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American Dream

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Bucky Barnes has woken up in many unpleasant ways in his lifetime. Loud alarm clocks, a louder mother, the doorbell, falling out of bed, the occasional water bucket dumped over his head. He’s a man of simple wants and needs. Sleep is number one with a damn bullet at the top.

Becca knows that, which begs the question: Why, exactly, is she repeatedly kicking him in the side at too-early o’clock on a Saturday?

“Stop kicking me,” Bucky mutters into the crook of his elbow, his cheek plastered to his forearm with dried drool. The overhead light is glaringly bright even with his eyes still closed.

“I’m not kicking you,” Becca says, “I am merely prodding you insistently with the toe of my sneaker. There’s a difference.”

“You went for the kidneys. That’s strategic,” Bucky says. He prizes himself off the cardboard box he apparently fell asleep hunched over top of. His back cracks in protest.

“Oh good god, why’d you let me fall asleep like that?” he whines.

Becca sticks out a hand to help him up. He extricates himself from the pile of boxes and gets a proper look at her. She’s already dressed for the day, bright-eyed with her curly hair tamed into a knot atop her head. At least someone’s ready to go, though as the elder Barnes, Bucky feels that it ought to have been him shaking her awake at—what the hell time even is it? He looks down at his watch. Long time, no see, 5:54 a.m.

“Nope,” Becca says. “Take responsibility for your own actions.”

Bucky plants his hands on his hips and scowls at her. She had to go and hit him with his own line. Zero points for originality, but maybe three for maturity.

“That’s—a fair point, fine,” Bucky concedes.

She grins at him, the same lopsided smile as the one Bucky’s fighting back with approximately 43% of his might.

“Go get dressed, old man.” She maneuvers past him toward the kitchen, thumping him on the shoulder as she passes. “The movers are gonna be here any minute.”

“I am not ashamed of my sheep pajamas,” Bucky calls after her.

“Yeah, yeah, where’d you hide the poptarts?”

“The box labeled ‘no nutritional value but for some reason I keep buying this stuff,’” Bucky says. He picks his way through the maze of boxes toward his room to scavenge for any unpacked clothes he can wear today. Halfway down the hall, he pauses to call, “Get me some too.”

The movers show up just as Bucky has wrestled a pair of jeans out of a box and pulled them on. He offers to help the movers  pack up the truck, and two of the three men give him exasperated looks.

“Thanks for the offer, dude, but you’re paying us to do this,” the third one tells him with a smirk. Bucky shrugs, entirely unoffended—he didn’t really want to help, he just figured it was polite. Six in the morning is too early for manual labor.

He and Becca sit on the kitchen counter to eat their (woefully untoasted) poptarts, knees knocking as they watch the guys carry box after box out to the truck. Not a bad view, truth be told.

It doesn’t take very long till they’ve got everything out. Becca hops down from the counter when the movers say they're ready to head out and darts down the hallway, away from the door. After a sluggishly confused moment, Bucky follows her and finds her in the bathroom, staring contemplatively at the toilet.

“Whatcha doing in here, kiddo?”

Becca glances at him in the mirror before gesturing grandly to the toilet. “You potty trained me right here.”

“Ha, yeah, don’t remind me.” Bucky props himself on the door jamb, crossing his arms over his chest. Becca turns to grin at him, plopping down on the lip of the tub.

“Remember Mr. Duckington?” she asks.

“How could I forget your favorite bathtime buddy,” Bucky says, laughing. “What ever happened to him?”

“Oh, weirdly enough, I found him in the back of my closet. Mr. Duckington lives another day.” Becca springs up and bounds toward him, grabbing his hand and leading him down the hall to her room.

It’s strange, to see it so empty. A week ago, there’d been clothes everywhere, books spilling off the case, posters covering the lilac walls—about the fifth color they had been since she was five. Now there’s nothing. Their footsteps echo on the laminate.

“Hmm,” Becca hums softly, and her grip on his hand tightens. Bucky reels her in and gets his free arm around her shoulders. She wriggles and protests halfheartedly, but eventually gives in to the hug, burying her face against his chest. “I didn’t think I’d cry. Is it weird to be crying?”

“Hey, no, not at all.” Bucky pulls his hand free to stroke at her hair. His chest feels oddly tight, and not from the way her arms loop around his ribs and squeeze. “This is where you grew up. It’s okay to feel a little sad about leaving it behind.”

