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Slow like Honey

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It’s the end of another long week when you shuffle out to your car, gigantic backpack and another canvas bag slung over your shoulders. There’s a clatter of plastic beads jingling around in jars and the personal laminator is digging into your hip, but you finally reach the edge of the parking lot in one piece—even if your ballet flat is falling off your foot.

Shoving all the objects inside, you hear your name being called by a tiny voice in the distance followed by a car horn honking. You wave, looking over in that direction, squinting when sunbeams shoot you right in the eyes.

“Have a great weekend, buddy!” You call into the distance, not knowing who it is, but figure it’s one of your kids at least. Probably Grayson. It sounded like him, tongue pushed against his gummy front where two teeth are missing, changing all those ‘s’ sounds into ‘th’s. When his teeth first came out, he couldn’t stop giggling at how his own name came out-- “Graython”.

You rearrange your belongings in the passenger side, careful not to rattle too many things around and making sure the bottle of electrolyte water is closed before fishing it out and taking it with you to the front. You take a huge swig, feeling your dehydration subside minimally. By the time you make it home, the bottle will be empty, your bladder will be full, and your headache should be absent.

The Friday nights of your twenties were meant to be wild and fun. Filled with late-night parties and boozy hookups, light-show concerts, possibly Coachella? Headaches were meant for the mornings after, when your throbbing brain is a measure for how successful the previous evening had been.

Unfortunately, you do not lead that kind of life in your twenties.

When you lie down on the couch in front of some baking show at 8:30 because your body is slowing to the point where you’re falling over on the way to the restroom, you can’t help but chuckle at how exhausted you are.

Having twenty-five kids will do that to a person, you think, tugging the Snuggie that’s bunched up underneath your legs. Having twenty-five six and seven-year-old children for nearly eight hours for five days in a row… will do that to a person. Your Friday nights are spent sideways on the couch, alone, shoveling Tuna Helper into your mouth.

Yes. You’re a teacher. You run a damn good first-grade classroom in the smack dab middle of a sleepy little town at a public charter school that’s picking up a lot of good steam. It’s a newly opened one, but it’s grown in the past five years into a well-known institution that commits itself to fostering a respectful, caring, and devoted community all for the sake of its students.

You were lucky to land a job here when you moved out two years ago after finishing your student teaching. Regardless of the personal difficulties you had faced (an extremely messy breakup, financial debt, constant breakdowns), you started as an assistant teacher before graduating to your own classroom. Right away it was obvious that you were more than competent, but it took a couple of months before other teachers and parents noticed your dedication. Your students perform exceptionally well in every subject. They love school and they love being in your class.

When you hang up their work in the hallway under the sparkling die-cut “FANTASTIC FIRST GRADERS” sign you swear you always start tearing up.

It’s about a month until the last day of school and your class of first graders are deep into the groove of having more responsibility and conforming to your expectations. You glow with pride every time you think about all the hard work they’ve done this year and how much growth they’ve shown.

Your feet still ache constantly, however, from regularly circling the room all hours of the school day. You’re standing ninety percent of the time… or dashing across playgrounds to break up fights or slapping band aids on knees. You know that’s something that will never change regardless of how independent your students might be.

There are bits of construction paper in your hair, probably. Glue stuck between the creases of your knuckles. Crayola crayon and marker streaks on your arms. The kids did a project about The American Revolution recently, making an enormous Betsy Ross Flag from butcher paper and sticking it outside on the door. You’ve been finding the fallout from that project in all sorts of places.

Tomorrow, you think, you’re going to have a productive, adult day. No children allowed. Probably lots of wine. Maybe getting a tan at your apartment pool.

 

Monday comes way too quickly, and you pull yourself out of bed at six and get dressed appropriately to teach. The kids have started a new unit on Frontier Explorers, so you pull out the dress you bought last year with the prairie animals, silly outlines of buffalo and antelope. They’ll flip when they see it. You work hard to channel Magic School Bus Ms. Frizzle, and the kids get a kick out of it each time. You even stick in the dangling antler earrings that Edward’s mom gave you for Teacher Appreciation Week when he was in your class last year.

 

It’s a little after lunch during a Centers block when the class starts slowly erupting into fits of giggles. Someone’s burped audibly and 24 little bodies begin to rattle off their own noises, an orchestra of erupting belches. You and your assistant teacher share a look before asking them to settle down. There are a few snickers here and there, and one very loud flatulence.

Your assistant’s eyes are pleading, and you duck your head—swallowing the last bite of your lunch before coming back with a stern look across the room. The giggles quiet.

Little Sarah raises her hand and comes up to your seat with her arms crossed. Her clear blue eyes are narrowed in a squint and she frowns deeply. You’re off-handedly wiping off the leftovers of her chocolate pudding from her cheeks when she proclaims, “I didn’t like that! Jason burped and then everyone else burped and daddy says that’s not polite.”

She’s pink from where you’ve used the baby wipe on her, but the blush that runs up her cheeks is more from indignation than rubbing.

“Sarah, you’re absolutely right.” You pointedly look at the children who are all intently staring at your conversation, ears perking up when they hear Sarah’s shrill complaint. “Well, honey, I’ve asked everyone to stop, right?”

She nods.

“And they stopped, right?”

She nods again.

“So how ‘bout this, Sarah? We’ll work real hard on our good manners if you can try your best to forgive us. Deal?”

“Okay...” she mumbles, sticking up her pinkie finger for you to loop yours through. “It’s a Dill Pickle?” She asks, so adorably that you crinkle your nose at her with a giggle. This was how Sarah Rogers made sure you stuck to your word.

“It’s a Dill, pickle.” You reply, and you tug on her little pigtails as she flounces back to her seat to cut out the rest of the spelling words on her desk.

Your assistant- Heather (Ms. Knox to the children), rolls her eyes with a smile and lovingly gazes at Sarah. She’s using her red and blue safety scissors with such commitment that her tongue’s sticking out of the corner of her mouth. It’s so stupid how cute it is. You don’t play favorites, but you definitely have a cluster of five-to-seven kids you adore. Sarah sits comfortably in that group with her little sandy blonde uneven pigtails and big, wet eyes and the cutest little 6-year-old assertiveness that you’ve ever experienced.

Sarah Rogers. Six years old. Absolutely loves school so much that on Friday mornings she clings onto your leg and whispers, “I never wanna let you go!” and then Friday afternoons blows you kisses as she’s being dragged from the walk-up dismissal line by her father. He always mouths “I’m so sorry” and gives you the same blue-green puppy dog look you get from Sarah all week.

 

Steve Rogers, her father, is one of your room parents—volunteer moms and dads (mostly moms) who have signed up to do just about anything you ask. Whenever there’s a large project coming up that may need a lot of grunt work, you e-mail a room parent. If there’s a classroom crafting event that requires supplies like cups and pipe cleaners and googly eyes, you e-mail a room parent. If you need a special guest to come in and read a book to the kids, you e-mail a room parent.

Steve Rogers signed up as one in the beginning of the year during Open House when he first stepped into your classroom and shook your hand. He had a scary strong grip and gave you a $50 gift-card to Amazon so that you could purchase any extra items you may have needed.

That evening, you sent each incoming child on a scavenger hunt for various items in your newly painted, newly decorated first grade classroom. You’d spent the majority of the last workweek putting everything together and creating a hunt for the new students during the Open House night. It would give them a fun activity to familiarize them with their new classroom, and it would give the parents some time to talk to you.

Steve Rogers shook your hand in that unyielding grip of his, fixed his tie, and said he remembered you from last year— as “the assistant teacher who had front desk duty from time to time”. He was surprised to learn that you were his daughter’s teacher this year. The comment immediately rubbed you the wrong way and you snatched up one of those About the Teacher pages from the nearest desk and pushed it under his nose, middle finger directly over your credentials with a wry smile.

Master’s Degree in Education. 3.8 Cumulative GPA. ESL Certified.

When Sarah came bounding back, checklist all checked off with a sparkly pen, you looked away from her father, gave her a sticker and a high-five, cheering, “Welcome to First Grade!” and she returned your enthusiasm with a body slam. She knocked you right into him.

He had caught you effortlessly, like you might have been one of his daughter’s dolls and set you back on your feet. It was an embarrassing moment for both of you, and you tried your best to pretend it didn’t happen as other parents in the room grew suddenly quiet. Steve Rogers apologized, scolded Sarah, and picked up an extra Wish List item from your board.

 

At first, his contributions to the school were generally monetary: gift cards, book donations, supplies if you needed them. However, over time, he began to change.

He started to volunteer around the school a lot more. He chaperoned the father-daughter dance, he manned the cash register at the Book Fair, he worked a face-paint stand at the Renaissance Fair, and even helped paint some of the set items at the school’s production of The Little Mermaid.

You think he’s going to join the Parent-Teacher-Association next year if he’s not already in it.

In the winter, he even came by to decorate your classroom with your assistant while you were out sick. You came back the next day to a labyrinth of multi-colored Christmas lights and coffee-filter snowflakes.

 

Now that you’re about sixteen days away from the end of the school year and have become Sarah’s “favorite teacher ever” for the so-proclaimed rest of her life, you see him even more. You can tell she’s very nervous about leaving your class and going to the second grade because her anxiety expresses itself in shriller complaints, tearful breakdowns at the slightest thing, and armfuls of notes about how much she loves you when she comes back from a weekend break.

Her father, ever the gentleman, always apologizes. But he’s struggling with it and you can tell too how he walks her up to the front walkway when you have morning duty and joins you at the cone for a couple of minutes. He fiddles with the buttons of his shirt when he asks what he can do with her at home to prepare her emotionally for promotion and being with a new teacher. He brings in her snack on the days that she’s on the calendar and takes it to your door, just to get a glimpse of her during the school hours.

You dread it when he pops into the classroom.

He’s an enormous mass of a man, more Adonis than divorced father (you think, because there’s a pale strip on his finger that’s whiter than the rest of him), and all the other teachers come to you at least once a week to say, “You don‘t know how lucky you are, girl. Steve Rogers is a dream. He’s so involved in your class!”

The insinuation lies in the fact that he wasn’t this involved last year when Sarah was in Kindergarten—because he wasn’t. You know it for a fact because the faculty crush on him was immediate as soon as she was enrolled in the school. On your first day as an assistant, you’d already heard the rumors of Sarah Rogers in Mrs. Sweetwater’s class and her gorgeous father whom everybody wished came in more often. But you had never seen him until he swept into your room at Open House. And now you were seeing him all the damn time.

So naturally, the gossip that buzzes around in the teacher’s lounge is that Steve Rogers is hot-for-teacher. His daughter’s teacher, to be exact.

You avoid the lounge like the plague because not only does it make you uncomfortable, it makes you feel a little insulted. It’s completely unprofessional and it puts you in a situation that make you bristle. It’s only your second-year teaching, and even though you’ve had the six university years, and a semester of student teaching and one year at a very high-risk, low-performing school where you busted your ass every day... other teachers still treated you differently.

The truth is: you are very young. You’re one of the youngest teachers at the school, and you look very young. You blame it on your mother who gets mistaken for your sister constantly and embarrassingly; she passed down her petite genes and now at 25, you’re still not taller than most of the sixth graders at the school.

You are also one of the few faculty members who came from the ‘outside’—not that your workplace was a sort of cult, but it was close-knit, especially because many of the employed teachers there had worked there since the inception of the school.

You didn’t even grow up in this dumb town. You don’t know jack shit about this state. You were a stranger in a strange land.

You did not need Steve Rogers messing up your work.

 

So, when he finds his way to your classroom or your bright orange cone during your duty week, or sometimes even your damn car in the parking lot, you feel your legs go numb with dread. When he says, “Hi, how are you? How was your day? Thanks so much for your patience and kindness with Sarah!”, you want to slam your face into the nearest solid object. Instead, you smile back and shoot off, “I’m doing great, Mr. Rogers! How are you? Yes, it’s my pleasure!” like one of those overly eager Chik-Fil-A employees monotonously refilling his large sweet tea.

He makes you uneasy.

His eyes are too blue. His smile is too nice. His pants are always perfectly pressed. He’s too damn tall and broad so when he stands next to you, he’s literally always looking down. He signs his e-mails with “Warm Regards”, and he always asks for you to call him “Steve”. You’ve never done it. He’s so polite and overbearing it makes your paranoid little head think that he’s monitoring you.

You know he owns a relatively popular bakery and coffee shop downtown. You’ve also been told he makes his own ceramics for the bakery and paints the paintings that are hung there. He also is a volunteer firefighter and good God who knows—maybe he reads books to kids with cancer and rescues cats from trees and donates bone marrow. You have no idea. It unsettles you out that he’s like the Perfect Husband Material specimen someone pulled out of a fantasy test tube.

