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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.

Chapter Text

Bucky is five minutes into an internal debate over whether color-coding his closet is worth the effort when half his clothes are black when Becca trails into his room. She flops down onto the bare mattress, chewing on a cookie. Bucky shoos her off before she can get crumbs everywhere, swatting at her legs with a flannel.

She resettles on the floor, where she’s free to mash the whole cookie on the floor if she wants. Hardwoods. Easing down next to her, Bucky leans against the mattress and sticks out a hand for the second cookie he knows she has stashed somewhere. The view of his jacket collection is idyllic from this vantage point.

“I have reached my hard limit on unpacking for the day,” she says, reluctantly fishing a cookie out of her hoodie and passing it to Bucky. “When’s dinner?”

“She asks like she didn’t just scarf down an entire plate of cookies an hour ago.”

“Not the entire plate. You’re eating that one.”

Bumping an elbow into her side, Bucky takes a bite of the cookie. It’s the perfect balance of soft and crunchy, with uniform chocolate chip distribution. He wants to savor it, really tries to, but next thing he knows, he’s licking chocolate off his fingertips.

“Did you just have some kind of spiritual awakening?” Becca looks over at him with concerned eyes.

“I reiterate, you ate the whole plate. Leave me alone.” Bucky wipes his hands on his jeans and stands, then helps Becca up. He rubs his palms together and grins. “Now let’s go christen the kitchen.”

“Your excitement is excessive and worrying.”

“Induction stove, Becca! Two minutes to boil!”

When the pasta's ready, they push all the remaining boxes into the dining room and out of the way, settling onto the couch to eat. Bucky flicks the TV on and finds the History Channel.

“Ah yes, the antique ice roadshow swamp picker stars, my favorite,” Becca says as she twirls spaghetti around her fork.

Bucky snorts. “Y’know, it wouldn’t surprise me if that pilot got picked up. You should pitch it to the network and get that sweet TV money so I can quit my job.”

They watch whatever show is on, adding commentary only marginally more dramatic than the show’s actual narration. When they’re done eating, Becca takes the dishes into the kitchen. She doesn’t sit back down, instead lingering in the doorway while looking at her phone.

“You got plans tonight?” Bucky asks, saving her from having to work up to asking.

Becca glances up at him and smiles sheepishly. “Liz wanted to go the movies and then I thought I could spend the night at her place. She can pick me up, if that’s okay?”

“You’re going to leave me alone on the first night in the new house?” Bucky eyes the room warily. “What if it’s haunted?”

Becca’s face falls. “Oh, I don’t —I can stay.”

“No, no,” Bucky says, smiling at her, “I’m joking. Go have fun with your friends. When’s Liz picking you up?”

“Uh, right now,” Becca says, twisting a finger around a lock of hair.

“Alright, gimme a hug first, kid.” Bucky heaves himself off the couch. Rolling her eyes halfheartedly, Becca wraps her arms around him and squeezes tight enough to force the air out of his lungs. In retaliation, Bucky leans back so far her feet leave the ground. Becca squeals and laughs, thumping him in the chest when he sets her back down.

Bucky lays a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, just text me when you make it back to Liz’s, okay?”

“Sure thing.” She pauses. “What are you doing tonight?”

“I’m the mayor of this town now, didn’t you know? I have to go … inspect the … murals at City Hall to make sure they accurately depict our seaside culture.”

“Bucky, seriously, do you have any plans?”

“Nah,” Bucky shrugs. “You know me, kid. Just going to hang out and watch TV till I fall asleep on the couch like every other Saturday.”

Headlights flash through the front window as a car pulls into the driveway. Becca glances over her shoulder at it before turning back to Bucky with a pinched expression. “Okay. Call me if you need anything.”

“Who’s the adult here?” Bucky waves her toward the door. “You’ve got money?”

She nods.

“Alright, then scram. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, Bucky!” Becca calls to him as she hustles toward the driveway.

He starts nodding off a few episodes into a Cutthroat Food Truck Wars marathon. Blearily dragging himself down the hall, he takes one look at his still unmade bed and grabs a sheet and pillow instead. Piling himself artlessly onto the couch, he’s ready to turn the volume down and be lulled to sleep by the sweet sounds of chefs screaming at each other when his phone rings. He gropes around the coffee table till he finds it, answering and holding it to his ear without checking to see who it is.

“Hello?” he slurs.

“Moving day tuckered you out, huh?”

“Oh, hey, Natasha,” Bucky says, dragging himself up to sit.

“If my math’s right, it’s only 9 p.m. on the east coast, Barnes.” The unspoken judgement is clear in her tone.

“Hey, I unpacked so many boxes today. I deserve an early night,” he counters, flicking the lamp back on.

“Fine,” Nat huffs. “How’s it going? You two getting settled in?”

“It is a process.”

“You’re sleeping on the couch because your room’s still a mess, aren’t you?”

“Um, first of all, fuck you. Second, I resent that. Third, yes.”

Natasha laughs over the line, bright and fond. “I take it Becca’s not in the room.”

“Nah, she went to spend the night with a friend. I’m all by my lonesome.” He stretches and relaxes back against the arm of the couch.

“How does she like the new house?” Natasha asks. “Is the neighborhood good? Any weirdos next door?”

“Jeez, what is this, the inquisition?”

“Excuse me for being curious about my best friend’s life.”

Bucky concedes and tells her about his day, all the sights and sounds and people both old and new. He skims over meeting Steve, still not entirely sure how to frame it. Steve was definitely flirting with him. Right? That was flirting. It’s been a while, but Bucky’s not oblivious. He knows what’s up, and what’s up is that Steve was very smiley and touchy, which means he was flirting. The whole youth minister situation gives Bucky pause, along with almost everything about his own life—which is why he gives her the IMDb summary.

He should’ve known better. Natasha's known him since high school; she can read him like a book.

“Oooh, is he cute?” she interjects.

“‘Cute’ is a word for woodland creatures and small children,” Bucky hedges.

“So he’s hot then.”

“Let’s just say I would not be surprised if he grilled the burgers directly on his own torso tomorrow.” Bucky flushes at the mental image.

“You have to get some of that,” she says. “And save me a bite.”

“I do not have to do anything. I am busy raising a teenager and developing my career. I do not have time for sinfully attractive youth ministers and their burgers.”

“Hot dogs,” Natasha giggles. Bucky sighs, long-suffering. “Really, Bucky, you have to get out there again sometime.”

Rubbing at his forehead, he mutters, “I really am busy.”

Natasha hums thoughtfully but doesn’t say anything. “Go to bed, Bucky. Text me and let me know how the barbeque goes.”

“Yeah, of course,” Bucky says. They say their goodnights before hanging up. Bucky taps over to his messages to see if Becca ever texted him.

Becca received 9:34 p.m.
Made it to Liz’s! Have a good night. Love you! :)

Bucky shoots back a reply, then promptly falls asleep on the couch with the light still on.

 

The next day at twenty minutes till three, Bucky decides he has taken ill and needs to lie down. No barbeque or socializing for him today, just a warm washcloth and a nap.

He would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that meddling kid.

Becca shoves the veggie tray into his arms and scowls at him. “I worked really hard on that.”

He fumbles with the tray before getting hold of it. “You picked it out in five seconds at the grocery store.”

“Yeah, and I picked the healthy option, which took a lot of strength.” She grabs him by the arm and nearly yanks it out of socket when she drags him toward the door. “Now come on, I want to meet our neighbors and eat a thousand hamburgers.”

“Yeah, okay,” Bucky sighs. “Hang on—”

He doubles back to the kitchen, shifting the veggie tray to one hand to grab Steve’s plate from the drying rack. Now’s as good a time as any to return it.

Becca leads the way back toward the park, having looked up Steve’s address on her phone. It doesn’t take them very long to find it, what with the balloons tied to the mailbox and muted music drifting toward the street.

They stop short on the sidewalk to take the house in. Bucky should’ve known given the name of his street that it would have, well, a park view, and he knew the houses by the park were nicer. Shit, though, this house is nice. It’s a massive Cape Cod style, with white siding, lots of windows and dormers, and a yard so green it almost looks fake. What kind of salary does a youth minister make anyway?

A sign that reads “This way for a good time!” points them up the driveway toward a gate leading to the fenced-in backyard. Becca turns to him, slightly bewildered. He shrugs and gestures up the drive.

They’re a few minutes early, but the party’s already in full swing by the look of things. The backyard teems with people, adults clustered in small groups and children of all ages running rampant. Bucky glances around for one overwhelmed moment before he spots Steve on the deck with some others, chatting animatedly. When Steve glances their way, Bucky waves to get his attention. Steve grins and bounds down the steps, snaking around people to get to them.

“Hey, you two!” Steve says as he approaches. “I’m glad you made it.”

“We never pass up an opportunity for free food,” Becca says seriously.

Steve smirks. “Yeah, I learned that yesterday. How were the cookies?”

“Delicious!” Becca says. Steve looks to Bucky, who nods in emphatic agreement. “Thanks for bringing them by. That was really kind.”

“Of course.” Steve turns to point over his shoulder at a table set up by the deck. “You can set the veggies there. There’s plenty of snacks to tide you over till I get the grill going.”

“Awesome.” Becca darts off toward the table without another word.

Steve chuckles and walks beside Bucky as he sets a decidedly slower pace. They find a spot to set the platter between two identical ones.

“Oh, um, I brought your plate back,” Bucky says, holding it out for Steve.

“Thank you, Bucky.” Steve smiles like he’s surprised by the gesture. He uses the plate to point toward the table. “There’s soda and lemonade,” he pauses to lean in conspiratorially, “but I’ve got beer in the fridge if you want one.”

“Yes please.”

“Come on then.” Steve lays his free hand on Bucky’s upper back and guides him through the throng of people toward the house. Bucky can feel the warmth of his hand, even through his shirt. His stomach gives a nervous flip. Steve's touching him so casually as he smiles and nods at the people they walk past. He drops his hand when they reach the door, but Bucky doesn’t mind so much because Steve then holds it open for him.

“After you.” Steve flourishes a genteel bow.

“Thank you, kind sir,” Bucky says, and steps inside. The kitchen is just beyond the door, spacious and clean with a fruit bowl sitting on the middle of the island. Steve maneuvers around the counter to put the plate away in one of the many white cabinets.

“I’m keeping the beer in here not because I don’t trust the kids…” He gives Bucky a loaded look. “But I don’t trust the kids.”

“You’re a wise man,” Bucky says. “Though I gotta vouch for my kid and say that she would never.”

“She’s an exceptional young lady then.” Steve props himself up against the counter.

“You’re telling me, buddy.”

“I’ll introduce you to mine back outside.”

“I’d like that.” Bucky hops up onto a bar stool across the island from Steve. “First you have to serve me alcohol.”

Steve places a hand on the counter and leans toward him. “What’ll it be?”

“What’s on tap today?”

Steve rattles off a list of craft beers. Humming thoughtfully, Bucky taps his chin and deliberates for a long moment, long enough for Steve to wise up to him.

“You’ve never had any of those, have you?”

Bucky shrugs. “I’m a cheap date.”

“Hmm, are you?”

Bucky’s breath catches. Smirking at him, Steve spins on his heel and cracks open the refrigerator, clinking around in a drawer. He turns back to hold out his selection to Bucky. “This is one of my favorites.”

“Then I’m sure I’ll like it,” Bucky says, squinting at the unfamiliar label. Steve pops the cap off and slips the bottle into a koozie before handing it to Bucky. He gets one out for himself and gives it the same treatment.

“Cheers,” Steve says, reaching out to clink his bottle with Bucky’s.

Bucky clutches his bottle to his chest. “Hold on, you can’t cheers without making a toast. What are we toasting?”

Steve pauses to think. His eyes light up with an answer. “How about new friends and good burgers?”

Bucky nods and holds his bottle out. Steve touches his own to it with soft smile, meeting Bucky’s eye. Bucky says, “I withhold judgement on the quality of your burgers, but the sentiment is commendable.”

“I look forward to your feedback,” Steve says. He keeps his eyes on Bucky as he puts the bottle to his lips and drinks. Bucky nearly forgets to take a sip of his own, too busy watching the way Steve’s throat works as he swallows, his plush lips wrapped around the bottle.

Shaking himself out of it, Bucky drinks hastily to distract himself. Jesus.

Really, actually, Jesus Christ the King of Kings, because Steve is a man of the cloth. Bucky would bet the silver chain peeking out of the collar of Steve’s shirt has a cross pendant hanging from it. Bucky’s knowledge about old J.C. pretty much ends with “Christmas is his birthday.”

While he has a sneaking suspicion that Steve’s not as clean cut as his neatly ironed button-down implies, he should be careful about what he gets himself into here. Not that he’s getting himself into anything. Steve is just being friendly. Probably.

“We should head back outside before someone comes looking for us,” Steve says. If Bucky's reading him correctly, it seems a little regretful.

“Aw, but I’m having so much fun inside away from all the people I don’t know.”

Steve tilts his head and smirks. “Do I detect a hint of nerves? Bucky, are you scared to meet your neighbors?”

Pointing a stern finger at him, Bucky says, “I am scared of two things, neither of which I will reveal, but rest assured that neither of them are the neighbors.”

“Prove it,” Steve challenges, quirking an eyebrow.

Bucky swallows. “Fine, I will.”

Steve slides around the counter and gets the door for him again. “Really though, I promise everyone is very nice.” He pauses to let Bucky past him through the door. “Well, except for Tony, but you learn not to take it personally.”

Bucky’s hands get a little clammy and he’s already exhausted, but he follows Steve as he leads him across the deck toward a small group of party-goers. Their circle opens up to let them in, all three smiling interestedly at Bucky.

“Everyone, this is Bucky Barnes. He just moved into the house on Poplar,” Steve introduces him with an encouraging pat on the back. His hand lingers, scratching at Bucky’s shoulder blade before dropping away. “His sister Becca is around here somewhere.”

Bucky shoots Steve a grateful glance. He cranes his neck to look for her around the yard and spots her sitting under a tree, a little boy of about five bent over her head, braiding her hair.

“That’s her,” Bucky says, pointing.

“Oh, and that’s our Eric!” the man in the group booms.

“He’s quite the hair stylist,” the woman beside him adds, stroking at her own long braid.

“Bucky, this is Thor Odinson and Jane Foster-Odinson,” Steve says.

“It is an honor to meet you,” Thor says in accented English, holding out his hand for Bucky to shake. He’s a huge blond slab of a dude, so ripped Bucky’s a little worried to shake his hand, afraid he might lose his arm. The man has a gentle grip though, and his smile is warm.

Jane loops her arm through Thor’s and nods at him. “Nice to have you two in the neighborhood.”

The other woman in the cluster extends her hand as well. “I’m Pepper Potts. My husband Tony is around here somewhere—I’m sure he’ll run into you.”

There’s something long-suffering but cheerful in her tone. “Well, I’ll try not to let him knock me over then,” Bucky jokes.

She tinkles a laugh. “You’re very welcome to try, Bucky.”

They chat for a few minutes, mostly talking about the neighborhood and where Bucky had moved from. Just across town, no Becca didn’t have to switch schools, yes they like it so far. Somehow it isn’t bland conversation though, despite the uninspired topics. Thor is jovial and gracious, and the two women are whip-smart, playing off one another so rapidly Bucky has trouble keeping up. Steve stays planted by his side, a comforting presence, though Bucky thinks he might be okay if Steve left him alone now. No one’s going to bite him—except maybe Tony, apparently.

“Alright, speeddate number one complete.” Steve takes Bucky by the elbow. “He has to meet everyone before we eat,” Steve explains to the group.

“Once again, welcome to the neighborhood, friend,” Thor says, clapping him on the shoulder as Steve pulls him away. Bucky manages to hide his stumble reasonably well.

Steve shuffles him from person to person like he’s the tour guide of an interactive museum. He meets a whole cast of colorful characters, somehow managing to keep all their names straight in his head. There’s Scott Lang and his daughter Cassie, about Becca’s age—they’ve probably met at school, Bucky thinks.

“So if I find a huge spider in my house, I should… bring it to you?”

Scott laughs brightly. “Nope, you go ahead and squish it if you need to. There’s plenty more out there.”

Bucky finds Scott’s work as an entomologist vaguely fascinating but mostly unsettling. Anyone who willingly spends their whole day around bugs is immediately suspect in Bucky’s book. Cassie seems sweet though. He makes a mental note to ask Becca if they know each other.

Sam is here with Riley, and he spots Clint hovering by the snack table like he’s defending it.

“Hey, I know them!” Bucky says. Steve follows his gaze.

“Awesome! You can talk to them after you’ve met everyone else.” Steve keeps pulling him toward the next group.

He meets Luke Cage, a taciturn but friendly man who owns the bar downtown, and Steven Strange. He’s a surgeon at the hospital and doesn’t react particularly well when Bucky makes an (admittedly awful) joke about cutting up his steaks. Bruce Banner seems just as nervous about being here as Bucky is, and they form some kind of unspoken bond over it while Steve babbles on about Bruce’s work as a physics teacher.

“Oh, wait, do you know my sister Becca?” Bucky finds her, now with elaborately braided her, and points.

“I haven’t had the pleasure, I’m afraid,” Bruce says.

“She’s down to take physics next year, if I remember.” Bucky pauses to wince. “I’m going to preemptively apologize. She isn’t much of a science student, no matter how hard I try to convince her it’s cool.”

“You’re a science man?”

“Well, computer science, but yes,” Bucky explains. After that they really do hit it off, discussing the latest issue of Science Magazine while Steve nods like a bobblehead beside them, obviously out of his depth but valiantly trying to keep up. Another man walks up in the middle of Bucky explaining the latest advances in artificial intelligence.

“Hi,” he cuts over him. “I heard science talk and wondered why I wasn’t invited. Bruce? Care to comment?”

Bruce smiles witheringly at the man. “It wasn’t a slight against you, Tony. I wasn’t aware I had to send out a signal every time I started talking data.”

“Well, you really ought to have known better, since we’ve been friends for a decade.”

Bucky glances at Steve with wide eyes.

“Tony!” Steve says. “Meet our new neighbor Bucky.”

“Billy?”

“Bucky,” Bucky corrects.

“Right, nice to meet you.” Tony shoulders past him into Bruce’s space with an intense look about him. Steve and Bucky lock eyes and start slowly backing away, Bruce shooting them a panicked look over Tony’s shoulder.

“I really do promise that Tony is not entirely insufferable,” Steve says with an apologetic wince once they’re out of earshot.

“I will take your word for it.” Bucky takes a swig of his beer. He’s about ready for another one.

“Pepper wouldn’t have married him if he didn’t have redeemable qualities,” Steve assures him. “They’re in there, you just have to… excavate a little.”

Bucky chuckles. “Seriously, Steve, I believe you. I don’t think you’d vouch for someone like that if they’re a total asshat.”

Steve smiles at him, his cheeks pink—from the beer or the sun, probably. “Thanks, Bucky. I guess that says something about me too.”

“You’re a good guy.” He cuts Steve a quick sideways look. “Unless it’s all a charade and you’re secretly some kind of cult leader who plans to murder the whole town.”

Steve reels back from him, eyes popping wide as he bursts with laughter. “Yeah, sure, and you’re secretly a cyborg.”

“Yep. We’ll take down Maple Bay together.”

“How about we build it up instead?” Steve offers, still a little short of breath.

“Alright, you do-gooder.”

“That’s what they call me.” Steve grins and knocks their shoulders together. “How are you liking everyone? Besides Tony, obviously.”

“Actually?” Bucky says, turning toward him. “I’m really glad you cajoled me into making the rounds. Everyone’s really wonderful. It’s nice to know we have such good people around us.”

“I’m glad you’re having a nice time,” Steve says warmly. He upends his beer to drink the last of it, and Bucky does the same. He holds out a hand for Bucky’s empty. “I should go get the grill fired up before the village turns on me. Think you’ll be okay on your own?”

“Oh, sure,” Bucky says. “Besides, I’m not really on my own.”

He finds Becca again and catches her attention. She smiles at him from where she’s laying in the grass, two blonde children perched beside her, ripping up grass to lay over her middle.

“Hey!” Steve exclaims, loud enough that Bucky flinches. “Those are mine!”

“The—blades of grass?” Bucky asks, confused.

“No, the children,” Steve laughs. “I never introduced you, come on.”

“Thought you had grill duties.”

“If the villagers run me out of town, then no one gets a hamburger,” Steve says, urging Bucky forward toward the shade of the big oak tree where most of the kids are playing. The two blondes spring up from the ground as they approach, identical radiant smiles on their identical cherubic faces. They both shout, “Daddy!” and for a split second, Bucky thinks he’s seeing double as they launch themselves at Steve. Steve grabs them up, one in each arm, and swings them around in a hug. They both shriek and giggle, Steve laughing too, their neat ringlets and cotton candy dresses fanning out in a flurry. Bucky’s heart gives a treacherous lurch.

He sets them both back down, and Bucky gets a proper look at them. Oh, right. Twins.

“Girls, this is our new neighbor Bucky,” he explains, gesturing toward Bucky. “Becca is his sister.”

“Hi, Bucky,” they say in unison. It is decidedly creepy.

“Uh, hi.”

“Girls,” Steve reprimands, but he’s biting back a smile. “You know it freaks people out when you do that.”

“Sorry, daddy,” they chant.

Steve sighs and shakes his head, turning back to Bucky. “This is Sarah and Stella,” he says, indicating each one. Now that Bucky studies their faces, there are slight differences, though they both look just like Steve. They look about six. “Where’s your brother, sweethearts?”

“He’s behind the tree,” Sarah says.

“He’s being rude,” Stella adds.

“Be nice, Stella,” Steve says. Turning to Bucky, he adds, “Harrison keeps to himself a lot.”

“That’s okay, I can meet him later,” Bucky says. He walks over to Becca and peers down at her where she’s half-covered by torn-up grass.

“Help, the twins buried me alive.” She coughs pitifully, lifting her hand toward him like it takes a great deal of effort. Bucky squats down next to her and starts plucking the grass off blade by blade. Sarah and Stella appear and plop down beside him to help. After a while, Bucky glances over his shoulder to find Steve, who nods his head toward the grill and mouths, “Duty calls.”

Bucky gives him a thumbs up and turns back to the task at hand, spinning a story for the twins about how they’re uncovering an ancient mummy. The girls take to it with glee, Becca lying unnervingly still as they clean her off, but Bucky can see her cheek twitching as the girls discuss the best methods for preserving her. Sarah suggests they stick her in the freezer, and Stella counters by saying it would be better to wrap her in saran-wrap.

“So, girls,” Bucky interrupts. “Who are the rest of the kids?”

“Oh, we know everyone,” Stella says.

“Every single one,” Sarah says.

They point out each of the dozen or so kids around the yard, Sarah giving first names and Stella giving last names. Keeping track of it in his head, Bucky realizes that everyone he’d met has a kid here. Shit, even Clint has a son. When the hell did Clint Barton shape up enough to have a kid?

Oh god, there are so many hot dads in this neighborhood. Bucky has no idea how he got so lucky. The realtor should have listed that as a perk when she was showing the house. “There’s a walk-in pantry, two and a half baths, and plenty of attractive fathers within walking distance! Good luck not face-planting on your morning runs!”

Not that Bucky runs in the mornings, but still. He really hopes he didn’t just move into some kind of Stepford Wives situation and that it’s all just a coincidence.

“Alright, everybody!” Steve calls from across the yard. The twins perk up at the sound of his voice, sweeping the last of the grass off Becca and helping her sit up. “Burgers are ready! Now, if everyone could grab a plate and form an orderly—”

Steve’s own guests descend on him like a pack of starving, well-dressed wolves. Doesn’t this guy work with youths? Shouldn’t he know better than to expect adults to be able to form a line?

The kids sprawl out in the grass with paper plates, and the adults settle at a few fold-out tables Steve had borrowed from the church. Steve encourages—okay, well, forces Bucky to sit at the head of one table. Once he makes sure everyone has what they need, he takes the chair next to Bucky’s. Sam and Riley sit on his other side.

“Hey, Bucky, this is my husband Riley,” Sam says. “Dr. Wilson, actually.”

“Sammy,” Riley hushes him. He smiles and waves at Bucky from across the table. “Nice to meet you, Bucky. Please do not call me Dr. Wilson.”

Sam swats at him with his napkin as Bucky says, “Good to meet you too, Riley.”

The conversation dissipates as everyone tucks into their burgers. Tender and juicy, Bucky can’t remember the last time he had one this good. He plants his fist on the table in front of Steve’s plate, startling him. When Steve looks askance at him, he snaps and holds up his thumb. Steve huffs a laugh and grins.

“Thanks, Bucky,” he says.

Sam watches them over his bun. “So, Steve,” he says conversationally, “where’s Peggy?”

Steve ducks his head, reaching for the ketchup bottle. He fumbles with the lid before he flips it open, squirting a tiny amount onto his already half-eaten burger. “She got called away early yesterday morning,” he says quietly.

“When will she be back?” Sam asks.

Steve sighs and gives him a hard look. “Don’t know. She didn’t tell me—not sure if she knew.”

Bucky clears his throat. “Who’s Peggy?”

“Steve’s wife,” Riley tells him.

“Oh,” Bucky breathes. He hides his frown by dabbing at his mouth with a napkin, then takes another bite of his burger to give himself a minute.

Steve’s married.

Of course he is. He’s got three kids, a nice house with a picket fence, and he’s a youth minister for literally Christ’s sake. If Bucky had bothered to glance at his left hand, it ought to have been no surprise that he would find a ring there. Steve seems like the settling down type. Bucky just misread the situation—like the Good Samaritan he is, Steve was simply being friendly and welcoming to his new neighbor.

Only when Bucky does look at Steve’s ring finger where it’s curled around another beer, there’s no ring.

He locks eyes with Steve for an instant so short he can’t be sure it happened at all. Then Steve turns toward Riley to ask him about his work in pediatrics, and the moment is gone.

The rest of the party goes fine, everyone slowing down now that they have full stomachs. Bucky says his goodbyes to most of the guests, making promises to keep in touch as he gathers up the remnants of his veggie plate. He wrangles Becca away from the kids, and together they head toward the gate to walk back home.

He could’ve guessed it wouldn’t be that easy to escape.

Steve catches up to them by the fence, smiling tentatively. “Leaving without telling me goodbye?”

“Oh, sorry,” Bucky says. “Thanks for inviting us. We had a nice time.”

Becca nods and beams. “Yeah, thank you!”

Meeting Becca’s eye, Steve tilts his head. “You know, you could make a fortune in the babysitting market if you were so inclined. You were good with all the kids today.”

Her smile turns shy and thoughtful. “I’ll think on it.”

“Hey,” Steve says, turning to Bucky. He reaches out like he might touch Bucky’s shoulder, but ends up running it through his own hair instead. “I administrate a Facebook group for all the dads in the neighborhood. You should join up—it’s a great way to keep tabs on everyone.”

“I—sure.”

Steve’s smile widens into something more genuine. “See you around, then?”

Taking a deep breath to squash down his bruised pride—it’s his own fault for reading something into nothing—Bucky returns his smile. “Yeah, of course.”

“Bye, Steve!” Becca calls, and loops her arm through Bucky’s to lead him home.

Chapter Text

Inside the house, Bucky takes one look at the clutter of boxes and collapses face-first directly onto the couch. It’s been two days, but already unpacking feels like the Hundred Years’ War and cardboard his stalwart enemy that refuses defeat. Why did they move again? What got into him, that he thought buying a house was a good decision?

“Bucky,” Becca whines, dragging on the vowels. “Come on, you said we were going to get everything mostly finished today.”

“I need a nap first.” He snuggles into the couch till he’s more comfortable.

“You can’t take a nap at 6 p.m.”

“Are you willing to put money on that? Because socializing is exhausting.”

All the air leaves Bucky’s lungs in a rush as Becca sits directly on top of his back. “Oh my god, fine ,” he groans, wriggling underneath her in an attempt to throw her off. Unfortunately, she is very solid. “You’re too old for this. Get off so I can breathe.”

She slides off him, and as Bucky sits up, he spots her satisfied smirk. “Just trying to help you keep your word, Buck,” she says cheerfully.

“It’s moments like these where I think I may be raising you too well.” Scowling darkly, he eases off the couch to shuffle after her down the hall.

“I think you’re doing pretty okay,” she says as she pushes into his room. “Let’s get your bed fixed up so you can actually sleep on it tonight.”

Bucky’s frown melts. He musses her hair as he passes, on his way to figure out which box has his sheets in it. “Thanks, Becks.”

 

In the morning over breakfast, Becca backs him into a corner with her spoon held threateningly aloft. Okay, well, mostly she’s just wagging it sternly at him across the table, but it feels like his back’s to the wall.

“What do you mean, you haven’t updated your Facebook page in five years?” she asks.

“I don’t see what’s confusing about that sentence.” Bucky shoves another bite of cereal in his mouth, chewing with purposeful slowness to avoid having to talk.

Becca drops her spoon with a clatter and looks at him pityingly. “Really, Buck? It’s really been that long?”

He shrugs one shoulder. “I never really had much use for it.”

“Well, now you do, and I think you should.”

“All my pictures are so old though.” Bucky grimaces. He can’t remember what kind of fashion choices he was making five years ago, but he knows they can’t be good. Hell, they aren’t that good now, but at least he’s learned to keep it basic—jeans, t-shirts, and jackets. There are vague memories of a Hawaiian shirt phase at some point in the past decade. He shudders.

“I have a ton of pictures of you we can put on there,” Becca offers.

“Oh. Oh yeah, of course you do. Okay.”

“I’ll even comb through your old ones and delete the worst of them.”

“You can do that?”

“Can I— yes , I can do that!” Becca gets up to take her empty bowl to the sink.  “I can’t believe how clueless you are about social media.”

Getting up to dump his bowl too, Bucky levels an unimpressed look at her. “You know I can build a computer, right?”

“Yeah, but then you’re all, Becca, what’s a tweeter?” Her voice drops low into what is, frankly, a borderline offensive mockery of his own.

“Fine, but I need more coffee before you indoctrinate me into the cult of Zuckerberg.” He grabs both their mugs and pours them refills, adding plenty of sugar and milk to Becca’s, before leading the way to his office. The way she bounces as she walks makes him wonder if he’s just made a huge mistake in giving her control over his internet presence.

She sits him down in his work chair—ergonomic with lumbar support, thank you—and pulls up another.

“Okay, so first you have to log in.”

“Do you think that I am dumb?”

“Fine, show me what you got then.”

With a put-upon sigh, Bucky launches the browser and logs into Facebook for the first time in five years. The number of notifications waiting for him is shockingly huge.

“Look, you’re popular!” Becca points to the twenty-odd friend requests.

Tabbing through them, Bucky scowls at the screen. “I don’t even know half these people.”

“We’ll worry about those later,” Becca says, batting his hand away from the mouse. “Let’s look at your profile page.”

It is mostly blank, which Becca tells him is a good thing because there’s nothing incriminating or embarrassing to delete. His 'about' tab has very basic, mostly outdated information. His profile picture is approximately eight years old, judging by the scrunchy second-grader in the picture with him. He remembers that day—he’d taken Becca to the zoo for the first time, and he’d picked her up so she could see the baby zebra better over the fence. Another guest had offered to take the picture: the zebras in the background while they both beam, squinting into the bright sunlight.

“Aw, do I have to change it? I love that picture.”

“I know you do.” She gestures to the framed version sitting on his desk next to the monitor. “I like it too, but you’ve grown your hair back out since then.”

“Okay.” As he slumps back into the chair, she honks his bun.

