Dinner was a quiet affair. Conversation had temporarily sparked to life, before sputtering out again like a dying candle. The only sounds that came from their table were the high-pitched squeaks of cutlery against ceramic plates. Stephanie, one of the many friends Natasha had dredged up for Steve to date, sawed at her chicken with the intensity of a bone surgeon, eyebrows furrowed and lips knotted at the corners.
Steve dropped his eyes to his own plate, resigned. Well, this was it. He was intimately familiar with that look. It was the look of someone who had signed up for Captain America and had gotten—Steve.
As if following a script, Stephanie puffed out a sigh and deliberately set her knife and fork down.
“Chicken not good?” Steve asked, then winced slightly at himself. Steven Grant Rogers, stunning the ladies with his conversation skills since 1939.
Stephanie smiled at him, a tight thing that fizzled into a frown. “Listen, Steve—”
And here we go. The ‘it’s not me, it’s definitely you,’ break up speech. At least he knew it wasn’t about his looks this time. No, now it was about his personality, which was—god, just so much worse.
“You’re a nice enough guy. You’re just a little—um.” Stephanie faltered, scanning the room like it could provide her with the right adjective.
“Boring,” Steve supplied.
“Yes!” Stephanie grimaced a little. “Wait, no. I mean—I just thought you would be more—adventurous. And, I mean, you’re kind of, uh—have you ever heard of Eeyore?”
Steve narrowed his eyes at her. Was she really comparing him to a depressed donkey? “Yes.”
“Winnie the Pooh is that old, huh?” Stephanie muttered to herself. She smiled at him, brilliant white teeth against red lips. “Anyway—Stephanie and Steven? That’s a little too white picket fence, don’t you think?”
Never again would Steve let Natasha set him up on a date. “Right.”
Stephanie unhooked her purse from the back of her chair and got to her feet. “I’ll just Venmo you for the meal, okay?”
Steve had no idea what Venmo was, but he would give his left arm if it meant getting out of this horrible date any faster. He could take care of the stupid bill. “Right,” he said, again.
For a moment, Stephanie looked like she was going to kiss his forehead—and Steve would probably flip the table if she did—before she smiled in a woeful sort of way and strode out of the restaurant, leaving behind the shattered remains of Steve’s self-esteem and half of her chicken scarpariello.
And that, as they said, was that. It wasn’t like this was the first time he’d been dumped for not being “Captain America” enough. The problem was, everyone looked at Captain America and expected—well, if Steve knew what they expected, he probably wouldn’t be so boring. Did they think he would, what, whisk them off in a quinjet for a romantic getaway to Wakanda?
What was wrong with wanting to have a nice quiet dinner, and then maybe to go to the pictures after if time permitted? It had been good enough back in the 30s. Why did everyone want to wander or go on adventures?
Steve sighed and moodily finished his ribeye and mashed potatoes. Then he dragged Stephanie’s plate across the table and ate her chicken, too.
Clint tossed a peanut in the air and caught it with a snap of his teeth, watching the house across the street through a pair of Stark-enhanced binoculars. As they had hoped, the tracksuited gang of unspecified Eurasian origin appeared to be meeting up for some home brew and delicious borscht. All they were missing, now, was the big boss.
“Hey,” Natasha said from behind him.
“Yo,” Clint said. He held out his bag of peanuts. “Peanut?”
“I’ll take one.”
Clint lowered his binoculars. That—hadn’t been Natasha’s voice. Sure enough, it was Steve Rogers digging through his bag of peanuts like he was searching for the Cracker Jack prize.
“Cap! Hey, hello. Hi there.”
Steve lifted his eyebrows at Clint’s admittedly neurotic greeting, but was nice enough not to draw verbal attention to it. Instead, he took the binoculars and muscled Clint out of his spot, rude.
Because Clint was a good bro, he did not raise any protests about this edition of one woebegone Captain America to their stakeout. He did, however, lift an eyebrow at Natasha behind his back.