When you smile at him in the hallways or when you’re walking Sarah up, you always feel like he sees right through it.

You love Sarah. You don’t quite feel the same way about her father.

 

 

At the end of the day as you’re stacking up the chairs, Heather comes back in from her afternoon duty and adjusts her glasses, hand on her hip.

“Guess who I just ran into?” She practically shrieks, picking up a cushion in the reading corner and placing it on top of the couch.

“Uh huh?” You distractedly reply, lifting a blue seat and assembling it on top of the desk just perfectly so that it doesn’t knock any of the other chairs over or possibly fall on top of your head.

“Mister Rogers.”

“Uh huh.” You keep your voice level and impassive because it’s the only thing you can do. You adore your assistant, she’s like the other half of your brain when it comes to your classroom, but she does love the gossip. And she gets all fuzzy-brained when she sees him.

“Well, he asked if you’d like any help with the upcoming End of School Events and if he could donate anything to the classroom. I mentioned that you needed more water bottles for Field Day so he’s going to--Oh girl!” Her southern drawl comes out even more as she starts to giggle, “He’s goin’ ta be puttin’ together the Staff Breakfast for Teacher Appreciation Week! He said he’ll be in the lounge all mornin’ to help serve food. He asked what you liked to eat!”

You groaned, dodging out of the way as a chair lurches and topples over. It takes a few more minutes before you finish the task and dust your hands off.

Heather continues, despite your silence.

“I don’t see what the problem is. He is sweet as pie and good lookin’ to boot! Isn’t it nice to see a man around here?” You wanted to say Heather, he freaks me out and frankly, you are too right now. But instead you smile at her and wave when she grabs her polka-dotted crossbody and heads out the door, tittering the whole way.

Opening your laptop to check over any straggling e-mails you might have missed, your throat constricts when you see a new one just received two minutes ago. It reads,

Good afternoon!
I hope you’re having a fantastic start to your week. I spoke to Ms. Knox earlier and I hope she let you know I’ll be arranging the upcoming Teacher Appreciation Breakfast. What are some breakfast items you enjoy? I’d really like to get them for you.

Thanks so much for your hard work with Sarah. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for her this year. She loves you so much. We wish you could be her teacher again next year!

Warm Regards,
The Rogers- Sarah and Steve

P.S. Will you be offering end of year conferences? Would you like any help setting them up?

 

You groan, because of course you’ll be offering end of the year conferences, but you had really hoped that by some miracle, he wouldn’t sign up for one—or offer to make the sign-up page. It only meant that they were on his mind, which meant that you, naturally, would end up sitting down with him for at least fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes is another foolish fantasy because the last conference went over half an hour and it was goddamn torture.

You sat there and repeated the same comments like a broken Tickle-Me-Elmo.

“Sarah’s such a bright student! She’s had a fantastic year! It’s been my absolute pleasure to be her teacher!” Once again, feeling more Chik-Fil-A employee than teacher. They were all genuine, of course, but Steve Rogers was relentless, asking how else she could succeed, what she needed remediation on, what else you needed from him as a parent, or room parent. Your stomach lurches thinking about another one of those meetings as you stare at the e-mail.

You carefully mull over your response before sending it off.

Hi Mr. Rogers,
Thanks so much for offering—I’ve set one up and will be sending it out with our weekly newsletter. As for the breakfast, I really appreciate the offer, but I usually have a simple meal at home before I go, it’s just my routine. Thanks again. I know the other teachers are really looking forward to it!

Best,

 

It’s fired off, and the when the Undo button vanishes from your e-mail browser you breathe a deep sigh. You never know with communication, regardless of who it’s to, sometimes people just take things the wrong way. You’ve personally been trying to use less exclamation marks because even though you are and can be excited about some things, there’s really no reason to use so many of them just to sound chipper and peppy.

Your browser dings.

Hey again,

Sorry to bother… are you sure I can’t get anything for you? Sarah says you really like banana bread and the bakery makes a lot of that…. How about we just surprise you?

Warm Regards,
Steve

 

The frustrated noise you make echoes throughout your empty room. Damn it all, Steve Rogers.

--

“How’s it goin’ in that humid-ass state?”

Steve rolls over on his bed, earbuds plugged in, answering a late call from Bucky.

“It’s fine. We thought it was over since it’s the end of spring, but the pollen is everywhere again.” He sighs, “Sarah’s allergies are acting up and she even got a nosebleed the other day.”

“Gee-golly mister, that sounds horrible. You think she’ll survive? Maybe you oughta come back.”

Steve chuckles at Bucky’s half-hearted attempt. Once he a while he does this, but Steve’s quick to the draw.

“You think so, Buck? Well, I’m sure breathing in the New York City smog’ll really clear out her sinuses for her.”

“Har har, Rogers. Well as someone who’s breathed the sweet NYC smog their whole life, I can tell you it does a person good. And you too- how else did you get so big and strong you little shrimpy motherf--”

“Language!”

Bucky snickers back at him. “Well what about you? You doin’ okay?” His voice quiets.

“Yeah, yeah I’m alright. Life moves on.”

“Let me know if you ever need a break. I mean—I can’t change a diaper but Nat’s great with kids.”

“Buck. Sarah’s six. She doesn’t wear diapers anymore.”

“No shit? Wow.”

Language.”

They shoot the shit for another fifteen minutes. Bucky and Natasha have finally moved into a place together and it’s been a little rough for them both— headstrong, obstinate, tricky personalities clashing often and hard. She’d gone out with the girls for the night, apparently needing a stiff drink after their recent argument about how to divvy up the housework. They maintain a difficult relationship, still unsure of how they truly feel for one another, but knowing that they feel something, at least.

It perplexes Steve that they still sleep with other people from time to time. That was never something he could imagine himself doing. He’d always been a fiercely monogamous kind of guy, falling hard and fast. He proposed to Peggy right out of the gate after high school graduation and they got hitched immediately in the summer. Even through their rough patch going to separate colleges, he was faithful throughout the four years. When Peggy announced the news that she was pregnant on their seventh anniversary, he was so joyful he thought he might die.

Even before she arrived, he knew that Sarah was going to be the light of his life. His little perfect angel. Sandy blonde and blue-eyed, just like him. With her mother’s dimple, of course, and her willfulness. Sometimes it broke it heart to see how much Sarah looked like her mother. It made him miss her enormously.

He thought they’d be a perfect little family for the rest of their lives. But when Sarah turned three, he started to re-imagine his role. Both him and Peggy had worked rigorous jobs in New York at the embassy—she as a personal assistant to a Foreign Diplomat and him in security. They had a good amount of money saved up and he wanted to be closer to Sarah, be more involved, spending less time in the field or travelling, less time handing off Sarah to a babysitter. Maybe they could do something else. Something more peaceful. He was a great baker, why not a bakery?

Peggy agreed at first. They’d talked about it over dinner. She was on board.

So he started to plan. Maybe they could move out of New York, go somewhere else with calmer neighborhoods and close to a good school. Less crime. Less noise. Less pollution.

The more excited Steve had gotten, the less convinced Peggy became.

In the end, they couldn’t settle. Peggy couldn’t leave the embassy, couldn’t leave her career. They tried to make it work for another year but she continued taking more jobs that required her overseas and he eventually quit his job altogether to stay home with Sarah. Even on days when she was back stateside, Peggy slept in her office at least once a week, enthralled with the labor.

It took another year for the divorce to finalize. They also came to an agreement for custody—one that would benefit Sarah the most. Steve would have her during the school year, so that she could have roots in one place. Peggy would take her during the summers on her travels. Steve got Thanksgiving. Peggy got Christmas.

He packed his things and moved Sarah and himself closer to the trees. With his savings, he opened the bakery. He enrolled Sarah in pre-school. He worked his ass off to juggle a nurturing a business and a child, and at the end of two years, he feels damn good about what he’s done.

Sarah is a “high-flyer” with few behavioral issues, according to her teacher. She reads and writes nearly on a third-grade level, and academics aside, she’s a genuinely kind, thoughtful, and observant child. Sometimes the comments she makes gives Steve pause and he has to stare at her for a few seconds just to remember that she is only six.

Other times, he’s painfully aware of her age.

When she stomps her foot at the mall because he doesn’t understand that the flower dress isn’t as pretty as the butterfly dress and she wants the butterfly dress, even if it doesn’t fit all the way, Steve remembers she’s only six. Or when she’s scared of going into the women’s restroom by herself and they have to wait until someone else goes in first because it’s not like he can take her into the men’s, Steve remembers she’s only six.

When she starts sniffling at a woman holding her daughter’s hand at the food court and whispers that she doesn’t understand why her mom can’t be here too, Steve remembers, painfully, that she’s only six.

It makes him sigh wistfully every night as he tucks her in, kissing her forehead after she’s fallen asleep. He’s proud of her and himself, because they have a good life here, but sometimes, he wishes things were different.

 

“Any new developments on your end?” Bucky asks in his ears, returning Steve’s thoughts back to the present. This was how Bucky approached the subject of Steve’s dating-- like an architectural project.

“Nah…” Steve responds, fiddling with his phone, browsing Facebook. “I don’t think so.”

He’s lying, because someone does come to his mind, just barely. He’s convinced himself that it’s more of a professional interest, but regardless of the truth, Steve’s not yet ready to hear what Bucky has to say.

“C’mon, man,” Bucky scolds, “It’s been two years. Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race.”

“Jesus, Buck, there’s no race. And I’m happy to take things slow. Maybe that was the problem last time.”

“Well isn’t the bakery’s doin’ ya some good? All those women linin’ up outside the door to taste your stuffed pastry, know what I’m sayin’?”

Jesus, Buck!”

“Too much?” Bucky laughs, “What about cream-filled cannoli?”

“Not better!”

Steve has to remember to keep his voice down so that he doesn’t wake Sarah in the next room as they continue to joke. He asks about Natasha after seeing some pictures of her and Bucky on his timeline and they exchange stories about the complexities of women. As Steve scrolls, he pauses on a friend suggestion—it’s under an unfamiliar name but the smile catches him by surprise because he was just thinking about her.

Your grin shines at him through the screen of his phone and he feels a flutter of curiosity in his chest. As he clicks on your profile, all locked and private, he scrolls through the photo moments you’ve allowed strangers to glimpse at. There's an image of you with your family, another one hiking, one in Christmas-day pajamas, one outside of a museum, and one of you kneeling on the floor as you paint your classroom.

He’s acquainted with this last picture of the light lavender walls with the playful mural of clouds and rainbows. There’s a streak of purple on your cheek as you beam luminously, paintbrush dipping halfway in the pail.

Steve lingers on the photo. In the entire year that you’ve been his daughter’s teacher, throughout all your conversations and interactions, every smile you’ve ever given him, he’s never seen it like that.

--

 

You pull into work at 7:35 the next morning and sign in at the front office, swiping your key fob until it beeps. To your right, the Teacher’s Breakfast has been set up almost completely and footsteps are echoing down the hall as teachers get ready to line up. A familiar outline shuffles around at the end of the table, moving coffee cups into neat stacks and rearranging muffins into pretty piles.

Steve Rogers waves to you when he sees you looking.

You frown because you’re more alarmed than pleased that he’s caught you, and step quickly out of the lobby and towards your class. You’re no more than halfway down the hall when you hear his footsteps and then he’s at your door, plate of goodies in hand, while you fumble with the key. He’s even quick enough to grab the handle and open it for you with a thousand-watt smile that lights up the dark room before its overtaken by you flipping on the light switch.

“Good morning!” He beams as you say thank you and duck inside, clutching your bags close to your body so they don’t swing into him. At this point even a blind person could see that you’re aggressively trying to avoid him, so to remedy it, you match his expression and ask:

“What can I do for you, Mr. Rogers?”

Something falters in his smile as he watches you unpack at your desk, opening the blinds, putting your lunch on the bookshelf behind you, and plugging in your laptop. Your eyes don’t return to him again until he clears his throat.

“I, uh, got these for you—breakfast items. Would you like coffee? I wouldn’t mind going to grab you a cup.” Steve Rogers holds out one outstretched hand.

It’s as perfect as an arrangement can be on a flimsy paper plate. There are two thick slices of gorgeous banana nut bread leaned up against a small pile of strawberries and cuts of banana drizzled in honey. There’s a cup of yoghurt with a handful of granola in a clear container next to it, and he’s even scooped some scrambled eggs and sectioned it off with three breakfast sausage links against the edge of the plate.

