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Leap Year

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FEBRUARY 25th, 2012

The room is so quiet that Steve can hear the tapping of Tony’s fingers against his phone. It’s the third e-mail he’s written since their interview began just over ten minutes ago. Steve swallows the urge to tell him to put it away. It’s probably important, he thinks, he’ll just be another minute.

He avoids the eyes of the committee in front of him. His eyes dart to everything else in the room that he can feign the slightest interest in: the ornate chandelier hanging over head, the gilded lion statue crouched and ready to attack, the burgundy carpet beneath his feet, anything that isn’t the three sets of eyes staring at him from across the mahogany table before him. He feels like a child that’s been sent to the principal’s office and now awaits scolding and punishment.

“And…we…are…done!” Tony says slowly. He smiles wide and toothily. It’s his business smile, Steve knows. “Now, where were we?”

The woman sitting at the center of the table before them purses her lips and readjusts her gold rimmed half-moon glasses. “Mr. Stark, you and your…boyfriend,” she says the word like poison and Steve bristles immediately, “were just telling us why we should consider you for membership to The Cambridge community.”

“Why the Hell wouldn’t you want us?” He asks incredulously while still maintaining his charm. “I’ve been on the cover of Forbes ten years in a row!” He chuckles, turning to appeal to Steve. “Tell them, Steve.”

“He has.” Steve confirms with a stiff smile. He doesn’t like the idea that they have to prove themselves worthy occupants to these people. It’s what Tony wants. He reminds himself. Do it for Tony. “Not to mention we’ve lived in New York all our lives. We’re accustomed to the lifestyle.”

“Where abouts in New York?” The portly man to the left of the stiff looking woman asks.

“Manhattan.” Tony says confidently.

“Brooklyn.” Steve says, squaring his jaw. He sees Tony fidget uncomfortably beside him and notices the way the committee shares side-eye glances amongst themselves. He elects to hold his tongue and takes a sudden interest in studying the New York skyline visible through the window to his right.

“Manhattan…and Brooklyn.” The man on the right side of the table repeats slowly. Steve reckons he looks a bit like one of those sad-faced old beagles but he keeps his thoughts to himself. “How did you two meet?”

“We met at a thing.” Tony says quickly. “Now about the apartment. I think you might like to know that I’m willing to put down the next six months’ rent in full, right here and now.”

This is news to Steve. He turns away from the window to stare at Tony, who has eyes only for the committee. Steve’s stare slowly flicks to the faces of the council and he can see the dollar signs flashing in their eyes. Steve wants to roll his eyes but he doesn’t. He just looks back to the window.

“An interesting offer, Mr. Stark.” The stern woman in the middle says slowly, her eyes flashing with interest behind her thin glasses. “Might we have a week to think on it and get back to you?”

Tony smiles quickly before standing and buttoning his suit jacket all while maintaining the air of the cat that got the cream. “How’s about we say three days? Give us a week and we may find something better.”

The committee visibly tenses. Tony’s got them where he wants them. Steve often finds himself thinking that Tony’s got the whole world aligned just the way he wants it. He absently wonders if he himself is included in that regard. He likes to think not, but he doesn’t dwell on the thought. He may not like where that particular train takes him.

“Steve, babe. We’re leaving?” Tony says, gesturing to the door. Steve nods and rises from the chair, nodding again to the counsel before following Tony’s lead out the door.

Steve follows him, through the lobby, and back out into the blistery New York streets. Steve digs his gloves out of his pocket and Tony reaches for his phone. Steve wonders how many e-mails Tony’s gotten since he’d last checked. Probably dozens. Again, Steve doesn’t dwell.

“I thought we said we weren’t going to mention Brooklyn?” Tony says absently, eyes never leaving his phone.

“They asked. Did you expect me to lie?” Steve asks. He pulls his woolen mittens on, warming his thin fingers. He then adjusts his scarf tighter about his neck. The last thing he needs is to come down with another cold. He’d just gotten over the last one.

Tony sighs and fixes Steve with a stern look. “Of course not. You just know how I feel about you mentioning it. You’re better than Brooklyn, Steve. That’s why we’re doing this, isn’t it? So you can move out and we can move on? Grow?”

Steve looks down at the frost-covered pavement beneath his feet. He holds his tongue against what he’d like to say, about how he’s as Brooklyn as anyone else on that side of the bridge whether Tony likes it or not. But he doesn’t. If there’s anything he’s learned in his twenty-six years, it’s that he’s got to pick his battles. This isn’t one of them.

“No, you’re right. That’s why we’re doing this.” Steve agrees.

“That’s my boy.” Tony says with a smile, wrapping an arm tightly around Steve before letting him go and reaching back for his phone. “We still on for dinner?”

“You know I’ve gotta meet Ma first, don’t you?” Steve asks.

Tony rolls his eyes as he scrolls through his e-mails. “Didn’t you meet her last week?”

Steve snorts. “That’s the thing about weekly beers with my Ma. They’re weekly.”

Tony laughs dryly. “Spare me the sass, would you? I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“Work stuff?” Steve asks.

“Is there anything else?” Tony retorts.

Me? Steve thinks, but only thinks. It was a rhetorical question. Tony doesn’t want an answer. “Dinner sounds great.” He says instead. At least that gets Tony’s attention.

He bends to plant a kiss on the top of Steve’s head. “Great! Great, I’ll meet you there!” He says, already turning to rush away.

“Where are you going?” Steve calls after him. “Thought we were gonna stay at the apartment for a while?” He follows Tony for a few paces before coming to a stop. His slender shoulders slouch beneath his thick winter coat, not that Tony notices. His eyes are back on his phone, darting back and forth over the text of another goddamn e-mail.

“Sorry, Steve. Something came up at the office. Pepper needs me to look over some things, sign some things, you know the drill.” He turns his back on Steve and continues to walk. “We’re still on for dinner, bank on it!” He shouts over his shoulder.

He doesn’t see Steve mock his words behind his back before sighing. “Alright, see you then!” He says as cheerily as he can muster. It’s not very cheerful at all. Tony keeps walking.

Steve rolls his eyes and steps to the edge of the sidewalk, hailing a taxi to take him back to Brooklyn.

***

Tony had glossed over it in the interview, but they’d met at an open house four years ago. Tony’s best friend James Rhodes was in the market for a New York bachelor bad, and Steve had been called in to transform the space into a place fit for a modern swinger. Steve had stuck around for the tour and that’s where he met James and his best friend Tony Stark, CEO of Stark Industries.

Now, four years later, that’s still Steve’s current occupation: he stages apartments for New York’s elite. A realtor calls and he comes to transform their listing into a place that their buyers can call home. He arrives long before the tour, furnishes and decorates the home to his standard, and sometimes he’ll linger to gauge the success of his work. And when the hopeful homeowners leave, he and a moving crew sweep the room and remove any trace of them ever having been there, leaving the house barren and significantly less welcoming than before.

When he’d first gotten the job, it was the best he could do. Straight out of art school it was hard to find work in New York, never mind one that paid as well as staging did. He’d tried his hand at comic book illustration and graphic design, but when the eviction warnings started piling up; he turned his eye for design on something that could give him security. He didn’t love it, but New York rarely caters to passion, and Steve is no exception.

As he walks into his own apartment, he shrugs off his heavy coat and unwraps his scarf, hanging them both on the coatrack by the door. Several of Tony’s jackets still hang there: forgotten and replaced by something nicer, more expensive. They’re too big for Steve, however, and so they remain, hoping to be picked up again by someone whose shoulders they can hug through the cold months.

He kicks off his winter boots and pads through his studio apartment in his thick woolen socks. He glances at the clock: 4:57. He and his mother meet downtown for beers every Thursday at six and dinner with Tony’s at seven. He figures he’s got just enough time to put together something decent.

He wanders into his room and goes straight for the wardrobe, tossing his mittens on his bed as he passes. It’s still meticulously made, seeing as how it’s hardly ever slept in these days. He usually stays over at Tony’s since the thought of Tony spending more than a minute in Brooklyn is laughable, never mind overnight.

Steve opens both doors of his wardrobe, standing in front of it with his hands on both handles before sighing deeply and pulling out options for tonight. He reaches for the purple dress shirt Tony bought him for Christmas. He hates purple, but Tony doesn’t know that, and Tony always compliments him when he wears it. He sets it on the bed.

He’s got four shirts and two pairs of pants lined up when he hears his front door swing open. “Tony?” He calls out.

“Better looking!” Is the immediate reply.

Steve smiles and shakes his head. “Don’t remember giving you a key, Sam!”

“Don’t remember needing one!” Sam Wilson enters the room still bundled from head to toe in his winter clothes. Steve’s known Sam for years, and he’s right. If Steve hadn’t already handed the apartment’s spare key over to Tony, he’d have given it to his best friend instead. “So I ran into Tony.” He says, moving to lie down atop Steve’s bed.

“Don’t even think about it.” Steve says, eyeing the slush stuck to the bottom of Sam’s shoes. While he watches Sam roll his eyes and stoop to remove his shoes, he responds. “You hate Tony.”

“Tony and I don’t see eye to eye.” Sam clarifies, hopping about on one foot.

“You hate him.” Steve repeats with certainty.

“We have our differences.” Sam concedes, finally kicking off both boots before settling back into Steve’s bed. Steve’s only a little surprised that dust doesn’t fly off the covers.

“You were spying on him?” Steve asks, raising an accusing eyebrow.

“I prefer the term…observing.” Sam says.

“And what did you ‘observe’ him doing?” Steve asks, shrugging out of his sweater.

“Strutting around the Diamond District. I’m gonna be the last unmarried man in New York, you bastard.” Sam whines.

Steve pauses with his sweater caught around his head. The Diamond District. People only go to the diamond district for one thing. Wedding rings. His brain finally comes back online and he continues to pull the sweater over his head until he pops free, blonde hair falling wildly over his forehead. Sam’s smiling like the Cheshire cat.

“You sure it was him?” Steve asks slowly, trying his best not to get his hopes up.

“Pinstripe suit? Sunglasses in winter? Fused to his phone and loving the sound of his own voice?” Sam says, ticking off Tony’s traits on each of his fingers. “Yeah, Steve, pretty sure it was him. You didn’t know he was planning this?”

Steve shakes his head slowly. “I mean, I’d been sneaking jeweler brochures in with his mail, but I always found them in the trash. I thought he mistook them for junk mail.”

“Well, apparently the genius finally took the hint.” Sam says simply, dragging himself from Steve’s bed and slipping his boots on once again. “I hate to run, but I figure I’d better get my sorry ass to a bar and see if I can’t find myself a girl. You sure know how to make a guy feel lonely.”

Steve rolls his eyes but offers no comment. He’s still trying to digest the shock swirling in his gut.

“Don’t wear the purple one.” Sam says on his way out the door. “You look better in blue.” He adds.

Steve wears the purple anyway. Its Tony’s favorite.

***

He looks at his watch for the third time since sitting down at the bar almost twenty minutes ago. Its twenty minutes past six and the two beers sitting on the counter top in front of him are starting to get warm.

Steve turns and looks at the door of the small pub before sighing and turning back to his glass. He can tell that the man sitting two stools away from him is staring at him, so he glances over and fixes him with a curious look.

The man, who’s long beard and hair don’t quite cover the apple logo on his blue t-shirt, smiles slowly at Steve and asks, in a voice that betrays just how many beers he’s had today, “Will you marry me?”

Steve offers him a tight lipped smile and shakes his head. “No can do. I’m engaged.” He says, pointedly tucking his ring-less left hand into his pocket.

“Engaged!” Steve holds his breath and turns in his seat. Naturally, Sarah Rogers and her sixth sense for terrible timing would choose now to sweep through the door and seek shelter from the blustering winds. “My baby’s engaged?” She cries with a delighted chuckle.

Steve looks nervously about the bar while pulling his mother into her seat, begging her to keep her voice down. “Ma, ma, everyone can hear you!”

“Oh, I could shout it from the rooftops, Steven! I’m so happy for you!” His mother continues excitedly, grabbing her mug and downing half the glass in one go. “I couldn’t believe how long it was taking him, Steven! Why, your father proposed to me after a week!”

The man two seats away belches before slurring, “I proposed after thirty minutes.” He leers in Steve’s direction. “Specimen.” He adds with a wink.

Steve visibly shudders before turning back to his mother. “He wanted to wait until the time was right, I suppose.” He says with a shrug.

His mother nods before turning every which way in her seat, clearly looking for something. “So where is the lucky fella?” She asks.

Steve buys himself time by taking a sip of his beer before answering. “Something came up at—.”

“Work!” His mother cries exasperatedly. “Work, work, work, it’s all the boy ever does! Surprised he didn’t up and marry that arc reactor he’s always blathering about.” She adds with a chuckle. “But never mind, he asked! And on a Leap Year!”

Steve tilts his head back and groans, “Please don’t tell the story again, Ma.”

“I’d love to hear the story.” Steve’s suitor from two seats away says.

His mother smiles and leans over Steve to better see the man on the other side. Steve should have known she’d be all too excited to tell this story to willing audience. “Well, I was just going to tell my Steven that he’s carrying on the family tradition! My husband proposed to me on the Leap Year, and his father before him, and his father before him! It’s a Rogers’s family tradition, you know! Take your love to the motherland, propose on the 29th of February, and the rest is history!” She says wistfully.

“The motherland.” Steve scoffs. “I’m only 3/4th Irish, Ma. Dad’s Ma was a Brit. I’ve never even set foot in Ireland.”

“Oh, shut it, Steven. You’re 3/4th’s Irish, but 100% Rogers. I had half a mind to buy you and Tony the tickets to Ireland myself.” She scolds, though she’s clearly too over the moon to put much force behind it.

“Yeah, well, you’d have only needed to buy one. Tony’s leaving for a business conference in Ireland tomorrow, and if I don’t get out of here now, I’ll miss our dinner.” Steve says, glancing at his watch before hurriedly hopping from his seat and pulling his winter coat about his shoulders.

His mother squawks and sputters, gesturing at their half-drunk beers. “Steven, we’ve only just begun!”

“I’m sorry, Ma. I’ll make it up to you!” He says, dropping a warm kiss on her forehead and dropping enough money on the counter to cover their drinks, plus a few more rounds if she so wished. “Lunch next week! On me!”

“You bet it’s on you, boy!” She calls to his retreating back as he rushes out the door.

***

Steve looks around the busy restaurant: waiters in white dress shirts and black ties run every which way, the music is cool and jazzy, lights twinkle overhead, and Steve can’t pronounce a damn word on the menu. This place has Tony written all over it.

“This place is packed.” He observes. Tony hums while he consults his options on the menu. Steve purses his lips and tries again. “You must have had these reservations for months.”

Tony nods slowly. “Yeah…” He says absently. “Made ‘em as soon as I heard about the conference in Dublin. Wanted to make sure I took you out before I left.”

Steve smiles and looks back down at the menu. His lactose intolerance and peanut allergy knocks out the half of the menu and he’s just beginning to mull over his salad options when Tony abruptly snaps his menu shut.

“You know how much I appreciate what you’re doing, don’t you?” He asks, finally looking at Steve for the first time since they say down. “How you’re changing your life to fit my schedule? Leaving Brooklyn and all that.”

Steve nods slowly, “Sure, I know you appreciate it.” He says. Not that you ever show it. He thinks.

Tony smiles quickly before reaching into his pocket. “Good. That’s why I got you this. Because I appreciate that you’re taking that next step, so I figured… it’s the least I can do.” From his pocket he pulls a tiny black leather box, and Steve’s heart just about stops beating in his chest as he slides it across the table.

“Tony…” He says breathlessly, shaking fingers reaching out to grab the box. “Tony, what did you do?” Tony doesn’t answer, only smiles and shrugs, gesturing for Steve to get on with it. With his heart hammering in his chest, Steve slowly opens the box.

Inside are two gold, diamond encrusted, “Cufflinks?” Steve whispers.

Tony continues to smile. “Sure, yeah! Figured you could use some new ones. Yours were looking a little worn the other night, I noticed. Doesn’t look good, especially not for a tenant at The Cambridge.” He adds.

Steve continues to stare at the box. The cufflinks are gorgeous, absolutely stunning, but he’d been hoping…he’d honestly believed…

“Hey, it’s Stark, what’s up?” Steve looks up, eyes still wide with shock, to see Tony with his phone pressed against his ear. When Tony notices Steve’s attention is back on him, he holds up a finger and continues to talk. “Thought we had it stabilized before I left? Can it wait? I’m with—. No that’s not what I’m—. Okay. Alright. I’m coming.”

He hangs up and looks at Steve with wide, apologetic eyes. “Steve, honey…”

“Work.” Steve says quietly. “I get it.”

Tony smiles fondly and rises from his chair. “Of course you do, it’s why I love you.” He says brightly, plucking his suit jacket from the back of his chair and pulling it up his arms. “This is gonna take all night, so I won’t see you ‘til I get back from the conference. You be good in the meantime, alright?”

Steve nods jerkily, staring at the stupid fucking cufflinks taunting him from the center of the table.

“Alright. I love you.” Tony says quickly, dropping a chase kiss to Steve’s lips before turning and dashing away.

“Love you, too.” Steve says to no one.

***

Steve sleeps in his own bed for the first time in months. It feels oversized; though sleeping in Tony’s frankly colossal bed has never felt much better. At least then he had the added warmth of another person’s body. Now he only has himself and his thoughts, which have chosen to run wild and unchecked tonight.

Perhaps he’d been stupid to think that Tony was ready to get married. He was only a few years older than Steve, for God’s sake. They were still in their twenties, still susceptible to change and growth. Who knew what the future holds for them? Maybe Tony’s just being cautious.

You could always ask him, yourself. A voice that sounds an awful lot like his mother suggests. He rolls fitfully about his bed, trying to shake the thought from his mind. That would be stupid. Completely idiotic.

His traitorous eyes flick to his laptop regardless. Beside it sit the cufflinks, thrown aside as soon as Steve got into the room with them. He chews the inside of his lip and continues to stare at the laptop.

“Fuck it.” He whispers, rolling out of bed and sitting down at his desk. He hasn’t sat here in ages. It’s usually where he draws, but Tony and staging have kept him away in recent months.

He squints against the light of the screen and opens his browser, immediately searching for flights from New York to Dublin. His finger pauses over the ‘enter’ key, and for another minute he debates the pro’s and con’s of this decision.

He’ll have to take the week off of work. He’ll have to pack a travel bag. He’ll have to board a plane and leave the safety of New York for the first time in his life.

He presses the key anyway, consequences be damned. I love him, don’t I? He thinks to himself, justifying his own actions. Do you? His thoughts echo back. Steve ignores this Sam-like thought and proceeds to book a flight out of JFK for tomorrow morning.

It’s been four years. Steve thinks as he crawls back to bed. He falls asleep believing that after waiting on Tony Stark for four years, he’s not leaving Dublin without a ring on his finger.

Chapter Text

FEBRUARY 26th, 2012

“Excuse me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry! Excuse me ma’am, I’m so sorry. Sorry!”

Steve wonders why anyone willingly travels by plane because suddenly Tony’s private jets don’t seem as excessive as Steve used to think. He moves down the thin aisle with his carry on suitcase gripped tight to his chest, shuffling his way toward G63, one disgruntled passenger at a time.

See, the problem is that Steve can barely see past his own luggage. It’s small enough to meet carry on standards, but it’s still large enough to nearly dwarf Steve in comparison. Not that that’s saying much. At 5’5 and just over 100 pounds, it doesn’t take much to make Steve look small.

Steve feels his bag press against yet another body, and just as he goes to spew another apology, a kind voice speaks from the other side of his suitcase. “Do you need assistance, sir?” She asks in an English accent.

“Please.” Steve says gratefully. He watches as pale hands with red nails take a firm hold of his bag. She lifts it from his grasp and spins on the spot. She leads him to G36 at his request. He watches as the sections pass (E…F…G…) and then the numbers (60…61…62…) until they arrive at his seat. “Thank you,” Steve says, watching the stewardess pack his bag into the overhead. When she finishes, she turns to him with a bright smile, and he catches the name printed on her gleaming name tag, “Peggy.”

“You be sure to call should you need anything else, alright?” She asks, to which Steve nods. “Enjoy your flight.” She says before carrying on her way.

“Okay…” Steve murmurs to himself, looking around the cabin and adjusting to the small space. People are still boarding, and somewhere further up the way he can hear a child crying, and he isn’t far enough from the bathrooms that he can ignore the sound of someone getting violently ill. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the passenger behind him is reading aloud from an article online detailing the chances of dying in a plane crash versus dying in some other horrific way.

I can do this. Steve assures himself, shutting his eyes tight and sinking into his seat. I can do this.

He falls asleep somewhere over the Atlantic, and when he wakes up he can see they’ve flown into dark, ominous looking clouds. He can remember, from one of Tony’s many long winded stories about travel abroad, that this part of the world rarely saw a sunny day and so he thinks nothing of it.

He’s just starting to get invested in the in-flight movie when the pilot’s voice interrupts the sound. “Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking. It seems we’ve flown into a bit of bad weather, and we might experience just a bit of turbulence.”

The words are no sooner out of his mouth than the plane gives a sickening creak and then drops suddenly. Steve grips the arm rests on either side of him so tight he thinks blood may never flow back into his fingers ever again.

“I can’t die.” He whispers to himself as the plane gives another lurch. “I’m getting engaged. I’m getting engaged. I cannot die.” He says with growing panic. He feels his throat cease up and his lungs begin working overtime.

Oh no. Not here.

He hasn’t had an asthma attack in weeks, but he’d had the good sense to pack his inhaler regardless, but a whole lot of good it does him sitting in the suitcase stored overhead. He scrambles for his seatbelt, clawing at it until it finally gives. He stands atop his seat, as it’s the only way he’ll be able to reach the cabin above. He no sooner flings the door open than he feels a pair of hands grip him about the waist and jerk him back into his seat.

“Sir, I insist that you sit down and remain calm!” Peggy orders, fighting to keep him still while securing his seatbelt around his waist.

Steve shakes his head and tries to push her off, gesturing to the compartment overhead. “My—inhaler! T-the bag!”

Peggy freezes and fixes Steve with a curious look before Steve’s words finally hit home. She immediately drops the buckle and reaches overhead, ripping Steve’s suitcase to the floor and rifling through the exterior pockets, pulling out his toothbrush, his mittens, his reading glasses until finally…

“Here!” She jams the inhaler into his hands and watches intently as Steve takes a long breath from it. She remains frozen in place until Steve’s erratic breathing returns to normal, and only then does she stoop down and begin to return his displaced belongings to his bag.

“You don’t gotta do that.” He says, leaning forward to assist her. Her hand lands square in the center of his chest and she pushes him back firmly into his seat. “I’ve got it.” She assures him.

Steve sits back and watches on, taking one last puff from his inhaler before handing it back to Peggy. He tries to hide his shame while she slides his suitcase back into place overhead, but she sees straight through him. “We get that a lot, you know. You’re not the first and certainly not the last.”

That, at least, makes him feel better. “Thank you.” He says earnestly, self-consciously pushing his hair from his face, refusing to meet her eyes.

“Do you mind my asking what you got yourself so worked up about?” She asks cautiously.

Steve isn’t going to tell her, but then he reminds himself that this woman just did him a favor, it’s the least he could do to explain himself. “I’m—I’m getting engaged.”

Her red lips turn up into a small smile. “Well, there you go!”

Steve nods, “Well, that’s where I’m headed now. To ask him. I thought he was going to ask me, but he didn’t, and I’m sick of waiting. So, here I am.”

Peggy looks impressed. “Going all the way to Dublin, then?”

Steve shrugs. “It’s a family tradition. I figure, why not? It’ll make my mom happy, at least.” He says with a laugh.

Peggy nods slowly. “And what about you? Will it make you happy?”

Steve starts for a second before sputtering, “Yes—Yeah, obviously.

Peggy doesn’t respond, just watches Steve for another moment before humming thoughtfully and carrying on down the aisle, presumably to help another panicking passenger.

Steve reaches for his seatbelt and clicks it into place just in time for the pilot to make a second announcement. “This is your pilot speaking, once again. It seems as though I may have underestimated the strength of this storm.”

“Yeah, no shit.” Steve grumbles as the plane continues to rattle and shake.

“I do regret to inform you that this flight is being diverted to Cardiff Wales, as Dublin airport has been shut down. Once landed, the ground staff will be happy to get you on to connecting flights, and send you on your way.”

“Wales?” Steve repeats. “We can’t land in Wales!”

“At least we’re landing!” The girl behind him with the air plane statistics cries.

They land an hour later. Steve disembarks the plane on shaking legs and hopes that his face isn’t as green as some of the other passengers staggering down the terminal.

The Cardiff airport is a complete madhouse. Steve both praises his small size and curses it, because although it’s nice to weave effortlessly between the clumps of bodies, it’s not so nice to be stepped on repeatedly by every other traveler. His arm is starting to cramp from carting his suitcase around, and just when he thinks it would be wiser to camp out for the night and wait until morning, he spots an open desk manned by a bored looking staff member.

“When’s the next flight out of here?” Steve asks immediately, disregarding pleasantries because a) he doesn’t have time for them and, b) it doesn’t look like this kid would care to hear them anyway.

The boy pushes his silver hair out of his eyes and smirks at Steve. “What’s your hurry, kid?”

“Son, just don’t.” Steve snaps. “I just need the next flight into Dublin.”

He stares Steve down for another minute before snorting a laugh and turning to his computer. Steve’s eyes flick to his nametag. P. Maximoff. A few quick keystrokes later and the kid turns back to Steve with a look of mock sympathy. “Don’t know how to break it to you, pal, but the next flight outta here’s not ‘til 8 AM tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Steve cries.

“’S what I said, yep.”

Steve runs his hands through his hair and heaves a sigh. “Look. I’m going to Dublin to propose to my boyfriend.” He says, mustering all the patience he can while looking at the infuriatingly smug look on this kid’s face, which only grows smugger with every word out of Steve’s mouth. “I’ve got to get there by Leap Day. It’s family tradition. And between now and then, I’ve got to get to Dublin, buy a ring, and book a restaurant. So between you and me, I think you can understand why I need to get there today.” He concludes.

P. Maximoff’s smirk only deepens. “Let me see what I can do.” He says. He picks up the phone on his desk and holds it up to his ear. “Yes, hello? Dublin international? Yeah, I’ve got a kid here looking to propose to his boyfriend in a couple of days? Do you mind risking the safety of a dozen workers just so this guy can get to Dublin in time to kick a plastic ring out of a gumball machine and take his sweetheart to McDonalds?” By the time he hangs up the phone, Steve is fuming, and P. Maximoff’s face remains as lethargic as ever. “Sorry, pal. No can do.”

Steve’s jaw works, and his nostrils flare, but his mantra of Pick your battles, pick your battles, pick your battles wins over, and he turns his back on P. Maximoff without another word.

“You could always run!” The boy calls after him. Steve’s grip on his suitcases handle tightens marginally. Pick. Your fucking. Battles.

As he storms through the crowd, he happens to pick up on little snatches of other traveler’s conversations. A fight here, a joke there, but nothing quite garners his attention until he overhears a woman on the phone saying, “I might as well just take the 316 down to the port and cross over on the ferry, then.”

Steve slows his steps to a halt and elects to follow her towards the bus station. He boards the 316 bus headed towards the ports, and has a moment to feel like he’s finally back on track.

***

“I need a ticket on the ferry to Cork.” Steve says breathlessly. The bus had pulled up to the port during a bout of down pouring rain, and Steve had just run from the bus to the safety of the dock.

“What are you, crazy?” the desk attendant chuckles. Steve almost bangs his head off the desk. Not again… “Ain’t no ferries goin’ out today.”

Steve balls his fists and breathes deeply. “I just need a way to get to Dublin by tonight. Please.” He says calmly.

The attendant eyes him suspiciously before rolling his wheelie chair to the other end of his desk, picking up a walky-talky and speaking into it. “Hey, we got anybody down the docks willing to take a kid over to Cork?”

A few moments of radio silence, then, “Yeah, we got Fury down here. He’s only going to Dingle, though.”

The attendant looks at Steve, “Dingle good enough for you?”

Steve doesn’t really think he has a choice. Dingle has to be good enough for him.

The second he meets Fury, he wishes he could take this entire adventure back. What he wouldn’t give to be sitting at home sipping on beers with Sam and not standing in the captain’s quarters of a boat he’d call rickety at best with a man donning an eye patch. A fucking eye patch.

Fury maintains a stony silence for most of their time together. Steve almost forgets that he’s captaining the ship until his stern voice breaks through Steve’s thoughts. “You might want to hold on to something.” He says blandly.

“Why would I want to do—” The boat rears backwards as they pass over a wave, and even as Steve staggers about the room, he can see about ten more coming their way, so he takes a hold of the railings overhead and holds on as tight as his fingers allow.

All the while, Fury hoots and hollers like this is what he does for fun. Maybe it is. He seems like that kind of guy.

When Steve reaches the shore he pays Fury for his troubles and turns toward land, glorious land. He stands at the base of an expansive cliff which rises high into the air and carries on as far as Steve can see. At the top of the cliff he thinks he can make out of the warm glow of lights, so he sets about finding a path that will bring him to civilization.

***

The stone path he finds leads him to the light, but calling it civilization might be a bit of a stretch.

He comes to a stop at the spot where the rocky road meets sodden grass, and he stares at the small town that lay before him. He’s inclined to call it quaint, if not a little dated.

The homes are wooden, painted in varying shades of blues and reds and yellows. The primary colors appeal to Steve’s inner artist, so he finds himself willing to overlook the cracks in the foundation and the missing shingles on the rooftops.

At the end of his path is what at first appears to be a downtrodden two-story house, but upon further inspection, Steve can make out a faded sign over the door reading, HOWLER’S BAR. It’s the closest place to him and he figures that someone in there must know how to get him from here to Dublin, or at least know where he can stay until he finds someone who does.

As he draws closer, he begins to notice little things about the bar’s exterior he didn’t notice before. The faded blue walls are covered in a litany of carvings, most of which appear to be initials, but there are a few limericks and curse words thrown into the mix. The deep red door boasts a sign reading, “HANDLE YOUR LIQUOR, OR LEAVE FEELING SICKER”, and Steve smiles wryly at it before twisting the worn copper handle and letting himself in.

Steve nearly moans outright at the warmth that envelops his body. He’s quick to shed his coat and his hat, and only when he’s free of those burdens does he realize he’s not alone in the bar.

From just beyond the hall he finds himself in, he hears the voice of an elderly man nearing the end of a joke. He wanders down the dark hall and peers around the corner. He watches as a man in a bowler hat slams his mug of ale down and finishes his joke.

“So he says, you can take the fish out of the man, but you can’t take the fish out of the water!” He finishes loudly. Other men join in, howling with laughter.

“Come on, Dugan, you tell that joke every week.” A considerably younger voice says, though he sounds amused by the older man’s antics.

“When you get to be this old, lad, you won’t even remember what jokes you told in the morning.” Dugan says.

Steve can’t see who he’s talking to, not until he steps out from behind the wall and spots all five older gentleman sitting atop rickety stools at the bar, behind which a young man works cleaning glasses with a rag, dark hair falling down over his eyes and obscuring his face.

Steve draws further into the room until five sets of eyes turn and stare at him. He freezes under their gaze, waiting for one of them to either shout at him to get out or otherwise ignore him altogether. The only one who doesn’t look up is the bartender, who continues to scrub at the glass without so much as glancing in Steve’s direction.

Finally, one of them speaks in a thick English accent. “What can we do you for, then?”

Steve looks about the bar, noticing the lack of other patrons. “Are—Are you open?” He asks tentatively.

“Boston.” Another man, with dark skin and laughing eyes, says immediately.

“Piss off; he’s got to be Jersey or something.” A different man says; this one with unmistakably Asian features, but an accent that says California. Fresno, maybe.

“Actually, I’m Steve.” Steve interjects. “Steve, from Brooklyn.” He announces.

“Brooklyn, ay?” The man in the bowler hat says, taking a long sip from his beer. “And what do you think you’re doing out here then?”

“I’m trying to get to Dublin.” Steve says for what feels like the millionth time today. “Do you know if there’s a train or something I could take?”

“1987.”

Steve looks at the man who had just spoken. “Huh?” He asks.

“1987.” He repeats. “Zat is zee last time a train to Dublin came through ‘eer.”

“Bullshit!” The dark skinned man cries, pointing accusatorily at the man Steve had just spoken to. “It was in ’89 that the train stopped running. The bus stopped in ’87.”

The other man shakes his head adamantly. “You’ve got it all wrong, it was ’87!” They continue to bicker, and at some point the conversation becomes a heated argument in French, at which point Steve cuts across abruptly.

“So no? No trains, no busses, no nothing?” He verifies. All five men give him a solemn, “Ay,” in return. “Great.” He mutters.

His eyes fall upon the bartender, who still works with single minded determination cleaning the glasses before him. Steve approaches the bar in the hopes that maybe he can be of some help. It’s not like it could get any worse.

“Hi. Maybe you could help me?” Steve begins. “Do you know if there’s a taxi service I could call? One that comes down this way, perhaps?” Steve waits for a response, and he’s kept waiting until the bartender has cleaned the glass in his hand to his liking, and only then does he set the mug and the rag down and look at Steve.