“I have a few options in mind. They should be in a folder somewhere…”

As it turns out, they are drowning in options. Apparently Becca takes a lot of pictures of him, which he knew objectively because some days he never even sees her face because it’s behind a camera the whole time, but he never really considered just how often her lens was pointed toward him. She shows him her stuff sometimes, and of course he’s seen everything that’s been in shows, but other times she gets squirrelly about it and won’t even put them on his computer. Now, though, it’s for a good cause.

“You make me look good, Becks.”

“I’ve got my work cut out for me with your ugly mug.”

A dozen new pictures freshly uploaded to the internet—candids and posed portraits both—Becca chooses her favorite for his profile picture: a close-up of him down by the docks from a few weeks ago.

“Hey,” Bucky says quietly, swiveling his chair toward Becca’s. She eyes him curiously. “I know college is a few years away, but have you thought about going to art school? You’ve mentioned it in passing, but is that something you might seriously want?”

Her eyebrows raise. “You’d be on board with that?”

“Of course.” Bucky’s tone leaves no room for doubt. A surprised smile breaks wide across Becca’s face, and she twirls her hair around her finger like she does when she’s nervous.

“Then yeah, I have thought about it. I really want to.”

“We’ll get you there.” He pats her on the arm, ducking his head to meet her eye, then catches sight of the clock behind him. “But first we gotta get you to school.”

“No, we aren’t done! I can be tardy!”

“I did not name you Tardy, so no you can’t.”

She groans, her face squirming. “You didn’t name me at all.”

“Exactly.”

“Come on, it’ll just take a few more minutes,” she pleads, hands clasped. “If you drive really fast—”

His jaw clenches and he flashes her a stern look. “No.”

Her breath catches and she sinks back into her seat. Her voice is quiet when she says, “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Rubbing a hand over his face, Bucky exhales heavily and powers the computer down. “It’s fine, bee. Get your stuff and let’s go.”

The drive to the high school is tense for the first few minutes, the pop music more terrible than usual in the otherwise silent car. Bucky drives carefully as always, but he can’t stop glancing over at Becca hunched in the passenger seat, clutching her bag to her chest.

He flicks the radio off. “Hey.”

Picking at her nails, Becca mumbles, “Yeah?”

“I’m sorry that I snipped at you.”

“I shouldn’t have suggested that.” She won’t meet his eye, staring out the window.

Bucky reaches out, and when she doesn’t move to stop him, he rubs her shoulder gently. “I’m not mad at you, Becca. I promise.”

She lifts a hand to pat his on her shoulder before pushing it off. “I know you’re not.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

Glancing at him for an instant, she sighs shakily. “Nothing’s wrong.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Bucky clenches his jaw to keep himself from pressing further. If she was ready to talk, she would. They’ve always been open with each other. Becca not sharing now doesn’t mean she won’t. Still, being shut out hurts.

“Well, I’m always here for you if you decide that you want to.” He chances a smile at her, and she returns it, even if it’s tight-lipped. “Thanks for helping me this morning, my social media sorcerer. Is there anything else I need to do?”

That lights her up quickly enough. “Tons. You need to update your 'about' section and probably post a status like, ‘Hello, I am alive again.’ Then you’ll need to find the group Steve was talking about. It’s probably a private group, which means you need to send him a friend request and then he has to accept it and add you before you can see it.”

“That sounds complicated.”

She snorts and shakes her head at him. “You’re a mess.”

“I’m not a mess, I have simply made a mess.”

“Alright, Mr. Self Help, let me walk you through it.”

 

Back at the house, Bucky settles at his desk again and stares blankly at his own Facebook profile. There’s so much to fill out. Some of it’s easy—where do you work, where do you live, where’d you go to high school? Then other sections leave him stumped. What does he put for the college section? What does “details about yourself” even mean? What qualifies as a life event?

With a frustrated sigh, he decides it’s naptime anyway. It’ll still be here when he wakes up.

One hour and one banana later, Bucky’s back in his chair, determined this time. He will not let this stupid social media website get the better of him. He cracks his knuckles and sets to filling out all the basic stuff, then does his level best to make himself sound reasonably interesting but unpretentious on the more subjective sections. It takes all of fifteen minutes.

Now he has to find Steve.

Which it turns out is not that easy, because “Steve Rogers” returns several thousand results. It’s a very common name. He figures out how to refine the search results to just Maple Bay, and that does it. That’s obviously Steve in the little profile picture, seated behind the wheel of a—boat? Ship? Either way, he’s clearly happy to be there, grinning from ear to ear. Bucky clicks through to his page so he can see the full version.

Ten minutes later, Bucky’s several months deep into his feed. He really ought to advise Steve not to leave it so wide open. Then again, he’s not complaining as he tabs through picture after picture—Steve’s own kids, kids at the church, so many children. Also a lot of ocean pictures and terrible Jesus memes. There are decidedly few pictures of Steve by himself, but that makes sense to Bucky even if he begrudges it.

There aren’t any pictures of his wife—on his feed, at least. That and the lack of a ring… But that’s none of Bucky’s business. Married is married.

It takes him longer than it should to realize what he’s doing. With a jerk, Bucky snaps out of it and minimizes the tab so he can’t see it anymore. What does he think he’s up to? Snooping on his neighbors isn’t any way to get to know them. In fact, it’s kind of creepy. Even as he thinks it through, Bucky clicks Steve’s profile picture and finds that he can tab through all the previous ones too. Jackpot. The man is unfairly photogenic, and his eyes are so kind…

Okay, what is he doing? Should he be doing this? Social rules might be different on the internet, but he’s pretty sure being curious about your neighbors is normal. A little light snooping never hurt anyone. Besides, all the information is public, and it’s not like he doesn’t know the guy already. He has absolutely no ulterior motives except friendship.

With a deep breath, he pulls the page back up and clicks the Add Friend button. There. As soon as Steve accepts his request, according to the internet they are officially friends. Sweet. His palms are not sweating.

He darts away from the computer again, heading toward the kitchen to make another pot of coffee. There are productive things he could be doing. He purposely made sure his workload was light this week, but he does still have some work to do. That means going back to the computer, though. Everything’s pretty much unpacked, but the house is far from together.  They could also use some groceries, and he should take all the empty boxes to the recycling center...

Maybe he’ll just poke his head into the room and check.

Sure enough, he spots the red squares from the doorway. He approaches the desk and clicks each one.

Steve Rogers has accepted your friend request.

Steve Rogers added you to the group Rad Neighborhood Dads.

Still standing by the desk, he tabs through to the group page. Most of the posts are event planning or thinly disguised one-upmanship, but there’s a lot of jokes and the occasional heartfelt advice. It seems pretty active. Huh. Maybe Bucky should post something, or send friend requests to the other guys. Ask someone to hang out.

Or maybe he’ll just go to the grocery store instead.

 

He makes it to the school carpool line with plenty of time to spare. Too much time, actually, but he brought a book. A chapter or two later, teens pour out the double doors and onto the school’s front lawn. Bucky sticks his bookmark in place and cranks the car, searching for Becca in the teeming crowd. He spots Bruce, standing by the sidewalk looking decidedly stern as he warns kids not to go out in the street. Bucky catches his eye and waves. Bruce—or Mr. Banner in this context—smiles back before wading into the crowd. He re-emerges a minute later with Becca trailing behind him.

When Becca spots him in the car, she thanks Mr. Banner and strolls over. Bucky gives Bruce a thumbs up in thanks, which he waves away as he takes up his post again.

“Hey!” Becca chirps as she climbs into the car. “I wouldn’t have seen you for ages if Mr. Banner hadn’t pointed you out.”

“Wouldn’t have seen me or wouldn’t have started looking?” Bucky asks as he pulls the car out of the parking lot.

She pulls a face.

“The first one then. Got it.” Bucky chuckles as he turns onto the main road. “How was school?”

“Good! Aced my English test from last week.”

“High five, kiddo!” Becca slaps her palm to his and grins. She’d made so many flashcards for that thing.  

“And what about your day?" Becca asks, reaching for the radio dial. "How’d Facebook go?”

“I am officially a Rad Neighborhood Dad. Child-Raiser. Something.”

Becca shoots him a strange sideways look. “Did you message anyone?”

The road suddenly becomes very fascinating. Oh look, the lines need repainting!

“Bucky.”

“Becca.”

“They’re not going to eat you. Don’t you want friends?”

“I have friends.”

“You have one friend.”

They pull into their cul-de-sac. Soon Bucky will escape this conversation. “I’m going to tell Natasha you forgot about her. She’ll be very cross with you.”

“What do you—oh!” Becca snorts and smiles wide at him. “Flattery’s not going to get you out of this one. You’re messaging someone when we get home.”

“But what am I supposed to say?” Bucky gripes. The petulance is maybe over the top, but making new friends sucks, especially when you’re an adult. There was a time in Bucky’s life where he did actually have a lot of friends and made them easily—high school. Friendship’s a breeze when you’re forced together for eight hours a day, five days a week.

“We’ll figure it out, young padawan. Let the master learn you.”

Inside the house, Becca dumps her bag on the couch and heads for the kitchen. Bucky snags the new bag of pretzels out of the pantry and Becca grabs the hummus before they fire up the computer. He pulls up the group page and shows her around, commenting on what he knows about all the different dads.

“Okay, so, who do you want to talk to?” she asks.

Bucky hums and keeps scrolling through pictures of a putt-putt competition last month. “I don’t know. Everyone seems cooler than me.”

“The thing is that none of them are cool. Dads aren’t cool. Them’s the facts.”

“Am I defaulted as uncool then too?”

“Of course,” Becca says cheerfully. “But that’s okay, because now you’re on an even playing field. How about you message Clint? You told him you guys should catch up. He’d probably like to hear from you.”

That’s not a bad idea. He would like to get reaquainted with Clint. Their friendship wouldn’t be anything like it used to be purely by circumstance, but maybe it could still exist. Seeing him again made Bucky realize that he had missed him.

“Okay, I just have to…” He mouses over to Clint’s page and requests his friendship.

They sit patiently for a few minutes, munching on pretzels, until a notification dings.

“Oh, great! Now you can message him!”

“I… can…” Bucky’s hands hover over the keyboard. He cuts an uncertain glance at Becca.

“Oh my god, okay.” She pushes his rolly chair hard enough to send him flying a few feet, shifting her own chair into the vacated spot. “Let’s see. ‘Clint, great seeing you again the other day! I’d love to catch up sometime. Let’s make plans.’ Smiley face, bada-bing.”

Bucky scoots back to the desk and peers over her shoulder. “You make this look so easy.”

“It is easy, Bucky.”

“Wow, the adult/child learning cycle is really leaning heavy on your end this week, huh?”

“That just means you have to take me out driving this weekend.”

She says it boldly enough, but the look she gives him is hesitant and hopeful. Sighing resignedly, he reaches up and musses her hair. “Yeah, fine, we can do that. Now go get started on your homework. I’ve got it from here.”

Biting back a smile, she nods and darts toward the door, doubling back for the snacks.

Bucky hits send and tabs away while he waits for a response. He pulls up his work email, wondering just how piled up his inbox got over the long weekend. Jesus, he told his clients he’d be off the grid for a few days—specifically negotiated deadlines to compensate, yet here they are. He types a few short replies and then clicks back to Facebook.

There’s a message from Clint.

Clint Barton 3:36 p.m.
Hey man! Super great to see you too. Are you busy tonight? There’s a killer pizza place that just opened up down the street from the coffee shop.

Bucky Barnes 3:43 p.m.
Glad to hear you’re still a pizza fiend. When should I meet you?

Clint Barton 3:44 p.m.
I can leave the shop about 7 and walk down there. Sound good?

Bucky messages him back in the affirmative before shutting the computer down to go help Becca with her math homework.

 

Brain still swimming with trigonometry concepts, Bucky finds a parking spot downtown and heads over to the pizza place. He’s a little early, but the restaurant looks busy, so he heads inside to find a table for them. He picks one in the corner, easily visible from the door.

Sure enough, when Clint walks through the door ten minutes later, he spots Bucky almost immediately and heads toward him.

“Hey, JB!” Clint says as he slides into the booth across from Bucky. “How’s it going, bud?”

Bucky huffs and rubs at his forearm, but he returns Clint’s broad smile. “I’m doing good. Oh, and it’s—I go by Bucky now.”

“Oh, shit, sorry.” Clint’s face twists in apology as he reaches for his water.

Bucky waves him off. “Don’t sweat it. I hope water’s okay.”

“Yeah, of course.” He takes a long sip to prove it. “So—”

“I— “

“Oh, you go ahead.”

“No, it’s fine, you talk.”

Clint throws a sugar packet at his face and hits him squarely in the nose. As Bucky flinches and scrambles to catch it before it falls to the floor, Clint says, “Really, Bucky. What were you going to say?”

“Oh, I just wondered if you wanted to split a pizza, or—?”

“Yeah!” Clint brightens, reaching across the table to flip Bucky’s menu open. He leans across the table to read upside down. “This one’s great, but the sauce on this one’s the best. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous…”

A solid five minutes of debate later, they finally choose one pizza. Their server drops back by to fill up their waters and take their order. Clint tacks on two beers at the end.

“My treat,” he says when Bucky gives him a questioning look.

“Thanks.”

“So—Bucky?” Clint tilts his head, smiling crookedly at him.

“Uh, yeah,” Bucky laughs. He laces his hands together on the formica tabletop and stares down at them. “I guess I sort of owe you an explanation, huh?”

“Nah, you don’t owe me anything.” Bucky glances up to see Clint sitting back in his seat, relaxed. He shrugs when Bucky meets his eye. “I’ll listen if you want to tell me about it, but you don’t have to. It’s not my business. Life happens.”

Bucky looks at him, nonplussed. “That’s… Thank you, Clint. I’ve had a lot of people butt their heads in over the years.”

“People are nosy shits.”

Bucky snorts, and then they’re both laughing. “Yeah, definitely.”

“Wanna hear about how much life happened to me first?”

“Sure, catch me up to speed.”

“Okay, well, I finally picked a major junior year. Got my degree in business, and now I’ve got a business.”

“A business?”

“The coffeeshop.”

“That’s yours?”

“You seriously couldn’t tell from all the puns?”

“I mean, I could’ve guessed with some prompting, probably.”

The server brings their beers and some breadsticks by, and Bucky settles in for a story and some serious carb loading. In the past decade and a half, Clint worked various odd jobs till he scraped together enough money to open the coffeeshop. He’d never known Clint had wanted that, but with the way he had always lamented the dining hall’s shitty coffee and acted like the rapture had come every time they went off-campus for better stuff, it makes sense.

Sometime in the middle of all that, he’d gotten married to a woman he met senior year of college. They’ve since gotten a divorce, but apparently they’re still pretty amicable.

“We have to be,” Clint explains around a bite of pizza. “Bobbi and I didn’t want Luke having to pick sides.”

“Yeah, the child’s the most important thing,” Bucky nods. He wipes his hands off on his napkin and contemplates a third slice.

“I noticed you, uh, have one?” Clint says, reaching for a slice and dumping it directly on Bucky’s plate. Bucky gives him a withering look, then registers his question and ducks his head.

“Sort of.”

“How do you sort of have a kid?”

“I guess I should have introduced you guys at the barbeque. Becca’s my baby sister.”

“Oh.” Clint sits back heavily in his seat, a crease between his brows and his plate forgotten.

Bucky picks at his pizza for a silent minute, then glances up at Clint with a tiny sigh. “This is the part where I explain.”

“You don’t have—”

“I know,” Bucky cuts across him. “I want to, though. You were my friend, and disappearing on you like that wasn’t cool. I should have explained then, but the best I can do is tell you now.”

Clint first steeples his hands on the table, then thinks better of it and grabs a slice of pizza. Bucky gives him a grateful look—he’s not sure he’d be able to muddle through it with Clint’s undivided attention. He doesn’t tell this story very often

“Do you remember the tail end of sophomore year?” Bucky begins. “I went home to study the weekend before finals.”

Clint nods slowly. “Yeah, and then you—”

“Never made it back for finals week, yeah. I didn’t just decide to not take them and skip out.”

“No, I know. I remember seeing something in the paper.”

The story had made the front page, horrid as it had been. Apparently gruesome tragedies sell newspapers. He remembers a reporter showing up at his door for a follow-up a week after it had happened, and though she’d been respectful and apologetic, Bucky had had too much to deal with to bother speaking with her. Not that he’d wanted to, anyway, and the doorbell had woken Becca up. He had shut the door in her face as politely as he could and to this day has no idea whether she had still run the follow-up without his comment.

The original story had circulated the news cycle all week. He hadn’t been able to escape it, the way it had flashed on every television screen in the hospital. Even shut away in his hospital room, his bed neighbor had the television blaring, the news ticker spelling out the same bold text every few minutes. Eventually his nurse had noticed, drawing the curtain and muting the volume so he couldn’t see or hear. She had sat with him as long as she could—didn’t try to talk, just sat with him and held his hand while he stared at the plaster encasing his left arm.

She had left before a doctor came to see him. It wasn’t his doctor. As the man had pushed open the creaking door, Bucky could already tell from the set of his shoulders what he was here to tell him. He didn’t cry until much later. He had felt strangely hollow while the doctor expressed his sincere apologies.

Then the doctor said something else. Bucky'd had to ask him to repeat himself, shaking his head clear.

“The baby is alive. She’s a little bruised, but otherwise she’s completely fine.”

Two short days later, Bucky had left the hospital with his baby sister in his arms. His parents had left her to him in the will, clearly having not anticipated this particular turn of events. They would never have intended to saddle their 19-year-old son with custody of his one-year-old sister.

The lawyer had told him he didn’t have to take her, despite it being in the will. There were other relatives who might be willing, or he could let the system take her. He had been adamantly against both of those options. None of their relatives were close, emotionally or geographically, and Bucky hadn’t wanted to be separated from the only family he had left. Putting her up for adoption simply hadn’t been an option to him, even if it was an open situation as the lawyer gently suggested.

So he’d taken her, and worked his ass off to prove to the state that he could handle it. He’d sold his childhood home, moved from the city out to Maple Bay where the cost of living was significantly cheaper, dropped out of college, gotten a decent-paying job, bought a little condo, and put the rest of the money from his inheritance away. A lot of it is still sitting in a college fund for Becca.

As Bucky finishes the story, Clint sets his crust down and takes a slow breath. “That’s—I mean, that’s some serious shit, dude. I’m so sorry all that happened to you.”

Bucky finishes of his beer with a shrug. “It’s fine. I mean, it was… not fine for a long time, but I had some good people helping me figure it out. Everything worked out in the end.”

“Yeah, you guys seem like you’re doing good. New house and all.” Clint smiles at him and signals at their server for another round.

“We are.” Bucky nods. “I even went back to college a few years ago at Nat’s insistence—you remember Natasha, right?” She’d gone to college across the country, but because her semester breaks were different from theirs, she’d been by campus to see him a few times.

“How could I forget?” Clint hums wistfully. He lays a hand over his heart, clearly still pining for Natasha fifteen years down the line. Bucky gets it—she's  a force of nature.

“Yeah, she helped me get into a computer science program. I’d been telecommuting a customer service job for years, and it was alright, but I’m a lot happier with the work I do now.”

The server brings them new beers and clears away their empty pizza pan and bottles. Clint raises his beer to Bucky with a soft smile. “Well, here’s to everything coming out in the wash then. I’m happy for you.”

“Thanks, Clint,” Bucky says, and taps their bottle together with a clink. He takes a long sip. “I’m glad to see you're doing well too.”

“Yeah, me too. It was touch and go for a while there, wasn’t it?”

“I mean, I’m not going to say I worried about your future, but I didn’t not worry about your future.”

“Alright, dad,” Clint huffs. Bucky chokes on his beer, and while he splutters, he gets in a sneak attack against Clint with a balled-up napkin. He ought to have known better though, because Clint just grabs it back up and pings him in the middle of the forehead. Sinking into his seat, Bucky holds up a clean napkin as a white flag.

Triumphant smirk firmly in place, Clint drawls, “So. Bucky .”

“Look, that’s what my parents called me, and Becca’d already sort of learned to say it, so it just stuck.”

Clint breaks into a grin. “Oh, you sappy sap.”

“Don’t make fun of me, Barton. I’ve got enough dirt on you to bury you alive.”

“Fine, fine. You still hungry? They’ve got killer dessert here.”

 

After sobering up with a cup of coffee, Bucky pulls into the driveway an hour later with a half a slice of cheesecake in a box on the passenger seat. He’ll tell Becca he saved it specifically for her, and it won’t be a complete lie. In all reality though, he’d had to tap out after just a few bites, already overfull from the pizza and beer. Then he really did think, Hey, I can bring this to Becca. The sentiments are similar.

“Hey, Becca bee,” he calls as he comes in through the garage, dumping his keys on the counter. The TV drones from the living room, so he knows she’s still awake. “I brought you something.”

Sure enough, she bounds into the kitchen, smiling expectantly. “Did you now?”

“As your legal guardian, I have to tell you that eating dessert past 9 p.m. is bad for you.” With a flourish, Bucky sets the box on the counter and pops the lid. “As an older brother who only occasionally gets the chance to corrupt you, here’s some cheesecake.”

“Ooooh!” Grabbing a fork from the drawer, she hops onto the counter and digs in right there, box in her lap. No table manners, that one. Bucky gives her braid a tug as he maneuvers around her to get to the doorway. She stops him by hooking a socked foot around his elbow. “Hang on! Tell me about friendship.”

With a snort, Bucky turns to lean against the counter beside her, poking at the center of a flower on her pajama pants. “Wow, not even a ‘thanks for the cheesecake, Bucky, I love you so much’?”

“Thank you, love you, et cetera.” She knocks her knee into his side while she twists on the counter to face him properly. “Now how’d your date go?”

Bucky breathes out heavily through his nose. “Not a date. I did have a good time though.”

“Clint seems cool.”

“He is, yeah.” Bucky straightens up and glances at her. She’s got the fork upside down in her mouth. “I guess I didn’t really explain how I know him.”

“Doesn’t take a genius to figure it out,” she mumbles around her bite.

“Good thing you’re not a genius then.”

Becca pops the fork out of her mouth and pokes him in the cheek with the handle. He halfheartedly swats her away, but she’s already foraging in the box again. “You guys knew each other in college? From the first time you went?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, nodding. “Yeah, he was my roommate.”

“You were friends?”

“Of course. Clint’s a great dude to have around.”

Becca hums thoughtfully and offers him a bite, but he waves her away. She lowers her fork without eating it and stares at the box. “Why’d you stop being friends, then?”

Bucky’s breath catches, his brow steepling. “I don’t—we just… Friendships take a lot of work to maintain. I guess I didn’t realize that at the time.”

She gives him a wan smile. “Well, now you do.” Hopping down from the counter, she throws the empty box away and sticks the fork in the sink. “Are you gonna message anyone else?”

“Jeez, Becks, can’t a guy breathe for a minute?”

“You’ve got momentum! Keep it going!”

“It is nearly 10 p.m.”

She glances at the clock and frowns. “Huh, you’re right. It’d look kinda skeevy to message someone this late.”

“Skeevy?” Bucky asks, tilting his head.

“Oh, you naive old cook.” Becca shakes her head pityingly. “Booty calls?”

“Oh my god, okay." He swats her down the hall. "Bedtime for the whippersnapper, let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Tuesday is by necessity a “get shit done” day. Bucky has a backlog of client emails to sort through, and then the actual work for the clients that needs to get done, and if he lays eyes on one more cardboard box, he might just incinerate the whole house in an act of defiant rage. Extreme? Yes. Effective at getting rid of the boxes? Also yes.

The one thing no one tells you about adulthood is that eventually, clutter starts to mess with your head. As a kid, a messy room is just evidence of a day well spent. As an adult, it is an impediment to the day being any kind of good. Living with a teenager does not help.

Tuesday stretches into Wednesday, and by midday, he’s clobbered through most of it. His well-deserved reward is another cup of coffee and a quiet game of solitaire on his computer. He’s got two foundations complete when he raises his cup to find it empty again. Frowning down into the mug, he decides to check Facebook before finishing the game. Just for a few minutes. Some light scrolling, maybe a like here or there.

A dozen new friend requests and 17 notifications light up the page as soon as it loads. If Bucky’d had any more coffee left, he might have spat it back out.

The requests are all from neighborhood folks, and he accepts them in short order. Turns out Facebook sends notifications for groups, so most of those are from people posting on the RND page. He clicks through and reads a few of them. Sam shared the diorama Lola made for her science project, Bruce posted a picture of a stack of papers to grade next to a wine glass, and Steve posted something about a church bake sale. He clicks the like button on all of them.

The rest of the notifications are on his profile picture—several likes and a few comments.

Becca Barnes Wonder who took such a lovely photograph of you? ;)

Clint Barton lookin good my man!!

Steve Rogers @Becca Barnes Great shot! Lovely is the word.

Sam Wilson Cut your damn hair

Combing his fingers through his hair, Bucky fishes a hair tie out of desk drawer and gathers his straggling strands back into a passably neat bun. It’s not too long. Right? He frowns at Sam’s comment, thinking up a strongly worded rebuttal, when the one above it catches his eye again. He’d thought at first Steve had just been complimenting Becca’s photography skills, but reading it back…

He’s just being nice, Bucky reminds himself. A nice neighbor man, too polite for his own good. Still, though, when he glances at the right side of the screen and sees the little green circle next to Steve’s name in the chat window, his fingers inch toward the keyboard. Dinner with Clint went so well the other day, and Becca’s right that he really ought to try to make more friends. He could be friends with Steve. They get along already, and he’s well connected in the community that friendship with him would likely lead to even more friends.

Really though, if he cuts through his own bullshit, Bucky knows that he just wants to talk to Steve. That’s a fine thing to want.

He clicks Steve’s name to bring up the chat box. It takes several drafts till he comes up with something he doesn’t hate, but he doesn’t even have to text Becca to ask for advice. He hits send, feeling rather proud of himself.

Bucky Barnes Hey Steve! Thanks again for inviting me and Becca to the barbeque. You do owe me a beer for forcing me to meet all the neighbors though.

Oh god. As soon as it sends, Bucky wants to reach into the internet and pluck it right out of Steve’s inbox. That’s not how any of this works, but he wants to.

As the checkmark that means Steve saw his message appears, Bucky’s stomach drops. A reply pings through a few seconds later. He refrains from peeking through his fingers to read it, but only narrowly.

Steve Rogers Hiya Bucky! I thought you said you enjoyed meeting everyone? I’m more than willing to make it up to you if you really want me to though.

Does Steve know everything he says sounds like a come on? Oh god, maybe he doesn’t know. Should Bucky tell him? Listen, Steve, I hate to tell you this, but… He’s not sure how well that would go, because then it would be obvious that Bucky had thought Steve was flirting with him, and that’s just—

A second message pops up.

Steve Rogers Unfortunately I can’t do beer tonight because I’m overseeing the church bake sale. You’re more than welcome to come over and help the kids and I bake brownies though! ~Steve

Well, alright. Bucky’s been known to make a mean batch of brownies now and again—and most of them were even family friendly, thank you.

Bucky Barnes Sounds great! See you soon :) ~Bucky

He powers down the computer, brushes his teeth again, and heads out. It’s only as he’s nearing Steve’s house that he remembers the elephant in the room—or crucifix, as it were.

How… does one hang out with a priest? Will Steve only talk in parables? Should Bucky, like, genuflect as he enters the house? Is Steve going to bless the brownie batter before he lets Bucky lick the bowl clean? Will he have to pray with them?

Obviously Bucky doesn’t know many priests. Or any at all, actually, because the last time he went to church was when Becca was 11. Their aunt had been in town and wouldn’t hear of missing the Christmas Eve service. Becca had fallen asleep on his shoulder before “Silent Night.”

Speaking of Becca...

Once he pulls up to the curb in front of Steve’s house, he slips his phone out.

Bucky sent 3:30 p.m.
Hey kid, going to Steve’s to bake brownies for Jesus. I’ll let you know when I’m on my way home. Still getting a ride with Liz after debate practice?

Becca received 3:31 p.m.
Look at you go!!! Don’t be weird about the religion thing.

Becca received 3:31 p.m.
Also yes Liz is driving me home. Have fun <3

Now that he’s been idling outside the house so long that it’s probably weird, Bucky shuts the car off and heads to the door. He knocks and steps back, but the door swings open almost immediately. A young boy of about eight stands in the entryway, tugging at the hem of his shirt and staring at him.

“Um, hi?” Bucky starts, leaning to look past him into the house. “Are you Harrison?”

The kid nods, blinking slowly at him. He must favor his mom, with dark hair and soft brown eyes.

“Alright, buddy, where’s your dad?”

“Harrison!” Steve calls from deep inside the house. He appears at the end of the hall, hands on his hips and looking thoroughly exasperated in a crisp white apron. As he strides toward them, Harrison darts toward the stairs. “Hang on a minute, sweetheart. What did I tell you about answering the door?”

“To be nice to people,” the kid mutters.

Steve gestures at Bucky expectantly. Harrison slowly pries himself off the banister and waves at Bucky halfheartedly. “Hi, I’m Harrison.”

“So I gathered,” Bucky chuckles, meeting Steve’s eye. “I’m Bucky, your new neighbor. It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too.” Harrison glances at Steve pleadingly. The second Steve gives him the thumbs up, he’s up the stairs and gone. Steve shakes his head and smiles, somewhere between fond and fed up.

“Come on in,” he says to Bucky, waving him inside and closing the door behind him. “He’s shy, but we’re working on it. The girls eat up a lot of attention, which doesn’t help.”

“That’s okay,” Bucky says. “Becca used to be real shy too. They just need patience and the occasional stiff push. He’ll get there.”

Steve nods thoughtfully at him, then snaps straighter with a wide smile. “Alright, grand tour time.” He gestures broadly to the entranceway. “Obviously this is the foyer, and those are the stairs in case you’re unfamiliar.”

“Do they lead to more house?”

“Indeed they do!”

“What a wild concept.”

Laughing, Steve claps him on the shoulder and guides him down the hall. A wide opening in the wall across from the stairs opens up into the living room, suffused with natural light from several large windows.

“And here’s the living room, where we do a lot of our living.”

Bucky shoots him a smirk as he trails past him into the room. It’s bright and spacious, with a distinct nautical theme. That’s not what Bucky would have expected, but then again, what exactly did he expect? Crosses everywhere? It’s charming.

It’s a little untidy too, but in a way that makes it look lived in. There are kids’ toys scattered about and a throw blanket piled on the couch. Bucky spies an empty mug on the coffee table—on a coaster, very respectable—next to a copy of the bible, which he really ought to have expected. Upon closer inspection, he sees that it’s a teen edition. What changes could they possibly make to make it more relatable to teenagers? Add some memes? Does Jesus talk in chatspeak?

He almost asks Steve, but then thinks better of it. Knowing himself, he’d probably phrase it to sound offensive by accident, even though he’s genuinely curious. The priest at his parents’ church growing up never bothered trying to engage with the youths. He wonders what that looks like.

He turns around to face Steve, and lo and behold—on the wall next to his head, there they are. An entire collection of crosses hangs over the buffet table, each one different from the last. Surprising himself, Bucky finds it eclectic and artful rather than weird. Some of them are absolutely beautiful. A wooden cross with hand-painted pastoral scenes catches his eye.

“Are you done?” Steve asks, but there’s only amusement in his voice.

“What, does me checking out your house bother you?”

“I wouldn’t say that, no.” Steve’s eyes narrow, his cheeks tinged just the lightest pink.

Before Bucky can manage a reply to that, the twins stroll into the room, side-by-side. Their sweet smiles match their identical confectionary dresses, ribbons tying their curls away from their faces.

“Ah, there are my girls!” Steve pushes off from the wall. “You remember Bucky, right?”

Sarah and Stella nod and turn their smiles on Bucky, and something in their eyes makes him recoil a little bit. “Hello, Bucky,” they say together.