“I figured you might like at least one of these things...” he says bashfully, one hand coming up to rub the back of his neck. With an inaudible scoff of surprise at the sheer heft of the thing, you carefully take it from him with two hands, gasping softly when a strawberry rolls off the crinkled edge.

Steve Rogers snatches it before it hits the ground with a lopsided grin. “Oops! Got it!” He moves to put it back but stops halfway through and plops it in his mouth instead. You can’t help the grin that breaks across your face as he chews quickly, hand covering his lips when he grumbles at himself, “Sorry! I was gonna put it back—but then—mm, this is a big one--- sorry, then I realized I touched it... and why waste a perfectly good berry?”

Shaking your head with a small laugh, you put the plate on top of your desk and thank him genuinely, because you are grateful he’s put the time and effort into doing all of this not just for you, but for all the staff. Then, you point to the corner of his mouth where a little droplet of pink still lingers. He laughs before wiping it with his palm, eyes closing.

He has exquisite eyelashes, you briefly realize before shaking the thought from your head.

“Try the bread!” He urges, “I baked it this morning for the shop and we rushed around so much I haven’t even tasted it yet... hopefully it’s good. I put oats in it, um, since Sarah mentioned you um, eat pretty healthy.” His voice trails off the longer you look at him, but he rambles quietly still, “It’s uh, whole-wheat flour, local wildflower honey... um, walnuts...”

He’s dusted pink. And for some reason, you think you might be too.

Your fingers shake just a tad as you nervously break off a piece, smiling as the warm scent of banana and cinnamon hits your nose. It’s moist and almost breathtakingly delicious- dense and soft, with crunchy bites of walnuts and oat. The honey lingers on your tongue after you swallow. Jesus, the man’s work was a damn miracle.

“Um. Wow.” Your mouth is flooded with saliva because holy-moley this was the best piece of banana bread you’ve ever eaten. You take another finger to it and break off half the slice. “Wow!”

Steve Rogers laughs and puts his hands on his hips, “I hope you’re not just saying that!”

“Gosh, no!” You blurt, taking the piece from your hand and holding it out to him, “Please!” He pops it into his mouth again and chews with twinkling eyes. The two of you stand there, listening to the sounds your tongues and teeth make before immediately bursting out into laughter.

“Oh, thank God!” He sighs, “It’s pretty good—not to y’know, brag.”

“Brag away.” You respond, tearing off another spongy rectangle and handing the rest to Steve. Before you know it, the two slices of bread are finished, leaving an empty space on the plate. The silence that overtakes the room makes you shift from foot-to-foot. Steve Rogers looks like he’s thinking something over for a minute before he looks around and points to the stacked chairs. You attempt to stop him, but he’s already got two in each hand and begins tucking them underneath their matching desks. Holy shit.

In forty-five seconds, he’s rendered what usually takes you nearly seven minutes, finished. The final seat is under his arm when clacking footsteps approach.

“Good morning!” A voice chirps loudly.

Heather strides in through the front door with a wave, necklace jangling against her chest before she stops mid-step upon noticing your guest.

“Oh… Good mornin’ Mr. Rogers!” His name passes from her lips as a long and drawn-out note.

He turns and greets her pleasantly, asking how her day’s going and if she’d stop by the lounge for breakfast. From behind his back, you begin to shake your head vigorously at her, motioning for her to please do not do this, Heather, god damn it! By the time he’s turned back around, suspicious that Heather’s eyes keep darting over to you, you’re doing your best imitation of a statue. You give him that frightened wide smile again.

“Uh, so. Thank you! So much, for all the food!”

“Yes, anytime.” He responds, straightening his back and raising his eyebrows at you. “Well, I’ll head back to my post—you probably need to get ready for the day.”

“Thank you again, for the food... Have a good one, Mr. Rogers.”

When she’s sure he’s out of earshot, Heather lets go of the most piercing, annoying, maybe even a tiny bit loveable, screech you’ve ever heard. “Girl!” She squeals, Southern accent thick in your ears, “You might be too stubborn to see, but he is struck by you!”

“He is not!” You hiss, stepping back behind your desk to put a barrier between you and her ridiculous allegation. She only rolls her eyes before looking over at the assortment of breakfast items on your desk. “Sure, he ain’t.”

She smiles, pointing to your plate knowingly. Heather trots off down the hall, whistling a tune, and leaves you to your work. You awkwardly run your fingers through your hair as you look over the offering Steve Rogers brought to you this morning.

It’s just wrong. You can’t… think about a… student’s father? But you do. You think about the stupidly mouthwatering banana bread, the dumb plate of food arranged with care, his pretty, pretty lashes, the way his arms look when he’s flinging chairs around like they’re toys, and how he persistently signs all his e-mails with "Warm Regards". Damn it all, Steve Rogers!

Your brain hurts and the day hasn’t even started yet.

 

Ten minutes later as you pick up your students from the gym, Sarah runs up to hug your leg and leads the line of excited children to the door. As promised, her father stands by the exit, two cups of coffee in his hands. He gives her a kiss and gives you the other cup. Your face scorches more than the burning drink as his fingers brush against yours for the briefest moment.

Chapter Text

The rest of the week is a little calmer, and you don’t see Steve Rogers again until the following Thursday when he hand-delivers a Mason jar full of flowers to your door in the morning. He’s there for his end of year conference and you’ve given yourself plenty of time. The clock reads 7:30.

An elegant pale purple ribbon is wrapped around the open mouth of the glass, matching the walls of your classroom, tied into a neat bow. Sarah picked them out from the florist next door this morning, he says as he leans against your doorframe, hands tucked into his pockets.

You thank him, eyes wandering over the colorful blooms, trying to focus on anything that keeps your attention away from his face. The note attached to the ribbon is a simple Thank You, written in neat penmanship, much too controlled to be a child’s. You don’t mention it as the sneaking suspicion crawls up your cheeks that Steve Rogers actually got these flowers for you.

Two pairs of feet patter over to the teacher’s desk, and you place the arrangement next to the window.

“So.. um. Five days left, huh?” He asks as he sits down in a chair on your horseshoe white board table. He drums his knuckles on the smooth surface before rubbing his palm back and forth, admiring the sheen. “Sorry— this is so cool; it always gets me.” You smile because yes, every time he’s here he picks this table.

“Do you have any summer plans?” He ventures, picking at a scratch where dried expo has crusted over. It comes off on his fingerprint and he rubs it away with his thumb.

“No. I, um,” You hand him a tissue, “I think I’ll just be here. What about you and Sarah?”

“No, uh, I’ve got the bakery and well, Sarah will be with her mom for the summer. She’ll be leaving for the UK on the tenth.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

An awkward moment passes before you open the manila folder you keep full of Sarah’s papers. It’s nothing he hasn’t seen or heard before and you start giving him your well-practiced speech of how Sarah’s been doing, beginning with her recent standardized scores and ending with a few pages of classroom reading and writing assessments. He nods along and points here and there, asking for context on some things, but the way he bites his lip and folds his hands tightly suggest he has something on his mind.

Those too-blue eyes stare intently at you any time you feel brave enough to investigate them. After catching yet another critical look, you halt and match his posture, hands linked together, shoulders back. “Mr. Rogers, is there something you’d like to say?”

Your question surprises him, and his broad shoulders slack.

“What? No! Not at all. Why are you asking that?”

His response surprises you, and you fold your arms.

“You’re… looking at me very intensely.”

As if making it his mission to continue shocking you, he begins to sputter and flushes completely rouge. “Oh.. I.. that’s just…” Steve Rogers takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry. This must be completely unprofessional… I just…” The next phrase rolls out of him like a sudden thunderclap and it sends chills through your body just the same.

“Can I take you out to dinner some time?”

“Huh!?” You nearly shout.

The smile he sends you is small and shy, corner of his lips lifting ever so slightly to touch bright pink skin. “Maybe at the end of the year. After Sarah’s finished so that we don’t have any conflicts of interest?”

Your heart is pounding like a jackhammer and nothing you scold at it will calm it down. Part of you wants to pinch yourself just to make sure this wasn’t some terrible nightmare where you also discover you’re completely naked and giving a speech. The man in front of you is waiting patiently and you can summon forth nothing but a gape.

Steve Rogers, Mister Perfect White Picket Fence, literally just asked you out on a date. The man you have been dreading for the better part of the last nine months, is sparkly-eyed like a high-school crush. All of those teacher’s lounge rumors are pointing at you and laughing as you stand under an auditorium spotlight, horrified at your nudity.

He realizes your panic and corrects himself.

“Um, sorry. I didn’t mean to put you in an awkward position.”

You frown at him, because it is an awkward position. You don’t even know why he would be interested in you because you’ve never really shown him that you are. A part of you wonders if he could be confusing your role as Sarah’s teacher with some sort of domestic fantasy. Was he looking at you as a two-for-one deal? Date and babysitter? He was divorced, after all. But then Sarah’s sandy head crosses your mind and you sigh. You shouldn’t be so bitterly lumping her into this line of reasoning.

Enough time has passed and the fuzzy infatuated thoughts you entertained on Tuesday have made their exit. You’re back to the routine, throwing yourself back into work, grading, collecting data, having conferences, planning end of the year activities, finalizing the year, and shoving Tuna Helper in your mouth at the end of the day. You think about your sparse apartment with the single couch, outdoor dinner table you picked up from a yard sale, mismatched chairs, and recycle bin full of empty wine bottles.

Why the hell would Steve Rogers be interested in you? Because you teach his daughter? And he’s comfortable enough to try it?

You should just ask.

Steve beats you to the punch. He’s fumbling for the right words to ease the situation.

“It’s been a really long time since I’ve asked anyone out. I realize this—“

“I can’t.” You cut him off before either of you can get any more lost in this terrifying possibility. What would that even be like? You going to work here at this tiny school, dating a parent of one of your former students. It would be a scandal— and a stupid one, at that! All of these southern little housewives at the PTA would crucify you as the young hussy seducing an older, established man. And the teachers who already treat you differently would make it so much worse.

“Mr. Rogers,” You inhale a shaky breath, because he is gorgeous, and sweet, and you just have to say it now and save both of you.

“I’m still new here and the rumor mill is already insane… I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Oh.” He licks his lips before pressing them together, “Yes, of course. Yeah, I, uh, I’m sorry.”

You feel so guilty because he immediately stands up and nearly knocks the chair over as he steps away from the table. “Well, I should get going. Thanks for everything this year… I really do mean it when I say that you’ve been such a wonderful teacher. I can see Sarah’s growth every day and I know so much of that is attributed to your kindness and expectations for her.” He digs into his pocket to pull out a small speckled envelope and slides it across the table.

Steve Rogers holds out his hand and you stand up to shake it. Unlike the last handshake you had with him, this one is warm and soft. He envelopes all your fingers again, but his touch is like a glove and your hand remains in the slightly folded position even after he pulls away. The sudden thought of wanting his touch invades your mind. He takes Sarah’s papers in that same big hand of his and leaves with a small smile and a wave at the door.

You flop down in your swivel chair with a loud sigh and open the slip. The rough recycled paper holds a hand-drawn picture that Sarah has made inside. It’s of you and her standing in a field of multicolored flowers and she’s drawn the clouds and rainbows from your accent wall in the background. In big pencil letters, as neatly as she can make it, she’s written the words, “thank you for being my teacher and teaching me so much new things! I am sad that you will not be my teacher next year ….. I love you!!!!”

Paperclipped to the picture is a laminated rectangle of paper that says Coupon for unlimited banana bread at C&C… a small token of our appreciation. Come in anytime!

Steve’s signature is scrawled on the right-hand corner of it, next to the bakery’s circular logo of concentric rings and a star. You tuck it into your bag quickly, just to get it out of your sight and fold your hands over your eyes.

5 Days Left of School!

The alternating blue and purple expo letters leer back at you from the whiteboard. Your best teacher handwriting is mocking, because five days feels like both a dream and a nightmare. Five days left until Steve Rogers is out of your life and thrust upon another teacher— where he’ll bake banana bread for them and… a small twinge of jealousy pinches your side. You groan again and clench your fists. You rejected him! A workplace is not the right environment to engage in a relationship! He was your student’s father! It’s near incestuous!

“Oh shit…” You mutter before straightening your dress and standing up. Taking a deep breath, you plaster on your brightest smile and make your way to the gym.

 

It’s Friday morning at the bakery and he’s juggling two Americanos when the door opens with a clanging from the bell. Two familiar heads pop in- one brown, one red. They wear matching aviators and leather jackets, and both grin at the man behind the counter.

