Chapter 1: Oh No, He's Hot
There was a Hot Guy on the trail, and Steve Rogers didn't know what to do with the situation.
"You realize this isn't a situation, right?" his friend Sam drawled after Steve had finished complaining about Hot Runner Guy's broad chest and cool hair. "This literally is not a big deal. You can just take a different trail, if it bothers you so much."
"I don't want to take a different trail," Steve sighed, knowing he was being dramatic and fully enjoying it. "I like my trail. It's got great views."
"Yeah, I've been hearing about the views for the past three weeks." Sam rolled his eyes and finally looked away from the TV to where Steve was scowling on the couch. "I don't know what your problem is. Just say hi. Since when are you shy? It took you like five minutes to introduce yourself to me when I moved in."
"You weren't Hot Runner Guy. I mean," Steve backpedaled at Sam's look of outrage. "You're hot, absolutely, but I didn't know that when I first came over, did I? I'm sure if I met you out running I wouldn't know what to say to you either."
Sam pointed at Steve. "Narrow save, but I'll allow it. My point still stands though - just talk to the guy, if you're so into him."
"I've been trying!" This was only partially true. Hot Runner Guy had shown up in Prospect Park three weeks ago, running the same path as Steve - sometimes clockwise, sometimes counterclockwise, but always the same trail. Steve had almost tripped over himself the first time he'd seen him. Most runners were more slim, the cardio lengthening their muscles rather than bulking them up, but Hot Runner Guy looked and ran like a tank. The guy was big. He had a face like a movie star, long dark hair, pretty blue eyes, and was slowly ruining Steve's life.
Three days after Hot Runner Guy had consistently been on the same trail as Steve, Steve had figured he'd do the polite thing and say hello next time they passed. After all, if they'd be sharing the trail every morning, it made sense to at least acknowledge each other's presence. Steve'd tried to catch the guy's eye, maybe offer up the universal head-nod of solidarity, but Hot Runner Guy was focused. He didn't even look over at Steve as he jogged past, and Steve could take a hint. Some people didn't like distractions when they exercised.
It didn't stop him from trying, though. The next week, he made a point to get to the park a little later than he usually did. Hot Runner Guy tended to show up around 6:00 am, so Steve lingered and stretched at the entrance from Park Slope, hoping to at least get out a "good morning" when the guy came by.
Turned out, Hot Runner Guy had a Hot Runner Buddy: a gorgeous redhead who looked like she ate men for fun. The two seemed pretty close. They arrived together and ran together, oftentimes passing Steve on his path. It was a new form of torture, because Hot Runner Buddy seemed to enjoy talking while she ran - every time Steve passed them, she was murmuring something under her breath - and Steve got to hear Hot Runner Guy's low voice answering her. The first day, she'd said something to Hot Runner Guy that had sent him tripping forward, shoving her away with a laugh that had completely devastated Steve. Hot Runner Guy was attractive enough when he was focused on his run. Seeing him smile was almost too much.
Steve had decided to wait and see if Runner Buddy kept pairing off with Hot Runner Guy. If she did, then maybe Steve could approach the both of them together, and not make such a mess of himself. This week, though, Runner Guy was alone again, and Steve was starting to get fed up with the situation. "It's just," he said to Sam, "it feels like I waited too long to say anything, and now it'd be weird if I suddenly said hi to him."
"It is not. A big. Deal," Sam insisted. "What's the worst that can happen? Either the dude is friendly, and you can woo him before boning down." Steve squawked, scandalized. Sam ignored him. "Or, the dude is a dick, and you move on. If you think it'll be a problem after that, you can come join the gym with me and Clint."
"I'm not shelling out 80 bucks a week to run on a treadmill when I can run in the park for free," Steve insisted.
"And I'm not shelling out free relationship advice when the UFC is on," Sam said, smug and comfortable on Steve's armchair, watching Steve's TV, and eating Steve's allergen-free chips unashamedly. "I mean, look at this guy! He could break you in half."
The distraction of ultimate fighting could only last so long, though, and the next morning found Steve knee-deep in The Situation again. Hot Runner Guy was alone - Steve'd passed him twice on the trial and kept his head up each time, ready to smile if they made eye contact. Hot Runner Guy was as focused as ever, though, and Steve refused to be one of those guys that skeezily checked out somebody while they worked out, even if that body was so very very pretty and was wearing a "Nasty Woman" runner's shirt.
Steve was a little in love.
He stopped at the pavilion for his cool down, not surprised to see it full on a Saturday morning. Aside from one open bench, the rest of the space was taken up by what looked to be an outdoor fitness group. Steve quickly claimed the bench as his own and propped his foot up into a runner's lunge. He'd worked through most of his leg stretches, reveling in the ache in his calves and feet, when he heard a grunt from his right.
Hot Runner Guy was standing there. Hot Runner Guy was standing there - dark hair windblown, lips red, and face healthily flushed. (Who looked that good after exercising? Steve was a little outraged.) Hot Runner Guy was standing there, looking at the full pavilion exasperatedly, breathing a bit heavy. Finally, he huffed and settled at the other end of Steve's bench to begin his own stretches.
Steve wanted to simultaneously cheer and sink into the floor. Hot Runner Guy was right here. He was stretching next to Steve.There'd be nothing wrong with saying hello, right? They ran the same trail. They were sharing the same bench. That put them a step above strangers, didn't it? It wouldn't be weird now, right?
Steve grappled with himself the entire time he stretched out his hamstrings."Just say hello," he told himself firmly, coming out of his stretch determined. "It'll only be awkward if you let it be awkward." He looked over - Hot Runner Guy had bent into a low, very impressive lunge - and Steve turned away to ostensibly stretch his shoulders.
"Bullshit," he thought, frustrated with himself. If this guy were anybody else but Hot Runner Guy, Steve would have at least said good morning at this point. He couldn't let the guy's amazing chest and cute hair get in the way of basic courtesy. So what if the guy was hot? He was still a person. What was the worst that could happen?
Steve was going to do this. His stomach twisted in knots, and he suddenly found that he had the energy to run another five miles, preferably in any direction away from Hot Runner Guy - but Steve was always down to fight, even against his own shyness, so he breathed in, grit his teeth, and turned around, still stretching his arm across his chest. "Good run?" he asked, giving his best casual-friendly-face to Hot Runner Guy.
Hot Runner Guy almost fell over. He looked up, bewildered, dark hair plastered over his forehead. "What?"
Steve's heart rabbited in his chest. "Stay calm. Be friendly," he thought. "Friendly."
"The run," he clarified with a smile, feeling like an idiot but determined not to show it. "Good day for it, huh?"
"Oh." Hot Runner Guy blinked and frowned a little. He looked out at the crisp Brooklyn morning and shrugged. "Yeah, I guess."
"I'm Steve," Steve pressed on, too deep in the conversation now to stop. Steve didn't run from fights. If he left now, the awkwardness would win. Instead he waved a bit, like a dork. "I've seen you around a lot lately - figured I should introduce myself." Which was absolutely true, and absolutely what he would've said to any other human being in this situation.
"Oh." Hot Guy blinked again and mirrored Steve's small wave. "Bucky."
Steve experienced a very strange feeling of delight - Hot Runner Guy's name was Bucky? That was so cute - mixed with extreme guilt. Bucky was looking at Steve, his eyes bright blue and clearly waiting for Steve to give a reason for having interrupted Bucky's stretching routine. Steve hated those guys that bothered people while they worked out. Was Steve that guy? It was time to cut his losses and get the hell out of this conversation.
"Nice to meet you, Bucky." He forced himself to grin. Sam always said he had a nice smile. Smile, Rogers. Bucky blinked slowly. "Well hey, I'll, uh, let you get back to it," Repeating his dorky wave, Steve forced himself to be casual. "Have a good one - see you around!"
He barely registered Hot Guy's reply - "Yeah, same, thanks." - before he calmly turned and walked ("Walk. Don't run. Don't be awkward. Walk. Be cool. Walk.") back towards the park's exit.
He dialed Sam as soon as he hit the street. "
Why are you calling me at the asscrack of dawn on a Saturday?" Sam answered pleasantly.
"It's past 8:00."
"If it's not noon, then it's asscrack. You're lucky Clint already called on his way to work, or I would not be this forgiving."