“Alright, sweethearts,” Steve says, walking over to them. “Dial back the creepy twin shtick please.”

Admittedly it is a little creepy, but as Bucky eyes Steve, he sees the corner of Steve’s mouth twitching. Huh, ain’t that curious.

“Hey, girls,” he says, turning to face them. “Can you say, ‘Come and play with us, Danny’?”

Steve rounds on him, eyes wide, but something in the set of his mouth tells Bucky he’s anything but angry.

The girls join hands. “Come and play with us, Danny.”

Bucky bites back a grin as Steve presses his fist to his mouth and looks at the floor, eyebrows raised. Oh, absolutely game on. He will crack that man like an egg on the countertop. “Okay, now say, ‘I see dead people.’”

“Bucky, no,” Steve pleads.

The girls repeat the line in a flat tone, eyes darting toward their dad. Good, if they’re catching on, there’s no way Steve is making it out of this intact. As it is, he’s progressed to biting his knuckle. The twins start to smile, but Bucky flutters his hands at them and they tamp their smiles down, waiting for their next cue.

“Now say, ‘Emotion is irrelevant. It is not our nature.’”

Sarah and Stella glance at each other furtively and then look back at Bucky. Uh oh.

“Emotion is—” Stella starts.

“An elephant?” Sarah says.

That does it. Steve busts up laughing, leaning against the buffet to hold himself upright while the girls swarm around his legs. Cheshire-cat grins across their faces, they tug at his apron and giggle with him.

Wiping at his eyes, Steve meets Bucky’s gaze. “Village of the Damned, really? And not even the original!”

Steve does his best to look accusatory, but any man hugging two laughing children to his sides is hard-pressed to look anything but adorable.

Wait. Shit.

“Great job, girls,” Bucky says to cover up the sudden tightness in his chest.

“We’re scary,” they say, Steve’s hands planted on top of their heads.

“Terrifying,” Bucky agrees with an emphatic nod.

Stella grabs Sarah by the hand—or does Sarah grab Stella? Either way, they skip out of room, surely off to terrorize the neighborhood with their new level of spooky. All twins should be unnerving, that’s just the facts. Bucky did the world a service today.

“You do realize what you’ve done?” Steve asks, still getting his breath back. “I’m not going to be able to sleep in my own house anymore.”

Bucky holds up his hands in front of his chest. “Hey, you made them, not me.”

Steve snorts a laugh. He meets Bucky’s eye and tilts his head, considering him. “Hmm. I see we’ve got something of a troublemaker on our hands.”

“I do what I can.”

“Think you can best a professional?”

At the sly tilt of Steve’s eyebrows, Bucky’s eyes widen, his mouth falling open into a surprised smile. He steps closer to Steve, hands sliding over the tops his own thighs. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to find out, won’t we?”

Steve smiles and gives him a once-over, challenging—but there’s an undercurrent of something else, the way his eyes darken—

A rattling crash makes them both jump.

“Shoot,” Steve hisses. “Stay here, let me go see what the terrible two did now.”

He hurries out of the room, leaving Bucky alone with all the crosses and sailing paraphernalia. From across the room, he spies a few pictures on the mantle and shuffles over for a closer look. Before he makes it there, Steve calls out to him.

“Hey, we’re all clear.”

Bucky spins on his heel to see Steve poking his head around the archway that must lead toward the kitchen. “No disasters?”

“Nope, the kids just knocked the hand mixer off the counter.”

A minor incident in the grand scheme of things. A kitchen contains a thousand different ways for a kid to accidentally hurt themselves or die. Apparently today, it’s just Steve’s tile in danger. Bucky follows him into the kitchen, where one of the twins is perched on the island, kicking her feet against the cabinets. The mixer sits a safe distance away from her, next to a large bowl filled with brownie batter. An assortment of baked goods covers the rest of the counter.

“C’mere, spider monkey,” Steve says as he reaches out for the girl. She holds out her arms and he hoists her onto his hip. Bucky has no idea if she’s Sarah or Stella. He ought to figure out some way to differentiate them—draw an X on Stella’s forehead or something. Maybe one of them has a distinct freckle. He would ask Steve how he tells him apart, but he knows he’d probably just get some hokey answer. I just know. Total bullshit. He probably braids their hair differently or something.

“Daddy,” the girl whines, “the brownies taste yucky.”

“Oh yeah? And how do you know, little missy?”

She shrugs her shoulders and tucks her face into his neck. From this angle, Bucky can see the smile that gives her away.

“Huh? How do you know, Sarah? Did you try the batter?”

She squirms in his arms. “Maybe.”

“Hmm, how can I make you tell me?” Steve taps his chin, meeting Bucky’s eye. “Would you tell the tickle monster?”

“No!” she screeches, wriggling enough now that it’s a surprise Steve hasn’t dropped her. He gets his free hand on her belly to tickle her, and she shrieks at the top of lungs. Giggling and trashing, she finds Bucky and shouts, “Save me, Bucky! The tickle monster’s got me!”

Bucky’s eyes widen. Steve quirks an eyebrow at him, a blatant dare, and without another second to think, he grabs the wooden spoon off the counter. “Unhand her, foul beast!”

Steve cracks for a split second, laughing as he swings Sarah around till she’s clinging to his back. He holds up his hands, fingers wiggling. “Never! The princess is mine!”

“Princess!” Sarah looks absolutely thrilled with her arms wrapped around Steve’s neck.

Bucky narrows his eyes and slinks forward, spoon raised threateningly. “En garde.”

The battle is short-lived. Steve’s wiggly fingers are no match for Bucky’s finely crafted weapon. He bats Steve’s hands away with a few deft swipes before jabbing him in the stomach. With a ragged gasp, Steve sinks backward against the cabinets. Sarah scrambles off his back, onto the counter and then the floor. Finding refuge at Bucky’s side, she whirls on her dad and points a stern finger at him. “Bad tickle monster!”

Steve sinks slowly to the floor, spluttering a weak cough. His eyes slide closed, and he gives one dramatic, rattling exhale before falling silent.

Sarah grins up at Bucky. “We did it!”

“Yeah, kiddo, sure did.” He hands her the spoon, and she waves it back and forth in the air like a victory flag. One of Steve’s eyes cracks open, and Bucky can see him fighting back a smile. “How ‘bout you go check we didn’t actually kill him?”

She prances over and sits heavily in Steve’s lap, thumping him on the forehead with the handle of the spoon. Steve’s breath leaves him in a rush, his eyes flying open. “Alright, sweetheart, uncle,” he says as he pries the spoon from her hand. He tosses it toward Bucky, who catches it easily.

“Daddy, I wanna go play with Stella now.”

“You don’t want to help us make the brownies?”

She shakes her head.

“What’s Stella playing?”

“Sparkle pony.”

“Sparkle pony, huh? Well, I guess you’d better go play too.”

She’s up and gone in a flash, bouncing curls the last thing Bucky sees as she rounds the corner and disappears. He approaches Steve and holds out a hand to help him up. Steve takes it with a grateful smile, letting Bucky hoist him back to standing.

“I’m too old to get on the ground like that anymore,” Steve bemoans, twisting to stretch his back.

“Oh, shut up. You’re not even old.” Bucky bops him on the crown of the head with the spoon for good measure.

“Hey, haven’t you ever heard of health code?”

“You have a sink and dish soap right there.”

Rolling his eyes at Bucky, Steve sticks his finger in the batter. He maintains eye contact as he pops the batter-covered finger into his mouth and sucks, which is frankly unfair. Bucky would like to issue a formal complaint to the board of friendship on the grounds of blatant flirting. His cheeks start to heat up, but then Steve’s face sours and he yanks his finger away.

“Ew, that’s nasty.”

“Really?”

Steve gestures at the bowl. “Try it.”

“How old are you exactly?” Bucky’s voice drops into a mocking tone. “‘Ew this is gross, you have to try it!’ Very middle school, Steve.”

Rolling his eyes, Steve lifts the bowl from the counter and scrapes the batter into the trashcan. “Can you get the other box?”

Bucky searches the cluttered counter, but all he finds are several saran-wrapped plates of cookies and cupcakes. “Where is it?”

Steve sticks the bowl in the sink and turns to help him look. He rifles through the desserts on the counter, then turns toward the pantry cabinet. As Steve’s search turns increasingly frantic, Bucky starts to think there might not be another box of batter. He lays a hand on Steve’s shoulder.

“Knowing when to admit defeat is a kind of courage, pal,” Bucky says.

Steve turns to him, empty-handed and distressed. “I swear I bought a second box.”

“Did you check the trash?”

Steve darts toward the can in the corner and pops the lid. Two empty bags coated with a layer of fine brown powder sit at the top. “Oh, rats,” Steve mutters, pressing a palm to his hairline.

Truth be told, Bucky’s not sure why the brownies are this important. With all the other desserts, surely the bake sale would be fine without them, but Steve seems severely out of sorts about it. Friends help friends sort through their weird brownie issues, so Bucky turns toward the pantry again and starts digging through it. He pulls out two plastic containers of flour and sugar, digging behind a tub of rice to grab the cocoa powder.

“You got eggs and butter?” he asks Steve, dumping all the ingredients onto the counter.

Steve turns to face him, his brow pinching. “Yeah?”

“Two eggs and half a stick of butter should do it. Oh, and I’ll need some vanilla extract if it’s handy.”

“You can make brownies from scratch?” Steve opens the fridge and gets the eggs and butter. His level of impressed is frankly insulting. Who does this man think Bucky is? Some kind of hooligan who doesn’t know how to make brownies from scratch?

“I’m a man of many talents,” Bucky says with a wink. Steve fumbles with the eggs. “Now please tell me you’ve got a kitchen scale.”

 

An hour later, Bucky has a hot plate of brownies in his lap as Steve drives them over to the church. The kids are all piled into the back of the mid-size SUV, the twins safely fastened into their booster seats. If wrangling kids into a car were an Olympic sport, Steve would have won gold today. They’re even relatively quiet, humming along to the Moana soundtrack playing softly through the back speakers. Bucky holds to his original statement: he has no idea how anyone manages more than one kid. But Steve seems to have a pretty good handle on it.

“Okay, so, remember my warning,” Steve starts as they arrive at the church. The lawn is set up with tents along the sidewalk, several tables spread with baked goods.

“Don’t be too friendly to the ladies or they’ll get ideas. Got it.”

“But remember to be a charming salesman,” Steve adds.

“That’s not contradictory at all.”

While they’d waited for the brownies to bake, Steve had given a him run-down about the church dynamics. The bake sale is to raise money for the women’s club, which means most of the members would be there. By and large they’re nice women, but apparently some of them are very nice. Steve said he hears if you weren’t married a lot, the rest of the sentence only implied but deeply unsettling. But they’re good women, Steve made sure to point out, and their club focuses primarily on outreach to underserved parts of the community.

“Alright, let’s sell some sugar,” Steve says as he eases into a parking spot and cuts the engine.

“That sounds like—nevermind, church,” Bucky diverts. These are hallowed grounds, Barnes. Keep it together.

Steve blinks at him, and then it seems to dawn on him. He laughs. “Yeah, you’re hilarious, Bucky, but we’re not peddling afternoon delight here.”

“Might make money faster if we did.”

Steve smacks him in the shoulder, but there’s nothing even vaguely scandalized about his expression. In fact, as his eyes linger on Bucky, there’s a certain twinkle there that has Bucky wishing there weren’t children in the backseat. Maybe it’s good he’s at church now, because it seems like he kind of does need Jesus at this point.

He and Steve get their table set up while the kids run off to the playground around back of the church. There are plenty of congregation members milling about, so Steve doesn’t seem too concerned about giving the kids free rein. The place is probably like a second home to them by now.

Bucky unwraps each plate while Steve makes sure to arrange them in a pleasing manner. He fiddles with their display for five minutes before Bucky hits him in the chest with a balled-up piece of saran wrap.

“It looks fine,” Bucky says.

Steve picks up the saran wrap and holds it up. “Are you littering on the Lord’s lawn?”

“Yes.” Bucky pats the other seat behind the table. “Now come sit down.”

Steve snorts a laugh. He chucks the saran wrap into a nearby trashcan then takes his seat next to Bucky.

The nice church ladies circle them as the bake sale begins. Steve heads off most of them with discussions of service projects and last Sunday’s sermon, but some do sneak past him to get at Bucky. He doesn’t mind so much though. The attention is decidedly flirtatious, which is weird considering they are literally on a church lawn selling brownies for the Lord right now, but he gives them a good laugh and then they trot back to their tables, appeased for now.

Once the sale starts properly at half past five, everyone settles at their respective tables and turns on the charm. “We have these events before Wednesday services so we’re guaranteed sales,” Steve says to him as he hands a man his change and a vanilla cupcake. “Isn’t that right, Todd?”

“Can’t be expected to praise the Lord on an empty stomach, now can I?” Todd says as he peels back the wrapper on his cupcake.

Church is weird.

Bucky cranks up the customer service skills and they manage to clear out most of their table. The kids’ cute if unpolished decorating talents probably help. Everybody wants a sugar cookie with Stella’s lopsided pinks hearts on it. They’re so terrible it's endearing.

“Hey, dude!”

Bucky glances up to see Clint waving at him from down the sidewalk. He makes a beeline for their table, dragging someone by the shirtsleeve behind him. When they stop in front of the table, Bucky gets a look at the kid halfway ducking behind Clint in an effort to not be seen. This must be Luke.

“Bucky, meet my kid,” Clint says, sidestepping so Luke can’t hide. He glowers at his dad, who just looks at him with expectant eyebrows.

Luke turns toward the table with a sigh. “Hi, I’m Luke.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Bucky.” Bucky offers his hand across the table, but Luke just stares at it, his eyes flickering up to Bucky’s.

“Dad said that,” he mutters.

Bucky glances at Steve, who just holds his hands out under the table in the universal sign for I don’t have a clue.

“So, what’ve we got?” Clint leans over the table to inspect his options. “Luke? Whatcha thinking?”

“Can we leave?”

“Can we— no, we’re buying brownies!”

“The brownies are a good choice,” Bucky cuts in. “Well, everything’s a good choice, but I can personally attest that the brownies are good.”

Clint smirks at him. “You did always make a mean brownie, Barnes.”

“They’ll transport you right back to the glory days of twin-sized beds and microwave popcorn for dinner.”

“Okay, well, I do not miss those things, but I do miss your baking.” Clint swipes up four brownies from the plate and hands them some cash. He waves Steve away when he tries to hand him his change back. “Keep it. For a good cause and all.”

He smiles at them as he and Luke wander off down the tables, both double-fisting brownies.

“That’s one surly ten-year-old,” Bucky notes.

“Yeah,” Steve sighs. “As a youth minister, he’s what we’d called a ‘troubled pre-teen.’”

“And in your non-ministerial opinion?”

“He’s just kind of a turd.”

Bucky hisses out a laugh, covering his mouth with his hand. Steve grins back at him, chuckling too. They have a brief moment to themselves as people start to trickle into the church for the evening service. Steve’s off-duty tonight apparently—one of the college kids is leading youth devotion so he can oversee the bake sale.

Bucky’s mind keeps jumping back to Clint and his son. From what Clint had told him, he hadn’t expected Luke to be so standoffish. “Do you think it’s the divorce?” Bucky ruminates out loud.

Steve turns to him sharply. “What?”

“Luke. D’you think it’s the divorce affecting him?”

“Oh,” Steve huffs, relaxing back into his chair. He rubs a hand over his face. “I’ve seen them in for counseling a few times, so I’m not really at liberty to talk about that.”

“Oh, yeah, I’m sorry,” Bucky says hurriedly. “I shouldn’t have asked you. I’ve been uncharacteristically nosy lately.”

Piling his elbows on the table, Steve rests his head in his palm, face turned toward Bucky. He looks like he might say something—wants to, even—but he just sighs and casts his eyes down, free hands rasping over the wrinkled edge of the tablecloth. Either the Bartons’ situation is worse than Clint had let on, or there’s something else causing that look on Steve’s face. Bucky’s not sure he should pry, though.

“Being a youth minister seems like tough work,” Bucky offers.

Steve glances up at him and nods. “It is. It’s worth it though.” He smiles softly, then ducks his head down and bites his lip. “Sometimes, though, I wish…”

“What?”

“No, it’s stupid. Never mind.”

“Oh, now I have to hear this.” Bucky prods Steve’s calf with his foot. “Come on. Spill the beans, Rogers, or I’ll smush a cupcake in your face.”

Steve’s mouth drops open as he meets Bucky’s eye, who visibly settles in to listen. Steve takes a slow breath and lets it out in a puff. “Do you ever wish you could just… escape to some island? Drop everything and just go drink on the beach. Sleep uninterrupted in a hammock all afternoon.”

“Steve.” Bucky reaches out and lays his hand over Steve’s on the table, expression incredibly serious. “It’s been my lifelong ambition to live in Margaritaville.”

A wide smile breaks across Steve’s face, lighting up his eyes. He places his free hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “One day, my friend. One day we’ll be on island time.” Then he pulls his hands back with a little sigh. “But for now, I should probably do some money collection from the other tables. Make sure everyone’s doing alright.”

Bucky holds back a sigh of his own, instead sitting up straighter and patting the table. “I’ll man the fort.”

“Thanks, Bucky. I’ll be back in a few.”

Bucky can’t help watching as Steve moves down the line of tables, but he catches himself. Training his eyes on the dessert plates, he packs away the feeling of Steve’s hands on him into a neat box and shoves it to a corner of his mind. He’s alone, huge cross in the sanctuary’s window looming over him, for about five minutes before someone comes along to save him from his own thoughts. Sam strolls up with Lola in tow, both of them smiling broadly at Bucky.

Seeing them perks Bucky right up. He sits up properly and gestures toward the (depleted, but still artful) array of desserts on the table. “Hi, guys,” he says. “Fancy something sweet?”

“We’re already late for church because someone’s soccer coach doesn’t know how to read a watch,” Sam says. “I don’t know if indulging is our best option right now.”

“But Papa, brownies!” Lola looks up at him pleadingly, pointing toward the plate of brownies. “Didn’t I do good today?”

“You did, Lolli, but dad’s got stuff for dinner at home.”

“Aw, Sam, cut the kid a break,” Bucky says, leaning toward him across the table. “You could save them till after dinner?”

“Yeah!” Lola cheers.

“Y’all are tag teaming me and I don’t appreciate it,” Sam says with a stern look at them both. “Get enough of that in my own household, thanks.”

“What do you get enough of?” Steve asks as he trails back over to the table. He puts a thick wad of bills into the cash box before settling into his seat, one hand braced on the back of Bucky’s chair. “Surely not brownies. No one can ever have enough brownies.”

“That’s just a fact,” Bucky adds with a smile.

Sam dithers over the table, looking at the options like he’s trying to decide what kind of weed killer to buy. Lola bounces on her toes next him, gesturing toward the brownies like she’s on Wheel of Fortune.

“What brand are these anyway?” Sam asks.

“Papa,” Lola sighs, exchanging a withering look with Bucky.

“Homemade,” Bucky says.

“Really?” Sam asks, eyebrows raised—not disbelieving, but impressed. Steve shoots Bucky a sideways grin.

“Bucky here is a regular pastry chef,” Steve tells Sam. He squeezes Bucky’s arm, practically looping his arm around Bucky’s shoulders to do it.

Glancing up at Steve with narrowed eyes, Sam swipes three brownies off the plate. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

He pays, and then he and Lola march toward the sanctuary to catch the back half of service. Bucky and Steve stretch out in their chairs. Their table is nearly clear by now—just a few cupcakes and two lonely brownies left. Glancing around, Bucky notes that the other tables have done well, but maybe not as well as they did. He knows it’s all for a good cause, that it’s not really any competition because all the money’s going into one box, but he feels his heart lift anyway.

“We make a pretty good team,” Steve says softly.

Smile on his lips, Bucky says, “I was just thinking that.”

“Well, you know what they say. Great minds think alike.” Steve taps his temple and points to Bucky’s in turn.

The ladies start to pack it in as the last of the townspeople trickle away up the street, re-wrapping plates and folding up tablecloths. Bucky has half a mind to get up and help them, but the other half is perfectly content to sit here quietly with Steve as the sun dips lower toward the horizon. The silence isn’t uncomfortable, and that’s how he knows that this friendship can work. He looks over to Steve, and Steve glances back at him, but neither of them feel the need to say anything. It’s nice, to just be like this. Unpressured. Bucky feels that way around about two people in his life—it’s rare, and he never takes it for granted when he finds it.

From this distance, he can see the sun reflected in the blue of Steve’s eyes. There’s a smattering of faint freckles across Steve’s nose that he hadn’t noticed before—nor had he noticed the slightly crooked angle of it, like it’s been broken before. His lips are pink as frosting, and as Bucky watches, an equally pink tongue darts out to lick those lips. Bucky’s eyes widen.

With a sharp inhale, Steve breaks eye contact, blinking the sunlight out of his eyes. He turns toward the cash box. “Let’s see how much we’ve got, huh?” he asks, voice oddly thready.

Bucky watches Steve’s deft hands as he counts out the cash. He makes it through the twenties before he shakes himself out of it and scoots closer to reach for the coins. Together they get it counted out quickly enough. There’s nearly $200. Apparently bake sales don’t just dish out dough; they rake it in too.

“Jesus,” Bucky says.

“Actually, this money is for the women’s club,” Steve says as he tucks it all back into the box and locks it.

Bucky snorts. “Rogers, you’re kind of a—” He cuts himself off abruptly, leaning back in his chair.

“I’m kind of a what?” Steve turns toward him with an open, innocent face. Bucky feels deeply compelled to smush his palm over Steve’s face to wipe that look away. He refrains, but only barely, which is pretty much par for the course for today.

“I can’t tell you on account of how I’ll burst into flames.” Bucky jerks a thumb over his shoulder at the church behind them. Steve glances at it, then back to Bucky, his mouth quirking.

“Bucky, you can curse, you know that? I mean, not around the children and maybe not in the church, and there are a few we frown upon, but…” He trails off, shaking his head, an incredulous smile turning up his lips. “God’s not going to smite you for saying ‘shit.’”

“Thought you didn’t know what I was about to call you, huh?” Bucky digs an elbow into Steve’s side; they’re still sitting close, knees nearly knocking. He can’t shake the little thrill that had run through him at hearing Steve curse so casually like that. He’s not sure what did it—maybe the confirmation of his suspicions that Steve’s not so straight-laced as he seems. That’s it. Sure.

“I’m self-aware enough to guess,” Steve says with a shrug.

“We should—” Bucky starts, angling toward him. Steve pivots in his chair to look at him, and suddenly their faces are very close. When Bucky goes quiet, Steve’s eyebrows raise slowly, and he inclines his head. “Um. Clean up, probably, right?”

Steve bites his lip and nods. “Yes, of course.”

He stands, giving Bucky the briefest moment to get your shit together, Barnes, holy shit before he manages to unstick himself from his plastic chair too. Together they start gathering up their leftover desserts, consolidating plates and re-wrapping them with saran wrap Steve borrows from a table up the row.

They get the tablecloth shaken out and folded neatly and are about to set to work on dismantling the table itself when a phone rings. Bucky flinches, reaching for his pocket even though he can’t feel anything vibrating. Sure enough, when he pulls it out, there’s no incoming call. He glances up at Steve, who has his own phone out, frowning down at the screen. They have the same ringtone.

“I need to take this,” Steve mumbles, more to himself than Bucky. He meets Bucky’s eye, then glances away toward the lawn.

Bucky waves him off. “Go, I’ve got a handle on it.”

Shuffling off across the grass, Steve answers the call with a soft, “Hey.”

Bucky doesn’t mean to eavesdrop. He really doesn’t. In fact, he does his best to make a lot of noise as he folds up the creaky metal legs of the table and then starts working on the pop-up tent. He knows he shouldn’t listen, and genuinely doesn’t want to hear one-half of this conversation—but somehow over the past few days, he’s turned into the neighborhood’s batty old gossip. Are you a gossip if you don’t tell anyone what you find out? Maybe he’s just a snoop. Either way, he shouldn’t listen.

It’s just that Steve’s voice carries.

“So when will you be home?” he hears Steve say. Maybe his parents are on vacation or something.

“You don’t know.” Steve sighs raggedly, and out of the corner of his eye, Bucky sees him press a hand to his temple. “You have no idea at all? … Okay, yeah. I understand, Peggy. I do. Just tell me as soon as you know anything, alright?”

Bucky swallows hard, hands busy unfastening the tent’s cover slip.

“Yeah, you too. See you soon, Pegs.”

When Steve doesn’t appear back at his side by the time Bucky has the tent disassembled, Bucky chances a look at him. He’s leaning against the wall of the church, phone still in his hand, staring at the ground. The slump of his shoulders makes him look defeated and tired. Bucky understands that posture entirely too well, so he digs through their plates to find what he wants. Steve glances up as he walks over. Bucky turns to lean against the wall next to him.

“Here,” Bucky says, holding out one of the leftover brownies. Steve hasn’t tried them yet. “Chocolate makes everything better, in my experience.”

Steve huffs a soft laugh, tucking his phone into his pocket before he takes the brownie. He splits it in half and hands one end back to Bucky. When Bucky holds up his hands and shakes his head, Steve just holds it out more insistently. “Please take it. I want you to have it.”

Their fingertips brush fleetingly as Bucky takes his half. They chew in relative silence, Steve humming his approval. Bucky’s not sure if he should ask it, if they’re at that level of friendship yet, but—

“Are you okay, Steve?”

“Heard some of that, did you,” Steve says flatly.

“I didn’t mean to.”

“It’s okay.”

Bucky hesitates, wanting to help but unsure how. He wipes brownie crumbs off on his jeans. “Do you—want to talk about it?”

Letting out a slow, measured breath, Steve tips his head back against the wall and shuts his eyes. “I’m just—frustrated, I guess. Peggy’s out of town ‘indefinitely,’ apparently.”

“Does that happen a lot?” Bucky prompts.

Steve flashes a glance at him before resuming his position. “It’s not—not like that. She has a very important job, and she gets called away a lot. We knew she would going into it. I just…”

“You’re tired. I get it.”

“Yeah,” Steve hums. He shifts, turning till he faces Bucky, his shoulder propped against the wall. “Yeah, I guess you do, huh?”

Bucky meets his eye. “Handling kids on your own sucks. It’s doable and rewarding, but it does suck majorly about seventy percent of the time, especially when they’re young.”

Resting his head against the wall again, Steve tucks his arms around himself and looks past Bucky, out across the lawn. His face grows tight and pensive.

“Just remember, even if you blow out your flip flop…”

That finally does it: that resigned, somber expression on Steve’s face breaks into a smile. Albeit a shaky one, but it’s a smile. He doesn’t laugh, but he does breathe out heavily through his nose, which is close. “Right. Margaritaville.”

Bucky smiles tentatively back at him as Steve shoves off the wall.

“Island time,” Steve hums. “But right now I need to take the money downstairs, and then I need to help finish cleaning up, and I have to wrangle my kids from the youth service.”

“Let’s get to it then,” Bucky says, and he pushes off the wall to lead the way back to the remnants of the bake sale.

Chapter Text

The drive back to the neighborhood is quiet. The kids are tuckered out from the playground and whatever Christianity-themed game they’d played during the youth service. Pin Jesus to the cross? That’s probably too dark for elementary school kids—or anyone, frankly. Regardless, all three nodded off in the backseat within the first few minutes, leaving Steve and Bucky to sit in silence. The setting sun casts a warm orange glow over the town, and it’s beautiful. Bucky might even call it serene, if it weren’t for Steve nervously tapping out a staccato rhythm against the steering wheel.

He doesn’t comment on it, instead reaching for the radio. Keeping the volume low, he flips through the channels till he finds the one he’s looking for. Thank god Steve also invests in satellite radio. Soon the sweet sound of multiple guitars and Jimmy’s gentle crooning fills the cab.

Steve glances over at him. Bucky mouths along to the chorus of “Son of a Son of a Sailor” as dramatically as he possibly can. Steve must think himself a very serious man, but Bucky can see the smile threatening at the edges of his mouth. It’s when Bucky breaks out the air keyboard that Steve finally gives in to the power of the Coral Reefer Band.

“You’re a dork,” Steve whispers at him, but then he joins Bucky on the next chorus.

The song’s over by the time they make it back to Steve’s house, but the mood still feels buoyant as Bucky climbs out of the car and starts unloading dishes while Steve rouses the kids. He leads them all to the kitchen, where he tells Bucky to put the dishes on the counter and tells the kids to wash their hands.

“I’m going to walk Bucky out and then I’ll get dinner ready, okay, kids?”

“Can I be in charge?” Harrison asks, dragging a step stool toward the sink so the girls can reach.

“Of course. You’re my first mate, aren’t you?” Steve says.

Harrison tips him a salute, smiling a snaggle-toothed grin. “Aye, aye, captain!”

Steve chuckles fondly, turning toward Bucky to gesture to the hallway. He expects Steve to just walk him to the door, but he follows Bucky out and shuts the door behind him. Along the pathway, Steve says, “Sorry for keeping you so late.”

“It’s like—” Bucky glances at his watch. “Barely past seven, Steve.”

“Sorry for keeping you away from Becca then.”

Bucky fishes his keys out of pocket and leans against the driver’s side door. “You really want to apologize, don’t you?”

Sighing, Steve ducks his head and scuffs his toe against the driveway. “I feel like I should. I didn’t mean to unload on you like that back at the church. My domestic issues are not exactly prime first hangout conversation topics.”

“Hey.” Bucky reaches out and grips Steve’s shoulder. “I’m worried about your math skills, because this is the second time we’ve hung out. Third if you count when we met.”

Steve looks up at him, huffing half a laugh. “See, that’s what I’m talking about. You’ve been so great all day and I’ve just been…” He tosses his hands up in the air. “A bit of a mess. I’m sorry.”

“When exactly did I give you the impression that I minded?” Bucky asks, dropping his hand to cross both arms over his chest.

“Well, let me make it up to you sometime anyway,” Steve offers.

“Sure.” Bucky thinks a moment, then adds, “And if you ever need like, a babysitter or something, give us a call. I know Becca’s trying to get into the game.”

“Thank you, Bucky.” His voice is so sincere, and the way the low light of the porch lamp casts his face into sharp relief makes Bucky want to lean in and—remember that Steve is married. Yep. He reaches behind him to grab the handle of his car.

“Any time. What are friends for, right?” He sidesteps to pull the door open, ducking inside with a wave, but Steve grips the top of the door to stop him closing it. He leans toward Bucky in his seat.

“I’ll make it up to you,” Steve says. “I might not be able to get us to Maragaritaville, but I’m going to do something nice for you. I promise.”

Bucky’s heart stutters in his chest. “Can’t wait.”

Steve smiles softly at him, then leans away to shut the door. He raps his knuckles against the top of the car and steps back, waving at Bucky as he backs out of the drive. As he heads home, he can’t get the smell out of his head—citrus and clean cotton, with something richer underneath. Vanilla maybe, from when Steve had spilled the extract on his hands.

 

Becca pounces on Bucky over dinner. Apparently she’s incapable of respecting the bond between a man and his sandwich. He pretends not hear her over the crunching of a chip in his mouth. She’s really very nosy.

Maybe that’s where he gets it. He’s pretty sure the parental figure is supposed to impart traits upon the child, but it could go both ways, he supposes. She really ought to know better than to pry into other people’s business so much. He should ask her some invasive questions, she how she likes it.

“Bucky.”

He looks up from his plate innocently. “Hmm?”

“I asked, did you have a nice time with Steve?”

“Yeah.” He takes another bite of his sandwich. The deli must have changed how they season their chicken. It’s loads better than usual and pairs nicely with that new spicy mustard he got. Becca, realizing that he’s not going to elaborate on his own, picks her own sandwich up with a huff. Next time he’ll just forget the extra tomato if she’s going to be so grumbly about it.