“Cute apron, Rogers.” Natasha smirks, eyeing the worn canvas fabric. It was a gift from one of his regulars- slightly too small, but the endearing baguette and croissant print sold him. He alternates between this one and a one of Sarah’s favorites—butterfly print.

“What are you guys doing here!?” Steve yells, swinging around the back and pulling them both into hugs. Customers and employees alike dodge out of his way, but smile at him anyway. The lunch crowd hasn’t come by yet, so the bakery has calmed from the morning rush and sits quietly in the quell of 10 am. He’s delegated some busy work this morning to a barista, dusting the lights and windows while Steve manages the front.

“Thought we’d surprise ya. We’re taking a road trip to see Clint and Laura’s new baby.” Bucky pats Steve on the shoulder and he finally lets go of the clamp on both of them. “We’ll be staying the night so we can at least have dinner with Sarah-bearah! You got any good recommends for coffee?”

Steve pretends to act hurt before he makes them sit at the bar. Spinning back around the corner, he twirls two handmade ceramic mugs in his hand and gets to work. Natasha and Bucky flip through a magazine together and only make it to the fourth page before he presents them with two coffees and a shared plate of bread.

“Cream and sugar for you…” Steve sets down the items in front of Bucky, “And black for you.”

Natasha smirks at him before digging into the plate with her fork. “This is delicious.” She smiles, “I remember it differently…. New recipe?”

She catches the slightest hint of embarrassment from her friend and waits patiently for his disclosure. Natasha never needs to push; everyone tells her the truth eventually. Forking a bite into Bucky’s mouth, she watches him from underneath her lashes and tilts her head. “Good, huh?”

Steve sling the towel he’d been using to polish the ceramics over his shoulder and sighs, shaking his head. He tells them about the crumbled oats on top and how he’d experimented for almost a whole week to get that perfect brown glaze, trying to balance the heaviness of whole wheat with the richness of the honey. “I settled on wildflower because of its lingering quality—the other ones were just too—I don’t know…” he rubs two fingers together with one hand on his hip. Bucky and Natasha share a knowing look because the punk’s always been like this when it came to baking, getting lost in his thoughts and infodumping on them.

They wait for the other shoe to drop.

He finally tells them why he changed the formula: an attempt to win over Sarah’s teacher. Bucky’s barking laughter earns him a smack from Natasha.

Steve flushes completely red as he counts his reasons—her care for his daughter, her dedication and kindness, her smile, when he could finally see it because his new banana bread recipe had worked and she smiled at him genuinely for the first time in nine months! Steve recounts to his two amused friends how he hadn’t felt like that since before Peggy left. Years.

He rambles through his apprehensions—fearing that his infatuation is merely a schoolboy crush on a woman who just happened to be in his life that was nice. A woman who was his daughter’s teacher, even if she wouldn’t be for much longer, it was just a sketchy way to meet someone you were romantically interested in. She was also younger than him by nearly eight years, barely finding her footing in the world.

He also finally admits the rejection—she confirmed all of the apprehension he had, matching them with her own. “How do people do this?” He mutters, “Dating?” He realizes he may not be asking the two best people for advice as they smirk at him behind their coffee- sly little lifts at the corners of their mouths. Steve sighs because as far as he knows they might not even be sleeping in the same place tonight.

He asks if they’d like to stay over since he’s got a spare bedroom and Bucky takes him up on his offer. Natasha declines politely; she has a friend in town but she’ll meet them back up in the morning. Her and Bucky want to explore Steve’s sleepy little town before picking Sarah up with him after school. Natasha teases him about the teacher, and promises not to harass her too much if they run into her.

He’s wary of them, but agrees anyway, shooting off a text to the babysitter that she’d be having the evening off.

--

Sarah’s been crying all day, and even though it’s your week off carline duty, you sit with her in the gym and hold her hand. It started at lunchtime, when she barely touched what her father had packed for her. You broke off half of your banana and the two of you shared it at your desk when she calmed enough to sit with you. Then she ate a packet of goldfish crackers from the classroom pantry and threw her lunch into the trash can. You watched the lovingly-made multigrain turkey and provolone, slices of tomato, homemade granola bar, and chocolate-dipped biscotti fall helplessly into the bin and pulled Sarah out into the hallway.

“Can you tell me what’s going on, Sarah? You threw away all of your lunch.” She could tell that you were somewhat cross because she immediately burst into tears.

“I hate turkey and provolo!” She blubbered, “I told daddy no turkey sammiches but he made it anyway and he never listens to me!”

You gently shushed her, and she quiets a little but continued to complain, “And Marnie’s coming today but I said that I wanted to go to the bakery with daddy but he won’t let me. He only lets me go on Mondays but … but…” She hiccuped all over the hallway and flung herself into your shoulder as you kneeled down on her level.

“Sarah, it’s okay. We can take a little break, and you can walk with me to get a sip of water. Would you like me to call Miss Esther and see if she can talk to you today?”

Sarah shook her head no but reached for your hand anyway, “I don’t wanna talk to Miss Esther, I wanna go home and see my daddy.” You gave her a small squeeze and what Steve told you during the conference crosses your mind— Sarah leaves with her mother on the 10th, just one day after the last day of first grade. The poor thing was going through so many sudden changes that all she can do to exercise control is throw away her own lunch.

She had started to cry again, so you asked her to take deep breaths with you, placing your hand on her chest and the other on your own to assure her. In between a set, you peeked in the room to see Heather asking the class to finish their food and clean up. Sarah’s cheeks were bright as maraschino cherries, but she finally calmed down a little. “Okay, hon. Let’s go walk together to get water. I know you said you don’t want to see Miss Esther, but I know she would love to see you. Think you might wanna try?”

Your student relented in the end, but continued to be sullen the rest of the day.

 

And now, at 3:30, she’s returned to sniffling as she curls up next to you, cheek pressed against your arm. When her name is called over the receiver, you put her bag on your own back and walk with her to the cone. A few minutes later, you see the familiar blue of Steve Roger’s sedan and with a small wave, you point him around the traffic circle and into the attached parking lot. He meets you quickly, getting out of his car in a rush.

“Everything okay?” He asks with a slight panic when he sees Sarah’s blue eyes watery with tears. There are two people in the car with him and they give you a nod before coming out of the car too.

The woman opens her arms and calls, “Sarah-bear!” And Sarah throws herself into the embrace, squealing, “Auntie Nat! Uncle Bucky!”

You step to the side and Steve Rogers follows, leaning over slightly as you lower your voice. “She had an emotional day—“ you look over to her, now hopping excitedly around the man, “She’s really nervous about summer, Mr. Rogers.”

“About second grade?”

You nod, “And seeing her mom, being a new place, and being away from you. It’s quite a long time, two months. I think all of the changes are scaring her and so she’s trying to control the things around her.”

“How so?” He looks perplexed and you completely understand because it’s quite a concept that children can be manipulative in ways that they don’t even understand. You try to be as delicate as possible.

“Well she threw away her lunch, and ate crackers and my banana…”

“Oh geez, I’m so sorry!” He turns to scold her but you quickly reach out to grab his arm before pulling away, embarrassed at the contact. You begin to fumble over your next sentence, but he doesn’t seem to notice and you thank your lucky stars.

“It’s totally fine, I promise. Go easy on her. She’s only six… the world’s a confusing place for a child, you know? I just wanted to let you know because she might be acting out at home but just keep in mind that it’s because she’s anxious, not bad.” You do air-quotes around the “b” word because it really is just a term adults use when children don’t act the way they want them to. Sarah Rogers couldn’t be bad even if she tried.

You give Steve a pained look because it must be tough for him as a single parent. You were raised by your mother, and there were a number of years that you were actually “bad”.

“Be firm with her, but give a little where you can.” You advise.

He nods and when you peek behind him to look at Sarah, the dark-haired man is smiling at you with his arms crossed. Sarah sits comfortably on the woman’s back, feet dangling with her shoes in her hands. Steve sighs as he looks at his daughter, curled ends of her golden braid shining in the summer sun. “Thank you. I really.. thank you. For telling me…. Any thoughts on how to make Monday a better day?” He asks.

Sarah waves to you from the backseat as she settles in, buckled and snug as a bug. You catch her air-kiss dramatically as she giggles.

“Yeah, Mr. Rogers,” you grin, “No more turkey and provolo sammiches.”

Steve feels his heart skip a beat as you tilt your head up to him, hand over your eyes to block the sun rays. He thinks your smile could outshine the whole damn thing. You wave to everyone and turn away, heading back across the crosswalk and into the building. His heart flutters along with the edge of your dress, flapping wildly in the wind.

Bucky comes back to the bakery and helps Steve close up for the night. Natasha has taken Sarah to a movie after dinner and will be dropping her off in a couple of hours. As he flips over the sign on the door, Steve begins to stack the chairs. He’s got a pretty good routine down at this point, and it shouldn’t take any more than half an hour before he’s ready to head home. Bucky helps wipes down the windows before moving to the counters.

“Sooooo….” Bucky calls, “Nice girl.”

Steve smiles as he finishes with the chairs and grabs the handle of the broom from the closet. “She’s not interested.” He sighs defeatedly, even if he can’t help the lift of his lips at the thought of her. “Why would she be? I’m divorced with a kid. My kid’s having a crisis and I have no earthly idea how to help her--”

Bucky cuts him off.

“Don’t forget-- you’re also stupid. She went hot as a poker when he touched your arm today.” The comment gives him pause and he stops mid-sweep to look at Bucky’s back stretched over a counter as he reaches for a particularly dusty spot. “Keep doin your pull-ups, Rogers. Girl’s into ‘em.”

A moment of silence passes between them.

As if he can hear Steve wondering, Bucky lets go of a little groan before speaking again, “Me and Natalia are complicated. And that’s fine. I’m happy, she’s happy, and we work it out best we can. Sometimes we make each other crazy, but sometimes… pal, if I had to burn down the whole world to see her smile, I think I’d do it. I used to think that you and Peg had the kinda relationship I wanted. Domestic, simple, real nuclear family. But that’s not Nat.”

He can hear the longing in Bucky’s voice. The endearing tone his best friend has reserved solely for Natasha.

“I thought about it after we hung up the other day. Me and Nat, moving so fast, you know? I think I’ll try that slowing down thing you like so much.” He chucks the rag in his left hand into the basket by Steve’s feet. “So here we are… going to see the Bartons, not talking about getting hitched any time soon.”

Bucky shrugs, almost as defeated as Steve. “I dunno, man. It’s all complicated and all simple, but what the fuck do I know... Shoot your shot.”

Steve finishes up and moves to bring his arm around Bucky’s shoulders, which slump slightly before he takes a deep breath and straightens his back. They share a dry laugh between them, quietly both lamenting and celebrating their troubles.

Bucky claps him on the chest- a warning to both of them to stop being so miserable. Steve nudges him back. They scuffle at the car before Bucky ducks from his reach and flips him the bird with a grin.

As they drive, Steve puts on the radio. An echoing, resonant female voice vibrates through the speakers of his blue sedan, accompanied by slow piano notes.

You’ll remember me, like a melody. Yeah, I’ll haunt the world inside you…

He thinks back to the dazzling smile in the afterschool parking lot. The delicate brush of fingertips and slightest scrape of fingernails on his arm, all sensations he relives again with a shudder as if they just happened.

And my big secret, gonna win you over.

He shakes his head to himself because maybe that coupon for unlimited banana bread was a bit overkill and a bit shameless plugging, but then again, maybe it can be the perfect opportunity, too. He’ll wait, Steve thinks, if it happens, it happens.

Slow like honey, heavy with mood.

 

It’s Sunday morning when your feet lead you to a familiar logo. Your yellow ballet flats are pointed at the wooden door of Cap & Co., nicknamed for Captain and Company.

You’ve read about the Rogers bakery in the local food section of the paper last year when it was picking up steam. Over a bowl of oatmeal, you pondered about the object of all your co-workers’ affections.

The short article interviewed Steve about his business- and he explained the meaning of the name.

At his old workplace, he was teasingly called “Captain” because of his serious demeanor and ability to rally security teams together just right. Even his seniors began to refer to him as Captain, much to his initial chagrin. But as the years passed and he only kept advancing in his field, it stuck. So he eventually took pride in being The Captain.

There was a funny little anecdote he revealed as well- about always finding joy in baking and sharing the desserts he had created, so much, that his co-workers also began calling him “Man with a Flan”—and how it irritated him to no end that they disregarded the fact that flan does not rhyme with man. You remember giggling loutishly at that paragraph.

