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How to Pet a Cactus

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It started with an alarm, red flashing lights that immediately pulled Steve and Tony from their conversation.

As par for the course, the change in lighting was not unexpected nor was it unfamiliar. Living in the Tower meant that Steve was always around when duty called, always close by when needed.

And, lately, he’d been needed a lot.

A lot had happened over the last two years. Aliens had attacked the city. Then, more recently, the helicarriers crashed into the water (which, honestly, was a little too similar to crashing into the water 70 some odd years ago). The helicarrier crash happened as a result as SHIELD being infiltrated by Hydra. All these things considered, the Avengers had been busy.

This, of course, didn't even mention Steve’s thawing two years ago (as he’d come to refer to it).

Steve didn’t mind living in the Tower, with the world being so much different than he once knew, there was a certain amount of comfort he could glean from living amongst his friends.

It was nice to be with those who cared about him; though it did make him nostalgic for before when he’d lived with someone who had always cared about him, even before the war and the serum.

Steve liked being Captain America, he liked saving the world, and he liked the people he spent the most time with, his Team who had become his family.

“J?” Tony questioned, jumping up from his seat only a few seconds behind Steve.

“Response is needed in the Tower Lobby -“

Steve didn’t bother to hear the rest of Jarvis’ report. He grabbed his shield from where it rested next to the front door, and rushed out of the Common Room. He threw himself into the stairwell, denting the door as he yanked it open. The elevator would be too slow, so he jumped over the guardrail to skip the first few flights of stairs.

If there was trouble in the lobby…

He shook his head once to clear that idea, he couldn’t think like that.

People worked here, people who expected to be safe and taken care of. Luckily, on a Saturday, fewer Stark employees would be milling around the lobby compared to a traditional work day, but that said nothing for Alex who worked the reception desk, or Kiera, his favorite barista from the Starbucks on the south end of the building.

He frowned as he couldn’t remember if the florist in the lobby was open. He’d never actually set foot in the storefront and cursed himself for not being aware of its hours.

Steve’s heart raced as he mentally reviewed the entrances and exits and considered how to get everyone to safety.

Hoping for as little danger as possible, he raced to get down there to see what he was dealing with. The elevators were controlled by Jarvis and locked down in the event of emergency, but the Avengers (and Pepper, of course) had the ability to override the emergency protocol.

It was hard to make a plan while sailing over a railing in a stairwell with 30 more flights to go, and while having no idea what he was walking into, but Steve did the best he could.

If the south side was safe, he’d clear that first. Get everyone from Starbucks either outside to safety or in the elevator and taken to a secure floor. The quadruple paned, bulletproof glass had one weak spot, specifically sized to the edge of Steve’s shield, in case he had to break a window to get people out. That was another option.

Twenty more flights.

The reception desk was on the west corner, facing the front doors. Since the walls, with the exception of that one pane of glass, were designed to be impenetrable, that meant the threat had to have entered through the front door.

Ten more. So close.

Steve landed with a gracefulness he’d become accustomed to as he took the last ten floors with a single jump. Though his shield had been close at hand, without his uniform, he was without its harness. Unable to attach it to his back, his left arm stayed fitted in the straps, and he held it in front of his body with an ease that only came from years of practice.

Shield up and shoulders squared in less than a second, he pulled open the door to the stairwell and rushed into the lobby.

Steve gritted his teeth as he was met with silence, followed by surprise. Jarvis would never lie about an emergency. He stood up fully, slowly coming out of his crouch as he surveyed the lobby. The gray colored granite was as meticulously maintained as ever, and the bright sun from outside gleamed in stripes across the floor.

He narrowed his eyes as he looked intently at Starbucks, and could see Kiera standing behind the counter. For all intents and purposes, the coffee shop seemed nearly empty. The two patrons inside were drinking coffee and did not register as a threat.

Despite the appearance of normalcy, Steve refused to let his guard down.

Or his shield.

Alex was at the reception desk, comfortably in a chair with a crossword in his lap. The two security guards sitting behind him in the reception area had their eyes trained on the security monitors displayed in front of them.

Just because Steve didn’t immediately see a threat, didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Alex looked up and clearly saw Steve; he even waved cheerfully which Steve returned with a nod. If Alex wasn’t alarmed, there was a chance the threat hadn’t entered through the front door, and the mere idea of that made Steve feel queasy. It’d been a long time since the War, and he would never like the idea of fighting an enemy you couldn’t see.

Steve held his shield high, and crept slowly around the elevator banks. The back corner of the lobby had been the only area in his blind spot, and he had a bad feeling about it.

Though the lobby of the Tower was a huge, sprawling space, the open floor plan made it easy to see everything: the front doors, reception area, ostentatious fountain in the center, coffee shop and tables littered outside the shop but strategically placed around the lobby.

The stairwell butted up to the elevator banks, of which there were several. The majority were divided to take employees to their work stations, but there was one that went directly to Tony’s office, and a second that gave full Tower access including the living spaces; that one was only available to The Avengers and anyone Tony gave access to, like Pepper and Maria.

The only problem was that the elevator banks were huge blind spots wrapped in brushed granite.