She sniffles and wipes her tears on his t-shirt.

“Oh, real nice, Becks. Good moment we’re having here.”

As she pulls back, Bucky’s glad to see her smiling despite her watery eyes. “You good?” he asks.

“Yeah,” she huffs and headbutts his chest. “What about you?”

“I am too jazzed about having an actual yard to be sad about finally leaving this place behind.”

Laughing, Becca untangles herself from him to head toward the door. Bucky turns to follow her but stops short at the doorway, one hand reaching out to touch the marks there. Her height chart. With the lightest of touches, he traces it from preschool up to tenth grade, the inches and years sitting heavy in his heart. A good kind of heavy though, like when you can carry all the groceries inside in one trip—the satisfying weight of accomplishment.

He shuts the door behind him when he leaves the room.


Thanks to Bucky’s thorough and precise labeling system, the movers know exactly where to put each and every box. As the guys climb back into their truck to leave, Bucky and Becca call their thanks from the front porch of the house.

Their house. It’s theirs now. Or the bank’s technically, for the next thirty-odd years, but they live here and it’s their home now.

“Why don’t you take care of that realty sign?” Bucky asks.

Becca gives him a sly, sideways look. “By ‘take care’ do you mean—”

“I mean you better go show me why I paid for all those karate lessons.” Bucky pushes her toward the yard. He smiles as she skips toward the sign, pausing neatly to deliver a perfect roundhouse kick that knocks the “SOLD” sign to the ground.

“HI-YA! I got a problem with authority!” she shouts, sinking down into a ready stance. “Who’s next?”

Shit. Guess she retained a few things, then. Good to know she’d probably be okay in a bar fight, Bucky thinks—not that any fifteen-year-olds should or will be getting into bar fights on his watch. It’s the concept. She could win if she needed to. Kick some cheerleader’s ass at a football game or something. Not that he condones violence.

“Nice!” he calls out, starting a slow clap. Okay, well, he condones it against inanimate objects because that’s a healthy outlet for anger. “Now come inside before you scare our new neighbors.”

Unpacking is somehow even less fun than packing was. At least fitting everything into boxes was basically one big game of tetris. Now he has to figure out where to put stuff, and what looks good where, and Becca is absolutely no help because she’s off in her new room wallpapering the place with posters. He needs her artistic eye to figure out where to put the couch.

“Hey, honey bee?” Bucky asks softly, poking his head into her new room. It’s twice the size of her old room—more windows too, so the light’s good. There’s still boxes piled up everywhere, clothes spilling haphazardly out of them like she’d started with the closet and then changed her mind.

“Yeah?” Becca half-turns, still studying the poster arrangement on the wall. An Ansel Adams print next to a magazine cut-out of some generic blond celebrity is certainly a bold choice, but it kind of works. Juxtaposition or something. Bucky listens when she talks about photography.

“If you come help me with the living room, we’ll take a break after and I’ll buy you second breakfast,” he says sweetly. Bribery is occasionally the only way to get a teenager to do what you want.

“You mean brunch.” She quirks an eyebrow.

“No, I mean second breakfast, Aragorn.” Bucky puts on his very best duh face. “Isn’t brunch just a Sunday thing?”

She rolls her eyes fondly and puts down the sticky tac. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” she says as she glides past him into the hall.

“We don’t mix references in this household,” Bucky says, hurrying after her back to the living room.

Once the couch and the rest of the living room furniture is in place, Becca finds a coffee shop on her phone within walking distance. Bucky’s kind of glad he didn’t have Google Maps as a teenager because he would have had even less money than he did already, with the answer to all his food-related desires only a click away.

“We just have to walk past the park and then we’re in town,” Becca tells him, tapping at her screen. “Man, this is so convenient. I’m never going to have to drive like, ever.”

“That’s kind of the whole plan, bee.” Bucky’s smile sours.

They set off on foot, Becca leading the way. The walk is actually kind of pleasant, with the sun shining and a light breeze ruffling their hair. The houses get bigger as they get closer to the park, with more floors and bigger yards. Bucky is totally not jealous of all these neatly trimmed hedges and immaculate flower beds. Shit, is that guy pressure washing his siding? Everyone in this neighborhood seems to take special care of their yards. Bucky can’t wait to get his hands dirty and make theirs something to stop and look at too.