Company was not about business, it was about friendship. Company was about the camaraderie, the article stated, before the neatly printed words made your heart swell.

Captain Steve Rogers’ only company right now is his five-year old daughter Sarah- a splitting image of his own sunny disposition and sincerity-- but he hopes that you soon will be a part, too. Grab a friend and swing into Cap&Co, smell the warmth of handmade pastries, soak in the perfectly brewed coffee, and have a conversation with Steve Rogers, the man behind the counter, making it all happen.

Adjacent from the blurb was a picture of him bent over behind a glass display case, unsurprisingly, intensely focused as he rearranged the pastries. Next to that, had been a more inviting image- Sarah sitting on his apron-clad hip as they gazed at each other, close-eyed and wide-smiled, him brushing a sprinkle off her cheeks. 

But, you’d forgotten all about it soon after. Open House showed you his intensity, and gossip deterred you so much that in the two years you’ve known about the local favorite Cap&Co, this is embarrassingly, the first time you’ve been here.

 

You trace the edge of the laminated rectangle in your pocket, feeling your heart seize with the possibility of seeing him in there, perhaps fixing a coffee (intensely) or handing someone a muffin (with a smile—and you’re not sure which one you’d prefer). Maybe he’ll be in the back office, doing whatever it is that owners do—answering e-mails, checking inventory, ordering supplies (maybe this one was best).

You had spent the rest of Friday thinking about Sarah along with the rest of your students as you prepared your heart for the end of the year. It was your first real classroom, after all. And to say that it was an excellent year would be such a massive understatement that you didn’t dare summon forth words in fear of dishonoring it. Nothing would top this year. All twenty-five kids were fantastic, and you worked yourself sick some days to ensure that they were learning to the best of their potential. You’d even gotten in some trouble after a few heated confrontations with other specialists and the like when you didn’t think that they were treating your students correctly. Worth it.

Now, as your feet point at the entrance of Cap&Co., you wondered if it was a good idea to come in asking about Sarah. Not that it was a lie—you really were worried about her.

Oh, and of course! You also wanted some more banana bread. Yeah, two completely decent interests.

The bell clangs when you push in and immediately, the toasty sweet scent of pastries and bitter richness of coffee fill your nostrils. There’s light jazz playing in the background and the shades are drawn, flooding the space with luminous sunshine.

Looking around, the place is reminiscent of a rustic french patisserie if it had been set in the 21st century. There are design choices that seem like they shouldn’t make sense and be so harmonious, but for whatever reason, they fit perfectly together. The furniture is a mixture of polished wood and dull metal, the floor is a shiny speckled concrete, and along the wall behind the counter is a gorgeous handwritten chalk menu better designed and executed than any you’ve seen. The display cases exhibit an array of baked goods that sparkle their sugar-shine at you.

“Welcome to Cap&Co.! What can I do for you?” The barista greets, waving as you come in. You tuck your hair behind your ear and request a chai tea with milk. When she asks if you’d like something to eat with it, you suddenly become panicked and shove the coupon into your pocket and shake your head vigorously. Then you completely chicken out and ask for the chai in a to-go cup.

You chide yourself as you take your order and spin back towards the door. You shouldn’t have come in the first place. Sarah was fine, and she shouldn’t be your excuse to see a man you had already rejected. It was unfair to both him and yourself.

But those clear blue-green eyes, so large and concerned on Friday afternoon forms a lump in your throat as big as a boulder. You realize that as much as you were worried about Sarah’s emotional health, you were also worried about Steve. His story runs so parallel to your own mother that you’re instinctively drawn to him, almost out of guilt.

The bell dings half a second before you reach for it— handle swinging away from your grasp, and you run face-first into Steve Rogers’ chest.

The tea in your hand drops and splashes on the ground.

Sarah’s shrill voice screams your name with delight before she jumps into your arms, immediately hooking both legs around your own and knocks you into the puddle. The memory reel of Open House plays as Steve catches you before you fall over.

In your wide-open eyes, Steve Rogers feels himself falling. When he steels his arm against your body and pulls you back up onto your feet, the hope he’s been slowly letting go springs alive and takes flight, towing him along.

“Sarah, stop that, honey!”

You let loose a laugh as Sarah clings onto your seated body like some sort of animal. Her legs are squeezed so tightly around your torso that you feel the air starting to seep out of you like a deflating balloon. Adjusting your arm, you place it over her back and tickle her ear. This wasn’t too unusual for Sarah, but you figure outside of the school environment and in her territory, she felt more comfortable.

“I love you so much!” She whispers loudly, as if her father couldn’t hear, and ignoring his scolding of her position against you.

“I love you too!” You whisper back, just as obvious.

Steve shakes his head, but can’t stop the smile that blooms. The three of you are in the back corner of the café, nestled in a wooden booth where you and Sarah are leaned back against the polished mahogany and Steve is across the table in a chair. The cashier from before brings a few slices of warm banana bread over as well as another chai. You and Steve thank her and she smiles back, eyes darting over to where Sarah now burrows her cheek against the ridge of your collarbone.

There’s a knowing wink the cashier sends to Sarah that you interpret for playful. She sends the same wink to Steve, but you miss it completely when the young girl attached to you like an extra appendage moves so she sits in your lap and faces her father, who sputters awkwardly.

“S-Sarah, honey, you gotta get off… baby, look, Miss--”

Sarah Rogers spins her head around, and with all the logic that a six year old can have, asks, “Can I sit in your lap?” as if the simple action of asking is enough to justify her already perched position. Steve bursts out laughing and puts his face in both his hands before rubbing his beard.

“Hey Sarah,” You whisper, eyes fixed on Steve’s flushed cheeks before you raise a pinky. “Wanna make a Dill, pickle?”

She perks up, interested, and her father’s eyebrow raises as well. You continue to watch him, as if unfolding a magic trick in front of an expectant audience.

“How bout this? You can sit on my lap after I finish the tea. It’s really hot and I would hate to accidentally spill any on you. But woah… look at all this banana bread… I don’t think I can finish it. Can you help me?”

Sarah nods eagerly and hooks her little finger in yours. “It’s a Dill, pickle!” She clambers off and licks her lips, “Yummmmmmy. I love love love banana bread. Daddy can I have some even though Miss Marnie’s coming?”

She flutters her eyelashes exactly two times before he folds like a house of cards. Oh boy, Steve Rogers is going to be in for a tough run of teenage years if his resolve is this weak against her now.

The three of you share the heavenly slices with easy conversation. Between Sarah’s animated subject matters, your own talent of entertaining her, and Steve’s bubbling laughter in the background, twenty minutes fly by in a snap before the babysitter—Miss Marnie—shows up and Sarah happily leaves with her. She squeezes the living heck out of you and gives her dad a sloppy kiss on the cheek before she goes.

In her absence, the conversation halts almost completely as you poke at the crumbs on the plate and pretend to drink your tea too much. Steve watches you with interest, a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth when you bring the mug up for the fifth time in what could only be half a minute. It’s near eleven now, and you know he’ll need to get back to work soon with the lunch rush coming in; Steve Roger’s chicken salad sandwiches and bagel and lox could give his banana bread a run for its money.

“How do you do that?” He asks suddenly, leaning his chin on his palm, “You’re so good with her.”

You shrug reflexively. “I spend more time with her than you do.”

Your brain moves too fast on chai, and you immediately face-palm upon seeing his pained expression. “Oh God. I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean it like that. I- look, ah, I’m an idiot. Ugh! Jesus, fuck me!”

His face lights up when you slip the f-bomb and you turn five shades of red at the sound of his laughter. You lean forward and lower your voice, hoping that you could convey sincerely to him how apologetic you are.

“You’re an excellent father. I interact with Sarah on a pretty shallow level, not to discredit the hard work of teaching because it is hard, and demanding, and--” You shudder at the recollection of all your late-night hours and morning espresso shorts, “—I teach her lots of things, of course. She grows with me. But I’ve only got her for a year, you know? You’re with her in a capacity that I will never experience. You’re her father, her guardian. That is a profound thing. And you’re doing a wonderful job. I promise, Steve; I see it in her every day.”

Steve swallows thickly at the way his name sounds rolling off your tongue. The way your mouth curls into a fond smile. The way your eyebrows raise and lower empathetically. The way your eyes flit back and forth over his.

The air between your faces still as you start to realize just how close you are, propped forward like this on the small square table, hands under your chins. You gaze trails down the slope of his nose and gets lost in the hairs of his beard—brown, tawny, bits of red-- in-between lengths. Strangely, you think it makes him look more refined, now that he’s paired it with a slicked back haircut that somehow still looks soft. His rosy lips part. Even softer than his hair.

“Um.” You blink a few times and lean back when the bell jingles with the arrival of a string of customers. Steve catches himself doing the same before turning to greet the newcomers and standing up hastily.

“Wait, don’t go yet. Let me… um, let me um—“ Both of you look away, cooling off the heated thoughts that have overtaken your heads. Steve’s heart hammers wildly in his chest as he tries to find the rights words that have irritatingly vanished from his incoherent brain.

“Bread!” He cries triumphantly as he steps back and points to the display case. “Bread! I got it. Some. I got some. For you.” His expression briefly turns self-deprecating as he chides himself for being such a buffoon as you look on, confused. “Let me just take care of this real quick and I’ll have it packed for you.”

Before you can argue and try to refuse his offer for the sake of decorum, he’s already behind the counter, making coffee orders and chit-chatting breezily. As you clean up your own table, stacking the little plates and putting them in their designated bins, you continue to watch him from the corner of your eye. All sinew and muscle underneath his baby-blue button up. Big hands holding his own hand-made mugs three-at-a-time. Perfect pearly white teeth showcasing the most beautiful smile a man can have.

Damn. It. All. Steve. Rogers.

You pluck a brown napkin from the dispenser and a pen from your purse before you can lose your nerve.

 

When everyone’s been served and seated, Steve neatly wraps half a loaf of banana bread up in the made-from-recycled-paper sheet behind the counter and ties it off with a delicate snip of twine. He finds you at the table, standing with your hand against the strap of your crossbody and a napkin folded in your palm.

“This is for you.” He says quietly, holding the loaf forward, fingers brushing yours for a second as he passes it. You pinch your lips together and for a second he’s afraid he might have offended you.

“And… um, this is for you.”

You press the napkin into his hand and leave quietly with the package, ignoring the curious eyes of customers and baristas who have witnessed your interaction, glancing back just a second before the door shuts behind you. Your face is so rosy you very well could have been one of the many strawberry tarts on display. At the car, you let go of a breath that shakes your entire frame. Your face is still on fire. Holy fuck, you did the thing. The scary thing.

You squeeze your eyes shut. Oh god. The bad thing?

 

Back at the café, Steve unfolds the napkin carefully. Written with a sparkly gel pen is a string of ten digits and a pretty- if not albeit shakily- written note.

Three days left of school. Ask me again?

Chapter Text

The Last Day of First Grade (yes, it’s special) is a complete blur as all of your students are too restless and overactive to get through much of anything. Your body is so tired from the late nights of making sure everything is in order before summer break. Curriculum pacing just so happened to place two assessments on Monday, which left you and Heather with the task of frantically grading and re-testing any student who missed school. Entering grades and stuffing report cards kept you awake Tuesday night, as well as planning the Last Day festivities. Not to mention during your “break” periods at work, you were pulled into various meetings.

Other classrooms were doing huge events for the Last Day- full of parent involvement and showcasing student work.

You were dead tired. So you planned a pizza party and movie day before early dismissal. Screw the big huzzah. You had thrown two parties this year- Friendsgiving and Winter Solstice Party. The end of the year was going to be simple: Disney and pizza. The kids were beyond pumped for it.

In the morning you teach them how to make their own paper airplanes, decorating the papers together before folding. Then you take them on the playground and they all get a chance to fly them across the blacktop. Jason’s goes the farthest, coasting on a lucky breeze before diving nose-first into the bushes. Mabel’s plane gets caught in a basketball net and you have to poke it free with a snapped-off branch. The kids cheer as you teeter on your tip toes and jump until it comes loose.

By the time the pizza gets delivered, adults and children alike are sweat-glazed and ready for ice-cold juice pouches. You fire up the movie and begin passing out plates while Heather comes around with the pizza.

 

When you and Heather finally sit down, you breathe a sigh and wipe your forehead with the back of your hand. The kids are intently watching as Dory dreams about her parents and excitedly swims into the anemone. They giggle when she gets stung.

