Steve hates pillows. That wasn’t one of the earliest recollections that flooded Bucky’s mind after the helicarrier, but it had come back to him after he’d moved in here, the slow trickle of time. Some memories had been mysterious and inconsequential--newspapers in his worn-out shoes or his antipathy toward pillows on a bed--while others had been enough to shake the ground underneath Bucky’s feet. All of them together forming the picture of Steve that brought Bucky back here, back to himself.
Bucky thinks Steve’s aversion to pillows comes from being stuck in a bed so much; he recalls fluffing one up and sticking it behind Steve’s head, feeling the hot feverish skin on his neck, only to return seconds later to find it on the floor. In the hospital once, nurse after nurse would replace his pillow only to find that Steve had pushed it off the edge of the bed and huff about how unsanitary that was. He uses them for reading in bed or drawing, but once the lights are out, the pillow ends up under Barnes’s head or on the floor.
The way Steve’s sleeping now will give him a crick in his neck when he wakes, so Bucky gently slips the squishiest pillow under Steve’s neck, takes a beat to pet his hair. Even in sleep Steve huffs with annoyance, yet his fingers curl around Bucky’s metal wrist, and a swift flash of heat lightning pulses up into his shoulder. Since they began sharing a bed, it’s not uncommon for Steve to reach for him in sleep or to find themselves coiled around each other in the morning like the duvet is around Steve’s hips right now.
If Steve knows that Bucky watches him sleep, he’s never said. It’s something Bucky’s always done, almost a nervous-system response. It provides...security, Bucky supposes, but he hopes that Steve has never reviewed the recordings the AI makes and caught him out.
If Steve also knows how Bucky feels about him, he’s never mentioned that, either. The guy has no poker face or chill, the knowledge would have been written there in glowing, flashing neon underscored by a thumping disco beat and Bucky might just end up on his ass in the street again, alone. It was harder to read people these days, what with a brain like Swiss cheese, but he is pretty certain Steve hasn’t twigged to him--it should have shown, all those times he’d awakened or turned or glanced up from a sketchbook or a map to find Bucky stealing a glimpse of him. Instead there’d been only a sweet, startled smile that Bucky could find him a subject worth gazing at.
He’s about to get out of bed when Steve snuffles and pulls the pillow out from under his neck, shoving it to Bucky’s side of the bed. Bucky sighs and pushes his shoulder so he’ll turn onto his back, saving him the neckache. But instead Steve wakes up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Did you sleep well?” Steve asks, as he always does. He knows damn well how Bucky sleeps; if neither of them wakes the other up with shrieking nightmares, it’s a successful night.
“I’ll make coffee?” Bucky says, even though he knows JARVIS would have already brewed the pot they set up the night before.
“Or you could make me a latte?” Steve’s obsession with the espresso machine is the cutest thing he’s ever seen. Bucky hates the noise, it sets his teeth on edge every time, but he likes making Steve happy. He much prefers to get his own lattes in the coffee bar in the lobby, where he can stand across the shop. Bucky trundles out to the kitchen and steels himself for espresso duty.
When Steve comes out of the bedroom in his running gear, he’s scratching his head, his face scarlet already and he hasn’t even opened his mouth. It’s pathetic, honestly. Zero poker face. “What?”
“Nothing!” There’s a few moments of hemming and hawing before he spits out, “I just wanted to see--I wanted to see if you’d like to go out tonight. I thought it might be nice, just the two of us, going out. It’s Valentine’s and it seemed like it might be...nice. A kind of ‘I’m glad you’re here’ sort of thing.” His eyes travel around the room, landing everywhere but Bucky’s eyes. “And I thought we could try fondue.”
The coffee burns Bucky’s throat as he swallows it in a surprised gulp, his fingers grip the mug so hard he’s afraid it might shatter. Thank god his back is turned. “Um...”
“I mean I suppose it’s weird, going from zero to sixty and everything, we haven’t been out much, but I think you’re ready. You seem ready and willing. You can say no, of course. Or we could even do it here, too.”
Bucky grips the counter. What is Steve--is he talking about eating or fucking? Oh, Christ, Steve knows how Bucky feels. Steve knows he’s in love with him. Bucky’s face blazes.
Peggy’s laughing so hard that she lists sideways in her chair, while Bucky’s slipping off his own. Dugan slams his beer down on the table and says, “Now, that’s the quality intelligence about Rogers I want to hear!” When Bucky wipes the tears from his eyes, he sees Steve, arms crossed over his chest, that old familiar look on his face. It’s been a long time since Bucky has seen it and god, it feels like home, his long-suffering pout and the way his brows curve up his forehead when he rolls his eyes. Saint Steven of the Perpetual Forbearance.
