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perfectly right wrong number

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(Art by marieincolour)

It all starts because Steve is too dumb to handle his smartphone.

Or at least that's how Tony would no doubt put it. It actually happens because Sam has terrible handwriting when he's in a hurry and instead of just calling Steve with his new number he had scribbled it into his palm ("I feel like I'm in goddamn high school again" he'd even muttered like it hadn't been his idea) and now Steve has to guess whether that's a 5 or a 6, a 7 or a 1, a 6 or a 0. Instead of just sending a text into the aether and hoping it'll magically get to the right number (as someone who is too dumb to handle texting probably would, Tony) Steve makes his best guess and calls.

"Hello?"

"You're not Sam, right?" Steve says a little plaintively. This is his third guess, the first two not even connecting.

"...nope," the guy, definitely not Sam, at the other end says, popping the p. "Not gonna pretend to be Sam either, sorry."

"What?" Steve asks, confused. Then he backpedals because seriously, he misdialed, he's not looking to have a conversation with a stranger here. "I mean, sorry, I called the wrong number. Bye."

"Bye," definitely not Sam says, sounding vaguely amused, and that's that.

Except two hours later Steve gets a text from a number that is definitely not Sam's, asking u found ur sam? starting to reconsider on the whole pretending idea. It's a dumb text, Steve doesn't even understand what the guy is on about about pretending to be Sam- oh.

Did you just proposition a complete stranger via text? he writes back before he knows it, partially because he's genuinely curious, partially because... well. He's really curious.

u started it with the calling my phone & calling me by the wrong name. rude. marriages have broken apart b/c of things like that, not-Sam texts back.

Amused and not really sure why he's even continuing to involve himself in this, Steve nevertheless replies, So what name should I have called you then? Belatedly he realizes that he might be flirting.

bucky ;) not a fake name promise s what everyone calls me. what about u? the guy, Bucky, replies about a minute later.

So. This might be actual flirting. Steve now has two choices: not reply and put this behind him, or... commit. To something. It feels like a commitment anyway, but then again, Steve can always just stop texting. Besides, just today he and Sam had a conversation about how Steve has no non-Avenger friends, and no, Sam doesn't count, he's a part-time member now. According to Sam, that's something he should think about.

But, well. Steve doesn't really know why that's an issue, but here a possible opportunity presents itself to him on a silver platter and if – when, who's he kidding here – Sam brings it up again he can at least say he tried. First he's got to try though.

I'm Steve, he replies probably far too late. There's an etiquette to texting he's not aware of and not really committed enough to learn. Whenever anyone comments on it he just shrugs like he's helpless with the 21st century again, but what he really thinks is that he doesn't want to learn. He'll text the way he wants to and if anybody is bothered by it, whatever.

hi Steve ;) Bucky texts back. so u never said, did u find sam?

Yes, Steve replies, and then, on a whim, adds, why, were you going to pretend to be him otherwise?

it's too late, you got my name now, unless ur into roleplay <3 Bucky replies.

Roleplay. Well, well. Maybe, but if I were, I wouldn't want you to pretend to be one of my friends. That's creepy.

Bucky's reply comes quick; much faster than Steve could have typed it, even though unlike what Tony probably thinks, he's not a slow typer. who'd you want me to be then?

Okay. So, this is the point where this all is getting a bit too much for Steve. He could just stop texting, he can just do that, no explanations necessary because that's how casual texting can be, but he sort of doesn't want to. It's not like he has anything better to do anyway, it's not even noon. Our relation needs to pass level six for you to unlock that upgrade, he texts back, entirely on a whim and half based on a joke Clint had made once.

level 6 huh, Bucky replies not too long after. where am I at? what are the other levels?

And really, Steve should have expected that question. Thinking hard, he slowly types, Level 1: names, level 2: past-times, level 3: taste and favorite things, level 4: social issues I believe in, level 5: dreams and hopes, level 6: secret wishes. He reads it all over again. It makes sense, or in any case, it's not going to get better, so he hits send.

secret wishes huh, Bucky replies after a moment. so we're level one right now. ur definitely not low maintenance that's for sure

True. But... with a roll of his eyes, Steve quickly googles a sex hotline and pasts the first number that pops up into the text with the words, If you want low maintenance, this is who you should talk to.

DUDE, Bucky replies within seconds. Then, after a moment, geez man be glad I googled that instead of calling them I would've sent my phone bill to you for that

I'm not going to take responsibility for you being gullible enough to do that, Steve texts back. He finds himself grinning as he does, but really, Bucky is making it too easy for him.

gullible? Bucky texts, closely followed by seriously man and geez ok gotta give you that one. seeing as I wasn't gullible enough to do that. so anyways wuu2?

The only reason Steve doesn't need to google that is because Tony likes texting him in code like that – text speak, chat speak, internet slang, whatever – and he already knows that one. Thinking about making cinnamon rolls. You? It's not entirely true – not a lie either, the thought had crossed his mind, but it's less pathetic to fess up only to that and not to the fact that he'd just been sitting around in his ridiculously large living room courtesy of Tony and staring at his notebook of future things to look up. Without actually looking anything of it up because somehow, despite the restlessness tickling under his skin, he'd not had the energy for it.

oh god take a pic go on I need sth to brighten my day, Bucky immediately replies, and then there is a bit of a longer break before he sends, watering my plants atm. Steve doesn't want to interpret anything into it that isn't there, but to him the pause seems like Bucky is maybe regretting having sent that, impulsively too honest and unable to take the text back after it had been sent. Besides, watering his plants? It's an evasion without the evasive maneuver. Maybe that even is what Bucky is doing right now, but it's as bland as it could have been.

Well, Bucky texted a complete stranger who misdialed his number on a random Tuesday morning. That's not something somebody does who has normal things to do. It's something Steve might do, and he's self-aware enough to know that he's not exactly well-adjusted. He's texting back too, anyway.

So he gets up and assembles the ingredients in his kitchen, measures them out and throws them together into the kitchen aid. As he's doing that his phone chirps, a text from Bucky that just reads, well?

Patience, young grasshopper, Steve texts back, with a photo of the batter being mixed in the bowl attached.

Once the dough has the right consistency he sets it to rise in the sunlight by the window, bowl covered by a cloth, and then frowns a little. There's nothing much to do while the dough is busy, so he sits back in the living room and plays with his phone a little. He's checking the weather forecast when he receives a text. wow ur rly doing it I'm sorta stunned, Bucky texts. r u like a kitchen person?

Kitchen person? Steve immediately replies. I'm not sure what you mean by that.

dunno, like a stress baker?? a chef? Idk

Not really. I just felt like cinnamon rolls and didn't feel like going out.

I feel u dude, Bucky texts back after a moment; it doesn't have the impulsiveness of his earlier sort of confession, feels a little more deliberate. And yet he doesn't say anything else, just hints that he's maybe... what? Something, in any case. Steve is pretty sure he didn't express his sympathies about Steve's craving for cinnamon rolls.

He hesitates for a moment, but maybe Bucky is on to something; it's somehow easier being honest with a perfect stranger. Sometimes going outside is just a little overwhelming you know? he texts, then bites his lower lip and waits with bated breath.

yes, is all Bucky replies, and though it's a confirmation and not a deflection or a rejection Steve still feels a sinking feeling in his chest. But then Bucky adds, it's all the people. everything's so busy. everything moves.

And Steve knows that he gets it then. Gets what, Steve couldn't quite say, and it's entirely possible – in fact, likely – that they're coming from completely different places here, but they arrived at the same feeling in this instance at least. Exactly, he replies. Makes me feel a little dizzy some days, and small. I'd rather stay inside.

safe space. Bucky texts, with an actual full stop, the first one he's used at the end of a text so far. Somehow it feels significant. He sends another text in its wake, like I'm not a hermit or anything I just prefer inside to outside most days

I understand that, Steve replies.

anyway how're those rolls doing? Bucky abruptly changes topics, but somehow it doesn't feel like a rejection.

Dough's rising, Steve texts back, with a picture of the covered bowl attached. How are your plants?

In reply he receives a picture of an actually healthy looking plant about a foot high with rich green leaves, seated on a windowsill. Just like Steve, Bucky was careful to take the picture without any markers to identify his location or identity. richard's good, Bucky texts, followed by another picture of a crooked cactus. so's isabella

Richard and Isabella? Steve texts, in lieu of anything else to say, even as he receives a third picture of another plant, this one looking like it's a bundle of long, thin leaves arranged in the flower pot.

and katherine too, Bucky texts, followed by another. named after the king and queens yeah b/c I kept forgetting to water them so I thought if they have names maybe I'd do better and yeah as u can see it works

That's pretty cool, Steve replies, because that's what he thinks. His own sad cactus that Tony had given him as a moving in present died pretty quick. Steve had thought that in the bathroom with the steam it'd do well because of the moisture in the air if he forgot to actually water it but well, he'd been wrong about that one.

figured I couldn't subject a pet to living with me until I've learned responsibility or sth, Bucky writes.

But now that it's proven you can take care of plants maybe you can graduate? Steve suggests.

maybe, is the non-committal reply. still not sure if I'd like that idk it's the moving in my space yknow? I freak out when there's a spider or cockroach, like legit climbing onto chairs and stuff

Until this point, Steve had assumed that the screeching and climbing onto chairs is a thing only reserved for television. Seriously? he texts back, only to feel bad about the judgmental tone. I mean, it's okay, we all have irrational fears.

yeah? is the challenging reply. what are yours?

Steve hesitates for a moment, but he's the one who brought it up so he has to give Bucky something. It may only be a small thing in the grand scheme of things but trust for trust, right? Dust. Or any type of mess, really. I have to hoover once a day. Reading back on that, he frowns. He's already sent it, but suddenly he's not sure if it counts; that uncomfortable, restless feeling he gets knowing that there's a mess in his space doesn't exactly compare to climbing onto chairs because of spiders and cockroaches, does it? So he sends another text. Not sure if that counts? But I really can't sleep or even sit still when my place is messy I just can't deal.

pretty sure that counts dude, Bucky replies. once a day? for real? that's obsessive man

Huffing, Steve rolls his eyes. That little shit. I know. But at least I'm not climbing onto any chairs here. What do you do then? Call somebody to come take care of the creepy crawly for you?

creepy crawly alright, Bucky fires back. I put a glass over them before I do that what do u think? that I'm gonna let them run away so they can hide? Nuh-uh

Sensible, Steve replies. He glances towards the dough by the window and finds that the cloth has risen with its expansion, so he sends Bucky a quick, Dough is ready before going to deal with that. Twenty minutes later, when the rolls are in the oven, there is a text waiting.

i'm getting kinda excited here, so Steve takes a picture of the rolls in the oven and writes, 30 minutes to go.

sooooo jealoussssss, Bucky texts, making Steve laugh.

Why don't you bake some yourself? he suggests.

No baking talent, comes the immediate reply.

Steve hitches up one eyebrow. Have you tried?

no but that doesn't mean it's going to happen, Bucky answers, clearly trying to get out of it, but Steve doesn't let him.

Try, he texts, nothing short of an order. Here's the recipe. It's easy. He attaches the link to the recipe and waits.

It takes Bucky a moment, presumably reading through the recipe. hah easy right microwave brownies are easy what even is fresh yeast and where do you get it???

Anywhere, Steve sends back. Wait, are you somewhere remote? Then I'm not actually sure, I've never tried to get some anywhere but New York.

NY huh, Bucky texts. i'm not gonna get out of this one am I?? if I try you'll start giving me addresses of shops won't ya

So that probably means Bucky is in New York as well. Not quite sure what to do with that, Steve focuses on getting a confirmation first. If you're in New York, definitely.

ya Bucky replies. alright fine geez I'll give it a try but when it inevitably goes wrong i'm blaming you

Go ahead, Steve texts. Get the ingredients, I'll wait.

It's a couple of minutes before he receives the next text. are you a parent? suddenly i'm getting that vibe

Confused, Steve frowns. No. Why would you think that?

teacher then? do u have a job where u tell ppl what to do?

Well. Actually, yes, in a way, and it's not hard to figure out where Bucky got that idea now, but still. Steve isn't actually going to answer that, at least not in detail. Or possibly at all. They are perfect strangers after all and even if this conversation has proven unexpectedly entertaining, that doesn't have to mean anything.

But even as Steve deliberates, he already receives a text from Bucky. nvrmind I didn't mean to interrogate u man brb getting that stupid yeast now

Steve is pretty sure Bucky had taken his phone with him and been texting on the way, but he decides to go along. Okay, but I want picture evidence, he writes.

Half an hour he gets a text of a picture of a cube of live yeast already opened, to the backdrop of the other ingredients. proof is all the text says.

In return, Steve sends a text with a picture of his finished cinnamon rolls. This is what they'll look like once you're done, he writes. Over the next half an hour he receives several texts from Bucky, who doesn't have a kitchen aid or even a hand mixer and has to mix everything by hand. I did not sign up for this, he complains, and idek why I let you talk me into this and not sure the result is worth this. But finally Bucky has the dough finished and in a bowl set to rise. fuck it i'm not cleaning this up i'm taking a break, he texts Steve, a picture of his messy workspace included; there's flour and eggshells and dirty utensils all over the counter.

Good job, you deserve a break, Steve texts back, even though if that were his kitchen he'd already be elbows deep into cleaning it all up again.

how much did it hurt to write that, Bucky replies. u must be itchin to clean this up

Startled and surprised that Bucky remembered that – though maybe he shouldn't be – Steve sends back, Yeah, you caught me. But that's not my kitchen so all the power to you.

nawww i'm touched honestly, Bucky texts, and then nothing for forty minutes. Steve is just staring at the contents of his fridge, trying to figure out what to make for dinner, when he receives a text with a picture of a round ball of dough in a bowl. is that risen enough Bucky asks, not even a question mark.

If it's a lot bigger than it was when it started, then yes, Steve replies. He gets no text back and decides on pasta with stir-fry, gets to work cutting a bunch of vegetables while he sets water to boil for the pasta. When he gets a text he can't immediately get to it, fingers stained with slightly sticky zucchini juice. When all the vegetables are diced and ready to be added to the frying pan he washes his hands and retrieves his phone. There is another picture, of the inside of an oven with a pan at the bottom filled with cinnamon rolls squished against each other and the text, if this doesn't work out i'll be so disappointed

If something goes wrong at this point it's entirely the oven's fault, Steve replies. Getting he dough to rise is the hardest part.

thx for not telling me this sooner man, Bucky sends back, slightly petulant.

You'll thank me when you have more delicious cinnamon rolls than you could eat, Steve texts.

Half an hour later he receives a text with a picture of the finished cinnamon rolls, freshly out of the oven, one already cut out. I take everything back this was a great idea they're delicious

That's great, Steve replies and even adds a little smiley at the end, Enjoy :)

I am :) Bucky texts, and after that, there's nothing much to say.

Steve doesn't hear from Bucky for three days, and doesn't write to him either; every now and then he thinks back to the text conversation with a complete stranger with vague wonder. It's really not the sort of thing he normally does, but he enjoyed it, somehow. To talk about something trivial with somebody he doesn't know was somehow relaxing.

He doesn't seriously think about texting Bucky again until three days later, after he's been woken up by nightmares for the second time that night. It's three am and he can't sleep and somehow, he finds himself with his phone in his hand, writing, You ever get nightmares?

For nearly ten minutes the text remains unsent on the screen, which goes dark after less than a minute of inactivity as Steve stares up at the ceiling and feels ridiculous. He has friends; he could talk to them. Some of them might even be awake right now. And yet here he is, finding himself wanting to text a stranger.

Bucky's probably asleep anyway, and like any sensible person keeps his phone on silent at night so when he sees the text in the morning he'll reply and Steve can ignore him, feel silly in the light of day for this strange impulse and that will be that. In a month he won't even think about Bucky anymore, unless he finds that strange number in his phone.

He sends the text. He so emphatically doesn't expect a reply that he actually startles when his phone chirps less than a minute later. all the fucking time, Bucky writes, and somehow every syllable sounds exhausted. That might be Steve projecting things again though.

That why you're awake? he asks, noisy perhaps but asking about the nightmares would be crossing one line too many.

could be, Bucky texts back, or maybe I had a night of wild sex and now i'm on the fire escape having a cigarette

A little confused, Steve frowns. What are you doing texting me for in that case? Go back inside and offer them some water, staying hydrated is important.

u just made me laugh, Bucky replies. After a moment, another text follows. no sex btw just bad dreams that won't let me go to bed b/c fuck if I know why

Because why just upset your sleep if they could also keep you from getting any more of it? Steve sends back before he can think about it. It's probably not the most sympathetic reply, even though being in that exact situation right now he's feeling very sympathetic, actually.

yeah that, Bucky texts. s my stupid brain, can't shut the thoughts off

Distraction? Steve suggests, trying to think of something. We could watch Tangled. The moment he hits send he realizes that little word, "we", and wishes really hard he could take it back.

disney???????? Bucky sends. Those are a lot of question marks. Steve doesn't quite know what to do with them, but before he has to he receives another text, I like it let's do this

Just say when you're ready, Steve texts as he rolls out of bed and heads over to the living room. Out loud, voice just a little rough, he asks, "Could you line up Tangled for me, JARVIS?"

"Right away, sir," JARVIS replies, TV flicking on as Steve enters the kitchen to get some water himself, and some chocolate. He's just sat down on the sofa when he receives a text from Bucky, ok go.

"You can hit play, JARVIS," Steve says as he settles in the corner of the sofa, phone on the armrest. Throughout the movie he and Bucky text back and forth, starting with Bucky's I like that lizard (It's a chameleon, Steve replies) and when the movie ends Bucky texts, now my netflix suggests all kinda movies lets see up

Up where? Steve sends. Then he realizes and quickly fires off another text, accidentally hitting all caps. NO That's perhaps a bit excessive so he follows it up with a more moderate text. By which I mean, if you want to be sobbing your eyes out in under ten minutes go ahead but I'll be watching the Princess and the Frog instead. Then he frowns, because as far as he knows – his friends took pains to leave him under that impression – everybody knows Up! Which necessitates a fourth text. You have never seen Up!?

wow Bucky texts after a couple of moments. u done? Every time I try to reply I get another text so much emotion for this movie now i'm hella curious

Slightly amused, Steve replies, this time all caps on purpose, ALL THE TEARS. It's verbatim what Tony had said when he'd tried to advertise the movie to Steve. It hadn't been effective.

Then Bucky writes, oKAY geez calm down are u sure princess and the frog is the right movie for u tho?? we could watch teletubbies instead yknow that's probs ont gonna make u cry just sayin

Oh, that little shit. You're on. is all Steve texts. Out loud he asks JARVIS to put on Up!, after which he sends another text, Ready?

wait were watchin up now right?? yeah ready HAH, Bucky replies.

