Natasha stood triumphant, one hand on her hip and the other held out to Steve.
“That’ll be five bucks.”
“Like hell,” Steve replied, declining her assistance and pushing himself to his feet in what he decided was a very impressive maneuver.
It was about the only chance he had of regaining his dignity, considering she’d knocked him on his ass ten seconds earlier, having disarmed him with no more than a question.
“You showboating son of a gun,” she grinned. “You lose. Five bucks.”
“How’s it losing when you cheated?”
“How’s it cheating when I’m only taking advantage of an opportunity?”
Steve scoffed and walked to one of the padded benches lining the walls of the sparring space, where he grabbed his half-full water bottle and tossed hers over. Because he was a good friend, in spite of the trials he suffered. “That’s a low blow, Romanov. What I do in my spare time continues to be none of your business.”
“Aw, Steve,” she grinned, swigging from the bottle. “That’d only be true if you did anything in your spare time.”
“I do things!”
“I…” The fact that ‘eating’ and ‘training’ were the only two things springing to mind was somewhat telling, and he scowled. “Like you’re any better.”
“I am better,” she shrugged. “I have Sam.”
“Sam’s not a hobby.”
“Depends on your definition of a hobby,” she said primly, capping her water and shrugging. “But also, I have a book club.”
“You absolutely do not.”
“I absolutely do.”
“Pepper,” she said quickly. (A bit too quickly, in Steve’s opinion.) “And May Parker. And Lillian from accounting.”
“Lillian from accounting,” he said flatly, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Yup. We’re reading something called Wild, which is just...excellent.”
“What’s it about?”
“I’m not telling you. You're not in our book club."
“Believe me or don’t—we’re getting together today to discuss it, actually. Lillian’s bringing brie.”
“You’re full of shit, Nat.”
With Natasha, it was hard to say. But after six-ish years of close friendship, Steve was relatively confident he had at least some of her tells down. “Yes,” he said, with as much certainty as he could muster.
“Huh. Interesting. Where’s my money, by the way?”
“I’m not carrying cash.”
“Now who’s lying? I happen to know you keep an emergency twenty in your pocket, next to the butterscotches for the grandkids.”
Steve glowered. “It’s for emergencies.”
“Tell you what, then,” she replied. “Double or nothing. I prove book club’s real, you owe me ten. I’m lying, I owe you.”
“Want to go zero for three and see who’s faster to the elevator?”
Natasha was the most competitive person Steve had ever met, save for (maybe) himself. Which made it all the more annoying when she won.
She was not, however, wrong about everything. Take his personal life, which he definitely wasn’t thinking about as he rode the elevator to his floor. It was a stupid thing to worry about, considering who he was. Where he lived. What he did for a living.
Because who the hell had time to cultivate a hobby when there was always another lunatic attempting to infiltrate the city, or blow up Boston, or annihilate Asgard? The longer he lived in the future, the more Steve was convinced the universe was playing some cosmic joke on him. Like the previous week, when some idiot calling himself The Kangaroo had shown up holding a grudge against Peter Parker, who was never gonna live that one down if Steve could help it.
Join the Avengers, kid! Got a shiny new suit for you, kid! We’ll train you up and set you straight!
So, really? The Kangaroo? Whatever Peter had done to piss that bouncing bastard off had hardly been worth the effort it took to contain him. But Steve and the rest of the team had shown up to do the job anyway.
Which was fine—he was glad they’d assisted for the jokes alone. Still, things hadn’t been properly apocalyptic for a while. Not since Ultron and Sokovia and Tony’s piss-poor choices. But hey, they could forgive him for the fuck-up considering that Pietro was pretty fast and Wanda was wonderful. The twins had adapted nicely to life in the tower, with both of them taking classes at Columbia alongside Peter by day, and assembling to avenge when the occasion called for it.