“And then Howard informed him that fondue was merely bread and cheese, which only served to confuse him even further!” Peggy claps her hands together and this time she does slide off her chair. Steve grabs her about the waist, steadying her, and they stare at each other like lost calves.
“In my defense, the way Howard said it was exceptionally suggestive.” The corner of Steve’s mouth twitches and Bucky wipes his eyes again, catching his breath.
“You think everything’s suggestive, pal,” Bucky snickers.
Before long, fondue developed into their standard swear word--FUBAR became FOBAR when Jim groused about something fondued beyond all recognition, and it flourished from there. Steve’s martyred tolerance for it was almost funnier than the original story, at least for Bucky.
He hadn’t recalled this before, but there’s a fragment missing inside of it. Something just out of Bucky’s reach, a gossamer memory he can’t quite lay his hands on. It’s tantalizing and infuriating.
“Buck?” There’s Steve’s hangdog face and lamenting sigh. “Too much, huh?”
“I...no, I mean, uh, sure. Sure, we could go out.” A hotel? A...a bathhouse or one of those clubs where people have sex in public?
“Okay! Good!” His forced cheer is clumsy but adorable.
There’s a bounce in Steve’s step when he starts for the door, Bucky could swear. If that doesn’t say he hopes to fondue, Bucky doesn’t know what does.
“You don’t think Steve would be one of those guys who likes to have sex in public, do you?” Bucky’s on his back on the mat, staring up at Sam, who’s gulping down water after a pretty intense workout. He ends up wearing most of Sam’s water after he spits it out.
After a few minutes of choking and coughing, Sam wipes his mouth. “Jesus, Barnes.” He coughs some more. “I always thought he was a kinky little bastard under all that propriety, but no. No, I would not put him in that category.”
At his questioning look, Bucky shrugs and starts up off the mat. “I’ve seen those videos online, people who like to get fucked in public places. We didn’t really have that sort of thing in my day.”
“That’s not what I mean. I wondered why our workout was suddenly like an episode of Taxicab Confessions.” Sam has a slightly alarmed look on his face, like he feels compelled to ask by the laws of friendship but really doesn’t want the answer. “Oh! Or is this some fantasy of yours? It’s okay if it is, no one’s gonna judge you.”
“Steve asked me out. To dinner.”
He tosses a bottle of water to Bucky. “Like, on a date? Oh yeah, it’s Valentine’s Day! Hey, that’s nice.”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. He didn’t say date.” His judgment and decision-making skills here are still somewhat impaired; Bucky’s pretty well integrated into the world for the most part, thanks to Steve and his crew, but this is way outside the lane he’s usually in. “I don’t know if he wants to--you know. Eat or...”
Sam looks like he’s gonna lose it again so he swallows hard and reins in the composure that’s threatening to gallop off, riderless. “Try to take it to the next level?” Sure, okay, that’ll work.
“We’re not--we’ve never--it wasn’t like that.” It’s like he keeps pulling off another matryoshka doll, thinking it’s the last one, but there’s always another one inside. Some tempting core of memory he’ll never reach.
“Bucky, man, it’s okay, it’s cool. Next level doesn’t just have to mean sex. But I’ve always figured there was more to your feelings for each other than just bros being bros, you know?” No, Bucky doesn’t know. About any of it. “A nice dinner out, some drinks, maybe a walk in the park...” So that’s a vote for eating, then. Do you two...fondue? It just doesn’t sound right.
“Thanks, Sam,” Bucky says, because he’s even more confused now, but if they continue the conversation, they’ll have to talk about feelings and needs. He’d rather go beat something up.
“He said he wants to try fondue.” Stark’s got Bucky’s arm on the table and is making some adjustments to the latest enhancements he’s designed. It’s been slow going, bringing the arm into the 21st century, along with Bucky. So much of it’s wired into his nervous system and the original documents--what Stark calls his user manuals--are long since gone, so the whole thing’s pretty tricky without teams of specialists.
“That’s nice. It’ll be fun and intimate.” Definitely not a word Bucky is prepared to hear, and his arm twitches, earning a vexed little huff. Stark glances up at him, his right eye grotesquely large behind the magnifying loupe. “Unless you don’t want intimate.”