“Oh my god, look at all the dogs!” Becca points and screeches.  

They’ve reached the park, and from here, it’s clear that the place is hopping on a Saturday midmorning. There’s moms with strollers and dads swinging kids on the playground, joggers and tai chi-ers and more dogs than Bucky can count. He walks a little faster too.

As it happens, the dogs are all behind a fence because this particular section of the park is devoted exclusively to canine enjoyment. Bucky is certainly enjoying the canines. He and Becca lean against the fence to watch a Corgi with a bandana play tug of war with a Weimaraner puppy. The puppy’s putting up a valiant fight, but it looks like old Corg over here’s going to win. Becca squeals beside him, hand over her mouth.

“Can we get a puppy now since we have a yard!” It’s not so much a question as a high-pitched squawk. Bucky rubs at his ear.

“Yeah, real funny. You like puppies in theory, but you’ve never had one pee on your boombox before.”

RIP boombox, 1996-1997. If they get a dog, it will be one that is already house broken.

“This is an official announcement of my campaign to get a puppy.” From where she’s sprawled over the chainlink, she gives him a challenging look, her jaw set.

“Oh yeah?” Bucky asks around a smile. “What’s your slogan? I only vote for candidates with killer slogans.”

She doesn’t miss a beat. “Tippecanoe and puppies too.”

Bucky sputters a laugh. Someone’s been paying attention in history class. “Catchy but unoriginal. Get back to me when you’re being clever again.”

“Excuse you, I am clever all the time,” she says, turning on him. Bucky jumps out of the way before she can shove him and winds up tripping over his own feet. For half a second she watches him waver, smirking way too happily about the prospect of him eating dirt, before she reaches out to steady him.

“Alright, jeez, careful not to throw your hip out or something.” She maneuvers him till he’s leaning against the fence again.

“You know I’m not actually that old, right?” Bucky asks. “It’s important to me that you understand that.”

“You complain about your joints every single day.” She lays her forearms on the fence again, looking out over the dogs like a kid at the ice cream counter. “And I know it’s every day because I mark it on my calendar.”

“You do not,” Bucky says, more out of hope than any real confidence. She totally might.

He may never find out whether she keeps track of his complaining regimen though. The moment she opens her mouth to answer, someone shouts from across the dog park.

“Bucky?”

Who in the hell, no, Bucky is not here , goodbye—

Becca grabs him by the elbow to keep him from darting off down the sidewalk. He is decidedly uninterested in small talk with someone who semi-knows him, and that’s what it will be because there are like, two entire people who know enough about him to do more than small talk. One of them is standing right here and the other one lives across the country. No one in Maple Bay even knows that Bucky isn’t his real name besides the people at the DMV, who would—

“Bucky, hey!” the voice calls again, considerably closer this time. Too close for him to feasibly run away now. He sighs and turns toward the sound, scanning for its source.

Oh, well holy shit. Look who it is.

“Sam!” Bucky surprises himself by smiling as Sam strolls up to the fence, tossing a tennis ball back and forth between his hands. Sam grins back at him, all toothy and warm like he’s genuinely happy to see him.

“Of all the people to run into,” Sam says. He shoves the tennis ball into his pocket and sticks his hand out. “How you been, man?”

“Um, good.” Bucky takes his hand. Sam’s grip is just as strong as he remembers. “Great even.”

“Glad to hear it,” Sam says as he lets his hand go. He looks at Becca then, his eyebrows shooting toward his hairline. He rubs at his eyes exaggeratedly. “Am I seeing things or is this little Becca Barnes?”

“You remember Sam, right, Becks?”

“Of course I remember Sam. I was a child, not dead,” she says, shaking her head at him. She turns her attention to Sam. “Not so little anymore, huh?”

“I’d say not. Last time I saw you, you were about this big.” He holds his hand out and indicates a height roughly equal to that of an American Girl doll.

He’s not far from the mark. Becca had been a tiny little thing through all of elementary and middle school. Bucky just assumed she’d stay shrub-height, until she hit ninth grade and started growing like a weed, blossoming up into a towering tree and—he’s mixing plant metaphors, but the point is she cleared his shoulder last year and he’s still kind of mad about it. He misses the days when she couldn’t reach to steal his baseball caps. She never gives them back.