Granted, if the twins could go to classes, and Peter could hold down a double major and a secret identity, Steve didn’t have as much of a reason as he liked to believe for avoiding the world outside the tower. He’d been back in that world for over a half-decade now, yet the life he’d carved out wasn’t necessarily living. And that was fine—he had responsibilities. Teammates. Hell, he had friends. He just didn’t have much outside of those things, and he had nobody to blame for that but himself.
There had been a brief period where he’d tried. Gone to a bar and attempted to meet new people—to make a friend the way he’d met Sam, by being himself.
Turned out, Sam was special, and Steve’s little outing had caused what Angelica on the PR team referred to as a “small riot in Chelsea.”
Steve had stopped trying after that.
The elevator doors slid open, and he walked into his quarters—a sunny, expensive-looking suite of rooms, decorated like something out of a high-class hotel. Steve preferred the new decor to Tony and Pepper's disastrous first attempt at making him feel at home, which had involved emulating the style of the period he'd left behind. They'd done it out of kindness, but the furnishings had made him think of what he might have bought for himself in his tiny tenement if he'd had the money or the time. Steve hadn't asked for much since rejoining the world, but he'd discreetly gone to Pepper about that. There was no use dwelling in the past, mourning what was dead and gone. Not in armchairs and armoires, at any rate.
The new style she’d tasked someone with selecting was devoid of personality. It was a place to go at the end of the day; home enough without being homey.
His stomach growled, and he headed towards the kitchen, which was open to the rest of the space, save for a tiny partition that hid the cooktop and the sink. Open-concept, he’d learned, was all the rage. He hated it; what was the appeal of having people over for dinner if they could see the dirty dishes stacked in the sink?
On the other hand, he never did have people over for dinner, so it was a bit of a moot point.
Opening the fridge, he considered his options. There were vegetables—enough for soup, maybe, if he wanted to go that route. Chicken, too. Probably rice in the cabinets. He could make an effort, and part of him thought he ought to cobble something together, but he’d never enjoyed cooking, even if he was perfectly capable of feeding himself. Most days, he ordered takeout or ate with the team. Easier to do that than live with the memory of his mother’s culinary disasters, passed down to him in his undersalted soups and bland boiled vegetables. Sarah Rogers had hated to waste a scrap, but she’d also never gotten much pleasure out of the act of cooking. Long shifts and a sick child would do that to any parent.
Grandiose soup plans abandoned, he crossed to the pull-out pantry and found a half full industrial-sized jar of peanut butter along with a bottle of raw honey. What differentiated raw from regular honey, he didn’t know, but so long as it tasted the same, he also didn’t care.
Using a spoon to mix the two together, he stretched out on the sofa with his version of comfort food. Who needed bread?
By the time he was halfway through the jar, however, he'd decided he didn't care for peanuts anymore. Which didn't mean he was going to stop, he just wasn’t enjoying himself. Calories were more important than quality when it came to his metabolism.
As he spooned another mouthful of the sticky gloop into his face, his phone dinged with a new text, and he reached out for the device.
“Damn it,” he swore upon seeing the screen, both because he’d gotten peanut butter on the glass, and because he’d just lost ten dollars.
The message was from Natasha, and included a picture of her, Pepper, May Parker, and Lillian from accounting, sitting around one of the patio tables on the rooftop deck with a bottle of wine and four copies of Wild on the table in front of them.
Suck it, Rogers. $10.
Ever succinct, that was Natasha.
Steve rolled his eyes and fired off a response of “yeet" before going back to his peanut butter, knowing he was misusing the expression, and that it would bother Natasha more than she cared to admit. Peter Parker, as it turned out, was useful beyond bringing a repertoire of genuinely ridiculous villains into Steve's life.
It took him another twenty minutes to reach the bottom of the jar, and by the time he was scraping the spoon across the plastic ridges, his stomach hurt and he’d begun worrying whether or not it was possible to die of peanut butter poisoning. Groaning, he turned onto his side and closed his eyes for a minute, his so-called lunch settling like lead in his gut.
“Masochist,” he muttered to himself. He should have ordered out.