Bucky takes a sip of water and sets the glass back down. “Can I ask you a question, bee?”

She eyes him over her bread crust. “Shoot.”

“You seem to care an awful lot about me making new friends.”

“That’s not a question.”

Bucky purses his lips. “You know what I meant.”

Setting her sandwich down, Becca picks through her chips, looking for the tiny ones first like usual. “I just care about you, Buck.”

“Aw, really?” Bucky nudges her ankle with his foot under the table.

She kicks his foot away. “Not for long if you keep doing that.”

Bucky cackles and then they both dig back into their sandwiches, too busy eating to bother talking for a few minutes. Becca is nearly done, wiping her hands off on a napkin, before Bucky remembers his retaliation plan. He casts around for something irritating to ask her.

“So,” he starts. He eyes flicker up to him, suspicious of his tone. “How are—your friends?”

“They’re good,” she answers slowly.

“Any of them… more than friends?”

Becca’s mouth flattens into an unimpressed line. “Are you trying to ask if I have a boyfriend?”

“Or a girlfriend,” Bucky adds. “No judgment in this household. You know that.”

“I’m not answering that.”

“Why?”

She visibly restrains from rolling her eyes. “Because I’d tell you if I did.”

“How do I know that’s true?”

“Goodnight, Bucky.” She gets up to scrape her plate into the trashcan.

“Aw, Becks, come on! You ask me about everything and I can’t ask you?” Bucky gets up to follow her, but she dumps her plate in the sink and darts out of the room.

“Sorry, it’s my duty as a teenager to be cagey and reclusive about any and all personal questions,” she calls over her shoulder as she disappears down the hall. She makes it to her room and shuts the door before he can catch up. He thinks about knocking, or just pushing his way in, but—privacy rules. He’ll let her alone, if only because there doesn’t seem to be anything actually wrong.

Still, he can’t help wondering what’s gotten into her lately. Maybe they’ve finally hit the terrible teenage angst phase every warned him about. Or maybe he’s just paranoid that she’s hiding something because he feels like he is. Rubbing at his temple, Bucky turns and ambles up the hall to his own room.

 

By Thursday morning, he’s back into the full swing of work. Clients are persnickety as usual, but the projects he’s working on now are actually interesting, which makes the hours pass easily enough. He doesn’t even think about Facebook. Or, well, not much beyond the occasional check-in. He posts a picture of his and Steve’s bake sale spread, deliberating over the caption for most of his lunch break. Eventually he comes up with something that doesn’t sound sacrilegious.

Bucky Barnes There’s no such thing as winning a bake sale, but @Steve Rogers and I came pretty close.

There. His first official group page post. What a momentous occasion. To celebrate, he gets another cup of coffee and settles down to write a few more thousand lines of code. He gets wrapped up in work for most of the afternoon, and then once Becca’s home he has to help her with her math homework. After that they decide to unwind with some terrible B-movies and a mess of takeout, and Facebook lies forgotten for the rest of the evening.

Friday morning Becca gets a ride to school—something about a photography club meeting before first period. Bucky finishes his bagel with only the sounds of public radio for company, then heads to the office. Traffic’s light on the commute today. Only one abandoned shoe and a lint ball blocking his way.

As soon as he’s done answering emails, he locks his browser down. At some point in the night he must have had a premonition, because he woke up this morning with a horrible feeling that he is well on his way to becoming a Facebook Mom. If he’s not careful, next thing he knows, he’ll have his phone out at the dinner table to scroll through the latest updates and memes from Karen down the block.

But Bucky is strong. He locks himself out of the internet until lunchtime and powers through his work. He puts the finishing touches on two separate projects, which he will send off for final approval as soon as his computer lets him back on the internet.  He fires up a game of solitaire to kill time, but that lasts about five minutes before he’s bored. Twiddling his thumbs patiently, Bucky waits for 12:30 p.m. The clock hanging on the wall ticks loudly. He watches the hour hand, then the minute hand, then the second hand as they move in an achingly slow rotation. There’s really nothing else he needs to do today. Everything else can wait till Monday.

It’s only 12:07 p.m.

He goes to find his phone.

It sits on his bedside table where he left it this morning. Easing down onto the bed, he launches his newly acquired Facebook app. As soon as it loads, it pings with several notifications on his post from yesterday. Mostly likes, but there are a few comments as well.

Thor Odinson We shall have to find a way to compete someday, Bucky! Perhaps a game of horseshoes?

Clint Barton bake more brownies

Sam Wilson What Clint said ^

Steve Rogers Brownie salesmen of the year! :D The women’s club wanted me to thank you for all your help.

He likes all their comments, and before he has a chance to reply to any of them, he gets a message notification. Before he can read it though, he has to install a separate messenger app because apparently the cult of Zuckerberg is real and he’s trying to take over everyone’s phones/lives. Once it’s downloaded, Bucky opens it to see a message from Sam.

Sam Wilson 12:22 p.m.
Seriously, bake me more brownies and I’ll let you swim in my pool.

Bucky Barnes 12:25 p.m.
Wow, didn’t know friendship was a barter system with you

Sam Wilson 12:25 p.m.
We’re opening the pool tomorrow. Come by! Bring Becca (and brownies)

Since his agenda for Saturday is characteristically blank, Bucky sends back an affirmative answer before getting up to head to the kitchen. Surely there’s something in here to cook that will occupy his attention for a while. Then if he bakes the brownies after he eats, he won’t have any time to even think about Facebook or any of the people on it before he has to leave to pick up Becca. It’s a foolproof plan.

 

Becca makes it to the car in a timely manner for a Friday afternoon, which is to say that it only takes her about fifteen minutes after school lets out. As she climbs into the passenger seat, Bucky cuts the radio volume down and cranks the engine to life.

“What’s up?” she asks, dumping her bag onto the floorboard.

“Oh, you know. The ceiling, the sky, the usual.”

“That’s not even a dad joke. That’s just like, an eight-year-old joke.”

As Bucky pulls out of line, he turns to her with stern eyebrows. “Only Beccas who are nice to me get after school snacks.”

“Your jokes are hilarious,” she says, and it only sounds like half a lie. He’ll take it, preening as he produces two apples from the driver’s door cup holder. Becca takes hers, alternately munching and telling him about her day. She’s too wrapped up in recounting her and Liz’s conspiracy theory that two of the history teachers are secretly dating to pay any attention to where they’re going.

“So she steps out of the classroom to talk to him while we’re taking the quiz, and when she comes back she’s all—hey!” Becca finally notices that they’ve been idling in an empty parking lot for the past three minutes. “This is not our home.”

“Your observation skills are unparalleled.”

She squints out the window. “Is this your way of telling me you’re sending me to a convent?”

“What—? Oh my god, no. ” He supposes pulling into an empty church parking lot isn’t exactly obvious, but where would be? It was the only place he could think to bring her, with all the school’s parking lots still busy at this time of day. “This isn’t even a Catholic church. It’s like, non-denominational or something.”

“So what are we doing here?”

As answer, Bucky cuts the engine and climbs out of the car, leaving the keys in the ignition. Becca watches him circle around the front of the car. Even with the glare off the windshield, he can see her eyes narrowed warily. When he knocks on her window, crooked smile plastered across his face, she frowns. She rolls the window down.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“What’s it look like?”

“Being weird.”

“Well, that’s not out of the ordinary, but today I am going to be weird while I teach you to drive.”

“Oh my god!” she screeches, grabbing the door handle and tumbling out of the car. “Really?”

“It’s about time we do it properly,” Bucky admits with a shrug. She’s had her permit for months, but he could never quite bring himself let her behind the wheel more than once or twice. She’d wheedled and whined about it for a long time, but eventually gave up.

“What changed your mind?” she asks, voice careful.

“You’ve been such a good sport about moving,” Bucky says, reaching out to pat her cheek. She squirms away, smile scrunchy. “I figured I should pay you back for being so helpful to me.”

“Oh, I’m so excited!” She does a little dance, and he’s not sure where she learned her moves but it definitely wasn’t from him. You couldn’t even call that a proper cabbage patch if your eyes were closed.

“Alright, alright,” Bucky shushes her. “Excitement’s well and good, but I need you to focus.”

“Got it, Bucky,” she says with a sharp nod. He points her to the driver’s side, and she circles around.

It starts off well. She remembers to buckle up first thing, and how to adjust the mirrors and the seat so she can see properly. Starting the car is the easy part. As Bucky instructs her to put the car in drive and ease her foot off the brake, his grip on the door handle tightens. But she has no problem with that, or driving a slow circle around the lot, or even sliding into a parking space. He gets out to check that she’s in the lines, and the car is dead center between them. He gives her a thumbs up, and she pumps her fist in the air.

“Beginner’s luck,” he mutters as he climbs into the car.

“Still counts!”

“Okay, let’s try it in reverse.”

She nails that too, and with how well she’s doing, Bucky almost forgets why he was nervous to let her try in the first place. She’s excitable, but on the whole Becca is a level-headed kid. She understands when things should be taken seriously, and he feels guilty for underestimating her—though of course that wasn’t the real issue at play. He knows he held her back because of his own fears. It’s only years and years of having to drive almost every day that have made him able to do it without panicking. Those first few weeks after the accident, he’d been glued to public transit—but it’s hard with a fussy baby in your lap, and once they moved, he was more or less forced by Maple Bay’s poor public transit system to start driving again.

He trusts himself to drive well now. It’s everyone else he has to watch out for.

“Think you could drive us home?” Bucky asks.

“Really?” Becca doesn’t take her eyes off the pavement, but she bounces in her seat a little.

“Really.” It’s only a five minute drive, and most of it’s through their neighborhood. Surely she can handle that. What could possibly go wrong?

But because nothing good ever follows that sentence, something does indeed go wrong. She forgets to yield turning left at an intersection, slamming on the brakes inexpertly to avoid being hit. Bucky manages not to yell at her while she’s still behind the wheel, lest she make another mistake, but he makes her pull over and switch back with him. He drives the rest of the way home in steaming silence, hands wrapped tight around the steering wheel. Becca stays quiet all the way into the house.

Bucky tosses his keys in the bowl and sinks down onto the couch, rubbing his hands over his face. She stutters her way through an apology as she hangs her backpack and jacket on the hooks by the door.

He looks up at her sharply. “Yeah, well, sorry doesn’t cut it when your car’s totaled, now does it?”

“I’m—I don’t know what else to say, Bucky.”

“Say you’ll be more careful.” Bucky can hear his voice raising, and he knows he should stop it, but his heart’s still hammering. “Say you won’t do it again. Jesus, Becca, you know to yield at an intersection. How many times have I told you that?

“Look—I’m sorry, okay? It was my first time on the road. I was bound to forget something—”

“You can’t afford to forget stuff like that behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle.”

She ducks her head, breath hitching as she tucks her arms around herself.

“Maybe you’re not ready,” Bucky says.

Her head whips up sharply to look at him, and her eyes are red-rimmed. “Maybe I’m not ready?”

Before Bucky can respond, she storms off down the hallway. Her door slams. She doesn’t come out of her room for the rest of the evening.

 

Bucky wakes up feeling like a shitty legal guardian and decides to make remorse pancakes. Remorse pancakes include cinnamon, a dash of vanilla extract, and extra chocolate chips. He cooks some bacon too, and by the time he’s cracking eggs to fry them in the grease, he hears the soft tread of socked feet coming up the hallway. No Barnes can resist the smell of bacon on a Saturday morning. Or any morning, frankly.

The chair squeaks against the tile as she pulls it out to sit. Still tending to the eggs, Bucky says over his shoulder, “Morning, bee.”

“Morning,” she mumbles.

Bucky slides the eggs out of the pan and onto two waiting plates already piled high with pancakes and bacon. Picking them up, he turns to face her. She’s slumped over the table, chin propped up in both hands. Her eyes look puffy, like she didn’t get enough sleep. With her downturned mouth and drooping eyelids, she looks downright miserable. That’s no way to look when pancakes are imminent, but Bucky’s sure he can fix that.

He sets the plates down and turns back to the counter for the syrup and his coffee mug. “What do you want to drink?” he asks. “Coffee? Orange juice?”

“Orange juice.”

He pours her a glass and refills his mug, tucking the syrup under his arm as he heads to the table. He passes her the orange juice and syrup. She perks up a little as she picks up the bottle and applies a liberal coat to her pancakes, disregarding any boundaries between eggs or bacon. Syrup goes with all breakfast food.

Snapping the cap closed, she passes him the bottle and picks up her fork. As Bucky drenches his plate, he says, “I should apologize.”

She sighs quietly. “No, Bucky, it’s me who—”

“Let me talk for a minute, huh, Becks?” He smiles at her faintly, and so she waves him on and takes a bite of her pancakes. “That last thing you said. While I certainly did not appreciate your tone, I think you’re right. You did good yesterday, and I shouldn’t discount that because of one mistake. You were bound to mess something up, because you’re learning, and I need to remember that.” He pauses to take a deep breath. “I have to trust you, and trust that you’ll be okay.”

She sets her fork down. “I know that’s hard for you.”

“Yeah,” he sighs. “It is. Can you just try to be patient with me, and I’ll do the same with you?”

“Of course. We’ve got this.” She smiles at him and picks up a slice of bacon, holding it out across the table. Bucky picks up his own slice and touches it to hers. “To managing expectations!”

Bucky laughs with her. Turning back to his breakfast, he feels much better about the whole situation, even if what he’s about to say does still make him kind of nervous. But that’s his to deal with. “So, Sam invited us over for lunch and pool time. Think you could drive us?”

 

They spend a considerable portion of the afternoon in Sam’s backyard, alternately swimming and sunning themselves. Summer’s still a month or two off, but Bucky’s going to have a nice start to his tan after today. Not that he, a work-from-home computer programmer, ever gets much of a tan—but maybe this year he will, now that he has a friend with a pool.

Becca plays with Lola in the shallow end—some game where they ride around on pool noodles. If Bucky had to guess, he’d say they’re pretending the noodles are horses. Not that the terrible snorting and occasional shouts of “Giddyup!” give them away at all.

Sam passes him his glass back, refilled with lemonade. Updating someone on your life makes you thirsty. Sam hadn’t asked him too much though, just basic stuff, and it’s actually nice to sit around and just shoot the shit with him for once. All the heavy crap is in the past, thank god. Riley dries off and joins them after a while, leaving the girls to what has progressed into a diving competition.

“They’re trying to see who can come up the most inventive dive,” Riley says as he settles onto the double lounger with Sam. “I think Lola’s got Becca beat.”

“Hey now—”

“Dude, Lola’s on the diving team at school.”

“Oh. Well.”

He’s nearly nodding off, belly full of lunch and warm under the sun, when his phone buzzes on the table. He flops a hand over to grab it, cracking one eye open to see, but Sam swipes it before he can find it.

“Are you going to read my messages like we’re in high school?” Bucky mumbles groggily.

“You bet.” Sam lifts a hand to cover his eyes so he can see the screen in the sunlight. “Ooooh, it’s from Steve!”

“Give it,” Bucky demands, sitting up properly to reach for his phone. Sam quirks an eyebrow at him, glancing at Riley, but he hands Bucky’s phone over. Bucky clutches it to his chest territorially, glaring at them both, before holding it out to read.

Steve Rogers 1:37 p.m.
Hey, Bucky! Question: Did you ask Becca about the babysitting thing? If she wants to and is free tonight, I’d love to have her over for a trial run. In fact, why don’t you come too? We can hang out while she watches the kids. ~Steve

Bucky Barnes 1:39 p.m.
I did talk to her about it and she’s interested. Let me ask if she’s free and I’ll get back to you :)

“Hey, Becca!” Bucky calls. She spins around to look at him from where she’d been poised to attempt a backflip off the diving board.

“Yeah?”

“C’mere so I don’t have to yell!”

“I forfeit if I leave the board!”

“You’re losing anyway!”

She throws her arms up in protest, but steps off the board and trundles over to him anyway. Lola shouts in victory and then leaps off the board herself, a graceful arc into the water.

“What is it?” Becca asks, ringing her ponytail out. Sam passes her a towel, which she takes with a smile.

“Are you busy tonight? Steve wanted to do a babysitting trial run, but if you’re busy—”

“Sure, I’m not doing anything.” She shrugs. “Is he going to pay me?”

“Probably?”

“If the answer is ‘definitely,’ then I’m in,” she says, wrapping the towel around her waist.

“You are a hustler,” Bucky says, pointing an accusatory finger at her. Without so much as a denial, she pulls her hair loose from its tie and starts braiding it.  Bucky turns to Sam and Riley. “Alright, we should probably head home so I can shower and nap before tonight.”

“You were literally just napping,” Sam points out.

“So?” Bucky asks.

“He makes a good argument,” Riley says as Bucky gets up to gather his things.

 

At home, he really does try to nap while Becca goes off to her room to look at pictures of boy bands on the internet. He gives it the old college try, but he just tosses and turns in his bed and can’t get comfortable. This is stupid. Half past two on a Saturday afternoon is peak nap time, but his brain just won’t turn off for whatever reason. Grumbling under his breath, Bucky digs through the covers for his discarded phone and dials Natasha’s number.

“Hello, Bucky,” she answers.

“‘Hello’ sounds too formal for our level of friendship.”

“Hello, James.”

“Worse, not better.”

“Hiya, Jimmy!” she singsongs.

“I’m going to find a way to punch you through the phone for that,” he says, but he’s laughing anyway. She joins in.

“What can I do for you?” she asks.

Bucky flops onto his back, the mattress creaking. “This can’t just be a social call?”

“It could be,” she hums, “but I have the distinct feeling that you need something.”

“Oh? And why’s that?”

“Cut the bullshit and spill, Barnes,” she says, not unkindly, “or you’ll make me late for lunch.”

He sighs slowly, considering how to word this. Nat’s not a judgmental person, but he’s still worried about voicing this aloud. That makes it real, and once it’s real, he has to deal with it. “I have—a dilemma.”

“What kind of dilemma?”

“The kind where I think I have a crush on a married man,” he rushes without a breath.

“Oh, hell,” she grumbles. “Who?”

“Steve.” Bucky’s heart flutters uncomfortably. “But I’m pretty sure he likes me back.”

“Oh, hell. Tell me what’s been going on.”

He fills her in on all the sordid details of his suburban life. He’d told her about the barbeque already, but at that point he’d convinced himself Steve was just being friendly (and had conveniently left out the bit about Steve being married). After Wednesday night, he’s not so sure anymore. And now Steve has invited him around to hang out again, and he has no idea what he should do or how to act, because even if Steve does like him that way, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s married. He has a wife, who despite being out of town, very much exists and definitely did give birth to Steve’s children.

But Bucky can’t help the way his breath goes short when Steve smiles at him, or how when Steve touches him, he can still feel the heat from his skin minutes later.

This is really some middle school level bullshit crush. What the hell’s gotten into him? He hasn’t had a stupid crush on anyone like this since—well, he can’t actually remember, which says enough.

“Look,” Natasha says after he finishes explaining tonight’s situation. “I’ll be honest with you, Bucky.”

“Are you ever not?”

“No, and that’s why you love me,” she says, and he can hear the smile her voice. But then she sighs. “From what you’ve said—and I can’t necessarily trust your word, because it’s based on your perception—but from that, it does sound like he might like you.”

Bucky sucks in a breath, his heart swelling triumphantly, but it’s short-lived.

“But, and you know this perfectly well, that does not change the fact that he’s married, whatever the circumstances of that marriage may be. Do you want to be a homewrecker, Bucky?”

“What? Of course not, but—”

“There’s no possible way for you to end that sentence with a solid argument. He’s married. You can’t.”

Bucky deflates and sinks back into the bed. “I know,” he mumbles, rubbing a hand over his face. “I know, god, of course I do. I think I just needed to hear you tell me. I’m so stupid.”

“Hey,” she says sharply. “You’re not stupid. From what you told me, he sounds really charming. I don’t blame you for crushing on him, but you have to nip it in the bud. You’ll get over it. It’s just a little crush, Buck.”

“Yeah,” he sighs. “Should I—talk to him about it?”

“Fuck no,” she says. “He might not even be aware of it. Just be strictly friendly from tonight on. I’m sure he can take a hint.”

“Okay. Any moral quandaries on your end you’d like to hash out?”

“Should I get a salad or a grilled cheese at lunch?”

 

Turns out being “strictly friendly” is much easier said than done. Steve greets them at the door with his usual thousand-watt smile aimed right at Bucky, thanking them for coming as he invites them inside. The kids are all in the living room, Sarah and Stella playing on the floor while Harrison reads on the couch.

“Hi, kids,” Steve says, getting their attention. He gestures to Bucky and Becca. “Miss Becca’s going to play with you guys while Bucky and I go work in the backyard. Does that sound okay?”

“Yeah!” Sarah cheers.

“Come play sparkle pony, Becca!” Stella pats the ground beside her, holding out a sparkly toy horse. Becca turns to Bucky with a knowing smirk—she’d had a nearly identical toy back in the day. She sits with the girls, and they explain to her the rules of their make-believe sparkle pony utopia. Harrison barely glances up from his book to wave at Steve, then snuggles deeper in the couch cushions.

Steve’s smile flounders a bit at their contentment to be left with a sitter, so Bucky takes him by the elbow and leads him toward the deck. Once outside, he shuts the door firmly behind them and shoos Steve away from the windows, where he was definitely trying to sneak a peak.

“Have you never used a sitter before?” Bucky asks.

“I have,” Steve says, sinking down into an adirondack chair. “Two or three times.”

“Je...eeez,” Bucky covers. He takes the chair neck to him. “No wonder you’re exhausted, man. Babysitters are God’s gift to this earth.”

“I guess I just—like being around them.” Steve shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“Well, you still need breaks. Speaking of, what are we doing?”

Steve glances up at him, his eyes darting around the yard. “Oh, um—I didn’t plan anything? Just hang out in these chairs?”

“For two hours? Nope, you need a distraction. Let’s weed your yard or something. Clean the grill. Hell, we’ll do both.”

“Yard work does fall pretty low on my list of priorities,” Steve says.

Looking around at what appears to be an immaculate backyard, Bucky quirks an eyebrow at him. “Uh huh. Yeah. You need a babysitter, pal.”

Later, once the yard’s weeded, they all eat dinner together around the Rogers’ dining table. Steve ordered a few pizzas—pepperoni for the kids, supreme for the adults. Over dinner, Becca gushes about how well-behaved the kids were, and all three of them beam around their pizza crusts. Becca offers to take pajama duty so Bucky and Steve can clean up the kitchen.

“So,” Steve says as he passes a freshly scrubbed plate to Bucky for him to dry. There’s a perfectly good dishwasher right there. Lord knows why they’re washing these by hand, but Steve’s elbow keeps bumping his, and Bucky tries to remember that he shouldn’t let that happen. “I really need to figure out how to repay you.”

“Steve,” Bucky sighs, flopping the damp towel toward Steve’s face. “You don’t owe me anything. You’re my friend. I like helping you out.”

Steve smiles at him softly. “Well, still. Thank you.”

“Uh huh, yeah, you missed a spot.” Bucky dumps the plate in his hands back into the sink, splashing soapy water on the both of them. Whether it was deliberate is debatable, but Steve reads it as a first strike. He reaches into the sink and glops a blob of bubbles down Bucky’s shirtfront.

Bucky gapes at him. “You didn’t.”

“I did,” Steve says with a smirk. “Gonna do something about it, Barnes?”

“Oh, it’s on.”

They wage all-out war after that. It only ends once Bucky’s shirt is dripping onto the floor. He grabs his towel from where he’d abandoned it on the counter, waving it like a white flag. Steve laughs and shuts the water off, reaching into a drawer for more towels. He trades Bucky his wet one for the dry one.

“You’re a menace,” Bucky mutters, sopping up what water he can from his shirt.

Steve towels off his hair. “And you give in too easily.”

“Excuse me for not wanting to drown. You fight dirty.”

“Actually, I’d say I fight clean. Because of the soap.”

Bucky pauses and glances up at him. Steve’s standing there, towel laid overtop of his head, grinning like a loon at his own joke. Bucky cracks and starts cackling. He feels warm, despite the cold, damp fabric clinging to his chest. They get cleaned up as best they can and finish up the last of the dishes, this time sticking to their task.

“So,” Bucky says as Steve tucks the last plate into the cabinet. “Think you can get used to having a babysitter?”

“You know what?” Steve turns toward Bucky and leans back against the counter. “I think I can.”

Bucky smiles. “Glad to hear it.”

“Next time she watches the kids, we should get out of the house.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. He fiddles with hanging the towels to dry over the oven handle. “You and Peggy deserve a night out on the town.”

“Oh, I—sure, but I meant me and you?” Bucky turns to Steve, who ducks his head sheepishly. “If you wanted to hang out again.”

“Of course I do.”

Steve meets his gaze and smiles warmly. “Great. I’ll have to think of something fun for us to do together.”

“Is this the repayment thing?”

“Oh, no way. I’m not revealing my plans to you.”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “You don’t even have plans yet. You just said.”

“Well, regardless, it’s the principle of the thing.”

Just as Bucky’s about to sigh witheringly, Becca traipses into the kitchen.

“Hey Steve, the kids are pajamaed but they want you to—what did you guys do in here? Why are your shirts all wet? Wait, actually, I don’t know if I want to know. You guys are weird.”

Chapter Text

Bucky and Becca fall into something of a routine after that, and with any last traces of boxes dealt with, Bucky can hardly remember what it felt like to live anywhere else. Having their own place—somewhere that’s really theirs in a way the condo had never felt, somewhere with a yard and friendly neighbors and genuine quiet at night—settles some part of Bucky he hadn’t known was restless. He wakes up one morning and sips his first cup of coffee on the porch, watching joggers and dog walkers come and go on the sidewalk; when he’s finished, he’ll go fill his mug again and pour one for Becca, who should just be dragging herself out of bed toward the kitchen. It’s comfortable and easy and just nice in a way that he wasn’t sure he would ever get to have, unconventional as his life turned out to be.

He’s happy—not that he hadn’t been before, but now he feels buoyant with it. They both are.

Becca starts babysitting the Rogers children on a semi-regular basis, and that makes Bucky happy too, though he does try to ignore precisely why that is. He’s glad that his friend has time for himself again—that Steve can go to the grocery store without three munchkins already taking up half the cart, or go to the gym, or stay late at the church catching up on work. Sometimes he just invites Bucky out, and they go for dinner or drinks or just hang out in Bucky’s quiet house.

Steve seems lighter too. His smile, though Bucky wouldn’t have thought it possible, gets just that much brighter each time Bucky sees him. It would make anyone’s heart thump heavier in their chest, Bucky tells himself, to have that smile directed at them.

Natasha could never be ousted as Bucky’s best friend based purely on the longevity of their relationship, barring any other factor. He sees Sam and Clint regularly too, and the whole RND squad gets together as often as they can around everyone’s busy schedules. But Bucky knows that out of anyone in the neighborhood, he does gravitate toward Steve the most. There’s something different about their friendship—their connection—and he can’t put a finger on what it is, but it feels like a breath of fresh air. Something he didn’t know he needed.

Whatever it is, it makes squashing his stupid crush next to impossible, but as with most problems, he gets pretty good at ignoring it.  

 

Bucky spends Saturday morning planting vegetables in the raised beds out back. He’d tilled them earlier in the week, so getting them seeded and planted is easy work. He has the lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes done before Becca wakes up. He left the marigolds because she’d said she wanted to plant those with the tomatoes herself.

Back inside, he washes his hands and fills a glass of water, sitting at the kitchen table to contemplate breakfast options and his Facebook feed. He’s just given into it at this point. There are worse things he could be doing than scrolling through half a dozen of those sixty second recipe videos. Besides, they’re inspiring. Little bacon and egg cups! He’d never have thought of that. Just as he’s about to click through to the actual recipe, a message notification dings. He tabs away from Facebook to his texts.

Steve received 9:15 a.m.
Hey there, my good pal of whom I am very fond!

Bucky sent 9:15 a.m.
You need something, don’t you

Steve received 9:16 a.m.
What? Why would you think that?

Bucky sent 9:16 a.m.
Because only people who want something greet people like that. I know because I do it to Natasha pretty much all the time

Steve received 9:16 a.m.
I guess you caught me </3

Bucky sent 9:16 a.m.
It was inevitable. You’re not very subtle, Steve

Steve received 9:17 a.m.
:(

Laughing, Bucky hauls himself away from the table toward the fridge. He knows the actual favor request is imminent; he might as well be productive while he waits for Steve to draft a suitably polite way to ask it. He pulls out bacon and eggs, then grabs the muffin tin and a skillet from the cabinet by the sink. He can’t remember exactly what the recipe said, but he figures he’s probably fine to just wing it. He knows his way around an oven well enough.

Just as he’s laying the bacon down in the hot skillet, his phone buzzes on the table. He fetches it and returns to the stove to tend breakfast while he reads the text.

Steve received 9:23 a.m.
I assume your silence means you are waiting on me to ask and not ignoring me. By assume I mean hope. There’s a youth dance at the church tonight and one of the chaperones bailed on me. I’d really like to have an even 10 because middle schoolers, so I wondered if you might be willing? There will be free snacks and bad pop music, which I know you just love :)

Bucky’s not sure what he had expected Steve to ask, but it certainly wasn’t that. He appreciates the vaguely pleading tone, even if it’s unnecessary. As soon as he has the bacon and eggs in the muffin tins and in the oven, he responds.

Bucky sent 9:30 a.m.
I am a seasoned chaperone. When do you need me there/do you need Becca to babysit the kids?

Steve received 9:30 a.m.
Oh great! Thank you so much, Bucky :D The dance is at 7, but I’ll be there around 5 for set-up so you can come anytime before it starts

Steve received 9:31 a.m.
And no, Peggy took them upstate to see her parents for the weekend.

Bucky sends back a quick see you tonight and tucks his phone into his pocket just as Becca wanders into the kitchen. Wiping sleep out of her eyes, she heads straight for the coffee maker, one hand extended in a zombie walk. Bucky fetches a mug for her and holds it steady as she pours coffee in. Good thing he’d already had two cups; it nearly overflows with how full she fills it, no room for milk.

“Rough night?”

“I was on the phone with Liz until like, three in the morning,” she mumbles. Lifting the mug to her lips, she takes a long sip, grimacing as she swallows. “Ew. Can you get the milk.”

“What were you guys talking about?” Bucky asks as he fetches the milk and sugar.

Becca dumps plenty of both into her cup, taking the spoon Bucky offers to stir. “There’s this guy she likes and I keep telling her that he likes her back, but she won’t believe me. It’s so obvious Peter likes her, and I think she should just talk to him about it.”

“But?”

Becca takes another drink, this time smiling at the taste. “But she’s worried about how it’ll look because he’s a grade below us and is kind of nerd, which like, as if that matters. They like each other. Who cares?”

Bucky cradles his mug in both hands, thumbs stroking thoughtfully over the ceramic. “I don’t know. If it matters to her, then it matters.”

“She should just talk to him about it.” Sighing, she sinks down into a seat at the table. “I don’t like watching people who should be together dance around each other just because they’re scared of what happens if they act on it.”

“Too bad not everyone sees it that way, huh?” Bucky leans back against the counter. She meets his eye. “Sometimes people think it’s better to take what they have than risk losing it.”

“That’s stupid. She’s not risking anything. He likes her back!” She sits back heavily in her chair, crossing her arms. Bucky just shrugs in response. After a beat, her scowl fades and she sniffs the air. “What am I smelling?”

“Bacon and egg cups.”

“Facebook has officially taken over your life, hasn’t it?”

“Hey, you started it. You will eat the bacon and egg cups, and you will like them.”

