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When All Else Fails

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he first time he sees her, they literally run into each other. It is a particularly bad night, and the nightmares are the ones about Bucky that mean he won't be able to get back to sleep. He's been searching, doing all he can, but they've run through all their leads and now all he can do is wait for something to turn up. So even though it's four in the morning (and thus a little early even for Steve, whose body doesn't need all that much rest anymore), he goes for his morning run.

It is because he is lost in thought that he doesn't hear her coming. Upon reflection he realizes that he normally would have heard her footsteps, her breathing, any number of things, with his heightened senses, that would have prevented things from ever starting; he is honestly a little ashamed to be caught so wrong-footed.

So the first hint that there is another person in his vicinity is when a person, face covered by a hooded sweatshirt, comes crashing into Steve from the side. His reflexes take care of the next thirty seconds, grabbing the surprisingly light body (this must be a woman), maneuvering them both back onto their feet (wow, she smells amazing), and letting her go. His brain catches up enough to stammer out an apology, and if he wasn't sure before from her stature or the light, delicious floral scent she carries, he is now when a full grin and the words "whatever, man" make their way out from under the hood. She is already speeding off in the opposite direction from Steve as he is left wondering what the hell just happened.

As he looks around, trying to regain his bearings, he sees that she must have come running from the street to his right. He hears the sounds of someone moving about, shuffling feet and the clatter of metal, and he heads over to investigate. What he finds is an older man, likely opening up his shop, muttering as he picks up cans of spray paint about "Goddamn teenagers, they're all on drugs." The man moves away before Steve can ask him if he's alright, and he finally gets a glimpse of what the shopkeeper is muttering about.

On the wall next to the man's shop he sees graffiti of two policemen, dressed in uniform, kissing each other on the mouth. He can smell that the paint is fresh, can see that this is what made the shopkeeper angry, that this was what the girl was doing that caused her to come running into Steve.

Why would anyone do this? Why would someone draw on a wall? Why a picture of two policemen kissing? He could concede that the artist - the girl- had some ability, which made him even more confused. If she had the talent to make real art, why would she paint something he didn't understand on a public wall with paint from a can? Steve was intrigued by the girl, that was certain. Now he wished he had thought to stop her, so that he could ask her these questions (and smell her scent again).

He pushes his body back into it's interrupted rhythm, runs the rest of his route as the sun comes up and the city wakes. This time, although he's just as distracted as before, his thoughts are on someone just as mysterious as Bucky, but a lot closer to home.

The next time Steve sees The Girl, it's a much different encounter. Okay, it's still because he's on a run. But this time, it's the middle of the day, the sun is shining down on the city, and Steve has made it to the park that is his goal for the day. He jogs lightly from the path into a grove of trees so he can cool down and stretch. He hates being so idle; as the only person on the planet gifted with his body and abilities, feels he should be putting them to good use, but there are no moves to make at the moment, and Steve is second guessing his choice not to help Fury against HYDRA. In the meantime, he is going to enjoy the sunny day and relax a little even if it kills him.

He has finished his stretches and is lying on the grass trying not to notice all of the activity around him (child 30 feet to the north crying because he wants to go home... two elderly men playing chess at a table just through those trees... the scent of a hot dog vendor... the splash of water in a fountain...speckles of light falling through waving leaves). He rests on his back in the grass and talks to himself.

"I am going to learn how to be a human being again. I am not a machine that needs a purpose to function. I will find things I love and spend time doing them. I will draw more. I will create new relationships with people who live in this century. I will learn how to have fun."

Maybe if he repeats this to himself often enough, it will start to sink in. Maybe it will offset the other list, the one that he can't get to stop repeating in his head, especially late at night (I am going to find Bucky I will make everything better I will fix this mess I will get my best friend back I will find Bucky).

Then the wind shifts and Steve smells the clean, mouthwatering scent that is The Girl. Shocked, he sits up and looks around before realizing how obvious he's being. He forces himself to relax, and nonchalantly scans the area, attempting to pinpoint where the wind is coming from. It's not his fault that it takes so long to find her, because after a moment he realizes she is in a tree.

As his more-than-perfect eyesight focuses on the dark mass buried in the branches of an oak, he is already rising to his feet. His initial thought is to walk right up to her; instead he forces himself to slowly walk to a bench nearby where he can see her, but he is out of the way. Finally he lets himself take a look at the face that was covered by a hood and darkness on their first encounter.
He sees a mass of chocolate brown curls spilling out from what looks to be the same hoodie. Sculpted brows sit over dark eyes with long, thick lashes. He follows the lines of her face down to full, pink lips just in time to watch them form the word "shit." He glances down to see her vigorously erasing something on an artist's pad. Steve is sorely tempted to approach The Girl, badly wants to find out what she is drawing, and he is halfway off of the bench when The Girl throws the pad into a backpack and jumps down from the oak tree. He watches as she slings the large, worn pack over her shoulders, pulls her hood back over her curls, and saunters along the grass and back onto the path.

