The diner has the atmosphere of a space station on the moon at three a.m. Almost no one comes in and those that do speak in hushed tones, either because they are tired or because the kind of customers that come in between midnight and dawn are often either having an affair or setting up a hit or because there is an unspoken need for delicacy at such a touch-and-go hour.
Steve has worked there four months and can say with confidence he'll never get used to the surreality of serving someone their eggs and bacon while he's dreaming on his feet. A woman in scrubs might ask for coffee but it's the duck printed on her shirt doing the talking. A pair of construction workers ask him to marry them and he says "Sure, coming right up."
"Well, Steve," Sam and Natasha and his mother's voices ring out in the back of his head, "Maybe you should pull less all-nighters so that you'll have energy to work the night shift and work on your art too."
But he hasn't been able to sleep. He's never been superstitious, and his mother only had been reluctantly, but her talk of signs and visions had stuck with him as a child and never completely left, and now they ring true. He feels a greater force hurtling towards him and he must remain awake to meet it or he will miss it like a child who wanted to stay up to ring in the new year but couldn't manage to keep his eyes open.
In short, he's been frantically working on his painting, sure he's close to a breakthrough of genius that only happens to certain people every few decades. It's not for love or money; it's more complicated than that. It's the need to purge the tangle of emotions inside him into color, into something external that can become someone else's problem, or salvation, or brief passing conversation at dinner.
"Did you see that painting of the . . ." they might say over their vegan lasagna.
"Oh yeah, the one by the little blonde asshole," another might reply. "The one with the big bags under his eyes and the ugly-ass nose."
"That one," the first will say, pointing a forkful of vegan lasagna at their companion.
Steve couldn't give a fuck about the reception, he just wants his art to be . . . art. Nothing satisfies him, nothing is right. He doesn't need it to be Van Gogh or Vermeer or Caravaggio, he needs it to be Steve Rogers and everything on his canvass is coming out Halfassed Insomniac Dipshit. The yellowish skyline looks like dirty dishwater and the light overlooking the East River resembles the buzzing fluorescents in the men's' room and the grass could be the threadbare placemat in front of the door.
So he's thinking of paint and lighting and how perhaps the building has really been launched into space when no one was paying attention when the bell finally rings over the door.
"We got a live one," Belle calls from the kitchen.
The man wears a leather jacket and a ballcap pulled low over his face and his dark unwashed hair brushes his broad shoulders. He shuffles his feet and looks seconds from bolting.
"Hey, just one?" Steve asks dutifully.
The man jerks his chin once.
"Cool, this way."
Steve leads him to a table in the corner and asks him what he wants to drink.
"Water," he says in a soft, hoarse voice.
"Coming right up. Take a look at this," he says, handing him a menu, taking note of his leather gloves, "and I'll be right back with your drink."
When he returns with the glass of ice water, the man is studying the menu so intently he doesn't look up. In some people it might come off as rude but by the twitch in his jaw and his roving eyes, the man is truly in deep thought.
Steve clears his throat after a beat. "Need a minute?"
The man nods again without looking up.
"Take your time."
Steve fucks off back to the kitchen and chats with Belle and Joe for a few minutes, Joe mostly in grunts. Their daughter is pregnant again, with twins, again. She's already saving to buy them matching cribs. Joe wants to get them a flat screen TV "for the Giants games." For when they stay at Gram and Gramps', of course.
When Steve returns to the lone diner, he's still reading the menu, now holding it over his face.
"Know what you want, buddy?"
Slowly, the man lays the menu down and looks up at him with the most lost, raw look he's ever seen on a grown man.
"I don't know," he says quietly.
"Hey, that's okay," Steve says, mildly floored. No one has ever looked at him like that before, and one doesn't expect such a disproportionate reaction at all when asking a stranger what they want to eat. "I'll give you as long as you need to decide, just wave me over when you – "
"I," the guy interrupts, then pauses, mouthing twisting. "I, ah, don't think I'm going to decide."
"Oh?" Then, realizing that the man is not just fucking with him and actually wants to order but simply can't make up his mind: "Oh, okay. Can never go wrong with eggs and toast, unless you have allergies?"
The man shakes his head, gaze fixed on the tabletop.
"Hey, don't worry about it. Eggs and toast sound good?"
"I didn't always need someone to tell me what to eat, okay?" The man huffs what sounds like a laugh, scrubbing a hand over his face, incidentally pushing back the hat. "God, I'm fuckin' pathetic."