Okay, then go, Steve texts. Ten minutes later he feels a vicious vindication as Bucky sends him one all caps text after the other, all along the lines of FUCK, NO and HOW COULD U. When Steve replies, I warned you. he receives another barrage of all caps texts about how very much Steve did not and how he did this on purpose. It's pretty amusing and Steve finds himself chuckling, which has got to look a little weird because okay he's crying to but it was completely worth it.

It's past dawn by the time Up! is finished, which means it's high time for Steve to go on his morning run – and also late enough that he won't feel like such a dysfunctional human being. That's why he finds himself writing Bucky, I have to go now, but this was great. :)

yeah ok bye Bucky sends back, followed by another text, yeah it was we should do it again lemme know next time u can't sleep

Same goes for you, Steve texts, already on the way to his wardrobe. As he gets into his running clothes he receives the reply from Bucky.

yeah no u don't want that it's nearly every night atm

Frowning, Steve replies, Bucky. Same goes for you. If I don't reply I'm asleep ok?

It takes a moment before Bucky writes back, a reluctant yeah ok but I warned u

You did, Steve confirms, already in the elevator down. Seriously I'm not asking for marriage here or twisting your arm or anything. Whatever you're comfortable with. I really have to go now, bye!

ok bye Bucky sends, and Steve slips his phone into his pocket, zips it up and steps out of the building.

Bucky doesn't text him that night, but the night after at three am Steve receives a message. so this is a text it says.

I can see that, Steve replies, and immediately feels bad. It's obvious Bucky is uncomfortable about the whole thing, so he quickly fires off another text, Do you follow baseball?

DEM YANKEES Bucky immediately replies. It's entirely unclear if he misspelled "damn" or is using internet slang like Tony (and Clint) likes to.

DEM DODGERS Steve nevertheless sends back. They might have moved to LA (and possibly slightly broken his heart while they were at it) but he can't just stop supporting his team. Even if he doesn't do it quite as loudly anymore as he would have, had they stayed the Brooklyn Dodgers.

GASP, Bucky texts. TRAITOR! And they're off.

It becomes a habit, texting Bucky. At first they do it only a handful of times a week, mostly in the small hours of the morning, but by the time a month has passed since that first text they're texting during the day as well. Not daily, but nearly, and usually about inconsequential things. Sometimes they watch movies at night, or binge-watch other things – for eight not consecutive nights they watch, at Bucky's instigation, nothing but Addams Family. Somehow it's something nobody had suggested to Steve yet and, watching it, he's solely disappointed in everyone who has ever suggested anything to him ever, and somehow failed to include the Addams Family.

They talk about other things too, though. Not really in the deep, soul-baring kind of conversations Steve sometimes has with Sam, but in little tidbits in between other things. Steve finds out that Bucky really does have a lot of nightmares, even though they taper off as the month progresses. it's that time of the year, Bucky writes, not elaborating further, but it's not like he needs to; Steve can draw his own conclusions. Whatever happened around this time at least two years ago (if it had been just last year, Bucky wouldn't have phrased it like that, Steve doesn't think), it unsettles Bucky. Not that Steve can talk; his nightmares and restless nights caused by bouts of insomnia are entirely random, don't wane and don't really wax either.

Bucky is a thoughtful guy, Steve learns. Most of their conversation may appear silly at first glance, about movies or TV shows and the characters in them, but Bucky is insightful about them in a casual way that is actually rather endearing. In the rant Steve internally titles "reasons to watch Addams Family" and that Bucky actually literally titled you hEATHEN he writes an almost essay-length barrage of texts describing all the things wonderful about them, including but not limited to delightfully weird and going into detail about how wonderful the contradictions are – Wednesday the ballerina in her black tutu, Gomez and Morticia's devotion to each other and their family which at first glance seems like a sociopath boot camp. It's rather... adorable, actually, how much thought Bucky put into it, but not in a demeaning way. Steve takes him utterly serious, as attested by the fact that they watch nothing else until they've seen all sixty-five episodes. And then the movie.

After Addams Family, somehow Bucky gets him into Star Trek The Original Series. Bucky's commentary is hilarious; he doesn't make fun of the show, but, as he says, it's also kind of hard to take it entirely serious and sometimes Steve laughs so hard he nearly cries.

And somehow among all that, they still end up revealing things to each other Steve would not talk about with any of his friends. Well, that's wrong, he would, but he wouldn't just bring them up. But with Bucky, they somehow do. They talk about nightmares, a little, and Steve finds out that whatever happened to Bucky, it involved a serious injury because he still gets what he calls phantom pain. In return, he reveals to Bucky that he was never seriously injured (not quite the truth, but not a lie either) but as a child he used to get so ill he received his last rites several times, and some days he wakes up and is terrified his asthma has returned because he can't breathe.

Bucky talks about being disoriented sometimes, like he's in the wrong place and the wrong time and he feels like a stranger in his own home, in his own skin, and doesn't know how to do anything but breathe. Steve can relate to that so much it hurts and can't offer more than that, but a couple of days (nights) later he finds himself telling Bucky that one time not so long ago he almost died and while he doesn't wish he had or feels like he should have, he still sometimes thinks it would have been easier if he had. Bucky says he can relate to that as well.

These confessions always happen in the dead of night and it's strange, a little, considering how Bucky really is just a stranger to him but after a month of very regular contact, I doesn't feel that way. In fact, Steve would call Bucky his friend. Not someone he would call to pick him up if he's drunk at a bar (which, he's been informed by several people, is a marker of friendship, nevermind that Steve doesn't go to bars and can't get drunk), but still someone he would text if he needs somebody to talk to.

Which is why he's actually pleased when Bucky calls him one night. Well, at first he's startled, then confused, then worried when he sees who is calling his phone. It's just past midnight but that isn't the issue; since that initial misdial call, they haven't spoken on the phone at all. But they had, once, Steve reminds himself, and that makes it a little easier to accept the call. "Yes?"

"STEVE," Bucky says very loudly. All of a sudden Steve understands what people mean when they say that they could hear the capslock. He always thought it was a modern way of saying shouting, but, no. He hears the capslock.

"Bucky," he answers. Bucky is somewhere where it's noisy, but not actually loud, though it's impossible to tell where from the background noise; just a low murmur of people.

"Sssssssteve," Bucky drawls. He's very definitely drunk, or at the very least past the point of tipsy.

"Bucky," Steve says again, as amused as he's confused now. "Everything alright?"

"Iss our annivers'ry," Bucky informs him very seriously.

"Anniversary?" Steve repeats, puzzled for just a moment until he realizes what Bucky means; it's been one month since that phone call. Exactly one month, apparently. "Oh! Right, it is. Is that why you're celebrating?"

"Nno," Bucky frowns. Steve can hear the frown; he doesn't know how but he can. "Erica said I need to get out more?"

It sounds like a question, but Steve definitely hears noise in the background, possibly a bar – something indoor, in any case. "So you went out?"

"Yesssssssss I'm out," Bucky confirms in that exaggerated manner some intoxicated people adapt. "Like, so out. Didchu know I'm bi? Tha's how out I am."

No laughing at the drunk person, Steve reminds himself, unable to suppress a smile. "That's great, Bucky. More power to you. Is somebody with you?"

"There was jus'-" Buckys voice turns distant like he turned away from the phone to look around; if Steve didn't have his enhanced hearing he probably wouldn't understand what he says next, which is, "like, I think, OH! Yes there." Then he puts the phone back to his ear and says, "They're there. There they. They are. There. I'm watching the table Ssseve. 'cause I'ma lightweight."

"Are you?" For some reason, Steve finds himself smiling at the ceiling. "But you're not alone, that's good. They'll make sure you get home safe?"

"I'ma lightweight Steve," Bucky informs him seriously, entirely ignoring the question. "Do you think is 'cause I only have one arm? I weight less. 'cause I only got one arm."

Suddenly, this isn't so amusing anymore. This is a secret Bucky so far has taken great pains not to tell Steve and part of him is shocked, and dismayed, on behalf of his friend. Because of what happened, but also because Bucky just drunkenly told him something Steve is pretty sure he wouldn't have told him otherwise. At least not yet.

"Ssseve?" Bucky asks, sounding a little forlorn.

"Yeah, I'm here, Bucky. That might be part of it," Steve says, making sure to keep his voice calm and even. "Listen, I'm not sure you wanted to tell me that, maybe we should hang up?"

"Hang up?" Bucky repeats, dismayed. "I jus called you! Iss our anniversary!"

"That's true, and I'm very flattered you thought of me," Steve agrees. He definitely should end this call, Bucky certainly won't thank him tomorrow if he doesn't, especially if he ends up spilling more secrets to Steve. But somehow he finds himself unable to with Bucky sounding so sad at the prospect.

"Are you happy Steve?" Bucky asks, still with that forlorn undertone in his voice. "'cause I'm not sure you are. An' sometimes I'm not and I'm sad that you're not."

"Everybody gets sad sometimes," Steve says quietly. "I'm happy that you called me."

"You are?" It's like the sun rises in Bucky's voice; he audibly perks up and it's utterly adorable. "Tha's good!"

"Yes," Steve agrees just as the noise in the background suddenly increases; some people with loud voices are assembling around Bucky. Steve can't quite make out what they're saying, but they sound friendly. Bucky is laughing.

Then, a loud voice close by Bucky says, "Did you drunk dial somebody?"

"Ssseve," Bucky says seriously. "Is our anniversary."

"N'aww," the person makes. "Can I talk to him for a minute?"

Bucky must be okay with that, because next thing Steve hears the voice clearly as the woman speaks directly into the phone, "Hello?"

"Hello," Steve returns the greeting, not quite sure what the protocol is here.

"Hey Steve, this is Laura, one of Bucky's friends. And also the designated driver so I'm the only sober one. I'm sorry about the drunk dialing, I'll keep him from doing it again okay?"

"Nah, that's okay," Steve waves her off. "So you'll get him home safely?"

"Sure thing. Bye!"

She hangs up, leaving Steve with the dial tone and a sinking feeling in his chest that he's in deeper than he thought.

For a moment he stares at his phone. Then, hesitantly, he sends Bucky a text, Hope you're ok and sleep well!

He gets no reply, but he doesn't expect one. Phone on the nightstand, he stares up at the ceiling and goes back to counting sheep.

Well into the morning – well, his morning anyway, for other people it's probably a decent time of morning at nine am – he receives a text. tell me I didn't do what I thin I did

I can only do that if you tell me what you think you did, Steve replies. Hangover bad?

moderate but I still hate everyone, Bucky texts back. sorry for drunkdialling u

It's okay, wasn't asleep anyway, Steve replies. Happy anniversary, by the way. ;)

Bucky texts back so fast Steve honestly suspects super texting powers. omg everyone thinks we're dating now btw sorry about that

So, they're probably not going to talk about the accidental spilling of secrets Bucky indulged in last night. If that's how Bucky prefers it, that's okay; Steve isn't going to bring it up. No big deal. Not like it's me they're going to give a hard time to for not telling them. ;)

oh I see how it is, Bucky texts back. Then, after a moment, so, you know about the arm thing now

Or they are going to talk about it. Okay. Yes. I'm sorry, I should have hung up when I realized that you were drunk.

did u just apologize b/c drunk me told u sth sober me hasn't told u yet??? dude, Bucky writes. though sober me sorta wanted to tell u but didn't know how so I guess it's a good thing drunk me took care of that

You don't have to tell me anything you're uncomfortable with me knowing, Steve replies. For what it's worth, I'm sorry about the arm.

at least I got to keep the right one, that's my dominant hand, Bucky texts back. and well I guess I might as well tell u now. was in the army & got blown up. rest of me's all there though.

Debatable, Steve sends back before he can think better of it. I still think you're not in your right mind for not liking dogs.

THEY'RE PUSHY, Bucky immediately fires off, picking up an old argument.

They only want to be loved, Steve returns, and then, because he feels bad about not really reacting, adds, I used to serve in the army too.

Bucky replies quickly to that. yeah? where?

1st Ranger Battalion, Steve replies. It's not true strictly speaking – his team operated a bit outside the rules – but it initially was their official designation, and is still technically his regiment, even if his status is a bit outside the rules even now, not inactive but not really active either. He can hardly say "Howling Commandos", after all. What about you?

38th, Bucky replies. so, afghanistan? or was that like ages ago? you could be like hella old idk

If I were "hella old" I probably wouldn't understand what you're saying a quarter of the time, including "hella old", Steve replies, intimately aware of the irony. There is a bit of comedy in all this right now, maybe. I left two years ago.

don't underestimate hella old ppl, Bucky chides. my grandma is just learning to text and is hella proud

Steve is hella old, by most definitions. That he's really twenty-eight, going by how many years he was actually awake and aware for, rarely dawns on people. That's really sweet. Does she text you?

yeah it's like little letters it's adorable, all "dear james, how are you? I'm making lasagna on friday, you should come over, it's been too long since i last saw you. lots of love, your grandmother"

Awww, Steve replies, helplessly charmed. Also, James?

my legit first name shut up everyone calls me bucky. also don't think I missed that, could you cooperate while i'm subtly trying to get your actual age out of you?

There we go. Sorry. Let me subtly tell you that I'm 28. Satisfied? How old are you?

27 wow what r the odds?? now that I think about it u text a lot more like my nana than ppl our age

Steve rolls his eyes. This definitely isn't the first time he's heard that. Thanks.

dude it's true, Bucky texts back, entirely unapologetic. anyways sorry gotta go coddle my hangover ttyl

Bye, Steve sends, then sighs and goes to do laundry.

A couple of days later he receives a picture of two baking mixes, one for brownies, one for chocolate muffins, put on a shelf next to each other, clearly in a supermarket. which one??? Bucky writes.

Oh, no. There is no way Steve can explain in texts just how wrong Bucky is right now. He hesitates for only a second before he presses dial.

"Yes?" Bucky accepts the call. His voice is pleasant, a little rough and Steve is starting to think that's normal as opposed to a drunk and a being startled by a stranger calling him thing. "Simple question, man, you didn't need to call."

I can hang up again, Steve means to say, but what actually comes out is, "No."

"Huh?"

"No," Steve repeats. He's committed now; he might as well continue. "Do you know how many chemicals and crap is in those things? Seriously. I'm going to read you a list of things to buy and you're going to get them, and then I'm sending you a recipe and you're going to follow that, okay?"

"Wow," Bucky makes, sounding amused. "So this is like a thing for you? No baking mixes?"

"You might as well use window cleaner instead of milk," Steve replies firmly. "Now, back away from those boxes, turn left and exit that aisle."

"Yes, sir," Bucky drawls, even more amused now, but he follows Steve's instructions and gets the ingredients Steve tells him to get. Steve stays on the phone until Bucky has paid and is standing outside the supermarket with his bags.

"You can hang up now, I'm not going to go back in there and buy a mix, promise," Bucky tells him, laughter in his voice.

"You better," Steve threatens playfully. "I'm sending you the recipe now, okay?"

"You do that."

"Bye," Steve says, feeling strangely unsure all of a sudden. He waits until Bucky returns the word, then hangs up and immediately sends Bucky a link to the recipe.

nice to know I'm making brownies, Bucky texts. also be prepared for in progress pics, u got me into this mess, u can damn well watch me dig me own grave

It'll be fine, you did great with the cinnamon rolls and they're harder to make, Steve replies.

hah, is all Bucky sends back, but he does send Steve pictures of his progress and at the end, a picture of the brownies as they come out of the oven with the words, lookin good eh?

Very good, Steve tells him. See? Everything went great.

i'm kinda surprised, Bucky replies. i've never done the bakin thing wow

Steve smiles. Well, you have a talent, then. That's pretty cool.

hella, Bucky writes, clearly impressed with himself. Steve probably shouldn't find it as adorable as he does.

From that point on they don't just text, they also start calling each other. At first just every now and then – after the supermarket/baking incident it's three days before they talk on the phone again: Bucky calls Steve because he's bored at the coffee shop and, as he says, doesn't feel like looking like a sad loner – but more and more often. Initially they have reasons for calling each other, aforementioned coffee shop incident, or that time Steve's bike breaks down outside of the city and he has to pass the time while he waits for AAA, or that time Bucky is looking through the wanted ads trying to find some sort of part-time job he can do with only one arm and wants some advice. But they use less and less excuses or reasons and just call each other randomly, until it gets to the point where they talk almost daily.

By the time three months have passed since that first misdialed call they're talking every evening and Steve is intimately aware that he's in trouble. He's really in trouble.

It's not the guy thing. Back then, in the thirties and forties, he hadn't really let himself pay attention, especially not with some of the names people called him merely because of his slight stature. But he's been living in the twenty-first century for sixteen months already, and he didn't let himself stay oblivious and unaware for long. It had been like wading into the ocean and trying to find some order in it, trying to make sense of all the changes that had happened just in America since the forties, much less the world.

But make sense of it he had, if slowly. He's by far not done, but the homosexuality thing is one of the first topics he dove into, perhaps influenced by his subconscious. By this point, fourteen months later, he's mostly reconciled with the fact that one, he finds guys as attractive as women (abstractly, because another thing he's discovered about his sexuality is the fact that he's not only bi- but also demi-), and that two, it's perfectly alright.

The thing is... he might feel like he knows Bucky, and he does in a lot of ways, but he's intimately aware that he only knows what Bucky wants him to know. And the reason why he's so sure of that is because the same is true for what Bucky knows about him.

Namely, the fact that Steve is also Captain America. Which includes a number of other bigger and smaller secrets that Steve never thought about until he had to hide them from Bucky in order to keep the Captain America thing a secret. For example where he lives – Stark Tower isn't exactly located in a common residential area. Not that they've ever talked about that, either of them, but they have brushed the topic of which parts of the city they live in. Bucky, ironically, was born and raised in Brooklyn and Steve just barely managed to scrape by without him getting suspicious that they'd never met. Midtown Manhattan as a place of residence isn't really something he can tell Bucky without Bucky drawing some unwelcome conclusions, or getting suspicious about how Steve can afford this. He knows too much about Steve's childhood to simply assume Steve has a rich background.

This is a problem Steve doesn't know how to get out of. Part of him is, simply and shamefully, scared of telling Bucky who he is because Bucky knows some intimate things about him that Steve doesn't want the public to know. Not that he thinks for one second that Bucky would be the type to blab to the media, but the huge, not entirely welcome amount of fame Captain America has makes people do the strangest thing. One time Steve legitimately saw a woman scrape dirt off the wheel of his bike, fold it into a tissue and walk away with a smile on her face Steve is more used to seeing in churches. It's scary, and creepy, and weird, and completely normal, collected people can get completely carried away. They'll feel embarrassed about it afterwards – Steve will never forget how calm, controlled Maria Hill fumbled in his presence the first time they met, and the look of absolute mortification on her face after he'd walked away and looked back once – but it still happens.