The oven dings ten minutes later, and they have to let them cool for a few minutes, but then it is blessedly time to eat. Bucky’s stomach was about to tear itself in half at the delicious smell permeating the entire house. Becca divvies up an orange while Bucky pries the cups out of the muffin tin, and they eat standing up at the counter.

“Oh, hey,” Bucky says around a mouthful of egg, “Steve asked me to chaperone the youth dance at the church tonight. You wanna come?”

“Youth dance at a church. Mhmm. Sounds like my scene.”

“Free snacks?”

She considers, chewing on an orange slice. Swallowing, she says, “Yeah, you got me. Is it okay if Liz comes too so we can leave when it gets weird?”

“Of course.”

Turns out the cups are so good, they don’t bother saving any for later. While doing the dishes, Bucky pipes up again, something that Steve said niggling at him like a thorn in his side.

“Hey, question.”

Becca packs the last dish into the washer and looks at him. “Hey, answer.”

“While you’ve been babysitting the Rogerses, have you ever met Steve’s wife?”

Becca raises her eyebrows. “Peggy? Yeah, I’ve met her once or twice. Sometimes she’s at home working while I’m over there. She’s really cool and smart. Why?”

“Oh, I just—haven’t met her yet.”

“Really?”

Bucky shrugs it off, batting her away out the back door to go plant the marigolds. Left alone, he can’t help wondering if there’s a reason he hasn’t met Peggy—and what, if anything, it would mean if there was.   

 

He shows up at the church at six on the dot. As he climbs out of his car, he catches Steve waving at him through the glass door to the parish hall. Pocketing his keys, Bucky heads toward him. Steve opens the door as he gets close.

“Hey, Bucky!” Steve grins wide at him, sweeping a welcoming hand toward the hall. “Glad you could make it.”

“Of course.” Bucky smiles as Steve follows him back inside. There’s a flurry of activity in the hall, adults racing around to hang up streamers and balloons from the wooden beams high on the sloped ceiling. Others set up the snack table, pouring chips and pretzels in bowls or stirring the punch with a ladle. Bucky turns to Steve. “What still needs doing?”

“Ah, well, there’s a slight problem I hoped you could help me with.” Rubbing at the back of his neck, Steve points toward the front of the room. There’s a small stage, curtains pulled back to reveal a long table where a DJ is setting up his equipment. Bucky’s eyes trail up, where above him hangs a lurid purple banner. In blocky lettering, it reads “LET THE LORD COME INTO YOU.”

“Uh,” Bucky saying, gaping. “That is. Uh huh. That’s a thing that exists and I’m looking at it.”

“God made all things,” Steve says, clasping his hands together reverently. Then his face falls into a glower. “Except that banner. The middle-schoolers made that.”

“Was no one around to like—stop them?”

“The Sunday school teachers either did not get it, were willfully ignorant, or thought it was funny. It’s up in the air. But God forgives, and He never retaliates by confiscating and breaking anyone’s vape pens.” Steve shrugs sort of hopelessly, turning toward Bucky. “I need you to help me get it down.”

“Yes,” Bucky says, already heading over. There’s no way they can let a trove of teens into this hall with that banner still hanging. The dance would be doomed from the start.

Steve finds them a ladder from a utility closet. Bucky insists on climbing it once it’s set up on the stage. Steve holds it steady as he ascends; between the rungs, Steve looks awfully serious. Bucky sticks his tongue out at him, and Steve melts into a grin.

“I’m really happy you’re here, Bucky,” Steve calls up to him.

“Is that because I’m a joy to have around or did you bamboozle me into this for my strong arms and indefatigable will to rid the world of crude banners?”

Steve taps his chin, thinking. “Maybe both.”

Rolling his eyes, Bucky reaches for the banner’s edge. “It’s always something with you, Steve.”

“Something handsome and pious?”

Bucky glances down at him, narrowing his eyes. “You’re not that pious.”

“That’s debatable.”

“You alluded to breaking people’s property not five minutes ago.”

“I didn’t say I would win the debate.”

Bucky’s laughter shakes the ladder, and Steve redoubles his grip while Bucky turns back to the banner. Shit, but there are a lot of staples in this thing, all along the sides and top edge. Who even staples a banner to the wall? Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned duct tape? He tugs and yanks, but it might as well be painted directly on the wall for all the good he’d doing.

“Listen, Steve,” Bucky says, leaning over the top of the ladder to peer down at him. Steve cranes his neck to meet Bucky’s eye. “The way I see it, there’s two options here. Either we cut off what we can and leave the children questioning what happened, or we change what it says.”

Steve deliberates for a beat, then sighs. “There’s paint in the closet. Give me a minute.”

It takes a while, but eventually Bucky gets the banner modified enough that it is some semblance of holy again. He climbs off the ladder, and he and Steve step back to look at his handiwork.

“Let the Lord’s calm into you. That’s… actually a nice sentiment, Buck.”

“Maybe I should be the youth minister.”

“Yeah, uh huh, we’ll see if you still say that in about an hour.”

The kids start to trickle in at seven o'clock, lumping off into small groups across the hall. The DJ pumps the room full of bubbly, danceable pop, but the kids aren’t having it. None of them dance, their arms crossing as they huddle at the edges of the hall. If it weren’t for all the streamers, Bucky might say this felt more like a funeral wake than a youth dance. It’s nothing like the way he remembers them, but he’s at a loss as to how to fix it.

Becca and Liz show up at about half past, trailing over to where he’s stationed himself by the snack tables. “Did someone die?” Becca asks.

“Maybe? I don’t know. Were your middle school dances like this?”

“Nope,” Liz answers. “People actually danced.”

Steve finds them just then, looking thoroughly disheartened. “Bucky, no one’s dancing.”

“We noticed,” Becca says.

“Oh, hi Becca! And Becca’s friend. I’m Steve Rogers.”

“Liz Allan,” she answers and shakes Steve’s hand.

“Any ideas on how to remedy this?” Steve asks the three of them. Becca and Liz shrug, slowly inching toward the snacks. An idea pops into Bucky’s head, and he grimaces at the thought, casting Becca a preemptively apologetic look.

“What?” she asks suspiciously, piling a plate high with pretzel sticks.

“I thought of something that might work,” he laments.

“Oh god.” Becca hurriedly starts shoving the pretzels into her purse.

“What?” Steve asks, reaching for Bucky’s shoulder. “I’ll try anything.”

“There is a high probably it will backfire and make things worse.” Bucky knows he’s hedging, but Steve looks at him so imploringly, he knows he’s going to do it anyway.

“Come on, Liz. We have to get out of here.” Becca grabs Liz by the hand and drags her toward the door.

“We just got here!”

Sighing, Bucky steels himself and starts stretching. It’s been a while; he wouldn’t want to pull anything. That would mean definite backfire. Steve watches curiously as Bucky grabs each foot in turn to stretch his quads. “Alright, Steve,” he says, “you going to follow my lead?”

“Absolutely. What are we doing?”

“We’re saving this dance.”

With that, he saunters off to the dance floor, Steve following close behind. He stops in the center of the floor, signaling to the DJ for something upbeat. The DJ gives him the thumbs up and cranks the volume on something Bucky doesn’t recognize but has the kids turning their heads. Good. They have to be looking if this has any hope of working.

Turning to face Steve, Bucky starts off easily enough, some head bobbing and shoulder shimmying. A slow, wondering smile creeps over Steve’s face—but he stands still, and that simply won’t do. Bucky steps closer so he can grab Steve’s shoulders, moving them back and forth till Steve catches on. Steve laughs as they groove to the beat.

“Are they still watching?” Bucky asks, waving his hands in the air like he cares a moderate amount.

Glancing around, Steve nods, his smile widening till it’s toothy.

“Alright, time to turn up the heat. You ready?”

“I’m a shit dancer,” Steve admits and bites his lip.

“That’s okay. My moves are fire enough for the both of us.”

Lowering his arms back in front of him, Bucky launches into the cabbage patch. Steve cracks up and tries his best to keep up as Bucky basically imitates the entirety of that evolution of hip-hop dancing video he watches maybe once a week. What Steve lacks in right feet, he makes up for in enthusiasm and surprisingly agile hips.

Most of the kids have turned toward them at this point, watching but not engaging. They’ll need to up the ante. Steve picks up the hint in Bucky’s raised eyebrows and grabs Bucky by the hand, reeling him in and then spinning him out. It’s simple, but it earns them a few whoops from the crowd, and as they pick back up with some fancy footwork, kids start to fill up the empty space around them.

But they’re still not dancing.

Shimmying closer, Bucky leans into Steve. “Do you trust me?”

“Of course!”

“Well, if I drop you, remember you said that. Now back up and run at me.”

“Dirty Dancing?” Steve asks, eyes going wide—but not in a distrustful way. Bucky’s breath catches and Steve backs away from him, something excited in his face as the lights flash and dim around them. Steve raises an eyebrow, Bucky nods, and then he starts running at him.

Shit. Shit shit shit. Bucky hasn’t lifted anyone like this since college, unless you count Becca, but she was ten —Steve is thirty-something and definitely weighs more than she did then.

But then Steve leaps, and Bucky’s hands find his waist, and he’s heavy, sure—but Bucky finds it easy enough to lift him high into the air. The DJ seamlessly transitions into the chorus of “Time of My Life.” Steve’s arms spread out like bird’s wings, and he grins down at Bucky as the kids scream and swarm the floor, finally breaking into dance.

Slowly, Bucky lowers Steve to the ground, their fronts pressed together as Steve slides down his body. There’s sweat beading at Steve’s hairline. Bucky can feel his bun unraveling, but he’s not particularly compelled to fix it.

“Good?” Bucky asks.

Steve nods. “Perfect.”

With the kids all dancing now, they retreat to the edges of the hall to catch their breath. Steve grabs two water bottles and hands one to Bucky. “That was amazing. You’re amazing.”

Bucky shrugs, but in his chest, his heart swells. “Just giving back to the community in the ways I know how.”

“Well, you certainly knew how to do that.” Steve gestures to the floor, where several couples are attempting the lift and failing miserably. Lift with your legs, kids, come on!

“Old party trick.”

“Hey,” Steve says, facing him. “Now that everything’s going smoothly, I had something I wanted to show you.”

“Oh?” Bucky asks and takes a swig of his water.

“It’s in my office,” Steve says, pointing toward a hallway that leads out of the main room. “Let’s go.”

There’s something secret about Steve’s smile. Bucky wants nothing more than to know what’s behind it, so he follows as Steve ushers him down a corridor. It’s dimly lit, no windows in the walls. Steve must know his way around here since he doesn’t bother flipping a light on, but Bucky trips over his feet and nearly smacks into a wall when he tries to catch himself.

“Bucky?”

“Hey, yeah, I’m good.”

There’s a hand on his in the dark, Steve’s warm palm flat against his as his fingers clasp tight. “I’ve got you,” he says softly, and Bucky’s glad it’s dark now with the way his cheeks heat up at that. Steve pulls him by the hand down to the end of a long hallway. They pause outside a door, and in the faint light of an exit sign, Bucky can see Steve’s name and title on a placard next to the frame. He glances at Steve, whose smile turns nervous. Bucky squeezes Steve’s fingers before letting go reluctantly and shoving both hands in his pocket.

“So,” Steve starts, voice breathy. “I’ll admit something. No chaperones skipped out on me tonight. I wanted you here.”

Bucky’s eyebrows raise, and he’s glad they’re not holding hands anymore because his palms turn sweaty. “Are you saying you lied to me? Isn’t that against the ten commandments?”

“I wouldn’t call it lying. Besides, I think exceptions can be made when one is trying to surprise a friend.”

“Steve,” Bucky huffs.

“A while ago, I promised to pay you back for being so good to me.”

He’d nearly forgotten. “Steve—”

“No, let me finish. This is happening.” When Bucky falls quiet, Steve continues. “Remember when we talked about escaping to an island to leave all our troubles behind?”

Bucky nods. Steve is barely visible in the low light.

“Well, since I can’t exactly get us there, I thought I could try to bring the tropics to Maple Bay.” Steve opens the door slowly and guides Bucky inside his office, even darker than the hall was. He shuts the door behind them, and he hears Steve’s slow intake of breath.

“It’s not quite Margaritaville, but…” He flicks on the light. “Welcome to the Margarita Zone.”

Bucky gasps as his eyes focus, looking back and forth between the room and Steve, where he stands sheepishly by the lightswitch. Bucky isn’t sure which to be more dumbfounded by. Tropical decorations adorn the walls, little strings of flamingo lights everywhere and a grass skirt around the desk. Two beach chairs sit in the middle of the room, and on the desk there’s a blender and two salt-rimmed glasses. The whiteboard behind Steve’s desk reads “Margarita Zone,” the words curving around a drawing of a parrot.

Steve crosses toward the bookshelf and flicks the radio on. Ukulele music fills the room. He turns back to Bucky with two leis in hand. He puts one on and then holds out the second toward Bucky, who steps forward and ducks his head so that Steve can lay it around his neck. The fake flowers settle over his chest, and Bucky glances down to fiddle with how they lie, suddenly tongue-tied.

“Bucky?”

“You did all this for me?” Bucky asks, his throat oddly tight. He looks up at Steve to find him looking back, the corner of his mouth twitching down.

“For the both of us. Is it too much?”

“What? No,” Bucky assures him. “This is… amazing, Steve. Really.”

“Good,” Steve says, nodding. He points toward the beach chairs. “Take a seat. Do you want a margarita?”

“Do I ever.” Bucky eases into one of the chairs, watching as Steve quickly fixes their drinks. Bucky would have assumed they would be virgin drinks, but Steve whips out tequila and triple sec from underneath his desk—and he doesn’t skimp either. He turns and holds out a glass to Bucky. As Steve sits beside him, he takes a sip, humming his approval at the taste.

“Good?” Steve asks.

“Perfect.”

They sip in silence for a few minutes, relishing the quiet after the loudness of the dance. From this far away, Bucky can’t even hear the thumping of the bass.

“You really went all out,” Bucky says.

“I have a flair for the dramatic,” Steve says with a wink. “And any community leader worth their salt has to know how to make a good margarita.”

Bucky takes another sip. It really is a killer marg. He’d follow this man.

Wait a second.

“‘Worth their salt?’ Really?”

“Oh come on, that was good! Admit that was good.” Steve reaches out to shove gently at Bucky’s shoulder, who laughs and concedes with a nod.

“I give it a solid six-point-five.” Bucky leans forward to set his glass on the desk. “So, do you think the dance will be fine without us up there to lead the crowd?”

“Oh, no, you don’t.” Steve grabs Bucky’s glass and pushes it back into his hands. “You’re missing the point. The Margarita Zone is where we rest, relax, and kick up our feet. There is nothing to worry about here, and nary a pop top to blow out your flip flop in sight.”

To make his point, Steve puts his feet up on his desk, long legs stretching out. The angle doesn’t exactly seem comfortable, but Bucky shrugs and does the same. His doctor’s always saying that inversion is good for you, or something.

“Y’know,” Steve says, head lolling over to look at Bucky. “It’s kind of funny.”

“What is?” Bucky asks. He licks salt from the rim of his glass.

Steve gestures to the room with a waving hand. “This all reminds me of when I was younger.”

“Oh,” Bucky hums. “I’ve been meaning to ask what you did before preaching.”

Steve laughs, a weird undercurrent to the sound. He upends his glass, emptying it, before setting it on the ground. “Fucked around, mostly.”

Bucky’s eyes widen, and Steve’s cheeks light up pink as he realizes what he said.

“Oh, not like that,” he corrects. Then he pauses thoughtfully. “Well, maybe a little bit like that.”

“Oh my god, Steve, were you a bad boy?” Bucky asks, tugging his legs off the desk so he can turn to face him properly. Steve eases down too, shifting his chair around till their knees are nearly knocking.

“Not exactly,” Steve says, staring at his clasped hands in his lap. “More of a… ‘disregards unjust authority’ boy.”

Bucky waves a hand at him. “Do go on. I am deeply curiously.”

This is it. The unraveling of Steve Rogers’ squeaky clean, sweater-wearing, bible-thumping persona. Bucky’s seen it crack a few times over the past month to know there was something underneath, and he’s not totally obtuse as to believe that most of it is insincere. The sweaters are Steve, but there’s something beneath them too, and he’s not just talking about abs. Bucky’s dying to know.

Steve leans back in his chair, staring off at the wall as he strokes a hand over his jaw. “When I was younger, there were a lot of people telling me what I could and couldn’t do. What was proper, what I was or wasn’t physically capable of, you name it. I railed against it, even as a kid, and kind of made life hell for my parents for a while. I got into fights all the time during school.”

“Over what?”

“Righteous bullshit, mostly. A guy hitting on a girl who didn’t want to be hit on. Someone making fun of the special ed kids, or spouting off some other bigoted or ignorant thing.”

“Sounds like those people needed punching to me,” Bucky says.

The corner of Steve’s mouth tips up in a smile as he meets Bucky’s eye. “Maybe so. I don’t like bullies. I think I was trying to prove something by hitting them, though. That I could be the one to do it.”

Bucky hums thoughtfully, setting his empty glass to the side. “So what happened after high school?”

“I briefly pulled it together,” Steve says. “I knew college was important, and despite my less than stellar grades, I managed to get into a good one. I focused, and I came out of it with a solid GPA, but then I just… My dad already had a job lined up for me at his law firm, even though I hadn’t even applied to law school yet, and it was too much. I had an art degree, for crying out loud. I wanted… Shit. I don’t even know what I wanted, but it wasn’t that, so I got in the car and started driving.”

“Where did you go?” Bucky asks quietly.

“Everywhere. I trekked across the country basically. Volunteered at a bunch of nonprofits, got drunk at a lot of bars. Bought a boat and cruised down half the Mississippi River.”

“Shit. Look at you, Huck Finn.”

“I know,” Steve laughs. “I just couldn’t fight the feeling that if I stopped or even slowed down, I’d get stuck, so I didn’t. I met Peggy at a protest in Boston.”

Bucky had wondered when her name would come into the story. He sits back in his chair even as Steve tips forward to rest his elbows on his knees, his face drawn.

“She was doing the same thing I was, essentially,” Steve says. “We were young and in love and didn’t have to answer to anybody.”

“What—”  Bucky starts, breaking off to clear his throat. Steve glances up at him, eyes tight. “What, um, happened then?”

“She got offered her dream job, so we settled down. Now I host fundraisers and drive the kids to soccer practice.” He sighs and scrubs a hand over his face. “Shit. I’m sorry, Bucky. I don’t mean to get so heavy with you, I swear.”

“Hey, it’s—” Bucky reaches across the distance to lay a hand on Steve’s knee. He means to leave it there, but he chickens out and pats Steve’s knee before withdrawing his hand. “I’ve told you before that I don’t mind. We’re friends. You can talk to me about stuff like this.”

Steve stares at his own knee and nods. “Still sorry, though.”

“It seems like you spend a lot of time taking care of other people, but maybe not enough time on yourself.”

Looking off to the side, Steve studies his empty margarita glass on the floor. Slowly, he picks it up and sets it on the desk before leaning back in his chair. “I think about Margaritaville a lot,” he admits. “Or I guess just the concept of it. Somewhere where I can just strum my six-string and eat shrimp and not worry about anything. It’s an easy life.” He slumps down into the chair, a hand coming up to cover his face. “I don’t even play the guitar. Fuck.”

In the quiet, Bucky reaches out a foot to nudge Steve’s ankle, checking that he’s not turned to stone. Steve cracks one eye open, then drops his hand.

“I had Margaritaville once. Now I’ve just got—” He looks at the room. “Margarita Zone. A temporary reprieve.”

“Is that such a bad thing?” Bucky asks. “I think this is pretty nice.”

“It is,” Steve says, sitting up. “And please don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. My job too—that I get to help people. It’s just that I know, as soon as we walk out that door, I’ve got about a thousand things that needed to be done yesterday and a thousand more tomorrow.” He pauses and casts a glance at his desk. “Actually, my agenda is sitting right there, so I guess it’s before we even leave. I’m just pointedly ignoring it right now.”

“Maybe you’re looking at it the wrong way,” Bucky says. Steve looks at him, tilting his head. “Maybe this is better. Margaritaville is an unattainable ideal. At some point you have to be realistic.”

“Yeah, well, I’m an idealist,” Steve says glumly, rolling his eyes at himself.

“So I’ve noticed,” Bucky huffs. “Look, I—haven’t told you much about all the shit I went through. You know Becca’s my little sister.” Steve nods, mouth twisting. “I’ve raised her since she was one. When I was nineteen, our parents died in a car wreck. I was driving.”

Steve gasps softly, brow pulling down. “Bucky, I’m… I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how hard that was. How hard that is.”

“Yeah, it was real fuckin’ pleasant dropping out of college to suddenly become a parent,” Bucky says. “But you know what? I’ve made my peace with it. In fact, I’m glad it happened in a way—not that my parents are gone, but that I got to raise this amazing kid. Sometimes it’s still really hard, but that’s when I try to find pieces of Margarita Zone. I focus on the little joys, and eventually they all add up into one big joy.”

“That’s—I didn’t take you for an optimist, Bucky.” Steve winces, but Bucky waves him off.

“I’m not. That’s what I’m saying. It doesn’t even have to be anything big. Just like—in the mornings, I drink my first cup of coffee out on the porch and watch the sun come up. I go inside and do the crossword while Becca gets ready for school. I take a nap before I go pick her up.” Bucky pauses and smiles at Steve. “I spend time with a good friend. It’s about making time for yourself.”

“I’m—not good at that,” Steve says, shaking his head slowly, but he looks less wobbly now.

“Yeah, I noticed. You can figure it out, though,” Bucky assures him.

“You don’t think I’m hopeless?”

“Oh, I think a lot of things about you, but that’s not one of them.”

Steve’s eyebrows raise, his mouth falling open into a pleased smile. They’re sitting awfully close, both leaning over their laps. It would be so easy, Bucky thinks, to just close that distance between them. He leans forward without really meaning to. For an instant, he thinks he sees Steve leaning toward him too, eyes flickering down to Bucky’s mouth.

Steve tenses up, rocking forward to swipe Bucky’s glass from the floor. He’s out of his chair and away in an instant. Bucky breathes slowly, his heart easing back to a normal pace.

“It’s getting late,” Steve says as he stashes the liquor back under the desk. “We should get back.”

Bucky nods, forcing himself to swallow the strange lump in his throat. “Of course.”

The dance is still in full force when they make it back to the parish hall, and with all the noise, there’s no real way for them to talk. They oversee the rest of the event, and even have trouble making some of the kids leave when it’s over. Bucky offers to help clean up, but Steve insists that he doesn’t need to. It almost feels like a brush off, but before he can duck out the door, Steve grabs him by the arm and pulls him in for a hug. Steve’s body is warm and solid against his, and Bucky might hold on a little longer than he ought to. It’s him that has to pull away, though, when it seems Steve has no intention of breaking apart. How long might he have held on, if Bucky had let him?

As Bucky walks to his car, he glances over his shoulder to see Steve watching from the door to make sure he gets there safely. When Steve catches him looking, he waves and smiles.

On the drive home, the taste of salt and lime still rich on his tongue, Bucky knows that he can’t deny it anymore. Whatever he feels for Steve isn’t going away, and it’s more than a crush by now. He won’t put a name to it, but he feels it deep in the center of him, a tender ache or smoldering coals or a bird singing in his heart.

He knows one more thing. It’s not just him. It can’t be.

Chapter Text

In the dim light of a table lamp, Bucky lazes on the couch, head piled on the arm rest. The television flickers, volume turned low on some movie they’ve both seen before. Steve sits in the armchair. He is endlessly better at pretending to watch the movie than Bucky is—and Bucky can tell he’s pretending, from the way his fingers drum against his folded arms. He can’t remember what they had for dinner, or the name of the movie, or even when Steve got here. They have done this before, from these same vantage points, but it feels different this time.

Bucky feels bolder.

“We should—” he starts.

Steve cuts over him. “Stop watching.”

Grabbing the remote from the coffee table, Steve flicks the television off. He stands, and even in the dark of the room, Bucky can see how his eyes burn, blue fire stoked by something he sees when he looks at Bucky.

Bucky swallows.

Steve is on him in an instant, over top of him—everywhere, the whole long line of him slotted against Bucky as if they were magnets. There’s no fumbling, no questioning looks. Bucky takes what Steve gives him, lets it collect in the hot center of him, and then returns it in spades. He doesn’t know where his hands are, precisely, but Steve lays one of his over Bucky’s hip.

There is a hand on his hip.

In the dark of his room, that’s the only thing touching him.

Bucky shudders awake, breathing raggedly as awareness sinks in. He’s alone, it’s the middle of the night, and his dick is hard. Not that unfamiliar of a situation. He shifts to a cool spot in the sheets, aiming to just go back to sleep, but when he closes his eyes—Steve’s everywhere again. He opens his eyes and glares at the ceiling like it’s what caused this to happen.

There’s a simple solution to this predicament. It’d only take a minute or two. Then he could go back to sleep.

But—he shouldn’t. This isn’t the first time he’s woken up with hazy dream memories of golden hair and sharp blue eyes. Up till now, it’s been easy enough to ignore it. But now that he’s no longer denying whatever it is he feels for Steve, it’s difficult to deny himself this either.

He lies there, crickets chirping outside his window, and does not fall back asleep. His dick stays hard. Fucking shit.

Where’s the harm, really? Isn’t this better? He can deal with his sexual frustrations on his own, and then in the morning, he can forget it happened at all. Maybe if he takes the edge off, it will make being around Steve easier. Or it could have the opposite effect.

Bucky breathes out hard, then reaches under the sheets to dip fingers beneath his waistband. A sleepless night helps no one at all, in the end. He wraps his hand around himself, and as he picks up a quick rhythm, he wonders if Steve has ever touched himself like this while thinking about him.

It does only take about a minute.

 

He feels guilty about it in the morning, like he knew that he would, but it’s not enough to stop it from happening again. It’s as if he broke some barrier by finally allowing himself to think it, and now there’s no stepping back behind the line. He wakes up thinking about Steve and spends most of the day distracted. He nearly burns breakfast. His hands fumble over the keyboard as he works. He can’t get shit done while so preoccupied daydreaming about Steve’s smile, his hands, unfurling the sail of a boat, smiling at Bucky as he sets them out to sea.

It’s damn ridiculous, and he knows it.

Isn’t one of the Ten Commandments something about how you shouldn’t covet? For that matter, there’s one about adultery—that Bucky knows definitively.

He’s already got one leg sunk deep into the rabbit hole, though, and as long as he’s not actively grabbing Steve by the hand to drag him down with him, then it’s… fine. He and Steve can still be friends. It doesn’t have to be any different than it was before he opened the blinds on his own dumb feelings. Liking Steve—being interested in him, whatever the hell he’s supposed to call this—doesn’t mean anything. Steve liking him back doesn’t mean anything either, so long as they don’t act on it. And they won’t. If Bucky knows anything about Steve, it’s that he would never do that. He’s too good.

So Bucky will find a way to keep from twisting his ankle in the rabbit hole, and he will be fine, thank you very much.

For now, though, he picks up his phone from the desk.

Bucky sent 11:43 a.m.
Thanks again for taking me to Margarita Zone on Saturday :)

Steve received 11:45 a.m.
Of course! Say, you take a lunch break, right?

Bucky sent 11:46 a.m.
Steve. Have you met me.

Steve received 11:46 a.m.
Hm, yeah stupid question. Get out of the house and come meet at that cafe on Main St, why don’t you?

Bucky sent 11:47 a.m.
Sounds gouda

Bucky sent 11:47 a.m.
Get it? Like the cheese? I’m funny

 

A week later, Becca phones him from school. She doesn’t do that—usually she just texts him—so he picks up his phone in a flurry to answer, worried something serious may be happening. He flicks the television back to the local news and scans the screen for an indication of an emergency.

“Becca, is everything alright?”

“Bucky, hi—no!” In the background on her end, there’s cacophony, so much so that it’s hard to hear her. He presses the phone harder to his ear as if it might help and stands up from the couch, already headed toward the door.

“What’s wrong? Where are you? Do I need to come get you?” He doesn’t spare a breath between questions.

“Oh, I—I’m fine,” Becca says, her voice more even.

“Are you sure? You sounded panicked. What’s going on?”

“I mean, I am a little panicked, but I’m not in mortal danger or anything.”

Letting out a slow breath, Bucky sinks back down onto the couch. “Jesus. You had me at DEFCON 3 for a second there, kid.”

“Sorry!”

“What’s wrong?” he presses. “Why’d you call from school? You are at school, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m in the cafeteria.” Explains all the noise, at least. “I just realized that I have debate practice after school today, and the tournament’s coming up so we’re gonna be here a while, but I already told Steve I’d watch the kids tonight because he needs to stay late at work, and—”

“Becks, slow down. It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not! He’s gonna be mad!”

“Hey, no, Steve wouldn’t get mad at you for that. It’s okay, Becca,” Bucky assures her, and he hears her take a deep breath. “I’ll watch the kids tonight, okay?”

“You will?”

“Of course. How hard can it be?”

 

As it turns out, that was a very stupid question to ask.

Bucky forgot how much energy young kids have; there hasn’t been a moment of quiet since he met the three of them at the bus stop over an hour ago. The girls squealed when they saw him, lunging down the bus steps to grab his hands. Harrison trailed down after them, and while he is blessedly taciturn, Stella and Sarah babble more than enough to make up for it.

As per Steve’s instructions, he makes them a healthy snack when they get to the house. The kids eat their apple slices and peanut butter while swapping stories about their days. Sarah and Stella aren’t in the same kindergarten class, which is supposed to discourage codependency, but Bucky’s not so sure it’s working with how they trade every last detail about their day apart. Harrison shares too, directed mostly at Bucky, who makes sure to listen well as Harrison talks about his math lesson.

There’s not much in the way of homework, so they head to the backyard and spend most of the afternoon out there. The girls alternate between the swingset and running around the yard like horses, and Harrison stays tucked up on the deck with a book. Bucky sits with him when the girls don’t demand his participation in their unexpectedly elaborate games.

It takes lifting the twins, one over each shoulder, to get them inside for dinner. They shriek and thump Bucky’s back with their little fists, and he regrets doing it after about ten seconds. Six-year-olds are heavier than he remembers. Thankfully, Harrison opens the door and Bucky stumbles inside to plop the girls on the counter. They clamber down and bolt out of the room before he can catch his breath.

“Oh, jeez—girls! It’s dinner time!” Bucky calls after them, but he can already hear them in the playroom upstairs. It’s no use.

“They’ll come down when they smell food,” Harrison says. Bucky spins to face him, where he’s leaning against the door with his book tucked into his chest.

“Well, I guess that means you get to pick what we’re having for dinner then.”

Harrison beams. “I do?”

“Yeah, kid, come on. Let’s see what we’ve got.” Bucky ushers him over to the pantry. Steve had texted that he was running late and gave Bucky free reign of the kitchen to feed the kids. Harrison fishes a box of spaghetti from the cabinet, turning to Bucky with a tentative smile.

“Hey, great choice!” Bucky says, reaching for the box. Harrison’s smile widens as he passes it off. “I bet there’s stuff around here I can make us a sauce with. You want to help?”

“Sure.” Harrison finally sets his book down as Bucky digs through the cabinet for a can of tomatoes.

Bucky gets the spaghetti in the water and the tomato sauce simmering in the pan. Harrison’s help mostly involves him moving things from one place to another because Bucky doesn’t trust an eight-year-old with a knife or boiling water, but Harrison’s smile stays put anyway. Bucky hefts him onto the counter so he can stir the sauce more easily. The girls appear just before everything’s done.

“Glad you could join us,” Bucky says as they slink into the kitchen, sniffing the air. Bucky shares an amused look with Harrison. “How do we feel about spaghetti?”