Steve ignored him, and launched into his report. "So his name is Bucky," he said, "and he was very cool and laid back while I had verbal diarrhea all over the place." Sam started to laugh on the other end of the line. "Shut up. I made myself look like an idiot in front of a hot person - a really cool, hot person. My life is over."
"Well if you can put off your life ending until after 7:00 tonight," Sam teased. "Clint decided this morning that he wants us to meet his girlfriend and is providing pizza. You in?"
Of course Steve was in, on the proviso that there would be a cheeseless pizza for him as well as no blazingly hot, fit, and cool guys that were entirely out of Steve's league.
"Why do you let me go outside?" Bucky whined into his phone, back flat on the bench where he'd laid down to will himself into death. "Why do you let me leave the apartment? I never look like an idiot in the apartment."
"You always look like an idiot, in the apartment or out," Natasha said blithely. "You need a haircut."
"What?" Bucky sat up, affronted. "No I don't." He ran a hand over his hair. "It's an undercut. I'm hip." Bucky had this on good authority. At least half of his students complimented his hair every semester, and Bucky wasn't so far gone on science that he thought it was the only reason his lectures were so full. "I'm the hottest professor on campus - there was a poll."
"Exactly," Natasha laughed in his ear. "So stop thinking you look like an idiot. This is about Brick House Boy Scout who runs with you, right? What happened? You trip over your feet again?"
"His name is Steve," Bucky moaned.
"You talked to him?" He could practically hear Natasha's eyebrows rise.
"No," he said bitterly, dropping back down to the bench. "He talked to me. He was all nice and civil and introducing himself, and I gaped at him like I didn't know English." One of the ladies with the fitness group gave him the stink eye, but he didn't care. He'd just run eight miles and ruined his romantic chances with Hot Steve. He was allowed to lie down for a second. Natasha laughed again. "I do know English," Bucky whined, encouraged by Natasha's amusement and only hamming it up a little. "I know lots of English. I know how to be charming in English, even!"
"That's debatable," Natasha said dismissively. "So you blew your chance, huh?"
Bucky glared at the dawning sky. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I kept staring at his chest. Stop laughing. Why did I call you? You're enjoying this. I need compassion."
Natasha tsk-ed. "Tough. I'm out of compassion, but you can pick me up some from Barkely's before you get back. Double shot, mocha."
Bucky sighed and hefted himself off the bench. "Yeah, okay." He sighed again. "I've been working up the nerve to talk to this guy for weeks, Natasha, and I blew it. I don't think I managed anything longer than a single syllable the entire conversation."
"I believe it. I've never seen you clam up like you did last week. Usually you're Mr. Friendly." Natasha said it like being polite to your neighbors was an unfortunate character flaw.
"Yeah, well, I got nervous. Sue me." Another woman came and parked her stroller nearly on top of Bucky's bench - he took the hint and left the pavilion. "He was so friendly, too, Natasha," Bucky groaned, actually feeling guilty at how he'd barely engaged with Hot Steve. "He didn't even seem bothered that I was a scumbag human." Bucky deliberately didn't mention Steve's smile, which had left him unable to socially function. Natasha didn't need to know quite how pathetic Bucky was.
"I don't see why you're upset, then. If he wasn't put off, then that means you didn't blow your chance," Natasha said rationally, then paused. "Clint's calling. I'm hanging up now. See you soon."
"Sure, flaunt your successful and loving relationship in my face. See if I care," Bucky drawled before hanging up and huffing a foggy breath into the chill Brooklyn air. He frowned. "Fuck it." Usually he loved running in the cold - he tended to overheat easily, and he felt justified wearing long sleeves to hide his prosthesis when the weather dropped. It was one of the reasons he'd started running in Prospect to begin with. He'd tried Clint's gym for a few months before getting fed up with people staring at his arm, and Prospect was so large and filled with enough people usually that he felt anonymous.
He wasn't expecting somebody like Brick House Boy Scout Steve to be on the trails. People like Brick House Boy Scout Steve only existed in comic books and movies like Magic Mike. Bucky'd noticed him the first morning he'd started jogging in the park - and not just because the guy was all muscle and tight shirts and shiny blond hair. What had drawn Bucky's attention was the fact that Steve had been three seconds away from starting a brawl with a group of older men that had clearly been heckling a young lesbian couple.
Bucky'd been ready to run over and help, but the older men had left before he could do anything. Still, Bucky'd figured that he'd at least go over and make sure everything was alright, and to maybe introduce himself, because no way was he passing up saying hello to a guy with a shoulder-waist ratio like that. But then the two girls had said something to Steve, and right in front of Bucky's eyes the hot buff dude had blushed and rubbed the back of his neck like some kind of aw-shucks good Samaritan.
"Oh no," Bucky had despaired. "He's hot and nice." After that, it was a done deal. Bucky suddenly couldn't run anywhere in the park without crossing paths with Brick House Boy Scout, and all of Bucky's purported charm shriveled up every time he saw that blond head bobbing along the trails.
It had gotten so bad that Natasha had gotten curious and joined him at the park. She'd agreed that Brick House Boy Scout was a force to be reckoned with, and she had zero issue messing with Bucky as they jogged. "The guy should really invest in some anti-bounce shirts," she'd murmured to Bucky the first time she'd seen him, and Bucky had practically tripped off the trail. "He must do pilates or something for an ass like that," she'd observed next while Bucky kept his head down, determined not to stare. He'd finally forbidden Natasha from joining him after she'd pointed out that you could totally see the guy's junk when he ran.
"Stop objectifying the hot guy," he'd told her playfully. "If you're not going to ogle respectfully, then you can leave."
This had the unfortunate consequence of leaving Bucky alone and unprepared for this morning, when Brick House Boy Scout had introduced himself as Steve, smiled, and melted Bucky's brain.
He sighed again into the cold air and shoved his hands into his pockets, moping at the sidewalk. Around him, the streets of South Slope were still relatively quiet; the few early risers like Bucky minding their business along their way.
Barkley's was similarly scarcely occupied - thank goodness for that. Barkley's was a cramped, max-capacity-10 breakfast and coffee joint that catered to hipsters and vegetarians, didn't have working A/C, and was a fire hazard waiting to happen. Natasha refused to set foot in it, though she had no problem with getting her coffee from Bucky and Clint. This was because, despite its coffin-like interior and unfortunate decor (animal heads. everywhere.), Barkley's churned out some of the best coffee this side of the Atlantic.
It was the main reason Clint worked there. He was manning the front, looking as disastrous as always: His nose was bandaged again, his face was covered in scratches, and his blond hair and what looked like pajamas were so messy and rumpled that he looked like he'd been sleeping up until exactly two seconds ago.
Honestly, Bucky thought fondly, Natasha had no place to mock Bucky for his romantic interests. They both clearly had a shared weakness for dorky, muscled blonds.
"Hey, man!" Clint looked up and yelled over the three people separating Bucky from the register. "Got your order ready." Bucky pushed through, handed Clint a ten, and reverently took and knocked back a double espresso.
Clint nodded and shoved forward a wrapped burrito and what must have been Natasha's drink before starting on the waiting orders. "Here. Eat that. 'Tasha said you would need the protein to get over your humiliation."
"Oh my god," Bucky moaned, but took the burrito anyway. "She told you."
"Of course she told me. There's no secrets between soulmates," Clint said over the scream of milk steaming, before pausing. "Don't tell her I said that." He poured the steamed milk into a waiting shot and burned his thumb on the wand. "Aw ow." Somehow, between shaking his hand and swearing viciously, Clint managed to pour a perfect fern leaf in the foam, shove half a muffin in his mouth, and wink outrageously at Bucky at the same time. "Apparently you drooled all over Hottie with the Body at Prospect."
"Okay, the story is a little more complex than that."
A man cleared his throat behind Bucky pointedly. "Man, you're blocking the line."
"'Tasha's gonna want that soon anyway," Clint gestured at the mocha at Bucky's elbow. "Tell me what went down later tonight. If you don't have plans, she's gonna bring you to mine later for pizza. That'll cheer you up."
"Only if Lucky is there."
Clint pointed at Bucky seriously over the register, handing off a large iced coffee to the impatient guy. "Stop trying to steal my dog, Barnes."