The soporific combination of too much, too fast, and too fatty put him to sleep within a couple minutes, and when he woke, dry-mouthed and grumpy, the first thing his eyes caught on was the easel set up in front of the big bank of windows that looked out onto the city. Yet another example of how there was no way in hell he could have a social life, considering he could barely work up the motivation to futz with his only hobby.
Well, actually, he’d gotten frustrated and given up after making a cursory attempt at painting a still life and hadn’t bothered to take the easel down afterward. Some shitty life, still or otherwise. The fruit he’d painted looked like something out of Matisse’s worst nightmares, and it had been so long since he’d worked on it that the fruit in the bowl he’d been using as a reference had long-since turned to mush.
Steve had never been much good at improving in fits and starts, and his anger at the artwork had come from being forced to expend energy on something he hadn’t taken seriously in a long time. Shit, he’d practically felt what scant natural talent he’d ever had leeching from his bones as he sat there daubing paint on the canvas, making things worse with every stroke.
That was what bothered him most—the chafing against the limits of his God-given ability. He’d always been good with a pencil, time spent alone and indoors giving him ample opportunity to work out how to draw the fine details of a doorknob or a pitcher. Painting had been the logical progression; he’d never had the money to afford decent paints before, and now he did, so why not?
Only, talent didn't transfer neatly to a new medium, and so he'd found himself at a crossroads: either he'd have to put some effort towards improvement, or sit and stare at the mess he'd made. The latter wasn't appealing, while the former held the beginnings of an idea. Two birds with one stone, even—a social life to shut Natasha up, and the chance to learn a new skill set that had nothing to do with saving the world.
Surely there were art classes he could sign up for through one of the many colleges that populated the city? He didn't care much for the cap and gown rigamarole, but a bit of art history, or theory, or practice? That wouldn't go amiss, so long as the supervillains continued to lay low.
(Wasn’t going to tell Natasha, though. That would have been madness.)
Turned out, there were art classes aplenty, being as the fall semester was just getting started at most schools. Steve did a little digging, and two days later he found himself having a face-to-face meeting with a perfectly pleasant admissions counselor named Patsy.
(Granted, Patsy hadn’t been expecting the meeting, considering Steve had turned up at the address listed on the program’s website without an appointment, but she’d been happy to meet with him all the same.)
Patsy had cottoned on to who Steve was the moment he’d come through her door, and while Steve didn’t love being recognized, he’d learned to manage it through a series of pointed pleas from Angelica in PR.
“The classes aren’t for credit,” Patsy explained. “So if you had ah...professional obligations? That kept you away for a week or so? That would be perfectly fine.”
"It all sounds great," he said. "I guess I'm most interested in the early nineteenth-century class—that's the one at the Met, right?"
“That’s one of our most popular choices.”
“Great.” He smiled and leaned forward. “So is there an application?”
“Oh.” Patsy hesitated. “Err. Well. Our registration is completely online these days, so…”
She trailed off, sounding as awkward as anyone ever did when they were confronted with the facts of Steve's strange existence. Because obviously they did registration online; people did everything online. The ubiquity of the internet and just what it could do fascinated Steve, and he was a quick learner when it came to technology. But his default setting was always going to be to pick up the phone or to talk to someone in person. (Peter and Shuri teased him endlessly about it, but he got the sense that they thought it was somewhat endearing.)
"Right, online, of course," he chirped, covering her discomfort with his enthusiasm. "Thank you for the brochure. I'll make sure to get that registration taken care of."
“Perfect,” she said, as they rose to their feet. “It was so nice to meet you, and—” she hesitated, and Steve could practically see the gears turning in her head. The how-do-I-ask, or the I-can’t-ask, one of the two. “My son’s a huge fan,” she said, her voice only shaking a little. “Could I ask if you’d sign something for him?”
Steve didn’t mind the asks so much when they were for kids, so he signed a notecard for Patsy’s son before gathering his things and stepping out onto East 12th Street, nose buried in a brochure.