Steve sits on his bench, stunned by the course his day has taken, and ponders all of the things he is going to look up on the Internet when he gets home.

If Steve happens to change his early morning run to a late afternoon run, if Steve happens to change his route so that he stops by the grove of trees to stretch, well, it is certainly not because of The Girl. It is simply a fringe benefit. It would be a complete betrayal of his friendship with Bucky, of the years he has spent with his best friend, of their blood, sweat, and tears, to spend so much time obsessing over some girl who, okay, is an artist and smells good and is quite pretty, but... what was he saying? A complete betrayal of Bucky. Still, as long as he doesn't actually talk with her, as long as he is simply happening across her on his morning run, well, Steve needs to run, it isn't a betrayal (especially if he doesn't think about it).

Although when Sam asks him about it, why he has stopped showing up to their morning runs, Steve tells him he just likes his new time better now that there is nothing else for him to fill his day with (Bucky, when the hell are you going to give me something to go on?). Sam, being the awesome friend that he is, shuffles some things around at the VA so he can run with Steve at his new time. Steve absolutely does not sigh at this news.

And so it is that after only a few weeks of seeing happening to run past The Girl, Steve finds himself saddled with Running Buddy Sam and trying to decide what to say about everything. Somehow he doesn't think he can get away with not mentioning it at all. He manages to get them to the grove of trees, and smoothly suggests stopping to stretch (Sam never says no to a break when he's running with Steve), but now here they are and all he wants is for Sam to be somewhere else for a few minutes (just a few minutes, he swears, Sam is a great friend and he wouldn't drop him and oh god, Bucky). Steve still hasn't figured out anything to say, but he can't stop himself from glancing over at The Girl, hidden in her oak tree, just once (okay, a few times) so of course Sam notices.

"What, are we running a new route because you've got a lead on Bucky? You need backup, man?"

Steve takes a moment to look down and sigh, hands on his hips, before diving into this minefield. He sees Sam starting to say something else, and cuts him off.

"No, no, it's nothing like that. I was just wondering what she's drawing, no big deal."

Sam glances over at her. "I know you've got amazing senses and everything, Captain, but I gotta tell you, not even you could tell that's a girl from over here, and I definitely can't see a sketchbook or anything..." He grows a smile and points a finger at Steve.

"I see. So she IS the reason you changed your route. You like this girl. Well, why the hell haven't you gone over there and asked her out, loverboy?"

"Aw hell, Sam, it's not like that." Steve starts, pulling Sam down onto the bench that he loves because he's got a good view of her, while she has to turn her head to see him. "It's a kinda long, strange story. I didn't change my route for a girl. Well, okay, I guess you could argue... but that's not the point. She's unusual and I noticed her here and I'm curious, I admit, but it's not because I want to ask her on a date."

"Well, my friend, I guess you'd better enlighten me on this long story, but it's gonna take some convincing to get me onto your 'I changed my day around so I could spy on her but I'm not interested' page. The grin has not left Sam's face.

Steve has no choice but to tell him about The Girl and their first meeting, her graffiti, and finding her here. Sam's comments range from "only you, man," with a shake of his head, to a little explanation on the graffiti "I've seen that piece! You know they're making legislation on Capitol Hill right now about gay marriage, its a pretty timely statement." In the end, though, he stands.

"Steve, you know I love you, bro, and I know you've got a lot on your plate with Bucky an all, but you're full of shit. You may or may not be attracted to this chick, I haven't even gotten a good look at her, but you have no excuse for not talking to her! So we're changing that, right now."

With that Sam is already moving toward the tree. Damn him, but he played this well enough that if Steve stops him now, it will make a big scene in front of The Girl. He quickly moves toward the oak tree, fantasizing about Sam at the foot of the tree, bound and gagged. Sam calls up into the tree.

"Hey, how's it going? I'm Sam, and this is my friend Steve. Steve here's an artist, too, and we were curious what you were drawing. Do you mind if we take a look? What's your name?" Steve is definitely going to kill Sam now. An artist? Steve isn't that talented! And nobody goes walking up to a girl sitting in an oak tree in the middle of a park and asks her what she's drawing. Dammit, Sam!