“It’s almost like time has passed or something,” Becca says. Bucky nearly tells her off for being a smart alec, but Sam thinks it’s funny, so he lets it slide. “So do you have a dog?”

The eagerness in her voice is plainer than vanilla ice cream. She rubs her palms together, eyes darting from Sam to various dogs like she might be able to figure out which one is his just by looking.

“Oh, it’s dogs now?” Sam teases. “Last I remember, horses were your thing.”

“I am a reformed horse girl and I’m not ashamed of my past,” Becca says like she’s about to share at Horse Girls Anonymous. Which is not a bad idea and should maybe be a thing. “Now tell me where the dog is and no one gets hurt.”

Sam cackles as he holds his hands up in compliance. He turns slowly to point toward the far fence line, where a young girl plays with a dog that probably weighs more than she does.

“Oh my god, you have a boxer! Can I play with your dog!” Becca grips the fence so hard Bucky’s worried she might bend it.

“So long as you don’t mind playing with my daughter too,” Sam says. “Her name’s Lola and the dog is Cookie. You can—”

Before Sam can finish his sentence, Becca vaults over the fence like she’s an Olympic hurdler and pelts across the field toward Sam’s dog and daughter.

“Uh, I did not teach her how to do that.”

Sam gives him an unimpressed look.

“I may have taught her how to do that,” Bucky admits, rubbing at his nose sheepishly. Secretly he’s proud of how expertly she just executed that jump. Kid should’ve joined the track team. She slows down as she reaches Lola and Cookie, pointing toward Sam and saying something. When Lola looks at him, Sam smiles and gives a thumb’s up. After that, the lines between girl and dog blur pretty quickly.

“I see she knows about stranger danger,” Bucky comments.

“And every other kind of danger. Surprisingly safety conscious for her age.” The fondness is obvious in Sam’s voice.

“How old is she?”

“Nine. We’ve had her since she was four.”

“We? Are you still with—”

“Riley? Yeah, of course.” Sam holds up his left hand where a silver band gleams. “Tied the knot a while back. He’s a doctor now.”

“Shit, guess you married up,” Bucky deadpans. Sam laughs and thumps him on the arm good-naturedly.

“It’s good to see you, Barnes,” Sam says.

“Yeah, you too,” Bucky says, properly looking at him now. Sam has aged in the years since Bucky saw him last, but not in a bad way. The man is a fine bottle of wine. In fact, if he weren’t married—

Bucky cuts that thought off before he can finish it. Beyond the ring on his finger, Sam has seen him at his absolute worst, despondent and struggling with barely two dollars to rub together for warmth. That should have made him feel nice, that Sam can still think highly of him after witnessing that colossal mess, but instead it’s just embarrassing. He mostly has it together now at least, due in large part to Sam’s help.

“You still in social work?” Bucky asks, mostly to get Sam to stop looking at him like—like he’s proud of him.

“Yeah.” Sam exhales, wringing his hands. “Switched focus though. Family work felt a little too personal after we got Lola.”

“Makes sense,” Bucky says. “What do you do now?”

“Counsel veterans down at the VA.”

“Oh, so definitely more light-hearted then.”

Sam shrugs. “It’s a different kind of difficult.”

Bucky nods, not really sure what to say back to that. Thankfully, Becca must smell his inferiority complex from across the field. She bounds back up to them, her knees grass-stained and hair even messier than it was, but her smile stretches from ear to ear.

“We should go before all the good muffin flavors sell out,” Becca says to Bucky. She turns to Sam. “Thanks for letting me play with your dog! Also your daughter! They are both good.”

“Any time,” Sam says. “Y’all live around here now?”

“We just moved.” Bucky jerks a thumb toward the street they walked up. “Poplar Circle.”

“Small world! I live on the next street. Brick one with the green door,” Sam says. “Seriously, come over some time. I’d love for you guys to meet Riley.”

“Sure thing,” Becca says, and makes to hop the fence again.

“Nope, no, stop embarrassing me and use the gate like a civilized human,” Bucky says, gripping her shoulders and pushing her back down. He’s surprised when she goes with it instead of protesting, though Sam may have something to do with the way she refrains from rolling her eyes and walks toward the gate.

“Good to run into you, Sam.” When Bucky waves and starts to duck away, Sam just shakes his head.