Which was how he missed the guy with the stack of books in the crook of his arm walking towards him, their bodies colliding. The books went flying, as did the fella, which was mostly the result of Steve being two hundred and thirty-seven pounds of super strength.
Erskine’s reflexes kicked into action, and Steve moved fast, catching the stranger by his left elbow, brain registering the fact that he hadn’t grabbed flesh, but an unyielding prosthetic. Whatever was holding the arm in place was strong enough to stop the fall, however, though the same couldn’t be said for the books, which scattered across the sidewalk, two of the four landing in a puddle of fetid garbage water that had been leaking from a trash bag left on the curb.
“Oh geez,” Steve said as he stood the stranger up. “I’m sorry.”
“S’okay,” came the muttered reply as the man reached up to straighten the thick-framed black glasses gone askew on his nose. Cute nose (weird thought). Cute face, in fact. Blue eyes magnified by what were very obviously prescription lenses, along with a bit of scruff and a dimpled chin and long, brown hair pulled into a messy ponytail.
The blue eyes looked tired—red-rimmed, and with enough bags beneath them to start a small airline. He had a harried, anxious way about him, reminding Steve of an animal caught in a trap, his gaze darting back and forth for a moment before locking onto Steve’s, eyes widening just barely.
The recognition was immediate. Captain America Has Knocked You On Your Ass, Citizen. Congratulations!
Steve braced himself for the reaction, hoping for something pleasant rather than panic.
Instead, the man looked down, ducking his head as he bent to start gathering his books. The non-response took him from cute to downright appealing in Steve’s esteem. And, hell, appealing merited serious consideration when it came to Steve’s track record of meeting new people.
“Let me help,” Steve offered, crouching and reaching for the garbage-water encrusted books before the stranger could, stacking them together. “Shit. I’m so sorry…”
Downright Appealing pushed his glasses up, wrinkling his nose as he did so. “G-gross,” he muttered with a slight stammer.
Passing the books over, Steve noticed the numbering on their spines, his heart sinking with the realization. “They’re library books,” he said, because stating the obvious had always been one of his talents.
“Yeah,” Downright Appealing agreed, tucking the waterlogged stack back into the crook of his prosthetic arm. The hand was a reasonable facsimile of flesh at first glance, but waxy and plastic upon closer examination. “It’s okay.”
“It’s really not,” Steve said, getting to his feet and offering him a hand, which he took after a moment’s hesitation. “I ought to have been watching.”
“I’m f-fine,” came the reply, books tugged tighter against his body as he pulled his hand away, wrapping his fingers around the strings of the dark maroon hoodie he wore.
“Let me buy you a cup of coffee?” Steve offered, taking a chance. “Something to eat?”
The man’s face paled at the request, which seemed a disproportionate reaction. Was he coming on too strong? It wasn’t like it was a date, it was only that he felt bad about what had happened. (And, alright, Downright Appealing was downright appealing, but that didn’t make him interested in men. Or interested in Steve, even if he was.)
“You d-don’t have to—”
“I want to,” he said, wheedling a bit. “There’s a sandwich spot around the corner, I think. Saw it on my way over. Your books can dry off.”
“I—” he blinked, the tips of his ears going red as he thought for a minute before nodding his head. “Okay.”
“Great!” Steve said, immediately wishing he could pull back the enthusiasm about twelve percent. “I’m Steve, by the way.”
“Bu—James,” he stammered. “Nice to meet you.”
“Sure about that?” Steve laughed. “I figure there gotta be better ways of meeting someone than getting knocked on your ass, but all right.”
The teasing got a genuine smile out of James, who shrugged. “M-maybe I’m being polite.”
“Oh, never be polite on my account,” Steve said as they started in the direction of the sandwich shop, where they found the remnants of the lunchtime crowd, though there wasn’t much of a line.
“What’re you gonna have?” Steve asked as he studied the menu board.