"No promises!" Bucky grabbed Natasha's drink and waved off Clint. By the time he'd made it back to his neighborhood, the caffeine had kicked in, the burrito had settled warmly in his stomach, and the world seemed to be a bit less helpless for it. So what if he'd made himself look like a fool in front of Hot Steve? He could redeem himself somehow tomorrow morning. He could be smooth, and he'd prove it. He just needed time to prepare, mentally.
He'd work out the details with Clint and Natasha tonight, where his brain would be free to function properly without the distraction of Perfect Hot Steve and his Perfect Face.
Chapter 2: That's Not How You Flirt, Boys
"If you wear the sweater that makes you look homeless to meet Clint's friends tonight, I will evict you from the apartment."
Bucky looked up from tying his scarf to find Natasha sitting on his previously empty bed. "I know my door was closed," he said, unlooping his scarf and tossing it onto his dresser. "How did you get in here? How long have you been in here?"
Bucky had the distinct sense he was being glared at, although Natasha didn't look up from her phone. "Don't change the subject," she said, fingers flying across her screen to the tune of fruit being massacred. "Change your shirt."
"Oh bravo," he grinned, "and here I thought you didn't like puns."
That got her to look up. "It was a zeugma," she said, green eyes narrowed like a displeased cat's. "Now put on the green sweater. I'm not showing up to Clint's with a roommate who looks like he dumpster dives."
"...you do realize that Clint always looks like that, right?"
Natasha shrugged and lounged back with graceful nonchalance. Bucky took a moment to be exasperated that - even in her artfully ripped jeans and oversized sweater, slouching on Bucky's unmade bed - Natasha still looked like she belonged on the cover of a magazine. He knew for a fact that he didn't look terrible either, had even been told that he pulled off the hobo-chic look fabulously, but he hadn't been Natasha's friend for five years without learning a thing or two. She may be acting bored, but the fact that she was in his room and requesting (in her own straightforward way) that he dress up a little...Natasha was nervous.
Bucky could understand why. Clint hadn't told them much about his gym buddies, only that they worked in civil justice and with Veterans Affairs, and that they both were, in Clint's words, "Pretty solid guys." Coming from Clint, who reserved his admiration for Natasha, animals, pizza, and coffee, this was a glowing recommendation.
Natasha herself was outrageously competent, considerate, and confident besides, but Bucky knew enough about her to recognize that she had a strange sense of self worth, and he'd never seen her serious about a guy like she was with Clint. It stood to reason that she'd want to make a good first impression on Clint's good friends. Bucky grinned. It was sweet, even.
He didn't say this, of course, because he liked his spleen right where it was, but he did exchange his cozy lounge sweater for the tighter, less-stained green one without complaint.
What he did say was, "You look very nice, Natalia. Like a beautiful coffeehouse princess," which earned him a pillow thrown to his face for his troubles. This worked to his advantage, since Bucky proceeded to complain about it the entire way to Clint's, much to Natasha's annoyance. By the time they reached Bed-Stuy, and Bucky had moved on to listing the numerous ways in which Natasha was cruel to him, Natasha looked ready for murder, which meant that she was nicely distracted from any nerves she may or may not have felt. Bucky was such a good friend.
The holidays had all passed well and fully into April, but a few businesses along Clint's street still stubbornly kept up their more neutral decorations: a few windows still had fake frost along the insides, dusty vines of holly and ivy hung outside the bookshop, and several buildings hadn't bothered with taking down their fairy lights. Bucky, as a secret romantic, personally loved it, but even he could agree that Clint's building was out of control: lights of different colors and sizes still hung haphazardly around the brickface, seemingly without rhyme or reason. The inside lobby was no better, looking as if every tenant had contributed a different decoration, some not even holiday-themed, for the walls, and whoever owned the place had never bothered collecting them up. The building was cramped and old, but well maintained, with exposed brick walls and pipes that seemed more at place in the '20s than in 2017; but the effect was charming and warm, and Bucky liked it.
Clint himself lived in an outrageously large (for New York) studio on the fourth floor. He was always vague whenever Bucky asked how he could afford it, and once had joked that he could live wherever he wanted, since he owned the place, but Bucky had known Clint for more than 10 years, and nothing short of crime or dealing with it could get somebody a building in Bed-Stuy on Clint's salary; and Clint was the biggest softie on the planet. Not that you'd know it by standing outside his apartment, which was currently filled with shouting and the sound of clanking plates.
"I'm just saying," Clint's voice was raised and passionate, "it doesn't count as a pizza if it doesn't have cheese! It's just sauce and bread!"
Natasha rolled her eyes, but she was smiling when she knocked on the door.
"Get the door and let Steve live with his sauce bread," came a low voice around the sound of Lucky barking excitedly. There was a crash on the other side, followed by an "aw, bookcase," before Clint opened the door. He'd obviously put more effort into his appearance tonight. Sure, a band-aid still covered his nose, and his hair was a mess as always, but he was wearing jeans that were clean and a stain-free white shirt. Practically black-tie, for Clint.
"Hey," he grinned at Natasha like he hadn't just seen her yesterday, resting his arm on the doorjamb to show of his biceps in a move that Bucky had taught him in high school.
Natasha didn't seem to mind, arching her eyebrows and looking Clint over deliberately, the corner of her mouth turned up in a smirk. "Hey."
Bucky rolled his eyes. "Please wait until after I've eaten and made off with your dog before you begin the sex, thanks," he complained. As if summoned, a golden ball of fluff squeezed around Clint's knees, barking happily. "Hiiii, Lucky." Bucky bent to scratch the retriever's ears. "At least somebody's glad to see me." Lucky dog-scoffed and circled Bucky's knees, urging him into the apartment - to beg for pizza, Bucky figured.
"Yeah, who invited you," Clint winked at Bucky, but he stepped away from the door to let them pass. "Come in and meet the guys. Hey!" he called into the apartment. "Smarten up! Natasha's here!"
"What am I, chopped liver?" Bucky muttered, following Clint and Natasha around the corner to the kitchen.
"Oh, sorry," said Clint cheerily. "Guys, Natasha's here, and so is some dude with drinks." Bucky threw his scarf at Clint's head.
"Sounds good to me," somebody said in the kitchen. "Let him in!"
"Finally, some appreciation," Bucky grinned and held up the pack of ciders as he came into the kitchen. Then his brain registered the two men sitting at the counter, and he almost dropped the bottles on the floor, because there, wearing a warm-looking flannel with a pair of thick-framed glasses perched on his nose, was Hot Samaritan Steve. He was mid-laugh with his friend, another attractive man (where did these guys come from?), before he looked up and saw Bucky. Steve's blue eyes widened, and he smiled with an ease that Bucky envied.
"Bucky?" In a flash, Steve pulled off his glasses and stuffed them into his pocket. "Hey, good to see you!"
"Oh," Bucky blurted - which, while inelegant, was a much better response than the one in his head, which was a long stream of panicked nonsense mixed with pleasure that Steve had remembered his name. "Hi."
Natasha, of course, handled the surprise more gracefully than Bucky. "You look familiar," she said, as if she hadn't spent the entire last week heckling Bucky over the guy's sharp jawline and giant shoulders. "Have we met?"
"Oh, um, yeah." Steve stood from the counter; and Bucky needed a solid three seconds to let his brain adjust to seeing him in something other than jogger clothes. He missed the glasses, now that Steve had taken them off, but the dark flannel shirt and jeans were doing equally agreeable things for him. Bucky sent a silent prayer of appreciation to the hipsters who'd brought the lumberjack look into mainstream. Steve was born for it.
Bucky caught himself staring and moved to put the ciders in the refrigerator before anybody could catch him gaping like a fish. He took a moment to collect himself, letting the cool air in the refrigerator calm him down before turning back to the group. He was Bucky Barnes. He could be charming in multiple languages. He would not embarrass himself in front of Hot Steve again.
Thankfully, Steve hadn't seemed to notice Bucky's breakdown. Instead he was holding his hand out to Natasha with a polite smile. "We haven't actually been introduced. I'm Steve. Rogers. I've seen you at Prospect, I think?" That seemed to put it together for Clint; but, to his credit, his only reaction to learning that his friend Steve was the same guy that Bucky had been complaining about for weeks was to raise his eyebrows at Bucky briefly. Apparently, for all his appearance of a disaster, Clint had attended the same school for spies that Natasha had.
Bucky screamed mentally at both of his friends to not embarrass him. By the sly grin spreading on Natasha's face as she shook Steve's hand, it was a lost cause.