The blue of his eyes is vivid, almost haunting, though Steve thinks that’s partially because of the blank stare the owner of those eyes is giving him. He looks utterly bored by Steve’s existence, and offers no explanation as he turns his back on Steve and plucks a business card from an overflowing corkboard hung crookedly on the wall. He hands the card over to Steve with his left hand, and Steve can’t help but notice…

“Is that metal?” Steve asks before he can stop himself, though he really wishes he had. The look on the man’s face turns colder, if at all possible, and he continues to brandish the card at Steve, waiting for him to take it. “Sorry.” Steve blurts, taking the card from his hand quickly. The bartender picks up the glasses he’s already cleaned and disappears through the doorway behind the bar like the whole exchange never even happened.

Fine by Steve. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone. He’s on less than 20% battery, so he figures he’d better find somewhere to stay soon. He dials the number on the card quickly. He finds it a bit odd that it’s just a number; no name, no address, no nothing but a number in messy black scrawl. He wanders away from the bar where the men continue to stare at him, all tittering about some joke that he’s not in on.

The phone rings three times before a man answers. “’lo?” His voice is soft but rough, like he doesn’t use it often.

“Hi!” Steve says, a little too brightly. “Hi.” He repeats, more casual. “I need a taxi to Dublin.” He says.

“Sure thing.” The man drawls lazily. It reminds Steve of the way Tony’s voice sounds when he makes those late night phone calls while he’s away on business. “Where are you?” The voice asks.

“Oh, well, I’m at this little bar…Howler’s? I think? I don’t know, really.” Steve says.

The man on the other end hums in Steve’s ear, and maybe it’s the fact that Tony’s late hours have been fucking with Steve’s libido, but the sounds sends a shiver straight down Steve’s back that he has to work to suppress. “Well, see, the problem is… I don’t drive American blonds.”

Steve freezes. “What do you mean, you don’t drive American blonds?” Steve asks. The hushed tittering behind him becomes roaring laughter, and Steve turns to see the men at the bar laughing at his expense. “How do you know what I…”

The bartender emerges slowly from the backroom, landline telephone cradled between his shoulder and his ear. The corner of his mouth twitches into a cheeky grin as he lets the phone fall from its place on his shoulder. He catches it easily, shaking it in Steve’s direction before hanging up.

Steve gapes soundlessly for a minute before hanging up his own phone and returning it to his pocket. “And, of course, you’re the taxi driver.” Steve says exasperatedly. He waits for the laughter of the men at the bar to die out before addressing the bartender once again, resolutely not staring at the shining metal arm exposed by his fitted black t-shirt. “I need you to take me to Dublin.” He says firmly.

“Dublin, eh?” He says slowly. Steve swallows thickly and convinces himself that his voice is not as hot in real life as it is on the phone. Or at least he tries to. Steve just nods, not trusting his own voice not to betray him. The bartender stalks slowly from the doorway to the bar, resting both arms on the countertop before leaning over slightly. “Dublin ain’t a place I’m trying to go back to. Hate to tell you this, but you couldn’t get me back there for all the money in the world.”

Steve balks before collecting himself. “But you’re a taxi service? Shouldn’t you go where ever you’re asked to go?”

The bartender shrugs apathetically, “Sure. S’long’s it ain’t to Dublin.”

Steve glares at the man who continues to stare at him like the most insignificant speck of dust in the world, which is something, considering this place is covered with a million other insignificant specks. “Fine.” He relents at last. “I’m tired and it’s been a long day. I’ll just find someone to drive me in the morning.” He concedes. “Now, could somebody tell me where I could find the nearest hotel? Hell, I’ll take a bed and breakfast at this point.”

The tittering laughter starts up again, and the impassive look on the bartender’s face morphs into a mischievous grin. Steve closes his eyes and takes the deepest breath his lungs can manage. “Of course.”

***

The bartender walks several steps ahead of Steve as they pass down the cramped hallway. Well, Steve finds it cramped, so there’s no way the man ahead of him doesn’t share the same sentiments, seeing as how he stands about two heads taller than Steve and is about twice as wide. He’s built like a tank, metal and all, Steve thinks, gaze dropping to the metal arm which carries his suitcase.

“So, are those guys regulars?” Steve asks conversationally, trying to break the silence. He’s referring, of course, to the men from earlier who have since returned to their own homes with the promise of returning in the morning. He gets no answer from the bartender, so he’s left wondering.

Finally, the man ahead of him stops in front of an ivory door with the number four nailed haphazardly to it. “Bathroom’s down the hall, you’ve got to flush it twice,” he instructs while fishing his key ring out of his pants pocket, “and I mean twice. Don’t think you can get away with once, because I will find out, and I won’t be happy.” He continues while unlocking Steve’s door for him and swinging it open.

“Just like the Four Seasons.” Steve jokes under his breath. He doesn’t bother saying it aloud; knowing the other man probably won’t even acknowledge he’d spoken, nonetheless laugh. He follows the bartender into the room, “room” being a relative term in regards to the shoe box that he’s standing in. But there’s a bed in the corner, and right now that looks as good to Steve as anything.

Steve’s stomach gives an audible growl. Well, not as good as anything

“I noticed a menu downstairs.” Steve says to the bartender’s back. The man has already begun to slip from the room, but he pauses and turns back to Steve with a blank expression. “It’s closed, isn’t it?” Steve deduces. He takes the swelling silence for an answer. He hangs his head and turns to unpack the few things he’ll need overnight.

“I’ll do you a hang sandwich.” The bartender says before turning and leaving without further comment.

Steve follows him, but stops in the doorway, watching his retreating form grow smaller as it moves down the hall. “Hang sandwich?” Steve asks. The man keeps walking on. “’Hang’ is a verb, not a sandwich!” He blurts angrily. The man’s steps don’t even falter and Steve’s words hang in the air, ignored. He rolls his eyes and slams the door. So much for hospitality…

He hums tunelessly while he unpacks his phone charger. Crouching to the floor, he looks around for an open socket. He finds one behind the bed, and crawls across the scratchy sheets like a man on a mission. He pushes with all his might against the wall, hoping to move the bed just an inch or two away from the wall so he could slip the plug down to the socket, but it’s no good.

He gets off the bed and begins yanking it by the bed frame. He makes small progress, a nudge here a scrape there until the bed jerks suddenly too far left and the footboard rams into the ornate wardrobe crammed into the room. The wardrobe leans ominously, and all Steve can do is watch in abject horror as it falls against the bed, wooden doors falling open and spilling its contents over Steve’s bed.

Steve stares at his own mess for a minute, then decides that as soon as he gets his phone plugged in he’ll take care of it. Crawling back over the bed, he drops his charger through the space between the bed and the wall. With his tongue caught between his teeth he reaches down and stabs at the wall with the plug until he feels it connect with the socket. He’s allowed a moment of pride before the socket begins sparking.

The light in the room flickers and dies almost immediately and from downstairs Steve can hear a medley of curse words carrying through the floorboards: a mixture of Gaelic and English most certainly coming from the mouth of his host. Steve wonders which offence is greater: forgetting to double flush or blowing the fuse. He hopes, for his sake, it’s the former.

He scrambles to at least return the wardrobe to its original position before the bartender can return to find the mess Steve’s made on top of plunging the entirety of the house into darkness. By the light of the moon streaming through the room’s only window, he crosses the room and pushes with all his strength until he sets the wardrobe standing again. After allowing himself a moment to catch his breath he begins stuffing things haphazardly onto the shelves, carelessly throwing countless knickknacks inside.

His hands pause over a picture frame, not wanting to shatter the glass should he throw it the wrong way. He’s about to place it atop a folded quilt when the light catches on a familiar face. Steve turns and holds the frame to the window, getting a better look at the picture inside.

He recognizes the bartender, though only by his eyes. Nothing else about the man looks the same: his hair is shorter, his face is clean shaven, his body slighter, and his left arm is noticeably absent of metal. He stands between an older couple and young girl, leading Steve to believe this is a family portrait. They’re captured in a moment of laughter and Steve has a hard time believing that the man he’d just met downstairs is capable of smiling that wide. He’s handsome, the man in the picture. He wears happiness well.

“What are you doing?” Steve spins on the spot and sees the bartender standing in his doorway, holding Steve’s sandwich in his hand. The contrast between the man in the picture and the man in front of him boggles Steve’s mind. The man’s eyes dart around the room, landing on the blown socket, the open wardrobe, and finally on the picture in Steve’s hand. “Where’d you find that?” He asks stiffly.

Steve points to the wardrobe.

The bartender huffs and rips the picture from Steve’s hand, replacing it with the plate. “That’s personal!” He barks, holding the picture behind his back and glaring down at Steve.

“Then maybe you shouldn’t keep it in the guest room.” Steve bites back.

The man’s jaw clenches and for a moment Steve thinks he’s about to find out what it feels like to be hit with a metal fist, but the bartender just looks back to the blown socket and scowls. “What the fuck were you doing?” He asks.

Steve has the good sense to look sheepish, because although it was hardly his fault that he stumbled upon his host’s personal possessions, the blown circuits are definitely on him. “I was just plugging in my phone.” He admits, holding his fried phone up for the man’s inspection. “The thing’s shot now, though.”

The man continues to stare at Steve for another moment before abruptly turning his back to leave, taking the framed picture with him. “There’s a payphone downstairs. It’s all yours.” He says gruffly as he disappears down the hall.

“Great. Thanks.” Steve says to the empty room. He looks down at the “Hang” sandwich sitting on his plate. It doesn’t look too bad, although the chances that it’s poisoned seem pretty high right about now, so Steve sets it down on the nightstand and crawls into bed.

He tosses and turns on the lumpy mattress, a far cry from his own bed. He finally rolls himself into a position where he can’t feel springs digging into his back and shuts his eyes. If he listens hard enough he thinks he can hear the bartender stomping about, probably trying to fix the fuse box before morning. The man’s muffled curses lull Steve to sleep, but not without prompting Steve to wonder just how the man in the picture became the man downstairs.

Chapter Text

FEBRUARY 27, 2012

“You’re here? You’re in Ireland?”

Steve smiles and closes his eyes. It’s good to hear a familiar voice. “I wanted to surprise you, but I gotta tell you, it’s not going quite the way I planned it.” Steve admits quietly.

He turns and looks over his shoulder. The payphone isn’t out of sight of the bar, and from where Steve stands he can see the men from last night sitting atop the same stools in the same order. They chatter away loudly, tossing peanuts at each other and roaring with laughter every few minutes. Steve turns away before he can be caught staring. No, this wasn’t a part of the plan at all.

“This is great, honey. I can’t wait to see you!” Tony says.

“I can’t wait to see you, either.” Steve agrees, pretending not to notice the constant chatter going on in the background of Tony’s line. He’s probably stepped away from an important meeting. He must be eager to get back…

“When will you get here?” Tony asks.

Steve gives a small start before answering, “I—This afternoon. I’ve just got to get a cab.” He says. “Are you busy? Did I call at a bad time?”

Tony hums, “You know, now that you mention it, I should get back in there. Seriously though, great surprise, Steve!” Tony says warmly.

“Thanks, I lo—.” The line goes dead before Steve can finish. His mouth hangs open around the words for a minute before he snaps it shut.

If he hangs up the phone a little too hard, no one’s around to notice. The men at the bar are too engrossed in their own conversation, and through the window in front of him Steve can see the bartender speaking animatedly with another man outside.

For lack of anything better to do, Steve approaches the window and listens in on their conversation. He doesn’t even have to strain his hearing to do so, their voices are plenty loud.

“You’ve had plenty of time to pay your bloody debt, boy!” The man who isn’t the bartender yells. He’s short and stout, with beady little eyes that blink furiously behind thick rimmed glasses, giving his face a constant owlish expression. His fleshy face burns red as he stares up at the bartender, puffing his chest out as means of intimidation.

Steve doubts the bartender is intimidated by much of anything, and he certainly isn’t showing fear as he crowds into the other man’s space. “Don’t see how two weeks is enough to pay you a fuckin’ grand!” He shouts back. “What are you gonna do, take the kitchen from me? Where do you expect me to go?”

“That’s not problem of mine, Barnes!” The man hisses, poking the bartender square in the chest. Steve raises his brows at the man’s boldness. Sure, Steve’s picked fights with his fair share of big guys, but none of them had a metal arm. He continues to poke at the bartender’s chest to punctuate his words. “I want the cash in full, or the whole lot is mine, kitchen and all!”

Steve thinks he’s about to witness a murder, but instead the bartender just crosses his arms, flesh over metal, and stares the man down for a moment. “Give me a month.” He says finally.

The smaller man laughs mockingly. Steve sees the bartender’s jaw tick ominously. “A month! You’re barking!” He cries. “A week, at best!”

“A week?” The bartender cries, temporarily losing his cool again.

“A week.” The other man confirms. “Ten days if I’m feeling kind.”

Steve thinks that a vein in the bartender’s temple is going to burst before this argument comes to a close, but finally he composes himself again and nods slowly. “Alright. Ten days. Thousand Euro. Deal.” He concedes, though Steve can tell it’s like chewing glass.

“Always a pleasure, Barnes, my boy.” The smaller man says devilishly before spitting into his hand and offering it to Bucky.

The bartender offers no comment, but spits into his own flesh hand and shakes on the deal.

When the bartender turns to walk back toward the Howler’s he looks up and catches Steve in the window. Steve quickly turns away, making wide strides toward his room before the bartender can come inside and yell at him for eavesdropping.

He doesn’t stop until he’s safely inside his room, leaning against the door and trying to regulate his breathing without his inhaler’s assistance. He strains his ears and tries to pick up on the heavy footfalls of the bartender’s combat boots, but the hall is silent. Steve releases one last shuddering breath before relaxing. He lives to see another day.

He crosses the room and opens his suitcase. He lays out his favorite wool sweater and his khakis before stepping back and beginning to undress. He’s down to his black boxer briefs when the door behind him swings open and ricochets off the wall with a loud bang. He spins quickly, stumbling over his rumpled clothes on the floor, and faces the man lurking in his doorway.

“I’ll do it.” The bartender says gruffly.

Steve’s eyebrows knit together and his mouth works soundlessly for a minute. “Wha?” is Steve’s eloquent response.

“I’ll drive you to Dublin.”

As much as Steve would like to focus on the conversation at hand, he’s acutely aware that he’s standing in his underwear in front of a man who is neither Tony nor Sam, who are the only two people who have ever seen Steve in anything less than a t-shirt and shorts. And if the curious rise of the bartender’s eyebrow is anything to go by, he’s acutely aware of this fact also. “Would you—Can you get out?” Steve cries.

The bartender’s expression is unreadable, but he does extend Steve the courtesy of turning and speaking to the wall. “Five hundred Euro. Do you still want to go to Dublin, or not?”

Steve huffs indignantly, but realizes that he doesn’t exactly have options here. “You need a grand.” He says.

“So you were listening?” The bartender accuses.

“You were yelling.” Steve snaps back.

“It’s five hundred to Dublin, yes or no.” The bartender says impatiently.

“Yes, fine! Now would you get out of here?” Steve shouts, gesturing to the door.

The bartender looks over his shoulder with a forced grin. “I’d be happy to.” He says before stalking out of the room, shutting the door soundly behind him. “Be ready in ten!” He barks.

“You be ready in ten!” Steve hollers back lamely. “Jackass.” He murmurs under his breath.

The door swings open again. “By the way, it’s an extra hundred for the room. That includes the vandalism.”

“I’M NAKED!” Steve yells, grabbing the pillow from his bed and hurling it just in time to see the bartender smirk and slam the door again. The pillow falls harmlessly to the ground, and from beyond the door Steve can hear the man’s footsteps fading down the hall. Steve huffs angrily and snatches his sweater off the bed, figuring he might as well be dressed just in case his host should decide to pop in and charge him for the hang sandwich, too.

He heads downstairs seven minutes later with his winter coat thrown over one arm while the other drags his suitcase behind him. He passes by the bar, which is vacant due to the fact that the gentlemen who usually occupy the space have migrated outside to enjoy the brief reprieve from the rain.

Steve joins them outside, watching a sad old clunker make its way down the unpaved road towards Howler’s. Don’t stop here. Don’t stop here. Steve prays silently. The worn Volks Waggen Beetle pulls up and sputters to a stop at the end of the path before him, and Steve watches a metal hand pound the horn repeatedly. “Of course.” He sighs.

“Don’t you boys know its bad luck to start a journey on a Saturday?” The man in the bowler hat cries.

“Dugan, shut your yap! Everyone knows it’s Sunday that’s bad luck!” The dark skinned man calls back.

“Ay, Gabe’s right. It’s a Sunday!” The Englishman agrees.

Steve ignores them and carries on down the path, dragging his suitcase along with him. The bartender has since stepped out of the car and impatiently taps his metal fingers against the roof. His long hair is pulled back into an unruly bun at the back of his head, and he’s traded his dark t-shirt and blue jeans from last night for a faded red flannel rolled to the elbow and black jeans.

He could be handsome, Steve thinks, if he could find a way to wipe the permanent scowl off his face and maybe learn some manners.

“Please tell me this is the car that’s taking us to the actual taxi.” Steve says as soon as he’s close enough that he’ll be heard over the whistling winds. Another storm’s on its way in, apparently. Steve hopes it will hold off long enough to get him to Dublin.

The bartender’s eyes narrow. “She’s a classic.” He says defensively.

“Jesus Christ.” Steve whispers. His life is in the hands of a bionic mad man operating a metal death trap.

“She’s rock solid.” The man continues, giving the car a shove that sends it creaking back and forth ominously. Steve arches a brow, not sure if the car’s rattling is a testament to the bartender’s strength or the questionable durability of the car. Accounting for both the rust creeping up the hood and the way that the bartender’s biceps strain the fabric of his flannel, Steve calls it a draw.

Steve peers through the window and looks around the barren interior. “Yeah, none of those fancy airbags, either. A true classic.” He says sarcastically. He continues towards the trunk, dragging his luggage with him. “Could you get the trunk,” he asks, tacking on a, “please?” before his grandmother’s ghost can come back from the dead and whoop him for his lack of manners.

The bartender comes around the back of the car and jiggles the trunk handle until it springs upward with a horrible screech. Steve eyes the hinges warily before sighing. Without having been asked, the bartender stoops to pick up Steve’s bag. Steve’s ‘thank you’ dies long before it reaches his lips as he watches the man toss his bag carelessly into the trunk as if it were rubbish.

“Can you be careful with that?” Steve cries, gesturing to the bag. “It was a gift from my boyfriend!”

The bartender’s hand pauses on the trunk door as he turns his tired eyes on Steve. “He bought you a suitcase?” He asks skeptically.

Steve bristles immediately, feeling the need to defend Tony’s decision. “It—It’s Vuitton.” He says.

The bartender’s dark brows come together. “It’s a what?”

Steve rolls his eyes and tries again. “It’s Louis Vuitton.”

The bartender’s confusion only grows. “You named the thing?”

Before Steve can work out a proper response, one of the men calls down from the pub. “Bucky, you sure you got the gas for Dublin?”

Steve would like to know just who the hell he’s talking to, though it doesn’t take long to find out. “Don’t you worry ‘bout me, Dugan. Worry ‘bout yourself. And don’t go drinkin’ all my beer while I’m gone; your liver ain’t what it used to be!” the man beside him calls back. Steve realizes then that he’d been about to get in the car with a man whose name he didn’t even know.

Dugan flips him off and takes a long sip of beer in rebellion. “Bucky” (There’s no way that’s real…but the man from earlier had called him ‘Barnes’. So is it ‘Bucky Barnes’? No…there’s no way..) barks out a laugh, an honest to God laugh, before walking over to his side of the car. “Ready when you are, Steve from Brooklyn.” He says.

Steve rolls his eyes. Steve from Brooklyn, what a smart ass, he thinks before opening his door and climbing inside. After he settles in, he looks over at the man seated beside him. “Thanks for doing this, Bucky.” He says, testing the name on his own tongue. Still ridiculous, he concludes.

He immediately stiffens. “It’s James.”

“But they called you—.”

They,” He says with emphasis, “not you.” He clarifies before shifting the car in gear. It groans in protest before slowly rolling down the road.

Well then, if that’s how James wants to be, so be it. Steve’s just as happy to look out the window and admire the scenery, no matter how bleak it may be.

Back at the bar Dugan chuckles to himself, drawing the attention of his friends. “What are you on about then?” Gabe asks.

Dugan tips his glass towards the retreating car. “Hope you remember their faces, boys.”

Jacques’s eyes narrow in suspicion. “Why would we do zat?”

Dugan chuckles again, “Because,” he pauses to laugh some more, “they’re going to fucking kill each other.”

***

If the scenery was bleak before, Steve doesn’t know what the Hell to call this: the grass and stone that stretches endlessly over the landscape. The stone walls which line the road go on forever, no end in sight. Steve had even tried finding shapes in the clouds for a while, but after he spotted his seventh lumpy looking whale, he gave up on that endeavor.

He glances at the man to his right out the corner of his eye. James, not Bucky, sits stiff in his seat, focused on the singular task of driving. Steve doesn’t particularly mind that, but a little conversation would be nice…

Almost as though he can hear Steve’s thoughts, James reaches down and turns the volume up on the radio with his metal hand. The aggressive rock music drowns the thoughts in Steve’s head, never mind any words that may come out of his mouth.

WHAT SAVIOR RESTS WHILE ON HIS CROSS WE DIE? FORGOTTEN FREEDOM BURNS! HAS THE SHEPARD LED HIS LAMBS ASTRAY TO THE BIGOT AND THE GUN?

James shouts along with the song, pounding the steering wheel emphatically. Steve watches him carefully for a second before leaning forward and turning the music down. James doesn’t look at him, but stops singing immediately.

“Do you know where we are?” Steve asks, not holding his breath for an immediate response.

He doesn’t get one.

“Think we’ll be there in two days?” He tries again, not entirely surprised by the silence but still pissed off by it. He figures he’ll give this guy one more chance before he clubs him with the tire iron in the back seat. “Maybe we’ll get there in time for me to take a look around the city. Do some sketching before it gets too dark.”

The tire iron doesn’t have to come out because this, apparently, piques James’s interest. “You’re going to Dublin to draw some pictures? Can’t you do that at home?” He asks suspiciously, leaning forward to turn the radio back up to its full volume.

I WATCH AND STARE AS ROSIN’S EYES TURN A DARKER SHADE OF RED! AND THE BULLET WITH THIS SNIPER LIE IN THEIR BLOODY GUTLESS CELL!

Maybe he’d spoken too soon about the tire iron…

Steve pointedly turns the radio off all together. If looks could kill, Steve would be dead on account of the glare James sends his way. He ignores it and continues politely, “If you must know, I’m going to propose to my boyfriend. He’s in Dublin for a conference.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, he works with clean energy and he’s trying to bring it over here. It’s a pretty big deal, I guess.” Steve says. He’s downplaying it, of course. Tony had spent hours upon hours explaining how huge this is. “I thought he was going to propose to me the other night,” Steve admits, “but he didn’t. So now I’m here.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s an old family tradition, actually!” Steve continues, emboldened by James’s apparent interest. “My family’s been proposing in Ireland for generations now, so I figure why not? It’s been four years!” He says cheerfully.

“Why not?” James echoes in an equally cheerful tone. Steve looks over to him and notices, for the first time, the strained look on James’s face. It lasts only a moment longer before James bursts out laughing. “Why the fuck not, eh?” He chortles, wailing on the steering wheel while he tosses his head back with mirth.

“It’s not funny.” Steve growls. “It’s romantic!” He snaps when James’s laughter only swells.

James wipes a tear from his eye before calming down enough to form a response. “Romantic?” He mimics scornfully. “That’s the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard. You’re tryin’ to trap a man who clearly don’t wanna get married! If he wanted to propose, he’d have done it.”

His words strike a nerve, but he doesn’t let it show. “You’re a jackass.” He bites out. “And you’re wrong!” He adds as an afterthought.

“Whatever you say.” James teases. “And by the way, keep your paws off the music.” He warns before turning the music back on.

AH, BUT MAYBE IT’S THE WAY YOU WERE TAUGHT, OR MAYBE IT’S THE WAY WE FOUGHT, BUT A SMILE NEVER GRINS WITHOUT TEARS TO BEGIN: FOR EACH KISS IS A CRY WE ALL LOST!

Steve clenches his jaw so tight he thinks he cracks a tooth. He tries to breathe, tries to focus on the grass and stone outside, tries and tries and tries to meditate on Pick your battles, pick your battles, but finally he gives up. He’s picked his fucking battle, alright.

Steve reaches forward and punches the eject button on the ancient radio. James’s tape pops out, and Steve rips it from the console before chucking it out the window without second thought. He looks over at James with the smuggest smile he can muster while simultaneously preparing to be socked in the face.

James is looking at him like he’d love to do nothing more than just that, but instead he slams on the breaks and gets out of the car. Steve, not one to let anything go that easy, quickly scrambles out of the car and follows him.

“You don’t know about me!” He shouts at James’s back. “Or Tony!” He continues, voice straining with effort. “You’re nothing but a goddamn cynic, you know that?”

James turns on his heel and walks backwards, arms spread wide in an obvious challenge. “Better a cynic than a fool, don’t you think? Life ain’t fairy dust and fancy fuckin’ luggage; hate to break it to ya, Prince Charming.” He says before turning back around. He spots his tape on the ground and picks it up, dusting it off on his pants before heading back to his car.

“I ain’t payin’ you to talk!” Steve shouts, working himself into a fit. “I ain’t payin’ for your opinion or your goddamn storm cloud point of view on life. I’m payin’ you to drive, so get in the car and drive!” He orders.

James snorts and storms right up to Steve, crowding into his space and reminding Steve in the most intimidating way possible that he’s just picked a fight with a man wielding a metal arm almost as thick as Steve’s whole body. But Steve doesn’t back down. He just stares right back into those cold blue eyes and waits on James to make a move one way or the other.

Finally, the corner of James’s mouth twitches. “Suits me just fine, Charming.” He says in a clipped tone before stalking to his side of the car. “Come on now, your chariot awaits.” He mocks.

Steve has to count to ten before he takes another step towards the car.

***

Growing up in Brooklyn meant two things to Steve: a guaranteed back alley brawl every Sunday behind Lucky’s convenience store, and a complete and total lack of wildlife aside from the strays that roam the streets and the birds that fly overhead. He’s never once experienced the woes of animal crossing. Until now.

“You’ve got to be joking.” Steve says as the car rolls to a stop.

“Well, would you look at that?” James says with mock awe. He stares at the herd of cows milling about in the road with a look of genuine content. “We ain’t in Brooklyn anymore, Charming.” He says before parking the car and hopping out.

Steve looks heavenward and prays for patience before following. “What are you doing?” He asks.

James lazily struts over to a boulder on the side of the road and takes a seat atop it, shrugging like he hasn’t got a care in the world. “Waiting for them to move.” He says simply.

Steve laughs bitterly. “Oh no, we’re not waiting.” He says firmly, storming over to the herd. He’s perfectly aware that he’s about the same weight as one of their legs, but he pushes against the cows anyway, ignoring their huffs of protest. “Move! Your! Asses!” He orders between pushes.

“Perhaps you can propose something to them, ay, Stevie?” James heckles from his perch.

Steve rounds on him to fast the world blurs for a moment. “Do not call me that!” He hisses before turning back to the cows with renewed vigor. “Come on!” He yells, pushing against them with all his meager might.

Finally they start to disperse, one by one migrating to the open fields on either side of the road. “There we go!” Steve cheers. “That’s how it’s done!”

“It must be your personality.” James drawls as he gets up from his stone.

Steve maintains his pride as he turns back towards the car. “I can assure you, yours is much more repel—LING!” He shouts as his foots dips into an unseen puddle. He steps out of it immediately, cringing as the muddy water soaks through his shoe and into his sock.

James watches with a bored expression as Steve hobbles over to the car and leans his weight against it while he tries to remove his shoe. The corner of his lips twitch when Steve loses his balance when his shoe finally pops off, but his smirk is short lived as the car gives a foreboding groan before jerking out from beneath Steve, leaving him ass down in the dirt as the car begins to slowly roll away.

“No…no way.” James says slowly, watching helplessly as the car careens backwards down the steep hill.

Steve gets to his feet and turns around just in time to see the car veer off the road straight into a ravine. He’s left completely speechless as he watches the car begin to sink into the shallow water.

James runs by him cursing under his breath and Steve chases after him, hoping that the car can still be salvaged. That hope dies when they reach the ravine. Steve can see from their elevated perch that not only is the engine smoking profusely, but the windshield is shattered, and the passenger side door is hanging sadly from its hinges.

Steve looks from James to the car over and over, waiting for the fallout. He’s expecting to be strangled to death, but instead he gets a low, contemptuous growl that has about the same effect.

“You couldn’t have just waited for the fucking cows?” He asks darkly.

Steve is too flustered to speak, though that only lasts a minute. “Maybe if you’d’a helped me, this wouldn’t have happened!” He cries.

James shakes his head and chuckles darkly. “That’s a two hundred dollar tow there, Charming. And it’s not coming out of me; it’s coming out of you.” He explains.

“Oh like Hell!” Steve growls out, getting right in James’s face just as he’d done to Steve earlier. “You will have to kill me before I pay you a dime!”

James’s eyes flicker to life. “Now there’s an idea!” He leers, giving Steve as good a glare as he’s getting.

Steve holds his ground for a minute longer before snorting and storming down the ravine towards the car. The trunk is, thankfully, above water and sticking out in such a way that Steve’s able to jimmy the door open and pull his suitcase out. He climbs back up the slope, suitcase in hand, and sets off down the road on foot.

For a minute, there’s silence, and with every step Steve takes relief washes over him. A step away from him is a step in the right direction. He thinks bitterly.

“Where the Hell you goin’?” James calls after him. Steve resolutely ignores him, squaring his chin and picking up the pace. “I’m serious, where are you going?”

“Dublin!” Steve hollers.

He doesn’t turn back, not that it matters. He doesn’t need to see James to know he’s begun following him. He’s keeping his distance, but Steve can hear the soft crunching of gravel under his combat boots. He briefly wonders just how long James intends to keep this up before deciding he doesn’t care. Not one bit.

Chapter Text

An hour later, Steve looks over his shoulder. James is still there. Steve says nothing and turns away, figuring that any minute now James will turn and head back to the Hell from which he came.

Another hour passes and Steve looks over his shoulder again. He’s still there with both hands tucked in his pockets, wandering down the pebbled road like he hasn’t got a care in the world. Steve huffs and faces forward again, picking up his pace marginally though he knows there’s really no point. They’re the only two he’s seen on this road all day, and he’s not expecting that to change any time soon. Still, he hopes his message is clear: Stay the Hell away from me.

The third time Steve turns around he’s not surprised to see James lagging behind. He is surprised; however, to see a blue van rattling down the road headed their way. Ignoring his gut instinct and every lesson Sarah Rogers ever gave him about Stranger Danger, he twists his body to face the oncoming van, hailing it down with an extended hand.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Charming.” James cautions, speaking for the first time since they left the ravine.

“And I care about your opinion…why?” Steve asks rhetorically. The van slides past James and slows to a stop in front of Steve.

“Fair enough.” James says simply. He’s stopped walking and watches from a distance.

“You’re damn right it’s fair enough.” Steve mutters.

The door squeals as it slides open, revealing a small group of men lounging lazily in the back. The man who’d opened the door looks down at Steve with a toothy grin. “What can we do you for, sweetheart?”

Steve ignores the endearment, “I’m trying to get to Dublin.”

The man’s dark eyebrows shoot up toward his hairline. “You hear that, Batroc?” The man stays, head tilting towards the man in the driver’s seat. “The American’s headed for Dublin.”

“You don’t say.” The driver, Batroc, says. He rolls down the window and peers out his window. “That just so happens to be where we’re headed.”

Steve breathes a sigh of relief. “Would you mind if I caught a ride with you? I can pay you for your troubles; I’m just trying to get there by tonight if at all possible.”

“Oh, I think we can work something out, can’t we, Rumlow?” Batroc appeals to the man behind him

“We sure can.” Rumlow leers. “Why don’t you let me help you with your bag?” He offers.

Steve eagerly passes his bag off to Rumlow before turning to face James, who still stands in the road, watching with a blank expression. “Well,” Steve begins, “I’d say it was a pleasure, but I think we both know—.”

A sudden screeching cuts him off, and he turns to see that to van door’s been slammed in his face. “Hey!” He cries, banging on the door. “Hey, open up!”

The tires spin against the gravel for a moment before finding traction and propelling the van down the road. Steve can hear the wild laughter of the men inside as they disappear over the next hill on the road. He remains frozen in place, staring at the spot where the van had disappeared from view until the sound of footfall draws his attention.

James passes him on his right, whistling the tune of the song he’d been playing in the car. “Cheer up, Charming.” He says pleasantly on his way by. “I’m sure Louis’s having a great time.” He continues on ahead, walking between the tire tracks left by the van.

Steve stays rooted to the spot while he mulls over his options. He could: a) turn back now, walk all the way back to the pub, call Tony and beg his boyfriend to come bail his ass out or, b) he could follow James God knows where and pray that by some miracle they wind up in Dublin.

Steve decides he’s got too much pride to turn back now, so he follows after James, but keeps his distance. He doesn’t want to give James the satisfaction of knowing that Steve’s got no choice but to follow his lead.