Mostly, Steve is aware of that, it's not about him but about what he incorporates – rather, what Captain America incorporates. Unfortunately, a lot of people have difficulties telling the differences between Steve and Captain America until after they've met him a couple of times. Tony, Tony Stark himself, had that problem, he admitted this to Steve months after the fact, and he of all people should know better.

And not all reactions are good. It was Tony who warned Steve about this, but he didn't need to; by that point Steve had already made the experience himself. The waitress at that cafe he used to go to sold "her story" to the papers, about how she used to serve Captain America several times a week and what kind of things he sketched and how "sad and lost and forlorn" he looked. It had been just a small thing in the grad scheme of things, but it had hurt nonetheless. It had been Pepper who had given Steve a couple of examples of when it happened to Tony, but worse; people Tony trusted and who seemed nice that sold his secrets to the press.

Steve doesn't want to believe that Bucky is that kind of person. He doesn't believe it. But it's been drilled into him to be cautious, and he hasn't met Bucky in person yet. Usually Steve is a good judge of character, but can he rely on that when he has never met Bucky face to face?

He shouldn't, he's aware of that, and feels horrible for thinking such things about Bucky.

The obvious solution, of course, would be to meet Bucky. But he really can't do that, for equally obvious reasons, and so he's a bit trapped. He wants to, he really wants to meet Bucky and see where this goes, but at the same time he's terrified that once he does this safe little bubble of distance and anonymity they're in will burst. It will, absolutely, and maybe it will make room for something better, but there are so many ways things could go wrong. People think Steve is a brave person, but he's really not, not where it counts.

He also is not a good liar. what's up? Bucky texts him one day, a couple of days after Steve forced himself to face facts and inevitably ended up trapped in a spiral of "what if?"s. u've been broody lately

Just thinking, Steve replies, well-aware that it's an evasion and still somehow unable to reply any other way. What should he say, anyway?

what about? if u wanna tell me

"Here," Natasha says in that moment, placing the cup of coffee she got for him on the coffee table in front of him. "Now, we'll talk."

Steve gets a sinking feeling in his chest. It's starting to dawn on him that Natasha's seemingly innocent, post-spar offer for coffee might not have been that innocent after all. "Uh. What about?"

Unimpressed, she raises one eyebrow at him.

His phone vibrates in that moment (a text from Bucky, just reading Steve?) and she somehow manages to look even more unimpressed. It's impressive.

Steve is a strategist. He can recognize when there is no way out, and right now there isn't. "Uh, just a second," he tells Natasha, then texts Bucky, Sorry my friend just ambushed me apparently it's honesty hour talk to you later. Then he puts his phone on silent and flips it around so it lies display down.

Natasha levels one look at him.

"So, uh." Steve bites his lip and takes a sip from his coffee to stall for a few seconds, but he honestly doesn't know where to start or what exactly Natasha wants. "What's up?"

"That, for one thing." She nods towards his phone. "You've done a good job at being inconspicuous, but it was only a matter of time until somebody figured out that the people you're always texting are not whoever of us is not currently present." Supporting her chin on one hand, she looks at him for a moment. "Don't get me wrong, this is private and none of anybody's business, which is why I didn't bring it up when I figured it out two months ago. It's probably also why nobody else has brought it up, if anybody has figured it out yet. But you've been looking unhappy lately. Why?"

It comes phrased like an interrogation, but Steve knows Natasha: for her, this is concern. She may not know how to express it, at least not when she's not on an op and playing the part, but she cares. She might even be worried.

Unsure, Steve draws his lower lip between his teeth and thinks about it for a moment. "Would you say I'm a good judge of character?"

Caught a little off-guard, Natasha blinks. Then she shifts, suddenly uncomfortable, and looks down at her own cup, brows furrowed. "You tell me. Almost everyone would tell you not to trust me, so."

Oh. Face softening, Steve reaches out to touch her hand – not her wrist. When she stills instead of pulling away he slides his fingers into her palm and squeezes a little. "I'm not wrong about you. You may hide under a million layers and sometimes I'm not sure even you know who you are, but whoever you are, I'm not wrong about you."

She squeezes back and nods slightly. Then she sighs, exasperated, and sits back in her chair, though not without letting go of his hand. "I meant to find out why you're sad, not end up with you comforting me. How do you do that, Rogers?"

Mouth quirking, Steve shrugs deliberately. "Genuine caring might play a part in it, at least where you're involved."

Still pointedly exasperated, she huffs and looks away, but she squeezes his hand again and there might even be a slight flush in her cheeks. Knowing how well Natasha can control her body's reactions (to a downright worrying level, actually), Steve takes it as the sign of trust that it is and smiles, looks down at his coffee again to give her a moment.

"So," she says after a moment, squeezing his fingers again. Maybe he should let go now but he doesn't really want to and she doesn't seem inclined to either, so he doesn't. "What's up with you? Is it because of whoever you've been texting?"

"Not really because of... him," Steve admits, deliberately giving away the fact that it's just one single person, and their gender. "More because... well." Frowning, he stares into his coffee. There is no way to explain his problem without explaining the circumstances, so he sighs and sums it up for her: "Three months ago, I accidentally called the wrong number. There was this guy at the other end of the phone, we didn't talk or anything, I hung up pretty quickly. Nothing extraordinary. But somehow we started texting, and then texting more, and eventually talking on the phone, and I'm pretty sure we're friends now but..." This is where Steve pauses, because he hasn't even really admitted it to himself yet. It just sounds so ridiculous, put like that. How well can you really know a person you've never met? Then again, how wrong can you be about a person you talk to and text every day? "I like him," he says lamely after too long a pause. No doubt Natasha will draw her own, most certainly right, conclusions from that alone. "But he doesn't know I'm Captain America."

"And you're not sure you can trust him," she concludes.

When she says it like that, Steve feels even more guilty. He ducks his head and stares moodily into his coffee mug again. "Yeah. I want to, and I feel bad for, well, mistrusting him, but..."

"But you've told him secrets that you don't want to end up in public."

Steve is long past the point of wondering how she does that. It's probably not even a too difficult conclusion to arrive at, but Natasha has the uncanny ability of getting right down to the root of the issue. She's always right, and she's always fast. "Yes," he confirms quietly.

"Steve." Squeezing his hand, she leans towards him. "You don't have to feel guilty about that. Your whole life is a matter of public property. After your "death", all your secrets were thrust into the open – not immediately, perhaps, but by the time you woke up things you had never talked to anybody about were all public knowledge and old news. Some people even figured out your sexuality before you did. It's entirely natural to be protective of your privacy. Though," one of her eyebrows hitches up, "in light of that, it was rather unwise to spill your secrets to a complete stranger."

"It's not like I told him classified stuff," Steve immediately protests. "Or any deep dark secrets. I don't have any deep dark secrets. It's just... intimate, some things. Not things I want to be asked about at press conferences, you know?"

"Yes, I know," she says softly, and it strikes Steve in that moment that she might not actually know. Of course she has a lot of secrets, more secrets than Steve can even imagine probably, none of which she would want to be asked about at a press conference, but hers are probably an entirely different caliber than his. The things he doesn't want to be asked about are private. The things she doesn't want to be asked about are dangerous.

"Well," she says after a moment. "There's no point crying over spilled milk. You really have only two options: one, back away. Slowly withdraw from the relationship or just stop talking to him altogether. Two, talk to him. Tell him who you are. See what happens and react accordingly."

Steve can only blink at her after that. She's completely right, of course, and it's so obvious, but somehow he didn't see it until she put it to words so succinctly just now.

After a moment the shine of that stunning realization wears off though as he becomes aware that nothing is actually resolved by that, or has even just gotten simpler. "I don't want to stop talking to him, or withdraw," he tells her softly. The thought is actually painful, and that's a new realization all in itself. He hadn't known he was in so deep.

Bucky is important to him. He's not the only one Steve talks about private things with, or the only one he tells everything, but Steve tells him a lot. And Bucky trusts him with a lot too: his nightmares, what they're about, how it's been two years since he got out on a medical leave and he still hasn't quite managed to get a grip on his life (though he's getting there). Little things and bigger things, but it's not just that, it's simply Bucky's presence in Steve's life. It might sound silly, considering how they've never actually met, but Bucky is an important part of Steve's life. He finds himself looking forwards to talking to him in the evening, their customary post-dinner phonecall that sometimes lasts even past whatever they're watching on TV that night, together or separate. When he has a stray thought about something he thinks Bucky would find interesting, he finds himself texting him before he's even made the conscious decision to do it. When something happens, Bucky is usually the but definitely among the first persons Steve wants to talk to about it.

He's not fixated on Bucky, he doesn't think. He has other friends that he spends time with and talks to frequently, and he doesn't text Bucky every time he so much as breathes or anything. But Bucky is important, it's undeniable.

"Then there is really only one thing you can do," Natasha says, well-aware that Steve knows it too. "There's no point in stalling, it'll only make you feel more nervous about it. I know you, Steve; you have the tendency to get too into your own head about things like this. Talk to him. Soon."

Steve swallows, bites his lower lip and nods. The thought still is terrifying, because it's so much more likely he'll lose Bucky in some way, and that's really the scariest part. Not the fallout, what'll happen after – that will hurt too, but Steve has a feeling that not being able to talk to Bucky anymore will be the worst part of it.

Natasha sighs explosively. "I see. You're already in too deep. Text him, now."

"Text him?" Steve repeats, scandalized. "Natasha, I might not have been born to all is but even I know that you don't tell people something important via text."

She rolls her eyes. "Tell him that you have something important to talk to him about. Don't say "we need to talk", that's break-up words and everyone knows it."

Thoroughly derailed, Steve flushes and ducks his head. "We're not- there's nothing to break up."

"Isn't there?" She raises one eyebrow at him, entirely unimpressed with his self-awareness or lack of it. "You're not the only one who talks to him every day. He talks to you every day too."

That's... very true. And it's a fact, not just encouragement, so the tiny lift in confidence Steve feels from that is enough for him to take out his phone and text Bucky, I have something important to talk to you about, let me know when you have time? Belatedly realizing how that sounds, he quickly follows it up with a, Nothing bad, promise. that he's not sure is the entire truth.

Mere seconds after he has sent the second text, his phone rings. "Everything alright?" Bucky asks the moment Steve accepts the call. He sounds worried.

"Yeah, just a second," Steve replies. Shit. This is way faster than he meant for this to happen. He thought he'd have a little more time to think it over.

But clearly he doesn't, and maybe that's a good thing because he's spent the past couple of days thinking it over and arriving at no conclusion. He's not going to have this conversation in front of Natasha, though, so he waves at her and gestures towards the elevator.

She rolls her eyes and waves him off, sipping her coffee as Steve leaves. "Sorry," he says once he's in the elevator and on the way down to his floor. "I was just... uhm. How are you?"

"I'm good, getting a little impatient here and also worried. How are you?" Bucky returns the question pointedly.

Steve takes a deep breath and, grateful that JARVIS didn't have the elevator ping this time as he arrives on his floor, steps out of the elevator. "I... there's something I need to tell you."

"Okay." Bucky's voice is patient and even, but it's not like there's much else he can say to that.

"I, well, I haven't been entirely honest with you."

"Okay," Bucky says again, but this time he draws the word out, caution in his voice.

Steve winces. "It's not, I, well. I haven't lied but I just, uhm. Something I couldn't tell you right away and I really want to because I trust you but I'm worried, and-"

"Steve," Bucky interrupts him impatiently. "Is this about the Captain America thing?"

It's like Steve's entire brain grinds to a halt. "What?"

"Because that wasn't really hard to figure out," Bucky is saying. "Is that what you're trying to tell me? You're Captain America? Because I've known that for about six weeks now."

"Uh," Steve makes. "I, uh... how?"

Bucky sighs. "Okay, admittedly, you're not entirely awful at keeping secrets. It was a number of things, I guess – how you carefully don't go into too much detail about where you served and when. Yeah okay, that could be because it's classified too, but you clearly don't really know what it's like to live in the desert for months, or that time I mentioned having to be careful of suicide bombers in a crowd and car bombs and you were surprised for a second. Or how you have tried really hard to scramble your location, like it was really important that I don't figure out you live in Manhattan. Or when we talked about the zombie apocalypse and you knew a little too many details about security when I said I'd seek shelter in Stark Tower. Or how you don't mention your friends' names. Or that time you had to dash because of some alarm and minutes later it's all over the news how some wacko tried to fell the Empire State Building and the Avengers are involved. Should I go on? It's all little things, but put together it's not a hard leap to make."

"I guess," Steve admits reluctantly. Put like that... well. Maybe it really wasn't that difficult to figure out. "So... six weeks?" He tries to think back to what happened six weeks ago, but nothing sticks out in his mind. Neither from his side, nor Bucky's.

"Six wees, Steve," Bucky confirms, sounding deeply amused. "So that's it? That's what had you tangled all up in knots?"

Steve takes a deep breath, then exhales, feeling a huge chunk of the tension that had been building up inside over the past couple of days release all at once, leaving him feeling much lighter. "Yeah. I wanted to tell you, but at first I couldn't, for obvious reasons, and then it had been too long and I didn't know how. I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Bucky says warmly. "Not gonna lie, when I first figured it out I wasn't really sure how to react, but then I figured I didn't have to react yet because I didn't officially know, and now that I do, well. It's not really a big deal, is it?"

Steve smiles and is just about to agree when Bucky corrects himself hastily. "No wait, scratch that, it's kinda a big deal, but I've been working on keeping you, Steve, and Captain America separate in my head. Though to be honest, it was kinda a shock when I realized how old you really are. Lying about your age, Stevie, really." He sounds like he's shaking his head, and Steve has to laugh.

"I couldn't very well tell you I'm ninety-five, could I? Besides, I was asleep for like, sixty-seven of those years. Where it counts I'm really twenty-eight, so it wasn't really a lie."

"If you say so," Bucky drawls. "Just saying, it's a sad reflection of our times that even Captain America has gotta lie about his age."

It wasn't a lie, Steve wants to protest, but that's only half-true, and instead he finds himself asking something entirely different. "So you really don't... mind?"

"Steve," Bucky says patiently, then sighs. "Look. If I had found about this two months ago, maybe it would have changed something. I probably would have felt weird about talking to you, in any case. But I know you a lot better than I know Captain America, and... look, have we gotta talk about this? I guess we do." He sighs again. "At first I told myself you're different people, you and Captain America, but it's not that simple, I realize that. But I'm okay with it, I don't mind, and I'm not about to fall to my knees in worship or anything, and I'm definitely not going around telling everyone that I got Captain America on speed dial. Okay? Are you okay with me knowing?"

"Yeah," Steve breathes. "I don't like... I mean everyone has secrets and things like that, but I didn't like keeping something so huge from you."

"I'm not angry," Bucky tells him after a moment, voice soft. "I admit I was, initially, but I'm not anymore, okay? I get why you couldn't tell me. And I'm glad you told me today."

"Not that I had to, you clearly had things well in hand," Steve replies, a little rueful. That'll teach him to underestimate Bucky. Or rather, overestimate his own skills at deception. He's just not good at it; if he knows it's a lie, most people will figure out at least that much.

"Well yeah," Bucky drawls. "My mama ain't raise no moron."

"Clearly." With a relieved smile, Steve sinks back in his seat. "So what's your plan for today?"

"Oh! You know my neighbour, Ms. Martin? I think I've mentioned her. Anyways, she saw me walking the cat – Bingo, the ginger one – today in the park and she really likes the idea and she wants me to walk her cats as well. And the best part: she's in some sort of cat fanclub, so if things go well she'll tell all her friends and I might get a couple more clients. I'm well on my way to becoming a professional catwalker, Steve, who would'a thought, huh?" The laughter is audible in Bucky's voice. A couple of weeks ago, he'd found an ad in the wanteds about some person looking for somebody to take their cat on walks twice a week. Bucky had figured, cats, that's easier to walk than dogs. Not to mention that he's a cat person and is basically getting paid to play with a cat twice a week. By this point he's walking three other cats as well, and now a fourth, apparently. He keeps giggling about this whole "professional catwalker" thing, too.

Steve can't hold back the smile creeping on his face at the excitement in Bucky's voice. "That's great! So are you going to make it into a business? I know you were joking but that's five cats already."

"Seven, Ms. Martin has three cats. Why she still thinks they need more excitement in their life than that, I don't know, but I'm not complainin'. So you think I should? Because I mean it's funny, but also... kinda weird, isn't it?"

"I don't know about that," Steve says thoughtfully. "And it's not like you'll have to do it for the rest of your life. But you're enjoying it and it's going well, so why not? You should at least make some flyers so your neighbor can take them to her fanclub, it'd make a better impression, wouldn't it?"

"True," Bucky agrees thoughtfully. "And it's not like it'll do any harm or anything. Though I'll- oh my god, Steve, this means I can change my card!"

"Your card?" Steve repeats, confused.

"My card," Bucky says like a confirmation, like that explains anything. Not that Steve doesn't know what cards are, but, well. He'd thought they're for people with businesses. "I can write my name on it, and underneath, wait for it, "Professional Catwalker". It'll be beautiful."

Steve tries to picture it and can't suppress an amused snort. "What does it say right now?"

"Amputee," Bucky tells him, shrugging audibly. "I give it to people who stare at me like I'm blue in the face. Sometimes they even email the address on it."

That's... wow. "I like it." Steve can't help but picture it – he knows how obnoxious staring people can be. God, he wishes he could've- and oh, he can actually say that to Bucky now, they're in the clear. "I wish I had had cards like that back then for every time I had an asthma attack in public and people just stared."

Bucky hums thoughtfully. "Was it bad? I read that they used to actually prescribe cigarettes as treatment for asthma, is that true?"

"Yes, but not normal cigarettes like you're probably picturing. They were made up of herbs and stuff. Everybody pretty much had their own recipe. They did help some." Steve shrugs a little. "Mind, not a few doctors thought asthma wasn't even a valid illness. Some called it hysteria and told me to just get a grip on myself."

"Jesus," Bucky snorts derisively. "But these cigarettes, they helped?"

"Yes." Wait for it...

"And those herbs that were in them, what were they?"

Here we go. Steve's already been through this dance several times with Tony and Clint; he decides to just skip it and get down to what Bucky really wants to know: "Yes, they contained marijuana. It was perfectly legal and it helped."