"Oh, that's right. Prospect." She smiled. "I'm Natasha. I was running there with Bucky. He kept going on and on about the trails." Bucky was going to kill her. "I had to see it myself."
"Oh, Steve appreciates the views at Prospect too," the other man at the counter cut in, a gap-toothed grin spreading slowly over his face. "Apparently it's the place to be."
"Yeah, Sam Wilson," the man nudged Steve and reached over to shake first Bucky's and then Natasha's hand. "Y'all hungry? We've got cheese, veggie, meat lovers, and Steve's sauce bread."
To Bucky's surprise, Steve turned bright red.
"Yeah, I have a bunch of allergies. Can't have cheese." Steve rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged. "The bread is gluten-free, too, so, uh, you'll probably want to stick with the good stuff."
Bucky took one look at Steve's embarrassed smile, grabbed a slice from the box, and ate nearly half of it in one go. It was strange eating pizza without cheese, but garlic and bread and sauce were the ingredients for bread sticks, right? Bucky loved bread sticks. "It's great," he told Steve confidently, and the smile that he got in response was worth a thousand cheeseless pizzas.
"Help yourself," Steve gestured to the counter. Clint had a very strict "food is allowed anywhere in the apartment" rule, and so Bucky grabbed a plate, piled on a few slices of pizza both with and without cheese, and claimed a spot in the living area on the couch next to Natasha and Sam. They seemed to have hit it off well, Bucky was happy to see. Clint kept an old-school Super Nintendo system hooked up to his TV, and Sam and Natasha had begun playing a frankly brutal game of Jurassic Park on it.
"Don't rock the boat, Barnes." Natasha didn't look away from the TV when Bucky sat down. He waited until a raptor came on the screen before jostling the couch again, and Sam and Natasha both sent him identical glares of outrage. Nothing brought people together quite so well as crappy old '90s video games, he guessed. Clint's console only had two controllers, and so Bucky kept to heckling, very aware that in the corner of his eye, Clint and Steve were lingering and talking in low voices in the kitchen.
Now that the shock of meeting Steve again had worn a bit, Bucky allowed himself to bask in his good fortune. He'd been anxious to talk to Steve on the trails, but here, with Natasha and Clint (and Sam, he supposed) around to provide a buffer, Bucky felt as if he could give himself a better showing than he had done this morning. He reminded himself of the reasons he liked Steve - how much he'd admired him for standing up for those kids, and the brightness of his smile - and decided that he'd at least like to be the man's friend, if romance wasn't in the cards.
He really, really wanted romance to be in the cards, though, and he'd do his best to nudge things along that way. "Steve Rogers," he thought to himself, looking to where Steve had turned bright red at something Clint had said, "prepare to be wooed." Bucky ran a hand over his hair - still cool, he assured himself - and made sure that there was enough empty space next to himself on the couch on the off-chance a handsome, jogging Adonis needed somewhere to sit.
This was aided by Clint, who finally joined them in the living room, Steve trailing behind with a few bottles of cider and a glass of water. Clint looked at the seat next to Bucky, winked lasciviously, and sat on the floor against Natasha's legs, leaving the seat open for Steve.
Steve dithered for only a moment, before gesturing to the couch. "You mind?"
"Nah, there's room," Bucky shrugged, keeping calm even while Steve wedged himself onto the couch. It was a close fit. "Uh, by the way it was cool that you said hi this morning." Bucky nudged his shoulder into Steve's, careful not to spill his drink. "I was kinda out of it, so sorry if I came off like a jerk."
"Oh." Steve smiled a little, looking relieved. "N-nah, you were fine. I did feel bad for interrupting your run, though."
"Naaaah," Bucky grinned. "You were cool. If anybody was interrupting anything, it was the opera guy down by the pond - you see him?"
"Oh my god yes." Steve's eyes flashed, and he turned to face Bucky more fully, their knees knocking together. "I hate that guy!"
From there, it was natural as anything to get into further conversation about the park, their routes, their best running injuries, and the irregular regulars who haunted Prospect. Steve had an easiness about him that Bucky found himself relaxing into, yet at the same time Steve was completely engaged in talking to Bucky. Bucky liked the way Steve looked straight at him when he talked, liked how he used his hands in wide gestures to emphasize his point, even on the cramped couch. He liked the way he laughed and the way he blushed a little when he did it. Bucky hadn't clicked with a person this quickly since he'd met Clint in first grade. Before long, it was Bucky and Steve's turn at the controllers, and Bucky learned that in addition to being cute, kind, and easy to talk to, Steve was also a miserable little shit.
"Did you just blue shell me?!" Bucky shrieked as Steve cackled next to him. "We had a truce, you asshole!"
"I was aiming for Bowser!" Steve yelled without remorse.
"He probably was," Sam called over from where he, Natasha, and Clint had gathered around Natasha's phone. "Steve's pretty blind without his glasses."
Bucky fired off a banana onto the track before sneaking a glance at Steve, who was blushing yet again and squint-glaring at the screen. "Really?" Bucky asked. "Why aren't you wearing them, then?"
"I don't need to see to KICK YOUR ASS!" Another shell knocked Bucky's racer off the track. Steve crowed.
"We had a truce!"
Truce or no, and glasses or no, Steve solidly trounced Bucky. Even better, he had no problem gloating about it when they handed the controllers off to Natasha and Clint.
"Don't feel bad, Buck. A lot of third graders have trouble with that game, too."
"I'll show you a third grader," Bucky growled nonsensically, pleased when Steve laughed and bumped into the couch.
"Steve," Sam called from the kitchen. Bucky could hear the refrigerator door open, bottles clanking together. "C'mere a sec?"
Steve left the room. Immediately, Clint slammed on the pause button and whipped his head around to look at Bucky. "Oh my god," he mouthed.
Bucky widened his eyes and glared, but Clint just gave him a thumbs up, mouth open and grinning. Bucky made a sharp slicing gesture with his hand, shaking his head and pointing to the kitchen, and Clint mimed back a lewd and highly inappropriate gesture that Bucky did not need Steve to see, thank you very much. He looked to Natasha for help, but she remained motionless, save for the tiniest smile she wore that suggested she was enjoying this situation immensely. She did, however, unpause the game, and just in time before Sam and Steve rejoined them. To his surprise and pleasure, Bucky saw that Steve had put back on his glasses. Sam and Natasha seemed pleased with it as well, and the two exchanged a discrete fist bump that Bucky would have normally been suspicious of, if he weren't so distracted by how the thick-framed glasses did wonderful things for Steve's blue eyes and defined jaw.
"So, uh, next game?" Steve suggested, not quite looking at Bucky, a hint of red creeping into his neck. A sudden realization hit Bucky - Steve, for all his muscle and bluster, was shy, and Bucky was so charmed by it that he let himself flirt perhaps a little more than he normally would have. He leaned back, draping his arm behind Steve on the couch. When Steve still didn't look at him, he gently knocked his fist against Steve's shoulder.
"They suit you," Bucky tried out, and was amused to see Steve grump a bit.
"I look like Moss from IT Crowd," he told the floor.
Bucky barked out a laugh. "No no - I mean, he's definitely kinda cute, so it's not a bad thing if you do." Steve's expression quickly turned incredulous, and Bucky laughed again. "No, I mean, you don't look like Moss. You look like a sexy professor, or something." To his delight, Steve's blush came back in full force. Bucky grinned, leaning back and digging into his pizza. "You need to wear them all the time? You don't wear them on the trail."
"Yeah, I usually just go with contacts. Glasses are awful to run with - almost worse than the asthma."
Bucky frowned. "You have asthma?"
"Oh." Now Steve looked embarrassed again. "Yeah. Grew up with it. I've got it under control, now."
The shy smile Steve looked at Bucky with was so disarming, that Bucky said the first thing which came into his fool head, which was, regrettably, "I'm surprised you can run at all." He'd intended it as a compliment - a sort of, "How impressive that you overcame those obstacles" kind of observation - but he immediately realized that it had come out rude instead. He tried to explain himself. "I mean, with the 'can't breathe, can't see' thing, and all your allergies..."
He'd made it worse. The smile dropped off Steve's face so quick it was as if a light had gone out. "I'm not an invalid," he said, jaw pushed forward stubbornly. "I can run just as far as you can. So what if I'm breathing a little heavier at the end of it? I can still do it."