"Hey, none of that. I already told you what you're having," Steve says. "You're having eggs, scrambled, and toast, rye, right? That wasn't so hard. There's no problem here."
The man looks at him in surprise, like he was really noticing him for the first time, or like he'd been expecting him to mock him for having trouble. Holding eye contact, he nods.
"Good. I'll go put that in."
Steve walks away and feels the man's eyes on his back until the door swings shut behind him.
Fifteen minutes later Steve delivers his food.
"Thanks," the man says. "Sorry about losing it before. It's, uh, it's kind of a bad night."
"It's no problem at all. You ever come by this way again, ask for Steve. I'll order you a hamburger with all the fixings next time."
The man stares, then laughs, a startled sound. "That sounds alright to me."
"Alright," Steve says, giving him a warm smile before leaving him to eat.
He must inhale it, because when he comes back out into the dining area there are only crumbs on the plate, the money for the meal and a twenty for Steve.
Steve realizes he hadn't felt asleep once since the man had walked through the door.
A couple weeks pass and Steve doesn't think about the man from the diner. He does think about the bills piling up, thinks about them until they appear in his half-awake dreams. His electric bill chases him through the kitchen and he weaves his way desperately between the stove and the fryer, a pile of unwashed plates held above his head.
"Something's got to be done about that boy," Belle mutters, and in his fevered mind he sees the words printed in red above a six-figure sum that flies from the paper and loops around his neck like a noose.
He still hasn't finished paying off his mother's funeral costs or the two years-worth of art school debt – he can't even think about it. He's whittled his groceries down to bread and cans of soup, sometimes peanut butter if he's feeling decadent. It's only a matter of time before he'll be evicted from his crappy roach-infested apartment, and beyond that? He has no idea what he's going to do.
Half past one on Thursday the diner is incredibly slow, and he's contemplating sneaking between Joe's legs and curling up beneath the sink for a two minute or two-day nap when the bell rings over the door and the man in the ballcap walks in. He doesn't look ready to flee this time; when he sees Steve, he smiles broadly.
"A hamburger with all the fixings is in order, I think," he says as Steve leads him to the same vacant table as before.
"Good choice," Steve says, smiling at him over his shoulder. "Water again?"
Steve returns with his drink and the man glances at him from beneath the brim of his hat, quickly looking away again.
A while later, Steve is setting the plate of food in front of him.
"Enjoy. And hey, you ever need someone to tell you what type of carbs you're gonna have for breakfast, you know where to go. I mean it."
The man studies him a minute, wary gray eyes scanning his face. Steve wonders if he found what he was looking for when he says, "Got another favor to ask." The man gestures at the empty seat. "Could you sit with me a minute?"
Steve's eyebrows rise. It hadn't been the request he'd been expecting, or would have if he'd been expecting anything.
"Sure," he says quickly, sliding into the opposite booth. There isn't anything else to do until another customer comes in and Joe and Belle have the kitchen more than covered now that the food is fixed. He's their best (and only reliable) worker so they wouldn't bat an eye at him taking a break for a minute.
The man doesn't say anything straight away, just strips off his leather gloves and starts in on his burger. Steve thinks he might be working up to what he wants to say, maybe another shamefaced apology, or maybe the guy's just lonely. He takes the opportunity to study him.
Steve tried not to notice it the first night, but he's disgustingly attractive, in the way that sends a jolt to his gut every time their eyes meet, unsteadies his breathing as effectively as a chop to the throat or an oncoming asthma attack and – Sweet Jesus, Rogers, get it together, he tells himself sternly, We've met twice. Briefly. You don't even know his name.
This close, he's shocked to realize how young he is. Two or three years older than him, if that. Even more shocking is his left hand.
Steve is no stranger to prosthetics. He'd graduated high school with a boy with a prosthetic leg, and his first girlfriend's younger brother had had an arm that he liked to unhook at the elbow under his sleeve so that people who didn't know would pull it off when they went to shake. That had been a memorable first impression.
But never in his life has he seen prosthetic fingers curl around a glass or stretch to grab a bottle of ketchup, making a soft, barely audible whir as the joints moved and flexed fluidly.
"Like Luke Skywalker," he breathes involuntarily, immediately wishing he was dead.
The man grunts, but his lips quirk up at the corners. "Yeah, totally Star Wars, right?" He wriggles his fingers for Steve's benefit; they bend and twist like organic fingers would. "Lost it in a card game."
