaining.
In fact, Bucky meets Steve halfway, pushing out that last half inch of empty air and slipping between Steve and a table where there really isn’t the space.
Soft and quiet between kisses, he promises, "I'll be back tomorrow. Offering you my loyal custom as always.”
“Oh really,” Steve says, pulling away just enough to smile down at him. The words sound a bit like amusement and a lot like an eye roll. Still, it's hard to take Steve’s teasing face seriously when his lips are kiss swollen and pink, and his pearly skin is still washed with a peach blush. “Bucky you haven’t legally paid for a single drink you’ve had here.”
“Lawyer you is no fun at all,” Bucky decides, humming into the tender spot behind Steve's ear. Steve can feel Bucky’s grin in the vibrations that travel down his spine. “You should employ me and pay me with coffee. Or better still, invite me back to your place and make me coffee I don't have to pay for.”
He lifts a suggestive eyebrow that Steve doesn't see because this close Bucky is a blur of sky blue and glistening lips, and Steve can hardly believe his luck.
“It really is the best coffee,” Bucky maintains, almost to himself.
“It's just chemistry,” Steve tries hard to tell him around the kisses he's pressing high on Bucky’s cheekbones and into his left temple.
Bucky tucks his hands into Steve’s back pockets. “Like our kisses.”
Tearing his eyes far enough away from Bucky's lips to meet his eyes, Steve baits, “Are they the best in all he realms to?”
“God no,” Bucky grins. “I should test out some other kisses, start a new quest. Give Hades a chance to redeem himself.”
Steve huffs, unimpressed, holds on tighter, kissing Bucky shut and gravelling, “No,” against his lips for good measure.
Short of Steve kicking him out, Bucky's not planning on going anywhere anytime soon. Not for kisses and not for coffee.
He's been playing the long game. Following the dream. But that's neither here nor there because sometimes, he figures, sometimes life is even better than the dreams you have of it.
And when it comes to cosmic design, who is Bucky to argue, really.
Thank you for reading! Please kudos or comment if you enjoyed the story.
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