Obviously this was a sore spot for Steve, and Bucky knew how annoying it was to have people assume you couldn't do things, but he had no idea how to salvage the conversation without sounding more like an ass.
There was silence for a moment, and then Steve sighed. "I'm gonna grab some water," he said, and left for the kitchen without waiting for Bucky's response.
Bucky sat for a moment on the couch, thrown by the sudden change in the evening. To his left, Clint and Sam were still engaged in their game, but Natasha never missed anything that happened within a 10-mile radius of her, and she was glaring at Bucky over Clint's shoulder. She nodded meaningfully toward the kitchen, and Bucky took the hint.
Steve was stacking empty pizza boxes when Bucky joined him. With no other options coming to mind, Bucky decided to go with a straightforward apology. "I'm sorry," he offered. Steve turned around, face pinched. "I didn't mean to make it seem like you couldn't do anything that you want to do. I know a bit what that's like." He held up his left hand and wiggled the fingers of his prosthesis. "I started running at the park because I didn't like the trainers at the gym telling me what I could and couldn't do with this thing."
Steve hmmm'ed and leaned against the counter, arms crossed, and considered Bucky for a moment. Whatever he saw on Bucky's face made his eyebrows quirk sardonically. "You know," he said, "that's the second time today that you've apologized to me."
"I, uh, can be a jerk, sometimes," Bucky agreed. Steve nodded.
"I guess you're going to have to make it up to me, somehow."
Bucky felt his eyes widen. He licked his lips. "Okay, sure."
Laughing, Steve broke his serious expression and tilted his head to the side. "Agreeing to something before you know what it is?" He grinned, cheeky. "Ballsy move, Barnes." Bucky relaxed, feeling that he was forgiven, but Steve went on. "So I'd say you can owe me a race, tomorrow morning." Bucky blinked in surprise, and Steve took the opportunity to push off the counter and say, teasingly, "You can see if you can keep up with the blind asthmatic."
A race? Bucky had seen Steve on the trails. The guy was a machine - but Bucky was no slouch himself. He could give Steve a run for his money. Even better, this way they were actually meeting up at the park together on purpose, which was enough like a date that Bucky was eager to say yes.
"Only if you feel comfortable getting schooled by an amputee, you asshole. You're on."
"Make it seven, unless you can't handle it?"
Steve eyes narrowed, voice low. "I can handle it."
"Be there at six-thirty, then, tough guy."
"Wow." Clint's voice startled Bucky, and he realized with a jolt just how close he and Steve were standing. Steve seemed startled as well. He blinked, coughed. From the entryway, Clint was holding Bucky's scarf and jacket. "As much as I hate to interrupt whatever is going on here, I have work in the morning. As landlord, it is my right to evict you from the premises."
"You're not the landlord," Steve frowned, breaking eye contact with Bucky. "You can't even afford clothes without holes in them."
"You can't afford games more recent than 2004," Bucky added.
"I wish I could afford some better friends. Out."
With a sigh, Bucky grabbed his scarf and shrugged on his coat. "See you tomorrow morning, then, yeah?" he grinned at Steve, who returned it with a smirk of his own.
"You're going down, Barnes."
Bucky angled back to face Steve again, eyes narrowed. "Loser buys the winner coffee," he growled, and Steve honest-to-god giggled.
"Oh my god get out of my apartment now."
Bucky rolled his eyes, but obligingly said his goodbyes to Lucky and the rest of the group. Natasha, apparently, was allowed to stay longer, and threw a cup at Bucky's head when he echoed Clint's earlier lewd gesture at her. Bucky did feel a bit guilty that he hadn't gotten to know Sam much - though from what little interaction with him he'd had, Bucky figured Sam was good guy. Bucky didn't want to make his interest in Steve any more obvious than he already had, though, so he shook their hands the same, trying not to pay Steve any more attention than was polite, and walked back to his apartment.
He hadn't gotten far before his phone pinged with a message.
[Unknown] 11:20: "hey it's Steve. Natasha gave me your number in case you chickened out on our race tomorrow."
Heart light, Bucky fiddled with his alarm, took a screenshot, and sent it back, the alarm title reading, "5:45 am. Kick Steve's ass."
[Steve] 11:20: "we'll see"
[Steve] 11:20: "you already lost at Mario Kart so"
[Steve] 11:20: "clearly you suck at racing"
Bucky angled his phone and sent Steve a very unimpressed selfie - and if he just so happened to have taken that same selfie five times to make sure it had just the right amount of smolder, and if he did a small fist pump when Steve sent back a selfie of his own... well, nobody needed to know it.
At 5:48 am, two minutes before his alarm was set to go off, Steve woke to a loud pinging by his ear. Blearily, he checked his phone, seeing an alert for six unread texts. The first five were from Clint and Sam.
[Clint] 11:52pm: "Natasha says you should wear the blue shirt"
[Clint] 11:52pm: "idk which one she means but she says it's your sex bomb shirt"
[Clint] 11:58pm: "she won't tell me how she knows that wtf"
[Sam] 11:58pm: "got home. I can't believe you're getting up before the asscrack of dawn AGAIN tomorrow. You have the weirdest courtship rituals man"
[Clint]: 12:01am: "Steven when did you sex bomb my girlfriend???"
It was the final one from Bucky that made him smile: a link to a video of a guy humming "Morning" while another man bobbed his head like a rooster and screamed, "WAKE the FUCK UP!!"
Steve grinned and forwarded the link to Sam, because what were friends for if not to wake each other up with loud vines on Sunday mornings? To Bucky, he sent: "been up for hours, old man" before launching out of bed. His running clothes were already out and ready to go - it should have taken him less than five minutes to be out the door.
His phone pinged again.
[Bucky] 5:51am: "you kids these days with your blatant bullshit"
Heart light in his chest, and feeling more chipper than he should have, given the hour, Steve grinned down at his phone and grabbed his shirt. He paused, thinking of Clint's text. He knew which shirt Natasha meant: the admittedly tight, short-sleeved blue under armor he'd worn last week. He must have been wearing it one of the mornings she had joined Bucky for his run, and he was a little embarrassed that it apparently made such an impression that she'd remembered it. He looked at the shirt he'd picked for today - looser, a bit stained - and...
The thing was, Sam liked to tease that Steve was a "ride or die" kind of guy, that he was either all in or all out, and that his demisexuality was equally zero to sixty. If you were to look at a Venn Diagram of Steve's sexuality, there would be one small circle of the people he'd ever been physically attracted to, and another holding the people Steve had ever been romantically interested in - and in the middle converging area were his ex, Peggy Carter, and now, Bucky Barnes.
So it wasn't that being attracted to somebody was unprecedented, but it was so unexpected and sudden that Steve was torn between excitement and exasperation. Mostly, he couldn't believe it. He liked Bucky. Honestly liked him. Steve couldn't remember the last time that'd happened. Just talking to Bucky the night before had been the closest to flirting he'd had in ages, minus the part when Bucky'd stepped on Steve's health issues.
And, okay, that wasn't something Steve could hold against Bucky. Several of Steve's friends had reliably informed him that Steve tended on the stronger side of dramatic, and even he could admit that he'd overreacted.
It's just... Steve had grown up sickly and used to people looking down on him, used to people picking him last for games in elementary school, used to jerks in middle school putting up fliers for Steve's funeral since "he'd be dying soon anyway." He'd gone through high school with doctors warning him against athletics and coaches refusing to give him a chance because of it.
Steve had grown into his adult life fighting the idea that anybody - even his body - could tell him what to do, and Bucky's offhanded comment had stung more than it should have. For a moment, Bucky had sounded just like every other bully in Brooklyn, and Steve had done what he did best: He'd snapped, and then immediately regretted it. Trust his temper to ruin his first night at impressing Hot Runner Guy. With no other options left, he'd retreated to the kitchen to escape the awkward silence and try to figure out how to salvage the situation.
Then Bucky had approached him; Bucky had apologized, had even opened up a bit about his prosthesis, and Steve had felt almost giddy at the realization that this person he'd been low-key crushing on for so long was also a good person. A person that Steve not only thought was amazingly good looking, but whom Steve actually wanted to spend time with.
So, sue him, he was gonna wear the tight shirt.