Bucky snorts, then hiccups, and then starts to laugh. Patiently, Steve waits him out, only sighing a little; Tony and Clint had their fun with this revelation, Bucky might as well have it too. "I just," Bucky gasps eventually, "the thought of Captain America, smoking weed-" he starts to wheeze again.

"Yes," Steve sighs. "That happened. Perfectly legally. Before you ask, no, I didn't drink during the prohibition, I was fifteen when it ended." That one time doesn't count and he's not telling anyone. Mostly to keep it on hand to distract Tony, should he ever need to.

"Sorry, sorry," Bucky gasp. "I'm good, sorry. Jesus. Okay. Yeah." He takes a couple of calming breaths. "So I haven't seen that one in the media yet."

"Nobody's asked me about asthma cigarettes yet," Steve points out. Not that he's going to mention the marijuana, he's been advised against it by his PR manager, but just like Tony, Clint and Bucky, lots of people will interpret "herbs" as "marijuana" anyway.

There's a question that occurred him just yet, and though he's apprehensive, he decides to just ask. "So do you... follow the tabloids on me?"

"Steve," Bucky says, voice entirely sober all of a sudden. "You regularly go out and risk your life. That's not exactly something I can just shrug off, you know? Of course I follow the news. Not so much the gossip part of it, but you bet I have you on google alerts."

"Okay," Steve says quietly. "Sorry."

"Don't apologize, you dope," Bucky returns fondly. "Just, you know, maybe text me you're fine every now and then after you've made the news? Then I wouldn't have to zap through the news channels like a madman."

"Oh." Steve clears his throat. "Of course, yes."

Not much changes after this conversation, not ostensibly. They still talk about the same sort of things in the same way and the same amount of time. The only thing that's clearly different is that Steve now can talk a little more openly about some things, but surprisingly, that secret turns out to have felt bigger than it actually was.

What does change, however, is a sort of... undertone, a vibe, maybe. It's hard to put to words, Steve tries just explaining it to himself and has a difficult time. Things just feel different somehow. He wouldn't say that Bucky actually is warmer with him, or Steve with Bucky, but it still feels warmer somehow. Steve finds himself smiling more, even after they've hung up. Even if all they talked about was Ms. Martins three cats and their crazy antics – apparently one of them really is not a fan of this whole "outside" thing and spends most of the walk riding along on Bucky's shoulders like a throne, and the other two are too dumb to figure out how the leashes work and end up tangling themselves up together all the time. It's hilarious, listening to Bucky retell the tales of their antics. Most recently Bucky has taken to attaching their leashes to belt loops on each side of his hips in hopes that they won't mess themselves up too much with that. Except the cats weren't really into that and ended up making Bucky trip over them and their leashes all the time. The only reason Bucky hasn't despaired yet is because he's really into this catwalking business idea now and needs Ms Martin's connections to help him establish himself.

And Steve, well. He'd give a lot to see that. Natasha, now as up to date on the state of his relations with Bucky as possible, tells Steve that it's probably the natural progression of things, though she admits to not really having much experience in the field of screen-to-screen built relationships.

Which is how Steve ends up having lunch with Darcy. Because somehow, by this point all of his friends know that Steve has made a friend, and that they only ever talk on the phone or text and have never met in person. As well as being a source of hilarity, this is apparently also something that Steve is in deep need of advice for, or at least everyone seems to think so, which is how Steve ends up in some hip new restaurant type like place (that isn't actually a restaurant, but neither is it a cafe) with Jane's ex-intern. How this happened, Steve couldn't really say. That's not unusual if you're friends with Tony Stark and Natasha Romanov, though, and generally Steve tends to just go with it.

"So, uh, how's uni going?"

Darcy waves him off. "Midterms are over, I have no idea. Anyways, we have much more important things to discuss, I hear." She leans across the table towards him, expression intent. "Spill."

Steve blinks a little. He's met Darcy once or twice before, though both times she was preoccupied flailing over being in the penthouse of Stark slash Avengers Tower and in the presence of the Avengers. She's a nice girl, he knows that, and the fact that she's still counted as a friend by all of them means she's also trustworthy, despite how flighty she might seem at first. But personally, Steve can't really say he knows her well. This is a little... intense. "About what? Why are we even here? Not that I mind, you're a nice girl- person, but-"

"Tonight I will tell my diary that Captain America called me a nice girl person, but we're actually here because apparently you've made an internet friend and everybody else you know isn't normal enough to know how to deal with that." She raises one eyebrow. "Correct?"

Steve thinks about the advice – entirely unsolicited, he'd like to add – he's gotten so far, which amounted to several variations of "stalk him" (re: Natasha, Tony and Clint) or "wait and see" (Bruce, Sam and Jane). Thor had suggested sending Bucky an invitation to join them for their weekly "feast", meaning the take-out movie binge thing they do usually on Friday. Pepper had suggested a mix of stalking and "wait and see", and Steve had been strongly advised against asking Phil because as soon as SHIELD got wind of things, the stalking would happen with Steve's involvement or without. With an expression that clearly conveyed that he expected praise for this, Tony had informed Steve that the only reason stalking hasn't happened yet anyway is because their meeting, if you want to call it that, was far too random to be a ploy, and possibly also because Pepper had put on her disappointed disapproval face when Natasha and Tony had suggested the stalking. Everyone is keenly aware that of all of them, Pepper is the closest to normal, so when she puts on that face, they tend to at least consider listening to what she has to say.

Even more normal than Pepper, though, is apparently Darcy; otherwise Steve has the strong suspicion that he would have ended up doing this lunch with Pepper. Her being the CEO of Stark Industries and actually a rather busy woman, he's glad she didn't get dragged into this.

"You're not wrong," he reluctantly admits to Darcy. "I still don't really know what you're supposed to do, though. I don't need help."

"That's okay." Unconcerned, she shrugs and sits back in her seat, smiles at the waiter as he brings their food. Once the waiter is gone she adds, "I'm having lunch with Captain America. We could talk exclusively about the weather and I'll still tell my grandchildren all about this in fifty years."

Steve glances out the window. "It's rather nice weather, isn't it?"

"Surprisingly warm for the season," she nods gamely. Then she rolls her eyes. "I was kidding, let's not actually talk about the weather. So you've made an internet friend. Has anybody told you yet that you can't actually be real friends because you've never even met in person?"

Frowning, Steve lowers his gaze to his plate of pesto pasta. Would it be rude if he ate it all in five minutes? He could leave afterwards, right? "No."

"Good. If anybody says that, tell them they're full of shit."

Caught entirely by surprise, Steve looks up at her, but Darcy is focused on dusting grated parmesan all over her own pasta dish, even as she continues, "It's complete bullshit. Sometimes we're more honest with strangers than with friends. Besides, anybody knows that it's easier talking about things with a person you don't have to look in the eyes. Right?"

"Right," Steve agrees.

Darcy looks up and beams at him. "So anybody who tries to tell you otherwise, they're condescending and don't know anything, so screw them. You don't ever have to actually meet your friend if you don't want to." She pauses, narrows her eyes. "Unless you want to. Do you want to? You look like you do."

"That's probably because I do," Steve replies, raising one eyebrow. Slowly, he's getting used to Darcy's speed. And also... it's true. He wants to. He wants to see Bucky all tangled up in cat leashes, stumbling over two of them while a third sits regally on his shoulders, digging her claws in in punishment every time he loses balance. He wants to know the face Bucky makes when somebody tries to put peanuts in his chocolate (one of Bucky's favorite topics to complain about is the atrocity of peanuts in chocolate, or anything sweet) and how he looks in the evening, curled up in what he calls a "blanket burrito", watching strange TV shows. He most definitely wants to know how Bucky's face looks when his voice sounds all delighted and bright like the morning sun.

He, well. He might be in trouble.

"Alright," Darcy says, completely missing the tangent Steve's thoughts have just run off with. "Well, a couple of important things have to happen first before you can meet in person. You each need to prove you're trustworthy and trust the other person by revealing sensitive information. It's not like a rule or anything, but that's what usually happens. Like, full names maybe."

"Or the fact that I'm Captain America?" Steve deduces.

She points her fork at him. "Or that, right. Does your friend know that?"

"He does," Steve confirms. "I told him two weeks ago, but turned out he'd figured it out way earlier. Eight weeks ago, already."

"Smart," Darcy compliments, sounding satisfied like she was actually at all involved. "Well that's a pretty huge thing so unless you think he might be gathering information for a book or a grand reveal on Captain America, that probably means he's trustworthy."

"He wouldn't," Steve says, appalled.

"Alright. Have you ever actually talked about this meeting in person thing? I'm just asking 'cause, you know, if you have it'll be easier to approach the subject."

Steve nods slowly and focuses on his pasta again. "So you think I should? Meet up with him, I mean?"

"Look." Putting her fork down, Darcy leans towards him across the table again. "See, me? I'm totally into the full disclosure thing. What you see is what you get. I really don't believe in the whole cloak and dagger thing, especially not in relationships. If you want things to work out you gotta be honest with what you want from him and from your relationship and all that. Otherwise it'll just be all second-guessing and angsting and worrying and wondering what he means when he said he'd call and if that time he kissed you good-bye longer than usual was him letting you know he's leaving his wife for real this time." She flushes suddenly. "By which I mean, you get the gist, right?"

"Right," Steve says slowly. "So... honesty. I'm always honest."

"There's a difference between honesty and full disclosure," Darcy informs him reasonably. "You can be honest and still hide your feelings or thoughts. So if you wanna meet with him, ask him what he thinks about that, if he wants to."

That sounds entirely reasonable and sensible. It's not exactly news to Steve, but it helps a lot having it put to words by another person; a good reminder of how Steve wants to lead his life. He nods slowly, then smiles at her. "You're right. Thanks."

To his surprise – up until this point, she's been rather no-nonsense in her attitude – she flushes. "You're welcome."

After he and Darcy have returned to the tower, Darcy to Jane and Thor's floor where she's staying for the duration of her visit, Steve dithers a little. Meaning he hoovers and cleans the bathroom and cleans out his fridge. Then he decides to quit being a coward and sends Bucky a text, painstakingly phrased, I would like to meet you in person sometime. What do you think?

Twenty minutes later, Bucky replies in just one word: No. Proper punctuation and capitals and everything.

An hour later, Steve gets a text from Darcy. seeing how we're now in a relationship, I figured you should have my no. got yours from jane <3

Wait, what? Steve thinks, but he's a little bit preoccupied so he discards the first part, finding himself telling her instead, he said no.

waitttttttt, Darcy replies immediately. he knows we're not a thing right?

I have no idea what you're talking about, Steve tells her, a bit impatiently. In reply he gets a link from her to some gossip website with the words, check this. he knows its all lies, right?

"This" turns out to be an short paragraph about how Captain America took out his new ladyfriend to some hip new place, together with a couple of blurry phone pictures taken of them earlier today. A customer at the restaurant must have taken them; there had been no paparazzi outside, Steve is sure of that. In one of them they're leaning towards each other in a way that could be construed as intimate, if one were so inclined. In another, Steve is holding the door open for Darcy, hand hovering over the small of her back as they leave. The gossip website isn't subtle about their interpretation of these pictures.

Now, Steve is entirely confused, but at least he knows a little more now than he did before, even if it's only about what Darcy was talking about. It doesn't help him much with Bucky and his rather abrupt rejection.

I don't get it, he writes to Darcy. What does that have to do with Bucky?

Seconds later she's calling him. "His name is Bucky?" she asks when he picks up. "That's adorable and terrible. What were his parents thinking?"

"It's a nickname, his middle name is Buchanan," Steve informs her absently.

"I repeat," Darcy says. "What were his parents thinking?"

Steve shakes his head. "Darcy. What's going on?"

She huffs a little. "How did he say no? Did he say he's not ready or what?"

"No. He just said no. No explanations." Steve can't help sounding a little bitter about it, even if what he primarily feels still is confusion, and hurt.

"Well this hit the internet about an hour after we finished, so he probably read it. You gotta clarify that we're not an item."

"You think this... would make him not want to meet me? Why?" It makes no sense to Steve, none at all.

"Steve," she huffs. "Look, going by your expression earlier? You're really into him. Imagine if you read something on the internet about him taking his new girlfriend out to lunch, and then he texts you asking you to meet. How'd you feel?"

Inadvertently rejected, probably, even though he had no right to. But Steve wouldn't be so curt with Bucky, even then. "You really think that's it?" he asks, doubtful.

"Yeah, probably," she confirms matter-of-factly. "Look, just check in with him to make sure he doesn't think this is true, okay? Even if he hadn't said no, you'd still make sure he doesn't believe this, wouldn't you?"

Yes, he would. Probably. Steve doesn't usually hear about this kind of gossip that's written about him, unless it comes up just before a public appearance and his PR manager wants to prepare him for possible questions that might occur. He's been in all sorts of rumored relationships already, basically every time he was spotted in public with a woman, and even with a few guys ever since the whole big bisexuality reveal TM, as Tony likes to put it. For months Sam had been his "boyfriend", until Sam had felt forced to publicly announce that no, actually, he's with Maria Hill, Stark Industries' HR manager.

"Yes, okay," he says after a moment and hangs up after her cheerful, "No problem!"

Then he frowns at his phone for a second before he decides to just get to it and calls Bucky. He's half-terrified Bucky isn't going to pick up, growing more and more worried as all he hears is the dial tone, until eventually Bucky does pick up. "Yeah."

"I wasn't sure if you were going to pick up," Steve says softly.

"Sorry," Bucky says, and he sounds like it, at least a little. Mostly he just sounds weird.

Steve clears his throat. "So. Do you read the gossip pages after all? Because uh... I've been advised that... you know it's all lies, right?"

There's a bit of rustling at the other end, and then Bucky asks, "What's lies?"

"Me and Darcy." Steve huffs. "She's just a friend. She used to be Jane's intern and she's one of the most normal people I know, I guess."

"I..." Bucky sounds visibly confused. "Okay?"

Steve deflates, this doesn't sound at all like this was it, like he had thought. "Anyways, I just. Uhm." Bucky picked up, though, so that's a good sign, right? Except he has no idea what to say now. It's Bucky's right not to want to meet up with him. He's perfectly within rights to say no and it's probably not fair of Steve to be hurt or anything. To be honest, thinking about it, he would think twice about meeting up with himself too, especially in lieu of what just happened with Darcy. She doesn't care, she's been in the gossip rags for a while because of being seen with Thor and Jane, but Bucky clearly doesn't feel the same way and that's completely fine. So he takes a breath and says, "I just wanted to tell you, it's completely okay that you don't want to meet me. I understand, and I'm not angry. I'm sorry I just sprung that on you, okay?"

"Okay?" Bucky repeats, sounding even more confused than before. "Wait a second."

Now confused as well, Steve does. All he can hear is Bucky breathing.

"You don't have to apologize," Bucky says after a moment of silence. "I was- that was harsh, and I'm sorry. I guess I just... panicked."

"Panicked," Steve repeats. "Why?"

"'Cause I... well, okay, I did read that thing about you and Darcy and I was pissed that you didn't tell me and also hurt because I thought we've been- and then I realized that... I do want to meet with you, Steve. I just don't understand why you'd want to meet up with me? I mean I'm pretty ridiculous."

Okay, that doesn't make sense at all. Shaking his head, Steve frowns. "The most ridiculous thing to date that you've done is saying that just now. Did you really just ask why I'd want to meet up with you?"

"Yeah," Bucky says, deflating a little. "I know. You're important to me and we talk every day and I just... panicked. The Darcy thing didn't help. But what if we, what if we meet up in person and don't have anything to say to each other? That'd be terrible, Steve. And when you meet me in person you're going to see that I do ridiculous things a lot. I like, I really like what we have now."

"Me too," Steve tells him quietly. He's not sure where this is going. "I really do. And if that's all you want, that's okay. But I don't think that we'd have nothing to say to each other or not get along if we met up, and I just..." He takes a breath and thinks, now or never. "I'd just really like to take you on a date."

"A date?" Bucky squeaks.

Heart in his throat, Steve swallows. "Yes. It's okay if you don't want that, though."

"No!" Bucky exclaims. "I mean, yes! I want that. Yes." He exhales noisily. "Jesus. I used to be smoother."

Steve blinks, then blinks again. "Yes? You mean you want to?"

"Yes," Bucky repeats, sounding amused now and much surer of himself. "Yes, I want to go on a date with you, Steve. What, did you use to be smoother too?"

"I doubt it," Steve tells him honestly. "Okay, wow. That's good."

Still amused and much warmer now, Bucky hums. "So where are you taking me?"

Shit. Desperately casting his mind out for something, Steve eventually blurts out the first thing that comes to his mind: "Coney Island?"

Bucky laughs. "Sounds good. When?"

Steve licks his lips. "Do you have any plans for tomorrow?"

He doesn't.

They meet up at the Coney Island Subway Station at eleven in the morning. After they agree on the time and place Steve hangs up and has a moment to feel absolutely ecstatic as he realizes what just happened. Then he really realizes what just happened and starts to panic a little.

He decides not to tell any of his friends. They already tease him enough about his "internet friend"; if they hear about this date he won't hear the end of it. And to be honest, he'd rather they not be involved for now. Somehow he suspects they'd find a way to get involved. Natasha and Clint would somehow find a way to show up and Tony would definitely use public security cameras to spy on them. Steve doesn't want that; he doesn't want to spend half the time looking over his shoulder trying to spot his spy friends.

Which, unfortunately, means he can't ask anybody about how to dress. Internet searches don't help much – apparently first date attire entirely depends on the location and also a bit on the previous relationship. Amusement parks are a casual location, which means nothing formal, and Steve knows enough about modern dress codes to know that a button-down shirt counts as formal. Slacks do as well, Steve reluctantly has to admit, so he finds himself picking a pair of dark blue, rather tight jeans. He got them going shopping with Clint one time, who had wolf-whistled when Steve stepped out of the dressing room. That's probably a good sign, he figures.

A t-shirt is the obvious other choice, but Steve doesn't really know what type. He has Unicode colored ones that are probably boring, but the ones with prints on them he doesn't know which ones would be appropriate. Any of the Avenger-themed ones his friends give him as jokes he discards right away. Eventually, after overturning half his closet, he picks a wine-red v-collared shirt and a gray-black striped hoodie for on top. It looks probably boring, but by this point Steve has spent two hours upturning his closet and has enough of fretting over clothes. As he rights his clothes again he strictly forbids himself from reconsidering, the selected outfit waiting over a chair.

That turns out to be harder than he thought, but he manages to stay strong by distracting himself. It helps that Bucky calls him in the evening for a relatively short phonecall talking about inconsequential things. After they hang up he feels considerably less nervous and unsure.