You rearrange your desk to make room for your own plate, moving flower vases and thank-you cards, stacking candy bars and consolidating gift bags. You had planned on reading these randomly, but a certain twine bow catches your attention and the bit of crust you’re chewing on gets stuck stubbornly in your throat.

Pulling the threads apart, you peek into the small gift back where a card sits on top of a stack of very large cookies encased in cellophane. The paper is heavy and rough against your fingers when you pull it out, peering in awe at the watercolor blossoms on the cover. You turn it in your hand, peering at the delicate craftsmanship, wondering which card company made such an exquisite thing but unable to see a label anywhere.

Holy shit. You realize, Steve painted this. You’re awestruck.

On the inside, his handwriting scrawls your first name delicately in black ink. Your heart leaps into your throat, taking place of the chewed crust as you choke a little bit.

Thank you for everything this school year. Sarah and I will be so sad to not have you in our lives… unless you’d like for that to change as much as I do. It is the last day of school, after all…

Please come have dinner with us today. I promise we’ll feed you more than just banana bread and cookies.

Steve

The smile you try to hide persistently thwarts your attempts as you reread the note over and over again, fingers digging into the cellophane wrapping before eating a corner of the top cookie. The raisins and molasses melt against your tongue. The crunch of the oats immediately sweeps over the softness with such deliberate balance you think you might faint.

 

It’s not your week on carline duty, but you take the students outside during dismissal to see and say thank you to as many parents as you can. Both you and Heather have received more hugs than you can count, and right after lunch, with pizza sauce on their shirts and all- the kids nearly dogpile you as you bend over to pick up a loose fork on the rug. Tears have been in your eyes since.

You hand off Grayson to his mother, Harper to her aunt, and one by one, all the children are gone. Except for, of course, sandy-haired, blue-eyed Sarah, who grips on to your hand and points when her father’s distinct figure peeks out from behind the crowd of parents. When he walks up, they share a smile and Sarah swings your hand in wide semi-circles.

“Are you gonna come have spaghetti with us?” She asks, skipping from you to latch onto her father’s leg. You look around tentatively, waving goodbye to any straggling student you might know. Other teachers glance over at Steve, then avert their eyes quickly.

The Rogers smile at each other and Steve gives Sarah a wink. There go those lovely eyelashes again, fluttering like your heart.

“Well, I do love spaghetti…” You mumble. Sarah giggles excitedly and jumps up with a clap.

“Yay yay yay yay! Daddy lets me make the meatballs and wash the tomatoes. Can you stay for a movie? Can you stay for a sleepover?”

Both you and Steve flush at her suggestion but Sarah rambles on about what movies they have at home. He mouths an apology and you shake your head with a laugh.

“How about five?” He asks, fiddling with his phone. “I’ll send you our address?”

You nod and he shoots off the text. Then he takes Sarah by the hand and with a small wave and another shy half-glance back behind him, Steve leads her off the curb and into the emptying parking lot.

Wiping the beading sweat from your brow— more nerves than summer sun— you return to your classroom. It was about half-past noon. You have another two hours of cleaning up before you can leave. Heather stands by the door with a smile and swings it open for you. Graciously, she says nothing, only humming a brief tune as you take large strides out of view of your co-workers’ eyes.

A familiar wave of panic crashes upon you as you close your car door and step up to the Rogers’ house at four-fifty. It’s a cozy one-story Four Square with a manicured front lawn and tall rose bushes by the steps. The front porch suspends sprawling hanging plants and a swing bench accompanied by two outdoor chairs. Some of Sarah’s outside toys lay scattered by the doormat.

Your finger pushes the bell and you clutch into the bag at your side tightly.

Nothing.

Quickly, you check the address on the text again and step back to get a good look at the numbers to the left of the door. They match. You smooth your dress and try again.

Nothing.

A thousand errant thoughts run cross your mind— he must have given you the wrong address. This is a stranger’s house. It was a trick. He was pulling your leg. Of course he doesn’t like you. Oh god, you have to leave. You’re scrambling from the front steps when the door gets yanked open and Steve is chasing you down.

“Hey!” He calls.

Turning around, you see him apron-clad, trousers on, patterned button up sleeves folded up to his elbows. His hair is in slight disarray and he’s out of breath.

“Is it five already?!” He cries, checking his watch. “I’m sorry, dinner’s not ready—“ A shriek comes from inside the house and Steve whips around to look for it, “Sarah is— come on in, please! She’s very upset with me. I’m sorry. Oh damn it…” He rubs his eyes with the heel of his palm and dejectedly leads you inside.

The smell of butter and tomato sauce is so inviting as it pushes past the heavy stiffness that lingers in the house. Something sweet is in the oven, too. The hardwood path to the kitchen is open and decorated with paintings of nature and pictures of Sarah. Just as warm as the bakery is, the Rogers house is even more intimate. It’s also spotless.

“This shouldn’t take too much longer…” Steve sighs before going silent.

He motions for you to have a seat as he resumes his place at the stove, stirring and peeking into the oven. There are half-rolled meatballs on the other side of the counter and Steve starts washing his hands before looking at them disparagingly. After setting your things down, you wander away from the living room and try to find the source of his exasperation, giving him a moment of privacy.

 

Sarah is in her room, repeatedly hitting a stuffed bear against a luggage bag when you gently knock on the door. She’s bright red and fuming, yellow butterfly dress crumpled at the hem, knee socks rolled down half-way and at uneven lengths. When she sees you, she screams your name and erupts into tears, smothering her face against your thighs.

Carefully, you kneel down and let her lean on your shoulder. Big droplets roll and collect in the hollow of your collarbone.

“Shhh, sweet girl. I know you’re upset.”

“I-I-I d-don’t don’t wanna g-g-go oh-oh-ohhhh!”

You pick her up and pat her back with a little effort. Her legs dangle down nearly to your shins because she’s got her father’s genes and she’s more than half your size at age six. You walk her slowly into the kitchen and upon seeing her father she presses her cheek to your neck and faces away from him. Steve looks pale and sullen as he rolls the last few meatballs between his two palms. Your heart is on the verge of breaking too. Sarah is breathing heavily, hiccuping in-between, rattling like a maraca.  

“Sarah, honey. Let me have a look at you.” You set her down and hold out both your hands. She places hers is them and blink slowly, blue eyes swollen pink. “Are you nervous about going to see your mom?” She nods. “I know you’re going to miss your daddy, honey. But it’s only for one month, remember?”

She opens her mouth to cry but you give her a pointed look- one she’s familiar with- and she stops, waiting for you to finish.

“Your mama loves you, and she’s so excited to spend time with you. She’s going to make sure you have lots of fun. You know that our school has a short summer, right? Know why?”

She nods again, the tears temporarily ceasing as you try to divert her fears with facts. “We have a different calendar.” She says.

“Mhm… so… you’ll be back here in thirty days and guess what?” You smile at her.

“What?”

“Then you’ll be in second grade! You’ll be a big girl in second grade where you’ll get your very own locker!

After a breath, Sarah giggles finally. A small, short tittering before she pouts again. You poke her with a finger and then point to your bags on the dining room chair. “I have an early birthday present for you. Something for your trip. Can you help me get that brown bag?”

Following her to the chair, the two of you sit cross legged on the floor as she pulls out your gift- a light blue mini-polaroid camera. It was something you’d gotten a few years back but had remained mostly unused and gathering dust on your bookshelf. While you were getting ready to come over, you thought about bringing a gift, but a dessert would have been offensive (Steve being a professional baker and all), and a bottle of wine might have been inappropriate (Sarah being six, you being a lightweight).

At the last minute- the camera caught your eye and you figure it would be a good distraction for Sarah to have during her travels. You also recall her birthday being one of the first days of school- making her one of the youngest in her class. It was perfect.

You teach her how to use it, hanging it around her neck and pressing the on button and watch it whirr and buzz to life. You’d also brought her two extra packs of film. She peeks through the viewfinder curiously and points it at you.

“When you’re ready, push the shutter button here.” You lightly move her finger to the dip and sit back. She peeks into the viewfinder for a second, tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth as she concentrates. You’re laughing when Sarah clicks it and the flash goes off. Immediately, a small white rectangle ejects from the slot and you tug it out for her. She giggles and looks at the plastic, catching the kitchen light on its surface.

“Now we wait!” You say, playfully slapping it on her head before setting it on the counter, “It only takes a few minutes. But how about we take more pictures after dinner? I think your dad needs help setting the table.”

 

Sarah walks with you, holding the forks and napkins as you bring the knives. She chooses the pitcher of sweet tea from the fridge and fills up three cups with ice before you pour. Steve quietly arranges the freshly baked meatballs on top of the pile of noodles and sauce with care and sets down three steaming plates on the table.

Sarah walks over to him before he can sit down and climbs into his arms when he kneels. Softly, she whispers “I’m sorry, daddy.” And Steve Rogers’ eyes fill up with tears. You tilt your head back so that your own won’t spill over, either.

Dinner is spent happily, the three of you slurp noodles and sip tea. By the end of it, you’re all so full that a single slice of blueberry pie al a mode has to be shared by three people.

-

Fifteen minutes into The Little Mermaid, Sarah falls asleep next to you. Little breaths escape her body as Steve scoops her up and takes her down the hall. You’ve been sitting on the recliner- a safe choice so that you don’t assume too much, but Sarah climbed up next to you and snuggled into the space by the armrest. When he returns, Steve moves to the edge of the couch and takes a deep breath. You send him a tentative smile, offering him your hand.

He looks unbelievably tired as he takes it.

“Thank you… Really, I--”

You shake your head, “No, I know it’s hard. My mother raised me on her own— she remarried when I was in high school, but trust me… I was tough. You’re just fine. Really.”

He squeezes your hand and you return the gesture, pushing your flush down as much as possible. Fish are singing in the background, and the only thing illuminating Steve other than the movie is the lamp in the corner of the room. Slowly, as Sebastian the crab leads the chorus of marine wildlife, Steve laces his fingers in yours.

“I hope this is… um.. okay.” He whispers.

Your eyes are fixed on the T.V. “Mmhm.”

Another few minutes pass. “Can I get you anything else? More pie?”

You smile, “I’m okay. Thank you. Do you want help cleaning up?”

“No. No! I’ll do it.”

You blow a raspberry because there’s two pots, a pasta strainer, and a baking sheet, not to mention all those plates and cups and forks piled up in the sink. “Steve, I will have more pie if you let me help with the dishes.”

He rubs the back of his head. “Okay..” he laughs. “You’ve got a deal.”

Because you say it all the time, and because you swear your brain is just a giant spinning wheel of phrases you use in the classroom, you stupidly blurt. “Dill, pickle?”

He bursts into laughter. The sweetest, most joyful sound you’ve heard all night. Maybe ever. He clutches one hand to his torso and throws his head back. “Dill, pickle!”

 

Steve walks you to your car at eight-thirty. The two of you had shared another hefty slice of blueberry pie together and spent the last hour on the porch- you on the swing, him on the chair- because your conversations were getting too full and loud with laughter and you were afraid of waking Sarah. Peggy would be landing early to get her, about seven. Both father and daughter needed a good night’s sleep.

He takes leisurely steps next to you, both hands tucked in his pocket, chin to his chest with a smile and you find yourself slowing down to match his pace— not yet wanting the night to end. At the curb, you put your hand on your keys but leave them in your purse for now. He leans against the frame of your car and rubs the flutter sleeve of your summer dress lightly between two fingers.

“This is nice.” Steve says, maybe a little bolder than he should have been, but the entire month has been a series of days leading him up the peak of a terrible roller coaster, which tomorrow morning would plummet him into the longest thirty days of his life so far. He hasn’t seen Peggy since Christmas, only able to avoid her because he begs Marnie to take Sarah each time she visits. But tomorrow, promptly at seven, because Peggy is always prompt, he’ll be handing off his little girl with tears in his eyes and throwing himself into work to take his mind off being without her all summer.

Steve tries to find an anchor in the sorrowful sea. The sleeve of your floral yellow dress seems perfectly capable of keeping him still.

You see the desperate look in his eyes, brimming with sadness, worry, even if the edges of it are alight with joy from your time on the porch together. His comment seems less about your dress and more about the time, you think, but say nothing. Maybe he’s not ready— and you don’t expect him to be because all you know of Steve Rogers is just the tip of his iceberg. The weight of him- his grief, love, his complexities, lie much further beneath that blue.

You float there, too, with your own intricacies. Two icebergs melting slowly in the summer.

“Do you, um.. would you like to have lunch with me tomorrow?”