He grappled with his conscience while digging through his laundry. It wasn't like he was trying to...to...seduce Bucky or anything like that. Steve didn't even have a seduction technique - he hadn't ever been attracted to people often enough to have developed one, and Peggy had been the one to pursue him for their relationship. Steve wasn't even sure how one went about the whole thing.
(Sam would argue that if Steve were to have a seduction technique, taunting a man into a brutal athletic challenge would definitely be it.)
Steve found the blue shirt in his dryer, pulled it on, and then paused. Natasha had suggested he wear this shirt. From what Clint had told him, Natasha was practically a spy. (Or, literally was a spy? Clint had been vague, and Steve was mildly concerned.) If Steve wore the blue shirt to meet Bucky, and Natasha found out, then she'd know that Steve had worn it on purpose. Then Bucky would know that Steve had worn it on purpose.
He ripped the shirt off and threw it back into the dryer.
...he did have the exact same shirt in grey though. Guiltily, he pulled that one on instead, grabbed a banana and two allergen-free protein bars, and closed the door on his apartment.
The sun hadn't quite risen yet, but there were still a fair number of people walking the streets of Brooklyn, heading to work or church or loitering in the cramped corners of coffee shops. Steve caught the train that would drop him off near Prospect, his leg jiggling with excitement and nerves the entire ride. As he jogged up streetside, his phone pinged with another text from Bucky. It was a snap of the park circle, completely empty; the message below it read: "Should I take this as your surrender?"
He grinned and crossed the roundabout to the park entrance, still jogging when he came up from behind the person leaning casually on the wall. "Oh, was I supposed to wait for you?" he quipped, grinning when Bucky jolted in surprise and looked narrow-eyed over his shoulder. Steve stopped and spread his hands. "I figured since you took so long to show, I should just go ahead and do the run without you."
Bucky turned and leaned on the wall separating them, resting his chin on his hand. "Aw darn." His face screwed up in mock concern. "Does that mean you're gonna be too tired for me to kick your ass?"
"Nah," Steve said somewhat breathlessly, trying to keep his cool as they walked together to the trail marker. Jeeze, but Bucky was handsome. It was hard to believe that only two days ago, he'd been the unattainable Hot Runner Guy. Steve stretched out, determinedly not looking as Bucky did the same. "Loser buys coffee, yeah?" he said to distract himself from the way Bucky's shoulders bunched in his tank.
Bucky laughed. "After a seven-miler? Loser can buy breakfast."
"Oh." Steve blinked, heart leaping. "Y-yeah, breakfast sounds good." Breakfast sounded great. Breakfast meant time spent sitting and eating together, maybe even time enough for Steve to work out if Bucky would be interested in dating. Even if that wasn't the case, even if they just stayed friends, Steve was eager to spend as much time in Bucky's company as he was allowed. "Yeah, sure. Breakfast. Deal. You, uh, still good for seven?" Steve didn't usually run long distances two days in a row, and yesterday he'd done a hard eight miles, but if Bucky was committed to it, then Steve could be, too.
"I'm still good," Bucky said, tying the longer hair at the top of his head into a short tail. He looked, Steve thought, unfairly attractive.
Bucky assessed Steve out of the corner of his eye, squaring off against the path. "You still good?"
"I'm still good."
"Lower twice, upper loop, then full?" Something in the atmosphere had shifted slightly. Bucky was taking this seriously, a moue of concentration turning down the corners of his lips, as if a race against Steve was going to require all of his attention. He bounced on the balls of his feet, his eyes taking on that same focus that had intimidated Steve from approaching Bucky in the first place. Funny how it only took the space of a day for that look to go from fierce to adorable.
An idea fell into Steve's head. He smirked, got into starting position. "That works."
"On my mark, then." Bucky glared at the path ahead of him like he was about to storm into battle. Steve wiggled his toes. "And ready...and set -"
Steve burst into a sprint, laughing when Bucky squawked with outrage. "Cheater!" Bucky shouted.
The pavement was like clouds under his feet, Steve felt so light. "What was that?" he called over his shoulder and tapped his left ear. "I'm partially deaf - you'll have to speak up."
"I'll speak up alright, you little punk." Bucky's voice came surprisingly close behind, sending a shock shivering down Steve's spine. He kicked up faster, but a cold hand had grabbed onto the back of his shirt and yanked back with a whirring noise. "Sorry," Bucky deadpanned, using his grip to pull himself forward and flinging Steve back. "Robot arm. It malfunctions." He took off to lead.
What followed next was either the dirtiest race or the cheeriest warfare in the park's history. The first three miles were relentless, with both men breathing harsh and putting their everything into staying ahead - even outside the traditional rules of racing. At every opportunity, Steve knocked his shoulders into Bucky's, and he once checked him off the trail clear into a patch of tall ferns. Emerging with a snarl, Bucky had run after him screaming, "I better not get ticks, Steven!"
That's not to say that Bucky didn't fight dirty, too. He constantly cut corners to get ahead, laughing when Steve swore at him for leaving the path. Luckily it was so early that they weren't disturbing many other people, though those they did pass gave them a wide berth, and an alarmed man jogged off the trail entirely when they neared the lake.
"Wanna go for a swim, Stevie?"
"Don't you dare!"
Bucky didn't dare, but it was a close enough call that for two minutes, their race turned into a grappling match that led to them needing to stop and catch their breath from laughing so hard.
Things calmed a bit for miles three to four. By unspoken agreement, they kept pace with each other, running side-by-side, pointing out other park goers and chatting inanely. "I've always wanted a running buddy like that," Bucky said when a woman jogged across their path with her dog, which dissolved into a debate over which dog was "best" - the answer to which they both decided was "all dogs."
At mile four, Steve agreed to a five-minute bathroom break at the picnic house. Normally he wouldn't dare. The picnic house was a public bathroom, in New York, but it was still early. The stalls weren't quite as horrific as they could have been.
Outside again, Steve breathed in the dewy-green smell of the morning and stretched out his back with a groan. Behind him, he heard a laugh as Bucky came back out.
Steve stretched again and shook out his feet. "Naaaaah, I could do this all day."
"What, lose?" Bucky taunted, though his face almost as red as Steve's, and large chunks of hair had fallen from his topknot. He looked disheveled and alive and frankly fantastic. Steve was almost annoyed that somebody could look so good after four miles.
On reflex, Steve stuck out his tongue and regretted it immediately - there were probably better ways to act around attractive people - but Bucky only laughed again. "You're kind of a dick," he said with a crooked smile. "Ready?"
Despite himself, Steve found his competitive spirit fading a bit. He knew his stats. If he pushed for the final three miles left on the track, it'd take him no more than 20 minutes to finish the race, and he wasn't quite ready for that yet. Briefly, he contemplated suggesting they walk the rest of the way back; but Bucky'd come here for a race, and Steve was going to give him one, damn it. Before he could count them off again, though, Bucky grabbed his elbow.
"So, you can punch me if this is invasive or whatever," he said, glancing at Steve and then away again. "I just wanted to check, but, uh, you said you're asthmatic? It doing okay?" Before Steve could reply, Bucky hurried to add: "It's just, I never knew somebody with asthma before, so I dunno how it goes. I'm sure you've got it handled! Just, I thought I'd check, or..." he trailed off, looking uncomfortable. "I don't want to overstep, but I was just wondering, is all."
Surprisingly, instead of feeling defensive, Steve felt a rush of appreciation that Bucky was checking in with him, and also chagrined that he'd reacted so badly last night that Bucky was so tentative in bringing it up.
"I'm fine," he assured Bucky. "I haven't had an attack in years, and..." Now it was his turn to feel uncomfortable. "I overreacted last night. People used to give me a hard time about it, but that was a long time ago. It's really not something I'm sensitive about, anymore."
"People gave you a hard time?" Bucky demanded, looking for all he was worth like he wanted to personally look up Steve's bullies from eighth grade and take them to task for it. Steve grinned.
"It's really fine."
Bucky made a non-committal noise, shrugged. "Alright, well if you're okay, then." Then, he smiled, crooked and mischievous, and teased: I just wanted to see if I needed to take CPR training or something, if we're gonna keep running together."
Steve's stomach swooped. Bucky wanted to keep running together? "Yeah?" he breathed. "I wouldn't mind a running partner - so long as you don't slow me down too much."
"Tough words from the guy about to buy me breakfast."