“You know the drill, dude.” Sam holds out his arms wide, and Bucky begrudgingly leans in for an awkward over-the-fence hug. Okay, well, it’s not that awkward. It’s nice. He hasn’t hugged anyone besides Becca in—information redacted. Maybe he’ll actually take him up on that offer to hang out sometime.

He meets Becca by the gate and together they continue toward town, Becca extolling the wonders of Sam’s dog the whole way. When they reach the coffeeshop, Bucky pauses, staring from across the street.

“Oh no,” he murmurs.

“What?”

“This isn’t one of those ultra hip places, is it?” Bucky asks. “I’m not ready for that.”

Even from the outside, it’s got that look about it. The huge windows show an interior that’s all polished wood and exposed brick. He would put good money on it that when they walk in, some pretentious bullshit music will be playing. A barista either too chipper or too removed from this plane of existence to be inviting will recommend a pour-over that costs $10. Bucky can already feel his eyeballs melting, too much potential heat generated from how quickly they will roll.

The name gives him just a fraction of hope. Espresso Yourself is ridiculous and terrible, but if you look past the thinly veiled threat, it’s also mildly charming.

“How have you never been here?” Becca asks, looking both ways before dragging him across the street.

“Because I never leave the house? Also our coffeemaker at home is perfectly fine. We have a steady relationship and I feel terribly guilty about stepping out, so I should probably just go home.”

“You will drink a latte and you will like it.”

With an almighty shove at his back, Bucky has no choice but to open the door, lest he become no more than a smudge on the glass. Inside, there is music playing, but it sounds less like sad man music and more like… sea shanties? As Bucky looks around, he notices a weird collection of accents to the industrial-chic decor—circus-themed knick knacks and a lot of purple and, good god, everyone in here is wearing a scarf. Is there a dress code? Are Bucky’s ratty jeans and Maple Bay Marauders t-shirt going to get him kicked out of here?

The man behind the counter perks up when they enter, smiling broadly at Becca like he recognizes her. Which he does, Bucky supposes, because apparently she comes here relatively often. There was a time when he knew exactly where she was and what exactly she was doing in that place at any given moment.

Now he’s nostalgic for elementary school days in this stupidly eclectic coffeeshop. Great.

“Hey, Becca!” the barista calls. “Your usual?”

“Of course,” Becca says as Bucky drags his feet toward the counter behind her. He glances over the chalkboard menu as he fishes his wallet out of his pocket. Nothing has a normal name. Americano the Beautiful, Stop the EsPRESSo (Decaf French Press), Catch My Drip. Whoever named these had a lot of fun, and Bucky’s having fun reading them, but he has very specific needs.

“Do you have just … coffee?” Bucky asks. “Like, black coffee, nothing dumb in it.”

“Of course,” Barista Guy says, already scribbling on a paper cup with his tongue between his teeth. He glances up at Bucky as he grabs another cup. When he does, his jaw drops.

“JB?”

Bucky freezes with his money out. He meets the guy’s eye, squinting and searching.

“Oh my god, Clint ?”

“JB?” Becca asks, barely holding back a cackle.

Bucky mashes a hand into her face, too busy gaping at Clint fucking Barton to bother explaining about how he’d tried to reinvent himself in college. Clint grins at him, tucking the pen behind his ear to duck around the end of the counter.

“Dude!” He holds his arms out, and Bucky can sense the impending hug. “It’s so good to see you! How long has it been?”

“Uh,” Bucky hedges as Clint grabs his hand and reels him in for one of those back-clapping bro hugs. “Almost fifteen years?”

“I can’t believe it.” Clint thumps his shoulder again and circles back behind the counter, grabbing Becca’s cup. He turns toward the espresso machine but doesn’t take his eyes off Bucky. “Seems like just yesterday we were inhaling pizza like it was air and zombie-walking to our 8 a.m. classes.”

“Why did we sign up for early classes again?” Bucky asks. He’s maybe staring too intently at Clint right now, but he literally hasn’t seen the dude in a decade and a half. He used to wake up six feet from him every morning.

He looks good. Kind of shaggy, but that’s nothing new, and that same affable grin Bucky associates with happiness and also a sense of impending doom. Clint was a good roommate, but admittedly terrible at most other things. Bucky had to do a lot of damage control freshman year. Their RA probably thought they were in witness protection with how elaborately awful his explanations got.