“We’re not like that.” Does everyone think he and Steve are supposed to be dating? Is he that obvious about his feelings?
“Does fondue mean something different nowadays?”
This time Stark pushes back from the table and inspects him with a quizzical gaze. “Do you want it to mean something different?” Instead of his usual infuriating, knowing smirk, he’s got a confused, gentle smile.
Bucky’d rather have the smirk. “I’m not used to you being like this. It upsets my equilibrium when you’re not going, ‘guys, guys, look at me, pay attention to meee’ like usual,” he says, doing his best Tony Stark impression, which people have informed him is pretty damn good.
Stark narrows his eyes. “One tiny tweak and that arm’s hitting you in the face in perpetuity until your supersoldier boyfriend rips it off.”
“I just wondered if it was another euphemism I hadn’t heard yet.”
“There’s a story in here, isn’t there?”
Steve will kill him if he says anything. It’s not that he doesn’t like teasing Steve, it’s still comically fun to bring out that growly little terrier buried inside, but he owes Steve more than that. “Maybe, but it’s one you’ll probably never know.”
“You guys ruin my life on a regular basis,” Stark mutters and returns to work on Bucky’s arm.
“Oh, but fondue’s lovely!” Pepper says as they’re poring over the blueprints for the climate change conference venue in Geneva, so he can develop the security plan. She’d been the first person to go out of their way to give Bucky something he could legitimately do, asking him to be her primary security consultant. Apparently the--not particularly qualified--guy they’d had on it before had been horribly injured, and Stark made it a full-time nightmare for Potts after that, finding fault with everyone she tried to hire and generally making a nuisance of himself. Now Bucky plans everything for her, vets her personnel, and regularly reviews security protocols for the tower and the headquarters out in L.A. She’d instantly latched on to him with an eerie sense of knowing that he was desperate to use his skills nonviolently instead of being used by others. “Wonderful cocktails, too.”
Bucky swallows. “So there’s really places to eat fondue, then.”
She eyeballs him. “Well, yes, why wouldn’t there be?”
Of all the people he could explain this to, Potts is the only one who wouldn’t forever torture Steve about it or freak out. So he recounts the fondue story, and at the end, she spits out her coffee all over his hand and the blueprints. Perhaps he ought to stop talking when people are drinking beverages.
“I see where the confusion comes from,” she says, wiping tears from her eyes. He’s never seen her lose her composure like that. “I guess...well, I guess if fondue means something different to Steve, then--why did he assume it meant sex?” She fans her startlingly pink face. It brings out her freckles.
“Ah, everyone was pretty coy about stuff back then. And he didn’t really have any experience with girls, not until the USO, anyway. He was incredibly shy, so I think he thought everything meant sex because it was sort of out of his grasp.”
Her perfectly arched eyebrow does all the oh reallying for her. He groans. “No pun intended, honest.”
“Well, then, I guess if he wants that kind of fondue, that means he wants to take your relationship to the next level.” There’s that phrase again. Something’s still hanging out there in a corner of his mind, some memory or thought he can’t quite see.
“We didn’t--we don’t.” Bucky clears his throat. “There was no leveling.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” Pepper coos and pats his shoulder. “He’s as crazy about you as you are about him. But he wouldn’t compromise your recovery.”
Of course he wouldn’t. His halo might fall off.
At this point, Bucky has to be grateful Barton and Romanov are out on assignment and Banner’s disappeared into his work, because these conversations are making the cryochamber withdrawal period seem like a Disneyland vacation.
She taps the blueprints. “Of the two of us, I think you’re going to have the better Valentine’s Day, whichever way it falls.” She can barely conceal the glee in her voice. “Now back to work.”
Bucky’s uncertain whether he’s relieved or disappointed to be standing in front of what is clearly a fondue restaurant--there’s a little pot right there on the sign. Steve dismisses the SI car they took here, and with a gesture waves Bucky inside.
It’s Valentine’s Day, so of course the place is filled with couples leaning over little pots, drinking fancy drinks, their heads pressed close or holding hands across the table. He feels wildly overdressed, but Pepper had insisted she help him pick out clothes that were nicer than his usual around-the-tower uniform of Avengers fuzzy pajama pants and a t-shirt that has seen better days. She’d put him in a sapphire blue sweater and charcoal trousers that had made Steve do a double-take; Bucky could tell it took every ounce of self-control she had not to clap her hands and squeal.