***

Steve staggers up the sixth hill in a row and has to crouch down with his hands on his knees just to catch his breath. Sure, running from the run-of-the-mill Brooklyn thugs keeps him in as good a shape as his body will allow, but he’s never walked this far in all his life, and the miles are starting to catch up to him.

Up ahead he spots the red of James’s flannel shirt and watches as the man veers off the path and heads for a dumpy little pub nestled beside the road. Steve hates him for making a pit stop when he knows Steve’s on a tight schedule, but he also silently sings the man’s praises when he realizes that where there’s a pub there’s a phone, and where there’s a phone, there’s a way that Steve can call a real taxi service and be on his way.

Sure enough when he walks through the door of the pub, Steve sees that James has made himself at home in the darkest corner. A tumbler of whiskey sits in front of him, already down to its last sip.

“There you are.” He beckons from across the room. Even in the dim lighting, Steve can see the arrogant look on James’s face. “Sit down and have a pint, we’ll get back on the road soon as we’re done.”

“We?” Steve snorts. “We are not doing anything. I am calling a taxi and I am going to Dublin and I am getting engaged, and you are going to go back to Donkey or Dangle or wherever the Hell you’re from, and we are never going to see each other again!” He rants.

James looks genuinely impressed by his tirade. “Be my guest.” He says before downing the last of his whiskey.

Steve rolls his eyes and approaches the bartender who points him towards the payphone. It’s towards the back of the pub, nestled at the end of a hallway between two rooms. There’s a man standing ahead of him, speaking in hushed, hurried whispers over the phone, so Steve tries his best to give the man privacy.

He looks around at his dismal surroundings. The mustard yellow paint on the wall has begun to crack and peel and the two doors on either side of him are scuffed and covered in shoe prints.

One of the doors, Steve notices, doesn’t even shut all the way anymore. From beyond that door he hears the cackling laughter of what sounds like a small group of men. He looks around to make sure no one is watching before stepping closer and peering through the crack in the door.

It’s the men from earlier, the ones in the van. Steve recognizes not only Batroc and Rumlow, but also Lou--his suitcase sitting in the middle of a poker table, hanging open with its contents strewn about carelessly.

He doesn’t even think about choosing this battle. He walks straight into the room guns blazing.

“What do you think you’re doing?” He shouts, attracting the attention of the three men in the room: Batroc, Rumlow, and a third man he doesn’t know.

“Ah, it’s the American!” Batroc greets warmly. “I must say, I didn’t take you for the type,” he continues, waving a pair of—Oh no. Steve’s jaw drops at the sight of the black lace panties hanging from Batroc’s fingers, “but it was a pleasant surprise.”

“Put those down!” Steve orders. His face is burning right up. He knows his body well enough to know that his blush is spreading past his cheeks, turning him a blotchy shade of red from his forehead to his chest. “In fact, I think I’ll take this back now!” He storms up to the table and reaches for his suitcase, but Rumlow swats his hand out of the way and stands quickly, towering over Steve.

“Is that right?” He hisses dangerously.

“You bet your no-good ass, that’s right!” Steve spits back, planting both hands on Rumlow’s chest and shoving him back a few steps. Rumlow moves to retaliate, but something behind Steve makes him stop dead.

Slow, deliberate footsteps enter the room. “That’s enough, fellas.” James says lowly. His calculating eyes flick between Rumlow and Batroc.

Rumlow’s eyes flick to James’s metal arm before he snorts derisively. “And who the Hell are you, pal?”

James shrugs lazily, advancing on the men slowly like a predator. “Nobody. I’m just trying to keep the peace.” He says agreeably. Steve can respect the “talk-your-way-out” approach. It rarely works for him, but he respects it none the less.

“Well you can keep your peace out of this!” Bartock roars, coming across the room at James too fast for the man to react, which costs him a kick to the gut that sends him hurdling over the pool table the men had just vacated.

Steve jumps into the action immediately. He grabs a beer bottle off the edge of the pool table and cracks it over Batroc’s head before leaping onto his back. He wraps his wiry arms around the man’s thick neck and squeezes for all he’s worth, trying to choke the air out of him.

He’s able to get Batroc clawing at his arms for air before strong hands grab him around the middle and tear him from Batroc’s back. He registers that he’s now in Rumlow’s hands just a moment before those same hands send him flying into the wall. His body crumples pathetically to the floor like a rag doll and he wishes like Hell that it didn’t hurt as bad as it did.

Before he has a chance to collect himself, he’s got the business end of a steel-toed boot slamming repeatedly against his fragile ribs. Steve tries to catch his ankle, but Rumlow shakes him off. Steve’s just beginning to think about the possibility of a punctured lung when Rumlow is tackled to the ground in a blur of red flannel and metal.

Two bodies fall gracelessly to the floor and scramble for dominance until James finally settles his weight atop Rumlow. Steve’s inclined to jump in but it seems that Batroc has the same idea. Steve watches the man lumber towards the brawl on the floor and decides that just won’t do.

He crawls across the floor and picks up a pool stick that’s been knocked loose in the chaos. He stands, ignoring his aching ribs, and charges at Batroc, cracking him across the face with the stick before swinging low and bringing the stick down hard on Batroc’s kneecap. The man howls in pain, clutching his knee and hopping around on his good leg. If Steve were a better man, he’d leave it at that, but he isn’t, so he whips the stick across the back of Batroc’s head, sending him to the floor in a heap.

He turns toward the struggle on the floor just as James reaches up and grabs a glass tumbler from the pool table and smashes it against Rumlow’s temple, rendering the man unconscious. James stays down for a moment, crouching over Rumlow and breathing deeply though his nose. He squeezes his eyes shut tight and shakes his head before standing and looking over at Steve.

“You good?” He asks gruffly.

Steve heaves a sigh, “I’m good.” They both turn to the third man in the room. “You good?” Steve asks him. The man nods frantically before turning and bolting out of the room. Steve chuckles softly, and for once he’s not alone. He looks over to see James laughing, too. “What so funny?” He asks.

“You.” James says, though Steve can tell he doesn’t mean it antagonistically. “Didn’t know you had it in you, Charming.”

Steve shrugs, “There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”

“Guess so.” James says simply. He stoops low to the ground and picks something up off the floor. When Steve realizes what it is, he’s quick to snatch his lacey underwear from James’s hand. “I certainly didn’t know about that…” James chuckles.

“Yeah, and if you know what’s good for you, you’re gonna forget you ever saw it.” Steve snaps, stuffing the underwear in his suitcase. He continues to pack the rest of his clothes with the same carelessness.

James watches silently for a minute. “Where’d you learn to fight like that?” He finally asks.

Steve’s hand pauses on the zipper, “Bullies,” he answers before quickly zipping his suitcase shut and pulling it off the table. “You?”

Silence. Typical.

The bartender chooses that moment to storm into the room, looking livid. “Out! The both of you!”

“Fair enough.” James says, hands raised in surrender as he nudges past the bartender fuming in the doorway.

“Can I still use your phone?” Steve asks, pointing to the vacated payphone behind the bartender.

“OUT!” He roars, pointing the way James had just left.

“You’re right, sir, absolutely.” Steve says quickly before racing to follow James, suitcase in tow.

He catches up to James outside the bar, not that he’s gotten very far. Steve finds him sitting on the bottom step of the short staircase inspecting the blooming bruises on the knuckles of his right hand, which prompts Steve to look down at his own hands. The damage isn’t too bad: a couple bleeding gashes from the broken bottle, a bruise here, a swollen knuckle there. Nothing he hasn’t seen a thousand times before.

His eyes fall back to James and he finds it hard to believe that the same man who’d threatened to kill him all of three hours ago just came to his defense in a fight. Still, his gratefulness outweighs his surprise. “Thank you,” he says, “you didn’t have to do that. I’m sorry I got you thrown out.”

James slowly turns and looks up at Steve. His mouth is set in a straight line, so Steve’s not expecting a response any time soon, but to his surprise, James’s icy stare thaws and a smile tugs at his lips. “Don’t be sorry,” he says, getting to his feet and stepping back onto the gravel road, “I haven’t had that much fun in a while.”

Steve follows a few steps behind. “You think beating people up is fun?” He asks defensively.

James looks over his shoulder and grins, “Just when they deserve it.” He turns back towards the road and continues to walk towards what Steve can only hope is Dublin.

***

“He must be special.”

They’ve been walking in silence for a few miles, the pub long since left in the distance. Steve gave up on conversation an hour ago when his sixth consecutive attempt at small talk fell flat, so it comes as a bit of a shock to hear James speak first, and for one childish second Steve thinks he ought to give this guy a taste of his own medicine, but he’s just so damn bored

“Who?” Steve asks.

“Your fella.”

“Oh! Tony, yeah.” Steve struggles for something to say that will carry on the conversation, so he blurts the first thing that comes to mind. “He’s—um. Well, he’s an engineer! Actually, he’s um, he’s the CEO of Stark Industries. You might have heard—.”

“Yeah, I know the name.” James mutters darkly. Steve looks over at his companion and notices his steely expression.

“Yeah? How so?” Steve asks slowly.

James’s jaw clenches like he’s physically fighting to keep the words from getting out, but he loses the battle. “Saw his name on a bomb right before it blew my arm off.”

Steve’s stomach twists and he steadfastly refuses to look at James’s left arm.

He knew, of course, how Tony’s father had made the family fortune, and he knew what sort of business his company catered to. He also knew that for a while after his father’s death Tony had continued his company’s legacy as being the top name in weaponry.

That changed when Tony found out his business partner, Obadiah Stane, had been selling weapons to enemy armies all for some extra cash to line his pockets. Stane’s off-market weapons wound up in the hands of Afghan extremists a handful of years ago, and American soldiers paid the price. The scandal made headlines for months, and when the dust settled the headlines changed and told the story of how billionaire and warfare tycoon Tony Stark had torn down his business and begun anew, focusing on clean, sustainable energy which would usher in a new era of Stark Industries.

That’s about the time Steve came into the picture. Steve had seen the news reals, watched the grainy footage of American soldiers being loaded into the back of medical trucks, screaming bloody murder and begging to be killed. When Steve had first met Tony on the day of that fateful staging, Steve could barely stand to look at him, knowing that Stark’s pristine suits were paid for with innocent lives. When Tony had slipped his business card into Steve’s back pocket with a salacious wink, Steve nearly snapped his wrist, but decided to go out with him, if only to get him one on one and really give him a piece of his mind.

But when he’d arrived at Tony’s luxury apartment in Manhattan, he’d had to let himself in after three or four knocks went unanswered. He remembers walking into the lavish apartment and finding Tony slumped over on the couch with a bottle of vodka in each hand. Tony had forgotten that he and Steve had even arranged to meet, he was so smashed. Instead of feeling angry, Steve had taken pity on him and gently guided the inebriated billionaire to bed.

Just as Steve was leaving the room, Tony called to him. “Am I a monster?” Steve had turned back and seen the tears welling in Tony’s eyes. “Am I to blame for all of this? Am I a killer?”

Tony never showed the same vulnerability ever again, but that night he’d cried on Steve’s shoulder until the wee hours of the morning, and from then on Steve could no longer see him as the villain, but as one of the wounded, no matter what Tony’s bravado said otherwise.

Still, the story of the soldiers mutilated by their own country’s weapons continues to turn Steve’s stomach, but to know that he’s walking in the company of one of those men now turns his insides to cold stone.

“Don’t say you’re sorry, ‘cause it ain’t your fault. I’ve heard it enough.” James adds.

Steve nods. He doesn’t know what to say, if not an apology. His mind works around a hundred different things, but all he comes up with is, “For what it’s worth, he doesn’t do that anymore, the whole weapons thing. He’s changed.” He pauses and looks over at James. “People can change.”

James shakes his head. He looks over at Steve skeptically before averting his eyes. “Sure, they do Charming,” he laughs darkly, “sure they do.”

The silence swells again, and Steve lets it. For once, he’s completely speechless. And so they walk on, getting closer to the man Steve intends to spend the rest of his life with, the same one who’d played a part in destroying James’s.

Chapter Text

Steve is so engrossed in his own thoughts that he almost misses the whistle of a passing train. His ears perk up at the noise and he turns his head just in time to get a glimpse of a train before it passes behind a tall hill and disappears from sight.

“Where are we?” Steve asks, breaking the uneasy silence he and James have been in ever since Tony’s name was brought up.

“Tipperary,” James says, “train station’s right around this corner.” He explains, pointing to the bend in the road up ahead.

Steve nods and walks on, trying not to lose himself again in thoughts of international scandal and traumatized soldiers.

When they arrive at the station, it’s nearly empty. As far as Steve can see, they’re alone save for a family standing by the platform and the older gentleman donning the Iarnród Éireann uniform sitting in the ticket office. Steve approaches the office with James trailing a few steps behind, watching silently. Steve notices the man’s name tag pinned slightly crooked to his shirt: A. Erksine.

“Hi, do you happen to have the time of the next train into Dublin?” Steve asks though the glass window.

The man looks up and considers Steve for a moment before smiling warmly, “You’re just in time.” He says, “The next train leaves in an hour and a half.”

Steve thinks this man’s got a very loose definition of the phrase “on time”, but he takes it nonetheless, watching as Erskine punches holes in the corresponding places on his ticket.

The man inside the booth turns his gaze towards James, “And you as well? To Dublin?”

James starts, clearly not expecting to be acknowledged, “I—No. Just seeing him off.”

The old man’s eyes twinkle behind his round glasses like he’s just caught on to a secret and he smiles knowingly. “I’ll leave you two to it then. There’s a nice bench just out that way,” he points across the station, “real nice view. Perfect place for goodbyes.” He adds with a wink.

Steve narrows his eyes in suspicion before slowly reaching across the counter and taking his ticket. “Thanks…” He says slowly, trying to figure out what the man could mean. Confusion aside, he’s still intrigued enough by the promise of a good view to follow Erskine’s direction and head towards the archway on the opposite wall.

Steve passes though it and is rendered breathless for a moment. Stone ruins sit atop high hills of green grass which stretch towards the grey sky. He’s struck by the sudden urge to try to capture the view in his sketchbook, something which hasn’t happened in a while, possibly even years.

He spots a bench nearby and hurries to it, settling down on the worn wood before laying his suitcase down at his feet. He reaches into it and pulls out his sketchbook and a pack of charcoal pencils, things he hasn’t touched in years but had packed on a whim, and flips to the first blank page. He sets pencil to page and begins immediately, sketching the weathered rubble piled atop the land.

***

He loses track of time and burns through three pencils before James settles down on the bench next to him. Steve hadn’t even heard him approach, he’d been so focused. His hands are covered in charcoal, and the sleeves of his sweater are stained black at the edges from rubbing along the pages. Steve can’t even imagine what Tony would think of the mess Steve had made of the cashmere, but Steve sort of likes the look of it.

“Carney Castle.” James says suddenly, breaking Steve from his trance.

“Hm?” Steve asks, still waiting for his brain to catch up.

James nods to Steve’s sketchbook, “That there hunk-a-rubble you’re drawing is the Carney Castle.” He explains. His eyes linger on Steve’s picture for another moment before flicking up to the top of the hill. “One of the Ten Wonders of Ireland, I hear. As if there’s anything wonderful about this place.”

Steve’s lips twitch into a smile. It’s good to know that he’s not the only one that’s a little bored by the monotony. He’s about to put his pencil back to the paper when James speaks again.

“It’s only about fifteen minutes to the top, you know.” He says. Steve can’t tell if it’s a fact or a suggestion until James continues, “We’ve got another hour to kill.”

Steve scoffs, “Oh no, I am staying right here,” he says firmly, “I am not missing this train.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees James roll his eyes before he sighs. “Suit yourself, Charming. An hour, between you and me? Time is going to fly.”

Steve’s hand pauses over his page. His eyes slowly slide from Carney Castle to James, and he thinks of how miserable the past hours have been: the insufferable silences and the fighting and the failed attempts at small talk. An hour might as well be an eternity between them, which is why he sighs and stuffs his sketchbook and pencils back into his suitcase and follows James up the hill.

“It’s beautiful.” He observes aloud as they begin to climb. Dark forests line the path about twenty feet away on either sides of them, and the trail winds and curves ahead of them, splitting off in different directions, all leading up to the castle at the peak.

James hums in agreement. “I’m sorry you won’t get to Dublin before tonight. I know I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about the place, but it’s real beautiful in the right light. ‘S a shame you won’t have time to draw it.”

Steve shrugs, “’S okay. I’ve got other hobbies, y’know. I’ve got a life. A job.” He can’t help the pang in his chest that comes from having to call his art a hobby and not his job, but he hopes that his voice doesn’t give anything away.

If James notices, he doesn’t mention it. Instead he asks, “What do you do, then?” Steve looks over at James who’s staring straight ahead, but not in the detached way that Steve’s become accustomed to. He looks at ease, peaceful.

“I stage apartments.” Steve explains.

The peaceful look on James’s face twists into one of confusions, “Stage apartments?” He repeats.

“Yeah,” Steve says with a laugh, since this is hardly the first time he’s had to explain exactly what it is he gets paid to do, “when someone’s selling an apartment, they call me in and I make the space seem like home.” He explains.

James nods along. “Do they get to keep it? The stuff you put in there?” He asks.

“Well, no.” Steve admits. “I just give them an idea of what to do with the place.”

“Hang on.” James says, holding up a finger and coming to a halt. “So you come, put the stuff the stuff in the house?”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees.

“And then they buy the house?” He asks, eyebrows coming together pensively.

“Yes…”

“And then you take the stuff back?” James concludes. Steve nods. He’s actually a little surprised that James caught on so fast. He’s had to explain his job to Tony numerous times over the course of the past four years, and Steve still gets the feeling that Tony doesn’t really get it. “You’re a con artist!” James says with a laugh, pulling Steve out of his thoughts.

Well, maybe James doesn’t understand after all. “Huh?” He asks.

“You’re a con artist!” James cries again, resuming his climb up the hill.

Steve stands stupefied where James left him for a moment before running to catch up. “I am not a con artist,” he defends. When he reaches James’s side, the taller man is wearing a tight lipped grin that drives Steve straight up a wall. “Oh, this is just like you. To assume the worst of everybody!”

“I call ‘em as I see ‘em, Charming.” James says passively.

Steve scoffs. “I’d like to meet the man you have a good word for, because I’m starting to think he doesn’t exist,” he seethes.

“Got a couple of good words for you.” James says. Steve is gearing up for a comeback when James cuts him off, “How’s about this: Your house is on fire. Your house, filled with all the crap you’ve accumulated over the years, is up in flames and you’ve got sixty seconds to run in and grab one thing. One thing: what is it?”

Steve rolls his eyes, “I don’t see what that’s got to do with anything.”

“Because, Charming, no amount of fancy furniture is gonna make a place seem like home, no matter what you tell yourself otherwise.” James says. “So tell me, Oh, wise Maker of Homes, if your own house was on fire, what would you take?”

Steve pauses to mull the question over but he’s soon face with another, more challenging question: Where is ‘home’?

Is home Tony’s penthouse apartment in Manhattan, where he spends most of his nights yet still feels weird walking into the kitchen alone? Is it in Brooklyn, in his barely touched studio apartment that’s got a layer of dust on everything but the coffee pot? Or is the ritzy Cambridge apartment his home, with its glossy floors that Tony adores but Steve can’t help but relate to the polished linoleum floors of the hospital wards he’d spent most of his childhood in?

Instead of answering, Steve deflects and turns the question back on James. “What about you, huh? What would you take if your beloved pub was on fire?”

“I know exactly what I’d grab.” James looks over and fixes Steve with a thoughtful stare. “But I’m not telling you,” he says.

Steve laughs and arches a brow, “Oh, so you can dish it but you can’t take it?”

James just shakes his head and picks up his pace, bringing them further up the hill. Steve purposefully stays a few steps behind to ensure that James won’t see the pinched look on his face as he tries to work out the answer to James’s question as well as his own.

***

When they reach the top of the hill, Steve’s a bit in awe of what he sees. “It was a real castle.” He says as soon as his jaw stops hanging open.

James looks back and chuckles, motioning for Steve to follow him as he weaves through the rubble. “Did you think I was lying?” He asks.

“I had my doubts.” Steve follows close behind, trying to keep up while also wanting to turn every which way, stop, stare, draw, and admire everything he’s seeing. “What’s the story with this place anyway?” He asks, running his hand over the intricate detailing of the archway they pass under as they continue to ascend through the ruins.

Ahead, James laughs. “Glad you asked, Charming, because I think it’s the kind of story you’re gonna like.” He continues to lead Steve through the castle grounds as he speaks.

“Well, hundreds of years ago, there was a beautiful, brilliant woman named Jane,” he begins. “Now, she was set up to marry this fella Loki, who was this conniving little bastard, corrupted as sin, so you can imagine why she wasn’t in love with him.” James says.

Steve laughs and nods for him to continue.

“Anyway, on the night of their wedding, Jane meets this handsome warrior, Thor.” James explains. “They fell madly in love at first sight, but Jane was trapped in her engagement, so what could she do, you know?”

“What did she do?” Steve asks eagerly.

“Well, she slipped a sleeping potion in everyone's drinks, and she and Thor ran off together.”

“Good for them.” Steve says.

“Knew you’d be into this shit,” James says, but he continues as Steve’s request.

“So Loki wakes up to find Jane gone and, well, he goes mental. And it definitely didn’t help that Thor was Loki’s half-brother. So Loki took his army and ran after ‘em.”

Steve listens attentively and pays close attention to James’s mannerisms and inflections. Not only is this the most Steve has ever heard him speak, but it’s also the first time he’s seen an emotion last more than a second on James’s face other than neutrality and annoyance.

It’s easy to get lost in his story telling and the rise and fall of his voice. It still has the alluring rumbling quality that Steve heard over the phone, but beyond that is the easiness with which words roll off his tongue in an accent that Steve can’t quite peg: it’s a mixture between the Irish tongue and something distinctly more familiar, homelike, almost.

Steve shakes himself, choosing to immerse himself in the story rather than the person telling it.

“The people in the villages of Ireland, they took pity on Thor and Jane. They hid them in forests and in their barns and castles, where they'd sleep for one night and then move on. And sleep was all they did, 'cause Thor was a good guy, and he was feeling real bent out of shape about two-timing Loki. So out of respect for him, he didn't, you know, take it any further.” He pauses and looks over at Steve. “So they never fucked.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “I got that.”

James laughs and grabs Steve by the arm, pulling him around a wall and up a damaged staircase. Steve stares at the spot where James’s left hand is wrapped around his upper arm and is a little surprised to find that the metal doesn’t feel cold to the touch, and it doesn’t feel like a vice, either. It feels like as much of a hand as Steve’s own.

“Where are we going?” Steve asks, trying his best to keep up with James even as the other man practically drags him up the stairs.

“Where the story ends!” James calls back, hopping up the last few steps before releasing Steve and walking ahead, leading him onto what once must have been a balcony that overlooks the single most incredible view Steve’s seen in all his life.

Grassy fields stretch out for miles before them, dipping in some places and rising in others. Dark patches of forest spring up randomly, swaying softly in the strong winds. A river crisscrosses along the horizon, disappearing into the setting sun beyond where Steve can see.

“And then they came to this castle and this view.” James says, tucking his hands into his pockets and admiring the view as well. “And it’s said that this is the place where they finally did it, consummated their love and all that.”

Reality washes over Steve like an ice cold bucket of water, and not even the nicest view in the world can distract Steve from the indignation rising in his chest. “Oh my God!” He scoffs. “You’re hitting on me!” He accuses.

James does a double take before barking out a laugh, “Excuse me?” He chuckles.

“I’m the young lover on their eve of their engagement!” Steve says incredulously. “Which means you must think yourself some kind of handsome warrior, which,” Steve gives James a quick appraisal and, okay, James is handsome, but he doesn’t need to know that Steve thinks that, so Steve gives his best attempt at an unimpressed face and shrugs, “Well…”

James laughs bitterly and shakes his head, ““Don’t flatter yourself, Charming. The story is true, but it ain’t about you.”

“And just what is that supposed to—” A distant whistle interrupts him, and Steve tilts his head towards the sound just to be sure he’d heard it correctly. “Is that the train?” He asks.

He and James share a panicked glance before they both take off at the same time, scrambling back down the steps and weaving through the ruins of Carney Castle. It’s not so different from the mad dashes through Brooklyn alleys he used to have to make when he picked a fight with the wrong fella and had no way out but to run. Steve hops the crumbling stone walls with practiced ease and runs like he’s got Gilmore Hodge from Box Street hot on his heels.

The grey clouds overhead begin swirling ominously as rain begins to fall. Figures, Steve thinks as he clears the entryway of the castle and heads for the path back down the hill. The storm he’d predicted this morning is rolling in overhead, bringing with it booming thunder and pounding rain. Steve can barely see two feet in front of him, but in the distance he thinks he can make out a bright light, like the one on the front of a train…

“Steve! Steve, slow down!” James calls from behind. Steve ignores him. He’s got to catch his train. He’s got to get to Dublin. He’s got to—

He loses his footing on a wet patch of grass and goes tumbling ass over teakettle down the hill. From behind (or above or beside, Steve can hardly tell at this point) he hears James cussing up a storm, and the wet squelching of heavy footfalls in sodden grass follow Steve down to the bottom of the hill where he finally comes to a rest, though the world continues to spin on its axis.

James stumbles to a stop beside him and drops down beside Steve, gripping his shoulders and making him sit up. “Shit, Charming. You alright?” He asks, somewhere between concern and amusement.

“I’m—I’m,” Steve wheezes, trying to get a grip on his breathing. The run itself had winded him, but the fall certainly didn’t do him any favors. He’s trying to assure James that he’s fine, but the sudden tightening in his chest is giving Steve second thoughts about whether or not that’s true.

“Steve?” James asks. His hands move from Steve’s shoulders to either side of Steve’s face, jerking his head to face James straight on. Steve continues to cough and sputter and wheeze as he tries to work out the words.

“As—As,” he struggles, gesturing vaguely to his throat and lungs, hoping James will get the picture. Asthma attack.

“Shit!” James cries before taking off, leaving Steve lying on the cold, wet ground, struggling for air and wondering just where the Hell James thinks he’s going. Steve tries multiple times to call after him, but all that comes out is a gasping cough.

Steve struggles to his knees, trying his best not to panic even though he can’t tell up from down, can’t see, and the only person who knows he’s out here just up and left him in the middle of an asthma attack. He attempts to stand, but his balance is shot and all that running catches up to him all at once, sending him toppling down into the sodden grass once again.

“Steve?”

Steve looks up. The sound of blood rushing through his ears may be audible, but that doesn’t mean Steve can’t hear James calling to him through the storm. He pulls himself up on his hands and knees and tries to answer, “Ja—James!” He coughs, hoping to be heard.

James appears in the downpour as a large, blurry mass, but when he rushes to Steve’s side he comes into sharp detail. “Here.” He says, shoving something small and plastic into Steve’s palm.

It’s his inhaler.

Steve’s fingers are nearly numb, but eventually he gets a grip on the inhaler and brings it to his lips, inhaling deeply and nearly moaning outright at the relief it brings. He continues to breathe in and out steadily until his head stops spinning and the fire in his lungs is extinguished.

Steve allows himself to fall back into the mud, closing his eyes and just breathing as the rain washes over him. He can feel the mud soaking through the back of his sweater, but he’s just too damn relieved to care.

He sighs easily and turns to look at James. His dark hair has fallen from its bun and now hangs messily in all directions, clinging to his face in some places and dripping wetly onto his shoulders in others. His flannel is soaked through and clings to his body, accentuating muscles that Steve wouldn’t expect to see on a bartender. His eyes are trained on Steve, waiting for a sign that Steve’s going to be okay.

“How’d you know?” Steve asks, holding up the inhaler.

That seems to be enough to put James at ease. The tension in his body dissolves and he reaches up to brush the stray pieces of hair from his face. “I saw it at the bar.” He says. “I saw you throw it in your suitcase before we got kicked out.”

“Thought you’d left me for dead.” Steve says, sitting up and tucking his inhaler into his pocket.

James chuckles and stands up, offering Steve a hand. “Please, if I’d wanted to kill you, I know better ways of doing it.”

Steve takes the offered hand and allows himself to be pulled up, but either James massively overestimates just how much Steve weighs or Steve’s balance wasn’t quite right just yet, either way, Steve ends up topping into James’s solid weight. His hands fall on James’s chest, which feels even more defined than it looks beneath the drenched flannel, which in Steve’s opinion is really saying something.

Flustered, he tries to put his hands just about anywhere else, and ends up gripping James’s upper arms as he tries to find his balance once again. Not much better, he thinks, feeling the firm muscle tense and flex under his fingers. He’s in better shape than a bartender has any right to be, leading Steve to believe that if James’s army days are behind him, they’re right behind him.

“Getting a little handsy, eh, Charming?” James teases.

Steve looks up and glares. “You wish.” He sneers, finally finding his footing and stepping away from James and his infuriatingly smug face.

James sighs and gestures off into the distance. “The train…” He begins, but Steve already knows what he’s going to say.

He nods solemnly. “Gone, yeah.” He says. “Think there’s another one?”

James shrugs. “Only one way to find out.”

They make their way back towards the station, stopping only to pick up Steve’s suitcase from where it lay open and ransacked next to the bench.

“I’m sorry,” James says, stooping to help Steve repack his soaked belongings, “I just didn’t know where your inhaler was and as soon as I found it I—.”

Steve cuts him off, “Hey, it’s fine.” He stuffs his inhaler on top of his clothes and shuts the suitcase, zipping it tight before standing and gripping the handle. “Consider us even for the time I blew the fuse.”

James’s smile comes slow and easy, “Sure, we’re even.” He laughs.

They leave a trail of puddles in their wake inside the train station. Erksine is no longer behind his window, but rather standing on the platform, watching the Dublin train disappear from sight. Steve and James join him, watching the train turn a corner and vanish.

“If I could, I would have held it for you.” Erskine laments. He turns to Steve and shrugs. “I haven’t been able to do that for years, though.”

Steve waves him off, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll catch the next one.”

The frown on Erskine’s face deepens, “That was the last train for today, I’m afraid.”

Steve knows that at this point he should have been expecting this, but his heart sinks none the less. “Oh, well. Thanks anyway.”

Just as Steve makes to turn away, Erskine clears his throat, drawing Steve’s attention back to him. “If you two need a place to stay while you make other plans, my wife and I own a bed and breakfast just up the road.” He offers. “I’d just hate to strand you here with nowhere to go. That was the last train out of the station today, so I’ll be headed back that way in a few minutes, if you’d like to join me.”

Steve and James share a quick glance and as far as Steve can tell, James is just as eager to be out of the cold as he is, so he turns back to Erskine with an appreciative smile.

“Lead the way.”

Chapter Text

Somewhere in Steve’s apartment, amidst the dusty bookshelf, Steve knows that a dictionary sits wedged between the seventh Harry Potter book and his college textbook on color theory. He’s almost positive that if he pulled that dictionary from the shelf, blew the dust from its cover, and cracked it open to the word “quaint”, Erskine’s bed and breakfast would be depicted beside it.

Erskine leads the way along a thin, worn dirt trail that bisects a flourishing garden. Steve follows behind, dragging his suitcase across the uneven ground, and behind him James follows suit, dragging the heels of his boots as he walks. The rain has mercifully let up for the moment, and Steve takes the time to admire the way the raindrops have settled on the flower petals and leaves.

“The Mrs. loves this stuff.” Erskine says, gesturing to the surrounding garden. “I myself have always had a bit of a black thumb, but she could grow a garden in a desert.” He says fondly. “Watch your step here.” He adds quickly.

“Watch my step wh—Oh!” Steve trips over the forewarned tree root jutting from the dirt path. He braces for impact, but strong hands grip him about the waist to keep him grounded. Steve regains his footing and looks pointedly at the spot where James’s hands still hold his hips. “Who’s handsy now, huh?” He asks smugly.

James scoffs and releases him, sidestepping Steve and passing in front of him. “As if.” He grumbles as he walks by.

Ahead, Erskine watches with the same knowing expression he’d worn earlier at the train station. “I remember those days…” He says wistfully, resuming his stride as soon as Steve and James catch up.

“Those days?” Steve whispers to James. James just pulls a face and shrugs, which means he’s in the dark, too.

Before Steve gets a chance to ask, the door of the small cottage ahead swings open, and a frail looking woman with grey-brown hair stands in the doorway, waving as she calls out to them. “Picked up a couple of strays, have you, dear?”

“Couldn’t leave them out in the storm, could I?” Erskine calls back.

“Well, hurry along then before the storm comes back and washes you all away!” She beckons, exiting the doorway but leaving the door open for them.

Erskine guides them into a small, cozy dining area. The lighting is mostly natural, save for a few candle lamps mounted to the walls. Aside from the lamps, the pale green walls are adorned with countless pictures, most of which feature both Erskine and his wife. The wood beamed ceilings seem low even to Steve, so it comes as no surprise to see James eyeing them wearily as he steps into the house.

“A handsome pair, they are, Abraham!” Erskine’s wife says cheerfully. She stands in the doorway between the dining room and the kitchen, appraising Steve and James from head to toe. “Where’d you find them?”

“They missed their train to Dublin.” Erskine explains, crossing the room to drop a chase kiss on his wife’s cheek before excusing himself into the hall, slipping his uniform jacket off and tucking it into the closet.