"Must've been a bad hand," Steve blurts.
The man grins at him.
Steve's about to beg for forgiveness and offer his permission for the guy to drag him out back and punch his teeth in with his super cool hand when his stomach emits the loudest growl he's ever heard in his life.
Joe actually opens the slot to the kitchen and sticks his gray head out. "What's all that noise?"
"Dump truck," Steve says miserably at the same time as the man says, "Hey, is it alright if I get another order of this?"
Joe makes the OK sign and disappears.
"First thing most people say is how sorry they are," the man says with a grimace. "If they say anything at all. Some just stare, like I've got two heads or something."
"Sorry if I made it weird. I just think it's cool, man, you're a fucking cyborg."
The man's smile returns, delighted. With the shaggy hair and the faded Yankees cap, he could be a movie star in disguise. "Mad scientist owed me a favor."
Joe shuffles out with a plate and sets it beside the man's.
"For him," the man says, gesturing to Steve.
"Here ya go, ya fuckin' bum," Joe says affectionately without missing a beat. He practically ruffles Steve's hair. "Enjoy the fruits of my labor."
"Thank you so much, Joe," Steve says, giving him the eye as Joe chuckles and goes back to the kitchen. "That's real nice of you," he tells the man, "but I can't pay for this."
"Who said anything about you paying?"
Steve starts to protest, horrified at the thought of the man taking pity on him, but the smell of juicy burger and onion is monopolizing his biological senses. He's prideful, but he's only human.
"You don't have to," he says, and it's weak, he knows it's weak, because he hasn't eaten since the morning before and that had just been a bag of chips, but he can't let it go just like that. "You should let me box it up and you can save it for later."
"Or you can stop salivating and dig in. It's none of my business, but you look exhausted. Meal might help."
Steve wants to keep fighting, it's in his nature, but it's true. He is exhausted, and he's hungry, and to be honest, he just wants to have something good happen for once and not put too much thought into it.
"Thanks," he says faintly. "Really, I can pay you back - "
"Nah. Eat your food, Steve."
That electric jolts hits him at that melodious voice saying his name, shooting warmth through him like sunlight. "It seems like we're at a disadvantage." He waves a hand at himself. "Steve, Steve Rogers."
"Barnes," says the man, deepening his voice. "James Barnes."
"You use that a lot, huh?" Steve smiles and gives in, taking a huge bite of the burger. "Oh my god that's good," he sighs.
"If you finish that and still want more," James says, leaning forward, "don't be shy. I'll get you anything you want. If you have to go back to work, you can save it for when you have time."
"Careful there, you're gonna spoil me."
"That wouldn't be so bad, would it?"
Steve has to smile, and hope to God the blush he feels on his cheeks isn't glaringly apparent.
He starts eating in earnest, telling himself it's because he wants to be done before someone else comes in, but truthfully it's because he's even hungrier than he'd realized.
"I don't eat out a lot, if it wasn't obvious the last time," James says over picking at his fries. Steve thinks dirty thoughts and mentally chastises himself like a 19th century school teacher, a ruler cracking across both knuckles. "Wouldn't have the other night, but uh. Was out of food and this was on my way to the store. Didn't know how bad my, ah, problem was and thought it might be easier." He looks up at Steve and gives him that almost shy smile again. "I'm glad I did, though."
"I'm glad you did too," Steve says teasingly, "or else my stomach would still sound like a chainsaw."
James's smile is beautiful, and infectious. "You're kind of an asshole, you know? And I don't have enough assholes in my life. This was fate."
The bell over the door rings before Steve can reply and a big group of people crowds in.
"That's my cue," Steve says, standing. "Come in and buy me dinner anytime you want," he jokes.
"I just might," James calls after him.
By the time he's served the group their drinks and taken their orders, James is gone again. The correct amount for both their meals is on the table.
So is a hundred-dollar bill.
Steve gapes at it for a good thirty seconds, heat again flaring in his cheeks. If this handsome, charming, by turns endearingly bashful and refreshingly forward fucker thinks he can just come in here and buy him food and give him money and he'll just roll over and do tricks –
His stomach rumbles again.
The burger and fries long gone and shift over, he breaks the hundred and buys himself French toast and an omelet and a large milkshake and feels full for the first time in months. When he gets home, instead of throwing himself into his work until he wakes with his face in the paint like he usually does, he throws himself into bed and goes to sleep.