Steve hefted his shield up once more, and creeped around the bank closest to the end.

It was then that the world seemed to tilt slowly and the air seemed to thicken like he was underwater. Steve found himself experiencing a strange mix of symptoms he hadn’t felt in over 70 years.

Aside from the vertigo that made his body feel sideways and his stomach upside down, he had to suck hard to get air into his lungs, feeling breathless in a way he hadn’t since an asthma attack in the 40s. He’d barely remembered that feeling until this moment and now it barely registered.

Bucky.

He opened his mouth to say the word, and even wrapped his lips around it, but no sound escaped him.

On one hand, he knew it couldn’t be. It had been nine months since the helicarrier fell, the better part of a year.

The last time he had seen Bucky, he’d been pulling Steve out of the Potomac and leaving him for dead in the mud of the riverbank. It was more than a bit fuzzy, and Steve could barely make out the form of his old friend as he’d faded in and out of consciousness, but he’d never doubted that Bucky had saved him.

Because Bucky knew him. He’d been sure of it.

Steve sucked in a gasp as he straightened out of his crouch. The noise of surprise he’d made couldn’t have gone unheard but Bucky didn’t move.

Bucky, well…

Frankly, he didn’t look good, and it made Steve’s chest ache.

Bucky was hunched over, his back against the wall, looking through the glass window into the florist shop. It was closed today, and though the doors were locked and the lights were off, Bucky seemed to be staring at the window display.

He was wearing a long-sleeved Henley shirt with frayed cuffs that looked like it may have been red at some point, but was dirty and stained. There was a rip along the left sleeve, and Steve could easily make out the metallic sheen beneath it. There were two straps parallel to his chest, signifying that he had a backpack strapped on to his back which was no doubt sandwiched between his body and the wall behind him.

Bucky’s jeans looked much too big on him. His hair was particularly dirty, stringy and lifeless from where it stuck out from the black baseball cap that Bucky had pulled low over his face. Steve could still see his face though, and he was no longer sure if Bucky was looking at the display. His friend’s eyes were glassy, unfocused, and he looked lost with uncomfortably dark purple smudges under his eyes. He was cradling his left arm closely in front of his chest, his body half folded over it, which made Steve ache at the thought of Bucky being hurt.

Steve was prepared to give anything to see Bucky again after the Helicarrier, but he hadn’t wanted it to be like this, with Bucky looking so awful.

(And also like the best thing he’d ever seen in his life.)

At that moment, Tony approached Steve from the side, surprisingly dressed down.

“Steve,” Tony intoned quietly, placing a hand gently on Steve’s forearm where he’d still been holding up the shield as he’d been too frozen in shock to move. “We never removed emergency protocols for the Winter Soldier, which is why the alarm went off.”

Steve nodded once, his mouth dry. That made sense. Between Fury being shot, chasing after The Soldier, learning it was Bucky, and crashing into the Potomac, they’d been busy. Steve had been in the hospital for a week before he’d returned home, and he was pretty sure editing previous emergency protocols had been the last thing on anyone’s mind.

“After you’d ran out, Jarvis explained,” Tony’s free hand very subtly gestured in Bucky’s direction, “this.”

Steve noticed that the hand on his arm was not only squeezing him reassuringly but also forcing his arm down. Steve shook his head once to clear it and dropped his arm, removing his shield and setting it down so that it rested against the wall.

“You okay?” Tony asked with clear concern and despite everything, despite the worry and the anxiety and the fear, Steve’s heart warmed. The Avengers really were the big family he’d never had.

“Yeah,” He croaked out, himself being the last person he was worrying about.

Tony gave him a small nod and stepped back a foot, giving Steve space but still there to support him if needed.

See, after the ice, Steve had wonderful people in his life, but someone had always been missing.

Until now.

It took him a moment to gather his courage. He’d been hoping for this, for Bucky, for so long, yet now he was completely unprepared as how to handle it. For someone with a reputation of having a plan for anything, the feeling caught him off guard and left him unbalanced.

He just… Steve couldn’t risk losing Bucky again.

“Bucky,” he said, earnest voice cracking, much too loud for the quiet of the lobby, “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Bucky finally looked up, as if registering Steve for the first time. His eyes strayed warily to Tony before returning to Steve. Though his gaze still seemed unfocused, Steve didn’t care. Steve sucked in a deep breath because Bucky’s attention on him had always been the only thing he’d needed.

Steve’s heart thumped loudly in his chest, anticipation making his fingers twitch.

“Bucky,” he started again, swallowing down the rush of emotion threatening to overtake him at the feeling of a name so familiar on his lips, his voice gentle and surprisingly breakable. “Welcome home, buddy.”

Bucky straightened his body, now only partially hunched over rather than nearly curled in on himself.

As Bucky settled into a semi-comfortable standing position, pulling himself from the wall, Steve noticed that Bucky hadn’t been cradling an injured arm to his body.

There, against Bucky’s chest, comfortably resting in the crook of his elbow being held up by his left arm was a small cactus, proudly standing tall from where it rested in a nondescript terra-cotta pot.