Ella frowns and hums mournfully. Her expression softens when she turns back to Steve and James. “Lucky for you two, just a half hour ago I had a couple of backpackers in the door wanting the room. Fine young couple, but,” she pauses and shakes her head somberly, “they weren’t married.” She laments.

Steve’s heart skips a beat and he has to work to keep his face indifferent. Beside him James is tense in every place a person can be tense, by the looks of it. His brain comes back on line when Erskine wanders back into the room and sighs heavily.

“That’s too bad, it was a nasty storm.” He says.

Ella nods. “I know. I felt like an old bat turning them out like that, but I just don’t feel comfortable letting an unmarried couple under my roof.” She reasons. “I’ve got my ways, and I’m sticking to them!” She looks between Steve and James with an eager expression. “So then, its Mr. and Mr.…”

“Rogers.” “Barnes.”

Fuck.

Steve scowls at James, who stares straight back in defiance. Steve sighs and turns back to Erskine’s wife, whose eyebrows have furrowed slightly in confusion. “Rogers-Barnes, ma’am.”

“That’s right.” James says stiffly. Their act is practically transparent, but it seems to be working on Ella, whose expression is softening by the second. “Rogers-Barnes. The marriage is still new, and Steve’s still working through a few of his commitment issues, but I think we’ll get there in due time.” He wraps his metal arm around Steve’s shoulder and jerks Steve to his side. “Isn’t that right, darling?” He simpers.

Steve forces a smile. “Of course.” He says through gritted teeth as he wraps his arm around James’s waist, purposefully digging his fingers into James’s hip a bit too hard. He looks back to Ella with a blissful expression. “But please, ma’am, to you we’re just Steve and,” Steve pauses and looks back to James with a shit eating grin, “Bucky.” He annunciates.

If either Erskine or his wife hears the low, threatening growl in James’s throat, they ignore it in favor of reminiscing over the days when their marriage was young. While they get lost in nostalgia, James leans down and growls into Steve’s ear. “Mind loosening the grip there, Charming?”

“What’s wrong, babe?” Steve asks smugly. “Don’t like it?”

James chuckles darkly, making the hairs on the back of Steve’s neck stand up. “Maybe I like it a bit too much.”

Steve recoils immediately, taking his arm back and ignoring James’s triumphant grin.

Ella giggles wildly at something Erskine says and slaps her husband on the shoulder playfully, shooing him away down the hall before she turns back to Steve and James with rosy cheeks. “So, boys, shall I show you to your room?”

“Absolutely, ma’am.” James says politely. Sure, now he’s got manners, Steve thinks bitterly. “After you, Stevie.” James continues, nodding for Steve to go ahead of him.

“Thank you, Bucky.” Steve grinds out, because if James wants to play, he’ll play.

***

“There’s no way in Hell.”

“Do you have something better in mind? Perhaps something you’d like to propose?”

Steve squares his jaw and continues to glare at bed in front of him like it’s done him a personal wrong, which in a way it has, simply be being the only bed in the room.

“I propose you find somewhere else to sleep tonight, because there’s no way in Hell you’re getting in that with me, Mr. Rogers-Barnes.” Steve says, crossing his arms firmly.

James barks out a laugh. “With you?” He repeats incredulously. “Maybe you’re not allowed to sleep with me!” He counters.

Steve turns to face James, and James mirrors his movements. Their silent standoff continues for another minute until Steve finally relents. “Jesus Christ, this is useless.” He grumbles, reaching into his pocket for a coin. “If you want to behave like a child, then we’ll settle this like children.” He pulls a quarter from his pocket and holds it up for James’s inspection. “We’ll flip for it.” He concludes.

James stares at the coin for a moment before shrugging. “Sure, fair’s fair.” He says agreeably. “Heads I win, tails you lose.” He says quickly.

Steve tosses up the quarter; following its hectic spin through the air and catching it on its way back down. He slaps it against the back of his palm and—

He’s never been so pissed to see George Washington’s face in all his life. “Heads.” He announces bitterly.

James hums in mock sympathy. “Lady Luck is one Hell of a dame.” He says, patting Steve consolingly on the shoulder before springing into the bed, bouncing twice then settling on his back. “You can sleep in the bath, can’t you?” He asks, pointing somewhere over Steve’s shoulder.

Steve turns and sees a white plastic curtain dividing their bedroom from the room beyond. He walks over to it and pulls the curtain back, revealing a shower, tiled floor to ceiling, and a small sink.

Behind him, James whistles. “Tough break, Charming.” James says.

As a place to sleep it may not be ideal, but as Steve’s eyes roam over the off-white tiles and the rusted shower head, he thinks that he could stand to use the shower for its intended purpose. With one last glare in James’s direction, Steve crosses the room to his suitcase, pulls out the driest towel he can find, and steps behind the curtain.

While under the spray, Steve gets a look at the damage left behind by Rumlow’s boots and isn’t surprised to see an angry bruise turning his otherwise porcelain skin a ghastly shade of purple. He decides to leave it be. No use crying over kicked ribs. The warm water washes away most of the aches and pains of the day, along with enough mud to turn the water pooling around the drain an unattractive shade of brown.

Wait.

Steve quickly rinses the last of the dirt from his body before turning the shower off so abruptly he almost rips the ancient faucet from the wall. He wraps his towel around his waist swiftly before jerking the curtain back and storming into the bedroom.

“You lying, deceiving, son of a…” He seethes, coming to a stop at the end of the bed, glaring at the man reclining lazily on top of it.

“Have a nice shower, dear?” James asks, popping one eye open to look at Steve with the hint of a smile on his lips.

“Heads you win, tails I lose?” Steve shouts, eyes flaring.

James laughs lazily. “Finally put that together, did you?” He says sleepily.

“Oh, get the Hell up!” Steve demands, shoving at James’s body. “Get up! The bed’s mine!”

James sighs deeply and rises from the bed. “You never told me how the shower was.”

Steve wanders over to his suitcase and begins rifling through it, trying to find anything remotely dry. “It was fine.” He says shortly. He looks over his shoulder and gives James a quick once over. “You should take one, you could use it.”

“No way.” James says with a chuckle. Steve waits for an explanation. James smiles devilishly and points to the shower. “Curtain’s see through.”

“Yeah, right.” Steve scoffs, writing off the comment before it sinks in. He finds a t-shirt and a cardigan that seem mostly untouched by the rain, and then the words finally hit him. “Wait, what?” He cries, rounding on James.

“You can see straight through it.” James repeats with a chuckle. “11231.” He says with a smirk. “Funny thing for a tattoo, not to mention the placement…”

Steve’s blush burns from the tips of his ears to his chest. “That’s—How did you…” He sputters.

James shrugs nonchalantly. “Don’t believe me?” He asks. “See for yourself.” He challenges. He saunters over to the shower, but before he disappears behind the curtain, he turns back to Steve with a devious smile. “I’ve got one, too, y’know.”

Steve turns back to his suitcase and listens as the curtain rustles and the water starts, but he refuses to give James the satisfaction of falling for his stupid joke. He’d probably seen the tattoo when Steve was lying down in the mud, or maybe he hadn’t covered it when James had stormed in on him changing this morning.

Besides, even if the curtain were see through (which it’s not), and James did see his tattoo (which he didn’t), that would means James would have had to have wanted to look, which…

…is what Steve kind of wants to do right now…

He’s saved from temptation by a knock. He crosses the room and answers the door, regretting his state of dress the second he opens the door to Ella’s stunned face.

“Oh, my goodness!” She looks from the curtain, to Steve’s still damp hair, to the towel around his waist, “I’m interrupting.” She says.

“No, no! You’re not!” Steve says firmly. He sees the disbelieving look on her face and shakes his head. “No, really, ma’am. We weren’t doing anything.”

“Oh, I know, dear.” She says with a wink. “I’ll let you two get back to it, I just thought I’d come by and tell you dinner will be on at six. We’re having tripe!”

“Tripe?” Steve repeats.

“Homemade, family recipe!” She says excitedly. “Nothing like a bit of cow’s stomach on a rainy day!”

Steve isn’t quite as excited, but he hides it well. While he works to repress memories of sliding his grandmother’s own homemade tripe onto the floor for the dog to get, he turns towards the shower and calls to James. “You hear that, Buck? She’s making tripe!” He shoots for excitement, but even to his own ears he sounds like a man saying his last words.

The faucet squeaks beyond the curtain and the pattering sound of the water tapers off. “Tripe…yeah…” James says slowly. “You know, I was thinking about maybe offering to cook dinner tonight as a way to thank you for taking us in on such short notice.”

Steve doesn’t have the time to wonder where James’s sudden gallantry is coming from, because if this is his only chance of avoiding tripe, he’s seizing it. “Oh, you must!” He urges.

“Oh, no, dears! I couldn’t!” Ella admonishes.

“You can!” Steve reassures her. “He’s an excellent chef, I tell him all the time. Isn’t that right, babe?”

James hums in agreement, “You sure do, darling. So what do you say? Have we got ourselves a deal?” James asks.

Ella mulls it over for a moment before relenting. “Oh, alright! I suppose I can take the night off. We’ve got a couple of Russians staying down the hall, is that alright?”

“More the merrier!” James replies cheerfully.

“Excellent.” Ella says happily. “Now, you two get back to whatever it was you were doing before I came and made a fuss!” She says, wriggling her eyebrows at Steve suggestively before making her exit.

Steve sighs heavily and shuts the door, “Good call.”

James laughs, “Anything to get out of tripe. You got anything that suitcase that’d fit me?”

Steve goes over to his suitcase and searches through his things. He comes across one of his oldest pajama shirts, an oversized souvenir t-shirt from Coney Island, and pulls it out. “I’ve got a shirt that might work but as far as pants go…”

James steps out of the shower and the rest of Steve’s sentence dies on his lips.

James saunters over to him like he isn’t shamelessly putting miles of tan, dripping wet skin on display. He plucks the shirt from Steve’s hands pulls it over his head, dragging it down over his torso, covering his muscled chest and defined stomach. Steve can’t help but notice it’s a very tight fit.

He swallows thickly and averts his eyes, pretending to look through his suitcase again. “I—um, I can find something else…”

“Nah, this’ll work.” James says. He pulls his black jeans from earlier up his sturdy looking thighs, and then pulls his heavy boots back onto his feet. “I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.” He says casually.

Steve nods, keeping his eyes trained on his suitcase. He hears James’s heavy steps retreating towards the door, but he pauses just before he leaves.

“Did you look?”

Steve snorts. “No, I didn’t.” Wanted to, but didn’t. He thinks.

James hums thoughtfully and shuts the door.

***

Steve joins James in the kitchen ten minutes later.

The first five of those ten minutes are spent getting dressed, and the following five are spent pacing the floor as his thoughts run wild and unchecked. One minute he’s berating himself for not only pretending to be in a relationship with someone while he was still in an actual relationship with someone else, but also for being attracted to the very person he was pretending to be married to. And the next minute he’s reassuring himself that his attraction to James didn’t make him a bad boyfriend, so long as he didn’t act on that attraction.

The vicious cycle continues and Steve paces until he makes himself dizzy, at which point he pulls himself together and puts his thoughts to rest. Attractive as he may be, James is frozen solid inside and has proven himself to be more of an ice cube than an iceberg: everything lay above the surface, but below there’s nothing to discover.

He leaves the room feeling safe and secure in both his warm woolen cardigan and his belief that his attraction to James is fleeting. He walks into the kitchen and finds the man in question hovering in front of the open refrigerator, surveying his options.

“Keep that up and you’ll let all the cold air out.” Steve chastises as he passes through the doorway. The kitchen is small, rustic, and filled with appliances that Steve could be persuaded to call antiquated if he were feeling generous. There’s an island in the center, on top of which James has already piled potatoes, carrots, and apples.

“You try finding something in here that ain’t tripe.” James grouses, pursing his lips as he continues to survey his options. He reaches far into the fridge and comes back holding a chicken breast. “Think this’ll do?”

“S’long as we’re not eating stomach, it’ll do.” Steve says.

James tosses the chicken onto the table alongside the vegetables, then he moves on to the overhead cabinets in search of spices.

Steve watches him move around the kitchen with practiced ease, pulling spices from shelves, reading the labels, and either placing them on the island or putting them back where he’d found them. It all looks effortless, reminding Steve of the way he used to watch his mother cook, transfixed as she twirled around their small, shoebox apartment kitchen, somehow managing to make something out of the nothing they had.

James, seeming satisfied with his collection of ingredients, plucks a cookbook at random from the pile on the island, presumably left behind for them by Ella. He leafs through the pages, eyebrows furrowed in concentration as he pursues the recipes, all of which look handwritten and crammed ten to a page.

“What are you thinking?” Steve asks.

James pauses on a page before spinning it and sliding it across the countertop towards Steve. Steve pulls up a chair at the island and quickly scans the page. “Herb Roasted Chicken?” He recites.

James shrugs, “It’s the best we can do with what we’ve got.”

Steve looks back down at the recipe. “’S there anything I can do?” He asks, wanting to feel useful.

James brings the chicken to the sink and begins to rinse it. “Uh, yeah. Why don’t you find a decent recipe in there on some carrots?” He suggests.

Steve follows the order, flicking through the pages until he comes across a recipe for steamed carrots. Thinking that’s as good as he’s going to find, Steve reaches across the table and grabs the bushel of carrots, sorting through them to find three of medium size, as the recipe calls for.

While he searches, James brings the chicken back to the island and watches Steve wearily. His dark brows draw closer together the longer he watches Steve fuss over the carrots, until finally his curiosity becomes insatiable. “The hell you doin’?” He asks.

“This recipe says three medium carrots,” Steve explains, pointing to the recipe in question with one of the carrots in his hand, “and if you look at these two,” he brandishes two carrots at James, “they’re clearly medium. But then there’s this one,” Steve puts down the other two carrots and picks up a third, presenting it to James for inspection, “it’s a bit too large to classify as medium, in my opinion.”

Steve thinks he might have seen James’s left eye twitch a bit, but he can’t swear to it. “Are you serious?” James asks dully. He leans over the island and plucks the too-large-to-classify-as-medium carrot from Steve’s hand and makes a show of snapping the last inch off before handing it back to him. “There you go.” He says dramatically. “Three medium sized carrots!”

Steve’s jaw ticks. “I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to be precise.”

“Here’s an idea, why don’t you stop trying to control everything in the universe for a second, and accept that the world ain’t as perfect as you want it to be.” James snaps. “It’s fuckin’ dinner, Charming. It’ll all work out fine.” He appeases.

Steve huffs out a hallow laugh. “Heard that one before.”

“Hm, perhaps you should have listened then.” James retaliates.

Steve’s jaw continues to clench and unclench as it tries to contain the words straining to break free. “Really, it’ll all work out?” He asks bitterly, no longer caring to mind his manners and letting the words flow freely. “Y’know, my dad was the King of ‘It’ll all work out’.”

James sets both hands on the countertop and rests his weight on them, fixing Steve with an inquisitive stare. “Yeah, and how’d that work out for him?”

Steve squares his jaw and stares right back, “How about you tell me, alright? How does this sound: Alcoholic cop loses everything in unpaid gambling debts, putting his son and his wife out on the street Christmas morning. Loses the car, the house, everything but the shirt off his back, and he still can’t stay away from a goddamn cards table, and you wanna know why? Because, “it’ll all work out”, of course!

“Right. Cut to two months after the sorry bastard drinks himself to death: My ma’s working three jobs: mornings at the diner, nights at the hospital, and any time in between watching the neighborhood kids, all the while I’m laid up in bed with every kind of sickness you can catch, sitting on death’s doorstep with a bow ‘round my chest. But you wanna know why she did it? So no Brooklyn thug could knock down her door demanding money, because she was paying every goddamn debt my father left her with.

“She didn’t believe in, “It’ll all work out.” She believed in, “Make it happen, or it won’t,” so forgive me for siding with the philosophy that kept a roof over my head. I’m so terribly fucking sorry for trying to control everything, but I know better than to leave my life in anyone else’s hands.”

His chest rises and falls rapidly, and inside his chest Steve’s heart hammers against his bones. He doesn’t know what came over him, what prompted him to snap like that. He’d never told anyone about his childhood, not Tony, not even Sam. The dark days spent watching his mother work herself to the bone while he lay bedridden weren’t stories he was keen on retelling.

“I’m sorry, Steve.”

James’s voice cuts through the angry buzzing in Steve’s head, silencing the static with its sincerity. “What?” He asks.

“I’m the one who’s sorry.” James repeats, hanging his head. “I shouldn’t have said nothing ‘bout it. I didn’t know.” He admits quietly.

Steve slowly comes down from his fit, processing James’s apology. “It’s—It’s alright.” He says. “You didn’t know.” He agrees.

“Do you still want to help?” James asks, nodding towards the carrots. “I’ll find you a third perfect carrot. Figure Ella’s gotta have ‘em growing out in her garden somewhere, it shouldn’t take too long to—.”

“James,” Steve interrupts firmly with a smile tugging at his lips, “this is fine.” He assures him, settling back in to his seat at the island and lining up his almost-perfect carrots. “The carrots are fine.”

James nods and returns to the chicken, and so Steve picks up a knife from and begins chopping. They work in a comfortable silence for a while until James speaks again.

“Bucky.”

“Hm?” Steve hums absently, paying more attention to the sharp knife in his hand than James’s words.

“You can…” James swallows thickly and shrugs nonchalantly, “You can call me Bucky, if you want.”

Steve looks up slowly from his carrots, staring at James with wide eyes. “Really?”

James rolls his eyes, “’S not like it’s a big deal or anything.” He says flippantly.

But Steve knows that’s not true. James had made it abundantly clear this morning that Steve had no right to call him that, but here they stand, and James is offering…

“Bucky.” Steve says, testing the word on his tongue for the second time today and finding that it doesn’t seem quite as stupid as it had this morning. James nods and begins to season the chicken in front of him, but Steve’s curious, and decides to push he and James’s, well, Bucky’s new boundaries. “Where’d you come up with that?” He asks.

Bucky laughs and continues to work whilst he speaks, “How’d you do in history when you were in school?”

Steve doesn’t see how that relates to his question, but he answers it none the less. “I got by alright…” He says skeptically.

“Fifteenth president of the United States: Who was it?” Bucky asks.

Steve’s face scrunches up in thought. “James Buchanan?”

Bucky snaps and points at Steve, “Bingo.” He says with little enthusiasm. “That was me, James Buchanan Barnes, named after a powdered wig that no one remembers. And I figured no one was gonna remember me either with a name like James, and I sure as Hell wasn’t gonna go around lettin’ kids call me Buchanan, so…” he leaves the statement open ended.

“So you picked Bucky?” Steve finishes for him.

“Hell no!” Bucky cries, throwing one last dash of pepper onto the chicken before picking up the tray and walking it to the oven and sliding it in. “You think I’d pick that myself?” He asks incredulously.

Steve puts his knife down and laughs, clutching at his stomach as he rocks back in his seat. “So who gave it to you then?” He asks between chuckles.

Bucky pauses, and for a second Steve thinks he’d pushed too far, that they’ve gotten too personal, but after Bucky sets the oven, he answers. “My sister. She, um,” Bucky’s mouth works soundlessly for a minute, “she’s younger.” He explains. “I was about nine or ten when she could start talkin’, and she loved saying my whole name, Jims Bookee-nun Bawnes!” He imitates, chuckling afterword. “Well, eventually that just became ‘Bookee’, and before I knew it, I was Bucky.” He concludes.

Steve notices, between fits of his own laughter, that there’s a distant, almost somber look in Bucky’s eyes. Steve decides not to pry.

They return to their comfortable silence, Steve chopping at his carrots while Bucky moves on to mashing the potatoes. They’ve been at it for at least another ten minutes when Erskine comes through the door, brandishing two bags in his arms.

“Just got back from the store!” He explains, setting the bags onto the free space on the counter. He proceeds to unload bottle after bottle: rum, wine, brandy, beer, vodka... “Help yourselves to the lot of it, though I wouldn’t touch the vodka if I were you,” he warns, “the Russian girl down the hall was very specific.” He departs on that note, leaving the kitchen and sweeping up the staircase, presumably to tell his wife of his return.

Steve eyes the vodka sitting on the counter, a reminder of their fellow guests. “You met the Russians yet?” He asks.

Bucky shakes his head. “No, been wondering if they even exist.”

“Maybe they’re just quiet.” Steve offers.

“Or maybe they’re spies.” Bucky says conspiratorially, arching a brow at Steve. “You never know these days. People surprise you.” He says to Steve’s disbelieving look.

Steve bites his lip and studies Bucky for a moment. “Yeah, they do.” He says thoughtfully. He averts his eyes before Bucky can catch him looking and crosses the kitchen to grab a beer from the counter. “You want one?” He asks.

“Sure.”

He holds the bottle out to Bucky, but before he can close his metal hand around the cool glass, Steve pulls it away, grinning devilishly. “First you’ve got to tell me something.” Bucky rolls his eyes but gestures for Steve to go on. “What is it?” Steve asks.

Bucky quirks a brow. “You’re gonna have to be a bit more specific…”

“The tattoo.” Steve elaborates. “You said you had one.”

“So you really didn’t look then?” Bucky asks. Steve shakes his head. “Jeez, Stark’s got you whipped, eh?”

“Just answer the question.” Steve urges.

Bucky pretends to debate it before giving in. “’Red Hook’, right between my shoulders.”

“Red Hook?” Steve repeats, nearly dropping his own beer as he hands Bucky’s over to him.

“What, you thought I wouldn’t recognize my own zip code when I saw it?” Bucky chuckles.

Steve’s ears still burn at the thought of Bucky seeing the five numbers inked in bold script along his hipbone, but his shock outweighs his embarrassment. “You’re from Red Hook?” He asks.

“No, I just thought the words looked cool.” Bucky says sarcastically. “Want me to prove it?” He challenges.

Steve smirks and tips the neck of his beer in Bucky’s direction, a clear invitation to proceed.

“Well, for starters, I got it done over on Huntington.” Bucky begins. Steve perks up immediately. “Had to go to Charlie, since everybody knows that if you want typography, you gotta go to Charlie, since—.”

“He’s been carving epitaphs since ’56, steadiest hand in Brooklyn!” Steve cries. “No shit!”

Bucky shrugs sheepishly. “If you’d’a said you were from the Hook, I’d’a told you sooner.”

Steve still finds it almost too good to be true. “Alright, so you know Charlie, but,” he pauses for effect, “do you know where to get half priced beers every Thursday?”

Bucky’s face screws up in thought and he taps the rim of his bottle against his lips. “Hell, it’s been a minute since I’ve been around the neighborhood, but…” he pauses to think, “does Fergus’s pub over on Wolcott still do it?”

“Yes!” Steve nearly shouts. “Me and Ma go every Thursday! Shit, how is it I didn’t know you before?”

Bucky smiles tightly before taking a long swig of his beer. “You go to Red Hook Central?” He asks, to which Steve nods. “Well, there you have it. My parents shipped me off to Rhinebeck, and from there it was the army, and now…” Bucky trails off and covers the silence with another sip of beer.

And now you’re here, Steve finishes silently. He watches Bucky carefully before dropping his gaze. He wants to ask, he wants to know why Bucky’s here and not there, why he chose Ireland over Red Hook, but he figures they’ve made enough progress for the one day, and anything more might send Steve right back to square one.

So he moves on, and so does Bucky, and together they leave the open ended topic of Bucky’s departure from Red Hook behind in order to focus on dinner. They’re a well-oiled machine once they work out a system: Bucky minds the chicken in the oven and the potatoes on the stove stop while Steve watches over the steaming carrots and follows the recipe for apple pie which Bucky has dog eared in the cook book.

All the while they talk about Brooklyn: everything from horror stories about being chased by Mr. Engle and his broomstick, to getting free slices of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving so long as you went into Morna’s bakery looking down on your luck. The laughter comes as easily as the conversation, and Steve can’t remember the last time he’d laughed this hard except maybe the time Sam had sung Troubleman drunk at his sister’s wedding.

For the first time in a long time, Steve doesn’t feel like he’s got to bury Brooklyn behind a polite façade. Bucky understands Brooklyn in the way that Steve wishes Tony would, and that thought right there nearly causes Steve to burn himself pulling his apple pie from the oven.

Suddenly, Bucky is no longer an ice cube. He’s the mother of all icebergs, and Steve might as well be the Titanic, for all he was ready to discover that.

Chapter Text

Having been read his last rights twelve times before the age of twenty-six, Steve has a pretty good idea about how he’s going to die.

That being said, Steve can’t say that he’s ever given thought to the idea that when he finally meets his maker, it will be at the hand of a pistol-wielding Russian in the middle of a bed and breakfast. Then again, if he’s learned nothing else from today, it’s that life has a funny way of surprising him.

The front door swings open with a startling bang just as Steve and Bucky finish getting dinner onto serving platters. A red headed woman and a blond man walk into the dining room dressed in Kevlar and dark colors, and the blond dons a heavy looking duffle bag over his shoulder. At first, they don’t seem to notice Steve or Bucky’s presence in the house and continue to talk as if no one is listening.

“That was Budapest all over again,” the woman says as she peels apart the Velcro of her vest.

“You and I remember Budapest very differently,” the blond man beside her chuckles.

Steve clears his throat, thinking it only polite to let them know they’re not alone, “You must be the Russians?”

In an instant, the woman reaches behind her back and draws a pistol. “Who are you?” She asks, aiming the gun at Steve’s chest. “Name, now.” She urges.

Without warning, Bucky shoves Steve behind him. “Who the Hell are you?” He demands.

“Woah, woah, woah!” The blond man cries, firmly grasping the red head’s arm and forcing the pistol down. “Nat, they’re civilians!”

“Strike Team operatives have many faces, Clint. I’m not taking any chances.” The woman says coldly.

“Okay, him, I can see being an agent,” the man says reasonably, pointing to Bucky, “but this kid?” The man’s gaze falls on Steve, though most of his small frame remains shielded by Bucky’s body. “Come on, Nat. I don’t think he can even go on roller coasters by himself.

The reasoning, however inaccurate, seems to placate the red head. She lowers the pistol slowly and Steve is so relieved that doesn’t bother to inform the room that he is tall enough to ride roller coasters. In fact, he once rode the Cyclone ‘til he puked. Sam has pictures.

“Fair enough,” the woman relents. She returns the pistol to the holster behind her back and enters the kitchen. Steve hadn’t noticed until this point that she’s limping. “Did Erskine get what I asked for?”

Steve looks at the vodka sitting on the counter beside his and Bucky’s empty bottles. He steps out from behind the protection of Bucky’s body and grabs it, handing it to the woman and silently praising himself for doing so without his hands shaking.

He doesn’t fear much, but Steve thinks he might have to add ‘Russian women’ to the list.

“Thanks,” she says stiffly. She bites the cork out of the bottle and spits it onto the floor before returning to the dining room table and collapsing heavily into a chair. She yanks off one of her boots and lets it fall heavily to the floor before rucking up her pant leg, revealing a deep, bleeding gash along her shin. Without hesitation she upends the bottle, letting the vodka trickle down her leg and drip onto the carpet.

“Let’s start over, shall we?” The blonde offers. “I’m Clint.” He explains. “And the lady who just pointed a gun at you is Natasha.”

“And if you know what’s good for you, you’re gonna forget that ever happened.” Natasha warns, looking at Steve in particular.

“Already forgotten,” Steve says quickly because believe it or not, he does sometimes know what’s good for him. “And for the record, I’m Steve and this is Bucky.” He says, pointing at himself and Bucky respectively.

Before either Clint or Natasha get a chance to respond, Erskine and Ella’s footfalls creak steadily down the stairs. At the sound, Natasha rolls down her pants and swiftly pulls her boot back on. She stands quickly and slips out of her Kevlar vest, tossing it to Clint who shoves it into the duffle bag. In the same movement, Clint pulls something small from the duffle and tosses it at Natasha. Steve notices that it’s a ring just a moment before she slides it down her finger.

By the time Erskine and Ella walk into the kitchen, Natasha and Clint have composed themselves so well that even Steve wouldn’t have believed what he’d seen mere minutes ago.

Ella’s smile lights up her face as she takes in the four of them, “Oh, so you’ve met have you?” She asks excitedly.

“We have!” Natasha says in a thick Russian accent that she definitely didn’t have a minute ago. Steve glances over at Bucky who’s looking equally confused.

“Excellent!” Ella says happily. “Now, I know I promised you tripe this morning,” she says sadly, “but, Steve and Bucky offered to make dinner tonight!”

“That’s a shame; I know Clint was looking forward to that.” Natasha says sadly.

She turns to Clint and makes seemingly random gestures, but to Steve they’re anything but random. Born with hearing so deplorable it could be mistaken for deafness at times, Steve’s mother took it upon herself to teach Steve sign language, just in case Steve ever lost the sense completely. The good news: Steve’s hearing improved, the bad news: he now has a wealthy knowledge of signs he rarely ever uses, but he can recognize them now, clear as day.

No tripe. Natasha mimes.

Thank God. Clint replies, also in sign language.

Steve can only watch in stunned silence and wonder which version of this couple is the truth: The pistol wielding assassin and her good-natured partner or the sweet Russian woman and her tripe-loving deaf husband.

 

“Well, I’m sure whatever the boys have made for us will be just as good.” Ella says reassuringly. “Abraham and I are just going to wash up a bit, and then we’ll see if we can’t get this dinner on the table, alright?”

Both Ella and Erskine make their exit, leaving Steve and Bucky alone with the Russians once again. An uncomfortable silence settles in the room. Natasha wears a look that says, They’ll never believe you, and Steve knows she’s right. Hell, he can hardly believe it himself.

“So you’re not really married then?” Steve asks, just to be sure.

Clint chuckles and nudges Natasha with his elbow, “As good as.”

Natasha remains impassive, “Our line of work doesn’t really allow for the amenity of marriage.”

“And what is it you do, exactly?” Bucky asks.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Natasha says with a roguish smirk.

The timer goes off on the oven, breaking the tension. Bucky hesitates, almost like he’s expecting Natasha to pull her gun on Steve again the moment his back is turned, but with one last warning glare he crosses the room to the oven.

“Well, as great as it’s been getting to know each other, I think I’ll go put this in our room.” Clint says, alluding to the duffle bag still weighing heavily on his shoulder. He wanders off down the hall, leaving Natasha in the dining room where she looks content just to stand and watch.

Steve takes it upon himself to set the table. He finds placemats in one of the kitchen drawers and sets them down on the worn mahogany table, admiring the way the crème fabric stands out against the red wood. Inspired, he carefully chooses which plates he uses, making sure the colorful detailing around the edges offset the colors of the wood and well as the room itself. Something about it soothes him, reminds him of home.

When he’s done, he steps back and admires his work.

“I’m impressed.”

He looks up at Natasha, who he’d nearly forgotten was still there leaning against the wall, watching him carefully.

Steve looks back to the table. “Oh, it’s nothing. I just grabbed a couple of plates from—.”

“Not the table.” She says. She tilts her head pointedly towards the kitchen, to where Bucky’s pulling the chicken from the oven and setting it on the island. “He’s a looker.”

“Oh,” Steve blurts, catching on to her meaning, “oh, no, it’s not like that. We’re—This is fake, too. Him and I, we’re not really together.” He explains quickly.

Natasha lifts a skeptical brow and hums thoughtfully. “Really?” She asks. “Could have fooled me,” she admits, “and I’m not easily fooled. Tell me, Steve: do all your fake husbands step in front of a loaded gun for you?”

Steve refuses to meet her gaze. “Not many of them get the chance.” He deflects.

“Something to think about,” she says casually. She pushes away from the wall and follows Clint the way he left, leaving Steve to dissect the statement left hanging in the air.

Bucky enters the room moments later and sets down a heavy bowl of mashed potatoes. He steps back and surveys the table. “Is this staging, then?” He asks.

Steve smiles and shrugs. “I suppose it is, yeah.”

Bucky nods appreciatively. “Pretty good,” he says, looking at Steve out of the corner of his eye, “for a con-artist.”

Steve punches him hard in the shoulder, but allows Bucky to scamper away without further chastising. Besides, instigating Bucky might lead to him noticing just how pink Steve’s cheeks turn at the praise, and Natasha’s words are ringing through his mind so loud that he wouldn’t have been able to think of much of a comeback anyway.

***

If Steve weren’t already convinced that then entire universe was conspiring against him, this is the final nail in the coffin. Not only is Bucky a great looking guy from Brooklyn, but the bastard can cook. Steve might even be inclined to say that he’s better than Tony’s live-in chef, who up until Steve had taken a bite of Bucky’s cooking had been the best cook Steve knew.

The sentiment is shared around the table. While Natasha and Clint are silent in their approval, both Erskine and Ella hum appreciatively around their mouthfuls.

“The chicken’s excellent!” Ella says.

“It was all Steve.” Bucky says, which Steve thinks is a massive exaggeration. All Steve had done was throw salt and pepper on it, which is hardly the mark of a true chef, but Ella is now looking at him expectantly, so he figures he’s got to say something.

“He’s just being modest. I’m awful at chicken; Tony always says I make it too dry.” He says offhandedly.

“Tony?” Natasha asks. Her brow arches curiously, but Steve catches the devious smirk toying on her lips which she tries to disguise by taking a sip from her glass. “Who’s Tony?” She asks impishly.