"Wha - hey!" Steve laughed as Bucky took off down the path without him. "Cheater! You can't start before we say 'go'!"
"Oh no," called Bucky, not slowing down at all. "Who ever would do a thing like that?"
Clint blinked at them blearily from behind the counter. "Dude. Dudes. Hey, good morning. Why is there grass in your hair."
Bucky glared at Steve, who honest to god snickered. They were both a mess. Dirt smeared from the corner of Steve's jaw to his temple, clothes damp with sweat and flecked with pieces of leaves. Bucky was sure he looked no better. Thankfully, Barkley's didn't have too many people to gawk - and frankly, Clint looked more of a mess half the time, and he worked there - so Bucky didn't feel too self-conscious about the shameful state of his hair.
"Because somebody," he jerked his head towards Steve, "is a cheating cheater who cheats. And he'll be paying for both of us, by the way."
"What!" Steve widened his eyes innocently. "I didn't cheat. I tripped, and you were in my way!"
"You tackled me to the ground, Steve."
"You're just a sore loser."
"Okay, one," Bucky moved to the side as a woman edged around him on her way to the register. "I did not lose. At most, we tied, cuz we fell over the finish line at the same time. Two - "
Steve interrupted him, rolling his eyes at Clint, who was leaning against the counter, half-paying attention to the milk carafe wobbling on the machine and half-watching them amusedly. "Is he always this dramatic?" Steve asked.
"Two," Bucky insisted over Clint's definitive nod. "You technically forfeited the race when you tackled me to the ground, so not only did I not lose, I won. Which means, you're buying."
"Fiiiine," Steve sighed, eyes bright, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. "You could've at least let me pick the place, though."
"Hey!" Clint poured the steamed milk into a cup, splashing milk on the floor. "This is an excellent establishment."
"Clint gives us a discount," Bucky confessed, taking Steve's elbow and leading him over to the line at the register. "The espresso is pretty killer too, and, uh, you said you didn't eat cheese, right? They've got a vegan burrito, and Clint said it's gluten-free, so..." Bucky trailed off. Steve had gone very still. Bucky couldn't quite read the look on his face. "Unless you're allergic to soy, too? They've got fruit, too."
"Nah," Steve said. He moved to scratch his nose, but Bucky caught a glimpse of a small, pleased smile. It made something in his chest flutter sharply. "Nah, just, that was nice of you to check ahead of time."
Feeling somewhat caught out, Bucky blustered: "Well, I was pretty sure you were gonna lose, so..." Laughing, Steve shoved Bucky out of the way. By the espresso machine, Bucky heard Clint whisper, "Oh my god."
They placed their orders, and Bucky waved Steve off to hold a table for them before the morning rush came in, and Bucky would wait at the front for their food. He resisted the urge to stare like a dope while he walked away, but judging by the pointed throat-clearing behind him from Clint, he failed.
"This is so great," Clint breathed, pulling down a no-dairy carafe and sending a cascade of other dishes down to the ground. "Ah shit."
"Clint, I swear, if you say anything."
"Oh, I'm already planning the speech I'm gonna give at your wedding. This is so good. So good. I mean, you were here, what, yesterday? Crying on my shoulder about your unattainable Hot Runner - "
" - I did not cry - "
" - and now, today, you're rolling in the park together and having coffee - "
" - oh my god - " A woman at a nearby table had put down her book and was blatantly eavesdropping. "Clint shut up, okay?"
"I'm just saying, I haven't seen flirting this aggressive since Top Gun."
Bucky snatched their drinks and baskets of food from the counter. "Thank you," he hissed. "I regret telling you anything, ever."
"Hey hey hey," Clint waved at him to wait. Heaving a sigh, Bucky raised his eyebrows. "Tell Steve that I like his shirt, okay? It's important."
Bucky shook his head and made his way to where Steve had secured them a spot - thankfully close enough to the entrance that Clint wouldn't be able to overhear their conversation. Warm, honey-gold light was spilling into the cafe from the open doors, and Bucky took a moment to appreciate how it played over Steve's rumpled hair before sliding into the chair across from him. Steve looked away from where he'd been studying a piece of art on the wall (a neon rabbit with walrus tusks and moose antlers) and smiled at Bucky.
"This place is weird," he said happily, pulling his basket close and popping a potato wedge into his mouth.
"Well, they hired Clint, so." Bucky pushed Steve's coffee across the table. "He says he likes your shirt, by the way?" Inexplicably, Steve turned a bright red and almost fumbled his cup as he took a quick swig of coffee.
"It was just what was cleanest," he said quickly, defensively, hunching over.
Steve was going to murder Clint. He'd had a moment of panic when Bucky had insisted going to Barkley's, worried that Clint would be on-shift and - seeing that he was - Steve had been so thankful that he'd not gone with wearing the "sex-bomb" shirt. He'd never have lived it down. He peeked up at Bucky, who looked a bit confused.
"O...kay?" he said and then, to Steve's surprise, he flicked his eyes down and up again, leaving Steve feeling very definitively checked out. He resisted the urge to squirm in his chair. "Well," Bucky pointed out with a grin, "it sure ain't clean now."
Steve latched onto the excuse. "Yeah, Clint was probably just teasing me about that. I usually give him crap for looking like he's just fallen in a dumpster, so."
"So," Bucky repeated, leaning back in his chair and hooking his arm over the back of his chair. He looked fantastic: His hair was delightfully rumpled, fluffed and frizzing even tied up in a bun, and Bucky had the satisfied glow of a person who'd just thoroughly worked out. Steve took a bite of his burrito to avoid staring. "What is it that you do, when you're not cheating at any and every game you play?"
Relaxed again, Steve kicked at Bucky's foot beneath the table. "I'm never going to hear the end of that, am I?" Bucky grinned and shook his head, waving his hand in a go on motion. "Officially, I do investigative support for victim services."
"Ho, shit, that sounds cool," Bucky breathed, prompting Steve to flush.
"N-nah, it's really just making sure programs aren't violating different civil rights. Lots of paperwork."
"Hmmm." Bucky reached for his drink. When he put the cup down, his hand stayed on the table. It was a small space - his fingers almost touched Steve's own where they curled around Steve's coffee mug. "Sounds smart, to me." A teasing - flirting?? - smirk spread across his face. "Good looks and brains, huh?" Then, before Steve could do much else besides sputter, he tilted his head. "Wait, you said officially? What are you unofficially?"
"Oh," Steve stammered, still flustered, "uh, art. I mean - I do art. I'm an artist."
"No kidding." Thank heaven, Bucky didn't seem put off by Steve's floundering. "What kind of art do you do?"
Bucky, it turned out, had a younger sister who was trying to get into art school, and he himself had taken a few classes as extracurriculars when getting his degree. Degrees.
"You have three Ph.D.s?" Bucky ducked his head modestly. "Wow," said Steve. "Doctor Barnes, then, huh?"
He grinned rakishly. "Only if you're nasty."
"Oh my god stop."
Bucky only winked again, this time outrageously, and excused himself to get them both refills on their coffee, giving Steve time to snatch up his phone to text Sam.
[Steve] 8:36: "Sam I'm at Barkley's with Bucky and I think he might be flirting with me what do I do"
[Sam] 8:36: "run awy with him and nvr text me this early on a sunday ever again"
Steve sent him the vine from Bucky again, and laughed when Sam sent a long string of volcano emojis in response.
[Sam] 8:38: "but seriously, man, relax. you charm little old ladies all the time. give him the old razzle dazzle and ask him on a date"
"No sugar, yeah?" Bucky's voice startled Steve, and he resisted the reflex to hurl his phone out the window to keep Bucky from seeing it.
Bucky only set the mug in front of him and took his seat again. Before he could lose his nerve, Steve took a deep breath and said: "We should go to the MoMA or something sometime." Bucky blinked, and Steve's nerve ran for it. "I mean, Sam and Clint are heathens who don't appreciate art. I need to go with somebody who doesn't just want to hang out in the gift shop the whole time."
A thoughtful look crossed over Bucky's face, giving Steve just enough time to worry that he'd been too forward, before he nodded. "We can go Wednesday, or Friday? I've got evening classes otherwise."
Steve could barely believe his luck. "Wednesday. Wednesday works."