“C-club sandwich and fries,” James said without hesitation. Steve glanced over with a raised eyebrow, and James shrugged. “I order delivery from here.”
“So you live close?”
James nodded but didn't seem inclined to elaborate. When they stepped closer to the counter, Steve realized there was a fine sheen of sweat beading on James' forehead. Nerves—it had to be. Wasn't hot enough in there for anything else. Poor guy was obviously shy, and Steve couldn't help feeling guilty about that.
"Why don't you go grab us a table?" he said, to save him from the cashier. "I'll order for us."
Pure relief washed over James’ face as he fled towards the tables. Steve placed their order and got a number before joining him.
The books had been stacked at one end, serving as a makeshift barricade for James, who had hunched in on himself and was playing with his phone. Very shy, then. Steve wasn’t about to draw attention to that fact as he pulled out the seat across from him and put their number in the metal doohickey.
“I didn’t know what you wanted to drink,” he said, sliding a glass of water across the table. “Sorry, should have asked.”
“S’okay,” James said, turning his phone off and setting it face down. “Th-thanks.”
“Sure,” Steve said, before babbling on in an attempt to keep the conversation going. “I got the goat cheese and avocado on toast. My friend Peter says avocado toast’s gone out of style, but so long as they have it on the menu, I figured why not give it a shot?”
James blinked at him. “Do you like avocados?”
“Yeah,” Steve shrugged. “Though we didn’t get a lot of them growing up. Or, you know. Any. How about you, do you like them?”
(God. It wasn’t a date—it wasn’t a date—but that didn’t mean the awkward, stilted first date conversation couldn’t be a thing. Do you like avocados? Fuck. Fuck.)
“Uh, yeah. I used to live in C-California.”
“Are there a lot of avocados in California?”
(Steve hated himself. He really did. What a schmuck.)
A subject change was becoming sorely necessary. Steve cleared his throat. “So what brought you to New York?”
James gave him a long, measured glance before responding. “School. I was b-born in Brooklyn, but we moved to California when I was four.”
"What are you in school for?" There was no way he was an undergrad unless he'd started very late. Steve had him pegged as in his early thirties, at least.
“I’m uh, my f-field is Russian literature? But I’m working on my dissertation.”
What Steve knew about higher education could fit on the head of a pin, but he was pretty sure a dissertation had something to do with a doctorate, having listened to Bruce and Tony go on about them enough. “What’s that about?”
“My focus is on uh, the influence of medieval literature on the emergent works of seventeenth-century agrarian novels. I was g-gonna limit it to female authors, but there’s like, nothing? And I’m t-trying to keep it pre-enlightenment.”
It was the most James had said in one go since sitting down, and Steve was desperate to keep him talking, despite feeling wholly outclassed. "Sure," he agreed. "Gotta uh...wouldn't want those medieval writers getting enlightened."
He was rewarded with another genuine smile, as James shook his head. “It’s boring, I know.”
“I never said boring,” Steve replied, holding up both hands. “Just don’t know that I could hold up my end of the conversation. Hell, I barely finished high school. Everything I know about the Russkies comes from the ones I met during the war.”
The last line was a bit of a test—to see if James had definitely cottoned on to his identity, and was playing it cool, or if he had no idea, which would merit a potentially awkward conversation later.
“Too bad you missed the C-Cold War,” James said, his smile widening.
“I’ve been doing some reading on that,” Steve replied, a wave of relief washing through him.
“Is th-that why you were here?”
Steve could only assume ‘here’ meant the admissions office, and he shrugged. “Nah. I was signing up for an art class.”
“Oh.” James twisted the top of his water bottle off and took a swallow. “Why?”
“Good question,” he said. “My friend Nat’s always giving me hell about focusing too much on work. Guess I wanted to expand my horizons.”
“Haven’t decided. Hell, I don’t even know if I’ll do it. I thought I wanted to meet new people, and...I already met you.”
Was that flirting? He’d never been much of a gladiator in that particular arena.