“Yay!” Stella shouts while Sarah cheers wordlessly. They launch into a little dance, and Bucky’s not sure when he learned to tell them apart, but he doesn’t lose track of which is which even as they spin around and around.

“On top of spaghetti,” Harrison hums while he stirs.

“Hey, I know that one,” Bucky says before launching into the next line. “All covered with cheese!”

“I lost my poor meatball when somebody sneezed!” the girls sing, and then all four of them pick up the melody and sing it together—albeit rather tunelessly. But with the girls dancing and Harrison using the spoon handle as a microphone, it doesn’t matter that they mess up the chorus or fudge the timing because they’re too busy laughing.

Huh. Somehow Bucky forgot how much he likes little kids. This is nice.

Over all the noise, he doesn’t hear the clack of heels on the hardwood till it’s right outside the kitchen.

With a start, Bucky notices the woman standing in the kitchen entryway, hands on her hips. It takes the kids a beat to notice that he’s stopped singing. The girls protest, egging him on, but Harrison twists on the counter to follow his gaze.

“Mom!” he shouts, the spoon clattering into the saucepan. He hops off the counter and launches around Bucky to get to her. As he smacks into her and wraps his arms around her middle in a tight hug, Bucky watches her frown fade into a warm smile.

The girls follow a moment later, shouting, “Mommy’s home!” Then it’s a group hug, all three kids huddling around Peggy till her pencil skirt is entirely obscured.

“Hello, darlings,” she says, petting at their hair as they jostle to get prime hugging position. Carefully, she squats down to their eye level and pulls them in one by one for individual hugs and a kiss on the cheek. “I missed you so much. Did you miss me?”

“Yes!” the three of them chorus, nodding.

Peggy smiles sweetly, rising up from her crouch. There’s not a hair out of place or evidence of a smudge on her deep red lipstick. Even her blouse is miraculously unruffled. Bucky fiddles with the hem of his t-shirt, his finger catching in one of the holes.

“Do I smell dinner?” Peggy asks.

The timer for the pasta dings. Bucky fumbles for the button to switch it off and lifts the pan off the hot eye. Shit, he didn’t get the colander out yet—the pasta’s going to be too soft if he leaves it in the water. He yanks open a cabinet to search for it.

“Can you three go wash up, please?”

There’s a rumble of socked feet on the floor, and when Bucky turns away from the cabinet, colander in hand, the children have disappeared. He and Peggy are alone. Her smile is still in place, but it’s gone tight. She raises one eyebrow and steps closer to him.

“And who are you, cooking dinner for my children in my kitchen?” Peggy asks dryly.

“Um, I’m Bucky.” He sticks the colander in the sink and grabs the pasta pot. Maybe it’s rude to turn away from her, but he really needs to get the spaghetti out of the water if it’s going to be any good. He drains the noodles, and shit, the sauce. Spinning back toward the stove, he finds Peggy flicking off the eye and moving the saucepan away from the heat.

“So you’re Steve’s friend?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Hmm, this smells delightful.” She leans over the sauce and inhales. Lifting the spoon, she meets Bucky’s eye. “Do you mind if I…?”

“No, go ahead.”

She lifts the spoon for a taste and nods thoughtfully. “You’re quite the chef.”

“It’s just tomato sauce.”

“I haven’t introduced myself,” Peggy says and holds out her hand. “I’m Peggy.”

Bucky takes her hand. “Steve’s wife, yeah, I know.”

Smiling mercurially, she steps out of the way to let him finish preparing dinner. “You’re Becca’s brother?”

“Yep. She had debate practice, so I offered to fill in.”

“Well, we do appreciate it.”

While Bucky pours the sauce over the pasta, Peggy gathers bowls from the cabinet and sets them out. Once five are lined up, she turns to study him silently. Bucky ducks his head to avoid her scrutiny, stirring slowly.

“It’s strange that we haven’t met before,” Peggy says.

“It is?” He didn’t mean it come out like a question, but his voice wobbles and pitches up anyway.

“You don’t think so? As I’ve heard it, you and Steve have become quite close.”

Something in her tone makes him glance at her sharply, his lips pressed together. “Steve’s a good friend.”

“Like I said, so I’ve heard,” she hums, pacing around him toward the sink to wash her hands. Again, there’s an off note in her tone that gives Bucky pause, but he’s not sure how to question it without making himself obvious. Ha, yeah, I definitely have a stupid crush on your husband, but it’s no big deal. They are entirely too close to the knife block for him to ever entertain that idea.

Maybe he has been obvious. Maybe she already knows. How she would, he has no idea—unless Steve figured it out and ratted on him. Maybe he comes home and tells Peggy about all the ridiculous things Bucky says and does.

Except Steve wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t. Bucky knows that Steve likes him—in whatever capacity—and isn’t the kind of person who would keep him around just to make fun of him.

Still, though, her eyes are entirely too piercing for him to feel comfortable. His stomach turns as he scoops pasta into each of the bowls. Once it’s evenly distributed, he and Peggy carry the bowls to the table.

“Are you staying for dinner?” Peggy asks.

“Oh, um, Steve should be home soon.” He gestures to the five bowls.

“I’ve already eaten.” After she had washed her hands, she had pulled the pins from her hair to let it down. Now her soft brown curls tumble down around her shoulders, falling in the same loose ringlets that the twins’ hair does. She really is beautiful. “Besides, Steve would be happy to see you.”

Bucky’s breath catches, but for all the wrong reasons. “He would?”

“Of course, but you know that, don’t you?”

“I don’t know what you mean by that.”

Her smile fades into an even line. “If you say so.”

“Peggy, I—”

“Yes, Bucky?” she cuts over him.

Her utterly neutral expression makes him balk, walking back whatever it was he was about to blurt out. He takes a deep breath to steady himself, the smell of the tomato sauce pungent in his nose. What had smelled so good five minutes ago makes his stomach turn now.

“I should probably go home,” he says. “Becca’s terrible about feeding herself.”

Before he can so much as gather his keys from the counter, the sound of the garage door opening makes him freeze. As if this wasn’t awkward enough already.

“Well, now you must stay for another minute at least,” Peggy says. “It would be rude to walk out just as Steve’s walking in.”

Bucky nods, steeling himself for whatever’s about to happen in this kitchen. He has no fucking clue. There’s no possible way for this to play out well. On a surface level maybe, but Bucky’s not coming out of this unscathed. He helps Peggy finish setting the table, and the moment they’re done, the door from the garage clicks open.

“Bucky?” Steve calls out as he enters the kitchen.

Shit. Bucky’s stomach drops and he glances at Peggy, but she seems unfazed.

“We’re here, Steve,” she says, striding back into the kitchen. Bucky follows close behind, and he sees it the moment Steve lays eyes on the both of them. His mouth falls open, but he transforms it into a wide smile; only the slight furrow in his brow belies anything other than pleasure at seeing them both here in his kitchen.

“I didn’t know you were home, Peggy,” he says.

“I took a cab from the airport.”

Steve’s smile wavers. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“It’s alright. I made it here, didn’t I? All in one piece to boot.”

Though they’re standing near to each other now, neither one of them moves to embrace the other. Bucky wonders if he ought to just duck out and disappear, but then Steve turns to him.

“Hey, Bucky,” he says. “I see you and Peggy have met.”

“We did,” Bucky says.

“And without any help from you,” Peggy adds, raising one eyebrow.

“Oh, I—yeah, I should’ve introduced you two sooner. I’m sorry.”

“Steve dear, I’m only teasing.”

“Are you staying for dinner?” Steve asks Bucky.

“Ah, no, I’ve gotta go feed my own ward now,” Bucky says.

Steve’s face falls, but then he nods. “Okay, I’ll walk you out.”

“Tell Becca I said hello,” Peggy says. “It was lovely to meet you, Bucky.”

“Yeah, you too.” Bucky hastily grabs his keys and treads up the hallway, Steve following behind him. He’d like to make it out quietly, but of course that was never in the cards. The kids spy him and Steve from the top of the stairs and run down. They all jostle for hugs, first from Steve and then from Bucky as they realize he’s trying to say goodbye. The five of them wind up a tangle of limbs, the kids chattering and laughing. As Bucky tries to extricate himself, he catches Peggy watching them from the hall. Her lips are pursed.

“Alright, kids, I really have to go,” Bucky says and pries Sarah off his leg. He shoos them back toward the kitchen. “Go eat your dinner.”

With his hand on the door, Bucky’s nearly escaped when Steve lays a hand on his shoulder. This is the first time Bucky hasn’t been happy to turn toward him. “Yeah, Steve?”

Steve takes a slow breath and drops his hand. “Thanks again for watching the kids.”

“Any time.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“I—a lot of things.” Steve looks down, crossing his arms over his middle. “I want to explain, but I can’t yet.”

Something shifts in Bucky’s chest. “Well, when you can, you know I’ll listen.”

“Yeah.” Steve reaches past him to open the door. “Goodnight, Buck. I’ll see you soon?”

“Sure. Night, Steve.”

Bucky makes it all the way to his car before he looks back, but by then, the front door is already closed.

 

It’s nearly eight by the time he makes it home. The house is quiet, Becca tucked away in her room and no one else around to make noise. The silence rings in his ears after the cacophony of Steve’s house. Bucky slaps together a sandwich for Becca and doesn’t make anything for himself. He’s still too on edge to bother eating; it would all taste like ash in his mouth anyway.

He shuffles down the hallway and knocks on Becca’s door. There’s no answer. He knocks again and calls out to her, but still—nothing. He pushes open the door to find her room dark and empty. He walks back to the kitchen, dumps the plate on the counter with a clatter, and scoops his phone up to call. It rings three times, and then she answers.

“Hey, Bucky.”

“Where are you?”

“We only just finished practice and now they’re feeding us dinner.”

“Oh.” Bucky sinks back against the counter, rubbing at his nose.

“Do you want me to bring you some pizza home?”

“No, that’s okay. Thanks though.”

She pauses for a long beat, then asks, “Hey, are you alright?”

Bucky sighs. “I’m fine, Becks. You have a ride home or do I need to come get you?”

“I’ve got a ride. I’ll be home soon.”

“Alright. I’ll probably be asleep when you get here. Night, kid.”

“See you in the morning, Bucky.”

He goes to bed immediately after hanging up, despite the fact that it’s not even nine yet. He’s had a long day of dealing with clients and children, which are essentially synonymous, and he’s tired. Stripping off his jeans, he doesn’t bother with pajamas before climbing into bed and flicking the lamp off.

He doesn’t fall asleep properly that night. He hears Becca come in an hour after lying down—sees her shadow when she pauses outside his door before tiptoeing down the hall to her own room. His brain just won’t turn off and let him go to sleep.

It’s a jumble of confused thoughts, guilt and doubt tangling strangely together. He’d felt so comfortable at Steve’s house and never thought for a second to question that sense of ease—until the moment Peggy had walked through the door. Then he’d felt like an intruder. Some part of him shouted that he shouldn’t be there, that he had no right, that he never should have come at all. Who is he, sticking his nose into their lives that way?

Then Steve had come home, and the feeling had magnified. There he was, a piece that doesn’t fit, stuck sideways into a jigsaw whose picture he’s never even seen. There was no place for him in that kitchen, at that table. The shame crawls cold up his spine.

Steve has a family, and Bucky’s not a part of it. Bucky’s family is dead, and his house is painfully quiet.

 

He and Becca dance around each other for the next few days. He’d feel bad about it if it didn’t seem like she’s avoiding talking to him just as much. They’re both in some kind of funk, he guesses. Maybe debate practice had gone poorly. He knows he should ask, but she’s not exactly offering up any explanations either, so he lets her be. One or both of them will eventually get tired of stewing, and then everything will be fine again. It happens.

It doesn’t stop him from feeling like a shitty parental figure, though.

On day three, the quiet feels like a physical presence in the house, so he knocks on her door.

“Hey,” she greets him when she opens the door.

“Hey.” Bucky holds up a bowl of popcorn and two sodas. “Wanna watch a tearjerker and eat popcorn for dinner?”

She shrugs, then reaches out to take one of the sodas. “Yeah, okay.”

They pile onto the couch in a heap of blankets and limbs. Becca settles the popcorn in her lap while Bucky fires up the television. They debate the merits of several depressing movies before deciding on one guaranteed to make them both cry.

“So,” Bucky says as it loads. “I’ve noticed we’ve both been kinda blue lately, so I’m hoping this will act as catharsis.”

“Okay.” Becca digs into the popcorn without looking at him.

Five minutes into the harrowing backstory, Bucky can feel her eyes on him, but when he looks over, she’s watching the screen again. She sighs quietly and fidgets with the bowl, nearly empty now. Bucky sits still and waits with his hand by the remote. Like a storm on the horizon, he can sense something coming.

“Bucky,” Becca says softly. “Can you pause it?”

He clicks the button as she sets the bowl aside. “What’s up, bee?”

“I just…” She trails off with a huff, folding her hands in her lap and staring down at them.

“I’m not a mind reader here.”

“I’m—Bucky, are you…” She glances back up at him. “Are you okay?”

“You’re asking if I’m okay? Are you okay? What are you talking about?”

“You said you were feeling sad and I just—why? What’s going on? Did I do something?”

“Whoa, hang on.” Bucky holds up his hands, turning on the couch to face her properly. “Where’s this coming from?”  

“You said you were sad!”

“Becca,” Bucky sighs. “Sometimes you just have a rough couple days, you know? I’m sorry if I upset you, but I’m fine. Really.”

She pokes his knee. “Why are you sad though?”

“I’m just dealing with—some stuff, right now. It’s nothing you need to worry about.” Bucky picks up the remote, but when he glances to her to check she’s good to start the movie back, she’s biting her lip. “What?”

“It’s not… Did I do anything? Is it me?”

“Honey—”

“Are you not happy because of me?”

“Hey, whoa, slow down.” Bucky reaches out, but she shrugs away from his grip. Her lower lip trembles. “Tell me why you would think that.”

“Kids at school talk sometimes, you know. Not even in a mean way, they just don’t get it, I guess. I don’t think Liz gets it, not really, because it’s a weird situation, right? Because you’re my brother, but you’re not at the same time, because I don’t even remember our parents, and you never talk about them so I… I just—”

She breaks off with hitching breath and curls in on herself on the couch. Bucky shifts closer to wrap an arm around her, and she buries her face in his shoulder and cries. He lets her for a few long minutes, rubbing soothing circles against her back till she calms down. It takes him that long to figure out how to respond.

“Becca,” he starts, “you know you don’t owe the kids at school any explanations. It doesn’t matter what they think about our life.”

She sniffles and wipes her nose. “I know that.”

“Then what’s the problem? I know I can be a grouch sometimes, and I’m sorry I don’t talk about mom and dad too much. That’s just—a sore spot for me, but you deserve to know about them, so I’ll work on it. But you’re not… unhappy, are you? Living with me?”

“What?” Her eyes go wide and round. “Bucky, of course not. I’m happy here. I promise.”

“You’re gonna have to spell it out for me then, Becks, because you’re obviously upset about something.”

Her gaze falls to the carpet. She starts to shrink in on herself, but Bucky pulls her in closer and brushes her hair away from her face. Her eyes are all red-rimmed from where she’d been crying. Normally, she’s easy to get talking; she takes her time now to think it over. Bucky waits patiently till she figures it out. When she speaks, her voice is small and quiet.

“Are you unhappy living with me?”

“What?”

“I mean, I derailed your life, didn’t I?” She struggles out of his grip and slides away across the couch. “You had to drop out of college and move away from the city to raise me.”

“If you’ll recall, I went back to school. And I like living in Maple Bay.”

“You say that, but all you ever do is work while I’m at school and then shuttle me around town. Your whole schedule revolves around me.”

Bucky draws in a breath, his brow steepling. “Becca, you are the most important part of my life. Okay? Yes, my life may have been different if our parents were still alive, but I don’t resent you for any of that. None of it was your fault. Do you hear me? That had nothing to do with you.”

“But—”

He holds up a hand. “No buts. I love you, and I love being your brother-slash-parental figure, alright? Raising you will always be the part of my life I cherish the most. Don’t you try to cheapen that for either of us.”

“You don’t think that I held you back?”

“We make sacrifices for the people we love.” He shrugs. “That’s just how life works. If I had to do it over again, I’d make the same choices.”

She shuffles closer across the cushions. Bucky holds out his arms for her, but instead of settling against his side, she clambers into his lap the way she loved to as a little kid. She may have significantly increased in size since then, but Bucky holds her tight just the same.

“Are you good?” Bucky asks softly.

“Yeah,” she mumbles. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Bucky says, stroking her hair. “I’m glad you brought it up. I don’t want you going around thinking you’re a burden to me.”

She breathes deeply for a while, matching her pace to Bucky’s, and eventually shifts to sit by his side again. Still tucked in close. Bucky reaches for the remote, but before he hits play, something else occurs to him.

“Hey,” he says slowly. “Is that why you’ve been setting me up with the other dads in the neighborhood?”

She knocks her knee into his. “Maybe.”

“I… am strangely not mad. Huh.”

“You needed a life.”

“No comment.”

“How’s that going, by the way?” she prods, poking him in the side. “Are you and Steve best friends forever and ever yet?”

He wants to get cagey and ask why she wants to know about Steve specifically, but it’s not an unreasonable question. He does spend the most time with Steve out of anyone. God, but he’s obvious. Teenagers have a sense for these things, especially nosy ones like Becca. Time for evasive action before he spills the beans.

“Steve’s a good friend,” Bucky says as he clicks play on the movie.

“He likes you a lot. Always asks after you.”

Bucky hums a noncommittal response and leans back against though cushions. It’s hard to get relaxed. It’s been days since he stood in that kitchen with Peggy, confronted with concrete evidence of why his stupid feelings will never amount to anything. He’s hard a hard time thinking about Steve without guilt or dread since then, but with Becca’s words—an old, warm feeling slips into him. He hopes he doesn’t dream about Steve tonight.

 

It takes him days and tearing through half a baking cookbook before his heart settles again. He’d felt like an wicked homewrecker—and a fool on top of it—while he’d ransacked the flour jar and gone through the last of the vanilla extract. But then a thought had occurred to him: what, exactly, did he do wrong?

Have feelings for a married dude, yeah, fine. Not his greatest achievement, but it’s not like he could help it. He’d never stepped over any lines. Toed them, sure, he’ll admit to that. But crossed them? No, he’d never done anything so irrevocable. Neither had Steve. All their flirting wasn’t—great, but it wasn’t damnable.

He stops feeling twisting remorse any time he thinks of Steve. Bucky knows he’s responsible enough to keep a handle on himself; he’s not some hormone-riddled teenager, much as he might compare his feelings to one. And if he can do that, he expects Steve will do the same.

He refuses to feel any kind of hope. That, whenever it crops up, he squashes like a bug, even when Becca tells him she saw Steve fitting a suitcase into his car while Liz was driving her home a few nights ago. Maybe he’s going on a trip. Bucky doesn’t know anything about it, since he’s enjoying some much needed space from the situation.

Which is why he shouldn’t pick up the phone.

It's ringing. It's showing Steve's name. He really ought to leave it. Let it ring forever. Just chuck his phone onto the couch, where the cushions will devour it whole and he’ll never have to see it or answer a call again. It’s the best option for everyone involved, really, if he just disconnects from all forms of social media and becomes one with the dirt like some kind of new-age hippie. Surely there’s a commune for that. Yep. He’ll just pack Becca up and they’ll go live in the woods. Problem solved.

But he picks up the phone and answers anyway. Who needs solutions? “Hey, Steve.”

“Bucky?”

“Um, yes? You did mean to call me, right?”

“Oh, of course. Normally people say ‘hello?’ when they answer, so you threw me off.”

“I apologize sincerely. Do you want me to hang up so we can try again?”

Steve laughs across the line. “No, no, please don’t hang up.”

“So what’s up?” Bucky asks. He perches on the edge of the armchair and fiddles with a loose thread.

“Do you want to come out with me on my yacht tonight?”

“Your yacht?”

Becca pokes her head in from the kitchen. “Yacht? Whose yacht?”

“Yes, my yacht,” Steve says, chuckling.

Flopping down onto the couch, Becca passes Bucky a soda. “Whose yacht?” she demands.

Bucky takes the soda but waves her away. “How did I not know you had a yacht? You’ve been holding out on me, Rogers.”

“Steve has a yacht?”

Holding his hand over the receiver, Bucky says, “That’s what I’m trying to find out if you’d quit yammering. Hang on.”

Steve must hear him despite the cover up, because he laughs again before he answers. “I haven’t had much chance to take it out lately, and I don’t like to brag about it. I meant no personal offense by not telling you—or Becca. Hi Becca.”

“Steve says hi.”

“Hi Steve.”

“So, yacht,” Bucky says.

“Yes. Would you care to come sailing with me on this fine evening, Bucky?”

Bucky hesitates, chewing his lip. He’s been here before: a thousand reasons for why he shouldn’t all vying for attention in his head. He ought to suggest they meet somewhere in public instead, to remove any temptation from the equation entirely. If he were truly smart, he’d say no outright; he probably should give himself more time. But he hasn’t seen or spoken to Steve in a week, and his stupid little heart misses Steve’s big dumb face. And he’s dead curious about what that suitcase meant, since Steve is apparently not out of town. Not hopeful. Curious.

“I’m ready to explain some things to you now,” Steve says softly. “If that’s why you’ve gone quiet.”

“Oh,” Bucky breathes. “Yeah. Yes. Yacht. When and where should I meet you?”

He can hear Steve’s smile in his voice. “Meet me at the marina at 5:30?”

“Of course. I’ll see you soon, Steve.”

“See you soon, Buck.”

Chapter Text

The smell of the bay always sits heavy in Bucky’s nose. The ocean’s brine, salty and fishy, carries in on the breeze to mingle with the more human scents: car exhaust, the sweetness of funnel cakes from a nearby stand, tourists’ sunscreen. By all accounts, it should smell terrible.

Walking the path to the marina, Bucky takes a deep breath through his nose and smiles. He knows it doesn’t smell great, but it’s familiar. He hadn’t realized he’d liked the scent of the water on the breeze till they’d moved too far away to smell it. As it is, he prefers the cleaner, grassy smell of the far side of town. But there’s something to be said for the richness of the ocean.

The sun is low but nowhere near setting as he makes his way through the gates leading to the docks. Boat after boat rocks gently on the water, mostly skiffs and small motorboats or sailboats. The fishing boats have their own dock further up the coast. The nice boats—the yachts, their owners would correct—are beyond another set of locked gates.

Bucky rattles the gate, but it catches in the lock and stays shut. It’s short enough to hop, but he knows there’s a camera pointed at him from somewhere. He peers down the dock, trying to spot Steve among the rows of towering vessels. Not so much as a blond hair in sight.

Just as he takes out his phone to call, he hears a voice from behind him.

“Hey, Bucky!”

Bucky spins to see Steve walking up the dock behind him, looking decidedly casual in a baseball cap, t-shirt, and sunglasses. Casual’s a good look on him, Bucky decides.

“Steve,” Bucky greets, his cheeks pulling up in an automatic smile. “Expected to see you on the other side of the gate.”

“I got us some takeout.” Steve holds up the brown paper bag in his arms. “There’s only the barest hint of a kitchen on the yacht, and I figured you’d be hungry.”

Bucky eyes the bag with a smirk. “How many you feeding there, Steve? A whole army?”

“Gee, Steve, thanks ever so much for dinner!” Steve mocks, rolling his eyes as he pushes past Bucky toward the gate. He shifts the bag to one arm and flashes a key card through the scanner. The gate pops open, and they set off up the dock.

Bucky bumps his shoulder into Steve’s as they walk. “So what’s in the bag?”

“Uh huh. Now he’s nice to me.”

“I’m always nice to you!”

Steve sends him a sideways smile. “It’s nothing fancy, just swung by the deli and got some sandwiches.”

“Sure, sure, gotta counteract the fancy yacht with the food of plebeians.”

“That’s the trick.”

Steve leads him down the docks, through a maze of boats of all sizes and colors. He’s just starting to wonder if Steve forgot where he parked his when Steve turns and pauses. Bucky pivots with him to face what is presumably Steve’s yacht. Because that’s two words that go together.

Its blue and white hull seems almost modest, sandwiched between two great honking ships. The boat isn’t small by any means, of course, but its sleek design feels comparatively understated.

“Well, there she blows,” Bucky says. He gives a low whistle. “I assume this is not the boat you sailed down the Mississippi in.”

“No, I inherited this one from my dad, God rest him.”

Bucky turns to Steve with a start. “Oh, uh, I didn’t realize—I’m sorry for your loss—”

“Oh, he’s alive. He just retired and bought a bigger yacht.”

“But you—”

“Retirement is resting.”

Bucky huffs out a laugh, and Steve chuckles with him for a moment—then his face falls. “Your parents—that was insensitive. I apologize.”

“It’s all good, Steve,” Bucky says with a shrug. “Promise. That was funny.”     

Steve nods. “Come on, then.”

Steve crosses nimbly onto the deck, turning to hold out his hand and help Bucky across. The gap is narrow, he’d be fine without the help—but he takes it anyway. Steve’s hand is warm in his. Then he’s on board, and Steve lets go of his hand to lead him past the seating area on the lower deck. Up a narrow set of stairs, there’s the captain’s chair and a bench and table to its right.

“Get comfortable,” Steve tells him. “I’m just going to stash this in the fridge, then we’ll get going.”

“Aye aye, captain.”

As Bucky settles onto the cushioned bench, Steve disappears below deck down another set of stairs. He reappears a minute later. The sunglasses have vanished, so Bucky can see it when Steve’s eyes crinkle at the corner when he smiles at him. Bucky returns his smile, raising one eyebrow as he kicks his feet up onto the bench and relaxes back into its corner.

“Relaxed, huh?” Steve asks.

“I’ve never been on a yacht before.”

“Hmm, well, I suppose I’ll have to show you a good time,” Steve says with a wink.

Bucky’s breath catches, but before he has time to respond, Steve ducks down the steps again to go undo the mooring. Watching from his seat, Bucky tries to sort through the tangled mess of his heart and mind, but it’s really no use—Steve is back in a flash.

“So, Bucky, are you ready to set sail on the sea of adventure?” He clasps his hands together, eyes bright with excitement. “Test our fortitude against the perils of the open water? Have a whale of a good time?”

Biting back a smile, Bucky says, “Steve, has anyone ever told you you’re kind of an idiot?”

“Never so fondly, thanks.”

As Steve takes a seat behind the wheel, something occurs to Bucky. “Hey, don’t all boats have names? What’s this one called?”

Steve smiles as he fits the key in the ignition. “Why I Yachta.”

“Wow. A-plus.”

“I do try.”

Steve cranks the engine, or whatever it is you do to a yacht to make it go. He navigates them expertly out of the marina, and they set off across the harbor at a slow pace.

“Where are we going, exactly?” Bucky asks, raising his voice over the sound of the engine and the wind.

Steve shrugs. “I’m just going to take us out of the bay. It’s quieter the farther out you are. We might even see whales!”

“Uh,” Bucky hedges, “really?”

“Yeah!” Steve glances at Bucky and sees his pinched expression. “Do you—not like whales?”

“The ocean is a mystery full of things that can kill you. Sharks? Giant squids? Those weird fish with the lights on their heads?” The multiple question marks are implied.

“Aw, Buck, are you afraid of the ocean? You should’ve told me!”

“So you could what, make fun of me? I’m not afraid. I just have a healthy respect for it.”

“Well, that’s good. We should all respect nature.” Steve takes his eyes off the water to meet Bucky’s gaze again. “And if we do run into any whales, I’ll be sure to protect you.”

Bucky feels his cheeks start to heat up and is quick to divert. “How are you gonna fight a whale, Steve? Huh? You got some kinda secret whale fighting powers you didn’t tell me about? First the yacht, now this. I don’t know who you are any more.”

Steve shifts in his seat and redoubles his grip on the wheel. “You’ll find out soon.”

Bucky stays quiet. Steve had said he was ready to talk. Curiosity and anxiety slosh together in Bucky’s gut; it feels a bit like seasickness.

“Okay, we’re out of the no wake zone,” Steve says. “Sit tight.”

The boat increases in speed until they’re zipping across the water. The ocean is calm today, so the ride is smooth. The wind catches at Bucky’s hair despite the shield of the yacht’s windows, pulling strands free from his bun to swirl around his face. He bats them away, turning to face forward and watch the horizon as they speed toward it. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Steve shift and relax more fully into his seat.

He looks so at ease out here. There’s a soft smile playing at the corners of his mouth, and he bobs his head to some song Bucky can’t hear. This is a side of Steve Bucky’s only witnessed in passing, in fleeting moments: relaxed, loose, content. In his element. It’s different than seeing his put-together exterior crack and flake at the edges; it’s as if Steve purposefully pulled it away and set it aside. He looks happy.

Bucky realizes he’s turned in his seat again, watching Steve instead of the water. The feeling of ease is catching; he’s not nervous anymore. They’re alone out here, just the two of them—and he knows Steve is married. He knows how complicated everything is. Somehow, though, out here on the open water, away from land—that feels fine. His heart feels unmoored in the most pleasant way. He knew, the second he acknowledged his own feelings, that they would never amount to anything. But if he gets to have this much—well, then being cast out to sea might not be so bad.

What does Steve want to tell him?

They cruise for about an hour before Steve starts to slow the boat back down. Another ten minutes and he has the anchor settling, the boat rocking gently in the current. Bucky stands and stretches, his joints creaking their protest.

Steve calls up to him from the lower deck, where he’s wiping down the table with a cloth. “You mind to go get the food?”

“Sure.”

“Pick out a bottle of wine while you’re down there, if you’d like.”

“Any preference?”

“I’ll take grape-flavored, please.”

Laughing, Bucky turns and heads down the short staircase into the cabin. It’s tiny, a kitchenette to the left and a table to the right. Everything’s done in rich hardwood and pale fabrics. Beyond the kitchen area, a wide bed dominates the back half of the cabin. Its blue coverlet is made up but wrinkled, like it had been put together hastily; a bookmarked novel sits on the nightstand.

Bucky turns toward the kitchen and finds the sandwiches in the fridge. Setting them to the side, he peers at the labels of the wine in the built-in rack. After about two minutes of inspection, he remembers he doesn’t know shit about wine and pulls the bottle with the prettiest design, a pinot noir. In his hunt for glasses and a bottle opener, he spies a single plate and fork in the sink, rinsed but not washed.

Huh. It’s almost like—but why would Steve be staying here? He has a perfectly spectacular house. Bucky wonders, if he poked his head in the closet, would he find that suitcase? But—that’s none of his business. Wishful thinking. He shakes his head and turns to the fridge.

All his items gathered in his arms, Bucky heads out to the lower deck. Steve’s already seated and waiting for him. The gold evening light frames him from behind, a warm smile lighting up his shadowed face.

Bucky gets the sandwiches laid out while Steve uncorks the wine. He slides a glass to Bucky and reaches across to pour. “Say when.”

Steve starts pouring. Bucky lets him keep pouring.

“Uh, Buck? Gonna overflow here.”

“When.”

Steve laughs and fills his own glass up till it’s dangerously full too. They polish off the food quickly, then relax back to enjoy the sun and the wine. Tipping his head back against the seat, Steve’s eyes slip closed.

“This is nice,” Bucky says.

“Yeah. I don’t get out here as often as I’d like to.”

“Well, we’re here now.”

“Yes.” Steve opens his eyes and leans forward, propping himself up on the table. “We are.”

Something about the intensity of Steve’s eyes on him makes Bucky squirm. He ducks his head to take another sip of his wine. It’s good. Fruit forward? Is that a thing people say about wine? They sit in silence for a while, slowly draining their glasses. The breeze off the water is almost chilly. There’s only a hint of the coastline back the direction they came, and not another boat in sight. It’s peaceful, and Bucky doesn’t want to endanger that, but—

“Dolphins!”