I thought this was supposed to be reconnaissance, he signed at her. What’s with the red, white, and blue?
Look at him, she signed back.
Clint looked at him. And, okay, the last time Clint had seen a mortal creature look that hang dog was after Clint had eaten the last slice of pizza in front of Lucky.
What the hell happened? Clint signed.
Natasha shrugged. He won’t say. Just showed up at my door looking like—that.
“I know you guys are talking about me behind my back,” Steve said, not lowering his binoculars. “I can see your reflection.”
Clint always admired Natasha’s calm exterior. She barely even batted an eyelash at being caught out. He, on the other hand, jumped about three feet in the air and almost pitched off the side of the roof in his guilty surprise.
“Sorry, Cap,” he said, sheepishly. “You just don’t come out for reconnaissance that often.”
“What are we looking at?” Steve asked, ignoring Clint’s apology. The harsh slant of his shoulders told Clint enough, anyway. Something bad had happened to Captain Anachronism recently, but it was clearly personal and he just as clearly didn’t want to talk about it.
“We,” Clint said, taking pity on the guy and running with his change of topic, “are monitoring a tracksuited gang of unspecified Eurasian origin.”
“The Russian mafia,” Natasha said, blandly.
“Unspecified Eurasian origin,” Clint insisted.
Steve hummed. “Well, I see someone down there, but he’s definitely not wearing a tracksuit.”
“Let me see that.” Natasha took the binoculars and peered into the next building. Then she burst into a colorful flurry of Russian.
“Natasha, language,” Steve said, scandalized.
“What did she say?” Clint demanded. That had to be one juicy speech for Steve’s face to look like that.
“The pakhan isn’t here yet, you asshole!” Natasha shouted at the man, despite them being way too far away for him to hear. She clicked her tongue. “He’s going to ruin everything.”
“Yes, but who is he?”
“He’s freelance,” Natasha gritted out, the bottom of her face twisting into a scowl as she watched the machine of death and destruction carelessly obliterate months of hard work. “Not much is known about him, except that he’s been credited with over two dozen high profile kills over the span of fifty years—for the wrong team—before he went offline in the early 2000s. He only reappeared five years ago to lay waste to several active HYDRA bases, before he started taking contracts from anyone who paid high enough. Anyone.”
“Give me those,” Clint said, taking the binoculars from Natasha.
There was a man running down the street with a—was that a machine gun? Clint zoomed in. The bottom half of his face was covered by a black mask—sort of like a muzzle, and Clint wondered if it was some sort of advanced filtration device. Long dark hair fell in a tangle to his shoulders—sloppy, anyone close enough could grab a handful and then where would he be? Clint kept warning Natasha that her pretty red hair would end in her decapitation one day, but did anyone ever listen to him? Nooo.
As if hearing his thoughts, the man stopped, turned, and looked directly up at Clint.
“Woah.” Clint stumbled back a step, his heart pounding in his throat. There was no way the dude could see him, not from this distance, but Clint still felt like he’d just been stared down by Death himself. This must have been how Frodo felt when he made eye contact with an orc for the first time: like he was two seconds away from having his jugular ripped out. Hesitantly, he brought the binoculars back up to his eyes. “Who did you say he is?”
“He,” Natasha said, icily, “is the Winter Soldier. I hope you weren’t attached to any of those men, since there won’t be much left of them after the Soldier is done.”
“I think I’m ready to date again,” Steve said.
“What,” Natasha said.
“What?” Clint said, lowering his binoculars. He blinked at the dumbstruck look on the Captain’s face, then followed his gaze to where he was staring dopily at—at the Winter fucking Soldier.
“Steve, no,” Clint groaned.
“Whatever happened to Stephanie?” Natasha asked, a little desperately. “Stephanie was nice. You and Stephanie were good together.”
“She dumped me,” Steve said easily, which, no, who dumped Captain America? “I was too boring for her.”
“Boring?” Clint choked out.