Tomorrow is a teacher workday, and you’ll be in the classroom. He knows that, as he offers. The two choices are either going out to eat during the lunch hour, or him coming into the school to bring you something. You ponder the question for a minute as you memorize the lines of his face. Slowly, you let go of the troubles you’ve kept-- the fear of gossip and rumors. Steve Rogers is sweet. He is caring, he is gentle, loving, strong, respectful. There could be worse men interested in you.

Part of you also knows he would appreciate it, after the morning.

“Yes. I’d really like that.”

“Can I call you when I’m on my way? I’ll bring our daily special if you’re not already sick of my cooking…” He laughs.

“Oh no. Please, feed me more of it!” You respond, rolling your eyes back at the memory of the tangy tomato sauce that had simmered for over an hour. The robust meatballs perfectly paired with the delicate cheese and hand-torn sweet basil sprinkled on top. “Dinner was incredible. I can’t even—Ugh!”

Steve’s hand clutches his torso again as he leans back. “I guess if you hated my cooking we’d have to stop seeing each other.” And suddenly the statement makes both of you stop in your tracks because he’s brought to the forefront the exact kind of thing that you’ve been tiptoeing around all night.

“If that’s... I mean, if that’s okay with you? Us seeing each other?” He rubs the back of his neck bashfully and the two of you stand like teenagers after a first date, still leaning against your car, barely lit by the lights of his front porch.

 

Inside, Sarah sleeps soundly to the soft melody of a night-time playlist Steve has put on for her. She dreams of a plane ride, her mother’s red lipstick, her father’s watch, the light blue polaroid camera that matches her eyes, and the white plastic picture that she forgot to look at before bed. On the sidewalk outside, her father steps forward, hand cupped underneath her first grade teacher’s chin and places a goodnight kiss to her cheek.

--

 

In the morning, your face still sting with the softness of his kiss. Two completely contradictory sensations float over every thought you have- in the shower, brushing your teeth, driving to work, cleaning your classroom. Everywhere you look, you’re invaded with last night’s memory of Steve Rogers’ breath caressing you. The closer it gets to noon, the harder your heart squeezes and pounds.

Seeing each other.

Heather notices your dreamy looks and asks you after the third time you drop a chair and you tell her a white lie—too much wine last night, a hangover. You know inevitably, it’ll be too obvious to hide, with him coming in to eat lunch, but for now you just don’t know how to say it yet:

Seeing each other.

It feels so foreign. You haven’t seen anyone in almost two years. And now suddenly, you’re seeing possibly the most fantastic man to ever grace the Earth. There’s a very real and immediate chance that the both of you are getting caught up in the infatuated period of romanticizing a relationship. You try to ground yourself, but it’s hard when the very ground you stand on trembles at the thought of him. The more you know about him, the more you slip.

He’s been separated and now divorced, he revealed to you last night, for about two years. His whole life is the bakery and Sarah. She dominated the majority of your conversation, a good fixture to keep the mood from straying too far into anything too serious. It kept you from revealing your own baggage, mostly. Not that you had a lot of it. But you never know how people internalize others’ truths.

“You goin’ out for lunch?” Heather asks as she picks up her thermos.

“No, I, uh… I’m having lunch here.” You can hardly believe it’s noon already.

“You ain’t got anythin!” She looks around your desk from the door, and you pinch your lips together.

“S-Steve is b-bringing me something.” You whisper quietly before clapping both your hands over your face. Heather’s gasp makes you peek out from behind your hands and you see that she’s peering down the hall at the sound of footsteps. She ducks out of the door way and stares open-mouthed at you before jerking her thumb to the entrance.

Girl….!

You mouth get out to her and she cackles in delight. With a firm wink, she fixes the purse on her hip and struts out of the room, calling, “Well, good afternoon, Mr. Rogers! Y’all have a great lunch, alright?”

 

Steve enters with a smile and a brown paper bag. He looks just a little more tired than usual, eyes puffier than last night. Instead of crossing the room and holding him, your first instinct, you meet him on the rug and stand on your tiptoes, left hand on his cheek to kiss him chastely on his right. It echoes his gesture from yesterday.

“You’re alright, Steve.” You whisper in his ear.

“Yeah. I’m trying to be.”

He nuzzles his cheek against yours and the two of you stand there before parting. Steve takes out lunch- yogurt, two pressed paninis, a cup of fruit. It’s small talk at first, about his morning and then yours, the steady and predictable grind of work, you looking forward to Friday afternoon when you officially start your summer break. You planned on visiting your family for about a week in July.

You tell him more about your family- your mother raising you and your brother on her own. He was closer to her, staying in town and making a living in the city, starting his own family. Silly stories were shared about both your childhoods- Steve was sickly and often picked on, usually finding himself battered into a pulp in Brooklyn alleyways. You went through a rebellious phase, chain-smoked, skipped school, hitchhiked around town. Neither of you could believe what the other was saying. Him- small?! You- goth?!

 

Steve roars with laughter. You tell him you may still be in your rebellious phase- not wanting to move back home any time soon.

But, as you predicted, he asks the inevitable.

“So why did you move out here?”

You bite your lip, “For a partner…” you begin, “I moved here with my long term boyfriend, who got into the Ph.D program at the university.”

Steve listens as he finishes the last of his yogurt, wiping the remainder with a cut of cantaloupe.

“I had just finished my Masters and student teaching, was still interviewing for jobs… it uh, it fell apart early on after the move.”

“Why? If you don’t mind me asking.”

Your fruit cup begins to resemble sludge as your fork smashes against the chunks of watermelon and honeydew until they’re disfigured. Steve watches you intently, tilting his head.

“He… wanted to get married. Wanted kids. We’d been together for three years and it was always something we would eventually do— but he just became really convinced about starting a family.”

“And you weren’t ready?”

“Sort of.” You confess. “I had a bit of an awakening after spending a semester student teaching. After a lot of thought about my own childhood, being around all of these children who had such tough lives and required so much from me as their teacher... it came together.  I realized I don’t want kids, Steve. That was the-- y’know— that was it.”

The corner of his mouth twitches a bit as he places his hands awkwardly in his lap. It must feel so strange to him, you think as you watch him slowly look around your classroom, disheveled in the middle of stacking desks and rolling up rugs. Everything is cared for here, deliberately put together to foster growth in twenty-five children every year… but he looks at you, and he sees the finality, the seriousness of your revelation: you didn’t want any children of your own.

He stops himself from saying those cliched, callous statements that people offhandedly throw at women who decide they don’t want children. But he can’t help still thinking them. You’re still so young, you might change your mind.

“Oh.” Is all he can summon.

You watch him almost physically recoil and your eyes slip shut, the disappointment settling down your body to gather into a tight knot in your gut. Maybe this was for the best— getting the truth out in the open before the both of you lead each other on too far. He wasn’t a young boy dating for kicks; he was an adult man, with a daughter, who had divorced his wife because she worked too much.

You fall asleep on the couch in front of lesson plans at least three times a week.

The sharp bite of truth mixes on your tongue with the sweet memory of his kiss on your cheek. Any future you might have with Steve Rogers would be as a mother to Sarah. You just admitted to him that you had no desire to be one.

You manage a dry laugh as you begin to gather the trash into the bin next to your foot. This was the downfall of your last relationship, and your very own mother had advised you that any man you might date will want a child sooner or later. Steve, already having one, was ahead of the curve.

“We- uh,” a single chuckle escapes, “We started something we couldn’t finish, huh?”

Steve blinks from his reverie, “No!” he helps, but it’s a futile attempt to salvage your feelings, “No, that’s not.. That’s not what’s happening.”

“Look at you, Steve. You’re leaned so far away from me.”

He does look at himself, and you’re right. Unconsciously, Steve had tilted back so far he looks like he’s just finished pushing himself away from the table. He’s at a loss for words because he doesn’t understand it, he doesn’t know how you can be so wonderful to your students, to his own daughter, right in front of his eyes over and over again… yet, you don’t want to be a mother. He doesn’t understand because being a father has been his greatest joy.

“You would make a great mother!” Steve blurts, “I’ve seen you… with Sarah. With all your students.”

You both wince, because he’s done it. He’s callously thrown that dismissive statement people tend to throw at women who don’t want children. His head is a mess. The complicated thing that was beginning to seem simple in his life has returned to being complicated again. This time, it’s so layered he doesn’t know how to even begin to look at it.

On the one hand, he can fool himself –assuming the relationship works out—and say that technically, Sarah isn’t your child, so you get what you want. But he also knows that any person who doesn’t want children is a person who doesn’t want to pledge their lives to the obligation of a child. Bucky and Natasha have often reminded him of those exact feelings. Furthermore, your not wanting a child was because of your own dedication to other children… to your work.

He’s vaguely reminded of Peggy and her dedication to her work.

His brain feels like how your fruit cup looks: slush.

 

“Wait.” Steve whispers suddenly, leaning forward. “I’m sorry I said that— I shouldn’t have. I don’t want to be the kind of person who invalidates you.”

He calls your name so softly it almost breaks your heart.

“I really like you. I’m not trying to change your mind. I… I don’t know what to do… but I really like you.” It brings a small smile to your lips.

“I like you too, Steve.”

“I just want to spend more time with you. Can we just .. see where this goes? At the very least, we’ll have this summer together… I…” he pauses, reaching across the table and linking his fingers through yours, like he did yesterday evening. It feels so good, and warm, and you sigh almost contentedly.

Steve takes a breath, “I don’t want this to end.”

That’s it, he thinks. This is him following Bucky’s advice, shooting his shot. This is Steve, laying himself down not knowing what will happen after summer, or even next week, or in five seconds, as he waits for your reply. All he knows is that he told the truth, with every fiber of him, he wants to keep seeing you. He wants to be in the presence of that incredible smile, the big heart, the warm laugh, so pure it lets him forget that he’s thirty-five and divorced.

It’s him, being selfish.

He stares at his shoes and says a prayer before taking the chance to glance across the desk. Your heart bellows in your chest before it drops from the incline. You take the plunge too.

Leaning over your desk, pencils clattering as the cup holder spills over the surface, you press your lips to his and whisper.

“Me neither.”

 

Chapter Text

Since you kissed Steve Rogers in your classroom on that Thursday afternoon, you’ve kissed him again and again after each meeting. It’s been precisely two more lunch dates, one more dinner date, and one long walk in the park on his day off before he was suddenly called in for an emergency pastry situation. That’s five kisses. Five dates. Five moments you lie in bed and think about while trying desperately not to scream.

You scold yourself every time because a part of you is embarrassed that you’re so—thirsty! But good God, the man is a tall glass of water you want to drown in. It’s been two stupid years since you’ve kissed anyone, and when you’re in bed at night, you hope that it’s not your lack of practice that’s been keeping him from moving forward.

You can’t be that bad, right? … Right?

But it’s always you who initiates, and Steve always keeps it short and sweet. Once, you felt the slightest flick of his tongue against your bottom lip, but then as quickly as he’d done it, he pulled away.

Grumbling, you press your pillow over your face and punch it a couple of times before settling back down into bed. You peer at the back of your hand in the darkness of your room and contemplate on trying it just like you used to when you were a kid. God, this feels stupid.

Tomorrow, you’ll just ask. Because you’re both adults and because he was your… boyfriend. You smother yourself with the pillow again, because that was an even more mortifying thought than making out with your own hand.

 

In the morning you go for a jog and make yourself a quick protein and fruit shake breakfast afterward. Then you head to the pool for about an hour before coming back home. Everything is quiet, and the world is peaceful, now that you don’t have the lives of twenty-five children hovering over your every waking moment. You shower and lie down on the couch before turning on a baking show. Looking around, you survey your apartment. It is so damn barren and cream-colored. You’re not strong nor brave enough to go get a bunch of furniture by yourself and start arranging.

Sighing, you settle on an easier task: maybe today you’ll go buy some houseplants.

Steve texts you a picture of a cheesecake around noon as you’re spraying water into the soil of two new succulents and a hanging fern. You show him your fern, placing your hand next to it for size reference. The messages between you are short and brief, since you see each other pretty often. 

Summer break unravels you a little bit, but you’ll be damned if you let your new (very adult) boyfriend know. You play video games and browse the internet with a bottle of wine on the weekends, and your summer is just a giant weekend. It’s almost troubling, really, because every summer you have to either find a new hobby to keep yourself entertained.

Last year you took up rock-climbing and baked a lot… but with Steve around, that just seemed like a good way to get laughed at. And of course, the summer before that one was spent moving out of your ex’s apartment and trying to keep your head above water. You shudder at the thought. If it wasn’t for the very fortuitous call back from your current workplace, you would have probably had to move back home or continued spiraling into credit-card debt.