Their table is way in the back in a candlelit corner. Shit. Steve looks like he stepped out of a wet dream: he’s got a teal-colored button-down that has a subtle sheen to it the candlelight picks up, a pair of black pants that hug his ass like they’re made of spandex, and a buttery black leather jacket Bucky keeps wishing he could stroke. He rolls his sleeves up his forearms and Bucky thinks he’s getting a bit faint.
But first things first--Steve orders cocktails called The Lover and Bucky’s heart rate rockets out of control. It’s not so bad, he tells himself. The next level. It’s just dinner, he now knows. At the top of the menu it asks, “How do you fondue?” and at the bottom a slogan proclaims, “We hope you enjoy experiencing all that fondue has to offer.” Bucky nearly swallows his tongue.
Apparently dinner has become a lot more complicated in the time he was away, with introductions to the waitstaff and instructions on how to order; then, mercifully, the cocktails arrive. The Lover is pink and fruity and has a strawberry cut in the shape of a heart floating in it; Steve holds his glass up for a toast that Bucky can’t even hear over the roaring in his head as they clink glasses.
The first pot to arrive is cheese with a selection of bread to dip in it--he can almost hear Howard’s voice in his head, laughing about fondue, and that memory snags again, caught like a thread. Steve glances up at him underneath his absurd eyelashes to ask, “So, um, you seemed a little surprised when we got here. Do you want to talk about it? Are you handling being out okay?”
“Yeah, no, I’m fine,” Bucky fibs and dips a fork into the cheese. It’s actually not bad. “It seems like Valentine’s is a much bigger thing these days than it was when we were young.”
“Yeah, it is. Well. Anything that they can turn into an industry is a bigger deal now. The Valentine’s Day industrial complex.”
Bucky gives him a grin. They’ve never been this jittery around each other, even after Steve found him and brought him home. Might as well go for broke. “I wondered what you were trying to say, by taking me out on this day. For fondue.”
“It was Nat who suggested it. I asked if there was a place we could go that might be different and fun for your first time out instead of stuffy and formal and oh god! Oh god. You remembered.” Steve furiously tears apart some chunks of bread and stabs one into the pot over and over. “I didn’t think you’d even remembered that, oh my god.” His face is as red as the foofy drink. “There are so many blanks in what you recall I never thought that something so stupid would be...” He’s tearing the bread with concentrated savagery and dripping cheese all over the table because he can’t get it into his mouth fast enough.
With an exaggerated shrug, Bucky says, “It’s cute.” Steve’s head shoots up and he stares at Bucky, dazed. We were going for broke, remember, Barnes. “I asked around if fondue meant something different these days. Like maybe it had caught on. Everyone seemed to think dinner out meant we were taking our relationship to the next level.” Steve’s eyebrows knit in on each other. “When we got here I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved or disappointed that fondue didn’t mean sex.” His insides shrivel a bit and Steve looks like he might explode.
They both spear piece after piece of bread into the cheese until the waiter returns and says, eyes wide, “Oh. Uh, would you like more bread?” as if he’s never seen anyone eat that much that fast. They nod eagerly.
By the time the entrée pot of oil arrives with meats and vegetables, they’ve been cloaked in silence for a stupidly long time. Abruptly Steve clears his throat, downs the rest of his drink, including the strawberry, in one gulp, and says, “Both ways. Even if I didn’t know you remembered the other use of fondue, I meant both ways. Maybe not tonight, maybe not even next month, but--” His voice gets drowned out by sirens as cop cars fly up the street. Steve waits till they’re gone, but just as he opens his mouth, a second wave of sirens hits. A couple of unmarked but obviously federal cars follow, dashboard lights flashing. Well, shit. People in the restaurant have crowded around the windows, and Bucky hears the word “hostages.” They’ve obviously set up camp outside the restaurant.
“We gotta go,” Bucky says softly. “You know we do.” There’s no way Captain America isn’t getting involved in a hostage situation, and while Bucky hasn’t fought since he came back, he’s kept up his training for just such a possibility and Steve needs him at his six.
“I’ll call Sam, too.”
Across the street and two buildings up, some nutjob has broken into an institute for atmospheric studies and climate change. Steve heads over to talk to the cops as Bucky takes note of the address for Potts, and then their villain comes out, holding some kind of device in one hand and a gun to a young guy’s head. Apparently there was some sort of environmental talk that night--who the fuck has lectures on Valentine’s at the dinner hour?-- and the bad guy’s yelling about the rest of the audience getting blown up inside if they don’t do--
“What is it you want?” Steve cuts in as he steps forward. Bucky shakes his head in dismay.