Thankfully, this feeling lasts until he steps off the train at West Eighth Street. He's wearing a dark gray baseball cap and has a pair of sunglasses hooked into his shirt's collar, just in case. Most of the time people don't recognize him unless he's dumb enough to forego this disguise and hang around in public close by the tower, like yesterday. Today, the chances are much higher that he'll go unrecognized.

Yesterday, when they agreed on where to meet – on the street below the wavewall – Bucky told him that he'd be wearing a blue shirt. Nobody is waiting yet so Steve puts his hands in his pockets and peers out at the traffic and the weather. They caught a good day, he thinks as he closes his eyes and inhales deeply. Even from here he can smell the ocean.

He hasn't even been waiting five minutes, which is why he's not looking around yet and almost misses when Bucky shows up until he spots a figure heading straight towards him out of the corner of his eyes. Turning towards the person, he lowers his gaze and is honestly rendered speechless.

Bucky is, well. Devastatingly handsome comes to mind. Hot as hell, too; the phrase sex on legs occurs as Steve finds himself looking Bucky up and down, completely forgetting trying to be subtle about it because holy hell.

Bucky... he's wearing a pair of black jeans that look like they've been glued on. A blue, long-sleeved shirt, as he said, with a washed out, fading white print of a dragon on the front that fits very well, revealing some muscles. His long, dark hair has been curled up into a messy bun and there's a light dusting of stubble on his face, like the last time he saw a razor was several days ago. His eyes are blue and bright, there is an adorable dip in his chin and in between, his lips. Bright red and delicious.

Steve didn't expect this. He was curious what Bucky would look like but he hadn't asked and Bucky hadn't volunteered; it simply hadn't mattered to him. He was already attracted to Bucky, he figured the physical aspect would follow once they meet.

Boy, did it ever. Holy shit.

The very best part, though, is the way Bucky is smiling. Talking to him on the phone, Steve had imagined Bucky to be the type who smiles with his whole body, the way it's reflected in his voice. He was completely right about that. Just in the few seconds after Steve meets Bucky's eyes, the smile on his face has widened and brightened until he's all but beaming, and Steve is helpless to do anything but smile back, completely charmed and embarrassingly breathless.

"Steve," Bucky says, and then he hugs Steve. Not one of those polite, quick hugs either but a real hug where he presses his chest against Steve's and wraps his arm around his shoulders, his cheek briefly resting against Steve's neck. Then, slowly, he lets go and takes a step back. "Wow, you look even bigger in person."

"Uh, you look..." Steve starts, then stops, because anything that comes to mind is probably inappropriate. The only reason he doesn't feel like a complete cad is that the word "beautiful" is the first one he thinks of, followed by "devastating" and then a pretty incoherent garble. Briefly, he's reminded of that time Peggy entered a bar clad in a figure-hugging red dress and asked him out on a date before striding out again, self-confident and sure of herself.

"Yes?" Bucky says, one eyebrow raising, the remnants of the smile still curling his lips up.

"Good," Steve manages, completely inadequately and slightly strangled. "Really good, I mean. Really, really good."

Bucky laughs. "Don't strain anything trying so hard, geez."

"No, I just..." Helpless, Steve gestures towards Bucky a little, then flushes deep red and lowers his hand. "Uh. You really look good."

Grinning, Bucky winks at him. "I get it." He looks happy as he glances towards the exit, body language loose and relaxed. "Ready to go? Where exactly are we going?"

"To Luna Park?" Steve suggests. In agreement, they start walking down the street, soon stepping out into the bright sun. It's a nice day, not too warm, not too cool, a few clouds in the sky but no prospect of rain. "Are you hungry?"

"Steve," Bucky says with exaggerated patience. "You're taking me to a park. The question isn't how hungry I am, it's how much I can eat without throwing up." He blinks up at Steve, expression set. "We're getting corndogs to start with. Let's go."

With determination, he starts leading the way to Luna Park, but not without reaching out to touch Steve's elbow. A little confused, Steve lifts his arm, and Bucky clearly takes that as an invitation to slide his hand down the inside of it to Steve's hand, where he twines their fingers. That wasn't at all what Steve intended to do, but it's absolutely what he wants to happen so he curls his fingers around Bucky's and finds himself smiling helplessly at the ground.

Gently, Bucky bumps his shoulder into Steve's. "You're a sap. Somehow I'm not surprised."

"Shut up," Steve returns warmly, feeling a big part of his nerves slowly seep away. Yes, this is Bucky, but it's also Bucky. The guy he's been talking to every day for weeks – months, if texting counts as talking.

They get corndogs. At first conversation between them is a bit awkward; the way Steve can't stop looking at Bucky probably doesn't help make things less so. But as they get used to the new circumstances they start to relax and find their stride with each other again and very quickly they're back to talking to each other the way they always do: a lot of teasing interspersed with conversation.

It's different, of course, being with Bucky in person. Steve gets to look at him – which he does a lot, it's a bit embarrassing but he can't seem to stop himself – and to touch him, which he tries not to do as much as he looks but he probably still touches Bucky a lot. He's a tactile person, and he's not always aware of it. More than once he finds his hand somewhere thankfully innocuous on Bucky, his arm mostly, his hand, the small of his back. Every time he guiltily retrieves his hand again. To his embarrassment Bucky definitely notices, glancing at Steve out of the corners of his eyes several times, looking amused, and once or twice he bumps his shoulder or elbow against Steve so it's probably okay. If a little embarrassing, still.

After the corndogs they work their way from carnival game to food and back, zig-zagging from fishing ducks to getting candied almonds to throwing hoops at a stick to deep-fried seafood on a stick, and more. Eventually Bucky decides he can't eat any more, lips sticky with spun sugar that he licks out of the corners of his mouth. Steve doesn't hear a word he says, too busy staring at his red, shiny lips, trying and thoroughly failing not to imagine their sweet taste.

"Steve," Bucky says. He stops walking and looks up at him, looking thoroughly amused. "Are you even listening?"

There are two things Steve can do right now: lie, or... not. "No," he replies, reaches out to cup Bucky's face with both hands and gives him just enough time to see the amusement fade from his eyes, lips parting as Bucky's chin seems to lift almost instinctively, welcoming. Then he leans in and presses his lips to Bucky's, warm and slightly sticky, impossibly sweet.

The kiss lingers, but he keeps it as sweet as the flavor of Bucky's lips, not deepening it. He wants to, but he also wants to keep it just as it is, soft and almost light, if it weren't for the gravity behind it. It's everything Steve would have hoped for their first kiss to be, even if a little more spontaneous than he would have thought. People are walking past them, a lot of children that shriek and yell in excitement, but Bucky is warm and still, not quite pressed against him, his hand on Steve's wrist where Steve's hand is still cupping his face.

It feels like ages have passed when they separate, though it probably wasn't more than a handful of seconds. Steve's heart seems to be trying to jump right out of his chest, it's beating so hard, and inexplicably, he's breathing a little harder. In front of him Bucky is real and warm and looks a little stunned, eyes wide and a little dark.

The tip of his tongue flicks out to wet his lips, and he blinks. "Hm, yes."

"Yes?" Steve repeats, slightly amused. His mouth starts to stretch into a smile, entirely out of his control as happiness bubbles up in him.

Bucky returns the smile, bright and pleased. "Yes." He leans up for a quick kiss, then pulls back and takes Steve's hand, pulling him along. "Now, let's go."

"Go?" Steve has to laugh, trying to catch up with Bucky. "Go where?"

Over his shoulder, Bucky sends him a very significant look, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, then he faces to the front again and makes a beeline for the bumpers.

"I am never, ever getting into a car with you behind the wheel," Steve swears half an hour later when they stumble off the steps. Bucky laughs with his full body, head thrown back, and Steve physically feels himself fall a little bit (more) in love with him, his bright eyes, his expressive face and body language.

"I'm not even allowed to drive cars with just this," Bucky says, cheerfully waving his right hand before he picks at his other sleeve, pinned back around what's left of his left arm; a couple of inches past his shoulder, nothing more.

"I'm pretty sure that has nothing to do with your abilities as a driver," Steve returns, still reeling a little and utterly unable to refrain from slinging his arm around Bucky's waist, pulling him in to press a short kiss to his temple.

Bucky snickers, the back of his fingers casually brushing down Steve's belly. "I've driven under insane circumstances and I've never gotten into an accident, I'll have you know."

"Uh-huh," Steve makes, disbelieving.

Bucky grins at him. "You tellin' me you- oohh." His entire body language changes all of a sudden as he spots something that captures his attention. "Let's go." He makes a beeline for a shooting stand. "What do you want me to win for you?"

Caught a little off-guard, Steve blinks at the gifts on offer for anyone who hits the target's center enough times. "Er. I don't know?"

"Alright," Bucky says, suddenly all business. It's fascinating how his entire body language changes, becomes focused and sort of... contained as he receives the carnival rifle the stand owner hands him in exchange for a couple of bills. It seems to be no issue that Bucky only has one arm; he handles the gun expertly, weighing it and peering through the scope for a second before he gets in position in front of one of the targets, presses the butt of the rifle against his shoulder. His entire body goes still as he peers along the rifle, then shoots. And again. And again. Hitting the center each time, making it seem effortless. Steve knows that carnival games are rigged, but he also knows that the very best of shooters can compensate for that. Clint and Natasha can, Tony and Steve have some troubles. Bucky doesn't.

It's breathtaking, captivating, watching him, his usually open body language contained, focused completely as he obliterates the target. The stand owner smiles, wide and fake, and not a few people standing close by applaud as Bucky hands the gun back with a slowly building grin, pointing towards a stuffed purple elephant about as big as Steve's underarm. He receives the elephant, then immediately hands it over to Steve, smile widening and brightening, though his eyes are calm still, serious. Steve takes the elephant, much more occupied looking at Bucky and Bucky looks back, for just a moment, until somebody approaches him – a guy, expression serious as he thanks him for his service. With his display of his sharpshooting skills and the arm it's probably pretty obvious. Steve does his best to melt into the background as a couple more people approach Bucky to shake his hand. Bucky accepts it all with a placid smile, nods and shakes hands and hugs that woman who seems on the verge of tears. Steve knows what this is; he's been through the same song and dance before. Thankfully it's not a lot of people, just a handful, and once he's shaken the last guy's hand Bucky steps away and turns to Steve, expression a bit wry. "Sorry about that. Let's go."

Steve shakes his head, reaches out to brush his fingertips over Bucky's cheek. "Don't apologize."

Bucky shrugs a little and leads the way to a queue for crêpes. "It's the arm."

"What about it?" Steve glances at the stump.

"When people figure out that I lost it serving. It's like they feel guilty, almost," Bucky replies, shrugging. Visibly shaking the topic off, he then points at the purple elephant Steve has stuffed under his arm. "So what do you think? Good choice?"

Steve glances at the elephant and grins. "The best. Couldn't have chosen better."

Bucky grins up at him. "Yeah? What are you going to do with it?"

"Put it in my bed and sleep with it," Steve improvises.

"Yeah?" The look Bucky sends him at that makes Steve flush. "Sleep with it, huh?"

"Oh geez." Steve lowers his face into his hand for a moment, entirely mortified. It's worth it a little for the way Bucky laughs, but still. Embarrassing. "Let's just... chocolate?" Slightly desperate, he gestures towards the available toppings for the crêpe.

"Oh Steve." Pityingly, Bucky shakes his head. "A little more creativity, please." With that, he steps forwards, smiles sweetly at the vendor and orders, "One with banana, chocolate sauce and rainbow sprinkles, please."

Not batting an eyelash, the vendor nods and looks expectantly at Steve. Bucky turns around to look at him equally expectantly, so Steve can't really pick chocolate now, but he needs to make a decision now so he says, "Apple and cinnamon, please."

Bucky blinks slowly and says not a word. He lets Steve pay for the crêpes – they've been paying back and forth all day – and walks three steps away from the stand before he turns and looks at Steve. "Apple cinnamon? Don't tell me apple pie really is your favorite desert, I thought that was just part of the whole... thing."

Steve doesn't need to ask what thing; he sighs. "It's not, actually. Apple pie really is my favorite dessert and my birthday really is July 4th. You can laugh."

Bucky does, but he leans into Steve and snickers into his chest so Steve has absolutely no objections. His chin digs into Steve's sternum when he looks up to blink at Steve through his eyelashes, eyes bright and amused. "Oh god, Steve. That's hilarious."

"Believe me, I've been told." Steve rolls his eyes and reaches out with his free hand to slide his palm down Bucky's spine.

With an unabashed grin, Bucky holds his crêpe up for Steve to take a bite, which he does, if a bit reluctantly. It's actually not bad at all, if a little sweet for his taste. He prefers his own, though. "Boring, Rogers," Bucky sighs with mock disappointment when Steve tells him as much, but still takes a bite from Steve's crêpe when offered, only to amend, "Good, but boring."

"At least I'm not going to be on a sugar high in three minutes," Steve replies, unconcerned. Not that his body does that sort of thing. It seems to process all energy he gives it the same way, somehow storing what it doesn't need immediately. Which means that if necessary, he can skip a meal or a night of sleep or two without issue; it's pretty neat.

"Well that's why we're going to go on there in a minute," Bucky replies and nods towards the cyclone.

Oh, lord. The last time Steve was on that thing – when he'd been nineteen a couple of friends from art school had dragged him along – he'd thrown up.

Bucky snickers when so informed. "That's not gonna happen again, is it? It'd be a shame for all that good food to go to waste."

Steve can't even argue that it hadn't strictly speaking been good food, because most of it had been pretty good, for carnival food. "I think I'm more worried you are going to throw up," he returns. They'd been eating a lot.

"Please," Bucky scoffs. "I don't throw up unless alcohol is involved."

True to form, he doesn't look even the slightest bit green in the face when they step off the roller coaster; instead his face is bright, smile wide and cheeks flushed. "That was amazing!" he gushes. "Let's do that one next!" He gestures towards a machine the sole purpose of which appears to be to toss the humans strapped into its seat up and down, twirling as it goes.

"Sounds great," Steve says, determined to keep Bucky looking that way, bright and light and incandescently happy, beautiful with it.

So they work their way through the more adrenaline-laden rides. They take a couple of breaks for food and drink, sitting on a bench and staring out into the ocean just as the sun starts to set, painting the sky in bright orange and pink colors. "Come on," Bucky says suddenly, takes Steve's hand and makes a beeline for the Ferris wheel.

It's entirely cliché and Steve has absolutely no objection, taking a seat next to Bucky in their two-seater car and taking his hand, twining their fingers as they're slowly lifted into the sky. In the city a couple of street lights have already been switched on, the sky more pink and purple now as the sun slowly dips below the horizon. It's a beautiful sight and Steve looks his fill, but then he glances at Bucky, perhaps to say something but the words die on his lips because Bucky looks even more captivating than the sky, however pretty, ever could. He looks utterly content, eyes filled with a calm sort of wonder as he looks out at the city sprawled out to one side, the endless ocean sweeping out at the other.

Bucky looks out, and Steve looks at Bucky, and just as their car dips past the highest point Bucky turns towards him and goes still. His eyes widen a little, his breath audibly escaping past his lips, and then Bucky says, voice slightly hoarse, "If we were more romantic, this would be where our first kiss happens."

"If you were less irresistible, it might have been," Steve says, the first thing that comes to his mind, entirely true. He hadn't planned anything, but if he had, this is indeed how it might have happened.

"You're terrible," Bucky complains, breathless, and leans in for their second kiss.

It's less tamed than their first kiss, but not wild per se; Bucky's lips are soft and warm, not as sticky anymore but Steve will probably for the rest of his life be reminded of Bucky when he tastes spun sugar. Now, Bucky's fingertips are on his jaw, tilting his face up, and he feels the tip of Bucky's tongue flick against his lower lip, wet and almost hot. It might not even be meant as an invitation but Steve can't resist it for a second, opens his mouth to brush his tongue against Bucky's, tastes the faint tang of chocolate and sweetness. They don't exactly turn wild and reckless with it, just brush tongues for a second before pulling back, but a shiver runs through Steve anyway. He leans in a little more towards Bucky, feels him push back in return, flick his tongue out once more. Somehow Steve's hands find their way to Bucky's waist as he meets Bucky's tongue with his own again, holding him close as Bucky slings his arm around his shoulders, pushes even closer.

The slight jolt as the wheel starts turning again makes them both startle. Steve completely lost track of their surroundings and he blinks open eyes he didn't realize he closed, finds Bucky looking about as dazed as he feels. "Damn," Bucky rasps, blinking as he pulls back a little.

Yeah, that. Steve takes a deep breath, and another, licks his lips and tastes Bucky. All he wants is to lean in and kiss Bucky some more but now that the real world is intruding he knows that he can't. They're about to reach the ground and have to get off the Ferris wheel.

But Bucky has sucked his lower lip into his mouth, white teeth digging into bright red flesh, and Steve can't even look away from that, much less look around to see where they are. "Damn," Bucky says again, leans in for a kiss that's there and gone again so quickly Steve can't really react. Then he leans down towards the floor to pick up- oh, Steve's baseball cap. He didn't even notice losing it. With a slightly rueful look, Bucky puts it on Steve's head.

Wordlessly, they get out of the car when it's their turn and in silent agreement turn off the fair ground towards the beach. After a couple of steps Bucky takes Steve's hand. "So, it was probably good that wasn't our first kiss."

"Why?" Steve asks after a moment.

Bucky throws him a look, then jumps over the knee-high wall separating the boardwalk from the sand. "'Cause the earth sorta moved and if it had been the first time I always woulda wondered if it was because it was literally moving. But nope, the first time we were on solid ground and still with the moving."

"Oh." Does that mean what he thinks it means? It certainly sounds like it. Steve feels himself flush deep red.

The corners of Bucky's mouth quirk up and they look at each other for a moment, then Bucky reaches down to slip out of his shoes and socks. He's apparently one of those people who can't walk in the sand while wearing shoes; it's sort of adorable. Steve follows his example, stuffing his socks into his shoes like Bucky.

They can't really hold hands anymore now because they have to carry their shoes, but Steve does have one free arm and as they start walking along the water, the waves washing around their ankles, he slings it around Bucky's shoulders. He pays careful attention to see if Bucky will mind but he clearly doesn't, glancing up at Steve from under his eyelashes as a faint smile plays around his lips.

They don't talk much as they walk along the beach and then back; they don't really need to. The silence between them is comfortable, feels a little bit like a secret they share, an agreement they've come to. What it is Steve couldn't say, but he feels comfortable, like something has been settled. They kiss three times.

When they step off the beach, brushing off sand and slipping their shoes and socks back on, Bucky looks at him. His face looks content, body language relaxed and loose as he asks, "When does your train leave?"