Steve freezes. Right, he thinks, Tony doesn’t exist. Tony is not his husband right now. Bucky is. Bucky is the one who should be chastising him over his dry chicken. So who the Hell is Tony?

“Tony’s our next door neighbor.” Bucky lies easily. Natasha’s eyes dart over to him, though her expression remains smug. Now that she’s got their number, Steve doubts she’s gonna relent.

“He stops by for dinner sometimes,” Steve continues, turning Natasha’s disbelieving stare back on himself.

Bucky hums in agreement. “Arrogant son of a bitch, he is.” He says cheekily. “Always tinkering away in his room, I think he fancies himself a bit of an engineer.”

Steve’s jaw clenches, but he’s painfully aware that he’s being watched by four other people, so he works his mouth into a smile. “I think he’s just misunderstood.” He says tensely.

“Of course you do,” Bucky sighs. He leans towards Ella and holds a hand to his mouth, conspiratorially whispering loud enough for the table to hear. “He’s got a bit of a thing for Steve. Always dropping by when I’m not around, asking to borrow sugar and what not.”

Steve pointedly stomps on Bucky’s foot beneath the table, and Bucky disguises his pained cry as a hasty sneeze. Ella and Erskine both bless him, but across the table Natasha’s smirk only grows.

“More whiskey, then?” Erskine asks, standing from the table. The table hums in agreement, and so he heads into the kitchen in search of another bottle.

“Why don’t you grab the Jameson from the wedding, Abe?” Ella calls after him.

“Ah, that old antique?” Erskine calls.

Ella lets out a scandalized gasp, “An antique?” She cries, though her smile nullifies any indignation. “Just how long do you think we’ve been married?”

Clint gets Natasha’s attention and signs, He walked straight into that one.

Erskine comes back into the room with the Jameson in hand, smiling sheepishly at his wife. “Oh, El, I hardly notice the time pass when I’m with you. Coulda been a hundred years, for all I know.” He says fondly.

Ella’s expression immediately softens. “Get over here, you rascal.” She says, equally fond.

Erskine sets the whiskey down on the table before taking her face gently between his hands and pressing a firm kiss to her lips. When he pulls away, Ella’s looking at him like he’s hung the moon, and Steve wonders if that’s how he looks when Tony kisses him. He’d like to think not, if only because he doesn’t dare think how stupid he’d look with such a love drunk expression.

On his way back to his seat, Erskine chuckles and points to Ella, “That’s what it takes to be married for forty years.” He says knowledgably. “The kiss,” he reiterates as he settles into his chair. “Always kiss as though it is the first time and the last time, no?”

Natasha hums in agreement and nods. “I think Clint and I know better than anyone what it’s like to feel like any given moment could be the last.” She says, turning to look at Clint with softness in her eyes that Steve hadn’t thought she was capable of. For a fleeting moment, she looks like a woman in love.

Clint smiles in return and signs to her, I’m crazy about you.

Natasha answers with a kiss. What begins innocent enough quickly devolves into something more as Clint lifts a hand and tangles it in Natasha’s hair at the base of her neck, holding her in place as he deepens the kiss, which Natasha accepts willingly.

Steve turns slowly to Bucky, who’s turning to him at the same time. They share the same astounded look before snickering quietly. Bucky reaches for his napkin to stifle the sound while Steve just coughs into the back of his hand.

Ella watches on for another moment, but when Clint nips at Natasha’s bottom lip, she clears her throat as means of polite intervention. “Grand?”

Clint and Natasha pull apart, and with a final kiss to her nose, Clint settles back into his seat with a cocky grin while Natasha apologizes for their behavior. She doesn’t seem sorry to Steve, but she’s nothing if not an excellent actress.

Ella turns on Bucky and Steve, staring at them expectantly. “Well then?” She urges.

Steve looks from Ella to Bucky, then back to Ella again. “Well what?” He asks stupidly.

“Well,” Erskine says, prompting Steve to turn and look at him instead, “I’ve kissed my wife. Natasha has certainly kissed her husband,” at this, Clint signs ‘No complaints here', though no one but Steve and Natasha understand, “why don’t you boys show us how it’s done?”

“What? No.” Steve says quickly. He tries his best not to sound so scandalized when he hastily adds, “We did it earlier. Kiss, that is! We already kissed earlier.”

“Don’t be such a shivery man!” Erskine heckles, nudging Steve’s shoulder firmly. “You’re among friends!”

Steve looks over at Bucky. He’s staring resolutely down at his plate, pushing his chicken and potatoes around like if he ignores the conversation hard enough, it will disappear. Knowing that he’s unlikely to get any help on Bucky’s end of things, Steve leans across the space between them and drops a chaste kiss on Bucky’s cheek. Chaste may even be a stretch. Bucky’s stubble hardly grazes Steve’s lips before Steve is retreating.

Natasha snorts but covers her laughter with another sip from her glass. “What is this, 1945?”

“Aye, the girl’s right!” Ella cries, slapping Bucky’s arm reproachfully. “You’re young, married, and in love! Anyone could see that!”

Across the table, Natasha’s eyes light up again. “You’d have to be blind.” She says supportively.

Ella nods reassuringly, “Come on, then! Kiss the boy!”

Bucky puts down his fork with a sharp clink and turns to Steve. He places his right hand on the back of Steve’s neck, and with the left he gently cups Steve’s cheek before pulling him in for a kiss, pressing his lips to Steve’s before Steve can get a word in edgewise.

At first, he’s too stunned to react. He’s stiff in his seat, his eyes are still half open, and he’s hyper aware of their audience watching on all sides. He’s thinking of Tony, what Tony would have to say about this, the look on Tony’s face if he ever found out.

But then Bucky’s hand—the left, which feels so much warmer than any metal hand has a right to be—runs slowly down his cheek, fingers gliding over Steve’s skin almost reverently. He breaks the kiss, leaving minimal space between their lips, silently daring Steve to push this further. To give these people a goddamn show.

Well, if it’s a show these people want, then it’s a show they’re gonna get. He keeps Natasha’s daunting glare in his mind as he chases Bucky’s lips.

He relaxes into the kiss this time, making up for his past blunder by sighing quietly against Bucky’s lips and fisting his hand into the loose strands at Bucky’s nape. He drags Bucky towards him, forcing the other man to lean further in his seat to follow Steve’s mouth. The hand that had been holding the back of Steve’s neck drops down to his ribs, running slowly from his side to his back, making Steve arch into the touch.

Steve’s other hand comes up to take Bucky’s chin in a firm hold, keeping him where Steve wants him. His stubble bristles against his fingers, his chin, his lips, but the burn is soothed by the pillow softness of Bucky’s lips against his. Besides, it’s not like Steve’s a stranger to beard burn, seeing as Tony—

Tony.

Steve pulls away abruptly, leaving Bucky hanging in midair looking dazed and confused. He refuses to meet anyone’s eyes: not Bucky’s glossy blues, or Natasha’s knowing greens, or Erskine’s laughing brown. He just wants to skin right through the floor and hope his own guilt kills him.

Bucky slowly leans away, though the glazed look in his eye remains. He looks somewhere between shocked and confused, and if Steve were looking at him, he’d be able to see the way Bucky keeps glancing at his lips.

“Well,” Ella says breathlessly, “I guess we got what we asked for with that one, eh, Abe?” She chuckles.

Erskine hums and joins her in laughter. “I see why Tony doesn’t stand a chance. Good on you, boy!” He says, tilting his glass at Bucky before taking a sip.

Steve reaches eagerly for his own glass and downs the remaining liquor in one go. The burn of whiskey does nothing to alleviate the tightness in his chest, making him wonder if the feeling is suffocating guilt or just plain desire.

The realization that he’s fucked either way has Steve reaching for Bucky’s glass and downing his drink, as well. Bucky doesn’t even put up a fight. He just watches Steve’s throat bob as the liquor scorches down his throat, transfixed.

Correction: They’re both fucked.

***

Steve lies awake long after he and Bucky grumble hasty goodnights to each other. Bucky has since disappeared behind the plastic curtain; armed with the pillow Steve had mercifully allowed him to take from the bed along with enough quilts to provide some cushion against the cold tiled floor.

Steve stares at the ceiling above. He fixates on the faded water stains, the chipped paint, and the small cracks, all of which remind him of the small one-bedroom apartment he and his mother had lived in growing up. Even the creaking pipes in the walls sound familiar.

On the other side of the wall Steve can hear Clint and Natasha speaking in hushed murmurs. Natasha’s dropped the accent and Clint’s hands no longer have to speak for him, and they laugh easily and often. Steve wonders why they have to pretend in the first place.

The sound of the curtain rustling draws Steve’s attention back to the shower where Bucky’s standing in the doorway, clutching his pillow to his chest.

“It’s pretty cold in here.” He says conversationally. “Sure would be nice if I had a husband to show me a little mercy.” At this, he clasps his hands in a pleading, theatric gesture and pouts.

Steve surrenders a laugh and then, after a moment of thought, surrenders the left side of the bed as well. He turns the comforter down on Bucky’s side before scooting over, allowing the man room to climb in beside him.

Bucky nearly runs to the bed, tossing his pillow down next to Steve’s before diving onto the mattress, bouncing a few times before settling in. “Thanks.” He says appreciatively as he wriggles around in the sheets.

“No problem.” Steve says stiffly, now perfectly aware of the warm body beside him. “But one snore and you’re back in the shower.”

Bucky snorts. He raises both arms and tucks his hands behind his head, staring up at the same cracks and stains Steve had been looking at a minute ago.

Steve remains stiff with his hands placed atop one another on his chest. He probably looks a bit like a corpse, but this bed isn’t big enough to allow him room to stretch without brushing against Bucky’s body, which burns like a furnace only inches away.

Steve wonders if Bucky’s thinking about the same thing he is: The kiss.

He doesn’t dare ask, not now. Not when Bucky’s so close, when his warmth is so alluring and just the mention of a kiss might inspire Steve to quit talking about it and act on the impulses burning beneath his skin. It would be so easy to roll over and give in, to chase Bucky’s mouth, to succumb to the reverent touches.

But Steve has rarely ever done anything the easy way. So he stays still and appeals to the reasonable side of his brain, no matter how small it may be.

Bucky had kissed him because he’d had to, not because he wanted to. Hell, he might not even be attracted to men, though that kiss had certainly made it seem possible…

“You realize I’ll have to charge you overnight for this, right?” Bucky asks with a cheeky grin.

Steve rolls his eyes. He’d nearly forgotten that Bucky was in this for the money. For all Steve knows, that could have been Bucky’s soul motivator for the kiss. This whole thing is a performance to him, but to Steve, for just a moment, it had been something dangerous. Something off the beaten path that he’s been wandering on for four years. He’s drawn to the recklessness, the unpredictability, and the mystery of all that is the man lying beside him, but if this is all for money, Steve doubts there’s all that much left to discover.

“Well, if money’s all that matters to you I’ll be sure to throw an extra hundred on top for you.” He says stiffly. He rolls onto his side, facing away from the man beside him and staring resolutely out the window.

Bucky shifts beside him. At first, it’s just a turn of the head. Then his arms fall heavily at his sides, followed by restless tossing and turning until finally he comes to a rest. The silence mounts, though it feels like a conversation lingers above them, suspended, ready to crash over them and bring to light all the things Steve’s not ready to deal with.

And so he makes no effort to speak and neither does Bucky. It’s so silent that Clint and Natasha’s conversation next door carries through the paper thin walls.

“Thought I’d lost you today, out there in the rain.”

“It takes more than a bullet to put me down. You of all people should know.”

“I love you. I’m so in love with you…”

“Love is for children, Clint.”

“Good thing you fell in love with a child then.”

“Mm, I suppose it is.”

Steve decides to be a bit of a child himself and tugs his pillow up over his head, effectively drowning out their whispers. He doesn’t want to think any more: not about Tony, not about Bucky, not even about the newfound information that Clint and Natasha’s occupation involves getting shot at on a regular basis. All he wants is a few hours of blissful ignorance, and in the morning he’ll sort out his mess of a mind.

The creaking pipes eventually lull him to sleep, just like they used to when he was a boy.

Chapter Text

FEBRUARY 28th, 2012

Steve blinks against the sunlight streaming through the window and for a moment he thinks that’s to blame for the cozy contentment he feels from head to toe. He burrows down into the sheets and breathes in the smell of crisp air and freshly mown grass; two things he rarely gets to enjoy living in New York. He hums happily and tightens the covers around his shoulders.

That’s when he realizes something else tightening around him as well. He cracks an eye open and glances at the arm around his waist.

At some point in the night he and Bucky’s bodies took to each other like magnets. He can feel every contour of Bucky’s body pressed against his. He’s even got Bucky’s face buried in the nape of his neck, breathing steady puffs of air against the skin there, blissfully unaware of the turmoil he’s causing.

Because, goddamn it, this is nice. Steve can’t remember the last time he’d rolled over in bed to find Tony’s body rather than a hastily written note reading, Work stuff! –T, and he’d be lying if he said he didn’t miss the feeling of waking up warm in someone else’s arms.

He knows this is wrong. He knows, but he can’t bring himself to roll out of bed just yet. And so he remains until Bucky wakes up.

Steve is somewhere between dozing and consciousness when he feels Bucky shift against him. A moment later Bucky’s head pops off the pillow and Steve can almost feel his eyes boring down on him. He tries his best to remain calm and feign sleep.

He feels Bucky slowly retract his arm from around him. Bucky’s movements remain cautious as he slides away from Steve’s body, taking the warmth with him. Steve nearly chases after it, considers crawling after him and assuring Bucky that it’s okay, even though he knows in his heart of hearts that it’s not.

Steve keeps his eyes closed until he hears the door click shut behind Bucky. While Bucky’s footsteps fade away, Steve throws the covers from his body and sits up, curling his legs up to his chest and resting his head on his knees.

He never asked for any of this. All he wanted was to get engaged. All he wanted was security, and yet here he is, feeling about as exposed and unsure as he’s ever been.

He doesn’t know what to call these feelings for Bucky. Nothing seems to capture the lightning-strike quality of the feeling in Steve’s chest, no word does justice to the suddenness with which it came, or the intensity with which it burns.

But what he does know is Tony. With Tony he’s not chasing after an indefinable feeling, with Tony, he’s… Settling, the Sam-like voice in his head suggests. Steve stomps that thought out as quick as it came. He’s not settling, he’s comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with choosing comfort. Is he really considering throwing that away for a man who he’d loathed all of twenty four hours ago?

Steve sighs and sits upright, daring to face the day and the decision that looms in front of him. This internal war is a battle that Steve had never intended on picking, but he figures he’s got to see it through and deal with the casualties after the dust settles.

***

“Stark.”

The moment Steve hears Tony’s voice his resolve crumbles. He’s not ready to throw away four years of his life, not over something he’s not sure of.

“Tony, hey.” He says, trying to keep any strain out of his voice.

“Steve! Where the Hell are you?”

“I’m in Tipperary,” he says, conveniently omitting the part where he’s pretending to be married to another man, whom he can hear milling about in the kitchen down the hall, “you can’t imagine what I’ve been through.” He says with a chuckle.

“Well, maybe this will cheer you up,” Tony says teasingly, “I just heard from the board over at the Cambridge: the apartment is ours!”

“We got the apartment?” Steve repeats. Down the hall, something heavy drops and Steve hears Bucky cuss. “Are you serious?”

“All they need is our names on the dotted lines and the place will be officially ours. I even convinced them to let me tear out that God awful chandelier.” Tony says. “And the walls have got to go. I’m thinking Hot Rod Red, what about you?”

Steve holds his tongue. He doesn’t dare mention that he actually likes the chandelier. He knows how much this means to Tony, and so it’s with as much conviction as he can muster that he answers, “Hot Rod Red, huh? I can learn to live with that.”

Tony laughs on his end, “Get here soon, alright? I miss you.”

“I miss you, too.” Steve says softly. “I’ll be there are soon as I can.”

He hangs up the phone and looks down the hall. It’s quieter now, so Steve wanders down the hall to see what all the fuss was about.

He pokes his head into the room and sees a plate of piping hot breakfast waiting on the table; however Bucky’s nowhere to be found. The plate sits in front of the chair Steve had sat in last night, leading him to believe it’s for himself.

His suspicions are only confirmed when Erskine comes into the room, fastening the belt of his bathrobe. He startles for a moment when he sees Steve before smiling jovially. “Morning, Steve. Sleep well, did you?”

“Yes, sir.” Steve says politely.

Erskine nods towards the table, “Your man fixed up a fine breakfast for us this morning. Think he left that plate with you in mind.” He explains. “He slipped out while you were on the phone though, said something about needing some air.” Erskine crosses the room to the coffee pot and begins a fresh brew. “So, what’s on the agenda for today, then?” He asks conversationally.

Steve sits down to eat before answering, “I think it’s about time for me to get to Dublin.”

“Well you can’t go today.” Erskine says matter of factly.

“Why not?” Steve asks.

“It’s bad luck to start a journey on a Sunday!” Erskine says as though it should be obvious.

Steve laughs, “I think I’ve already got enough of that.”

Bucky walks through the door a moment later, dressed in his worn flannel and dark jeans again. Steve frowns and wishes he could spare him something clean to wear, but the thought of Bucky’s body squeezing into Steve’s clothes is laughable.

“Ah, there’s the man himself!” Erskine says upon his arrival. “I was just telling Steve how you fed the troops this morning.”

For all of Erskine’s enthusiasm, Bucky only offers a non-committal grunt in return. Steve finds that a bit odd, but turns back to Erskine regardless. “I’m trying to get to Dublin by tomorrow.” He explains.

“And why is that again, Charming?” Bucky asks.

Steve pauses with his next bite still suspended between his plate and his mouth, fixing Bucky with a glare. Their silent exchange couldn’t be clearer:

You know why, jackass.

I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Rogers-Barnes.

“Well, there’s no train on Sundays, so I hope you aren’t counting on that to get you there.” Erskine says, refocusing Steve’s attention on himself. “It’s too bad you didn’t wake up with Bucky, here. Ella took the car to Dublin, I’m sure she’d have been happy to take you.”

Steve nearly chokes on his eggs. “She—She went to Dublin?” He sputters.

“Sure, just this morning.” Erskine says while pouring his coffee into his mug. “’Fraid she won’t be back until tomorrow, otherwise I’d let you borrow it as soon as she came back.” He laments.

Steve’s face is frozen somewhere between shock and horror while Bucky doubles over with laughter at Steve’s expense. His laughter continues until Steve silences him with a glare, and only then is he able to compose himself enough to speak. “Guess that means we’re walking, eh?”

Steve’s shoulders slump because, yes, it means they’re walking.

***

“How much further to Dublin?” Steve asks. He feels a bit like a petulant child on a long car ride, seeing as how he asked Bucky the same question not thirty minutes ago.

“Bus stations ‘bout a mile closer than the last time you asked.” Bucky says.

Steve knows he walked right into that one, but the brusqueness of Bucky’s tone irks him none the less. He’s been like this since they left Erskine’s, and Steve can’t figure out what happened between now and last night that would bring about this change in Bucky.

He misses the effortless conversations from last night. He wants to talk about Brooklyn. He wants to know if Bucky saw the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. He wants to know if Bucky ever got into scuffles in the same alleys he did. He replays parts of last night’s conversation in his head: the heated debate about who makes the best pizza in Brooklyn, the spot-on imitation Bucky can do of the News 12 anchorman, Bucky’s full-bodied laugh that made Steve’s heart clench…

He’s pulled back into the present when something small and hits his head. He jumps straight to the conclusion that Bucky’s thrown something at him, a pebble perhaps, and wastes no time accusing the man of just that.

“What are you talking about?” Bucky asks.

“Cut the shit, it ain’t funny.” Steve snaps.

“Look at you, goin’ all Brooklyn on me.” Bucky teases.

Steve squares his jaw and stalks ahead, ignoring Bucky’s patronizing chuckle. He can’t believe he’d diluted himself into believing that just because they had a few things (okay, a lot of things) in common, it would change anything. Nothing has changed, except that he now knows how Bucky’s lips feel pressed against his own.

Damn good.

Seconds later another stone hits Steve. He spins on Bucky, ready to burst. “I don’t know where you get off, but when a guy says cut the shit, it usually means stop!” He screams, dropping his suitcase and crowding into Bucky’s space.

Bucky scoffs and makes to respond, but something bounces off the bridge of his nose from above and falls harmlessly into the space between them, cutting him off.

Bucky looks up in time for another frozen drop to bounce off his cheek and join the others on the ground. After that, hail begins to pound the gravel and create an audible patter as the storm intensifies. It feels like a thousand tiny bullets striking Steve’s skin before falling to the wayside.

“Come on! Up there!” Bucky calls, pointing to a long driveway barely visible through the hail. Steve can’t image what’s at the end of it, but he figures something’s better than nothing. He turns to grab his suitcase, but Bucky catches his hand and shoves him ahead, scooping up the bag on the way.

“I’ve got Louis, you just run ahead!” Bucky orders.

“His name isn’t Louis!” Steve shouts, just to be difficult. Running is a lot easier without fifty pounds of dead weight dragging him down. Pride aside, he follows Bucky’s orders, running ahead and navigating the winding path despite barely being able to see three feet in front of him.

“Jesus Christ, Charming. For a small guy you sure do pack heavy.” Bucky heckles from behind.

Steve looks back and laughs at the sight of Bucky holding his suitcase above his head, using it as a shield from the hail while also stooping under its weight. “What good are all those muscles if you can’t use ‘em, huh?”

“Oh, I’d like to show you a couple of good uses for ‘em.” Bucky growls.

Steve nearly loses his footing. He knows Bucky meant it in an ‘I-can-break-your-bones-with-my-pinky’ sort of way, but Steve’s mind side steps that notion and goes straight into the gutter, electing to take it in an ‘I’ll-hold-you-against-a-wall-and-have-you-screaming’ way instead. He shakes himself and picks up the pace, hoping that he can outrun both the hail and his traitorous thoughts.

Up ahead he spots a stone building with ornate wooden doors standing at the end of their road. It doesn’t look like a home, nor does it look like private property, so Steve has no problem bursting through the door and stumbling into the small entry way.

Bucky comes barreling in a moment later, tripping over the entry way and slamming into Steve’s body at full force, nearly knocking the wind out of him.

Steve’s suitcase falls to the ground with a THUD that’s nearly as loud as the sound Steve’s body makes when it connects with the wall. Bucky somehow manages bracket his forearms on either side of Steve’s head, catching himself before he can crush Steve with his body.

Steve looks up and freezes. Their faces are inches apart, though inches might even be too kind. All Steve would need to do is tilt his head just that much higher and he’d be able to claim Bucky’s lips in a kiss. His eyes dart down to Bucky’s mouth, which hangs open the slightest bit, tempting Steve to close the distance. The opportunity is right there and Bucky doesn’t seem to be making any attempt to pull away. He’s just staring down at Steve with this wide-eyed look on his face that Steve can’t decipher.

“Gentlemen?”

Steve and Bucky both turn to see that they’ve attracted the attention of everyone in the room beyond. But it’s not just any room, Steve realizes with mounting mortification. It’s a church. They broke into a church.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, they’ve interrupted a fucking wedding. The bride and groom at the end of the aisle are looking at them with trepidation and confusion and Steve can’t say he blames them. The priest standing between the couple is looking at him expectantly, awaiting an explanation that Steve simply doesn’t have.

“Jesus Christ…” Bucky says.

“Is Lord.” Steve says quickly, hastily covering Bucky’s use of the Lord’s name in vein while standing in the Lord’s freaking house. Talk about making a bad situation worse.

“Do either of you have just cause as to why this man and this woman should not be joined in holy matrimony?” The priest asks.

Steve and Bucky shake their heads in unison. Bucky goes so far as to say, “I’m sure they know what they’re doing.”

The priest gestures to vacant seats in the back of the church. “Well, feel free to join if you feel inclined.”

Steve and Bucky share a quick, silent conversation where in which they both agree that sitting in a room full of strangers is still a more favorable option than braving the hail. They mutter their thanks before awkwardly shuffling down the pews and sliding into the seats offered to them. The bride gives Steve a friendly smile, which he returns. He’s not sure if he’d be so kind if strangers crashed his wedding. The priest resumes the ceremony as if nothing has happened and the crowd turns back towards the happy couple.

“You know, I didn’t bring a date.” Bucky whispers.

Steve smirks, “You askin’ me?” He teases.

Bucky scoffs, “I don’t have to. We’re already married, remember?”

A woman in the pew in front of them turns around to hush them, forcing them to laugh in silence, chuckling quietly every time their eyes meet.

***

“Then it is with the power vested in me that I pronounce you Husband and Wife. You may kiss the bride!” The couple kisses, the crowd erupts, and Steve and Bucky take that as their cue to leave.

They’re nearly halfway down the drive when a voice calls to them from behind. “Hey! Wait! Wait up!”

Steve and Bucky both turn to see the groom chasing after them; brown hair flopping madly while thick glasses bounce off the bridge of his nose. They wait while the groom catches his breath, huffing and puffing as he staggers to a halt in front of them. He’s still lanky in the way that most boys are in high school, though if Steve had to guess his age, he might say twenty five, give or take.

“You guys—You guys should stay for the reception!” He gasps; smiling earnestly like nothing in this world would please him more. “Gwen agrees, she thinks you guys are a riot.”

“That’s real nice of you, but—.” Steve begins, only to be interrupted before he can even think of an excuse to decline.

“Please!” The groom begs. “Please, come on, you’ve gotta! Free food! Free drinks! And Gwen’s dying to meet you. Seriously, you guys are great. Crashing a wedding? So classic! My aunt May got it on video!”

His enthusiasm wears Steve down quickly, though the decision practically makes itself when Steve’s stomach gives an interested growl. “Sure, why not?” Steve agrees.

While the groom whoops and hollers victoriously, Bucky fixes him with a disbelieving glare. “We should be heading for Dublin, don’t you think?” Bucky asks stiffly.

“Dublin?” The groom asks incredulously. “You guys trying to get to Dublin?” Steve nods, and the groom’s grin grows impossibly wider. “Hey man, no way! Gwen and I are headed there after the reception. You two stick around long enough; you could hitch a ride with us!”

“You really think your girl’s gonna appreciate you dragging a couple a strays on your honeymoon?” Bucky asks.

The groom shrugs, “It’s just a ride. ‘Sides, Gwen’s totally one of those ‘live for the moment’ types.”

Steve feels compelled to drop to his knees and kiss the groom’s Chuck Taylors. “That would be great! Are you sure it’s alright?”

The groom waves a hand and chuckles, “It’s a story for the grandkids.” He says nonchalantly. “We’d better get going, or else my buddy Wade’s gonna eat all the good stuff.”

The groom, Peter, they eventually learn is his name, guides them behind the church and down a sloping hill where they come to an open field of lush grass swaying gently in the rolling wind. A tent is erected on the shore of a serene lake which glints almost silver in the sunlight. The long strips of silk and cotton that construct the tent float effortlessly in the wind, and even from a distance Steve can hear the happy, upbeat music playing inside.

They talk as they walk and Steve is surprised to find that Peter, too, comes from New York. Queens, to be exact. Gwen, also from Queens, had been adamant about a destination wedding, which explains to Steve why they’re here, though it doesn’t explain why everyone and their mother from New York seems to be in Ireland right now. Steve is half expecting to enter the tent and see his own mother waiting for him with a finger sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other.

But Sarah Rogers is nowhere to be found. Peter offers them any seat they can find and makes a hasty depart after someone catches his eye across the room. Steve hears his ecstatic cry of, “Harry? No fuckin’ way, dude!” before Peter’s lost to the crowd.

“Better find a seat before,” he turns to Bucky, or at least the space where Bucky had been just a moment ago, “it fills up…” He finishes lamely, turning this way and that, trying to find Bucky. He’s got a metal fuckin’ arm, how hard can it be? He thinks.

Apparently, very.

Steve gives up the search after five minutes of hopeless wandering around the crowded dance floor. He heads over to a table towards the middle of the tent and takes a seat, painfully aware that he sticks out like a sore thumb. He self-consciously pushes his bangs back from his face and wonders if the free food is really worth the embarrassment.

Out of the corner of his eye he sees a flash of red and can’t help the sigh of relief that slips past his lips unchecked. Bucky crosses the room with two flutes of champagne and a stormy look on his face. The champagne surprises Steve, the scowl not so much.

Steve thanks him; taking his glass while Bucky falls into the seat to his left. Bucky shakes his head, “We’re gonna need it. Toasts are coming up.” Bucky raises the glass to his lips and tips his head back, downing his flute in one go.

“How’re you supposed to toast them with no drink?” Steve asks, eyeing the empty glass.

Bucky’s face falls with mock disappointment, “Guess I’ll have to get another.” He makes to get up again, but Steve catches his arm and shoves him back into his chair.

“What’s gotten into you?” Steve asks, holding Bucky’s stare while keeping a firm grip on his arm.

Bucky sets his glass down heavily on the linen table. “Fuckin’ hate weddings.”

Steve balks and laughs at the absurdity of the response. “Why? Because people are in love?” He looks across the room and spots Peter and Gwen pressed forehead to forehead while they laugh at some private joke. “Look at how happy they are. Is that so offensive?”

Bucky follows Steve’s line of vision and sneers. “Yeah, it is, actually.”

Steve’s eyes narrow and return to Bucky. “Why? It’s not like you’re married or anything. Hell, with your lousy attitude I’d be surprised if you had a girlfriend. Or even a pet rock.”

Bucky raises a brow and smirks, “Think a lot of people would be surprised if I had a girlfriend. ‘Specially my exes.”

Steve’s mind takes a moment to process that. Exes. Exes would imply that there were, in fact, relationships. However, girlfriends would come as a surprise to these alleged exes. Steve’s jaw drops a bit as he puts together the equation in his head: Relationships – Girlfriends = Boyfriends. Boyfriends. Bucky’s gay.

Oh fucking Hell, Bucky’s gay.

And just like that, Steve’s list of ‘Reasons Why Bucky Barnes is Off Limits’ becomes that much shorter, thus reading:

1. Tony

Suddenly Steve wouldn’t mind downing a couple glasses of champagne himself. Maybe even an entire bottle. Bucky takes that option away when he reaches over and takes Steve’s champagne, downing it with the same enthusiasm he’d done his own.

Steve can’t even reprimand him because a) He’d done the same thing to Bucky just last night and, b) Peter is standing up from his seat at the bridal table, tapping his knife against his champagne glass.

“I hate to interrupt a good party, but I just wanted to thank everyone for coming out: family, friends new and old!

“All’s I wanted to say was… Gwen Stacy,” at this he takes her hand, upon which her diamond gleams, “may you never lie, steal, or cheat. But if you must steal then steal away my burdens. And if you must lie, lie with me all the nights of my life. And if you must cheat,” Peter swallows thickly, “then please cheat death, because I couldn’t live a day without you.”

“Yeah, fuck this.” Bucky snarls, standing from his chair so quickly it nearly tips. He steals a flute of champagne from a passing waiter and storms out of the tent.

Steve promises himself that he absolutely will not, under any circumstances, chase after Bucky. It’s not Steve’s job to keep him on a leash. He’s a grown man. He’ll come back when he wants to.

He’s not going to follow him. He’s not.

…Fuck.

Steve gets up from his chair and follows him. He finds Bucky skipping stones by the edge of the lake, humming them across the glossy surface, one after the other. He hesitates for a moment, watching the skip-skip-splash of the stones while trying to find the right words.

He settles for the obvious. “Are you alright?”

Bucky starts, clearly not expecting to have been followed. He eyes Steve for a moment before shrugging and turning back to the water. “I’m fine. ‘S just hot in there, you know?”

Skip-skip-splash.

Steve shakes his head and tries again, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Bucky’s next stone hits the water hard, sinking to the surface without a single skip. “Listen,” Bucky growls, “you’re in Ireland, pal. You don’t ‘talk about it’, you get yourself a drink and you shut up. Try it sometime, yeah?”

“I’m just trying to help!” Steve shouts. He hopes they’re far enough away from the reception that they can’t be heard.

Bucky laughs scornfully, “Help?” He repeats. “That’s hilarious! The man who’s so desperate that he’s chasing his boyfriend to Dublin, making the most important decision of his life based on some ridiculous tradition, is trying to offer me help! That’s,” splash!, “fuckin’”, splash!, “hilarious,” splash!

Steve clenches his jaw and stares Bucky down. “So glad I could be a joke to you,” he spits. “I’ll remember that the next time I try to care.” He turns and goes without another word, figuring there’s a glass of champagne with his name on it somewhere.

Behind him he hears Bucky toss another stone. Skip-skip-skip-skip-skip-skip-splash.

***

Steve finds several glasses of champagne with his name on it when he returns to the tent. Then he finds several more. Then he gets into the gin and from there the details get a little fuzzy.

He remembers meeting Gwen, the beautiful bride with the Oxford education and a sharp wit. He remembers hitting the buffet table one or seven times, running into Wade “Where the Fuck Are the Chimichangas” Wilson more than once. He remembers standing at the edge of the dance floor, watching couples laughing and dancing while teetering on the knife’s edge of inebriation.

Buck doesn’t return until well after the sun sets. Steve spots him moving through the crowd, illuminated by the soft glow of the Christmas lights twinkling overhead. Steve pointedly avoids his gaze as he approaches, taking a sudden interest in his whiskey.