As Sam starts talking, The Girl sits up, pushes her hood back, and shakes her curls loose. By the time he's finished, her lips have curled into a mocking smile. Steve is definitely going to kill Sam now.

"Sam and Steve, is it? Well, you can call me....Stacy" she replies in a facetious tone. She looks Steve up and down. He does not blush. Seriously. "Your friend has a lot of muscles for an artist. Are you sure that's the story you wanna go with?"

Sam, however, banters back. "Hey, now, don't judge poor Steve over here. Just cause he's got a rockin' bod doesn't mean he doesn't have layers too." At this her soft pink lips open into a quiet laugh. "Now why do I get the feeling that Stacy isn't your real name?"

"No offense, man, but you guys look a bit too much like cops for me to be sharing all my deepest secrets." She is smiling, but her words are serious. Steve realizes how this might look to her, how two men who look like cops asking for her name and trying to look at her drawings would make her nervous. Steve quickly speaks up as she gathers her large, worn backpack and hops lightly to the ground in front of them.

"I can see how we look a little official, but we're military, not police. Sam here works at the VA." He says in his deep voice. Her attention is on Steve now, and his words are enough to stop her from running away. Her deep brown eyes lock with his blue and her eyebrow quirks up. "If Sam here works at the VA, what branch of the military do you work for? Is it top secret?" An argument could be made to describe her tone as playful, maybe even flirty.

Sam and he share a look. "Well, honestly, you're not too far off base with that one. Not that it matters, I'm sort of in between assignments right now...I'm taking some personal time." He pauses to clear the thoughts of Bucky from his mind. Maybe he can manage a little flirty back (NOT because he's interested in her that way, of course, but to keep her here so he can assuage his curiosity... because that's what this is- curiosity). "I have to say, I'm a little insulted that you don't think I look like an artist. Granted, it's been a while" mmm about seventy years give or take "since I sold my pictures for graphic novels" see? He even knows the new lingo! "But all the same, I think I'm being unfairly judged based on my appearance." He turns to Sam, mockingly shakes his head. "So sad that someone who looks to be an equitable individual would judge me so harshly." Sam and he share an internal laugh before he turns back to the girl. To take it a step further, he crosses his arms over his chest, knowing his biceps will stand out even more like this. All of a sudden, he realizes he's having fun.

Her eyes do glance hungrily down at his chest and arms. "Okay, muscles, you've got me there. I admit to being totally judgemental with your secret agent self. But if you're really an artist, let's play it like this; you show me yours, and I'll show you mine." She grins then, eyes bright with mirth, and Steve is blown away by the realization that, when she smiles like this, she is not merely pretty but truly beautiful. Steve is suddenly very motivated to keep this flirting thing going.

"Oh, sweetheart, I'm more than happy to show you mine. Why don't we meet back here tomorrow -- same time, same place, and I'll show you anything of mine that you want."

For a minute she leans in just the slightest bit. Then, biting her lip, she steps back, shoulders her pack, and salutes the two men standing before her. "At ease, gentlemen. Maybe you'll see my work tomorrow." With this, she lopes onto the path and within moments she is lost to sight.

Both men exhale loudly. Sam is the first to break the silence.

"Holy shit. Let it be said that Steven G. Rogers has got game! I am very proud of you, man." Sam whoops, bouncing a little and grinning a lot. Steve smiles.

"Actually, I think that's the first time since I found out Bucky was alive that I've had a bit of fun. You are still an interfering pain in the ass, but this time I think it was a good thing." He claps the dark skinned man on the shoulder. "You know, we've still got the whole run back to do. Lets get moving!" Sam groans as Steve starts jogging back to the path, now filled with a new sense of purpose, and even more energy than usual. "But for tomorrow... let's run at our old time. I think this is a solo mission."

Sam isn't winded yet, so he replies "you got it, Cap." He breathes deeply, hesitating for a second before he comes out with "just a thought to keep in mind... your mystery vandal girl there might be homeless."

Steve's running stutters to a halt (while Sam victoriously attempts to create a lead). Within moments, of course, Steve has caught up to him and questioning him. "I only know what homeless looks like in the Great Depression. What makes you think that?" He is genuinely curious, as well as worried. This certainly adds a layer to the mystery that is The Girl.

Sam shrugs. "You know I've seen plenty of it through the VA. I've got a sixth sense at this point for people who are homeless and hiding it. It's the little things, like her carrying around that big ass backpack; could be she's got everything she owns in there. Her clothes aren't exactly a normal going-to-the-park outfit, more long term wear kinda stuff. Same with her shoes- they were heavy duty hiking boots, look like they've seen a lot of use."