“What?”

Bucky launches across the bench, on his knees to look out off the stern. He cranes his neck to catch another glimpse of the dorsal fin. Steve sets his glass down and twists to look with him.

“You saw a dolphin?”

“I saw a fin! Dolphins!”

Steve huffs a laugh. “So you’re scared of whales, but dolphins are fine?”

Bucky’s excited grin fades a fraction, and he turns to Steve with a stern look. “Dolphins are cool and fun. Whales are too big and I don’t trust them.”

Just then, the fin reappears, further away this time but definitely the same one. It disappears in an instant. Steve snorts.

“Uh, I hate to break this to you, Bucky, but that’s not a dolphin. That’s a minke whale.”

“Oh my god, really?” Bucky scrambles back from where he’d been draped over the back of the bench. “I can’t even trust my own eyes out here.”

“You can trust me,” Steve says.

Bucky turns so he can sit properly, much closer to Steve than he had been. He grabs his wine glass and holds it out to Steve. “It’s you and me against the whale, Steve.”

“We’ve got this.” Steve clinks his glass against Bucky’s. “Besides, minke whales don’t even have teeth.”

“You hear that, whales?” Bucky shouts, raising his glass to the ocean. “Me and Steve are gonna kick your whale butts! Don’t even try it!”

Steve cackles and grins at him. “You tell ‘em, Bucky.”

They lapse back into comfortable silence then, both slowly draining their wine glasses. It is quiet out here, like Steve had said it would be—just the water lapping at the hull, the occasional bird, Steve’s soft exhalations. Bucky looks to the water. The sun hangs much lower now, though it’s still a ways off from setting. They have time. Bucky doesn’t want to spoil the sweetness of the moment, but there’s a tight knot in the pit of his stomach that’s becoming more and more apparent the longer the silence stretches.

The clinking of a glass on the table draws his attention. He finds Steve’s empty glass, then looks up to see Steve watching him. His brow is steepled, but his eyes are soft.

“I’m really glad you’re here,” he says quietly.

“Yeah, I am too.” Bucky pauses and takes a deep breath to steel himself. “You told me that there’s something you wanted to explain?”

Steve’s face falls, his eyes dropping to the table. His mouth presses into a hard line as he nods. “Yes, there is.”

Bucky waits, but Steve doesn’t continue. For some reason, his chest’s gone tight with nerves, but he’s dead curious. Bucky nudges Steve’s leg with his foot. “Well? What did you want to tell me?”

“Sorry,” Steve huffs. He shakes his head and looks up at Bucky. “I’m not used to saying it out loud yet.”

“Take your time. You know I’ll listen.”

Something seems to settle in Steve, and he nods slowly, jaw working. “Peggy and I are separating. Have separated. Past tense, now.”

“Oh,” Bucky breathes, a strange sensation coursing through him—sorrow, an odd feeling of lightness, and guilt all muddled together. He settles on the sorrow for now. “I’m so sorry, Steve.”

“It’s okay,” Steve says. He meets Bucky’s skeptical eye and shrugs. “Really, it is. It’s just weird to be telling—people, is all.”

“This is recent?”

“Yes and no,” Steve says. “It’s been coming for a while, but we decided to keep it private till everything settled. It was our business, not anyone else’s. And with the kids, we wanted to be on good terms before we told them. We didn’t want it to get messy, for their sake.”

“And you are? On good terms?” A part of his brain has lodged and gone still. All he can do is ask questions.

“As we can be, with it still so fresh,” Steve says. “But we’re friends. We always will be—that’s part of why we separated. We’ll always be in each others lives, and neither of us wanted that to feel sour. So we decided—let’s end it now, before it blows up, so we can salvage what’s still there.”

“Huh.” Bucky sits back in his seat, staring into his mostly empty glass. “You, um… can I ask what happened? I don’t mean to pry.”

“It’s fine, Bucky,” Steve tells him sincerely. “Peggy and me—we loved each other for a long time. We probably always will, in some way. She was in my corner when no one else was, at a time when I really needed that. Circumstances change, though, and now our lives just don’t line up the way they used to. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.”

Glancing up, Bucky sees Steve staring out past him at the ocean. He doesn’t seem sad; instead, he looks contemplative and strangely bright around the eyes, like hope. He must feel Bucky watching, because he meets his eye and smiles tentatively.

“Am I the first person you’ve told?” Bucky asks.

“No,” Steve says, and Bucky feels relieved at that. “No, Sam and Riley have known for a while. Peggy and I told the kids last week. We wanted to wait till everything was finalized before we started spreading the news. Now that it is, we have. People are taking it better than we expected, generally speaking.”

“Finalized?”

“We signed the divorce papers three days ago.”

“Shit.”

Steve shrugs. “Like I said, we gave ourselves time to settle before making it public.”

“How did the kids take it?”

“Not great,” Steve sighs, “but we didn’t expect them to. I don’t think the girls really understood, and I guess from their perspective it does seem kind of out of nowhere. Maybe we did too good a job of acting normal for them.”

“Do you think they’ll be okay?”

Steve considers for a long time, his thumb tracing patterns on the tabletop. “They’ll have to be, won’t they?” Steve says softly—and here it is, the part that hurts him most. He exhales shakily. “Harrison’s upset. He won’t speak to either of us.”

“Give him some time.” Bucky reaches out and lays his hand over Steve’s, stilling its movement. “And if you—if you think he might be more willing to talk to someone else, I can try. Or Sam, that used to be his job. If you think he needs that.”

“That might be good,” Steve murmurs. He watches their hands, his brow furrowed. “He trusts you. That’s rare for him.”

“I know. If he needs me, I’m here,” Bucky says. “I’m here for you too, Steve. You don’t have to be so cavalier all the time.”

Breathing out in a heavy gust, Steve lifts his free hand to rub at his temple. “Dammit. Here I go again, dumping my mess on you. I told myself I’d stop doing that.”

“Steve—”

Steve starts to pull his hand away, but Bucky grabs onto it and holds tight. Steve tugs halfheartedly before giving in, hanging his head. Bucky squeezes his hand tenderly, then socks him in the shoulder.

“Ow!” Steve gasps. “What the hell? What was that for?”

“I figured that since you don’t listen when I tell you that I don’t mind,” Bucky huffs, “maybe I had to knock some sense into you.”

“Bucky,” Steve starts.

“Nope,” Bucky says and tangles their fingers together before Steve can even think about pulling away. “It’s not just that I don’t mind, alright? I want to hear. I want to know what’s going on with you. Understand me?”

“Yeah. I think so, Buck.” Steve’s frown shifts and twists. “Only… why?”

Bucky’s heart thumps unevenly. “Because you’re my friend.”

Steve nods like that was the answer he expected, but he worries his bottom lip like it wasn’t the one he wanted. Maybe it’s the wine, maybe it’s the water—whichever it is making him bolder, Bucky sits up straighter.

“Why’d you bring me all the way out here to tell me that, Steve?”

Steve freezes where he sits. Only his throat moves, working as he swallows. “Bucky,” Steve says haltingly, like the words are stuck and he’s trying to pry them loose.

Bucky takes a chance. He chest shakes as he hauls in a breath, but his hand is steady as he reaches. He puts fingers under Steve’s chin, coaxing his face back up till he meets Bucky’s gaze. His eyes are shining and blue—like jewels, Bucky remembers thinking, the first time they met. It feels like a lifetime ago; it feels like five minutes.

“Tell me,” Bucky says, dropping his hands to his lap. “I want to know.”

“I tried to tell myself it wasn’t anything,” Steve breathes. “That I just hadn’t met a friend I clicked with so well and so immediately in a long time. I kept telling myself that, but you were this—god, this sudden light. I don’t think I realized what I was doing.” He pauses, shaking his head. “No, that’s not true. I knew, I just couldn’t stop myself. I should’ve said something earlier. God, I’m sorry, I should have explained—you probably think I’m a creep, or an asshole.”

“I don’t think that.”

“You should. I made a promise to Peggy, but that’s not any excuse for what I was doing—”

“It’s alright, Steve. You were keeping your vow.” Bucky smiles softly.

“Barely.” Steve shuts his eyes. “I swear, I tried to keep a handle on myself. It’s just that every time I saw you, I’d get this feeling like… like…”

“Like this?”

Buck grabs Steve’s hand to hold it over his chest. Underneath Steve’s palm, Bucky’s heart beats out a wild, excited rhythm. Steve frowns at his hand, tipping his head sideways. Then, like a morning glory slowly unfurling till it’s in full bloom, a wondering, tentative smile breaks out over his face.

“Yeah,” Steve rasps. “Yeah, exactly like that.”

“Cool. Glad we’re on the same page.”

Bucky licks his bottom lip, and Steve’s eyes track the movement. This time, when they lean toward one another, there’s no pulling away at the last second. Because there’s no reason to now. Steve isn’t married. Bucky can kiss him. He can kiss him and feel nothing but happiness about it.

He does hesitate for a moment—but not because he’s nervous, or guilty. He gives himself half a second to just breathe in Steve’s fresh, sharp scent and watch as Steve’s eyes flutter closed. Then he closes his eyes, too, and closes the distance between them.

He kisses him gently. Steve’s lips are pliant and warm beneath his, just slightly chapped from the wind. Bucky presses in close, breathes him in, then pulls away. He can feel himself smiling. A laugh bubbles up his throat, but before it has time to escape, Steve fists his hand in Bucky’s shirt and hauls him back in.

“Mmph,” Bucky mumbles as their mouths crash together gracelessly. Against him, he feels a rumble in Steve’s chest, though whether it’s a laugh or a growl, he’ll never know. Steve crowds into Bucky on the bench, any suggestion of space between them now gone. As Bucky relaxes into it, the kiss turns feverish. Soon Steve’s lips are parting, his tongue coaxing the seam of Bucky’s mouth till he does the same.

And here he is, Bucky Barnes, making out with Steve Rogers. On a yacht.

Sweet.

Steve seems content to mack on him for the rest of the evening, but Bucky is a human who needs to breath occasionally. When he pulls back, Steve tries to follow after, emitting little noises of protest. Bucky ducks his head, but Steve’s relentless, pressing close-mouthed kisses to Bucky’s forehead, his eyebrow and hairline—anywhere he can reach. Bucky shakes with quiet laughter.

“So,” he says, still breathing a little raggedly. “I take it this means you like me.”

“Like-like you, as the youths say. Do you like me too?”

“What is this, middle school?” Bucky wonders, then laughs at himself when he remembers that’s exactly what he’d compared his own feelings to. “Yeah, Steve, I’ve had a stupid-huge crush on you for two months now. Like, cinematic levels of pining here.”

“I should’ve said something to you, I’m sorry—”

“Hey, none of that. You had good reasons not to, and I understand them. Note that I also said nothing.”

“Still.”

“Well, if you really feel like you need to make it up to me, I can think of a few ways.”

This time, Steve reaches up to tuck the loose strands of Bucky’s hair behind his ear before he leans in. He kisses Bucky again, soft and searing. The heat of his hands cupping Bucky’s face is a nice contrast to the sharp chill of the seabreeze.

Bucky hums a little as Steve pulls back, and his eyes are slow to open. It’s hard to focus on Steve’s face, what with him so close, but after a moment he can see that brush of freckles across his cheekbones, the slight crookedness of his nose. And his hair, which is a flattened mess.

“What happened to your hat?” Bucky asks.

Steve frowns, reaching up to pat at his head. “Uh.”

Bucky glances at the floor, then out over the stern. About twenty feet away, the grey ballcap bobs in the water. Woops.

“Your hat is a whale’s hat now, Steve.”

Steve laughs and tips his head forward till it’s resting against Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky cards his fingers over Steve’s scalp, trying to shake some life back into it. He’s probably just making it worse, but Steve arches up into his touch, sighing contentedly. He presses a kiss to Bucky’s neck. The shiver that runs up Bucky’s spine at that touch distracts him from catching what Steve mumbles against his skin.

“Huh?”

“I asked, do you wanna watch the sunset with me?”

Steve sits up, jerking a thumb toward the horizon where the sun hangs low. It won’t be long now. The sky’s already turning shades of pink and gold at the edges. Half of Bucky wants to make fun of Steve for being such a corndog—but the other half has mostly turned to mush, preventing him from doing much more than making a weird, wobbly face.

“Yeah, that sounds nice.”

They refill their wine glasses and shuffle to the bench on the other side of the table, so they don’t have to crane their necks. Bucky tucks into Steve’s side.  Despite the growing chill in the air, he’s warm from the wine and the weight of Steve’s arm around his shoulders. They wind up talking through the sunset, barely even watching it, but that’s okay. There will be other sunsets. And sunrises too, maybe.

Some immense weight feels like it’s been removed from Bucky’s shoulders. A sensation like floating lifts him up, has him soaring even as he sits right here on this bench. He was right. He’d questioned his own perceptions until his brain and heart both were twisted around and inside out, but as it turns out—he’d had it right all along. Steve did have feelings for him.

Fucking vindication. It almost feels as good as Steve’s fingers tracing lazy patterns over his shoulder as they talk.

Nothing feels quite so good as finally being able to be honest, though. With himself, and with Steve. Steve reciprocates tenfold, and eventually Bucky gets him to stop trying to apologize. What was he supposed to have done? Picked up with Bucky while he was still married? Bucky knows people do that all the time, start new relationships before the divorce is finalized—but it doesn’t seem right for Steve. It would have hurt him, and Bucky’s pretty sure it wouldn’t have sat well with him either.

It all worked out, either way. Bucky never even dared to hope for this much.

“And that’s how I wound up in detention fifteen minutes into the first day of seventh grade,” Steve says. Triumphantly, Bucky thinks. Isn’t this man a father?

“Do you know what?” Bucky says. “You’re still a hell-raiser. I don’t believe any of this ‘reformed’ bullshit you’re spouting to everyone, you are smiling too wide right now.”

“I’d actually say I’m more a hell-lowerer.”

“No, you’re—oh, church joke. Took me a second.”

Steve pulls him in impossibly closer, smacking a kiss into his hair. Bucky does not smile like a dope. Blockhead, maybe, but not a dope.

“It’s getting kind of chilly out here,” Steve says.

It’s full dark by now. The sky is breathtaking out here, awash with stars. Bucky wouldn’t mind to stay out here forever, but Steve’s right—it’s cold. Becca’s probably wondering whether he drowned or was maimed by whales.

“Guess we should be heading back,” Bucky sighs.

Steve hums a quiet note. “Soon, but I’ve had too much wine to legally operate this thing.”

“Is that what the kids call it these days?”

“I am not drunk, I am… buzzed.”

“Sure, Steve, and I’m a minke whale.”

Steve huffs and retracts his arm. For a second Bucky thinks he might actually pout about this, but Steve stands and offers Bucky’s his hand. “There’s coffee and no breeze in the cabin.”

Bucky rolls his eyes, but lets Steve pull him up anyway. Steve leads them down into the cabin, flicking a light on as he goes. They break apart in the kitchen, Steve reaching for the cabinets while Bucky makes a beeline for the bed. Not like that—okay, maybe a little like that, but he can tell just from looking that that mattress is comfortable as hell.

He flops bodily onto it with a groan. Steve’s laugh sounds from the kitchen.

“Do you want coffee?” Steve calls. “Wait, no, that is a dumb question. You always want coffee. I’ll make you coffee.”

“You really know how to sweet talk a fella, huh?”

“I just know you.”

Bucky lets that fill him up as the sound of a grinder whirs. He scooches up the bed to settle properly against the pillows, toeing his shoes off. It’s then that he remembers the book on the nightstand, the dishes in the sink.

“Steve, can I ask you something?”

Steve pokes his head around the wall to peer at him. “Sure?”

“Have you been living here?”

“Oh,” Steve huffs, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Yeah, just for the past few days. It’s no big deal, just giving Peggy some space.”

“How long will you have to stay here?”

“She has an apartment closer to the city where she’s been staying a lot. She wanted to be here with the kids for a while though. When she goes back, I’ll go home.”

“You get the house?”

“Apparently. I would have let her have it, but she didn’t want it.”

“Well, if you get seasick, I do have a couch.”

Steve’s smile is ridiculously fond for exactly one second before it turns into a smirk. “Oh, do you?”

“I mean…” Bucky shrugs, feigning nonchalance. “I also have a bed, if you’re into those.”

Eyes narrowed, Steve slinks toward him through the cabin. “A bed, huh? Any particular advantages to that? I’ve gotta weigh my options here. Your couch is pretty comfortable.”

“Well, it would be my bed. And I would also be in it.”

“Hmm, really? I wonder what that would be like.”

“If you’d come over here, I could demonstrate, you moron.” Bucky pats the bed beside him with maybe too much force, but that twisting little smile of Steve’s is driving him nuts. Fine motor control is not his priority right now.

“Since you asked so nicely,” Steve purrs, damn him, setting his knees onto the foot of the bed. He crawls forward on hands and knees, up the bed till he’s hovering half overtop of Bucky. His eyes heavy-lidded now, he shifts so he can stroke his palm against Bucky’s neck, over his collarbone, down to his chest. “Would it be like this?”

“Yeah,” Bucky exhales. His own hands trace over Steve’s body, soft at first. Then, fitting his hands in the dip of Steve’s back, Bucky drags him down till Steve is laid out properly on top of him. “Like this, too.”

Steve nuzzles into Bucky’s neck, hot breath against skin, making Bucky shudder. Drawing his mouth along Bucky’s jaw, Steve lifts his head. Bucky can just barely meet his gaze this close, eyes going a little crossed to do it. Steve licks his lips, then leans in, the lightest contact of his mouth against Bucky’s.

“And this?”

“Would that convince you?”

Steve hums thoughtfully, the vibration passing between them. “I think it might.”

“It had better.”

Steve doesn’t bother with an answer—at least not a verbal one. He pushes forward to capture Bucky’s lower lip between his own, propping up on one hand for a better angle. Bucky melts beneath him, his body gone hot and pliable. Steve kisses him with purpose—surrounding, everywhere all at once and objectively, Bucky knows that’s not possible. Steve’s body has edges, it’s not endless, but there’s not a part of Bucky that’s not touching him or longing to right now; so it feels like Steve is this great, boundless thing above him. Like he’d dreamed, only better, because it’s real.

And good Christ, can he kiss. He’s—aggressive about it, almost, like he’s trying to prove something. Bucky’s content to let him try forever.

“Fuck, god,” Bucky mutters as Steve’s hips knock against his own.

Steve snickers against his neck, where he’s hard at work making sure Bucky will remember this tomorrow when he looks in the mirror. “Hey, that’s sacrilege.”

“Is it really?”

“Well, it’s at least a little blasphemous.”

“Am I gonna get it trouble?”

“Not if you repent.”

Bucky directs Steve by the jaw back to mouth so he can show him just how remorseful he can be. Not that he’s actually that sorry, but he supposes he will have to go to church occasionally now that he is… dating a preacher. Jesus Christ. Actually.

The coffee maker beeps three shrill notes.

Steve makes a noise of protest into Bucky’s mouth, his hand working up Bucky’s shirt. Bucky goes with it for a second, but then the smell of coffee hits him. What Steve’s doing with his tongue right now may be absolutely delicious, but… coffee. Bucky pulls back reluctantly, patting Steve’s cheek.

Steve sighs, but it’s more fond than dejected. “Yeah, that’s what I figured.”

“Look, few things can stand between me and coffee. You should feel lucky I didn’t push you onto the floor when the beeper went off.”

“And you call me an idiot.”

“Bring me coffee like you promised.”

Steve pries them apart and tumbles off the bed. He narrowly avoids tripping over Bucky’s shoes on the way to the kitchen.

“You take it black, right? No sugar?” Steve calls over his shoulder.

Bucky has to bite his tongue to keep from saying something truly awful like, You’re all the sugar I need. His cheeks still flushed, he says, “Yep!”

He sits up on the bed and runs a hand over his shirt to smooth it back down. The clock says it’s well past nine by now. He hopes Becca’s not too worried; there’s no cell service out here, or he’d call and let her know he’s fine. That he’ll be home soon. His gut twists oddly at the thought of disembarking.

Steve trails back into the room with two steaming mugs and an easy smile. He passes one to Bucky and takes a seat in the reading chair in the corner. Good. Distance is probably good for the coffee’s sake. It’s hard to get those stains out. Bucky watches Steve over the mug’s rim as he takes a sip.

“Good?” Steve asks.

“Yes, thank you,” Bucky says, oddly stiff all of a sudden. He takes another pull and sets his mug on the nightstand, next to Steve’s book. Some well-worn romance novel. Bucky traces a finger over the title.

“What is it?”

Bucky looks at Steve to see his brow pinched with concern. “I guess I’m just wondering—what happens when we get off the boat.”

“I’m in this, Bucky. All in,” Steve says, voice and face equally serious.

“I am, too.”

“Then what are you worried about?”

“You finalized your divorce three days ago.” Steve opens his mouth, but Bucky holds up a hold to stop him. “You say that you’re fine, and maybe that’s true—”

“It is.”

“—but if we’re suddenly walking down Main Street holding hands, what does that look like?”

Steve’s face falls, and he sags back into the chair. “It looks like I left her for you. Shit.”

“I don’t want people to think that about us, because it’s not true.”

“No, I don’t want that either. The church is pretty progressive, but—there are limits to what they’ll accept.”

Steve’s out at the church, he’d told Bucky that a while ago, but it’s still a church. Steve is still a community leader. Bucky spent all that time trying to avoid becoming the other man. He’ll be damned if that’s what people think when that’s not what happened at all. So—

“I think we should… cool it, just for a while. Till things settle down.”

“Bucky—”

“It’s been three days, Steve. I know you still have things to figure out.” Bucky holds out his hand for him, and Steve joins him on the bed again, pressing close together. “It doesn’t mean I’m going anywhere. It doesn’t mean I want you any less.”

Steve lays his head on Bucky’s shoulder and breathes deep. “You’re right. I think I hate that.”

“Hey, we managed to hold out this long, huh?” Bucky strokes Steve’s hair. “Surely we can handle another month or two.”

“This is all so…” Steve mutters. He doesn’t need to finish the thought for Bucky to understand. “I’m sorry my life is so complicated. You deserve better than this.”

“Shut up,” Bucky chastises. “It’ll all have been worth it soon.”

“Yes, it will.”

 

Steve walks Bucky to his car, the orange glow of the streetlamps lighting their way. The parking lot’s mostly cleared out, now that it’s nearly 11 p.m. As soon as they’d gotten cell service back, Bucky had texted Becca to let her know he’d be home soon. She’d sent back several of the eye emojis, whatever that meant.

Outside his car, Bucky extracts his keys from his pocket, fiddling with them. Steve reaches out to hold his wrist still.

“You’re jangling,” Steve says.

Bucky meets his eye, his heart doing something weird and twisty. Steve looks back at him, his tenderness slowly shifting into determination.

“This isn’t a goodbye,” Steve reminds him.

“No.” But it feels like one, and even though Bucky knows it’s only temporary, it still hurts.

“I’ll call you tomorrow?”

“You will?”

“Bucky,” Steve says, smiling. “You said you weren’t going anywhere. Did you think I would? People know we’re friends. I think we can talk on the phone without arousing suspicion.”

Bucky nods, and the sinking feeling in his gut abates. Nothing has to change, really.

“I’d understand, though,” Steve says. “If you didn’t want to wait on me. If that’s asking too much.”

“I want to.” Maybe it’s the late hour making him lay his heart out like this, but he had promised honesty. “I’ve never felt like this about anyone, Steve. Not in my whole life. I’m kind of crazy about you, and I’d probably wait forever if I had to.”

“I won’t make you wait that long.”

“Well, you’d better not.”

The lights twinkle in Steve’s eye as he leans in to press a single, searing kiss to Bucky’s lips. Then he pulls away, stepping back with ragged exhale. “Drive safe, Bucky.”

“Thanks,” Bucky says. “You, uh, boat safe.”

With Steve still chuckling, Bucky climbs into his car. He waves at Steve through the window as he drives out of the lot, toward the street, toward home. Nothing’s changed, only everything has. How is he supposed to pretend that it hasn’t? How can he go back to ignoring the dumb fluttering in his chest after tonight?

Shit. How is he supposed to explain himself to Becca?

Guess he’ll have to figure that out pretty soon.

Chapter Text

Bucky Barnes overestimates his own patience levels. He’s trying, honest to real God, but it’s hard. All he wants to do is talk to Steve on the phone, or go to lunch with him, or hang out in his living room, or one thousand other things. All of them involve Steve Rogers and his mega-watt smile. But Bucky did a dumb, moral thing, and none of that is allowed yet. Damn him and his desire to protect their reputations. How dare he.

He takes to lying around the house in various states of ennui, in the hopes that just really cranking up his own sense of drama will make his Steve feelings go away. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t even feel cathartic. He just kind of feels like a teenager again, which—no thanks.

Becca making fun of him for picking her up from school in his Star Wars pajamas snaps him out of it a little. She’s right to do it. He’s had these pants since high school.

“What’s your deal, anyway?” she asks once they’re home and Bucky has changed into jeans.

“I never had my teenage angst phase so I’m having it now.”

“Well, stop. It’s freaking me out. Do you need me to cry again?”

“I do not.”

He commits to keeping it together after that. The next morning, he powers through an important project and receives a glowing email from his client after he sends it off. He rewards himself by calling Steve to tell him about it on his lunch break. It’s nice to hear his voice. Steve says Harrison’s done giving him the cold shoulder. That’s nice, too. It’s easier, when he’s talking to Steve, to feel less strung out about the whole situation—to remember that there’s a reason they’re holding out. Just a little bit longer. They can make it.

“I see you have turned normal again,” Becca says when Liz drops her off after debate practice. Bucky’s in the kitchen, hovering over the slow cooker. “Do I smell pot roast?”

“Yep.”

“Awesome.”

Over dinner, Bucky decides now’s as good a time as any to explain himself. He’ll have to tell her sooner or later. It’s just—strange. He’s never really dated anyone since he took Becca in. Well, he has, but not like… whatever he and Steve are doing. About to do. It feels more serious than the two or three relationships he’s had over the years. He just never met anyone he cared about enough to bother. Anything that ate into his time with Becca didn’t feel worth it. But now she’s older, almost sixteen somehow—god, but he is old— and more independent. She doesn’t need him around every waking moment.

And Steve feels worth it.

“Hey, Becks, I don’t know if you heard…”

“Heard what?” she says, mouth full of potato.

“Firstly, that you should not talk with your mouth full. Gross.”

She swallows, dabbing at her mouth with a napkin. “Sorry. Go on.”

Bucky takes a deep breath. “Steve and Peggy split up.”

“Oh,” Becca says, sitting back in her chair. Her face is pinched, but she doesn’t look surprised.

“Did you know?” Bucky asks, trying not to sound indignant.

“I mean, no,” Becca rushes. “It’s not like they told me, I just figured it out, I guess. When I’d be over there, I barely ever saw them home at the same time, and when they were it was… well, I could tell something was up.”

“That makes sense,” Bucky says. “You’re too sharp, kid.”

“That’s me, regular eagle eye.” She shrugs, poking around her plate with her fork. “Any particular reason you brought it up?”

“Just thought you should know.”

“Well, thanks for telling me.”

They finish dinner and end up on the couch watching bad TV, as usual. Why they keep choosing all the terrible programs when there’s so many better ones at their disposal, Bucky has no idea. They like making fun of stuff, he guesses.

“So,” Becca says.

“Yeah?” Bucky asks, intent on finding out whether the chef with narcolepsy is going to win this round or lose to the one who wants to send her mom on a trip to Greece.

“Does this mean you’re gonna tell Steve about your crush on him?”

Bucky’s spoon clatters back into the carton of ice cream. He turns sharply toward Becca, who smirks and swipes the carton out of his lap.

“What?” he says.

“Eagle eye, remember?”

“Becca…”

“That’s why you’ve been so mopey the past few weeks, right? It took me a while, but I put it together the night you guys went out on the yacht.”

Bucky refrains from spluttering, but only by a tiny margin. “How?”

“You never stay out that late.”

“You…” Bucky sits back against the couch, staring blankly at the TV. “You’re right. Huh.”

Becca preens and scoops up a glob of ice cream. “About which part, specifically? Did you already tell him? I need to know for science.”

“I—yeah, I did.”

“So …?”

“We’re keeping it quiet for a little bit, but—we’re dating. Steve’s my boyfriend.” Bucky hums, mouth twisting. “Or he will be? I’m pretty sure. Yes. I kissed him.”

“I knew it! Ha!” She pumps her fist into the air in triumph, only there is still a spoon in her hand. The spoon still has ice cream, which flies off at projectile velocity and hits Bucky in the nose. “Oh my god, whoops!”

The ice cream slides down Bucky’s face, leaving a sticky smear across his cheek. He catches it before it drops off his chin. Then, with a shrug, he licks it out of his palm. “You know, I’m not even mad.”

“You’re gross!” Becca cackles, kicking him in the shin. “I’m happy for you!”

“Thanks, kid,” Bucky says, right before he clocks her in the head with a throw pillow.

 

Steve received 5:43 p.m.
Thinking about you <3

Bucky sent 5:45 p.m.
Great minds think alike

Steve received 5:45 p.m.
So you’re… thinking about yourself

Bucky sent 5:45 p.m.
Oh you know what I MEANT!

Steve received 5:47 p.m.
:D

Steve received 5:47 p.m.
What does Becca want for her birthday?

 

Before Bucky knows it—between driving lessons, tricky clients, new recipes from Facebook, and everything else keeping him busy—he realizes more than a month has passed since that night on the yacht. Bucky’s gotten much better about thinking about other things. It helps that Becca’s done with school for the summer and likes to force him out of the house. They’ve seen just about every movie playing and petted every dog in the dog park. He might be thinking about finally getting one. Might. Maybe. No promises.

His workload is interesting right now too, projects he actually cares about. He starts taking his laptop to the coffeeshop to work there instead. There’s this nice little covered patio out back, and Clint keeps bringing him free lattes. Bruce is a frequent customer too now that school is out of session, bringing books or his own laptop and holing up with Bucky at a corner table. He sees Sam (and Sam’s pool) a lot more, and when Becca decides to take her babysitting business neighborhood-wide, he hangs out with everyone else more frequently too. Bucky decides he likes having a lot of friends.

He still misses Steve, though. They talk almost daily, but he can’t wait till they can finally go public. He’s pretty sure everyone knows anyway. Apparently, he’s not very subtle.

“How’s Steve doing?” Sam asks. He’s currently kicking Bucky’s ass at disc golf.

“Good?” Bucky is supposed to have good aim. What happened to his good aim?

“How good is he?”

Bucky turns toward Sam, who raises his eyebrows and—yep, okay, he’s waggling them. That was suggestive. Sam knows. Come to think of it, Sam had his number from the beginning. Dammit.

Tossing his frisbee halfheartedly, Bucky asks, “So you’re okay with this?”

“Yeah, man, of course.” Sam nails his shot, spinning around to beam at Bucky. “You’re two of my closest friends. I’m happy for you.”

Well, at least that’s turning into the refrain.

 

Bucky Barnes posted in Rad Neighborhood Dads
Hey guys! Becca’s turning 16 next week, and I want to make it a special day for her. Anybody have any ideas?

Liked by Sam Wilson, Steve Rogers, and 12 others

Clint Barton ice cream cake!

Thor Odinson I’ve been known to throw quite the birthday party in my day if you need any planning tips, friend!

 

“Alright, so, you remember what I told you about—”

“Yes,” Becca says.

“I didn’t even say it!”

“Bucky, you’ve been grilling me for a week solid. We have done nothing else.” She lays her hand on his shoulder and smiles. “I’m ready, okay?”

“Yeah,” Bucky sighs. “Me, too.”

