The start of the year is supposed to be a time for fresh starts, Bucky thinks as he stares into his coffee. It’s been a long time since he last went to this particular cafe even though he loves the oatcakes. And now he remembers why he stopped coming here.
Steve Rogers is standing in line.
He’d honestly forgotten that they used to come here together. Steve would drop by after his morning jog to pick up coffee and bagels to bring home. On Saturdays, Bucky would settle at a corner table and work through the week’s backlog. And later in the afternoon, Steve would join him and they’d quietly sit together enjoying each other’s companies.
Bucky’s breathes out a shaky breath, feeling a hot weight pressing up against the backs of his eyes. He hadn’t thought Steve Rogers could even affect him after all these years.
The barista calls out Steve’s a latte breve. Bucky watches him walk over to the condiment bar to tap in one, two packets of Sweet N’ Low—tries not to think about how he knows Steve’s coffee order even now. He sinks into his seat and picks at his napkin. It’s not like he hates him. All the old resentment and bitterness has waned into a quiet weariness. But being here, waiting for Steve to turn around, to look at him like he’s a stranger—he can’t do this. It’s not like he loves him.
Bucky doesn’t move. He just keeps shredding his napkin until there’s white scattered all over his table like fresh snow. When he looks up again, Steve is turning away from the condiment bar, casting a cursory eye through the cafe. Bucky watches how he immediately looks to the small tables by the windows. The tables they used to share. Steve doesn’t see him tucked in his little corner table at the back.
Bucky watches him walk out of the cafe and thinks that if he lets it, this can just be another one of their almosts. Asymptotes that brush past each other but never meet. He’s standing. He’s walking forward, reaching out, calling out. And Steve turns to look at him.
"Hey," Bucky says. "How’s Sharon doing?"
Steve is holding himself very still, his hands angled away from his body like he’s not sure what to do with them. He’s got that blank stunned look on his face that Bucky never quite knew what to do with. He takes a breath. Steve looks good—steady and grounded and at ease in his own skin in a way he’d never been before. That tentative confidence he’d been growing into is now firmly rooted in place. He looks happier now than he’s ever been with Bucky, and that knowledge aches in his chest.
Steve tilts his head and replies, "I don’t know. We haven’t seen each other in a while."
"Oh, you’re not—?"
Bucky swallows and smooths his palms against his legs. "And are you—do you have anyone now?"
Steve’s watching him with an inscrutable look on his face. He’s always been tall and broad-shouldered, but he fills up so much more space than Bucky remembers. He feels a lot like shrinking back and away but forces himself not to.
He’d backed down too much and too often, and it’d been the death of them. He should’ve pushed back more often. He should’ve stopped Steve from running himself ragged before he wore himself down to nothing. He wonders if Steve’s learned how to ask for help since then.
"No, not for a while." Steve peers down into his latte and then back up. "It’s good to see you, Bucky."
He catches his breath, looks Steve in the eye. "Yeah, it’s good to see you too. How’re you doing?"
"I’m working with an art restoration company now."
"That’s—I’m happy for you. It’s a good place to be."
Steve looks surprised that Bucky’s smiling at him, but it’s the truth. He really is happy for him. They’ve both grown a little since then.
"You are, aren’t you?" Steve’s slowly returning Bucky’s smile.
"I always wanted the best for you, even knowing that I couldn’t always give it to you."
He watches how Steve’s eyes widen when he hears the declaration. How weighty these words are. But he feels like he can breathe easier just by being next to Steve. Their old ease slips over them, comfortable like a well-worn hoodie. He’d forgotten how simple being next to Steve sometimes felt. This sense that their place in the world is at each other’s side—they’d both been keenly aware of it. And so they’d stuck together long after they stopped being good for each other.
"You left," Steve says, brimming with veiled hurt.
They’d lain curled into each other, tracing patterns into each other’s skin, savoring the warm lassitude of the morning. It had been the last day of their life. Bucky had whispered into the curve of Steve’s neck, "I’d give you the world if I could," and then, he’d quietly disappeared from his life. It was the most he could’ve given to Steve at that point.
"I did," Bucky replies. He looks at the person Steve has reshaped himself into in the intervening years. This is a man who’s come into his own. Someone who has a life outside of his love for Bucky. "And I don’t regret it. Not now, not then."
Steve goes quiet and stares at Bucky with the exact same expression he’d had five years ago. He never quite understood why Bucky would leave even though they so obviously loved each other. Bucky isn’t in love with Steve anymore, but now he’s not sure if Steve ever fell out of love. A familiar ache twangs in his chest. It doesn’t ever get easier.
For a moment, the cafe door opens as a couple leaves, and the warmth, the noise, the scent of roasted coffee beans engulfs them. It’s a welcome distraction. They’re wrapped up in their little drama, and the world continues on around them. Even when Bucky hurt him, Steve still continued on without him. A small comfort.
"I was going to ask you if you’d like to grab some coffee—" Steve glances down at the still-warm latte in his hand and blushes a little, "or something else. Sorry, I was misreading the situation. You don’t want—"
"I do actually," Bucky says and realizes it to be true.
After standing with Steve in the here and now, he can clearly see that it was youth and inexperience that led to their ruin. The mistakes he made then, he would never make now. And he can’t imagine this new Steve blindly forging ahead as he had in the past. They’re older, more cautious men than they were before, and maybe—it might work.
And Bucky realizes that he still does have the capacity to love Steve. And not the intense, relentless Steve of the past but rather the quietly confident Steve standing right in front of him. Bucky studies the proud set of his brow. Maybe neither of them had ever truly fallen out of love with each other.
"What did you say?" Steve asks.
"I don’t regret breaking up five years ago, but—" Bucky licks his lips, "but we’re both different people now. I think maybe we can be good for each other this time around. Better than we were before."
"So a fresh start."
"Yeah, it’ll be a meet cute. Like we’re in a movie or something."
Steve smiles a slow spreading smile. It lights up Bucky on the inside just witnessing it and knowing it’s directed at him. He extends his hand. "Hi, I’m Steve. Would you like to get coffee with me later?"
Bucky smiles back and grips the proffered hand. Steve’s skin is warm and dry and familiar against his own, and for a bright instant, he knows they can make this work. Five years ago, they’d both been painfully young. Cutting their teeth on the brave new world, and neither of them knew what the hell they were doing. They didn’t even know what they wanted to do with themselves most of the time.
But one thing Bucky does know now is that he wants to try. He looks at the way Steve’s eyes crinkle at the corners now, at the skin of his cheek roughened from sun exposure, at how gracefully youth has seceded to adulthood. It’s startling how much he yearns to have this again with this new Steve, but that desire is quieter and steadier than it was five years ago. It suits the people they’ve become.
"I’m Bucky. It’s nice to meet you," he says. "And coffee sounds great."
Steve grins, glances at the latte he’s still holding, waggles an eyebrow at Bucky before tipping it into the rain gutter. "Looks like I’ve run out already."
"I’ll buy you more."
They duck back into the cafe together, their hands brushing against each other. Their first date in high school, they went to the bowling alley and kissed behind the arcade. Their second first date, they’ll maybe just sit and talk. Relearn each other. Crack open old hurts and stitch the wounds into something that will one day heal. It won’t be easy, but these things never are. It’s worth doing anyway.
Steve glances back at Bucky once again, a lilting smile that he’s never seen before on his face. And Bucky thinks that the second time he says, "I’d give you the world if I could," it won’t be a goodbye.