The supersoldier quietly contemplates this for a bit. Apparently it's too long for his friend, who pipes back in "hey, man, I'm sorry if that messes things up. One thing I can tell you is this: if she is homeless, she's dealing well, taking good care of herself. Keeping in mind what she was like today, I'd say she might get pissed if you march in here tomorrow trying to help her. Just... keep it in mind. This way you might just avoid one of the many awkward conversations you're bound to get into without your pal Sam here to help you." They share a smile; if only that weren't true.

 

Watch Steve as he spends half the night pacing around his (empty) apartment. Watch as he holds his phone while contemplating calling Natasha, only to decide better for the tenth time. Watch him flip through his sketchbooks trying to decide what to show the girl; then, later, if anything is even good enough to show her; even later than that, if he should even bother meeting her tomorrow. Let's not talk about the time he spends trying to pick out clothes.

Truthfully, Steve knows what he's good at, and he is confident in those skills. He knows that his body will never let him down like it did before Erskine and the serum. He knows that he can fight the bad guys few others can. He can lead troops in battle, he can stand up for what's right. Steve knows when to follow orders and when to ignore them (regardless of what Tony Stark thinks). Steve never used to be good at talking to girls; that was all Bucky's domain. At least back then he knew the rules. Since he woke up he has been dealing with this new world by burying himself in what he does know, by working for SHIELD, by trying desperately to find Bucky. Honestly all of that time Natasha kept trying to fix him up on dates was wasted, because he simply wasn't able to have fun when he was filled with thoughts of everyone he knew, dead. Finding out Bucky is alive, as heartrending as it has been, has given Steve a little push in that direction. After all, Bucky would kill him if, when Steve finally brings him back, he has no life to show for the years he has lived free. Steve has been feeling that spending his time doing anything other than searching for Bucky is a betrayal; now he wonders if the real betrayal might be wasting his life, when Bucky has had all choice, all options for enjoyment, ripped away from him.

Watch Steve as he attempts to justify his desires to his long lost, brainwashed supersoldier best friend. In his head, because he can't find him. This is pathetic.

In the end Steve showers after his run with Sam (and subsequent teasing / pep talk), throws on an outfit Natasha told him looks good without bothering to look in a mirror, grabs a few sketchbooks at random and heads out the door.

Maybe walking wasn't such a great plan; he knows himself well enough to know that he needs to stop thinking, and get to the part of the day that involves maybe flirting with The Girl. He tries to remember all he can of the German he learned during the war to keep himself from thinking too much as he heads through the city to the park. Maybe he doesn't love D.C. the way he loved Brooklyn, but he has definitely grown comfortable here.

None too soon, he nears the grove of trees where she will be. He attempts to fix his hair, then stops himself. He is fine with the way he looks, and if he is going to keep this girl's interest, it shouldn't be because of his hair.

He steps into the grove and heads to her oak tree only to be pulled up short; it is empty.

Shit.

He hadn't thought too much about this scenario, to be honest; it seemed like borrowing trouble to start worrying about whether she would come. Now he wishes he had prepared himself a little bit more, because that balloon of hope in his chest where he held all of the thoughts that he was doing something good, moving forward with his life, has deflated.

To hell with this, he thinks, and finds comfortable place to sit. He's got sketchbooks, and a few pencils, and he is going to sketch outside and enjoy himself today. He doesn't need a girl (no matter how good she smells or how pretty her smile is) to make his day fun.

Of course, when she comes strolling along twenty minutes later, he forgets all of that crap as he scrambles to his feet.

"You're late, mystery girl. You're lucky I was still here."

Then, as a shot in the dark, "I don't suppose you're going to let me in on your name today?"

Pulling her backpack off and letting it fall to the ground, she shoots him a frank look as she sits. He joins her.

"If I wanted people to know where I was, I'd tell them myself. I'm happy with my anonymity, secret agent Steve." He digests that for a bit.

"I don't have a watch."

"What?"

She smiles and pulls her pack upright, starting to unzip it. "I was late because I don't have a watch. I wasn't all that sure what time it was yesterday when we talked." She looks down as she rummages through her pack, avoiding eye contact. Smooth.

"Well, now I feel like a jerk. So I'm gonna let you take a look at my stuff first -- just...be nice, ok?" He hands her a sketchbook before he can put his foot any further into his mouth.

Minutes pass, and The Girl says nothing, taking time at every page to really look at what Steve has drawn. She smiles at times, and nods to herself, but doesn't look up until she has gone through every page. He doesn't mind at all, so entranced is he with her smiles.

After a moment she looks up. “So… you’re Captain America, huh?”