“If I knew, I’d’ve stopped us,” Clint says. He finishes with Becca’s drink, something saccharine and entirely too caffeinated for a fifteen-year-old, but Bucky knows better than to say she shouldn’t drink it. She’d just turn his own caffeine habits back on him, which basically boil down to, “If I could get it in an IV drip, I would.”

Clint pours Bucky’s plain coffee and and grabs some muffins from the display case before ringing them up. Bucky’s pretty sure the price he gives doesn’t match what’s on the boards, but he’s not about to complain. They’re fine financially nowadays, but his penny pinching habits will die a hard death.

“I didn’t know you lived around here,” Bucky says as Becca quietly drifts off toward a few chairs in the corner.

“Yeah, dude. Willow Street.”

“We’re neighbors! We’re over on Poplar!”

“No way!”

“Cross my heart,” Bucky says, all feigned innocence, and Clint laughs as he hands Bucky his change.

“I’ll let you go.” Clint waves a hand toward Becca, who’s settled into a luxurious wingback. “Let’s catch up sometime though, yeah? I’ve missed you, bro.”

“Sure.” Bucky reaches across the counter to shake Clint’s hand. By some miracle, when Clint springs their asinine secret handshake on him, he remembers every last twist and punch. Clint gives him his widest puppy dog smile as Bucky walks off.

Seeing Sam and Clint was nice, but now Bucky plans to shut himself in his new house and pretend the outside world does not exist until tomorrow . A man can only take so many reunions in a single day, and there are boxes calling out a siren song. Or perhaps it’s more ominous spectral wailing, but either way they demand his attention.

They make it back home by noon, full of pastries and entirely too much coffee. Becca disappears into her room again, leaving Bucky to sort out the rest of the house by himself. He can feel the caffeine thrumming in his veins, but he figures it’s as good a way as any to keep motivated while unpacking. He’s not sure what the world record is for unpacking a kitchen, but he may have just beaten it.

The next room he decides to tackle is his office—a real, honest to god office devoted entirely to working and nothing else. If this is what being financially stable feels like, Bucky could get used to it. He spends a long time getting everything set up, only briefly getting ensnared in a tangle of cords. Eventually he defeats the cord monster and gets everything into working order. While the room is by no means done, he feels good enough about it to take a break.

He’s in the kitchen drinking a glass of water when the doorbell rings. He stifles a groan and shambles toward the door, expecting some do-gooder neighbor welcoming them to the neighborhood—or worse, someone inviting them to join the neighborhood watch. Bucky’s paranoid enough without doing it on a volunteer basis, thank you very much.

He cracks the door open to reveal—well. That is… certainly a man.

“Hi!” the man says. “Welcome to the neighborhood!”

Bucky suddenly feels entirely welcome—or, uh, something. He’s definitely feeling something. His new neighbor beams brightly at him from the porch. His pale blue sweater clings to a torso cut with the precision of a master jeweler, and the color makes his eyes sparkle like two precious gemstones. His hair shimmers like solid gold in the afternoon sun. Shit.

“Hi,” Bucky manages. He takes a step back and gestures to the haphazard state of the living room. “Welcome to my house.”

The man laughs and steps inside. “Thank you,” he says, holding up a plate of—oh, mother of god. Beautiful sweater-wearing neighbor man brought him a plate full of cookies. Fresh out of the oven, if the gleam of the chocolate chips is anything to go by.

“The name’s Steve Rogers.” He puts out a hand. Bucky shakes it with maybe a little too much gentle squeezing for a first encounter, but Steve’s making a lot of eye contact right now. It’s kind of hard to think with those baby blues hypnotizing him.

“Bucky Barnes. It’s nice to meet another neighbor.”

“Aw, another?” Steve’s mouth twists comically. “Here I was thinking I’d gotten to you first.”

“I mean, technically you’re the first one to ring the doorbell, so you do get a ribbon for that,” Bucky says. Steve smiles and ducks his head, but before he can say anything, Becca interrupts them.

“I smell cookies,” she singsongs, snaking through the sprawling architecture of the boxes to get to the front door.

“It’s customary to bring new neighbors baked goods,” Steve says, holding out the plate toward Becca. “Or so I’m told. I was also told by my daughter Sarah to mention that she’s the one that baked those.”