“Someone called you boring,” Natasha said, slowly, like she was trying to process. “So you want to—date the Winter Soldier?”
“I know it sounds crazy, but.” He raked his fingers through his hair and sighed noisily and with his whole body. “Have you ever looked into someone’s eyes and just—knew?”
“No,” Natasha said.
Steve considered her, then cleared his throat and said, “Right, yeah.”
“That saying usually applies to people who aren’t international assassins,” Natasha said, pointing at her chest, then giving him a thumbs down. “Which, as it turns out, also applies to the Winter Soldier.”
“Hold on, hold on,” Clint said, flailing his arms a little. “Maybe my hearing aids are acting up but—but did you just say someone dumped you because you’re boring? You’re Captain America! You—ow, Natasha, wtf?”
“First of all, never say ‘wtf’ in my presence ever again,” Natasha said, threateningly. “Second of all—”
“I’m not Captain America,” Steve said, grabbing the binoculars from Clint so that he could hide his epically broody face.
Clint looked dubiously at Steve’s uniform, and Steve must have been watching him out of the corner of his eye, because he lowered the binoculars again and glared at Clint. “I’m not always Captain America. People find Steve Rogers boring.”
“Aw, Cap, no,” Clint said, reflexively. He wasn’t so sure about this dual personality thing Steve had going on, but he supposed having to be Captain America all the time would be kind of exhausting.
“You can do so much better,” Natasha insisted, trying to take the binoculars back from Steve. He didn’t budge. “Literally anyone. That nurse you used to live down the hall from. She’s cute, and I bet she wouldn’t say no if you asked her out on a date.” She made a frustrated noise when she failed to pry Steve’s fingers from the binoculars and dropped her hands back to her sides. “Steve, you have no idea what he’s done—or what he’s willing to do. Did you miss the part where I said he was on the wrong side? Because he was. For years.”
“So were you,” Steve said, with the simple brutality of a wrecking ball. “So was I, for that matter. Sounds to me like he got himself out of it and is now trying to make amends for his past.”
Natasha went mute with silent fury, which was never a good sign. Clint didn’t blame her. The Captain had a way of taking an incredibly complex situation and way oversimplifying it.
“So—what, so you’re just down for anyone who likes to beat up Nazis?” Clint asked, voice going higher with panic, partially because Natasha was two seconds away from detonating and partially because Steve had lost his fucking mind. “Do you even like men or is it just a Nazi-punching thi—ow, Natasha. I don't have a problem with it, I'm just wondering if he's got a kink—ow!”
“Nazi-punching is a major turn on,” Steve said, flatly.
Clint made a strangled sound as a part of his childhood died a sudden and violent death.
Natasha folded her arms. “Fine. Whatever. Make terrible life choices. Don’t come crying to me when they come back to shoot you in the ass.”
In front of them, the house where the tracksuited gang of unspecified Eurasian origin had been enjoying their night of revelry abruptly went up in a huge and glorious fireball. Clint had to admit, murderous machine of destruction or no, the guy had style.
Steve didn’t have that much experience in courtship, but he had plenty of experience in watching Bucky court women. Although they never had much money to spare, Bucky always managed to scrounge up enough change to treat his dates with small gifts: a dewy bottle of Pepsi, or a cheap bouquet of white daisies.
(Sometimes, when Steve was feeling particularly self-loathing, he would remember the little gifts Bucky would get him: a peppermint from the corner store, new pencils, cough medicine, fresh bread.)
Then again, he wasn’t entirely sure how applying Bucky’s methods of romance would work with an international assassin. He had a feeling that if he approached the Soldier with a bouquet of daisies, it would end up shoved somewhere painful and deeply unpleasant.
“FRIDAY, what can you tell me about the current movements of Codename: Winter Soldier?” Steve asked from where he was sprawled out on his couch, arms tucked behind his head. He wondered what it was about him that kept falling for people who he had a snowball’s chance in hell with. First Bucky, then Peggy (although maybe under different circumstances he could have had a life with her, but, really, their relationship had been doomed from the start), and now the Winter Soldier.