“Do you need a hug?”

She doesn’t wait for him to answer before she hauls him in and squeezes tight. Bucky hugs her back, trying to calm his nerves. If she’s not nervous, why should he be? It’s fine. She’s got this. She’s been doing so well, loads more conscientious than he ever was at her age. She won’t make his same mistakes.

He lets her go, giving her a little push down the sidewalk. The DMV examiner shoots him a knowing look as she tucks her clipboard under her arm and follows Becca to the car. Bucky turns tail and heads back inside. He can’t watch.

Forty grueling minutes later, it’s over. Becca flounces in through the double doors, smile plastered across her face. The chair squeaks against the linoleum as Bucky stands up.

“Guess what, Bucky?” Becca says.

Bucky leans around to look at the examiner. She glances up from her clipboard when she catches him watching. “She passed?” Bucky asks.

The examiner nods. “Flying colors.”

Bucky turns back to Becca, and he grins so wide it hurts his cheeks. “You did it, bee!”

“I’m an officially licensed driver!” And for all the times she’s made fun of his happy dance, she breaks out into the cabbage patch right there in the middle of the DMV. Maybe he raised her right after all. Bucky wants to wrap her up in another hug, but not before he joins in the dance party.

 

“I’m gonna drive to the mall, and the park even though I could walk, and I’m gonna pick Liz up for school in the fall and—” Becca cuts off abruptly as she turns onto their street. “Bucky, why is our driveway full of cars? We only have one car. What’s with the cars?”

Bucky sighs, long-suffering. “Because nobody listens when I tell them to park down the street.”

“What?”

“Surprise?” Bucky offers, holding his hands up.

“Oh my god, you threw me a surprise party? Bucky!” She’s bouncing in her seat, radiating excitement. The surprise part apparently doesn’t matter so much.

“Now, it’s mostly neighbors and stuff,” Bucky says as he leads her to the backyard. “I mean, your friends are here too, but once I let it slip in the dad Facebook group, I couldn’t stop them.”

“No, I’m excited everyone’s here!”

“Well, good, because I mean everyone.”

As Bucky opens the back door and steps outside, the chatter in the yard falls to a hush. Becca steps up to the threshold, her cheeks already pink.

“Happy birthday, Becca!” everyone calls out in unison. They cheer and clap, and Bucky loops an arm around her shoulders to bring her outside. Liz flies up to them in an instant, wresting Becca from Bucky’s grip to pull her best friend into a hug. Tackle? Hug.

“Becca, oh my god, you can finally drive! Happy birthday!”

Laughing, Bucky leaves them to it. Becca’s polite enough to make the rounds herself. Half the damn neighborhood is here; these people will take just about any opportunity for a backyard party, apparently. It’s a good day for it, though, sunny with a breeze.

“Hey, man!” Clint appears and claps Bucky on the shoulder. “Kids, huh? Don’t stop getting older. How do you feel?”

“Uh, emotionally ragged, but happy for her,” Bucky says with a genuine smile. “She’s a good one.”

“I can only hope Luke turns out half as well.” Clint finds his son at the edge of the yard, sitting with Sam and Riley’s daughter, Lola. Lola’s smile’s infectious—Luke is even laughing a little.

“He doing better?” Bucky asks.

Clint smiles. “He’s coming around.”

Bruce makes his way over to talk to Bucky about a new book he’s been reading on particle physics, which inevitably attracts Tony’s attention, and then there’s Pepper at his side to reel him in. Thor and Jane are here with their son. There’s Scott and Cassie, and the Maximoffs—Bucky had no idea his backyard could hold this many people. He’s happy his vegetables are doing well, at least. And that he bought plenty of snacks.

There’s just a few people missing…

“Natasha?”

Bucky’s spinning around to find her before Becca even finishes shouting. There she is, coming out the back door—how she got through his locked front door, he’ll never know, but damn is it good to see her.

“Natasha? Romanoff? She’s here?” Clint’s jaw has gone a little slack.

“Uh huh, buddy,” Bucky says, patting him offhandedly on the shoulder. “If you’ll excuse me.”

He barrels toward her across the yard, pointing right at her as he goes. She smirks over Becca’s shoulder and points back. When he gets close, he pulls her in for a hug, and while she pretends to go stiff as a board for appearance’s sake, it only takes about five seconds for her to relent. She hugs him back, squeezing his shoulders.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says. “Got held up.”

“Everything taken care of, though?”

“It is,” she says, stepping back to look at him. “It’s ready when you are.”

“Thank you, Nat,” Bucky says. “It’s so good to see you.”

“Yeah, well.” She shrugs. “It was time I paid the east coast and my favorite niece a visit. And you, I guess. Now where’s this beau of yours?”

“Don’t call him—”

Mid-protest, Bucky catches sight of a few more new arrivals coming around the side of the house. He sees Natasha snapping in front of his face to get his attention, but he’s a little caught up. He wasn’t sure, when he sent the invite, if she would come. But there’s Peggy, smiling brightly as she leads her three kids into Bucky’s backyard. She has a small, silver-wrapped package in hand. When she spots Bucky and Becca, she smiles, pointing the kids toward where the others are playing by the garden. They trundle off, and Peggy makes a beeline straight for Bucky and Becca.

“Becca, darling, happy birthday!” she says, handing Becca the present. “Have you had a nice day?”

“I have, Peggy, thank you,” Becca says warmly. “Should I—?”

Peggy waves her on. “Please do.”

With a lopsided smile, Becca tears the wrapping off to reveal— “A polaroid camera? Peggy, this is so great!”

“I remember you telling me you’d never shot on film before. Had to fix that.” From her purse, she produces a roll of film and hands it to a wide-eyed Becca. “That’s from the kids.”

“Thank you so much! I’m gonna go take pictures of the party right now.” She grabs Liz and shoots off across the yard, already chattering away. Bucky watches her for a beat, then turns back to face Peggy and Natasha, who are… sizing each other up. Shit.

“Hi, I’m Natasha, Bucky’s best friend,” Natasha says and holds out her hand.

“Pleased to meet you. Peggy Carter.” Peggy takes her hand. Bucky holds his breath, but then—they both smile warmly, and he sags with relief. Not that he thought Nat would pull any shit, Peggy’s not a villain by any means but—still. She doesn’t always make great first impressions.

“You too,” Nat says. She turns her smirk on Bucky. “Now, I’ve got to go see a man about an arrow. Tell me when you’re ready for the reveal, okay? I want to see her face.”

“You got it,” Bucky says before she slinks off across the yard. It looks like she’s headed right for Clint. Bucky decides not to pay attention to that, turning back to Peggy. “Thank you for coming. It means a lot to Becca—she really admires you.”

“She’s a special girl,” Peggy says.

“Listen, Peggy,” Bucky starts, wringing his hands nervously. “I wanted to… apologize, I guess, for—”

“For what?” She quirks one eyebrow. “Did something happen that I don’t know about? I doubt that, somehow.”

“I mean, no, I just—did you know? About… me and Steve?”

“Bucky, I know Steve better than I know myself. If you’re asking whether I knew he had feelings for you, then yes. He’s never been particularly adept at subtlety.”

Bucky snorts a surprised laugh. “Yeah, he’s something else.”

“For what it’s worth,” she says, taking a step closer, “I’ve only ever wanted him to be happy.”

She shrugs. Her smile is a little sad at the edges, Bucky thinks.

“Are you? Happy, I mean,” he says.

“You’re sweet,” Peggy says, her smile steadier. “I think I like you. And yes, I am.”

“Well, that’s good then.”

Peggy stares him down for a beat, then starts laughing brightly. Bucky joins in, still a little unsure, but—he’ll have to get used to her eventually, he supposes. He thinks he likes her too. It’s hard not to, frankly. She reminds him of Natasha, somehow, even though he gets the feeling they’re not much alike at all.

“Listen, Bucky,” Peggy says as she sobers. “I hate to breeze by like this, but I’m taking the kids to see my new place for the week. We should get on the road.”

“Oh, hey, that’s fine! Thank you for coming by.”

“Thank you for the invitation.” She whisks off to go find the kids amidst the crowd. He’s so busy reintegrating himself into the party, trying to decide if it’s time to give Becca her present, that he almost misses the last arrival. Almost. But he spots him out of the corner of his eye, dropping his conversation with Sam mid-sentence.

Steve’s got both the twins scooped up in his arms, smacking kisses to their cheeks back and forth. Harrison stands back, holding Peggy’s hand and giggling. When Steve squats to set the twins down, he spreads his arms wide, and Harrison falls into them. Steve’s eyes close for a moment as he holds his son, but when he opens them, he finds Bucky across the yard. The intensity of his smile ratchets up impossibly higher, and Bucky’s heart thuds heavily at the sight.

“Yeah, I see how it is, Barnes. Not like we were talking,” Sam huffs, shoving Bucky in the shoulder. “Go get your man, or whatever.”

“Thanks, Sam,” Bucky says, purposefully oblivious to Sam’s sass. He’s too happy to bother.

The space between them disappears in an instant. Bucky waves to Sarah, Stella, and Harrison as Peggy leads them back toward the car. They all three call out to him, with thousand-watt smiles that are apparently hereditary. Good. The world needs more of those.

“Hi,” Steve says when Bucky meets him at the edge of the yard.

“Hey,” Bucky breathes. His chest’s gone all tight. It’s not like he hasn’t seen Steve in the past month. They’d had lunch just last week. But he thinks, maybe, that if he were to reach out and take Steve’s hand right now, then that might be okay. The way Steve’s eyes have gone all tender and sparkly confirms it.

“I’m feeling very Beatles right now,” Bucky says.

“Come again?” Steve asks, head tipping to the side.

“I wanna hold your hand.”

Steve laughs, his face doing the scrunchy thing. “Is that a line?”

“No,” Bucky pouts. “I mean it. Is that—can we do that?”

“Of course, Buck. We agreed yesterday that we’ve waited long enough, remember? Or do we need to get your noggin checked?”

Grinning, Steve reaches up to rap his knuckles against Bucky’s skull. Bucky grabs Steve’s hand with huff, and then once he has him where he wants him, he tangles their fingers together. “Your jokes are worse than mine,” Bucky says.

Steve rubs his thumb over the back of Bucky’s hand. “That’s why you like me, though.”

Bucky doesn’t dignify that with an answer. Instead, he leads Steve by the hand back into the thick of the party. If anyone notices the way they can’t seem to let go of each other for the rest of the afternoon, they don’t seem to care. They get smiles, pleased questions, kind comments—Bucky’s not sure why he would have expected anything different from any of them. Except Tony. He was right on the money with Tony. Steve owes him ten dollars.

“Rogers and Barnes? How was I unaware of this? When there are fewer children present, I demand the full story, sparing no details. I’m happy for you, by the way. Wait, Rogers—does this mean you’re living in sin?”

Pepper shuts him up pretty quickly.

As the afternoon wears down, Steve—effective community leader that he is—stands on a deck chair and shouts to get everyone’s attention. “Hey everyone, it’s time for the birthday girl’s big present! If you’ll all follow Bucky and Becca around to the front.”

“Bucky?” Becca calls out from the crowd. Everyone shuffles her forward till she’s standing with him. She looks excited and slightly bewildered, her new camera hanging from its strap around her neck.

“Do I have to blindfold you, or can you promise not to peak?” he asks.

She plasters her hands over her eyes. “I won’t peak!”

“Alright, don’t trip either,” Bucky says, taking her by the shoulders to guide her to the front of the house. Everyone follows behind, chatting animatedly. The packed driveway makes this a little less climactic than Bucky would have liked, but he leads her to the curb and lets go of her shoulders.

“You can open,” he says.

Becca drops her hands and—frowns. “I am… staring at our own car. There it is.”

The two sets of keys jangle in his pocket as he fishes them out. He holds them up, one in each hand, smirking. “We have two cars now. I’m giving you that one.”

The perplexed look melts off Becca’s face into pure joy, and she honest to god starts jumping up and down. His kid is the cutest on the block, thanks. “Bucky, oh my god, really? It’s really mine?”

“Sure is, bee,” he says and passes her the key fob. “Here you go. Even took all my member discount cards off so you could put your own keychains and stuff on there.”

“Oh, Bucky, thank you so much!” she says, latching onto him in a bear hug. Everyone’s clapping and cooing at them again. “You’re the best! I love you forever!”

“You’re welcome. Now, how about you and Liz take her for a spin? Say, to her house, where I think there might be a teenager party happening later.”

Becca releases him and turns to Liz, who’s smiling conspiratorially. “You’re throwing me a party too?”

“Of course! Can’t let Bucky steal all the glory, can I?” Liz says. She hands Becca a bag. “Here’s your stuff because this is a sleepover party. Let’s go!”

Becca gives Bucky one last hug, then Natasha, and Steve too—and then she’s getting passed around the party, everyone hugging and congratulating her like it’s her wedding day or something. Oh God. Bucky shudders at the thought. He’s got at least another decade before any of that, right?

Steve takes his hand again as Becca and Liz drive off down the street. “That was really sweet.”

“She’s my kid, y’know? I mean, not—”

Steve’s smile turns tender. “I know, Buck.”

The party winds down pretty quickly after that. It’s nearly dinner time by now, and Bucky was not about to provide two meals for this many people. He plays the good host, thanking everyone for coming as they pile their kids into their cars. Steve stands by his side the whole time, giving him this weird sideways look every few minutes. Bucky needs to know what that’s about.

“I think I’ll head to my hotel for the night,” Natasha says when she appears again. “Jet leg’s a bitch.”

“Oh, Nat—I told you you could stay here if you wanted.”

She raises one eyebrow, glancing between him and Steve. “Uh huh, sure. You two can meet me for lunch tomorrow, okay?”

At least, when Bucky looks at him, Steve’s cheeks have gone pink too. Natasha consents to one more hug—and then another, when she inexplicably drags Steve down into her grip. He goes with it, even if his eyes do go a little wide. Bucky shrugs when Steve looks askance at him.

“I don’t need to give you the shovel talk, do I, Steve?” Nat says as she pulls back.

“No, ma’am,” Steve rushes. “I care about Bucky a lot.”

“Good,” she hums. “So do I. Catch you later, lovebirds.”

With that, she flounces off, and once she’s gone, they’re alone. Bucky pivots to face Steve, who’s smiling at him like he hung the moon or something. It’s a look he could get used to. What? So he likes attention, big deal. Mostly he likes it because it’s coming from Steve, though.

“So, you want to come inside? Or do you need to get home?” Bucky asks.

“I’d like to come inside,” Steve says, swinging their hands back and forth.

It takes Herculean effort not to toss Steve over his shoulder and pelt toward his bedroom. Instead, gentleman that he is, he holds the door and lets Steve into his home and does not tackle him as soon as the door is shut. His heart does weird, clenching things at the sight of Steve standing there in his living room, smiling like a loon. Bucky’s probably got a grin as wide as Texas on too.

It’s just so good to see him here. To have him here, in his home—and to have him. Steve is his now. Publically, officially, finally. And there’s no reason to rush, they have all the time in the world, but Bucky feels drawn to him like a magnet—like something about Steve is pulling him in, making him reach out. He doesn’t bother to fight the feeling. He glides across the room and winds his arms around Steve’s waist, peppering his jaw with quick kisses. Then he lays his head on Steve’s chest, and just gives himself a moment to take it in. Steve holds him close, his chin tucked over Bucky’s head. It feels grounding and like flying all at once.

After a minute, his hands start to wander over Steve’s back. He leans away so he can meet Steve’s eye. The afternoon light slanting in through the windows frames his face.

“Hi,” Bucky says.

“Hi yourself.” Steve leans in to brush a single, soft kiss against Bucky’s lips. “You want dinner?”

“Not hungry.”

“Really?” Steve laughs. “Alright, um—should we go clean up outside?”

“It can wait.”

“Then what do you want to do?”   

“Steve,” Bucky says. He raises his eyebrows pointedly as he slips his hands into Steve’s back pockets.

Steve bites his lip, but otherwise doesn’t react. “Watch a movie? Play some board games?”

“Steve,” Bucky repeats, and squeezes his hands.

Steve’s breath rushes out through his mouth, his surprise quickly slipping into a smirk. He crowds forward against Bucky, lips ghosting across his cheek till they find his ear. “Oh, right. Something about a bed with you in it? That offer still on the table?”

His teeth just barely graze Bucky’s earlobe, but it’s enough to make Bucky gasp. Steve takes advantage of his open mouth, capturing it beneath his own. Steve kisses him with fervor, his palms hot where they hold Bucky’s jaw, tilting his head till he finds the angle he likes best. Bucky retaliates by palming Steve’s ass through his jeans, dragging his hips forward—but it’s not real payback when that leaves them both breaking apart to breathe raggedly.

“Bed, that way,” Bucky breathes, trying to walk with Steve still wrapped around him like a coiled wire. It takes a while—Steve seems hellbent on taking several detours, pushing Bucky up against the wall and the door frame to kiss him stupid. But eventually Bucky, with what wits he has left, navigates them into his bedroom. He manages to kick the door shut before Steve shoves him back against it with a thump.

“Steve,” Bucky gasps as Steve turns his attention to Bucky’s jaw. “You—you gotta thing for pushing me against stuff?”

“Maybe,” Steve hums into his skin. “Is that a complaint?”

“No, no.” Bucky threads his hands into Steve’s hair. “By all means, keep going.”

“With pleasure.”

Bucky drags him by the hair up for another kiss. One of Steve’s hands works its way between their bodies, smoothing down Bucky’s stomach, down—

“Oh,” Bucky groans, sound punched out of him as Steve palms Bucky’s dick through his jeans. Steve smirks against the corner of his mouth. He presses the heel of his hand down, rubbing. Bucky’s head thunks back against the door, effectively breaking their kiss, but Steve just puts his mouth to work elsewhere. He laves over Bucky’s neck, that spot below his ear that makes his toes tingle—and how Steve already knows about that, Bucky has no idea, but if it weren’t for Steve holding him up, he’d probably be on the floor by now.

With a flick of his wrist, Steve has Bucky’s fly undone. He slips his hand into Bucky’s briefs to get a proper grip on him. His fingers circling around Bucky’s hard dick feel exquisite. Shit, but he hasn’t gotten laid in ages. Maybe it’s just the Steve Rogers effect, but Bucky’s toes are curling in his sneakers already. He sighs out long and loud as Steve starts to move his hand.

Bucky’s hands twist Steve’s shirt into knots at the small of his back, rucking it up and then clutching at skin, because that’s better. He flattens his palms against Steve’s back, fingers dipping below his waistband, and forces him forward till Steve’s crotch fits snug against his hip. And there, now Steve’s sighing too, his hips twitching sporadically against Bucky like he’s trying not to rut against him. But that’s the whole point, dammit, so Bucky slides his hands further into Steve’s pants and digs his nails into Steve’s perfect ass to encourage him.

“Bucky,” Steve growls. Then his mouth is gone from Bucky’s neck, and his hand disappears from Bucky’s dick too. Bucky whines plaintively, eyes fluttering open to find Steve. Who has vanished from Bucky’s eye level, because he’s sunk to his knees on the hardwood.

“Jesus Christ,” Bucky mutters, hands scrabbling at the door like he might find something to hold onto.

Steve flicks his gaze up, batting long lashes. There’s a smirk playing at his kiss-red lips. “He’s not here right now.”

“Thought you said the Lord is always with us, huh?” Bucky jeers right back.

Steve huffs a laugh, his head tipping forward to rest against Bucky’s laugh. “Yeah, okay, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not think about that right now.”

“You started it.”

Rather than answer, Steve reaches up and grabs Bucky’s jeans by the belt loops. He yanks them down to Bucky’s knees, dragging his underwear down too so Bucky’s cock is free at last, aching and red. Steve’s tongue darts out to wet his lips, almost unconsciously. He fits his hand around the base of Bucky’s dick, squeezing tight. He leans in, but rather than open his mouth, he nuzzles his cheek against the head of Bucky’s dick.

It’s sweet, with that tender little smile on his lips—and obscene, too, the way it leaves a shiny streak of precome on his pink cheek.

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” Steve says, eyes half-shut as he puts his free hand to Bucky’s hip to hold him there. And curse Bucky’s dirty, dirty mind—he’ll never, ever say this out loud—but with Steve on his knees down there… Well, he looks awful reverent, is all Bucky’s saying.

Steve’s blue eyes blink up at him, lust-dark and twinkling like he’s knows just what Bucky’s thinking. Without breaking eye contact, he parts his plush lips and fits Bucky’s dick between them. Bucky pants, ragged, as Steve sucks him down into the wet heat of his mouth. It’s not neat or precise, not like he’s a novice but just out of practice. Bucky’s hand finds purchase in his hair, and Steve’s presses up into the touch, humming contentedly around Bucky’s dick.

With Bucky’s hand to guide him, he figures it out again quickly enough. Cheeks hollowed, tonguing at Bucky’s slit, every once in awhile pulling off just to lick at him or suckle the head. His hand keeps working too, and his eyes are heavy-lidded, enraptured like he’s enjoying this just as much as Bucky is. And that— fuck—  

“Steve, honey,” Bucky gasps, tugging on his hair. He pats Steve’s cheek with his other hand till Steve glances up at him, mouth still full of cock. “You gotta stop or I’m gonna explode.”

Steve slides Bucky’s dick free with a pop, spit threading between the head and his lip. He leans back in, breathing kisses along the shaft, relentless. “Thought that was the point?”

“Yeah, but I —Steve!” With his fist in his hair, Bucky yanks Steve’s head back to keep him from swallowing down his dick again. Steve moans in the back of his throat, eyelashes fluttering, and Bucky files that away for later. For now, he strokes Steve’s temple till Steve looks up at him properly. With a smirk, Steve wipes his spit-slick mouth with the back of his hand.

“Yes, Bucky?”

“Much as I’m enjoying this—” Steve’s eyes flash, and Bucky tugs his hair again, gently. “—I’d really like to…”

“What, sugar?” Steve asks, eyebrows raised.

“C’mere,” Bucky says, helping Steve stand so they’re eye level again. “Not to show my own cards too much, but I’ve thought about getting you in my bed a lot the past couple months. So I’d like to, y’know, actually get you in the bed.”

“I like those cards,” Steve says with a smile. He takes Bucky’s hand and backs toward the bed. Bucky shuffles after him, ridiculous with his pants down to his knees and his dick out, but Steve’s still looking at him with those bright, jewel eyes. Just before Steve hits the foot of the bed, he grabs Bucky by the hips and flips them, then pushes Bucky in the chest to send him falling back into the mattress.

Yep, definitely likes pushing Bucky around then. Bucky thinks he’s just fine with that.

Steve crouches to slip Bucky’s shoes off, then shucks his pants for him before standing to undress himself. Bucky slips his own shirt off quickly, not wanting to miss a second of this. Steve cocks his head as Bucky watches him, and it’s not really a strip tease, but he is handsier with himself than he strictly needs to be.

Then, he is blessedly naked, and Bucky takes in a breath. Steve Rogers had to have been hand-crafted by some expert jeweler up in heaven. There’s simply no other way.

“Scooch,” Steve says, waving him up the bed. When Bucky looks at his face again, he sees his cheeks are flushed, mouth squirming like he’s bashful. Steve climbs on the bed, throwing a leg over Bucky to straddle his hips. Bucky reaches out to draw him in. Steve goes willingly enough, and Bucky kisses him long and deep.

“You’re so beautiful,” Bucky murmurs as he pulls away. “I haven’t stopped thinking it since the minute I first saw you.”

Steve smooths a hand over Bucky’s hair, biting his lip around a smile. “Yeah?”

“I kind of can’t believe I get to say it to you now.”

“With me bare-ass naked in your lap, no less.”

“Steve,” Bucky laughs, and Steve laughs too—but Bucky can feel the heat in his body, can see that Steve’s feeling it too, with the way his skin flushes pink. It’s the simple fact of their nakedness, but also that they’re here, together, finally.

“You’re beautiful too,” Steve says.

“Oh?” Bucky says, smiling. “That on the record?”

“I’d swear it in a court of law if I had to.”

“Don’t know how that’d ever come up.”

“Well, fact still stands: you are. Beautiful.”

“And you’re kind of a sap,” Bucky says, but his stomach’s doing that pleasant squirming thing, and the way Steve’s looking at him makes his heart feel like it’s going to burst. “Now kiss me again before I die of old age over here.”

Steve smiles against Bucky’s mouth, but the second Bucky lays hands on him again, his mouth falls slack around a sigh. Bucky palms Steve’s ass with one hand, the other trailing lower and lower over his stomach. Steve’s hips twitch, a tiny whine escaping him. It’s not much of a kiss anymore, so Bucky pulls away to watch his face as he fits his fingers around Steve’s cock.

Steve’s eyelids flutter, threatening to close, but he manages to keep them open. The blue goes hazy and dark, and his mouth hangs open, lips wet. “Bucky—that’s … yes, like that.”

“Yeah?” Bucky says, redoubling his grip to hold Steve tighter. Steve nods, his hands scrabbling over Bucky’s shoulders for something to hold onto.

“Do you have —oh.” Steve breaks off as Bucky does something with his wrist that he thinks feels magical—apparently it’s universally wonderful. Steve pants for a moment, then tries again. “Lube. Lubricant. Where is it?”

“Bottom drawer,” Bucky says, not particularly keen on looking away from Steve to grab it. But then Steve’s leaning away from him anyway, hanging off the side of the bed to rip the drawer open. Bucky holds his cock still, his other hand splayed across Steve’s back, stroking the warm skin. It takes a bit of clattering around, but eventually Steve comes back with a half-empty bottle and a smug look on his face.

“You weren’t kidding, huh?”

Bucky retaliates by squeezing him till Steve whines. But he finds himself quickly, prying Bucky’s hand off his dick to coat his palm with lube. Then he grabs the both of them and wraps Bucky’s slick fingers back around them—so they’re lined up, touching, moving together. Steve starts to shift in his lap, thrusting into Bucky’s hand, and the feel of his hot cock sliding against Bucky’s—well, Bucky has a hard time remembering to move his hand.

But he does, and then they’re both moving, his hand wrapped tight around them and Steve working his hips. Steve falls forward against Bucky’s neck, and once he finds something to do there, Bucky knows he’s not gonna make it very long. He can feel it building in his gut, electric heat racing down the wire till it sparks and catches fire. He comes with a low groan, hips stuttering as he spills over himself.

When his hand goes slack, Steve kisses his way up Bucky’s neck and over his jaw. He lays his forehead against Bucky’s. It’s hard meet his eye, from the angle and because Bucky’s about five minutes from nap city, but Bucky can see that they’re tight at the corners. From the soft little exhalations and the slick sounds in the room, he knows Steve’s touching himself.

And then Steve falls over the edge too, shooting onto Bucky’s stomach. When he’s done, he collapses overtop of Bucky, smearing the mess. Bucky will find something to clean them up in a minute. For now, he reaches up to stroke Steve’s hair, where his head’s tucked into the crook of Bucky’s neck. Steve pets at him too, over his sides and arms.

They do end up falling asleep, just for a few minutes. Bucky never passes up an opportunity for an afternoon nap. With Steve content and pliant, wrapped around him like a particularly cuddly boa constrictor, it’s the best one he’s had in awhile.

 

Later, they roll out of bed and manage to get clothed again, despite Steve’s protests. But Bucky puts his foot down at cleaning up the back yard in the nude—really, Steve, what would the neighbors think!—and chucks a pair of clean sweatpants at Steve’s stupid smile. Steve slips the pants and an old college tee of Bucky’s on, then sits patiently on the bed’s foot while Bucky tries to tame his hair back into a bun. It’s a losing battle, he decides—and pointless besides, since he has no plans to let Steve leave his house tonight.

The backyard is easy to clean up, thanks to all of Bucky’s friends being respectable adults who throw their trash away and pick up after their children. They make quick work of the decorations, and Steve keeps finding reasons to look at him or bump into him. Bucky wises up to it real quick, because there’s no way he’s getting that many streamers caught in his hair. The next time Steve reaches up brush his fingers through Bucky’s hair, Bucky grabs his hand and holds on.

“You know you can just like, touch me now, right?” Bucky asks. “Pretty sure we established that that’s alright.”

Steve smiles sheepishly, his fingers curling around Bucky’s. “Am I that obvious?”

“You are. Sorry.”

“Well, in that case,” Steve says, and then he’s reeling Bucky in by the hand till they’re pressed together. He winds his free arm around Bucky’s waist, palm flush with the small of Bucky’s back. His face is inches away. “How’s this?”

“Acceptable,” Bucky says—but it’s breathy, and that gives him away.

Steve grins, then leans in to press a soft kiss to Bucky’s lips. Bucky sighs into it, his hand balled in Steve’s— his —shirt. It’s nice, casual, to stand here and kiss Steve in his backyard. His tomatoes are vining well. Becca’s marigolds should be blooming soon. His boyfriend’s hot.

He’s got a good life.

Back inside, they rustle up something to eat, cooking together. Steve’s a passable sous chef, and he even joins in with Bucky’s kitchen dancing, which maybe makes him a better cooking partner than Becca. He’ll never tell her that, though—or Steve. It’d go right to his head.

But as they’re twirling around the kitchen, chicken sizzling in a skillet, Bucky sees that look in Steve’s eyes again. The peaceful one, his face open and content—and his eyes on Bucky the whole time. He looks at home. Bucky feels it too, his heart settling comfortably in his chest.

He hadn’t thought he’d been missing anything in his life. And maybe he hadn’t been, not really—but if his cup had already been full, now it’s running over.

While they’re eating, Bucky’s phone buzzes with a text from Becca. He wouldn’t normally pick it up, but Steve nudges his ankle with a socked foot.

“I don’t mind,” Steve says.

“Just wait till yours get cell phones,” Bucky says, picking up his phone as Steve’s smile drops into terror.

Becca received 8:31 p.m.
Hey hope you’re having a nice night! :D <3 liz threw me an awesome party i’ll show you all the polaroids tomorrow. Tell steve i said thanks for the photo album!  

“She says thanks for the present,” Bucky tells Steve, tapping out a quick reply. Stay safe, don’t do drugs, etc.

“She’s very welcome,” Steve says.

Bucky sets his phone down on the table. When he picks up his glass for a sip of water, he catches Steve regarding him across the table, eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

“What?” Bucky asks, wiping his mouth with a napkin. Chicken came out good.

“You do realize,” Steve begins, “that you threw your first neighborhood party today.”

Bucky sits up straight. “Huh. You’re right.”

“And it went really well.”

“You’re right!” Bucky shouts, and then he’s sharing Steve’s smug smile. Bucky may not be a professional party planner like Steve, or even an expert lemonade maker like Sam, but he did do a pretty good job today. Not once did he wish he could retreat inside and make everyone disappear, and he didn’t come off feeling exhausted either. Who’d have thought, a few months ago, that he would have so much?

“You know what, Buck?” Steve says, tipping his glass toward Bucky. “I think everyone likes you.”

“That’s so weird.”

“I don’t think so.” Steve gets that cute, squirmy smile. “You’re pretty likeable, I’d say.”

“Oh, is that so?”

“I mean, I like you.”

“You’re a sap,” Bucky says. He gives it a beat, then: “I like you too, you know.”

Soft color lights up Steve’s cheeks. As he reaches across the table to tangle his fingers with Bucky’s, Bucky wonders what he did to deserve all this. The best things in his life seem to have just fallen into his lap. But he won’t bother questioning it—he’ll just take it, like he has with everything else. Maybe it’s not a question of deserving.

He sighs softly, full in a way that has nothing to do with dinner.

“What is it?” Steve asks. His thumb strokes over the back of Bucky’s hand.

“Nothing,” Bucky says. “I’m just really glad that I moved to this neighborhood, is all.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Bucky looks up at him with a wide smile. “Feels like the right house was worth the wait.”