Becca descends on the plate with almost feral enthusiasm. You’d think she’d never seen a cookie in her life, the way she snatches the whole plate, mumbles a nice to meet you around a bite, and disappears from the room in a matter of five seconds.

“That’s Becca,” Bucky says with a laugh. “Manners go out the door when there are baked goods involved, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, I understand.” Steve nods sagely. “Dessert is a very serious matter.”

“We don’t mess around when sugar’s at stake. It’s every Barnes for themselves.”

Steve laughs, perfect teeth flashing as his lips pull back. “You know what? I think I like you.”

Bucky’s stomach upends itself and he has to duck his head to hide the faint flush on his cheeks. Neighborly is taking a nice, casual stroll into flirty territory right about now. He looks back up to find Steve glancing around the half-unpacked living room.

“So, is there a missus around for me to meet?”

Bucky frowns and stands straighter. “Nope,” he says. “No mister either, just me and Becca.”

“Oh,” Steve says, eyebrows raising, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have presumed—”

“Becca isn’t my daughter,” Bucky interrupts. “She’s my little sister.”

“Oh.” Steve nods, adjusting. “Oh, okay.”

Bucky doesn’t begrudge him the mistake, despite the stiff response. It happens all too often, and he knows better than to get prickly, but people like to poke into his business too much when he brings it up. Sometimes he doesn’t bother. There’s an eighteen year age difference for one, and Becca does pass for his kid. They favor each other in face and build. It’s just her curly hair and hazel eyes that don’t match.

He doesn’t owe Steve any explanation of their situation, but as he watches Steve chew on his lip and cast around for something to say, some part of him wants to share. Something tells him Steve wouldn’t judge or prod.

“She’s been with me since she was one,” Bucky says. Steve meets his eye, listening. “It’s not a big deal, I’m just not—a dad, you know?”

Steve frowns slightly, but he nods. “Raising a girl is tough. Then again, raising a boy is tough. I think the common denominator here is that kids are tough.”

Bucky chuckles, thankful for the ease of tension. “Yeah, I have no idea why anyone would want more than two. I’ve got my work cut out for me with just the one.”

“I have three kids.” Steve’s mouth forms a tight line.

“Oh, oh my god, I’m—that’s—” Bucky breaks off, laying a hand over his forehead and staring holes into the wall behind Steve’s head. This got off-track very quickly. He can see Steve looking at his own shoes out of his eye, clearly just as uncomfortable as Bucky is.

“Hang on,” Steve says, perking up. Bucky swallows his pride and looks at him. “Can you … close the door for a second?”

“Um?”

Steve backs out onto the porch, waving an encouraging hand at the door. Bucky eyes him, confused, but he shuts the door in Steve’s face.

Half a beat later, there’s a sharp knock on the door. Bucky opens it again, eyes narrowed as he takes in Steve’s beatific grin.

“Hey, I’m your new neighbor, Steve! I promise not to assume that I know anything about your life this time. I’m hosting a barbeque tomorrow and I’d love for you to come by and meet some of the other people in the community. What do you say, pal?”

Bucky bites back a delighted laugh. Oh, he’s in trouble.

“That sounds just grand,” Bucky says, affectedly formal. “My sister Becca and I would love to stop by. Also three children is a reasonable and normal amount of children to have.”

He extends his hand for Steve to take. They shake with absurd vigor, staring seriously at each other, till Steve breaks and laughs. He pulls his hand back only to reach out again and squeeze Bucky’s bicep.

“I’ll let you get back to unpacking,” Steve says, dropping his hand to tuck it in his pocket. Bucky feels his skin prickle where he’d touched him. “I live at 405 Parkview Lane. The festivities start at three o’clock—don’t be late.”

Steve winks and starts to turn. Bucky barely has time to process anything before Steve pivots to face him again, his brows pinched.

“Hey, in all seriousness, raising a child on your own can’t be easy,” Steve says softly. “If there’s ever anything you need to talk about, advice or you just need to blow off some steam, I’m a youth minister at a church nearby.”

That explains the wholesome vibe then. “Thanks, Steve. Not sure if I qualify as a ‘youth’ anymore though.”

Steve cocks his head and gives Bucky a slow once-over. “I don’t know,” he reasons. “You look pretty young to me, but suit yourself.”

With that and a wave, he saunters away up the path toward the sidewalk.

Bucky isn’t sure how he’s supposed to focus on unpacking again after all that.