“The Winter Soldier placed the equivalent of a billboard advertising his rates in the dark web three and a half days ago,” FRIDAY said. “He participated in a brief bidding war, and then was hired by a gentleman named Mikhail Mikhailov, who has some issues with the Russian mafia.”
“Can you give me his exact coordinates?”
“As it turns out, I can,” FRIDAY said, pleased. “Black Widow had requested my assistance in monitoring the mafia several weeks ago. As long as he hasn’t damaged my bugs—ah, there he is.”
Steve grinned at the ceiling. It had taken him awhile to get used to artificial intelligence—he’d always been adaptable, but living inside a semi-sentient being stretched even the modern definition of ‘normal’—but he liked FRIDAY. She reminded him of his ma—no nonsense, caustic, full of bull-headed determination. He even thought she had the capacity to be sweet, but this was likely reserved only for Pepper, and sometimes Tony.
“What do you get an international assassin as a gift?” Steve asked.
“Since I am an AI, I would get him nothing,” FRIDAY said, flatly.
“If you could.”
“I have no experience in gift giving and therefore cannot give adequate advice,” FRIDAY said. She always sounded so sarcastic. Steve was pretty sure this was by design. “Would you like me to Google it for you?”
“I know how to Google,” Steve said, offended. “I just don’t think ‘what do you gift an international assassin’ would net me useful results.”
“Well,” FRIDAY said, with the patience of a long suffering mother, “assassins like guns. Why don’t you get him a new gun?”
“I’ve sent the Winter Soldier’s coordinates to your phone,” FRIDAY said. “I strongly suggest not going to them.”
Widow: Whatever you’re thinking, stop
Widow: I reiterate, stop
Widow: The Winter Soldier does not want to be your boyfriend
Cap: That’s quitter talk
New York rush hour was a heaving mass of pedestrians versus vehicle traffic. One thing that still threw Steve for a lurch was how many more people there were on the planet. New York had already been overcrowded when he was a kid, its population increasing daily with immigrants and country-folk hopeful for work, but this shiny new century was mind boggling. Sometimes, the sidewalks were so packed that it took Steve an extra ten minutes just to get back from the coffee shop.
At this hour, it was late enough that the morning traffic had died down, but early enough that the lunch rush had not yet started. Hands in his pockets, he strolled toward the coordinates FRIDAY had sent him. He wasn’t in any hurry, since he still had no idea what to get the Soldier. He couldn’t quite convince himself that ‘a new gun’ was an appropriate gift, on topic though it was. Maybe—a jacket? A new bulletproof vest?
“Captain Rogers!” Murad called from his food cart, grinning so broadly that Steve could see his back molars. During the attack on New York, Steve had saved the older man from getting crushed by an alien whale. As thanks, Murad supplied him with a lifetime of free falafels.
“The usual?” Murad asked, already dumping a huge mound of rice in a styrofoam to go container.
“Murad, what do you get an international assassin as a gift?” Steve asked. He was beginning to feel like one of those kid’s books, where the cartoon bear went around the jungle, asking everyone if they’d seen his hat.
To his credit, Murad didn’t even blink. “A number one with a side of fries,” he said.
Steve smirked, although—that actually wasn’t a bad idea. What was that old saying? ‘The way to a man’s heart was through his stomach.’ It was true enough for him—maybe he could apply the same logic to the Winter Soldier. Unless the man was a robot like Vision (actually, Natasha had said something about him being alive for over fifty years, so the idea had merit), there was nothing like the gift of New York street food.
“Then I’ll take a number one with fries,” Steve said.
“Excellent choice.” Murad expertly flipped open another container. “Finally putting the moves on the Black Widow, eh? Good for you. Personally, she scares the hell out of me, but good for you.”
Steve didn’t bother to correct him. He was pretty certain that if he told Murad who he was actually interested in, he would join Natasha and Clint’s campaign to ‘get Steve to see reason.’ Which just wasn’t going to happen. Not even Bucky could get him to see reason.