“’M no good at weddings.”

Steve slowly looks up from his glass to Bucky’s wide, sad eyes. His voice barely caries over the music, and if Steve weren’t secretly waiting to hear Bucky say something, he probably would have missed it. He pretends to be mad, just for a moment longer, but the liquor’s got him in a forgiving mood.

“They’re better after a couple drinks.” He admits, raising his glass to Bucky. He turns back to the dance floor and watches Peter stagger onto the stage and take the microphone from the DJ.

“Hey, hey guys,” he calls to the crowd, “everyone on the dance floor for this one, come on! Come on!” He hands the microphone back to the DJ before rejoining the rambunctious crowd. The song starts, and it’s one Steve’s familiar with. He’s even able to whistle along with the beginning.

“You wanna dance?”

Steve looks from Bucky, to the hand Bucky’s offering him, to the dance floor, then back to Bucky once again. “Us?” He asks.

Bucky rolls his eyes, “No, I’m talking to the guy back there with chimichanga all over his face. Yes, us.”

Steve shakes his head and chuckles, “No, no, I can’t. Two left feet.” He says solemnly.

Bucky takes the glass from Steve’s hand and sets it firmly on a nearby table before offering his hand again. “Come on, Steve. I’ve got a metal arm, ain’t nobody gonna be looking at your feet.” He reasons.

Steve chews on his bottom lip, staring at the hand being offered to him. He’s not sure what gives him the courage, be it the liquor or the smile on Bucky’s face, but either way he puts his hand in Bucky’s and allows himself to be dragged into the crowd.

Bucky leads them straight into the middle of the dance floor where they find Peter and Gwen, spinning effortlessly and laughing with every misstep or trampled toe. Other couples jump in, though Steve isn’t too keen on joining, seeing as how his dance repertoire is limited to The Cotton-Eyed Joe.

“I can’t! I don’t know how!” Steve pleads.

“Just follow my lead, Charming!” He pulls Steve close to his body before dragging him into the fray without a chance for escape.

The dance starts out as simply as the song does. Bucky shuffles Steve around the floor patiently until Steve thinks he’s finally got the hang of it. When the beat starts up, Bucky grins wolfishly. He drops his hand to the small of Steve’s back and picks up the pace, twirling Steve around the dance floor. Steve yelps in surprise and tightens his grip on Bucky.

“Slow down!” Steve shouts, though he can’t help the laughter that bubbles from his chest as Bucky dips him dramatically.

“Keep up!” Bucky teases before scooping Steve back up.

Before long, Bucky’s got him spinning around the room like the rest of them. It’s practically effortless, now, to follow Bucky’s body. The crowd around them seems to have taken singular interest in them, clapping along to the beat while he and Bucky dance. Steve buries his face in Bucky’s chest and laughs, wondering just what the Hell they see when they look at them, Bucky with his metal arm and him with his left feet. He imagines Bucky must be glowing under the lights above, and everyone’s wondering how Steve could be so lucky as to dance with him.

“Steve?”

Steve pulls his face from Bucky’s chest and looks up into his face. His breath catches in his throat at the sight: Bucky’s face is damp with sweat, red around the cheeks, and his blue eyes fix Steve with an unreadable expression.

“Yeah, Buck?” Steve asks quietly.

They’ve stopped moving all together. Bucky brings both hands down on Steve’s waist and continues to study him. Blue eyes drop to Steve’s lips and a pained expression passes over Bucky’s face because he wants it, and, Oh God, Steve wants it, too…

But no amount of liquor or lust can make his relationship with Tony disappear, so he backs out of Bucky’s grip slowly. He puts on a show for their audience, bowing good-naturedly to his partner before turning on his heel and pushing his way through the crowd, leaving Bucky standing alone on the dance floor, watching him go with the same pained expression.

Steve runs straight to the liquor table and grabs a bottle of Who-The-Fuck-Knows before making a break for the lake. Bucky was right, it’s too damn hot in there. The air’s too thick and the liquor’s too strong and Bucky’s too close. Everything is burning, from the skin on his back where Steve can still feel Bucky’s hands to the tears threatening to well in his eyes. It’s all burning.

***

Whoever said that fire and alcohol don’t mix was wrong and Steve would like to have a word with them because after the seventh or eighth or maybe twelfth shot of whoever he’s got in his bottle, the burning stops and he feels cool. Giddy, even. Downright fucking chipper.

He can’t remember how he ended up on his back, or when he unbuttoned his shirt and kicked off his shoes, but he must have done that at some point, seeing as how there’s no one else out here. The reception had ended long ago, the voices faded and dispersed until there was nothing left but the sound of the water rippling quietly close by. He’s alone, he thinks.

“And I thought I was bad at weddings.”

Or maybe not.

He tilts his head back and sees Bucky hanging off the earth like a bat. He rolls over onto his stomach and narrows his eyes, pointing at Bucky with the neck of his half-empty bottle. “You’re supposed to be taking me to Dublin.” He slurs.

Bucky chuckles softly and nods, “Yes I am. Ever your loyal servant, Prince Charming.” He says with a mock bow in Steve’s direction.

Steve’s glossy eyes narrow and he pushes himself to his feet, stumbling in the sand as he marches over to Bucky, pressing a finger to the man’s solid chest. “I know what you are, Bucky.”

Bucky raises a brow, “And what’s that, Steve?”

“A jerk.”

Bucky scoffs at the childish insult. “Is that right?”

“You’re damn right it’s right.” Steve mumbles. “You’re a damn jerk, Buck. But I’m on to you.”

Bucky hums in interest, “Really?”

“Oh yeah,” Steve nods, “yeah, I am. All your—All your,” he gesticulates sloppily at Bucky’s body, “your jerkishness? It’s an act. It’s a great big massive lie. You growl and you snap, but,” he looks up at Bucky through his lashes, “you’re in pain.”

Bucky nods, but Steve can tell he’s only appeasing him. “You’ve got me. You read me like a book, Steve, I’m telling you.” He teases.

Steve snorts and leans into Bucky, wrapping his arms around his shoulders and standing on his tip-toes. “I’m leaning to, Buck.” He says sweetly. “’M gonna figure you out, just you wait.”

His eyelids are drooping heavily, but he can still see the amused grin toying on Bucky’s lips. Bucky’s soft, red, kissable…

His stomach gives a terrible lurch and he drops to his knees, throwing up at least half an open bar’s worth of liquor on Bucky’s boots before rolling pathetically onto his side, whining softly in the back of this throat.

He lies back in the sand, more than willing to fall asleep right here if the good God above is willing. He’s well on his way to passing out when he feels his body being lifted off the ground, light as a feather, and held against a body so warm that Steve wonders why he’d ever considered sleeping on the ground instead.

“Buck…” He whispers softly, wrapping his arms and legs around his body, already dozing in the nape of his neck.

“Get some sleep, Charming.”

He doesn’t need to be told twice.

Chapter Text

February 29th, 2012

Steve wakes up the next morning with a killer hangover, a kink in his back, and his head in Bucky’s lap. The first two come as no surprise. The third, however…

Steve blinks into the blinding sunlight until Bucky comes into focus above him. His chest rises and falls steadily; sound asleep despite his seated position. His flannel is noticeably absent; leaving only Steve’s Coney Island t-shirt in its place. It takes Steve a minute to notice said flannel now draped over his own body like a make shift blanket. He double-checks to make sure that Bucky’s asleep before pulling it tighter around himself.

He doesn’t remember how they got here, where ever ‘here’ is. Last he remembers he was getting intimate with a bottle of liquid fire by a lake. From there it’s all a blur. He sits up slowly and looks around. Nothing about the area looks familiar. The iron bench they spent the night on stands in the middle of a garden blooming with vivid yellows, pinks, and blues.

He turns around and sees a small town square, complete with a convenience store, an auto body shop, a bookstore, and, to Steve’s great pleasure, a coffee shop. He turns the opposite way and spots a line of busses, all currently loading with harried looking passengers. Each bus in the procession boasts a different destination in neon lights. Steve’s eyes dart from bus to bus, reading “DERRY”, “CORK”, and “GALWAY”, before landing on “DUBLIN.”

It’s the bus station. Correction, it’s his bus station. The bus station that was twenty miles away the last time Steve checked, the same bus station that was still twenty miles away when Steve passed out last night. The bus station that Bucky would have had to have walked twenty miles to get them to.

Steve looks from the busses to Bucky. There’s no way, he thinks, there’s no way Bucky walked twenty miles with one hundred extra pounds on his back just so Steve could get to Dublin. There’s no way. It’s not possible. Yet their surroundings are evidence to the contrary.

Steve watches passengers board the bus one by one. There’s enough room left for him. There’s enough time for him to buy a ticket and climb aboard. He’ll be in Dublin before noon if he leaves right now. He’ll have plenty of time to make dinner reservations. He’ll be able to buy a ring. His reunion with Tony is on the other end of the two hour ride idling on the curb before him, waiting for him to make his choice.

His eyes drift back towards Bucky. It feels wrong to leave without saying goodbye now more than ever. He shouldn’t leave without thanking him, at the very least. Steve can’t think of a single person who would do for him what Bucky did last night, not even Sam, who’s carried Steve up his fair share of stairwells after a night of drinking gone awry. But fast asleep, Bucky’s features are softer without the permanent scowl marring them and turning them cold. Steve can’t bear to disrupt him just yet.

Steve sighs and hangs his head, knowing that what’s right and what he wants are once again at opposing ends of the spectrum. With one last fleeting glance at Bucky he stands, silently praying that he’s making the right choice. He folds Bucky’s flannel into a neat pile and rests it on the bench before walking away.

***

There’s another bus to Dublin in thirty minutes. Steve buys two tickets, reasoning that he’s paying Bucky to take him to Dublin, not just put him on the bus like some worrisome mother. After that he heads over to the coffee shop like a man possessed.

He’s had his fair share of hangovers, but this one is certainly up there. He hasn’t felt like this since he’d gone shot-for-shot with Pepper Potts at Stark Industry’s Christmas party, and Lord, can that woman drink.

Steve dubs this hangover a close second as he walks into the coffee shop. He approaches the counter and waits for a barista to notice him, though it doesn’t seem like that will happen any time soon. The only two workers he can see are currently engaged in a hushed argument with both their backs to him. A tall man with sandy hair beneath his green baseball cap looks horrified at whatever the short brunette with long curls is saying, though from what Steve can gather she seems adamant.

Not wanting to eavesdrop, he begins to look around the small dining area. From his spot in line he’s able to look out the bay window at the front of the café and see Bucky reclined on the bench, dosing in the sun. Steve smiles softly, not noticing the girl waiting patiently behind the counter until she clears her throat pointedly, drawing his attention.

“’Sup, dude. What can I get ya?” She asks cheerfully, uncapping a black marker and staring at Steve expectantly.

Steve hesitates. He hadn’t realized until now that he has no idea what Bucky takes in his coffee. “Uh, two hot medium black coffees, please.” He says, figuring he can’t go wrong if he doesn’t get specific.

The barista nods and grabs two cups before turning away. “’S that your boyfriend?” She asks conversationally.

“No, no. Not at all,” Steve says firmly. “He’s just a—,” he pauses but ultimately settles on, “friend.”

She doesn’t look convinced as she slides two coffees across the counter. “Well then in that case, you won’t mind that I wrote my intern’s name and number on his cup, right? He’s been waxing poetic about him from the moment you two rolled into town.”

Steve looks down to see ‘Ian’ and Ian’s phone number scribbled on one of the cups. He works to keep his expression ambivalent as he picks it up. “No, I don’t mind at all,” he says, a little stiffer than he would have liked. “Intern?” He asks after a beat.

“I prefer that over ‘trainee’, I feel it creates a more nurturing environment.” She explains.

“Sure, right.” Steve says absently, still lingering on the inky numbers staining Bucky’s cup.

“Better get that to your not-boyfriend before it gets cold.” She says slyly.

“Right, yeah. I better do that.” Steve says vaguely. He thanks her again and heads for the door, resolutely ignoring the infuriating look on her face.

He dawdles on the sidewalk for a moment, watching Bucky from afar. From where he stands he can see Bucky slowly waking up, stretching his legs and arching his back, bending his arms at the elbows and flexing the muscles that are no doubt still burning under the burden of carrying Steve’s weight all night.

Then Bucky looks to his left at the folded flannel lying where Steve once was. He reaches out for it slowly, running his metal hand over the soft material before looking around curiously. Steve is about to call out to him when Bucky’s eyes land on the departing bus for Dublin.

The bus backfires loudly as it chugs away from the curb. Any words Steve had been about to say die on his lips at the crestfallen look on Bucky’s face as the bus disappears down the road. He knows what Bucky must be thinking. Hell, he’d almost done just what Bucky thinks he did, but that indefinable something about Bucky Barnes kept him here.

“Don’t put me on your hit list just yet,” Steve calls across the street.

Bucky turns immediately, staring at Steve with wide eyes. “What are you…? That was your…”

Steve looks both ways before crossing the street. “There’s another bus in twenty minutes,” he explains while he walks. “I’m paying you to take me to Dublin, Buck. You ain’t getting out of this early.”

Bucky shakes his head and laughs. “Of course not,” he says.

Steve reaches Bucky’s side of the road and quietly admires the easy curve of Bucky’s lips when he smiles. He gets so caught up in staring that he almost forgets he’s holding two coffees until Bucky begins staring quizzically at his hands. “Oh, um,” he hesitates for second before handing Bucky the blank cup, “this is yours.” He lies. God send him straight to Hell he lies.

Bucky arches a brow, clearly noticing the number inked on what he now assumes is Steve’s cup. “Jesus, Steve. Stark must be beating them back with a stick back home, huh?” He chuckles, taking the offered cup.

Steve rolls his eyes, “More like the other way around, actually.” He says, trying his best not to let any of his hidden resentment toward Tony’s many “admirers” seep into his words. Tony’s been nothing but faithful for the past four years, but that doesn’t mean the temptation wasn’t there. Steve knows he’s only human, after all.

He changes the subject quickly. “I figure we’d better get there sooner rather than later, seeing as how I left Lou—,” Steve catches himself, though not before Bucky can notice his blunder and smirk, “I left my suitcase at the church. Gonna need to buy new clothes.”

Bucky laughs and rolls his eyes, “Come on, you really think I’d leave Louis behind?” He chuckles, stooping down to pull Steve’s bag from beneath the bench. “I mean, what’s a Prince without his noble steed, right?”

Steve’s not quite sure how to articulate his overwhelming gratitude, so he settles for a joke instead. “What does that make you then?”

Bucky purses his lips and tilts his head. He hums thoughtfully before answering, “Your knight in shining armor?” He suggests, gesturing to the metal arm.

“In your dreams,” Steve scoffs.

They kill time with companionable small talk. Bucky laughs until he cries when Steve tells him he was born on the fourth of July. Steve’s coffee nearly comes out his nose when Bucky tells him about the time he drunkenly kissed The Naked Cowboy on New Year’s. They talk about their shared love of comic books. They even manage to agree on most music, though Bucky’s interests are a bit more rock-heavy than Steve’s, who tends to lean more towards jazz era bands.

It doesn’t seem like twenty minutes have passed when the second bus to Dublin rolls up to the curb. Seeing as how most passengers took the first bus, Steve and Bucky board the bus quickly and find seats towards the back. Bucky chivalrously offers Steve the window seat, prompting a skeptical look.

“What?” Bucky chuckles in disbelief. “Figured you might see something you’d wanna draw.”

And he does. As the bus rattles and shakes down gravel roads, Steve’s hand moves steadily across the pages of his sketchbook, capturing quick renderings of landscapes and passing pedestrians. He’s in the middle of sketching a pair of twins crossing a crosswalk hand-in-hand when Bucky nudges his shoulder gently.

“Why don’t you draw me?” He asks.

“You want me to?” Steve asks.

Bucky shrugs, “Sure. You can draw me like—.”

“Go ahead, make a Titanic reference. See if I don’t give you with a lazy eye and three chins.” Steve warns, though it loses its power when he flips the page of his sketchbook and rearranges himself in his seat so as best to see Bucky. “Think you can keep still?”

Bucky scoffs, “’M army trained, Steve. It’s what I do best. Well, almost.”

“Yeah?” Steve asks, though his mind is distant as he begins sketching the general shape of Bucky’s profile. “And what is it you do do best, then?”

“I’d show you, but you’re spoken for, and I ain’t that kinda guy.”

The tip of Steve’s pencil splinters against the page, marring it with a dark spot. Steve keeps his eyes down while he quickly flips to another page and begins again, ignoring the flush burning his cheeks and the soft rumble of laughter from the man next to him.

By the time he finishes the sketch his eyelids are drooping heavily and the glinting silver shoulder he’s been staring at simply for the purpose of anatomical accuracy is suddenly looking like the world’s greatest pillow.

“’S comfier than it looks, I promise.” Bucky says when he catches Steve staring. He shrugs his shoulder, a clear offer. “Get some rest, Charming. You’ve got a big day ahead of you.”

Steve tucks his sketchbook into his suitcase, reminding himself to show Bucky the finished picture later. He’s not sure if exhaustion is the sole reason why he lays his head on Bucky’s shoulder, but the excuse is there, and he’s willing to use it.

***

“You know who this is. Leave your name, number, and as brief a message as you can possibly manage and I’ll get back to you as soon as I feel like it. Unless this is Phil, in which case I have no intention of getting back to you.”

BEEP.

“Hey Tony, it’s me! Just touched down in Dublin. You must be in a meeting or something. I talked to Pepper a minute ago. She told me where you were staying, so I’ll book myself a room and wait up for you there, alright? I—I can’t wait to see you.”

Steve steps out of the old timey phone booth and joins Bucky in the sunlight. It’s a beautiful, busy day in Dublin. Tourists and locals move like fish in a current along the sidewalks. Cyclists ring their bells jovially in passing before cutting across the streets, earning themselves a symphony of honks for their troubles. It’s busy, but it’s not New York busy, so Steve feels right at home in the riptide of pedestrians.

He can’t say the same for Bucky. His distant, calculating gaze scans the crowd, the rooftops, the streets, every crack and corner of Dublin like he’s waiting for something. He slowly turns his head and looks down at Steve and for a moment Steve feels like shrinking under the stare but he shakes it off, knowing that whatever Bucky’s dealing with right now, it’s got nothing to do with him. “Voicemail.” He says, answering the question Bucky never asked.

Bucky nods curtly and returns to surveying the bustling crowd.

Steve’s dying to know, but if there were ever a time and place to ask, this certainly isn’t it. Bucky had told him from the very start that Dublin wasn’t a place he was lining up to get to. He’d been honest and Steve is the one who underestimated just what bringing Bucky back here would entail.

As much as it hurts him to admit it (and the fact that it hurts to admit hurts even more) Steve realizes that the quicker Bucky gets out of the city, the better.

“Your ticket’s two ways.” He says, drawing Bucky’s attention back to himself. “You can leave whenever you’d like.”

Bucky’s eyes widen a bit and it looks like he’s come out of some sort of trance. “What?” He asks.

Steve shrugs and pulls on the loose thread dangling from the sleeve of his sweater. “I can tell you don’t want to be here. It’s fine. The hotel ain’t even two miles from here. There ought to be an ATM inside or something. I can pay you and you can get out of here.”

Bucky shakes his head slowly. “No, Steve, it ain’t—I’m fine.” He says, though it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself of that more than he is Steve. “I oughta at least get you to the hotel. You don’t know where you’re going around here.”

And while Bucky may be right, Steve’s not willing to give in so easily. “I can take a cab. I’ll be fine.” He reasons. He doesn’t know why he’s fighting this. Bucky’s offering to stay. Steve wants him to stay. Now if his goddamn conscience would just shut up for one goddamn minute…

Bucky seems about as frustrated with Steve’s nagging morality as he is. “You’ve got a working pair of legs, don’t you?”

Steve smiles slowly as his resolve crumbles. “I’m told they’re my best feature.” He jokes.

“Really?” Bucky asks incredulously, giving Steve a quick once over. Steve’s smile falters a bit and Bucky must notice because he’s quick to backtrack. “It’s your eyes.” He blurts, refusing to meet Steve’s eyes. He takes sudden interest in the asphalt beneath his feet and gives a weak shrug. “’S your eyes. They could drive a fella crazy.” He says softly.

Steve smiles wryly. “Flattery will get you nowhere, Buck.” He says, punching his right shoulder playfully. “Come on, you gonna walk me to the hotel or what?” He asks.

Bucky looks grateful for the change of subject. He grabs Steve and yanks him to his side, guiding them into the chaotic flow of people on the sidewalk. Steve doesn’t fight against the hold, choosing to enjoy the solid weight of Bucky’s arm around his shoulders.

***

Steve has no idea when it got this late or how time is even capable of moving so fast. It seems like it was just mere minutes ago that the sun was hanging high in the sky as Bucky veered them away from the hotel, towards some unknown destination that Bucky was adamant that Steve had to see. “You ain’t been to Dublin ‘til you’ve seen this, Steve!” He’d said. The sun is setting now and Steve seems to have misplaced at least four hours of his life.

For man who claims to despise it, Bucky navigates Dublin like he’s got a map in his mind, turning Steve this way and that through alleys and side streets, showing him all the best that Dublin has to offer. Steve supposes that’s the Brooklyn in him shining through.

Their latest destination, Saint Stephen’s Green, lies ahead. Bucky guides him across the street, weaving between cars with his arm still wound tightly, almost protectively around Steve’s narrow shoulders. Steve figures it could be perceived as nothing more than a friendly gesture, and maybe that’s how Bucky intends it to be, but Steve doesn’t think he could disguise his disappointment should Bucky choose to pull away. He doesn’t offer it up for discussion.

Steve glances down at his watch and gawks at the time. “We really ought to get going, Buck.”

“Quit your bitchin’, you’ll be thanking me in a minute.”

It doesn’t even take that long for Steve to be thankful that Bucky brought him here. A stone pathway cuts across lush grass and vivid gardens. Steve itches to paint it, set up an easel right here and maybe spin Kitty Kallen records while he’s at it.

“Knew you’d like it.” Bucky says smugly before dragging Steve forward along the path.

“Can’t see why anyone wouldn’t.” Steve says, edging on breathless. Everything looks stunning, almost ethereal in the setting sun streaming through the trees, the man on his left being no exception. Shadows and light play across his face, transforming his features moment to moment. Steve has to look away before he starts quoting Shakespeare.

“I forgot how beautiful this place is.” Bucky says thoughtfully.

“How long’s it been since you were here?” Steve asks, knowing that he’s pulling on a thread, one that he may not want to unravel.

“Seven years.”

The answer doesn’t leave room for interpretation. It creates more questions than it answers, really, and Steve is dying to ask them. He holds his breath and tugs hard on the mysterious thread. “Something happened to you here. It’s why you didn’t want to come back…” He says carefully, treading slowly. “What was it?”

Bucky stops walking. Steve fears that he’s gone too far and immediately starts to apologize, but Bucky cuts him off quickly. “You sure you wanna know that, Steve? I ain’t a fairy tale, I’ll tell you that right now.”

Steve nods, “I think I can handle it.”

Bucky retracts his arm from Steve’s shoulders, choosing to tuck his hands into his pockets while they continue to walk. “I made the biggest mistake of my life here,” he says, “and I haven’t forgiven myself for it yet.

“I was deployed back in ’03. Eighteen, bright eyed, ready to serve my country.” Bucky begins, jaw ticking like he’s fighting to get every word out. “I went in right after high school. Making ends meet was hard enough without paying for college and Rebecca, my sister, she was way smarter than me. I wanted her to have that chance, you know?

‘Sides, it wasn’t like college was the only thing my folks would have been paying for that year. My mum and dad were finally gonna get hitched. They’d meant to for a while, but life got in the way. They were finally in a good place to do it that year but they didn’t wanna do it without me. So, right before I ship out Mum hands me her engagement ring and makes me promise I’ll come home. She told me to keep it with me, remember what I promised her.

“So I did. I wore it around my neck right next to my tags. Kissed it every time we ran into combat ‘cause I knew she’d keep me safe. Hell, I was wearing it the day one of your boyfriend’s bombs blew me sky high.” He pauses, glancing over at Steve apologetically. “I’m sorry, that was out of line.”

Steve shakes his head, “Don’t worry about it, Buck. Keep going.”

He does. “That was the day I lost my arm, but you already knew that. I’ll bet you know a lot about what happened that day, but there’s shit they kept from you, from everyone.” He says darkly. “I passed out a soldier that day and woke up a POW that night, no arm, no clue where I am.”

“But they said all soldiers were accounted for.” Steve blurts, referring to the infinite news reals he and the rest of the nation watched with bated breath. “They said—.”

“They lied!” Bucky shouts.

Steve sets a firm hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “You can stop, Bucky. I’m sorry I asked, I’m—.”

Bucky takes Steve’s hand and gives it a tight squeeze. “No, I need to,” he swallows thickly and takes a shaking breath, “I need to.”

Steve nods and pulls his hand away, allowing him to begin again.

“The government didn’t think the American people could stomach the shit that happened to us.” He mutters darkly with a hallow chuckle. “We were captured by some sick fucks that called themselves HYDRA. They wanted to build themselves the ‘Perfect Soldier’. He had to be faster, smarter, stronger, better than all the rest and then some. So they start experimenting on me and the other guys.”

“Experimenting?” Steve asks.

Bucky nods. “Some sick shit. I’m one of the few that survived. ‘S how I got this.” He holds up his arm. “I was their greatest success. The arm responds to my every command, completely normal save for the fact that it’s stronger than steel. Less susceptible to pain, obviously. Thought I was gonna die down there, I really did.

“We were liberated about two months later, but I’ll tell you, Steve, a place like that fucks with your head. I wasn’t the same. I was a real mean bastard when they pulled me out. Still am sometimes.”

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.” Steve says with a nudge into Bucky’s side.

Bucky laughs and playfully flips him off. “I’ll have you know I’m a god damn peach compared to what I used to be.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Steve concedes.

Bucky nods and continues. “They sent me and the rest of the boys home, told us to spin some bullshit about how we were treated by Army doctors. They gave us a script to follow and herded us on a plane headed straight home with only one layover.”

“Dublin.” Steve assumes.

“Dublin.” Bucky confirms. “They let us off the plane just to stretch our legs a bit and that’s when I decided to run.”

“Why?” Steve asks.

Bucky laugh hollowly, “Ain’t that the million dollar question?” He asks sadly. “I remember standing there thinking: I can’t go home to them, not like this. I wasn’t the same kid, Steve. He died over there on those lab tables. His body was coming home but he wasn’t in it anymore. That’s how it felt, like I was living in someone else’s skin. So I never got on the plane home.”

“Where did you go?” Steve asks.

Bucky shrugs, “Slummed it in Dublin for a while, then I moved on. I backpacked around ‘til I landed in Dingle. ‘S where I met the fellas down at the bar. Bunch’a World War II vets. They took one look at me and it was like they knew, you know? They’d been runnin’ the bar before me, but there were gettin’ old. You heard Dugan, been tellin’ the same jokes since ’06, he’s so bad. They trained me up, taught me how to run the bar, how to cook, how to survive. Been there ever since.”

“But what about your parents? What about Rebecca? Don’t you miss them?” Steve asks. He tries to imagine leaving his life behind, no more beers with his Ma, no more karaoke nights with Sam, no more expensive nights out with Tony at restaurants he can’t pronounce the name of. He imagines trying to give all of that up and he can’t. It would destroy him.

“My mum and dad died thinking they never found me.” Bucky says quietly, voice straining to stay even. “I called around my house after I got settled at Howler’s, after I got my head on straight and realized what a complete shit head I’d been. Dunno who answered, but when I asked if I could speak to a Mr. or Mrs. Barnes, he tells me they,” he swallows thickly, “they’d died a four months ago.” He paws at his eyes with the backs of his hands, catching tears before they fall. “My sister’s over there somewhere, but I ain’t talked to her. Don’t know what I’d say if I did, you know? What am I supposed to say to her? ‘Hey, Bec, it’s Bucky! Your brother who you thought died but has secretly been alive this whole time and left you alone in Brooklyn by yourself?’ No, no fuckin’ way.”

Bucky sniffles again and shakes his head like he’s trying to clear his mind. “You asked me, back at the train station, what I would grab if I only had sixty seconds,” he says slowly. Steve recalls and nods. Bucky smiles tightly. “My mom’s ring. I’ve kept it all this time. It’s the last bit of her I got left. I keep it hanging above my bed so I know she’s still watching over me. Keepin’ me out of trouble. The thing I’d grab if I had sixty seconds? That’s it. ”

Steve pictures the boy from the frame stashed in the wardrobe at Howler’s: his innocence, his laughter, his complete cluelessness as to what lay ahead of him, the horrors he would endure. Bucky was right, the boy in the picture is gone, but that isn’t to say that the man who walks beside him now with tears in his eyes is irredeemable.

“You ought to call her, Buck.” Steve says. “Rebecca. She’ll forgive you.”

Bucky smiles sadly and shakes his head. “It’s like I said, Steve. I don’t get a fairy tale ending.” His smile becomes strained when he adds, “There’s still time for you, though.”

“Huh?” Steve asks eloquently.

“It’s your happy ending you ought to be worried about, Charming, not mine.” He says, pulling himself together so that the smile on his face almost seems genuine.

“Finally on board with that, are you?” Steve asks.

Bucky shrugs. “One of us sorry saps ought to wind up happy. What do I care who makes you happy?” He asks flippantly.

“So you don’t?” Steve asks. He asks because he needs to be sure. He needs to know that whatever this is between him and Bucky, this big, undefined something, it’s just all in his head.

Bucky fixes him with a curious glance and stops walking, keeping Steve frozen under his gaze. “Would it make a difference if I did?” He asks softly. He doesn’t sound hopeful, he sounds resigned. Like a man who’s already admitted his defeat.

Steve doesn’t answer. He can’t. Because to say yes would be admitting that he’s willing to throw away four years of his life for man he’s known for three days. Saying yes would be careless and dangerous and all the other things that Steve usually loves, but in this context terrifies him. But saying no would be a lie and Steve is always honest, at least with himself. Or at least he tries.

Luckily Bucky makes the decision for him, looping his metal arm around his slim shoulders and turning them around on the cobblestone path, bringing them back towards the hotel. Towards Steve’s happily ever after.

***

They arrive at the hotel twenty minutes after sundown. The place has ‘Tony’ written all over it, from the marble floors to the gold trim ceilings. Steve and Bucky’s footsteps echo in the spacious lobby. Steve finds an ATM, takes out the five hundred he promised Bucky, and turns to him with a lead weight in his stomach heavy enough to drag him through the floor.

“Looks like this is it pal,” Bucky says with a smile, “the end of the line.”

Steve forces a smile in return. “Looks like it, yeah.” He says. He goes to hand Bucky the money but the other man waves it off.

“How’s about you just give me the picture you drew me and we’ll call it even.” He says.

Steve shakes his head, “No, you need the money for Howler’s,” he says adamantly, “take it!”

Bucky shakes his head and tucks his hands into his pockets, a clear sign that he has no intention of taking the money. “When you’re a famous artist in New York, maybe I’ll sell a couple copies and make millions. Won’t be able to do that without the picture, though.”

Steve relents, stuffing the five hundred in his pocket before reaching into his suitcase and pulling out his sketchbook. He finds the page with Bucky’s portrait on it and carefully tears it out, handing it over without argument.

Bucky whistles low and takes the page from his hands. “Damn, Steve.” He says breathlessly. “Made me look half decent.”

“Artistic license.”

Bucky laughs, studying the picture for another moment before looking to Steve. “Well, Steve,” he says somberly, “best of luck to you, pal.”

Steve nods, “Thanks. Couldn’t have gotten here without you.”

“And don’t you god damn forget it!” Bucky laughs, playfully ruffling Steve’s hair before reaching down to pat Steve’s suitcase. “So long, Louis. Take care of Steve for me, you hear?”

“Talking to a suitcase, Buck? Isn’t a little soon to be going crazy?” Steve asks.

Bucky looks up at him with a grin and wide eyes that Steve wishes he spent more time looking at because god damn if they’re not the most beautiful color he’s ever seen, “Been crazy since you came around, Steve. Haven’t you noticed?” He asks before straightening up. He looks down at himself and points to Steve’s Coney Island t-shirt. “About this…”

“Keep it.” Steve says quickly. “Souvenir.”

“Well alright,” Bucky says. “I survived a week with Steve Rogers and all’s I got was this crappy t-shirt.”

“Did you want something else?” Steve asks, hating the hope hides in his words.

Bucky looks at him for a long moment like he’s on the verge of saying something. But he doesn’t speak; he just smiles softly and shakes his head before turning to leave.

Steve is not going to chase after him. He is going to live a happy life in Manhattan. He and Tony will have a wonderful marriage where in which they don’t threaten to drive each other up a wall every five minutes. He will keep Brooklyn close to his heart but out of his life. He will be fine. He will survive this. He will settle.

“Bucky, stop.”

The words feel phantom on his tongue but he knows he must have said them because Bucky turns and looks at him with something that looks like hope. Steve grins and opens his mouth to speak and—

“Steve?”

Steve spins around and sees Tony walking through the glass doors of the lobby. He’s wearing Steve’s favorite suit, the blue one with the white dress shirt and the red tie. He’s wearing the smile that warms Steve’s heart. He looks so happy to see him.