James shrugged, a piece of hair falling from his ponytail. “Guess so,” he said, which didn’t give Steve much to go on.
“So you uh, you live around here, you said?”
“Do you like the neighborhood?”
James took a moment to push that errant piece of hair out of his eyes, tucking it behind his ear, where it fell down again a moment later. Steve wanted to lean across the table and kiss him, which was such a strange and sudden impulse that he nearly didn’t pay attention to what James was saying.
“It’s alright. F-fancier than where I grew up—we lived in Alphabet City when I was small.”
“Everything’s fancier these days,” Steve muttered. Manhattan hadn’t been where he’d spent much time in his youth, which made it easier to live in now. Being in Brooklyn only served to remind him of what he’d left behind and how much things had changed. “How long have you been back here?”
“F-few years,” he began. “Like I said, I’ve been working on my d-dissertation—”
The hairs on the back of Steve’s neck stood up at the interruption, the voice coming from behind him as its owner approached, too loud by half and crossing the room at a rapid clip. He knew that voice. Or, well, he knew that sort of voice. It was the voice of someone who had spotted someone famous in public and was about to be a pain in the ass about a selfie or a story to sell. There were other voices—hesitant and apologetic and nervous—and he could deal with those because they didn’t feel as though they were owed anything. This voice, though? This voice thought it was entitled to his time and his attention and fuck, he’d just wanted to have lunch.
Thinking of Angelica and the PR team, he forced a smile onto his face and turned his head. "Hi, there—" he began, only to be cut off at the knees.
“Shit,” the guy grinned, looking not at Steve but at James, who had gone stock still, his cheeks pale and his eyes fixed on the table. “Shit, are you Bucky Barnes?”
James shook his head, and Steve could feel the vibrations of his foot tapping nervously against the floor beneath them.
“I’m not—” he began, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Oh damn, you totally are!” the guy laughed, speaking right over him before waving to the three other men he’d been dining with. “I told you guys it was him!”
The other patrons in the restaurant had begun to look up with interest, drawn to the spectacle. Steve had never been so confused in his life, which was saying something, considering the Kangaroo.
“Hey, can we get a picture?” the guy asked, as his friends made their way over.
James, who looked as though he wanted to sink through the floor, shook his head imperceptibly. The gesture was ignored by the interloper, who continued to ramble. “Oh man, I freakin’ love you. Bucky Barnes! Can you say the thing?”
Another shake of the head, and though it had only been a few seconds, Steve already felt terrible for not stepping in sooner.
“Hey, fellas,” he said, putting on his best Captain America voice (which drove his teammates nuts, but had its uses). “Come on, we’re trying to eat here—”
“Oh my fucking God!” exclaimed another one. “You’re Captain America! Dude, Captain America hangs out with Bucky Barnes!”
All four of them were crowding around the table now, more focused on Steve than on James, which gave James the opportunity he’d apparently been waiting for. He bolted from the table, scooting around the assembled idiots, and Steve hadn’t seen anyone move that fast since Pietro had stolen a Widow’s Bite on a dare.
“James—!” Steve began. His first instinct was to chase after him, but logic dictated that if he did that, the assholes with cameras might follow, creating a worse situation for the both of them.
So, assholes first. Then James.
To deal with said assholes, there were two options: take the picture, or yell at them. Thinking once more of Angelica and her sanity, Steve took the picture with as much grace as he could muster (read: none) and bolted out the door with James’ books and cell phone, which had been left behind when he made his escape.
No more than thirty seconds had elapsed since James had run, yet when Steve hit the sidewalk and looked around, he was nowhere to be found.
Which made some goddamn sense, considering he’d said he lived around there. It would have been easy enough for him to disappear inside his building or down an alley.
Damn it to hell.
Steve had his phone, though, and that was something. James would be looking for it if he was anything like everyone else in this century.
One phone, four books, and a burning question.
Thirty minutes later, Steve was back at home in the tower with his laptop open, the question typed into the search bar.
Who is Bucky Barnes?