“Thanks, Murad,” Steve said, taking the two paper bags.
Murad saluted him cheerfully. “Let me know how it goes, boss!”
Even with the coordinates, it was tricky to find the Winter Soldier. He, unfortunately, was not just standing in the middle of the street, waiting for Steve with open arms. Nor was he inside the house the coordinates had indicated. He was, somewhat unsurprisingly, on the roof. As silently as he could with two bags of falafels clenched between his teeth, Steve climbed the tree next to the house. He got his feet under him, then leapt onto the roof, just behind the Winter Soldier.
The Soldier whirled around. A cold, hard weight pressed heavy into Steve’s sternum. Steve lifted both his hands. He was familiar enough with that sensation to know that the Soldier had a gun pressed to his chest.
For the second time, Steve saw the Soldier’s eyes. Up close, they were roughly fifty times more devastating. The Soldier’s eyes were a shade of gray that made tears well up in Steve’s throat. They weren’t quite right—too pale, with too many lines etched in the corners, and far too devoid of life and laughter, but they were achingly, shatteringly familiar.
He wondered if it were possible to fall in love with a pair of eyes.
“Sorry, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” Steve said, scrunching his eyebrows and grinning sheepishly. He shook the greasy bag in his left hand slightly. The Soldier’s eyes darted toward it, just for a second. “I come bearing falafels.”
Although the Soldier didn’t so much as twitch a muscle, something about his entire posture demanded to know if Steve was out of his fucking mind. He—probably was, if he were being honest with himself.
“I mean,” Steve babbled. “You must be hungry, right? I can’t imagine being out here for hours without taking a break to eat. Then again, I need to fuel up often and with great excess. Metabolism like a cheetah, so I’m told. I used to not require as much food, but”—the Soldier’s eyes narrowed fractionally—“Right, yeah, you really don’t need to know my life entire life story, sorry.”
Probably deciding that Steve was too stupid to be a threat (which, again: accurate), the Soldier holstered his pistol, quick as a flash, and then snatched both of the bags out of Steve’s hand.
“It’s not poisoned,” Steve said, then mentally kicked himself when the Soldier’s glare went from suspicious to apocalyptic. “No, seriously! I wouldn’t do something like that. Do—uh, do you want me to try some, to prove it to you? Only, if you’re going to chuck it because of my big stupid mouth, please don’t—that would be wasteful.”
Steve closed his big stupid mouth with a click of teeth, then tipped his head back and stared up at the sky. Maybe he should call Thor and have him hit him with a bolt of lightning. Maybe that would get him to shut his fucking mouth.
There was a crinkle of paper. The Soldier had opened the bag and was peering inside it.
“It’s delicious,” Steve said, encouragingly.
The Soldier stared at him.
Who knows how long they would have stood there, with the Soldier working through different ways to murder Steve while Steve smiled sunnily at him, if Steve had not suddenly realized just why the Soldier was staring at him.
“Oh! Oh, of course. You’re not going to take your mask off in front of me to eat.” Steve coughed into his fist, heat prickling up the back of his neck. God, he hadn’t blushed since he was thirteen. Somewhere in the afterlife, Bucky was cringing with despair and second-hand embarrassment. “Right. Well, I hope you enjoy!” Then, with a dorky little wave, Steve turned on his heel and beat a strategic retreat off the edge of the roof.
Paper crumpled beneath metal fingers. From the bag: onions, garlic, grease, salt. The Winter Soldier watched the blond man walk away.
Broad shoulders. Broad smile. Hands that were too large for his body—no. That was incorrect. Eyes that were a sweet blue. Eyes that hadn’t changed when—
The Soldier turned back to his lookout spot. It had been compromised. Instead of doing the smart thing, such as finding a new lookout, he lowered his mask. Took a falafel between metal fingers and popped the whole thing in his mouth. Weird kid, but he was right: the food was fucking delicious.