"Great." Bucky smiled, looking pleased with himself, and they turned back to their breakfasts. They were debating whether or not to split a muffin for dessert when Steve's phone pinged again.
[Sam] 8:55: "clint says you look like the cat who got the cream, rogers. success?"
Steve looked up and saw Clint giving him a thumbs up behind the counter. He glared.
"Clint is not invited, by the way," he told Bucky, still eyeing Clint over his shoulder.
Bucky huffed a short laugh. "Just you and me, then, huh? I can handle that."
"Yeah?" Steve looked back, grinning.
If you're wondering whether or not Sam texted Clint for details of Steve and Bucky's not-date-coffee-date, the answer is 100 percent yes.
The three days building up to Wednesday night's MoMA plans were, in Bucky's view, excellent. He and Steve had taken to running together in the mornings - actual runs, not repeats of the Great Failed Race 2K17 - more often than not leading to Bucky treating Steve to breakfast, or Steve spotting them coffee.
It all had the great result of Bucky getting to know Steve, hearing about his love of Disney, his irrational fear of monkeys ("I'm not afraid of them, Buck. I just don't like them!"), and the amazing duality in his capacity for both compassion and rage. It was as if everything interested him - from civil suits, to human rights, to street art. He even listened attentively when Bucky talked about his work, asking questions about his students and his research; showing a level of interest in Bucky's life that Bucky wasn't used to receiving.
Bucky had never felt so enthralled with another person. He didn't even mind Natasha giving him crap for it.
"I'd say you're being ridiculous for drawing it out like this," Natasha greeted him when he came back, beaming and practically skipping, from his run with Steve on Wednesday morning.
"But I'm bringing you coffee," he pointed out, handing her a to-go cup from Barkley's. It had a barely recognizable heart pierced with an arrow scribbled on the side; Natasha rolled her eyes when she saw it.
"You are bringing me coffee," she conceded. Bucky moved to the laundry room, shucking his sweaty shirt into the bin. From the living room, Natasha called out, casual, "and how is Steve this morning?"
Chest warm and light, Bucky leaned against the door frame, not even bothering to hide the grin on his face. "Great, he's great," he gushed. "He was telling me about this case he was looking into, and it's so interesting. Apparently - "
"I'm sure I'll want to hear all about it," Natasha interrupted, looking down at her cup, thumb rubbing the doodle idly, "but I'm more interested in whether or not you've finally asked the man out." Her eyes flashed up at him, suddenly serious. "You know my thoughts on stealth dating, Barnes."
The happy lightness in his chest sank into his stomach, twisting uncomfortably. "It's not...it's not stealth dating."
Natasha hmmm'ed doubtfully. "You meet up every morning, take romantic walks through the park - "
" - it's grueling exercise - "
"You have breakfast and coffee dates, you've met up twice already for lunch, and you're taking him to the MoMA tonight - you're dating him."
"Technically," Bucky grumbled, "he's taking me to the MoMA." Natasha put down her coffee and stared at him. "Fine," he exhaled noisily. "You're right. I like him. But I'm not stealth dating him! I'm just getting to know him. We can't all be as direct as you were with Clint."
"You calling me fast?"
"I'm calling you ruthless." Natasha smirked, pleased, and Bucky continued: "Some of us need to take our time before asking people out."
Conceding his point with a tilt of her head, Natasha shrugged. "Sure. That's fine. Take all the time you need. Just remember that the longer you wait, the more uncomfortable it will be."
Bucky sighed and waved his hand, moving to the bathroom to shower before his class. "I know."
"And if you ask me," Natasha called out again, louder, pointed, "if you really liked somebody, you'd give them the decency of your honest intentions."
"Stop having good points!" Bucky snapped over his shoulder before closing the door, her laughter carrying over the creaking of their pipes as he turned on the water.
As much as he loathed to admit it, Natasha was right. Bucky had never been one to drag his feet - this thing with Steve was an exception, and Bucky was so unused to the concept of being shy that he almost didn't know what to do with himself.
The MoMA was a date. He was 70 percent sure of it - that certainty increased to 75 percent when Steve had shown up, smartened up in a pair of dark jeans and a tight blue dress shirt, freshly showered with his hair still damp at his nape. Bucky was relieved he'd dressed up a bit as well, especially when Steve gave him a clearly appreciative once over. That was date-like behavior, right? Bros didn't check out their bros, did they?
"Hey," Steve breathed, taking the steps two at a time to where Bucky stood waiting at the entrance. "You been here long?"
"Nah," Bucky smiled, pleased, when Steve opened the door for him. Bucky readjusted his thinking; Natasha had been wrong - he was now 85 percent positive that Steve was stealth dating him.
This perception only strengthened as the evening when on. Steve was a great date, attentive to Bucky as they walked through the exhibits, but also completely taken in by the art itself. They spent over half an hour in the early 1900s gallery, Steve alternating between enthralled silence and non-stop chatter. Not that Bucky was too cool for it - he was giddy as a schoolchild in the holocenter exhibit, excitedly explaining the physics of the projections to an equally impressed Steve.
By the time the evening was over, Bucky was feeling confident enough to suggest dessert. A truck nearby did "vegan artisan ice cream," and even though the prices were criminal, Bucky had to admit that the stuff was good - though not nearly as good as the pleased flush that crept up Steve's neck when he found out Bucky had looked for places that catered to Steve's allergies.
"This was fun," Steve said happily, feet rocking under the bench in Heckscher. The evening was heavy, muggy from the hot day. Around them, the park hummed with activity; kids still clinging to summer screaming on the swings, tourists taking pictures, a group of adults doing aerial yoga - Steve and Bucky sat in a comfortable silence while they ate, and watched it all.
"Something on your mind?" Steve asked after Bucky had been silent for a long while. His eyes were bright, and he looked so comfortable and happy and handsome under the lamplight that Bucky just felt that the moment was on him.
"Yeah, actually," he said, trying to sound as casual as possible. "I've got a bit of a problem, actually." Steve made a concerned noise, turning to face Bucky more fully. Bucky resisted the urge to run a hand over his hair. "It's kind of personal."
Bucky grit his teeth and jumped in. "There's this guy I know. I'm trying to figure out if he wouldn't mind if I asked him out."
"Oh." Steve's smile dropped, his shoulders rounding forward. Bucky had never seen a grown man look so much like a dejected puppy. It was almost exasperating. He kicked Steve's foot; looked at him meaningfully. A beat passed - and then Steve's eyes widened. "Oh. Yeah?"
Biting back a grin at the pleased surprise in Steve's voice, and ignoring the way his own heart was pounding, Bucky nodded. "Yeah. He's a pretty solid guy. I, uh, I really like him a lot. You think I should go for it?"
"Definitely," Steve said before Bucky had even gotten the last word out. He twisted his fingers in his lap, neck a bright red. "He's, uh, probably been trying to...trying to figure out how to do the same," Steve mumbled, not looking at Bucky. It was pretty adorable, but the last thing Bucky wanted was for Steve to be uncomfortable.
Luckily, Bucky had Steve's number by now. "Oh sweet," he said, "then I beat him to it."
The tension in Steve's shoulders lifted instantly. "Excuse me?" Bucky laughed a little as Steve sputtered indignantly. "You didn't beat me to it! I'm the one who asked you out tonight!"
Bucky had known it. "And I took you to Barkley's first!"
"I talked to you first in the park!"
"Only because I came to stretch out next to you! You think I needed to work on my quads that much, Rogers?"
"Oh come on...I noticed you first."
Steve huffed, eyes narrowed, a smile curving the corner of his mouth. "Well," he said, grabbing Bucky's hand, "I kissed you first." He brought his other hand up to cup Bucky's chin, holding him steady. Fondness and excitement swelled in Bucky's chest, and he held perfectly still so Steve could slowly, as if giving Bucky time to pull away if he wanted, move to kiss him - soft, sweet, despite his combative determination, and wasn't that just Steve for you.
"I win," Steve whispered, thumb stroking Bucky's cheek.
"Hmmm." Curving a hand around Steve's waist, Bucky looked up, pretending to mull it over. "I'll give you that one, but I'm going to want a rematch. My place? Say, oh, right now?"
Steve laughed. "You're on."
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed these two awkward dorks. I'm planning on making a series of unrelated AUs for these guys. If you have any favorite tropes you'd like to read, please comment and let me know! I'd be happy for the prompts!