Steve shrugs. "It's the D, so every ten minutes. Yours?"

Bucky slips his phone out of his pocket to check the time. "F, Next one in three. Want to get some coffee?"

"Sure." Steve smiles faintly and, now that their hands are free again, takes Bucky's hand again. In silent agreement they head towards the Stillwell Avenue station instead of West Eighth Street and get coffee to go from a shop there, sit on a bench and drink it while talking about Bucky's catwalking business.

"My sister says it's lame," Bucky says. "Well, the name is lame, anyways."

"Professional Catwalker? I think it's funny," Steve disagrees.

Bucky grins and nudges him with his elbow. "Me too. Anyways, I'm sticking with it. Barnes, Bucky Barnes, Professional Catwalker. How does that sound?"

He sounds so giddy that even if Steve considered it lame as well he would have a hard time saying so; as it is, he grins as well. "Pretty good. You'll be a business owner."

"Not so fast, I first have to see a lawyer, take care of all that legal stuff. It costs a bit of money, too." Bucky shrugs. "But I want to do it so even if nothing much comes out of it, I'm gonna."

"That's good." Steve smiles. "If you want it, you should go for it."

Bucky sends him a look out from under his eyelashes and grins. "I'm gonna." He grins to himself for another moment before nudging Steve with his elbow again. "What about you? You thought any more about this art contest thing?"

There's an art contest out about New York and Steve had been thinking about entering for a while, but he's very unsure if he should use his real name or a pseudonym. "I'm still not sure," he sighs. "It's just, we're lucky nobody recognized me today but people get a little weird sometimes about the Captain America thing. If anything comes out of it at all, I'd always wonder if it was because of that and not because of how good I am or not."

"Well, so far nobody has really seen your art, have they?" Bucky points out. "So you could do this contest thing anonymously. Just see how it goes." He shrugs a little. "Just my opinion, but I think it would be better; that way you'll never have to worry. And you could independently do a charity auction selling off your art under your real name, if you ever feel like it."

"A charity auction?" Steve repeats. "That sounds pretty good, I really like that idea."

"And you can always do that," Bucky points out. "Nevermind any contests. And that contest you can do with just yourself, not Captain America. They allow pseudonyms?"

"Yes." Steve nods. "But I'm not sure if they'll want to see me personally at one point. I'm not sure how this sort of thing works."

"Well you're not going to find out sitting around wondering about it," Bucky points out directly. "I say, if you want to, you should just do it. Maybe nothing comes out of it, but something might."

That's true. "It's just, well. They just want black white sketches for now, but what if they want colors next? I've only been working with colors for the past year or so."

"Too busy for colors in the forties?" Bucky jokes.

Steve rolls his eyes good-naturedly. "Too colorblind before the serum, and after I was sorta busy, actually, what with World War Two and all."

"Ooh, slay, Rogers," Bucky chuckles, nudging Steve with his elbow. "And you're gonna miss your train in a minute."

Two minutes, actually, but Steve doesn't really care. He shrugs. "There'll be another. I'll wait for the next one after you're done."

"Aww, you're so sweet," Bucky coos, but he looks honestly delighted and leans in for a quick, coffee-flavored kiss.

"I think you're the sweet one here," Steve returns, licking the taste of caramel frappucchino off his lips. "You really have a sweet tooth, don't you?"

"I feel like I deserve a reward for going to the gym every day," Bucky replies with an unrepentant shrug.

Steve only hums in reply, letting his eyes slide down Bucky's body. He can't imagine that he would care if Bucky stopped going to the gym but didn't stop eating sweet, but Bucky does look good.

"Anyways," Bucky says after a moment, looking straight ahead, but a faint smile is playing around his lips. "If you win this contest, that means I'll finally get to see something you made."

"Ah geez." Embarrassed, Steve rubs the back of his head. "I just... I'm not really sure I'm all that good, Buck."

"So you'd rather have a bunch of strangers look at your art than me?" Bucky asks, leaning towards him with a playful challenge in his eyes.

Steve takes a breath. Not even his team have seen his art, barring very few exceptions, and those had been doodles, sketches, nothing serious. "Alright. I promise that if I enter the contest, I'll show you what I enter first, okay?"

"Deal." Bucky quickly sets his cup down on the bench and holds out his hand. They shake on it, and Bucky looks very satisfied as he takes his cup and gets to his feet. "Alright. I have to get on my platform now, train's gonna get here in a minute." He smiles when Steve quickly gets up as well. "So... I had a lot of fun today, this was great. Way better than I even imagined."

Steve can't even make a joke about being worried what Bucky imagined, because he completely agrees. "I had a great time too," he replies. For a second he wonders if he can kiss Bucky goodbye, but then he decides that damn yes he can and leans in to press his lips to Bucky's.

It's their sixth kiss, and it's a goodbye, maybe that's why it's more heated than any of the others. Or maybe it's because they're out of time; Bucky pushes in eagerly, rising to the tips of his toes to be on the same level with Steve, pressing his chest against Steve's in lieu of wrapping his arm around him because he's still holding his coffee. Steve deliberately puts one hand in the small of Bucky's back and leans towards him, opens his mouth when Bucky does and welcomes Bucky's tongue, sliding inside just once before retreating like a promise as Bucky pulls away. Bucky's expression is intense, eyes dark and heated as he steps back. "We'll talk about our next date soon, yeah?"

"Yeah," Steve agrees immediately, lips tingling. He watches as Bucky takes one step back, then another, not taking his eyes off Steve before finally turning around and striding off to his platform with purpose.

Steve watches until he's out of sight, vanished in the throng of people, and then stares into his direction for a while longer before he startles and hurries off for his own train.

Still in the train, he gets a text from Bucky. should've had dinner y didn't we think of that?

Because when you kiss me I forget how to think, Steve replies, then immediately feels silly and ridiculous for it. Except Bucky writes back, just one single word, ditto, and he's filled with warmth instead of embarrassment, and he refuses to feel silly for that.

He gets home and makes himself dinner, then sits on the couch in his living room and flips through his sketchbook. Originally he just meant to look through for something he might potentially show Bucky, but as soon as the book is in his hand he flips through to the newest page and immediately starts to draw Bucky, a full-body sketch of the way he'd looked that first time Steve caught sight of him. It doesn't feel like enough, though, so as soon as the sketch is done he flips to the next page and draws another of Bucky, a close-up of his face, smile bright as he sends Steve a sly glance from the corners of his eyes. And then another, of the concentration on Bucky's face, the focus and stillness of his body as he had aimed the rifle.

Suffice to say, he's in pretty deep. After the last sketch is done he stares at it for a moment, the delicate but decisive, almost harsh lines, then looks at the second one and its softer, thicker pencil strokes, almost like a caress, and then that first sketch, all dynamic and motion, Steve's infatuation plain to see. He'd be embarrassed but can't quite bring himself to feel anything of the kind. Bucky is captivating and Steve made no attempt to hide his thoughts and feelings in that direction, but Bucky didn't either. He kissed Steve, touched him, smiled at him, kissed him; maybe he's not in as deep as Steve is, but he's in as well, that much is obvious.

There's no reason for Steve to be afraid, and... he isn't. He isn't. It feels like a gift and a warning at the same time and he touches careful fingertips to the corner of the second sketch, looks at Bucky's face as he put it on the page.

At eleven in the evening, Bucky sends him a text, reading simply, good night. Steve replies in the same spirit. At three am, Bucky texts, I had a great day today.

They have an agreement about late night texts; they're only to reply if they are awake and in the frame of mind for a conversation. If they text and receive no reply, the other is asleep, no hard feelings. Steve, woken by the vibration of his phone on the mattress, takes a sip of water from his bottle on the night stand, then replies a simple, Me too.

so i don't get why I'm having a bad night, Bucky writes. good day should mean good night right?

Even good things can be unsettling in their own way, Steve replies carefully. It's still a change, isn't it?

true, Bucky agrees after a moment. There's a picture attached to the text, a photo he clearly took just now of himself in bed, hair a mess as he pouts unhappily at the camera. He's lying amidst messy sheets, and the picture is in no way intentionally meant to be seductive, but the light is soft, dimmed, and he's wearing a soft-looking white shirt with a stretched out collar. It looks comfortable, intimate and suddenly Steve wants nothing more than to be right there with him, just so he can hold Bucky close and tangle his fingers in his hair. He hadn't worn it open today so until this moment Steve didn't realize how much he'd want to. Tangled up from attempts at sleep as it is now, Bucky's hair looks soft; it makes Steve's fingertips itch.

I want to touch your hair, he finds himself writing before he knows it. He doesn't delete the message though, presses send instead because what's the harm in telling?

In lieu of texting back, Bucky calls him. "That could be interpreted as the precursor to sexting," he says as soon as Steve picks up.

"I- what?" Caught completely off-guard, Steve blinks at the ceiling.

Bucky's chuckle is warm in his ear, soft. "No worries. Next time I'll wear it open so you can touch it if you wanna."

"I do," Steve tells him, deciding to ignore the whole sexting thing for now.

"So when do you wanna meet up again?" Steve can hear the rustling of sheets as Bucky moves around in bed, and he sees the picture Bucky sent him as clear as day in front of his eyes. He really wants to put his arm around Bucky now and draw him close. He's never shared a bed with anybody, at least not like this – oh, he's shared out of necessity during the war, for warmth or lack of space or cots, and he's shared with one or the other person in his time as well, but it had never been more than that. With Bucky, it would be.

He gets so derailed by his thoughts that he completely forgets that Bucky asked him a question until there is stillness on the other line, and Bucky's voice sounds a little unsure all of a sudden. "Steve?"

"Oh!" Shit. "Sorry, I was distracted."

"By what?" Bucky asks, not a demand but he doesn't sound as soft anymore.

"By, uhm. Right now. I mean, I was thinking about your picture and you moved around just now and I was thinking, I want to be with you right now. Sorry." Grimacing, Steve pinches the bridge of his nose between thumb and index finger. He's such an idiot. This is probably why he's never shared a bed with anybody significant before.

"Oh," Bucky makes, then exhales. "Okay. Yeah. I'd like that too. But, uhm, it's probably better if we do this slow pace, considering everything."

"Everything?"

"Well, I don't know about you, but I kinda... well I could get pretty attached. I'm pretty invested already. I'd rather not take things too fast." He snorts self-deprecatingly. "Besides, look at me. Everything's going great and I still have a bad night. Says a lot about how... well, about me. Doesn't it?"

Steve can't really argue that. "I guess. But that's not a bad thing, Bucky. I realize that there's a lot to take into consideration about being with me, so we can take this as slow as you want." He's giddy enough already just about the fact that Bucky clearly thinks as well that they're heading towards... something.

Impatiently, Bucky huffs into his ear. "Seriously? Steve, look at me. I'm a crippled veteran who's having a bad night even though he had a great day, I can't hold a job and the most commitment I make right now is my daily gym appointment and seeing my family once a week."

"And the cats," Steve adds. "That's commitment, too. And Richard, Isabella and Katherine are alive and well too, right? And you know that there is no user manual to civilian life or an expiration date to getting well. I think you're doing pretty great. You shouldn't put yourself down because you're having a bad night."

There's a moment of silence, then Bucky sighs. "Yeah, I know. Sorry. I'm just a little annoyed because I feel like tonight of all nights I should have slept like a baby."

"You don't need that as proof that you really had a good day, do you?" Steve asks softly.

"No," Bucky says after a moment. "No, I guess I don't." He sighs again and there is more sheets rustling as he shifts a little. "Let's talk about something nice, yeah? You haven't answered my question yet. When do you wanna meet up again?"

"Depends on what we're going to do," Steve replies.

Bucky hums thoughtfully. "You could join me when I walk the cats? It's the two Siamese ones on Monday. It's okay if you don't wanna though, it's sorta lame, sorry."

"I don't think it's lame," Steve immediately disagrees. "I think it's pretty cool actually, I'd like that. We could go for coffee afterwards?"

"Yeah, let's do that," Bucky agrees; he sounds like he's smiling, and Steve actually knows what that looks like now. They agree on a time and place, then hang up so Bucky can make another attempt at sleep.

There is an entire week-end Steve has to go through before seeing Bucky again, and he feels ridiculous for how little he likes that. For some reason, all of a sudden the texting and talking on the phone feels like not enough any more, in a wholly different way than it did before. Before their first date it had been at least half a matter of curiosity, of wanting to see whether the way he was feeling about Bucky was real and related to the real Bucky or just a figment of his imagination, make-believe in some way. He had genuinely wanted to meet Bucky, of course, but he can't deny that simple curiosity had been involved as well.

He's still curious, even more so than before; almost insatiably so. He wants to learn everything there is to know about Bucky, but even more so he just simply wants to be with Bucky. Talk to him, see him, touch him, kiss him. Other things too, of course, but they'd said slow and Steve honestly thinks it's better that way, even if parts of him aren't inclined to agree. But this isn't a highschool romance, they can't get into it without taking the consequences into account, without considering the whole picture, and while Steve wouldn't say they should be careful, they definitely should be thoughtful. Go into this with open eyes, full consent and awareness of what they're getting into. More so Bucky than him, really, because it definitely won't be easy, being the first person Captain America is publicly involved with since Peggy Carter. That will hopefully still be far off, though, Steve wants to keep this as private as possible for now.

Which is why he doesn't tell his friends a thing. Somehow nobody noticed that he spent a big chunk of Thursday away, and hopefully they won't notice his Monday date either. It's not that he doesn't want them to know, but, well. His friends can be a little overbearing sometimes. Well-intentioned, but borderline intrusive at times. Besides, he still gets teased a lot about his "internet boyfriend" (never mind that it's always been texting, not internet, and boyfriend doesn't really apply yet either). He's annoyed enough about that to keep this from them out of sheer spite for now.

But, as it does, time passes, and Monday arrives. Steve still somehow spends an unholy amount of time fretting about his wardrobe again, eventually settling for a plain white t-shirt, a lighter, well-worn pair of jeans and his black leather jacket, because he's taking his bike this time. And the usual baseball cap and sunglasses, of course, the latter just in case. It's cliché, but it works.

He gets to the park at two on the dot, a little early because Bucky had told him that he'd pick the cats up at two. From their place of residence he still had to get to the park, so they had agreed on quarter past, but Steve would rather wait himself than have Bucky wait for him.

Bucky arrives at twelve past two; Steve sees him cross the street at a traffic light, holding two leashes with Siamese cats attached. He smiles at Steve across the distance, looking completely at ease despite the fact that more than one person eyes him a bit dubiously, probably because of the cats.

"Hey," he greets, jogging up to Steve. He looks casual in his jeans and green t-shirt, no jacket and hair open, and doesn't hesitate as he steps into Steve's space to kiss him.

"Hey," Steve returns the greeting pretty belatedly when Bucky eventually steps away again, licking his lips that are considerably redder than they were before he offered them to Steve. Somehow, Steve's hand found its way to the small of Bucky's back and Steve sees no reason to remove it.

Bucky smiles, then looks down at the cats who are sniffing at the gate, which is probably prime location for dog pee, completely uninterested in the humans. "These are Cleopatra and Hatshepsut," he informs Steve. "Their owner has a new baby and doesn't have a lot of time for them anymore, which is where I come in."

"Professional catwalker," Steve nods, sliding one arm around Bucky's waist.

Leaning into him, Bucky grins proudly and nods. "I usually just let them walk around at their own pace for an hour. It's a lot like walking a dog, but less peeing. And less barking."

As advertised, when the two have enough of the gate and seem ready to move on, Bucky just follows, ignoring the path and letting them foray into the grass. Steve keeps his arm around Bucky and follows along. "Do they fetch?"

Bucky snorts amusedly. "You can try, but at best you'll probably get a disdainful look. Mostly they'll probably ignore you. They fetch their own toys, sometimes, if they feel like it and if they know you have treats. And if they're bored."

Steve, whose personal experience with cats begins and ends with the alley cat he used to feed back in the late 30s (Jane has a cat, but the poor thing hides when she has visitors), snorts in amusement. "So... next to never, then."

Looking not discontent, Bucky nods. The way he looks at the cats could definitely be described as fond. Of course Steve had known that Bucky is a cat person, they had talked about it several times, but it's still adorable to see.

They wander around the park, following the cats around and occasionally standing by trees as they try (and mostly fail) to climb up. Once or twice Bucky has to assert his authority and steer them away from shrubbery – their leashes get tangled, he tells Steve, which is no fun for anybody involved – but generally it's pretty uneventful. But that's not why Steve is here anyway; he's here to see Bucky, who is just as sweet and fun to be around as the last time they met. Their conversation flows easily and their silences aren't awkward, both things Steve had been a little worried about with less distractions around than at the amusement park. Completely needlessly, as it turns out.

"Okay," Bucky says after about an hour has passed, glancing at the time on his phone. "I'll take the two queens back to their home and pick you up here? No wait, that's stupid, there's a coffee shop down the street, we can meet up there, it's dumb for you to just stand around waiting for me."

"I'd wait," Steve replies easily, "but I can do that just as well at the coffee shop."

Bucky smiles at him, sweet and bright, and leans in for a quick kiss that turns into five somehow. Eventually physically pushes himself away from Steve with his hand on Steve's chest, a bit breathless as he says, "Okay, I get paid for only the hour, I'll be right back, okay?"

"See you in a bit," Steve waves him off with a probably a bit dopey smile. He tries not to but somehow still does end up watching Bucky walk away, which is all the more embarrassing because Bucky glances back and catches him at it twice. The first time he grins, but the second time he very definitely laughs, vanishing around the corner with one last wave.

"Okay," Steve tells himself. "Let's try to be a bit less ridiculous, yeah?" It's probably a lost cause though. He's pretty glad his friends aren't here to see this, they'd tease him forever for it.

It's not, he muses on his way to the coffee shop, that this is his first relationship. It isn't; he'd dated a few girls before the war, been in requited love once or twice, and then there had been Peggy, who he knows for a fact he'd been equally ridiculous about. His friends back then had taken great care to inform him of that. Maybe it's the fact that he can kiss Bucky in public as open as he wants – something he definitely couldn't with his dates back in the thirties and forties, even if they had mostly been girls. Maybe it's the fact that Bucky seems very interested in him as well. Maybe something in Steve has changed that he sees no point in hiding his feelings now, in not being completely open about them, especially since he knows he's not unwelcome.