And Steve just wants to cry.

“My God, thought I was gonna have to call in the National Guard to come and find you. Where the hell have you been?” Tony asks before sweeping Steve up into a kiss. “You alright? You look pale. Have you been eating alright?”

Steve is still aware of Bucky’s presence mere feet away and maybe that has something to do with why he’s so pale. He glances over at Bucky quickly which draws Tony’s attention as well.

“Uh, hi?” Tony says defensively. “Who are you? Do I know you? Did Phil send you?”

“Tony,” Steve says cordially, unwrapping himself from Tony’s arms and stepping between him and Bucky, “this is Bucky. Bucky this is,” the look on Bucky’s face says that he should stop talking, but Steve finishes the sentence anyway, “Tony Stark. Tony, Bucky brought me here from Dingle.”

Tony looks from Steve to Bucky and arches a brow. “Really? Well I certainly don’t envy you. Steve here is not big on adventure.” He says before offering Bucky his hand to shake.

Bucky stares at the hand before answering. “I don’t know, Mr. Stark, think he held up alright.” He says before shaking Tony’s hand with his left, gripping tighter than is entirely necessary.

“Quite a grip you got there, pal.” Tony says, wincing until Bucky releases his hand. He looks from his hand back to Steve before laughing and sweeping Steve up into a bone crushing hug. “God, I missed you!”

Steve returns the embrace and smiles, forcing himself to sound as happy as Tony does. “I missed you, too!” He says. It’s not a lie. He convinces himself that it’s not.

“No, Steve,” Tony says seriously, “I really missed you and it got me thinking.” He sets Steve back on his feet and places his hands on his shoulders, looking him in the eyes when he asks, “Why aren’t we married?”

Steve’s breath catches in his lungs and he can’t be sure if he’ll ever breathe again as Tony sinks down on one knee in front of him, brandishing a box from his pocket and presenting it to Steve. He pops it open and a beautiful golden band sits inside, gleaming at Steve like a beautiful promise of a safe life, a life where he’ll be content. All of this on the Leap Year.

“What do you say, Steve? Make me the happiest man alive? Well, happier than I already am, but you know, you get the point.”

Steve looks from the ring, to Tony, to the small crowd forming in the lobby watching with dewy eyes and bright smiles. One face is noticeably absent from the crowd. Bucky is gone like a ghost. He didn’t even say goodbye.

“Steve, babe.” Tony says, pulling Steve back to the present. “People are staring.”

Steve finally says, “Yes,” though it’s an hour too late and in answer to the wrong man.

***

He doesn’t know where he’s going. He doesn’t have a plan. All he knows is that he needs to get the fuck out of Dublin.

He should have seen this coming from the start. It’s bad luck to meet a fella on a Sunday, Dugan tells him that all the time. Or maybe it’s Jones who says that. Fuck if he knows. Those guys talk so much their voices bleed together after a while.

Bucky knew he was in trouble the minute he laid eyes on Steve Rogers. No fella’s got any business looking like an angel if he’s gonna be the devil beneath it, and that’s what Steve must be, the fucking devil. How else can any one person be everything he ever wanted all wrapped into one? Steve Rogers is temptation if Bucky ever saw it with that his mouth like a sailor and his temper like a loaded powder keg, locked up beneath porcelain skin and fiery eyes.

But, as seems to be a trend in his life, Tony Stark dropped right out of the sky and blew his life to shit. Tony fucking Stark with his tailored suits and his meticulous beard and his billion dollar plan for clean energy. Tony Stark, who gets to spend the rest of his life with Steve while Bucky goes home and tries to pretend none of this ever happened. With his luck the wedding will be televised and he’ll watch Steve, the firecracker from Brooklyn with the heart of pure gold, marry Tony. Fucking. Stark.

He finds himself in a phone booth, locked away from the world and banging his head gently off the wall while he tries to figure out his next move. He doesn’t know where to go. He doesn’t know what to do. Dublin has betrayed him again.

He looks at the payphone and thinks. He could call Howler’s. Morita will usually pick up the phone if he’s around. He could call for a cab and drain what’s left of his savings getting back to Dingle. He could lock himself in this little phone booth forever and never come out.

He picks up the receiver and deposits his change. His fingers hover over the digits for a moment before dialing slowly, trying to recall a number from his memory. It’s been so long since he’s called it, it might not even be in service anymore…

“Yo! What’s up?”

It’s her.

Bucky swallows once, twice, before answering. “R-Rebecca Barnes?”

Chapter Text

MARCH 14TH, 2012

TWO WEEKS LATER

The walls are Hot Rod Red. The chandelier is gone. Tony’s suits hang in meticulous color coded order. The Cambridge apartment is his home now and it’s everything Steve has convinced himself he ever wanted.

Tonight it’s full to capacity, a staggering amount as far as Steve is concerned. At least a two hundred of Steve and Tony’s closest friends are here tonight, though Steve uses the term “friends” loosely seeing as how he knows less than half the people here, maybe even fewer than that. But Tony knows them, apparently, and so they help themselves to the free food and the free booze and make a mess of the rooms Steve had spent hours cleaning.

It’s fun, he tells himself. He’s having fun.

He’s having fun as he darts around the living room sliding coasters under abandoned drinks. He’s having fun as he sweeps up the shattered remains of the third champagne glass that’s been dropped tonight. He’s having fun as he forces laughter at another joke told by one of the stiff suits from legal.

He’s dumping shards of glass into the trash when a tall figure catches his eye. Steve sees the man’s dark hair pulled back into a tight bun at the base of his neck and his heart gives a traitorous flutter. For just a split second he allows himself to hope…

And then the man turns. His brown eyes are crinkled with laughter. His left hand, void of all metal save for a ring on his fourth finger, lifts his champagne flute to his lips. It’s not him and Steve hates himself for thinking otherwise, but he can hardly blame himself. It’s been happening for the past two weeks and to think that tonight would be any different was idiotic on his part.

Bucky Barnes is everywhere.

Steve sees him in Times Square when he passes the Naked Cowboy. He sees him when an old red Beetle nearly runs him over on his way to work. He sees him when he sketches, which is almost every night now. He sees him everywhere and still nowhere at all. He’s a ghost.

His sketchbooks are full of him. He can’t put his pencil to paper without him showing up, line by line. Sometimes Tony walks into the room and he has to hastily flip to a new page, to something benign, like Manhattan skyline or the Brooklyn Bridge.

Bucky Barnes followed him to New York without ever having gotten on a plane.

“Yo! Earth to Steve!”

Steve looks up and sees Sam standing in the doorway, staring at him expectantly.

“Sam, hey. Sorry, I was just…” he gestures to the broken glass before closing the lid on the can.

“Yeah, Tony said I’d probably find you here. He said you’ve been playing clean up all night.” He’s using The Voice. Steve hates that voice. It’s Sam’s What the Hell Are You Doing, Steve? voice.

Steve shrugs lamely, “Someone’s gotta do it.”

“Steve, man, come on…” Sam says slowly.

“Sam, don’t.”

“No, Steve.” Sam says firmly. “When are you gonna stop pretending that this is what you want?”

Steve runs a hand over his face. “This is what I want, Sam.” He argues.

Sam scoffs and shakes his head. “You can lie to yourself all day but you’ve got another thing coming if you think you’re gonna lie to me.” He comes around to Steve’s side of the island and pulls something from behind his back. Steve freezes when he recognizes his sketchbook. “Found this on my couch the other day.” Sam says casually as he begins flicking through the pages. “Must’a left it behind or something.”

Steve remembers bringing his sketchbook to Sam’s house. He and Sam had sat down for beers and a movie marathon while Tony was out picking new furniture for the apartment. Steve remembers leaving in a hurry, leaving his sketchbook wide open on Sam’s sofa…

“You’ve been drawing a lot more lately.” Sam continues. “Noticed it the first day we hung out after you came back from Ireland, which you have refused to talk about, by the way.” He adds. “So I got a little curious. Wanted to know what inspires Steve Rogers: the kid I’ve known since he was twelve who I thought told me everything, because that’s what best friends do.” Sam stops on a page and hums thoughtfully before turning the book on Steve. “Who the Hell is that, Steve?” He asks.

And of course he’s talking about Bucky.

Steve snatches the sketchbook from Sam’s hand and holds it behind his back childishly. “None of your god damn business, Sam.”

“Oh, I think it’s my business.” Sam argues. “Steve, what the Hell, man? Have you been seeing someone else?” He whispers conspiratorially.

“No!” Steve barks. He turns away and slams his sketchbook down on the pristine marble countertop. “I would never do that to Tony, Sam.” His shoulders sag and he shakes his head softly, “I love him.”

He feels the solid weight of Sam’s hand settle on his shoulder. “I know you do.” Sam says calmly. “But are you in love with him?”

“Of course I am.” Steve snaps defensively. “I’m marrying him, Sam. We have a home together, I mean, Jesus, look at this place!” He cries, shrugging out of Sam’s hold to gesture around the kitchen.

Sam nods vehemently, “Oh, I’ve looked at it. Tony took me on a little tour before I came and found you. Showed me the balcony,” he says, ticking off places on his fingers, “showed me the bathroom with the heated toilet, the bedroom with the Egyptian cotton sheets, the state of the art lab he’s got going on.” He drops his hands and takes on a thoughtful expression. “You know what I didn’t see though?”

Steve decides to play along. “What? An indoor pool?”

“Where are you supposed to make your art, Steve?”

“We,” Steve pauses, scrambling for an answer, “we didn’t think of that.”

“No, Steve,” Sam snaps, “he didn’t think of that. You stood there and you pretended you didn’t.”

Steve is thankful that they’re alone in the room because he can’t school his features into anything but a look of resignation. “It wasn’t a big deal at the time.” He says softly. “It still isn’t, not really. I tried the art thing, Sam. It didn’t pan out.”

“Steve,” Sam says seriously, taking Steve by the shoulders and forcing him to look up into his painfully earnest face, “I have stood by and watched you settle for too damn long. You settled for a job. You settled for Manhattan. You settled in a relationship for four years, man.” Sam pokes a finger at the center of Steve’s chest. “I know Steve Rogers, alright? I know he’s in here somewhere and when he gets out, be it tomorrow or twenty years from now, he’s going to hate his life, all because you were too scared to chase after what you really want.” Sam straightens and releases his hold on Steve. “The Steve Rogers I know isn’t scared of anything, so why don’t you let me talk to him and we’ll see what he thinks about all this, huh?”

Steve blinks up at Sam through misty eyes, fighting back tears that threaten to fall any minute because Sam is right. Steve knows himself and he knows that he can’t wake up every morning to an empty bed no matter how high the thread count of his sheets is. Deep down, in a place that he’s repressed for so long that he’s almost forgot about it, he knows he can’t keep pretending forever.

But there’s a ring on his finger, a beautiful golden band that serves as a reminder that Steve already committed to this life. Steve is about to break down in tears just looking at it when Tony walks in with ten giggling models in tow.

“Am I interrupting something?” Tony asks, pointing between Sam and Steve with the flute of champagne in his hand.

“Are we?” Sam asks, eyeing the women behind Tony.

Tony looks over his shoulder and sighs, “Ladies, I’m afraid we’re going to have to cut the tour a little short.” He says apologetically. The women disperse, leaving Sam, Tony, and Steve alone in the kitchen with a silence so thick it settles over them like a wet blanket.

Tony’s eyes dart between Steve and Sam wearily. “No, really, am I interrupting?”

Sam glances at Steve and makes subtle Go on! gestures with his eyes like he expects Steve to up and cancel the engagement right there.

“No, you’re fine.” Steve says. “I was just telling Sam about how you proposed.”

Sam glares at him before turning to Tony with as friendly a grin as he can manage for a man who’s about to murder his best friend. “Yes he was. That’s exactly what we were just talking about.”

Tony laughs and joins them in the kitchen, coming to throw an arm around Steve’s shoulders. “Yeah that was pretty good, huh?” He says with a grin, squeezing Steve’s shoulders. “It’s the reason we’re where we are tonight!”

“Yeah, well, it’s hard to have an engagement party with no engagement.” Sam says dryly.

Tony laughs, “Even harder to get this apartment with no engagement.”

Sam and Steve glance at each other in mutual confusion. “What?” Steve asks.

“What?” Tony echoes.

“What you just said, Tony, what do you mean? About the apartment?” Steve elaborates.

“Oh!” Tony laughs and takes a sip of champagne. “You’re gonna love this, alright? So I’m sitting in the hotel in Dublin, right, and I get this call from Edith. You remember Edith, don’t you, from the board?”

Steve recalls the severe looking woman who had bristled at the mention of Brooklyn from across the mahogany table. “Yeah, I remember.” Steve says stiffly.

“Well, she starts asking all these bizarre questions about our marital status?” He says the words like they’re a foreign concept. “Nothing too specific but I got the hint. Folks that live around here are what some call ‘old fashioned’. Basically, if you’re married you’re in and if you’re not married, well…” he shrugs and leaves the statement open ended.

Sam crosses his arms and fixes Tony with a hard stare. “So you’re telling me that you proposed to Steve so you could have the apartment?”

Tony pulls a face and makes vague hand gestures, “I mean we’d have gotten around to it eventually, right?” He looks down at Steve. “Right, babe?”

Steve can’t speak. There aren’t words for the cold feeling that has settled everywhere from his bones to his bloodstream, making him question if anything in he and Tony’s relationship was ever real. If any of this, any of it, had been worth four years of his life.

Steve steps out from under Tony’s arm and walks out of the room, ignoring both he and Sam’s calls. He needs to get away. From Tony, from Sam, from the crowd full of people he doesn’t know and doesn’t care to get to know, he needs to get away from it all.

He pushes his way through the crowd, taking elbows to the ribs left and right, shaking off the hands that reach out for him and ask where he’s going. He doesn’t know the answer to that question himself, but even if he did he wouldn’t tell them.

He shoves his way towards a long hall that’s mostly deserted save for a few guests trying to have personal conversations away from the din of the crowd. He turns into the master bedroom and slams the door shut, locking it behind him before crossing the room and throwing open the French doors leading out onto the balcony. He steps into the crisp air and collapses to his knees, choking back sobs as he tries to figure out exactly when this all went so horribly wrong.

Being in love with Tony used to be so easy, but the undeniable truth is that being in love with him isn’t even a possibility anymore. At some point something changed, be it Tony or himself or both or neither. They did this to each other. On one of the innumerable days that they spent together, something in their dynamic shifted and it was never righted. The Tony that Steve loved disappeared into his work and the Steve that Tony loved may never have existed at all.

Steve swallows thickly and sits up, wiping at the tears in his eyes until the glittering Manhattan skyline comes into focus. He blinks at the twinkling lights like they’re going to give him answers, like New York will knock the sense into him that he’s been waiting on for four years. But, for the first time in as long as Steve’s known her, the city is silent.

He hangs his head and wipes his eyes one last time before standing and turning to leave. As he reaches for the door he notices a small red box labeled “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY” in bold white lettering. He lingers for a moment, reading the words over and over again while he turns an idea over in his mind.

Your house is on fire. Your house, filled with all the crap you’ve accumulated over the years, is up in flames and you’ve got sixty seconds to run in and grab one thing. One thing: what is it?

Well, Steve thinks as he reaches for the small white handle of the fire alarm, this is an emergency if I’ve ever known one.

He yanks the handle and steps back, listening as chaos erupts on the other side of the locked door. He turns and walks to the banister of the balcony, resting his elbows on the smooth concrete while he waits. The seconds pass and Steve’s heart plummets. With every shrill ring of the alarm, Steve realizes what he’d grab if he had only sixty seconds.

A formidable bang on the bedroom door jars Steve from his thoughts. “STEVE!” Steve’s lips turn into the faintest of smiles. “STEVE! Shit, man. Steve! STEVE, are you in there?”

Steve collects himself and crosses the room, unlocking the door and opening it to reveal a panicked looking Sam, eyes wide and wild.

“Jesus, there you are!” Sam cries, tension draining from his body as he wipes a hand over his face. “Been looking all over for your scrawny ass. Come on, let’s go!” He urges, grabbing Steve’s upper arm and pulling.

Steve sets his stance and stays where he is. “Sam, I fucked up.” He says quietly, almost inaudible over the shrieking alarm.

Sam does a double take before pulling more forcefully on Steve’s arm. “Steve, man, come on! I don’t know if you know, but there’s a fire going on and—”

“Where’s Tony?” Steve interrupts.

“Last I saw him,” Sam says evenly, a tone that he only employs when he’s this close to going postal, “he was running to the lab. Said something about the arc reactor. Now, can we please get out of here?” He pleads.

“I pulled the alarm.”

Sam’s jaw drops and he releases his grip on Steve’s arm. “You did what, now?”

Steve hangs his head and shrugs. “I wanted to know,” he explains solemnly, “what he’d grab if he only had sixty seconds.” Steve looks up and meets Sam’s confused gaze. “And he chose the arc reactor.”

Comprehension dawns on Sam and his shoulders sag a bit. He steps forward and joins Steve in the bedroom before closing the door, dulling the screeching alarm. “Steve, man…”

“I knew before I pulled it, I just had to be sure.”

Sam crosses his arms and waits a few moments before asking, “And what about you?”

“What about me?”

“What would you grab?” Sam asks. “And don’t feel obligated to say my name just because I was ready to go Wesley Snipes on that door.”

Steve worries his bottom lip between his teeth before answering. “Nothing.” He admits. To Sam’s raised eyebrow, he elaborates, “Everything I need is across the ocean.”

Sam nods in understanding. “Well then,” he says, “We’ve got a plane to catch, don’t we?”

Steve gawks at Sam. “What?” He blurts.

Sam laughs and opens the door, gesturing into the hall. “What the Hell are you waiting for, man? Let’s get a move on!”

“You mean it? You’ll come with me?” Steve asks hopefully.

Sam throws his head back and laughs. “Please! What sort of wingman would I be if I didn’t?” He asks. “Pack your damn suitcase and let’s get out of here.”

Steve trips over his own two feet in his haste to follow orders. Sam watches with an amused smile as Steve scrambles around the room, throwing everything but the kitchen sink into his suitcase.

“You realize you still owe me one Hell of an explanation, right?” Sam asks as Steve pulls his blue button up out of the closet.

Steve shoves the shirt in his suitcase before zipping it shut and dragging it off the bed. “I’ll tell you everything in the car.” He promises as he sheppards Sam towards the door. “Come on, Sam, move it!”

They make it all the way to the parking garage without seeing a single person from the party which is nothing short of a miracle in Steve’s opinion. So of course that’s when he turns the corner and runs straight into Tony’s chest, knocking them both back a few steps before they’re able to find their balance again. When they finally do find their footing they look at each other like they’re strangers seeing one another for the first time.

Tony looks from Steve to the suitcase in Steve’s hand. “Where are you going?” He asks.

Sam shuffles away slowly, pointing towards the other end of the garage. “I’m…gonna go find the car…” He announces before turning and sprinting away, presumably to do as he said.

Steve takes a deep breath and admits to himself that this is for the best. To leave Tony without any explanation would only have been insult to injury. “Dublin.” He says firmly.

Tony’s eyebrows shoot up his face. “Dublin?” He repeats. “Why? It can’t be for the scenery because, between you and me, I have to say that I was entirely unimpressed with the—”

“When is my birthday, Tony?” Steve interrupts.

Tony gapes soundlessly, “What—What’s that got to do with this?”

Sam pulls up behind Steve, honking twice to let him know he’s there. Steve closes his eyes and takes another steadying breath. “Tony, please,” Steve begs, “Tony, just tell me when my birthday is.”

“Steve, babe, come on.” Tony deflects. “Why are you doing this?”

“Tony.” He says firmly. “You and I have known each other for four years and you have claimed to love me that entire time. So will you please,” his voice catches, “just answer me?”

Tony’s mouth snaps shut. The silence between them grows and grows until Tony shakes his head and admits what Steve already knew. “I don’t know.”

Steve’s bottom lips trembles and he nods his head. “I love you, Tony, I do. You know that. But we deserve better than each other,” he admits despite the ache in his chest. He turns to the car and opens the door before turning back to Tony, “Take care of yourself, alright? It’s what you do best.”

Steve gets in the car and reaches to shut the door. He’s got his fingers on the handle when Tony catches the frame.

“Steve, wait.”

Steve obliges. He takes his hand off the handle and looks up at Tony. He doesn’t look angry or upset. He looks lost and bit confused. “When is it?” He asks.

Steve smiles sadly, “The Fourth of July, Tony.”

Tony snaps his fingers, “The Fourth of July,” he repeats. He takes his hand off the door and steps away from the car. “I’ll remember that.” He says.

Steve rolls his eyes fondly, “How about you work on learning your own Social Security number first?”

Tony’s face scrunches up in thought. “There’s a seven in there somewhere, right?”

Steve chuckles and shakes his head, “Not even close.” He grabs the handle and shuts the door. He can’t force himself to look away from Tony just yet, not until they share a solemn wave and Sam pulls away.

“You alright, man?” Sam asks after a few minutes of silence.

Steve stares straight ahead. “Yeah, ‘m alright.” He says softly. He knows that the gravity of what he’s done will hit him sometime and when it does it won’t be easy, but for right now he can only think of what’s ahead of him. As has been the case since he came into Steve’s life, he can only think of Bucky.

“You ready to tell me who this mystery Marlon-Brando-looking man in your sketchbook is?” Sam asks with a grin tugging at his lips.

Steve throws his head back and laughs before leaning forward in his seat and burying his head in his hands. “How far in the sketchbook did you get?” He asks, peering through his fingers at Sam’s bemused expression.

Sam barks out a laugh and pounds his fist against the dashboard. “I got far enough to know that you’re a freak in bed, Rogers!” Sam cries between chuckles. “The—the one where he’s got you pinned against the wall?” He wipes a stray tear from his eye as a fresh wave of laughter sends him into hysterics once more. “Shit, man. The details! Had to say the Lord’s prayer just to make myself feel pure again.”

Steve punches his shoulder and Sam replies with an indignant squawk. When the laughter finally dies, Steve smiles. “Where do you want me to start?” He asks.

Sam rolls his eyes, “From the beginning, Steve!”

***

“So, let me get this straight.” Sam says. They’re stopped at a red light, which is probably a good thing seeing as how Sam looks so distraught that driving may actually be a risk to all humanity. “James Barnes and Bucky Barnes are the same person?”

“Yup.”

“And within three days of meeting him you crashed his car, got him thrown out of a bar, and pretended to be married to him?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And at some point over those three days you also managed to fall in love with the dude?”

“’In love’ is a little drastic—.”

“There are thirty five pages in your sketchbook that tell me that ‘in love’ is nowhere near drastic enough.” The light turns green and Sam slowly creeps through traffic with one hand still cupped over his mouth. Finally he drops the hand and begins howling with laughter. “Steve Rogers, you are the craziest son of a bitch I have ever met in my life.”

Steve rolls his eyes and whacks Sam off the back of the head. “What did you expect?”

Sam rubs at the sore spot at the back of his head and cackles softly to himself. “Nothing less, man, nothing less.”

Chapter Text

MARCH 15TH, 2012

Despite the crunch on time, Steve insists on taking the 10:05 from JFK to Dublin rather than the 11:30. Granted it means that he and Sam will have to clear security and find their terminal in a matter of 25 minutes (impossible by JFK standards), but the alternative is delaying he and Bucky’s reunion by another hour which is something Steve simply won’t tolerate.

The result involves him and Sam stripping at the speed of light for a couple of dumbfounded TSA workers and throwing their valuables carelessly into buckets for them to be scrutinized. With their shoes back on their feet (and a TSA worker’s number in Sam’s pocket) they hit the ground running towards the terminals. They’re both covered in a thin sheen of sweat by the time they collapse in the waiting area, winded from their run.

Ten minutes later they’re boarding the plane. Steve shoves Louis unceremoniously into the overhead compartment and fights the oncoming sense of déjà vu, a sense which only grows stronger when a pale hand tipped with red nails offers him and Sam complimentary headphones and sleeping masks for their flight.

Steve looks up to see Peggy standing over him with a smug smile tugging at her crimson lips. “Back so soon, are we? I take it the engagement didn’t go as planned.”

Steve slowly reaches up to take the offered commodities. “No, no it didn’t.” He admits.

Peggy purses her lips thoughtfully. “It hasn’t got anything to do with a devastatingly handsome stranger now, would it?” She asks slyly. “About yea tall,” she holds a hand a few inches above her own head, “broody, total nightmare in a metal detector?”

Steve gawks at her while Sam sniggers behind his back. “How did you—How could you—?”

Peggy laughs and pats Steve’s shoulder consolingly. “He’s boarded four flights to New York in the past two weeks,” she explains, “but he always gets off at the last minute. I figured he’s either deranged or in love.”

Steve’s jaw goes slack as Sam continues to cackle beside him.

“I expect an invitation, you know.” Peggy says as she turns to leave.

“To what?” Steve asks.

“The wedding, of course.” She says with a wicked grin before walking away.

Sam nudges him in the ribs with a gloating smile. “You still gonna try and convince me you and Lover Boy didn’t do the deed after the poor bastard bought four plane tickets to come see you?”

Steve scoffs and shoves Sam’s night mask in his face, refusing to fall for the tease. Sam mercifully relents after a few more wise cracks, which is better than what Steve could have hoped for.

They land in Dublin just over seven hours after their departure, not quite as bright eyed as they’d been earlier. Still, there’s an excited buzz beneath Steve’s skin even as he and Sam check into a dumpy airport motel in order to sleep off their jet lag. Besides, it’s not like Steve’s likely to go banging down Bucky’s door at 2 in the morning, and after putting their sleep deprived heads together, Sam and Steve are able to come to the conclusion that that’s exactly what time it is.

With a hasty, grumbled goodnight to one another, they both crash face first into their respective beds and fall asleep without further delay.

***

Steve’s return to Howler’s isn’t nearly as much of a hassle as his initial arrival, though for a moment he entertains the idea of making Sam endure a ship ride with Fury. Instead they take a four hour bus ride from Dublin to Cork, and from there it’s a two hour cab ride from Cork to Dingle. By the time they finally arrive at Howler’s, Steve is so preoccupied by the ache in his lower back from sitting for so long that he hardly notices the drastic changes the bar has undergone in his absence until the cabbie’s been paid and he and Sam are standing side by side with the same awed expression.

The worn blue paint has been replaced with a fresh coat of a brighter blue and the sad, faded sign which once hung sadly over the door now proudly boasts ‘HOWLER’S’ in golden letters. Though the carvings hacked into the walls remain, it seems as though someone’s taken great care in scratching out the profanities that had once been.

More bizarre than the censored graffiti or the fresh paint is the sheer number of people milling about the place. The farmer’s porch is filled with people laughing and enjoying a pint in the crisp air and the red door is constantly swinging on its hinges as customers pour in and out.

“This is the place?” Sam asks, wearily eying the bar. “Though you said it was deserted?”

“It was,” Steve says slowly. “I don’t understand.”

“Well, are we going in or not? Between you and me, I could go for some food.”

Steve worries his bottom lip between his teeth, contemplating. “I don’t know, Sam.”

Sam rolls his eyes and throws an arm around Steve, pulling him to his side and pointing towards Howler’s. “Steve Rogers, the man you love is through that door. We have flown 3,000 miles to get here and I will throw you off of that cliff over there before I let you turn back now, you hear me?”

Steve takes a deep breath and steels his nerves, balling his fists like he’s about to walk into a brawl and not a bar. “You’re right.” He says firmly. “Let’s do this.”

“Thatta boy!” Sam cries, clapping Steve’s shoulder and following up the gravel path towards Howler’s.

Steve doesn’t pause until he’s standing in front of the door. His hand hovers on the brass handle while he gathers every ounce of courage that he’s got in his body. He’s about to turn the knob when the door swings open of its own accord, revealing a portly man looking worse for wear and a tall, built brunette gripping him by the back of the collar, forcing him through the door way. Steve stumbles aside and lets them pass, watching with wide eyes as the brunette throws the man down the stairs.

AND STAY OUT, YOU GOD DAMN PIG!” She hollers at the man’s retreating back as he stumbles away, clearly inebriated. “ I OUGHTTA SICK MY BROTHER ON YOU! HE’LL TEACH YOU TO COME ON TO A LADY LIKE THAT!

She adjusts the thick rimmed glasses sitting crooked on her nose with a pale hand covered in tattoos that stretch up her arm until disappearing into the sleeves of her shirt. Steve’s eyes linger on the four letters tattooed onto her knuckles, “B-U-C-H”, before returning to her face, still blotchy and red with rage. She turns his way and fixes him with a curious, blue-eyed stare before smiling.

“Shit, sorry, were you trying to get in here?” She asks, pointing to the doorway. Steve nods dumbly and the girl chuckles, “Well don’t let me get in your way, come on in!” When Steve hesitates she reaches forward and drags him in by the collar.

Steve lets her. He turns back on Sam with wide eyes, hoping he’ll follow. Sam does, chuckling to himself all the while.

“Sorry ‘bout all that!” The woman says over her shoulder as she moves him through the packed entryway. “Bastard thought he could get away with playing a little grab ass. Men these days, am I right?” She asks, snorting and rolling her eyes.

Steve can’t help but agree, and in doing so earns himself another smile from the girl ahead of him. “I like you. First beer’s on me, alright?” She says with a warm smile.

“Can’t argue with that.” Steve says with a smile.

“Can you make that two?” Sam pipes up from behind.

The girl turns and sizes Sam up, blatantly checking him out before smiling slow and easy in a way that seems awfully familiar. “I sure can.” She flirts, winking at Sam before turning and continuing to push her way through the crowd, bringing Sam and Steve to one of the few empty tables in the place. “You boys sit tight and I’ll be back in a minute, alright?”

“Sure thing.” Steve says. Before she disappears completely, Steve catches sight of the word ‘WINIFRED’ tattooed just above her elbow. It sits beneath the portrait of a kind woman captured in a moment of laughter. Steve’s eyes linger for a moment before he averts his gaze to the room around him.

Aside from the sheer number of people inside, the place looks about the same as it did when Steve had been here last. There’s music above the din of the crowd, playing aggressive, punkish rock that reminds Steve of the music Bucky’d had in his car. The music Steve had thrown out the window of the car he’d crashed…

Yeah, he’s gonna need that beer ASAP.

The thought no sooner crosses his mind than the girl with the tattoos returns. As she sets down their beers he’s able to see “A-N-A-N” inked onto the fingers of her left hand and the portrait of a man done in similar style to the one of Winifred, this one labeled, ‘GEORGE’.

“On the house!” She announces proudly before straightening up and putting her hands on her hips. “You boys looking to eat?”

“Yes ma’am!” Sam says enthusiastically. “What’s good here? Besides you, that is.” He asks, turning on the charm that comes so effortless to him. Steve rolls his eyes at the blatant flirting and takes a long sip of his beer. God knows he needs it.

“Well, seeing as how my brother’s the chef I’m obligated to say everything.” She says offhandedly.

Steve nearly chokes on his beer and has to set his glass down lest he slosh it down his front. As he reaches for a napkin to wipe his chin, he looks up and nearly slaps himself for not noticing earlier. The eyes, the effortlessly flirtatious smile, the portraits of her parents, it’s all obvious to him now that he’s in the presence of Rebecca Barnes.

“You alright, pal?” She asks, thumping him on the back as he continues to sputter. “I’d hate to kill you before you even get to eat. I know I rag on him, but my brother’s quite the chef.”

Steve composes himself and nods. “Yeah, I’ll bet.” He says, refusing to meet the blue eyes that are so achingly familiar to him now. “We’ll have the chicken.” He says.

“We will?” Sam asks. Steve gives Sam the coded glare that they’ve agreed means ‘JUST GO WITH THIS’ and Sam nods eagerly. “Yes, we will be having the chicken!” he says.

Rebecca’s eyes dart between Sam and Steve curiously for a moment before she nods slowly and begins backing away. “Chicken…got it…” She says. With one last furtive glance their way, she turns and heads towards what Steve assumes is the kitchen.

“Mind telling me what that was about?” Sam asks as soon as she’s out of ear shot.

Steve prompt leans forward and bangs his forehead none too gently off the table. “That would be Bucky’s sister.”

Sam does a double take between Steve and the direction Rebecca left in. “That was—,” he points towards the crowd, “I thought she was in New York?”

Steve slowly lifts his head. “I guess not.”

Sam leans back in his chair with wide eyes. “Well the good thing is, if I marry her, we could be in-laws.”

Steve takes his balled up napkin and throws it at Sam’s face. “This isn’t funny, Sam! How am I supposed to do this in front of his sister?”

“You got a plan?” Sam asks.

Steve grimaces. “I’ve got part of a plan.”

“How much of a plan?”

“Like…twelve percent?”

Before Sam can vocalize how idiotic that sounds, which judging by the look on his face is incredibly idiotic, a woman who isn’t Rebecca (thank God) drops their plates at their table with a smile. As soon as she’s gone, though, Sam unloads on him, hissing across the table. “Twelve percent, Steve? I did not fly my ass across an ocean for twelve percent.”

“Well then,” Steve says as he cuts into his chicken and takes a bite, savoring the taste that’s just as good as the first time he’d had it at Erskine’s before swallowing and smirking at Sam, “it’s a good thing I’m the king of making shit up as I go.” He concludes before hailing down their waitress again.