“What do I want? What do I want? the guy shouts, and Bucky’s not entirely certain he does know what he wants. Bucky scopes out the space around him, how closely he’s holding the hostage, does a few calculations in his head.
“Well, how about this--what do I call you? I’m Steve Rogers. Sometimes known as Captain America.” It never fails to amaze Bucky how easily the authorities will cede control of a situation to Steve, or that this is even Steve’s life.
“You can call me The Virus.”
Steve looks as confused as Bucky feels, and they’re both making a face in each other’s general direction. The cops and the feds are nervous--everybody’s been twitchy since Insight--and this has too much potential to end badly. “Virus? Like a computer virus, you mean?”
“Or like the flu?” Bucky adds, just trying to be helpful.
“No, you idiots. A plague! I have created a plague the likes of which no one has ever seen.” When nobody says anything, he screams, “I’m a chemical engineer! Years ago I created a formula that has the power to change everything--but they won’t listen--they laughed at me in São Paulo!” That explains everything. Potts might have been at that conference, too; that means Bucky has to add potential wackjob scientists to the vetting procedure now. Joy. Steve’s rolling his eyes and grimacing when Bucky glances over at him, and he holds his hand up like “what are you gonna do.”
“Okay, look, we can talk about this. If you just hand me the weapons, it’ll be easier for you, everyone will be safe, including you. We’re here to listen. We won’t laugh at you.” Speak for yourself.
“Why are you here?” Virus asks, squinting against the glare.
Steve shrugs and points at the restaurant. “I had a date.”
“Fondue?” The Virus ridicules, and it’s like watching a light switch flip--Saint Steven has left the building. But their bad guy’s eyes light on Bucky, standing next to Steve. “Is that--if you’re Captain America, is that Bucky Barnes?” he cries, incredulous, throwing in, “I thought you were dead.”
“I get that a lot.” God, he just wants to get back to their date. It sounded like Steve really did want to...fondue. That maybe he wanted this thing, too. Bucky turns sideways and says, “Can we just ice this asshole and go back to fonduing?”
With a glance toward the cops, Steve nods. “My thoughts exactly. I mean, he doesn’t have to be such a dick about it. But I wish I had my shield.” He studies the setup. “If you can whip a gun at his head and stun him, I can get to that device before he detonates whatever it is he’s got in there.”
“On three.” Bucky ducks behind a cop car and asks one of them for his service weapon, ejects the magazine, and clears the spout.
While Virus-guy is still puzzling out Bucky’s presence in the not-afterlife, he steps behind Steve, counts to three, and then beans the bad guy as Steve vaults off a cop-car bumper with an assist from Bucky’s metal arm. Steve arcs through the air, shoves the hostage out of the way as he lands, his other hand clutched around Virus’s. It’s a thing of pure beauty. They’re rushed by the LEOs to sort out the device and help whoever’s inside, just in time for Sam to arrive.
Bucky gives Sam the sitrep; shortly afterward they’re joined by Steve, dusting himself off but none the worse for wear. Something about the way Steve’s looking at him, or Bucky’s looking at Steve, tips Sam off to the way their date had been proceeding up till they were called to duty. “Did you two--were you two cockblocked by crime?” Sam asks gleefully, looking back and forth between them.
Bucky shrugs. “It was just fondue.”
“Uh huh. Why don’t you head back to the place and I’ll finish up here.”
Scratching his head and staring at the ground, Steve mumbles, “I think they probably gave our table away by now.”
“Oh, like they’re gonna do that to Captain America. Go. Go fondue.” He fucking winks at Bucky. “The night is still very young, even if you two are not.”
And then all at once it hits Bucky, this fragment that’s remained so tantalizingly at the edge of his mind: it was them returning to their quarters after Peggy told the fondue story--but that wasn’t the end of the story. It was Steve sitting on the lip of the tub as Bucky bathed, dipping his hand in the water and running it over Bucky’s hair, until he slipped into the water almost fully clothed with him. It was Bucky tracing the line of Steve’s succulent lower lip. It was Steve telling Bucky that he’d been the first person he’d ever thought of doing that with. And it was them kissing, wet and naked, joyful and young.
As they walk away, Bucky says, “I do remember. All of it.”
Steve sighs, his smile lights up the night. “Skip the restaurant for a late-night fondue at home?”
Bucky threads his fingers through Steve’s. “I think I’m ready to experience all that fondue has to offer.”