Maybe it's Bucky, the way he smiles at Steve in those countless ways of his, slow and sweet and bright and delighted, amused and happy, maybe even something like infatuated and any combination thereof, the smile sometimes taking over his whole body until he's just beaming. Probably it's that, and the way Bucky touches him, leans into him, nudging him with his shoulder or brushing his fingers over Steve's belly and back, how today he has no qualms about snatching a quick kiss if he wants one. It's the way Bucky remembers the most ridiculous details, things Steve mentioned off-handedly once weeks ago, because he listens to Steve even when he isn't talking about something important. It's the way Bucky can make Steve's heart speed up just by walking up towards him, by smiling, by touching him, most certainly by kissing him. The rasp of his voice in Steve's ear is not something that will ever lose its effect on Steve, but being physically with him turns out to be just as important. Not to fall in love – being perfectly honest, he'd been there before they ever met – but to live that feeling to the fullest.

Steve is pretty lucky, he thinks as he spots the coffee shop Bucky had mentioned. So many things could have gone wrong; it could have turned out that they don't get along as well in person, that the chemistry just is wrong or that the feelings just aren't there anymore, for one of them or even both of them.

But that's not how things have come, thankfully, and Steve is pretty grateful for it. Nor is he, he thinks, getting ahead of himself considering them something. They haven't talked about it yet, not really, and maybe they should.

He thinks about that as he orders, a black coffee for himself and a sweet whipped cream caramel concoction for Bucky, plus two cookies because they look nice. Carefully, he selects a table that's far enough away from the baristas so they won't be able to hear whatever Steve and Bucky talk about and selects a seat that gives him a good overview of the place while still not putting him in plain view. When ten minutes later Bucky enters the coffee shop he waves and gestures towards the two cups on the table.

"You ordered for me?" Bucky asks, sounding delighted as he plops down in the chair next to Steve, leaning in for a quick kiss. His seat, Steve notes, gives him a good view of the place as well. "What did you get?"

"Something that sounded sweet enough to induce cavities," Steve replies, amused. "What happened?" He gestures towards a spot on Bucky's shoulder where his shirt has darkened in a damp patch.

Bucky grimaces. "The baby cried on me, she had me hold him while she greeted the cats." He takes a sip from his coffee and smiles. "Perfect."

Steve smiles and pushes the plate of cookies closer to him, then watches with amusement as Bucky uses one to scoop up the whipped cream, then dips it into his milky coffee. "I know you're watching and judging and I don't care," Bucky says at one point, not looking up from where he's trying to fish out a piece of cookie that crumbled off out of his cup.

"Not judging," Steve negates. Something in his tone of voice makes Bucky look up, then go still for just a second as his eyes meet Steve's. Then, inexplicably, he flushes and lowers his gaze again, licks his lips.

Helplessly charmed by the darkening in Bucky's cheeks, Steve leans a little closer to him. "I wanted to ask you something."

"Yeah?" Bucky looks up, expression serious. "What is it?"

Which is where Steve's brain grinds to a halt. How is he supposed to put this? Can you just ask a person if they're your boyfriend? Is that even the correct term? It sounds sort of juvenile, doesn't it? "We're... friends," he eventually starts out, haltingly. "But we're also dating, right?"

Bucky blinks and straightens his spine. "Steve, are you asking if we're boyfriends?"

"Uh. Yes, actually. That's the correct term, right?"

Relaxing again, Bucky huffs a laugh and leans towards him, presses a soft kiss to Steve's lips jaw. "Yeah, unless you'd like a different term. And... I'd like that. If that's what you want."

"Yeah, yes, it is," Steve nods quickly, then leans in to kiss Bucky's sweet smile. "And I don't know. Back then I would've called you my best guy. If I could have talked about it, anyway."

"Best guy?" Bucky repeats, amused. "As opposed to all your other guys? At least I'm the best."

Flushing, Steve ducks his head. "Shut up. You know you're my only guy. Person."

Bucky hums in agreement, then bumps his forehead into Steve's shoulder affectionately like a cat. "You're totally my best guy too. And my only guy. Person."

There's a teasing twinkle in his eyes, but it still takes some effort for Steve to fake exasperation as he sighs and rolls his eyes heavenwards. He's too happy about what they just agreed on.

They chat a bit more about little of consequence, and Steve doesn't pretend not to notice when Bucky scoots his chair a bit closer to him, and Bucky doesn't pretend not to notice when Steve slings his arm over the back of it. Holding hands isn't going to work while Bucky needs his to drink his coffee and eat cookies, but this is good too.

"Did you take the subway?" Bucky asks after they've spent about an hour in the coffee shop and figure they either need to buy something more or leave.

Steve shakes his head and holds the door open for Bucky, then takes his hand once they're outside. "Nah, I'm here on my bike."

Stopping in his tracks, Bucky squeezes Steve's hand and gapes at him. "Don't tell me it's a motorcycle. Steve."

Steve blinks. "What's wrong about that?"

An unholy noise escapes Bucky, somewhere between a groan and a moan. "Oh my god." He tilts his head back and stares up at the sky. "Why? First you show up dressed like that, now you tell me you have a bike. It's like you stepped right out of my fantasies." He looks at Steve straight on. "Okay, show me your bike. Last nail on the coffin, let's go."

"Uhm, okay," Steve manages, not sure what else to say, what with the flush heating his cheeks. After a couple of moments to recollect himself – fantasies? - he manages to ask, "So, you like bikes?"

"Yes," Bucky says. "What I also like is hot guys on bikes. Show me one person who doesn't like that, Steve. And I remember now that you mentioned your bike before but somehow I brainfailed."

Steve shrugs, feeling a bit more on even footing again (except, Bucky apparently thinks he's hot! He's not the first person to say that, Steve is aware of how he looks, but somehow it's entirely different coming from Bucky). He leans in to press a quick kiss to Bucky's temple, then, as they turn a corner, points ahead. "Over there."

"Black beauty over there? The Harley?" Bucky sighs, a slightly whiny undertone in his voice. "Steve. I'll dream about this tonight, I can promise you that."

"If that's meant to sound like a threat... it doesn't," Steve replies, amused. "If you want, we can go somewhere some day."

"Saturday," Bucky immediately decides firmly. Then he falters. "If you want to, I mean? I don't know if you're busy, you don't really have a schedule. Not that that's a bad thing, I don't really have one either, just."

"Work can be a bit unpredictable for me, I know," Steve interrupts him quickly before Bucky gets really embarrassed about babbling. Which generally Steve tends to do, Bucky rather powers through unapologetically, but every now and then he does get a little embarrassed, and he has that tone now. "Statistically, we should be in the clear and I don't have any missions either. Saturday's good for me."

Bucky nods and lets out a quick breath. "Okay. Sorry, I just realized it's your turn to pick what we'll do and I just decided."

"I'd like that, though," Steve tells him gently. "It's not really about who decides what, it's about what we'll agree on and that we'll both enjoy, right?"

"Yes." Bucky peers up at him and nods. "Right."

Steve nods as well. "So do you have any ideas where we could go? Or is it just about going, not about where we'll end up?"

They've arrived at his bike by this point and Bucky keeps stealing glances at it, but at the question he focuses fully on Steve again. "Well... we could go to Harriman State Park, hike a bit, have a picnic? I've been informed that since we're all with the Disney dates, a picnic should definitely be featured at one point and to be honest I like the idea."

"Me too." Steve smiles. It really does sound nice, though. He doesn't get out a lot – into nature, in any case. He's not really one of those people who need that or anything, but it's nice when it happens. "Okay, let's do that."

Bucky grins at him. "Okay, cool. Now tell me about your bike."

So that's what Steve does. While Bucky walks a slow circuit around her, admiring this detail and that, touching the shiny black paintjob, chuckling about the small sticker designed after Steve's shield that somebody (Tony) put on it, admiring the engine. He asks very detailed questions that Steve is delighted to answer. "She was basically the first thing I bought for myself after I got out," Steve tells Bucky at one point. He'd bought her after the Chitauri incident and taken her for her first real ride after Thor and Loki had left. There have been modifications since, courtesy of Tony who can't leave a piece of machinery alone if it kills him, but that has only made her more Steve's, as he sees it. She's customized.

"Nice," Bucky eventually pronounces, taking a step back to look at her fully again. It's an inadequate summary of the way he looks at her, eyes bright and admiring, and the almost reverent way he touched her.

Steve hums, more preoccupied looking at Bucky than at his bike. He's looking forwards to taking Bucky out with it; he'll have to borrow a helmet from Tony. Which reminds him of a question he had earlier. "Who told you that? About the picnic?"

"Hm?" Bucky blinks for a second before he figures out what Steve is talking about. "Oh, that! My sister, actually. Which..." He bites his lower lip and lowers his gaze for a second. "So, you can say no. But she and my parents really want to, well. I talk about you sometimes and they've been on me about a picture. I didn't tell them they could google one – not because I'm embarrassed or anything, but I just want. I want for them to hear about you as Steve and not think about you as Captain America every time I mention your name, if that makes sense?"

"It does," Steve says, caught a little off-guard with something else entirely. "You tell your family about me?"

Bucky raises one eyebrow. "Yes. They know we're dating. And they've been on my case about a picture so I thought I should ask, but you can totally say no, it's completely okay."

It's okay, Steve immediately wants to say, but he makes himself think about it for a second. "I'm okay with your family knowing," he explains after a moment. "I'd be okay with everyone knowing. What the issue is with that is that they wouldn't leave you alone. I'll do whatever you're comfortable with on that front. I would want to tell people I have someone eventually, but I'd never reveal your identity without your consent."

"I know that," Bucky says softly, stepping up into Steve's space and rising to the tips of his toes to give Steve a kiss. "And I want to tell my family eventually. But not yet, if that's okay?"

"Sure," Steve agrees immediately. It's clearly not that Bucky is ashamed or embarrassed about him, so he doesn't mind at all. "Whatever you're comfortable with."

"Okay." Bucky exhales. "So I have this idea. You can say no. How about you put your sunglasses on and I take a pic of you? That way I can show you to them but they won't recognize you."

"Sure," Steve says again. "I'm fine with that." He raises one eyebrow. "You want me on the bike for that?"

It's sort of gratifying watching Bucky's eyes widen at the suggestion, then narrow as his cheeks flush a little. Then Bucky turns the tables. "Yes. I want you on the bike."

Now Steve is the one who flushes, but Bucky just smiles angelically and steps away from him, pulling his phone out of his pocket. Alright, if they're playing it that way, Steve can do that. He takes his sunglasses, puts them on, pulls his baseball cap off and runs his hand through his hair so it'll be less hat hair and more artfully tousled. Then he swings onto the bike and sits back. The way Bucky just stands there and stares at him for a moment is intensely gratifying. Eventually Steve smiles. "Are you going to take a picture or what?"

Bucky startles. "Right! Right." He taps around on his phone screen for a bit, then lifts it and takes a picture of Steve, shifting the angle a little. Raising one eyebrow at Steve, he tells him, "That one's for me. This one's for my family." He takes a couple of steps back and snaps another picture. Then he lowers his phone and comes back.

Smiling, Steve takes his sunglasses off as he swings off his bike again. "Another? Of the two of us?"

"Selfie?" Bucky grins. "Always. C'mere." They stand next to each other, Steve wrapping one arm around Bucky's waist, then cram their faces together so they're both completely on the screen. They're both smiling when Bucky takes the picture, and before he can lower the camera Steve says, "Another." When Bucky's thumb moves to press the button again he quickly turns his head and presses a kiss to Bucky's cheek.

"Oh!" Bucky makes, startled, flushing a little. Quickly, he thumbs through his gallery – containing a lot of cat pictures, Steve finds at a glance – to the most recent picture. In it Bucky is smiling, but his eyes are widened slightly in beginning surprise, and Steve's face is in profile.

"You can show that one to your family," Steve suggests. "If you want to." They probably won't suspect a thing until they really see his face; they have no reason to.

"Yeah," Bucky says softly, looking at the picture. "I will." Then, surprisingly fast, he locks his phone, stuffs it into his pocket and throws his arm around Steve's neck, rising to meet his lips. They make out for not nearly long enough, until somebody walks past them and wolf-whistles loudly, making them pull apart. Bucky is flushed, eyes dark, and his lips are red and swollen. Steve's face is tingling where Bucky's five o'clock shadow tickled his skin; he probably doesn't look any less disheveled than Bucky does. At least he finally got to touch Bucky's hair. He can still feel those soft strands between his fingers.

Bucky hums, licking his lips. He's just looking at Steve, and all Steve can think, heart pounding in his chest, is "that's my best guy". It's impossible to resist leaning in again, pressing his lips to Bucky's though he does manage to refrain from making this kiss as long and as deep as the previous one.

Bucky exhales shakily when they pull apart once more, and Steve is pretty sure that if they don't stop now he's not going to be able to let go of Bucky. So he takes a deep breath, removes his hands that have somehow found their way to cupping Bucky's face, and licks his lips. Bucky's taste on them is nearly his undoing. "Do you, uhm. Can I take you anywhere?"

"You can take me anywhere," Bucky rasps, then blinks and flushes a little. "I mean, uh. Thanks. But I have to go into the opposite direction."

Steve doesn't care about that. He shivers a little at Bucky's words, but accepts his decision, just nods and takes a small step away from him. "Okay."

"Okay," Bucky repeats, stepping away a little too.

"It was great seeing you," Steve manages to say.

Bucky smiles. "You too."

Returning the smile, Steve retreats to his bike, takes the helmet locked to it and pulls it over his head. As he swings onto the bike Bucky steps away onto the sidewalk, watching as Steve rolls the bike off the kickstand and out of the parking space. He's still standing there when Steve, after waving awkwardly, starts the motor and then slowly drives away, until he turns a corner and Bucky vanishes from sight.

When he arrives home there are a couple of texts waiting for him on his phone; Bucky sent him the pictures he took.

"Mom thinks we're cute," he tells Steve on the phone Tuesday evening, when he comes back from seeing his family. "Becca thinks you're hot, which, frankly, I could've lived without hearing her say. Dad keeps asking what you do."

"What did you tell him?" Steve asks curiously.

"I said you're working for some kind of intelligence agency," Bucky replies, shrug audible. "It's pretty vague and he's not very happy about that, but I'm not ready to tell them the truth. I don't want to lie either though."

"It's your decision, I don't mind," Steve makes sure to tell him. "But I understand why you wouldn't, yet. I- well, it's different, but I haven't told my friends we've met yet either."

"You haven't? Why?" Bucky's voice is curious, not like he's hurt about it or disappointed.

Steve grimaces and shifts a little in his seat. "They already tease me enough. They call you my internet boyfriend because they think it's funny. I have a strong suspicion that if I tell them, one or all of them are somehow accidentally going to show up at one of our dates."

"Oh, god," Bucky exclaims. "No, thank you. I mean, I'll probably meet them at one point but..."

"Not yet," Steve finishes. "I'd rather keep it private for a bit longer, you know?"

"Yeah."

Famous last words, Steve will later think about this conversation.

They meet up on Saturday at ten, packed for their hike slash picnic with Steve providing the sandwiches, Bucky the dessert – muffins he baked himself. This is the third picnic hiking date they agreed on – the first one they had to cancel because of the weather so they settled for the classic dinner and a movie instead. They'd had a great time though so it hadn't been a total loss. The second time they tried to go, two weeks and three more dates after the first failed one, they couldn't go because Bucky sprained his ankle thanks to Cleopatra and Hatshepsut tripping him with their leashes. Steve didn't like the thought of Bucky being in pain, but the replacement date was spending the day at Bucky's apartment watching movies, with Bucky graciously allowing Steve to pamper him a little.

This time, five weeks after the Saturday they had initially wanted to go, it seems like everything is finally going to work out. The weather forecast predicts nothing but sunshine, no cats trip Bucky up, no other emergencies pop up before they meet. This is finally going to happen.

Steve brings an extra helmet for Bucky and doesn't suppress his shiver when Bucky swings onto the bike behind him, arm wrapping around his waist as he pushes himself close against Steve's back. It doesn't help that Bucky is dressed in a mouthwatering black leather jacket.

They've been on the road for about an hour, having just passed Hillburn on the NY-17, when Steve gets a phonecall. It's routed into his helmet, which means this is an emergency; unlike Tony Steve doesn't feel the need to be available twenty-four seven and the only exception is emergency calls. Cursing inwardly, he taps Bucky's arm to warn him, then rolls to a stop as soon as possible, already accepting the call.

A couple of minutes later he pulls the helmet off and turns around to Bucky, who reacts by taking his helmet off as well, one eyebrow raised questioningly.

"Emergency," Steve tells him tightly. "I'm sorry, I'm not allowed to tell you any details." In the distance, he hears his pick-up ride approaching.

"No worries," Bucky says immediately. "We can do this some other time." His lips are quirked in almost-amusement.

Jaw clenched, Steve nods, then growls and leans in to kiss Bucky hard on the lips. "I'm sorry." He exhales and makes himself let it go, focusing on practicalities instead. "I'm getting picked up. You can either come with me to the tower, or you can take my bike, or I can arrange for a car to come pick you up."

"Can't really take your bike," Bucky points out, one eyebrow raised as he gestures towards his missing arm.

Crap. "Shit, sorry."

Bucky shakes his head, expression softening. "Steve, Steve, don't worry." He leans into him, kisses him softly on the lips. "I'm disappointed that it's not going to happen today, but I understand why and I know it's not your fault, okay? Relax about this. I'll be okay. I'm a grown adult, I can get back home on my own fine."

Steve sighs and makes himself take a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He's rewarded with a small smile. "That your ride?" Bucky asks then, jerking his head towards the helicopter rapidly approaching.

"Yeah. Offer stands, you can come. I really don't like abandoning you in the middle of nowhere. Somebody will have to come pick up my bike anyway."

"Alright," Bucky gives in. "I'll go back with whoever you send to pick it up."

"It'll be two people, one who'll ride the bike back, one who'll bring them here in a car," Steve explains, raising his voice as the helicopter blades draw near.

One eyebrow hitching up, Bucky grins at him. "I get the feeling you don't want me on your bike with somebody else."

With a grimace, Steve glances at where the helicopter is getting close. He has to leave. "I'm really sorry about this."

"Relax," Bucky yells over the by this point deafening sound of the helicopter. His hand is on Steve's chest where his jacket gapes open, relaxed as his fingers fan out. "I'll be fine. Go."

It's not like he has much of a choice. Still unhappy with all this, Steve leans in to press a quick kiss to Bucky's lips, then swings off the bike. He snatches another quick kiss, then hurries off towards where the helicopter is flying low, a ladder rolling down for him.

Once in the 'copter, he gets a headset with a direct line to the team debrief. Even while listening, he fires off a quick text to Phil, requesting that his bike be picked up. After receiving confirmation, he sends Bucky a text with another apology, informing him of the pick-up's ETA. Bucky replies, no worries. The most unfortunate part about all this is that u didn't get to eat my cupcakes. Apart from why u had to leave to begin with of course. World saving > picnic dates with ur best guy

Steve doesn't want to agree with this, but neither can he in good conscience disagree, so he doesn't reply at all. Despite the fact that he's well-aware that there isn't much of a choice involved here, that he didn't leave Bucky because he had something better to do but because of an emergency, he feels terrible about it.