“I’m sorry,” He says sympathetically, “but the chicken’s a little dry. Do you mind taking this back to the chef for me?” He asks, handing his plate back to the apologetic waitress.

As soon as she’s gone, Sam digs into his own plate, glaring at Steve the moment he takes his first bite. “This is delicious.” He says skeptically, slowly chewing his mouthful while he continues to grill Steve with his glare. “What are you up to, Rogers?”

Steve smiles impishly and shrugs. He knows what’s coming. He started the mental count down from the moment he handed his plate off. (Ten…nine…) Knowing Bucky, it’s unlikely that he’s going to take the criticism sitting down. (Eight…seven…) His temper’s too touchy, his pride too fragile, and Steve can’t imagine him taking too kindly to his cooking getting slammed, especially when it’s damn good and he knows it. (Six…five…) Steve can picture it now, the waitress coming into the kitchen with the returned plate. Bucky scoffing and cutting into the food himself before letting out an indignant squawk. (Four…three…) “Shit’s perfect!” he’ll say, storming past the waitress towards the dining room. He’ll come barreling through the door… (Two…one…)

“Alright, you bastards, who’s got a problem with my cooking?”

…right on cue.

The music cuts out and the crowd seems to come to a standstill. There’s an uncomfortable silence descending over the room as everyone turns this way and that, waiting for the culprit to give themselves up. From where he’s sitting, Steve can see Rebecca looking wearily at her brother from her perch at the bar, but Steve can hardly pay her any attention. He’s only got eyes for Bucky.

He’s changed almost as much as the bar has. He looks healthier, certainly cleaner. Gone is the five o’clock shadow and the darkness beneath his eyes, replaced instead by a healthy (albeit currently angry) flush. His hair his cropped short, though still long enough for Steve to want to run his fingers through it. With a catch in his breath Steve notices that his Coney Island t-shirt is sitting snug on Bucky’s torso, hugging him up in all the ways Steve wants to.

“Oh, sure, now that I’m out here you don’t got anything to say!” Bucky shouts. “Come on, who said it?”

“I did.”

The moment Bucky’s eyes meet his it feels like every breath of air in his lungs is stolen from him, deflating his chest like a balloon and leaving him gasping for air in the best way, in a way he hasn’t felt in so long and didn’t think he’d feel ever again.

“Hi.” He says weakly.

“Hi.” Bucky croaks, eyes wide and body stiff as he continues to gape at Steve. “Thought you were getting married?” He says.

Steve shakes his head and shrugs. “Change of plans.” He says simply.

Bucky’s eyes narrow infinitesimally. “And why’s that?”

Steve sucks in a deep breath, gearing himself up for the other 88% of the plan that he didn’t give much thought to. “You once said one of us sorry saps ought to wind up happy,” he says, recalling the words Bucky had said in St. Stephen’s Green, “but I don’t see why we can’t both be happy.”

Bucky’s mouth snaps shut but his confusion is still evident all over his face. Steve stands up and slowly makes his way across the room.

“I thought I was happy,” he continues as he moves, “I really did. I convinced myself for four years that I was happy and it wasn’t until I met you that I realized that I wasn’t,” he admits. He keeps his eyes trained on Bucky’s face, waiting for some sign of emotion. “I forgot how to ask for what wanted for a while. So I came all the way here to get what I want,” he comes to a stop in front of Bucky, “and that’s you,” he admits with a rush of breath that it feels like he’s been holding forever.

“I told you, once, that I don’t believe in ‘It’ll all work out’.” He says softly, searching Bucky’s face. “I told you I believed in ‘Make it happen, or it won’t’. But Bucky, for the first time in a long time, I believe that this is going to work out, whatever this is,” he says, “and I guess all I need to know is whether or not you believe that, too?”

The crowd around them titters excitedly, waiting with baited breath for Bucky’s answer. Finally, his face cracks and a slow, easy smile crosses his face. It gives Steve hope; hope that Bucky feels this, too, that this wasn’t all in his head.

But then Bucky’s shaking his head and the smile is wilting and Bucky is turning away, heading for the kitchen without another word, leaving Steve standing there with wide eyes and a broken heart. The kitchen door swings heavily as Bucky moves through it and Steve watches. He gapes soundlessly for a moment before nodding to himself, turning to the hundreds of eyes staring at him with pity.

“Well, then,” he says softly, hanging his head, “guess I have my answer then.” He says miserably before turning and heading for the door.

He ignores Sam. He ignores Rebecca, who’s calling him by name even though she shouldn’t know it. He shoves his way through the crowd and makes a break for the door. He doesn’t stop running ‘til he’s out in the open, lungs filling with the crisp Irish air that had been stolen from him the moment he’d seen Bucky again. He keeps going until the bar is far behind him, a distant speck on the horizon. He falls to his knees at the edge of the cliff, breaking down where the crashing waves are loud enough to drown out his wracking sobs.

He stares down at his hands, clenched in the gravel beneath his knees. On his left hand, his golden engagement ring still taunts him from its home on his fourth finger. With a miserable growl that’s closer to a whine than anything, Steve pulls it off and chucks it over the cliff with all his might. He watches with some satisfaction as it spirals through open air before disappearing into the sea, hundreds of feet below. He continues to huff and puff as he stares into the churning waves breaking against the cliff side.

“Don’t you go jumping, now. I’d go after you.”

Steve spins and finds Bucky standing a few feet away with his hands tucked into his pockets. “What are you doing here?” He asks, keeping his voice steady.

“Lookin’ for you.” Bucky says like it should be obvious.

Steve snorts unattractively and lifts himself off the ground. “Why?”

“Wanted to talk to you.”

Steve turns on him, bright-eyed and indignant. “Oh, sure, now you want to talk, huh?” He seethes. “I think you made your point, Bucky. Or is it James now? Are we still on a nickname basis?”

Bucky throws his head back and laughs. “Only you could pick a fight when a poor bastard’s trying to tell you he loves you.” He says fondly.

“I--,” Steve pauses, closes his mouth, opens it, then clamps it shut once again. Bucky’s words spin like a broken record in his mind for another minute before he finally manages to spit out, “What?”

Bucky’s shoulders sag and he smiles, looking every bit like the young man Steve had seen in the picture frame. “You didn’t give me a chance to answer you.”

“You walked away.” Steve argues.

“I was getting something!” Bucky chuckles.

“Oh, and that seemed like the appropriate time to get it?” Steve bites back.

Bucky rolls his eyes, “Seemed like the perfect time, considering what it is!” He pulls his right hand from his pocket and from his fingers hang his tags, clinking softly against his mother’s engagement band. Steve glances from the chain to Bucky’s face, awaiting an explanation.

“Steve Rogers, I have been crazy about you from the moment I met you,” he admits, moving towards Steve slowly with a smug smirk toying at his lips. “I’ve been a lot of places and haven’t found anyone like you in a single one of ‘em.”

Steve looks down at himself, self-consciously tugging at his blue button up. He doesn’t look up until he feels the cool metal of Bucky’s fingers beneath his chin. He meets Bucky’s eyes, bluer than both the sky above and the sea below.

“We’re gonna make this work, Steve.” Bucky continues softly. His hand moves from Steve’s chin to his cheek, running over the skin like Steve’s the most valuable thing in this world. “I don’t believe in a whole lot, Steve, but I believe that.”

With that, Bucky drops to one knee, offering his tags to Steve. ““So here’s my proposal: I think it’s fair to say that five days ain’t enough time to really know someone, never mind marry them, but how’s about you wear these ‘round your neck for a while, and we’ll see if that ring doesn’t end up on your finger someday.” He says, grinning from ear to ear.

Steve fights a grin but it’s a hopeless battle, one he’s lost long before it’s begun. Laughter bubbles from his chest, making him feel lighter than air as he nods eagerly. “I suppose I can manage that.”

Bucky stands and carefully hangs the chain around Steve’s neck before cupping Steve’s face gently between his hands and leaning down. “I oughtta warn you now, if you let me kiss you, I might not ever stop,” he whispers softly, breath breaking over Steve’s lips.

Steve smiles and throws his arms around Bucky’s shoulders, standing on the tips of his toes to close the distance, bringing his lips to Bucky’s in the way he’s been desperate to. His hands quickly find their home in Bucky’s hair, dragging through the tresses as Bucky smiles into their kiss. Steve doesn’t even protest when Bucky stoops down and picks him up. He just hums contentedly and wraps his legs around Bucky’s waist, smiling into the kiss himself.

***

Hours later, long after the bar’s closed, Steve, Bucky, Sam, and Rebecca share a table and a couple of beers together without interruption. Steve’s well on his way to finishing his sixth beer, content with the dull buzz he’s got going for himself as he laughs along to the story Rebecca’s telling about her own arrival in Dingle.

“So there I am, right?” Rebecca says, gesticulating wildly with a beer in each hand, nearly braining Sam a few times with her wide reach. “I just flew across the world because there’s some guy in Ireland claiming to be my dead brother. And who opens the door but this…this dirty looking hobo!” She cries, beer spilling from her mugs as she throws her hands up. “He didn’t even get one word out before I socked him one right in the nose!”

“Yeah, and who taught you how to punch like that?” Bucky asks, cocking a brow.

Rebecca waves him down and continues, pleading her case. “I didn’t even recognize you under all that hair,” she argues. “Wasn’t until you were cursing a god damn blue streak on the floor that I realized no body on earth could cuss like that ‘cept my pain in the ass brother.” She says, almost fond.

“You’re too kind, sis, really.” Bucky says sarcastically.

“Kind enough to help you buy this place back! Putting that business degree to good use, I’m telling you.” She retorts, answering a question that Steve’s been meaning to ask from the moment he arrived, the matter of the thousand dollars that Bucky owed on his lease. “Kind enough to listen to you wax poetic about your boyfriend, too!” She adds, taking a long sip from her beer and somehow managing to make the action look triumphant.

Bucky gawks, “I did not—I was not waxing poetic!”

Rebecca sits up in her seat and takes on a doe-eyed expression that Steve has never seen on Bucky’s face, nor does he think he ever will. “Oh, Bec, you shoulda seen him!” She recites theatrically as Sam sniggers beside her. “Looked like a goddamn angel with an ass like a Georgia peach.”

“A Georgia peach?” Steve giggles, tilting his head towards Bucky.

Bucky rolls his eyes and scoffs. “You’re—that’s exaggerated,” he argues before turning to appeal to Steve, “She’s—she’s exaggerating.” He stammers.

Rebecca throws her head back and laughs before killing both her beers and setting them down heavily on the table. “I’m going to get another, you want one?” She asks, pointing to Sam’s empty mug.

“Sure, I’ll come with you.” Sam says agreeably, following her from the table like a dutiful puppy.

“I think Sam’s got a crush.” Steve says, watching Rebecca and Sam disappear around the corner.

Bucky seems to perk up at that, looking in the direction Sam and his sister had left in. “You don’t say…” He says curiously.

“You Barneses are very charming.” Steve drawls. He rises from his chair and comes around the table to climb into Bucky’s lap, humming contentedly at the feel of Bucky’s solid weight between his thighs.

Bucky inhales sharply and sets his own beer on the table before resting both his hands on Steve’s slim hips. “You trying to distract me from beating your buddy’s ass for hitting on my sister?”

Steve laughs and shakes his head softly. He shifts in his lap again, emboldened by the liquor and no longer embarrassed or ashamed to be straddling Bucky in the middle of the room. “I’m trying to get you to take me somewhere else.” He says quietly before leaning in for another kiss. His lips are still soft and swollen from earlier, from the hour or so Bucky had spent on the cliff making out like teenagers, but he doesn’t give a damn.

By the sounds of it, neither does Bucky. He hums deeply and brings his arms around Steve’s waist; pulling their bodies flush together. “Got some place in mind?”

“Your room?” Steve suggests.

“Not a bad idea.”

“Then what are you waiting for?” Steve asks, getting up quickly and holding a hand out to Bucky. “You lead the way.”

Bucky takes Steve’s hand and practically drags him towards the kitchen. For the smallest fraction of a second, Steve feels bad about leaving Sam and Rebecca without so much as an explanation, but then Bucky looks over his shoulder at Steve and gives him a hungry once over and suddenly Steve couldn’t care less. Sam’s a big boy, he figures. He hopes.

“’S through the kitchen and I ought to warn you now, it’s a bit of a mess,” Bucky explains as he pushes through the doors to the vacant kitchen, “Becca brought a lot of my old shit from home over, so—.” Bucky doesn’t get a chance to finish that thought. As soon as the kitchen door swings shut, Steve puts all his might into steering Bucky against a wall and sealing their lips together in another kiss.

The Coney Island t-shirt becomes Steve’s first victim, torn up and over Bucky’s head before the man gets a word in edge wise. Steve steps back for a moment to rake his eyes over the broad, heaving chest that he vows to leave bitten, bruised, and scratched by the end of the night. He smiles like the Cheshire cat before diving back in, sucking Bucky’s bottom lip between his teeth as he climbs up Bucky’s body, humming happily when Bucky’s hands take a firm hold of his ass, giving it a possessive squeeze that gets Steve mewling into their kiss.

Steve can’t remember the last time he’d felt this hot, this desperate to be touched and loved and fucked within an inch of his life. Every kiss, every touch, it all just stokes the fire roaring beneath his skin. A fire he hopes never goes out because he’s happy to burn at the hands of Bucky Barnes.

“Holy Hell, Steve,” Bucky chuckles between kisses, “what’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing yet,” Steve whispers, trailing hot, open mouthed kisses from Bucky’s swollen bottom lip to the hinge of his jaw. “Hoping you’ll change that soon, though,” he breathes into the skin.

Bucky’s laughs as he switches their positions, pressing Steve into the wall and holding him off the ground. His hips grind up into Steve’s and Steve’s eyes roll back into his head at the feeling of Bucky’s hard cock through his pants.

At this rate Steve’s not sure if they’re going to fuck or if they’re going to fight. For every bitten lip there’s the scratch of nails. Demanding thrusts are met by pulled hair. Their kisses grow hungrier and the press of their bodies becomes insistent and the bruises are piling up on their throats, forming constellations of red blemishes that will be an angry purple come sunrise.

Bucky carefully slides the first two buttons of Steve’s shirt loose before Steve knocks his hands out of the way and yanks the shirt apart, sending buttons flying across the kitchen. May it never be said that Steve Rogers has great impulse control.

Bucky looks up at him with wide eyes. “I liked that shirt,” he says indignantly. “You look good in blue.”

Steve rolls his eyes and cards his fingers through Bucky’s hair. “I look better naked,” he whispers before sealing his lips to Bucky’s once again.

Bucky’s answering groan sounds enough like an agreement that Steve doesn’t think he’ll press the issue again. With the shirt finally off, Bucky wastes no time dropping his head and sealing his lips over one of Steve’s nipples while the other is worked over by the cool metal of his left hand.

Bucky,” he gasps when Bucky grazes his teeth gently over the sensitive skin.

“Like the way you say it, sweetheart,” Bucky drawls as he switches focus, kissing a path from one nipple to the other and bringing his flesh and blood hand up to replace his mouth.

Usually Steve would bristle at an endearment but the way Bucky says it, dripping with Brooklyn swagger, has him losing his god damn mind. He toes his shoes off and digs his heels into Bucky’s lower back, forcing their hips together so he can revel in the feeling of Bucky’s hard cock pressed against his.

Bucky growls and takes hold of Steve’s ass, giving it another firm squeeze as he pulls Steve away from the wall and carries him across the kitchen to a sturdy table that Steve would imagine is used for food prep. Not that that matters to Bucky, who presses Steve down against the polished wood and quickly climbs on the table to join him, settling his body atop Steve’s.

“This can’t be sanitary.” Steve comments between kisses. This is far from the worst idea he’s had in regards to location, see the bathroom at a Metallica concert or the backseat of Sam’s car (which Sam still doesn’t know about) for example, but there’s a certain respect he holds for the sanctity of someone else’s food.

“I’ll clean it in the morning.” Bucky promises, kissing down Steve’s chest and trying his damn hardest to distract from the issue.

Steve isn’t having it. “We’re not fucking here!”

Bucky glares through his eyelashes as he continues his path downward, dropping feather soft kisses around Steve’s belly button as his hands reach up to play with his nipples. “Can I at least suck you off here?”

Steve chews his lip for a minute, debating the pros and cons. The pros list is looking about a mile long and the cons, well… “Promise to clean up in the morning?”

“Scouts honor,” Bucky vows. With Steve’s go ahead, Bucky continues his path downward. Steve whimpers and digs his fingers into Bucky’s hair as he sucks individual bruises over the zip code inked along Steve’s hipbone. Bucky blows a cooling breath over the hot skin, making Steve hiss and arch off the table.

Bucky’s hands slide from Steve’s chest to his hips, catching them and holding them secure while he mouths at the front of Steve’s pants. His hot breath ghosts over the hardness pressed tortuously tight against Steve’s zipper and Steve moans again, helpless to do anything more than thrust weakly in Bucky’s grip.

“Something you need, Steve?” Bucky asks, sweet as sugar as he nuzzles at Steve’s cock, staring up at Steve through dark lashes.

Steve’s nails scratch across Bucky’s scalp; desperately seeking the friction he’s being denied. “Your mouth, Bucky,” he gasps, “please, Bucky.”

“Well, what do you know,” Bucky teases even as he unbuttons Steve’s pants using nothing but his teeth, treating the zipper with the same regard, “he’s got manners after all.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Steve says breathlessly, smiling despite himself.

Bucky presses Steve’s hips down onto the island and sits back on his haunches. Steve sits up and leans on his elbows, watching as Bucky drags his pants down his legs and turns his hungry eyes on Steve’s briefs.

“No lace today?” Bucky asks, running his hands up Steve’s legs, tracing gentle swirls and patterns across the ivory skin.

“Gotta give you something to look forward to.” He teases.

Bucky chuckles darkly in a way that makes the hairs on the back of Steve’s neck stand up and his dick throb. “Steve, there’s nothing I ain’t lookin’ forward to doing with you,” he says, surprisingly earnest for a man who’s currently stripping Steve of the last bit of his modesty.

With the briefs out of the way and tossed unceremoniously aside, Bucky allows himself a few moments to shamelessly ogle the body beneath him. Steve recognizes the hungry look in his eyes and spreads his legs, bending one at the knee and allowing the other to hang off the edge of the table, offering himself up to Bucky, silently begging him to take what’s his. Bucky’s eyes rake a slow path down Steve’s body like it’s occurring to him for the first time that he gets to touch everything he’s seeing. It’s that wide-eyed reverence that makes Steve’s heart skip a beat, more so than being laid bare on a kitchen table, ready to be devoured by the man above him.

“Buck?” Steve asks softly when the seconds drag on. “Still with me?”

Bucky laughs breathily and nods, “Oh, I’m with you.” He seems to find his wits again and slowly leans down, coming to lay flat against the table with his head between Steve’s legs. He hooks the leg still propped up on the table over his shoulder before mouthing along the hard line of Steve’s cock, dragging torturously slow kisses up the shaft.

Steve’s arms tense and nearly give way under the pleasure that wracks his body. Bucky’s barely just begun and Steve already feels dizzy out of his skull. He throws his head back and lets out what he’s hoping passes as a moan, but judging by the wicked gleam in Bucky’s eye, it’s more like a hopeless whimper.

When Bucky finally, mercifully puts his warm mouth around Steve’s cock, Steve drops to the table without a fight, moaning outright at the warm suction and threading his fingers through Bucky’s hair. Bucky chuckles around him, vibrations shooting along Steve’s cock and making him rock further into Bucky’s mouth, not that he seems to mind. The hands around Steve’s hips tighten their grip, staking possessive claim in the form of crescent-shaped indents where Bucky’s nails meet Steve’s skin.

Whenever Bucky slides his lips slowly up Steve’s cock, he whimpers at the loss, desperate to feel that heat again and crying out when it’s given to him, over and over until his thighs are shaking. He hasn’t formed a coherent phrase since the head of his cock nudged the back of Bucky’s throat and he doesn’t think he will any time soon. The only words off his tongue are ‘please’ and ‘Bucky’ and just about every combination of the words ‘Jesus’, ‘God’, and ‘Christ’ that pop into his addled mind.

Bucky looks up and catches Steve’s eye, holding his stare as he slides up Steve’s cock one last time before letting his dick fall from between his lips. Steve’s so focused on how slick and red they are that he nearly misses what Bucky says. Luckily, he manages to catch the most important part.

“—wanna come in my mouth?”

The single brain cell still alive in his mind is able to generate enough power to get Steve to shake his head. As much as he’d love to lose himself in Bucky’s mouth, he’s dying to come screaming Bucky’s name while he takes his cock. He says as much to Bucky himself.

Bucky’s smile is slow and brilliant and probably one that the devil has worn a thousand times. “That so?” He asks, his wicked grin never faltering as he slides slowly off the table, leaving Steve lain out in the middle.

Steve sits up, nodding dumbly.

Bucky reaches out and takes Steve by the knees before dragging him to the edge of the table, holding Steve’s legs apart and wedging himself between them. He pulls Steve tight enough to his body that his clothed erection nestles between Steve’s cheeks in the exact place Steve wants him most. “Want that, huh?” He asks, dragging his cock against Steve in a slow, even stroke.

Steve chokes on air and nods again, more enthusiastically because God, yes, that’s what he needs, but he needs it with a lot less clothes.

“Oh, fuck, Stevie,” the word rolls off his mouth and it no sooner passes his lips than he tries to take it back with a rushed apology. “Sorry, know you don’t like that, but you got no idea what you’re doing to me right now and I—.”

“Say it again,” Steve orders, wrapping his legs around Bucky’s hip like a vice.

Fuck,” Bucky exhales, “Steve, fuck.” He looks down and meets Steve’s eyes before giving Steve more of what he wants, more torturous, languid thrusts of his hips. Steve sucks his swollen bottom lip between his teeth and whimpers. The sight alone makes Bucky whimper, “God, Stevie,” under his breath.

Steve reaches down and grabs for Bucky’s belt, fighting with it until he’s able to pull it through the loops and toss it aside. He wastes no time popping the button of Bucky’s jeans open and dropping the zipper. He uses his heels to push both Bucky’s jeans and his briefs down his hips, far enough for Bucky’s cock to spring free, hot and hard and dripping with pre-come.

“Bucky,” Steve gasps; spreading his legs wider and reaching down to take Bucky’s cock and guide it exactly where he needs him. “Bucky, please,” he sighs. Bucky's dick is thick and hard and already leaking against his hole. Steve can’t string together a thought beyond how desperate he is to have it inside his body, making him fall apart. “Bed, now,” he orders.

Bucky doesn’t need telling twice. He scoops Steve up, something of a habit he seems to be forming, and carries him towards a door Steve hadn’t noticed before due to far more pressing matters. Bucky stumbles a few times on his way, tripping over his pants until he finally pauses long enough to kick them off while Steve snickers at his expense, nibbling at the curve of his neck and shoulder while he waits.

Bucky shoulders the door open and leaves his pants in the doorway, carrying Steve into a small bedroom lit only by the moonlight streaming through the window. He crosses the room to the mattress in the corner, dropping Steve unceremoniously before turning away to dig through his nightstand.

He returns to Steve with a bottle of lube and a triumphant smile. Steve reaches up and pulls him onto the bed by his shoulders, dragging him into a kiss and rolling on top of him, settling his hips over Bucky’s with his pale thighs planted firmly on either side of Bucky’s waist. He’s allowed only a moment of triumph before Bucky reaches back and runs a hand over the small of Steve’s back, not stopping until the metal fingers of his left hand ghost over Steve’s entrance.

“Bucky, please,” Steve begs, grinding back on the fingers.

“What do you want, Stevie?” Bucky asks, already moving to lube his fingers up. He makes sure Steve is watching with hooded eyes as he warms it up between his fingers. “Tell me, sweetheart. Tell me and I’ll give it to you.”

“Want you to get your fingers in me,” Steve demands as he worries Bucky’s bottom lip between his teeth. “Want you to get me loose so you can slide inside and fuck me ‘til I come, Bucky.” His voice has gone breathy and wrecked and it’s all he can do not to whine when Bucky begins circling his slick fingers around his hole. “Bucky, please,” he begs.

He’s rewarded when one of Bucky’s fingers slips inside. “So beautiful, Steve,” Bucky whispers, bringing his other hand up to sweep Steve’s bangs off his forehead. “You look so goddamn beautiful.”

If Steve weren’t already flushed from his cheeks to his chest, he may have blushed at the honesty in Bucky’s voice. Instead he crushes his lips to Bucky’s, whimpering into his mouth as the cool metal digits of Bucky’s hand work to take him apart.

He wasn’t sure what to expect, having no experience whatsoever with getting finger fucked by a metal hand, but if this is what it feels like, everyone ought to try it some time. With someone else, of course. He’s called dibs on this one already.

The first finger slides in easily and it’s not long before Steve is begging for more, which Bucky is all too happy to give him. By the time Bucky’s worked him up to three fingers; Steve is thrusting back against Bucky’s hand and gasping for breath. He screws his eyes shut and spreads his legs a little further, trying to get Bucky to reach the spot inside that will light him up like the Fourth of July.

And when Bucky hits it, God, does Steve ever light up. His nails dig into Bucky’s shoulders and scrape down to his biceps, leaving bright red lines along Bucky’s arms which he will wear proudly for days to come. He muffles a scream against Bucky’s lips, which are curled in a tight lipped yet undeniably arrogant smile.

Steve reaches between their bodies and cups Bucky’s dick in a loose fist. “Can I?” He asks.

Bucky chuckles, “You really think I’m gonna say no?”

Bucky pulls his fingers out and Steve shifts to line himself up with Bucky’s cock. He considers being a tease, making Bucky beg like he had to, but he’s not sure if that would be more torturous to Bucky or himself. He slides down Bucky’s cock slow enough that it draws a needy whine from Bucky but feels like Heaven for himself. He can feel every inch of Bucky as he slides inside.

Bucky reaches up to wind his flesh and blood hand around the chain hanging from Steve’s neck and drags Steve down into a searing kiss that does little the muffle the groan he makes when Steve rolls his hips.

Bucky rolls them over, taking Steve’s knee and bending it to touch Steve’s chest so that with every thrust, he rubs against Steve’s prostate, earning him breathless moans and the occasional squeak.

“Harder,” Steve demands, digging his nails into the muscles between Bucky’s shoulders, leaving bright red scratches over the tattoo between them. His hips roll to meet Bucky’s, chasing the feeling of fullness that comes every time Bucky slides inside him.

Bucky releases his hold on the tags in order to reach down and hitch Steve’s other leg over his shoulder, changing the angle and deepening his thrusts, making Steve cry out.

“That’s it, Stevie,” Bucky drawls, “y’look so goddamn good, Stevie.” He presses his forehead to Steve’s and glances between their bodies to watch his dick disappear into Steve’s body.

Steve can’t do much in this new position besides lay back and cling to Bucky’s shoulders while he pulls him apart. He can’t even bring himself to shut his mouth between gasps, allowing Bucky to lick into his mouth without trouble whenever he sees fit.

He can’t remember ever feeling so hot, not even when the air conditioning blew in his apartment during the dog days of summer, not even when he’d had a fever of 104. He keens high in his throat and tips his head back, wound tight and on the knife’s edge of coming, ready to shoot himself over Bucky’s stomach.

“Bucky, Bucky please,” he gasps, dangerously close to drawing blood with how hard he’s gripping Bucky’s shoulders.

Bucky buries his face in the pillow beside Steve’s head and brings his lips to the shell of Steve’s ear. “Come on then, sweetheart,” he drawls, voice deep and gravely and dripping with the Brooklyn swagger that makes Steve’s eyes roll back in his head, “show me how pretty you look when you come on my cock, alright?”

Steve slaps his hand over his mouth seconds before he screams. Had he not, he might have woken half the town. His thighs clamp down on Bucky’s body, viselike around his shoulders and his chest, and he comes in long streaks between their bodies.

Bucky’s breath catches and Steve is just competent enough to feel his dick twitch inside of him. He manages a few more shallow thrusts before pulling out a coming over Steve’s stomach, painting the pale skin with long, white streaks. Steve fists his hands in Bucky’s hair and brings his lips to his hairline, dropping feather soft kisses to the skin there as both he and Bucky come down from their highs.

Bucky rolls onto his side, keeping one arm slung across Steve’s chest while the other reaches for something to wipe their stomachs with. He picks up a t-shirt that must have come from the floor and hastily drags it over their heated skin before tossing it at the hamper in the corner of the room. He turns back to Steve with another one of his boyish grins, the one that Steve favors most of all.

“Not bad, Stevie.” He teases.

Steve snorts and shrugs. “You coulda done better.”

They’re both lying. They both know it. Their ragged breathing is all the proof they need.

Steve falls back against the soft sheets and glances, for the first time, at the wall above him. It’s littered with posters and flyers, layered like a massive collage spanning the length of Bucky’s bed. There’s a Flogging Molly poster, Mets tickets, a grainy photo of his mother and father, but there’s also a certificate for first place in the Rhinebeck Science Fair, a flyer for a robot battle over in Queens dating back to 2002, and an old-timey photograph of Adam West signed by the man himself.

“What is all this?” Steve asks, still working to catch his breath as he runs a hand along the wall.

“’S that stuff I was telling you about.” Bucky says as he reaches down for the sheets at the end of the bed and pulls them over their bodies. “All the stuff Becca brought from home. It helps me remember, y’know?”

“Remember that you were a huge nerd?” Steve teases, tapping the flyer for the robot fight. Bucky snorts and digs his fingers into Steve’s ribs, tickling ‘til Steve begs him off. “Bucky—Buck, please! Bucky!”

“Think I like you better when all you’re saying is my name and ‘please’.” Bucky says thoughtfully. He relents, dropping his hands at his sides and letting his eyes fall shut with a yawn.

“Don’t you dare fall asleep on me,” Steve warns, rolling over and resting his head on Bucky’s chest.

“Hmm?” Bucky hums lazily.

Steve smiles and begins trailing kisses from the center of Bucky’s chest up towards his neck. “We’re far from done, pal.” He informs the man beneath him, earning an interested hum this time. “You’re gonna fuck me against the wall.” He says matter-of-factly. His kisses grow more persistent as he follows his path up Bucky’s body. “Then, when everyone’s asleep, we’re gonna sneak down stairs and you’re gonna fuck me on the bar.”

Bucky moans in earnest now, pulling Steve on top of him so he can press his thickening cock against the hollow of Steve’s hip. “You’re gonna clean it in the morning, right?” He teases, tipping his head back and offering his neck to Steve’s lips.

Steve bites him in earnest for the sass but laughs through his nose. “Sure,” he reasons, “right after you fuck me in the backseat of that deathtrap you call a car. I assume you pulled it out of the ravine, right?”

Bucky laughs and rolls them over. “Let’s see if I even let you leave this bed,” he growls before catching Steve’s wrists and pinning them over his head.

Steve’s chuckle turns into a moan as Bucky’s thrusts against his hips become more persistent. He figures the other stuff can wait. For now, the bed is just fine.

***

In the end they do manage to make it downstairs and Bucky bends Steve over the bar and fucks him ‘til he sees stars. They make it back upstairs on wobbly legs just in time to tumble into bed, asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillow. Steve’s last thought is a silent promise to himself that he’ll clean the bar first thing in the morning.

But they oversleep.

Steve rolls over to find the afternoon sun filtering through Bucky’s window, lighting up Bucky’s face and the sticky note slapped onto his forehead. Steve smiles and pulls it off.

THE BAR, BUCKY? REALLY? IS NOTHING SACRED? YOU OWE ME.
-THE BEST SISTER YOU EVER HAD

“Wassat?” Bucky slurs lazily, having been woken by the snickers Steve tried to muffle into his pillow.

Steve slaps the note back on Bucky’s forehead. “Rebecca’s formal resignation as your sister.”

Bucky snorts. “Took ‘er long enough.”

Steve hums and turns to face Bucky, watching the sun’s rays dance over the broad expanse of his back. He traces lazy patterns along the skin, turning the events of the past day in his mind.

He’ll have to call his mother at some point and tell her that no, he’s no longer engaged and oh, by the way, he’s in Dublin in bed with another man. He’ll have to call in to work and tell him he won’t be in for the foreseeable future. Hell, he might even quit. Maybe he’ll pick up art again. Maybe he’ll work at Howler’s. For the first time in four years Steve feels free and instead of being terrified, he’s excited, due in no small part to the man snoring softly beside him.

Eventually he drags himself out of bed, dressing himself and dropping a chase kiss on Bucky’s cheek before going downstairs to face Rebecca’s wrath.

But she’s nowhere to be found. The dining room is empty save for Sam and the five Commandos lined up at the bar with frosty mugs of beer.

“Ay!” Dugan calls when he spots Steve standing there. “What do you know, Brooklyn’s back!”

“Does that mean Bucky’ll quit his bitchin’?” Morita mumbles.

“You’re a lucky dude. Rebecca just left.” Sam says around a mouthful of food. “Think she’s going into town to buy a sniper rifle to blow both your heads off.” He teases.

Steve doesn’t know if ‘lucky’ is a word he’d ever use to describe his life, but when Bucky ambles downstairs a moment later with sleepy eyes and atrocious bed head and drops a kiss on his shoulder, Steve can’t think of a single word more fitting.

“Yeah,” he says with a laugh, “I guess I am.”