Just before the helicopter reaches the tower, his phone vibrates again: a text from Bucky, with a picture attached: a selfie with him sitting with his back against Steve's bike, the box of sandwiches open in his lap. me n ethel enjoying a roadside picnic, the text reads. Bucky's smile in the picture is easy; he looks relaxed, not bothered at all that he was left to his own devices on the side of the street. Steve stares at the picture for a moment, Bucky's clear blue eyes and the way the sun gleams in his hair, his easy smile, and exhales, somehow feeling a bit better about the whole thing. He'll have to think of something to make it up to Bucky, but right now, he has a mission to focus on.

They return to the country five days later. Officially, the mission is booked as a success – villains (a terrorist group Tony has had to do with before; the fact that they still prosper and thrive despite his best efforts leave Tony in a foul mood – understandable, considering that at one point they kidnapped and tortured him for three months) contained, no major loss of life, no catastrophes. But there were some tough decisions to be made, and Steve as the team leader had to be the one to make them. One of those decisions involved having to detonate an explosion in a building despite the fact that he well knew that there had still been hostages inside.

None of them are feeling particularly good about themselves, or proud. Coulson, the one to welcome them back at the tower, at least doesn't try himself at hollow comfort, nor does he tell any of them to get over themselves, the way Fury might have had. He just smiles blandly and informs them that they have a twenty-four hour period of downtime before the debriefing.

Steve doesn't look at anyone as they collectively get into the elevator. Dead silence reigns inside as they wordlessly get off on their respective floors. When Steve gets to his he steps into his clean hall, breathes in the scent of undisturbed, clean air and stops dead in his tracks.

How long he stares at the wall, he doesn't know. But eventually he gets a grip and starts to strip off his filthy uniform, dropping it and any weapons and equipment he has on him on the floor as he makes a beeline for the bathroom. During the long, hot shower that doesn't so much wash the exhaustion away as help it seep into his muscles, his bones, he doesn't think of anything.

When he's done he briefly considers sleep, but for some reason the thought of getting into his bed makes his hackles rise, and so instead he finds himself heading for his kitchen with the vague thought of getting something to drink. On the way there he spots his phone, thoughtfully placed on living room table by whoever returned his things after he suited up before leaving – either Phil or Pepper, the only people who'd have access to his floor. As he sees it he suddenly recalls with vivid clarity what had happened before he left.

Hesitantly, very hesitantly, he collects his phone and switches it on. It immediately starts to vibrate as texts from Bucky trickle in, plus a few missed calls. He can't quite bring himself to read them all, only opens the most recent, ok i'm kinda really worried here please just let me know that ur ok that's all i'm askin.

It's a decision, but it's also almost instinct to press the call button. The phone hasn't rung twice before Bucky picks it up, sounding slightly breathless and definitely worried. "Steve?"

"Yes," Steve says, then doesn't know what else to say. "I'm sorry."

Bucky doesn't even react to that, just asks, almost a demand, "Are you okay?"

To say yes would be a lie, but to say no would be one as well. The dilemma forces Steve to really think about it and he takes a deep breath. "I'm... I'm not injured."

"But you're not okay," Bucky deduces, astute as ever.

"No," Steve admits quietly.

There's a brief moment of silence, and the Bucky just asks, "What do you need?"

Steve swallows compulsively and tells himself that it's okay. "Could you just, uhm. Talk to me?"

"I can do that," Bucky immediately agrees. "Though what I could also do is come over? It's okay if you'd rather I didn't though, whatever you're comfortable with. You could come to me too if you wanted."

Swallowing again, Steve thinks about having Bucky here, about not having to sit in his big, empty rooms all on his own, Bucky's voice in his ear barely keeping the loneliness at bay. "Yes," he finds himself saying, not really surprised by how much he wants it. The only thing that's surprising is that he didn't think of it himself. "Please."

"Okay. We can stay on the phone if you want to, I'll just call a cab, just a second okay?"

"Yeah," Steve agrees. "You don't have to pay for it, just let the receptionist know, she'll take care of it."

"Don't worry about it," Bucky says. "I'll call you back in a minute." With that, he hangs up.

Empty dial tone in his ear, Steve licks his lips, then quickly calls the receptionist downstairs to let her know he'll have a visitor in a minute, James Buchanan Barnes, whose cab fare she should put on Steve's account. Bucky will still have to go through the mandatory security check, but it's not invasive – it's really just walking through the scanner. The security personnel comes into play if the scanners, Stark high tech, detect anything suspicious.

He's already hung up again when his phone rings; Bucky calling back. "You really don't have to pay for the cab. I'm sure you didn't exactly plan to spend your day here, let me take care of it."

"Don't be stupid," Bucky says softly. "What I planned with my day has absolutely nothing to do with it. Besides... you're aware that it's past five pm?"

Steve hadn't been, actually. He doesn't know what time of day it was when they returned, just that it had been daylight. "Oh."

Bucky hums. "I was pretty worried. I know you can't tell me anything, but... is everything okay?"

"Nobody-" died, Steve wants to say, but the word gets stuck in his throat because it's not true, so very much not true.

"Okay," Bucky says after a moment. "Are you hungry?"

Actually... "Yes."

"Good. I made chili, I'll bring you some. Do you even know what you did when you told me to bake cinnamon rolls? It was what got me started using cooking as a coping mechanism. Now when I'm stressed I blink and suddenly my kitchen is full of scones or muffins or stew. I'm still not sure if I should thank you or curse you," Bucky tells him lightly. "My therapist says it's a good method as any, though, so I suppose it's not all bad. Even if I do end up having to give away lots of it because I can't eat it all." He hums thoughtfully. "Though I guess I could eat it all if I were determined, but that probably wouldn't be so healthy."

"Who do you give it to?" Steve asks, finally able to allow his spine to unwind enough to lean against the backrest of the sofa. Something about listening to Bucky's chatter is infinitely calming – an effect that is no doubt deliberate, Bucky isn't usually the type to babble away like that.

"If I see you, you, of course," Bucky explains, and now that he says it, Steve recalls that one time when Bucky had brought him a plastic box of cookies for no reason, as he'd said, or the muffins they'd had the second time Steve visited him at home. "Other than that, whoever I see that day or the day after, I guess. My parents, my sister, the support groups, my therapist... the cat owners, even, once or twice. My neighbors. This sounds like it happens a lot, but it doesn't, not really. Usually I manage to stick to cookies, they're the easiest to give away, you know?"

"When I came to your place the first time, you had pie," Steve remembers. In the background, he hears Bucky's door fall shut, and then the acoustics change as Bucky enters the elevator of his building.

Bucky snorts self-deprecatingly. "I was a little annoyed with myself for the ankle thing. Not just because of our date, it put my whole schedule off for a week. Couldn't work out properly, couldn't walk the cats, I was stuck inside the whole time. I don't mind being inside but only if I have the option to leave, you know?" Phone tilted away, he greets the cab driver and tells him where to go.

Yeah, Steve understands that. He understands perfectly. "Yes. And today you made chili?"

"I accidentally bought a slow cooker," Bucky explains, sounding a little embarrassed. "So I figured I might as well make something with it, you know?"

"And you were stressed," Steve realizes belatedly, like a complete idiot. "I'm sorry. I'll give you a number you can call, they can at least tell you that I'm fine, okay?"

"That would be great," Bucky sighs, sounding very relieved. It makes Steve feel even worse. Yes, he hadn't had a choice, outside contact while on a mission is generally out of the question, but still. He should have thought of Bucky.

"I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it, I get it," Bucky immediately replies, voice soft. "I just have no practice being at the other end of things."

It takes Steve a second to figure out what Bucky is talking about, but of course it's missions. He was in the service, he knows what that's like – but not so much what it's like being left behind. "I have no practice having someone at the other end of things," Steve tells him honestly.

"We'll figure it out together," Bucky says, voice warm.

"Yeah." Taking a deep breath, Steve lets it out slowly. They will.

Half an hour later, the elevator doors ping as they open, admitting Bucky onto Steve's floor. Despite the fact that he's never been in the tower before – Steve had invited him once or twice, but the possibility of one of his friends popping up out of nowhere had always been moderate to high, so they had ultimately always decided not to just yet – he doesn't look uncomfortable or intimidated. Which, frankly, is surprising; Steve had been intimidated the first couple of times he'd come here.

"Fancy," is all Bucky has to say as he steps into Steve's hall. They hung up as he arrived at the tower ten minutes ago; Steve might or might not have loitered around his elevator waiting for him to arrive. Spotting him, Bucky's grin softens into a smile and with no hesitation he drops the bag he's carrying, steps up to Steve and draws him into a hug.

As soon as Bucky is touching him, is in his arms and holding on to him in return, it's like Steve can just... relax for the first time in what feels like ages. He lets out a breath he hadn't even been aware he was holding and closes his eyes, lets himself sink into Bucky's embrace and just breathe for a minute.

It ends up being a pretty long minute. Eventually Bucky shifts a little, at which point Steve realizes that he's basically holding him captive three steps from his elevator, and that's not how you treat a visitor, much less his best guy. His mother would be appalled. If she got over the best guy instead of best gal thing, which Steve honestly has no idea if she would.

Immediately embarrassed, he pulls away from Bucky and ducks his head. "Sorry. Uhm. Do you want something to drink?"

"Steve." Bucky sighs, exasperated. Then he relents, takes his bag and follows Steve into the kitchen, where he pulls out a big plastic box filled with chili, and another with rice. They fill the rice into bowls, the chili on top and put them into the microwave, then Bucky very firmly directs Steve on how to make his special hot chocolate with the ingredients he brought. Because that's apparently what they're having with the chili.

"If it bothers you so much, get some water as well," Bucky rolls his eyes when Steve comments on the somewhat unconventional combination.

Getting a bottle of water out of the fridge, Steve frowns. "I'm starting to get the impression there is a method to all this."

"And he's smart, too," Bucky grins. Then, with an air of great mystery, reaches into his bag and pulls out... The Addams Family, The Complete Series boxset, exaggerated eyebrow waggle included. Steve can't help but laugh, at least half because of Bucky's expression, which turns delighted a second later.

It's impossible not to smile, and for the first time in what feels like far too long, Steve even means it. "I like it."

So, with Bucky directing everything, they assemble their bowls of reheated chili, their drinks – the hot chocolate turns out to not be merely two cup's worth but a whole pot of it, plus a can of whipped cream and a bag of marshmallows Bucky brought from his own place as well because he didn't trust Steve to be properly equipped – and a bunch of pillows and blankets plus Steve's comforter in the living room. Bucky has Steve put in the DVD and when Steve turns around, he finds that Bucky has arranged a virtual nest for them on the floor in front of the sofa. The coffee table has been pushed to the side and this is highly unconventional, but it looks highly comfortable too. Steve loves it.

Especially when it results in him and Bucky being able to cuddle much better than they could have on the sofa, a mountain of pillows at their backs. The chili is delicious, just spicy enough to warm Steve's body from the inside, and the hot chocolate turns out to actually warm the soul, as Bucky claimed (which is why, he explained, the two go well together). Or maybe that's the company, Bucky's physical presence, warm and sweet and alive next to him, not making a big deal out of anything but somehow managing to completely put Steve's mind off the things he'd rather not think about.

They've been lounging there for about two hours, Steve more or less curled around Bucky with his head on Bucky's chest, right above his heart, Bucky's hand in his ear, when his doorbell rings. Or, well, what passes for a doorbell here in Stark Tower. It's actually JARVIS, politely playing that tune he plays when he wants to alert somebody to something he has to say but they don't fancy a bodyless voice just suddenly speaking into the silence – which is essentially everybody except Tony. Steve feels himself immediately tense up with apprehension. "Yes?"

"Excuse me, Captain Rogers, but Mr. Stark wishes to know how you are."

Steve sighs. "I'm fine."

There's a brief moment of silence, but Steve knows better than to hope that'll actually be it. "My apologies, sir. Mr. Stark wishes for me to relay the following message: the hell you are, swing your tiny ass upstairs we all know you're wallowing."

It's kind of hilarious hearing JARVIS say that in his prim voice and proper accent, and any other time Steve would even appreciate it. Sometimes it's difficult for him to get out of his own head and he needs to be pushed – something which his friends clearly know well. Just like they know he shouldn't be alone right now. They just aren't aware that he actually isn't alone.

"Sooo," Bucky drawls, fingers still in Steve's hair. "What's up?"

Steve sighs and tilts his head up to look at him, unwilling to remove it entirely from Bucky's chest. "Either I go upstairs and tell them not to worry, or they'll come here and check up on me."

"It's actually kind of nice of them," Bucky points out lightly.

"I know." Steve shrugs, as much as he can anyway in his current position; it's more of a twitch of his shoulders, actually. "It's your choice. I'm fine with either."

Bucky raises one eyebrow. "You're the one who hasn't told them yet."

That's... true, but that's not the entire truth. "We've- we've talked about it?" He sits up a little to look Bucky better in the eyes. "I thought we agreed. You know I'm fine with tell them anytime, right? Besides, Sam knows."

"Yeah, alright," Bucky admits. "It's got to happen at one point, right? I don't mind. Though I don't suppose they'll leave it alone if you tell them you're not wallowing?"

As if; Steve snorts. It's worth a try, but not likely to work. "JARVIS, could you tell them that I appreciate it but I'm not wallowing, and I'm not alone?"

"Right away, sir," JARVIS agrees. He says nothing else, so Steve shrugs a little and moves back into his previous position, head above Bucky's heart. Only to realize he missed the last five minutes of the episode.

They're three minutes into watching those five minutes again when the elevator doors ding and, unsurprisingly, spill his team into the room. Noisily. "Rogers!" Tony calls out immediately. "We've come to drag your ass out of here, you're not fooling any-" At which point he steps into the doorway of the living room and actually spots them, the sight stopping him in his tracks. "...one," he finishes at normal level.

Steve really, really doesn't have the energy to deal with this. He manages a half-hearted glare, then sighs and closes his eyes for a second.

"Well, seems like he wasn't actually lying," Clint states the obvious from behind Tony. Natasha, peering at them from over Tony's other shoulder, raises one eyebrow.

"If you're gonna stare at us all night I'm gonna have to demand an audience fee," Bucky says, tone dry as the desert.

"Hey, is that Bucky?" Sam calls out from somewhere behind the three blocking the doorway. "Hi Bucky!"

"Hi Sam!" Bucky calls back. The two had met once or twice, when Bucky had to switch PTSD support groups because he didn't feel like his was helping him as much anymore. Steve, knowing that Sam was much better equipped to help him with that, had introduced them.

"I'm offended," Tony pouts. "So is this a regular thing that happens? Why did Sam know but nobody else?"

This, Steve actually feels the need to address. "How's that betting pool going?"

For a brief second, Tony actually looks a bit sorry. They had had conversations about this before – Steve doesn't appreciate being made the butt of some joke by becoming the topic of a betting pool, and Tony had promised not to do it again. To his credit, he actually hadn't for over a year – until Bucky. That apparently had been too much of a temptation to resist.

"Seriously," Bucky says after a moment of silence. "Either y'all sit down and watch Addams Family, or you're gonna leave. I'm really not into this staring thing that's happening right now."

"Well sorry, I'm kinda fascinated, it looks like you've formed a symbiosis, I can't even see your other arm."

Oh Jesus. Exasperated and embarrassed, Steve closes his eyes, but Bucky just snorts, amused rather than offended. "If you find my other one, let me know, I kinda lost it," he returns, shifting a little to lift what's left of his left arm to rest on top of Steve's shoulder.

"...ah," Tony makes after a moment.

"So," Clint says loudly. "We probably should leave."

In a split second, Steve realizes that it's his fault this is all so awkward; he really should have handled this better. "No, wait." He sits up and rubs a hand through his hair, blinking at Bucky. "Guys, this is Bucky. Bucky, these are Tony, Clint and Natasha, you know Sam."

One corner of his mouth twitching upwards, Bucky waves at them; it's a good thing at least one person finds this whole thing amusing, because Steve is growing rapidly more mortified at his own lack of manners.

"Hello Bucky," Natasha says calmly. "It's nice to meet you."

"You too," Bucky replies with a sweet smile – the polite but not false one. He sits up as well, pushes a stray lock of hair behind his ear as he looks back and forth between Steve and half of his team.

"Hi," Tony chokes out, twitching like somebody elbowed him. "So. Foot in my mouth. I do that sometimes."

"Nah, no worries," Bucky waves him off. "You couldn't have known." And he means it; Bucky is one of the most forgiving people Steve knows, it's incredible.

"So," Clint repeats, then appears to run out of things to say. He's not the best at social situations sometimes.

Steve takes a breath. "Listen, I really appreciate you guys checking up on me, but I'm... better." He means to tell them they can go but suddenly he realizes that they might actually need him there; they didn't exactly have a great time on the mission either. While Steve is the team leader and the one who ultimately has to make the decisions, they probably don't feel any less guilty for it. And after bad missions they always find themselves in the same room, doing stuff maybe not together-together, but in each other's presence – be it sparring, board games, or even just everyone focusing on their books or screens. It's an important team thing that helps them all decompress. He can't just send them away; they would leave without complaint and never say a word, but they might need him there.

And somehow, Bucky seems to realize that, or at the very least he just notices something about the atmosphere, because before Steve can say anything else, Bucky settles back into the pillows and gestures towards Steve's arrangement of sofas and armchairs. "So, you guys gonna sit down or what? This is hella awkward."

There is a moment of silence, then Tony drawls, "Well, since you asked so nicely." With that, he throws himself into an armchair and pulls out his phone, presumably to tell the others to come. Within ten minutes, all the Avengers, honorary members in the form of Pepper, Jane, Darcy and Phil included, find themselves in Steve's living room. They bring chips and popcorn and their own blankets and pillows and nobody even suggests putting on something other than what Steve and Bucky were already watching.

This isn't really how Steve imagined this going. Then again, he hadn't really imagined much, trying too hard not to think at all because the moment he let himself his thoughts started running in circles, trying to figure out what he could and should have done different. Definitely, this isn't how he pictured his boyfriend meeting his team, but Bucky seems to be taking it all in a stride, taking handfuls of popcorn and M&Ms and chips from bowls in a way that isn't at all polite or shy, no hesitation when he tells Tony, unperturbed, to shut up when Tony starts cooing as Steve settles back into Bucky's side. It's... not what Steve expected, but it's good. It's good.