You text Steve, asking him to suggest a new hobby to you.

Right away, he responds and recommends that you join his watercolor session at the bakery:

I’m teaching a two-hour workshop Sunday after we close. The sign up sheet is already full but… it helps knowing the teacher personally doesn’t it? I do a ceramics one in the winter, too!

You blink.

Steve… I can only draw if I invoke the spirit of Other Steve from Blue’s Clues.

Oh perfect, now he’s calling.

“Yes?” You answer. His laughter is ringing on the other line.

“Hey! Blue’s Clues is an excellent show! And, I gotta admit, that guy can really draw.”

You huff and sputter at him, “Stop messin’ with me. Last year I baked a lot but now that you’re here… I really need a new hobby- a doable hobby!”

He chuckles again before his voice grows quieter. Bossa nova plays in the background, and the coffee grinder is buzzing intensely. “Oh honey,” He whispers, and you’re nearly gasping at the way his voice sounds—low, deliberate—like he knows exactly what he’s doing.

“Come to the workshop, won’t ya? It’s just a beginner’s thing. I think you’ll really like it. For me?”

The quick-draw refusal you were so sure you could unholster on time is nowhere to be found, not with him asking you so sweetly like that. You grouse jokingly and accept, warning him that if he laughs at your unskilled hand, you’ll never take his advice again.

“Me? Laugh at you? Never, sweetheart. I can’t believe you would think that of me.”

“Oh hush, Steven.”

A puff of air escapes him and everything grows quiet. Steve mutters something you can’t quite make out, and then, even louder than before, the coffee grinder screeches. “Everything okay?” You ask, worried.

“Yeah. Um, yeah. Everything’s good.”

You’re suddenly reminded of the way he pulls away after a good night kiss and reach to unholster that gun.

“Hey—uh wha—why do you--- um.” What the hell is the right way to ask this question? Why have our tongues not fought for dominance? Why haven’t both my hands gotten lost in the front of your button-up shirt? Why have you not pressed your hard, broad chest against me?

Maybe you’ve been reading too much Cosmo or Buzzfeed Relationships in your quest to find the right answers.

“Huh?” Steve asks. “What’s that?”

You holster the gun.

“Nothing! Ha! I’ll see you Sunday!”

“Okay, hon… See you then. Don’t be nervous! It’ll be great!”

 

You squeeze your eyes shut as you place your phone on the coffee table. Crisis averted. Then, you search for basic video tutorials on watercolors as well as tips for beginning artists on your phone before casting it to the T.V. It’s entirely baffling and when you pick up a pencil and try to draw your new succulent on a nearby notepad, the voice coming through the speaker sternly states that you should “make marks deliberately-- not fiddling about with sketchy, hairy lines like a fuzzy caterpillar!”

What you’ve been working on looks exactly like a fuzzy caterpillar, and your cheeks flush pink with embarrassment.

So you try again, erasing furiously before attempting those “deliberate” lines. After nearly fifteen minutes, you sit back and peer at your creations.

“Jesus.”

Your smooth, plump, glossy plant looks like one of those inflatable tubes outside of an auto dealership in the middle of deflating.

You feel deflated, too.

Over your dinner table is a corkboard of photos and postcards, and you walk over to snag Steve’s thank you card from its place in the corner. You study his technique and peer at the delicate forest green line of each stem- just a single, continuous stroke. The petals seem to be merely blobs of color if you’re looking closely, and where the flowers touch, sometimes the pigments bleed over each other.

No, it’s not a perfect thing. But it is gorgeous, still.

So, you try… again. This time, you tear off the deflated succulent drawing and place it on your coffee table in the left corner. Just for good luck, you chant “Steve, Steve, Steve!” as if he’s Beetlejuice, and get to work. Half your brain is thinking of the striped green shirt and oversized crayon, and the other half is thinking of a striped blue shirt and oversized pecs. Either way, both of them could art.

You’ve drawn all year for your students- especially your ESL kids who struggled with codeswitching. Sometimes, when they were unable to find the right word, or you were, you’d draw a picture instead. According to twenty-five first graders, you were an amazing artist, so… what the hell!

Ten minutes later, you tear off the top of the notepad and set it down next to its brother.

The two are stark differences, and your second one is little bit better. You’re almost proud of it—smooth flowing lines, rounded edges, and even a flat plane of the table to ground the pot.

Sitting back, you click around some more, making sure to choose videos that are most helpful to your current ability. Those speed-up painting videos were hella tempting, but you do not want to get lost in the rabbit hole.

Sunday is two days away. At the very least, you were going to be able to draw a damn good succulent.

---

You come in early to help him close before the workshop begins. Cap&Co. closes on Sundays right at six, and the workshop would start half an hour later.

The baristas say hello to you and smile, and you do the same back before you grab a rag and spray a counter down. The leftover pastries and sandwiches are placed on a tray and put in the middle of the room, where the tables and chairs have been pushed together by Steve.

“Snacks!” He smiles, “For the students.”

“Does that make me your student too?” You tease, finding the situation a bit ironic.

He winks at you before hanging up his apron. Between the four of you and the work that’s left, it’s quickly finished in the next ten minutes and the employees leave, wishing you a good night as they go.

Steve lets you choose the music for the night as he brightens the lights, and you randomly scroll through the shop’s selection before picking an old album you used to like as a younger girl—Fiona Apple’s 1996 Tidal. Right away, the singer’s brassy voice catches his attention.

“Who is this?” He asks excitedly, “I think I heard her on the radio the other day!”

You tell him, and he nods along to the music as he sets out sheets of watercolor paper clipped neatly on boards. Then he lays out five travel-sized round palettes already filled with an array of colors. By the time all the paintbrushes are next to each clipboard, people are starting to arrive and Steve is back and forth saying hello and giving hugs. You finish the end of the preparation and fill up heavy mason jars with water and set them at each spot. Then, you take your seat with a cake pop and eagerly and watch him lead the demonstration.

“Thanks for coming, everyone!” He smiles widely at the end of the table. “Good to see some of you again!”

 

This must be what your students feel like, you think—you hope, because you are absolutely enthralled with everything that pours from his mouth. Even the way he stumbles over his words fascinates you, and the fact that he is so animated and engaged makes you love it even more.

Steve tells the group that he’ll demonstrate for about twenty-five minutes before everyone can start either trying out various techniques, or if they’ve done it before, can begin on painting whatever they please and he’ll come around to offer help. He suggests the plants for a nice still life, or other knick-knacks around the shop. Some returning students have even brought their own objects and you want to pinch yourself because you could have brought your succulent!

Then, he begins, showing you the right way to load the paintbrush with paint and water, and how water tension is so important to the medium. He shows you the difference between a wet brush and a dry brush. He shows you how to layer the colors. Your brain can hardly keep up with your eyes as they enthusiastically soak up the colors over his paper and the way his wrist moves easily back and forth from the mason jar where he cleans the bristles, to the palette saturated with pigment, to the paper where strokes are being placed.

“Here is a quick and easy way to make a flower.”

Steve loads a fat brush with water and pulls two shades of orange onto the white of the palette. In one swift motion, he streaks a daub of it onto the paper, letting the water gather more heavily on one side.

“We’ll let that dry for just a second— but we can do this for now.” He presses the tip of the brush into a tiny bit of red and makes another mark similar to the first one. The edges of the paint that touches leaks into each other, creating a tiny blossom of red into the first petal.

“This is what will happen when your paint is still wet—but that’s okay!” He makes two more petals—slightly more yellow than the last and touches his finger to the one with the accidental red bloom.

“It’s pretty dry now.” He blows softly on it for good measure and mixes a rosy coral shade into his brush.

The last petal is swept over the first, and the overlapping area where they touch turns into a vibrant shade of ripe orange. Then, quickly, he sticks the wood handle of the brush sideways between his teeth and picks up a smaller brush, wetting it, loading it with a deep purple that’s almost black, and makes a spray of dots in the middle.

“There ya go!” He takes the brush out of his mouth.

A part of you thinks that you are fucked because you may have just fallen in some deep shit here, as you stare at him, grinning widely—so proud of himself and somehow proud of you, too, for listening.

He’s made it seem impossibly easy. An absurdly beautiful blossom from his imagination stares at you from the watercolor pad in his hand as you shakily pick up the brush next to your hand.

“Well… shit, Steve.” You whisper before breaking out into a silly laugh and putting your forehead into your palm at the thought of the herculean task at hand. The woman to your right laughs along with you as she makes scribbly marks and drips globules of blue water onto her paper. Steve beams at you lovingly as you try to imitate the way he made the first petal, steering the water where you want it to go.

It doesn’t.

But you’re determined, damn it. Because one, you really want to impress him, and two, you really need a summer hobby.

The next hour flies by as you paint diligently, occasionally humming along to Fiona Apple’s resonant vocals in the background, chatting with the other painters. They’re all regulars at Cap&Co., and they adore the Rogers family.

Steve circles the room and answers questions, giving pointers, and sometimes putting his hand over yours to lead your paintbrush. He even kisses you on the top of your head when you finish your first flower—a lavender five-petaled ...cephalopod.

The affectionate gesture doesn’t go unnoticed by the others as they smile and quietly ask him questions when they think you’re not listening. Your ears go pink the rest of the night—just as hot as the top of your head because Steve!

Before you know it, it’s time to pack up. The album has already repeated, and it’s back to an early track. No one seems to mind, however, as they take their papers and wave goodbye. You linger in the area, pouring out dirty water and putting the jars back under the sink. Steve puts away the paints, fixes the rest of the tables, and you return to the café area to join him. He’s patting his thighs with his wet hands when you come in, nodding along to the music.

You gaze at the damp spots on his legs, the fabric of his trousers slightly clinging onto his muscles. Quickly, before he sees you, you look away.

“This exact song was on in the car.” He mutters amusedly, “I really like this… she’s got a great voice.”

Steve walks closer to you, stopping a few steps away and leans against the edge of a wooden booth. He crosses his arms and press his lips together, eyelashes fluttering as he smiles.

“What now?” He asks. His voice echoes the same low and deliberate tone you’ve heard before, and you think that the question isn’t really a question at all. But you’re not really sure what to make of it—tonight may have been the most forward he’s ever been.

The lights are dimmed. The piano melody crescendos before the song ends. There’s a pause of silence before the next song begins, and you feel your heart leap as the first few words start.

I lie in an early bed, thinking late thoughts.

“Um…” Your voice cracks.

I do not struggle in your web because it was my aim to get caught
But daddy longlegs, I feel that I’m finally growing weary
of waiting to be consumed by you.

Steve cocks his head to the side, also listening—to the music, perhaps to your now uncomfortably loud heartbeat. You run your hand through your hair. The music chimes into a more upbeat tone as the chorus starts.

Give me the first taste.
Let it begin.
Heaven cannot wait forever.

“Why don’t you ever kiss me first?”

His eyebrows raise briefly before he blinks a couple of times. You tilt your chin to your chest and lace your fingers together, foot tapping anxiously as you stand in wait. “I mean, I think I’m just a little confused. We’ve seen each other for like, two weeks now. I feel like it’s always me who initiates—but tonight you did a little bit more of that. And… I guess we’ve only kissed—Am I a bad kisser? Steve? Am I?”

You’re full of rambling, nervous energy but you try your best to play it off. It was such an awkward thing to say out loud, and there was no way you could come out and spit: Why have we not had sex yet?

Steve surges forward and takes your hand in his, “No!” His head his shaking wildly, “You’re a great kisser! The best!”

His blabbering catches you off-guard and the snort of laughter that comes from you is anything but attractive. “Jesus, Steven, that’s too much.”

Steve slaps his palm to his forehead. “Ah… I’m sorry. I think I’m just nervous.”

“About what?” You ask, leaning forward and looking up at him, “Steve, I just… snorted. You can’t be nervous about this. I should be the one who’s nervous! Look at you!”

He takes a step back and puts one hand on his hip, the other reaching forward to signal to you. “Look at me? Look at you!” He gawks.

The two of you stand there, pointing at each other, making scoffing noises of disbelief for a good two minutes before you put up your hand. “Okay. Pause, mister. You look like someone Photoshopped a rugged Ken Doll and then 3-D printed it. Westworld-style. You bake, you paint, you’re a ceramic---ist? Ceramicist? What! Steve!” You throw your hands up in exasperation, “Come on! Your fuckin’ arms!”

He rolls his eyes, “I’m thirty-five and divorced. I sleep four hours a night. I’m a walking disaster.” Then he narrows his eyes at you.

You’re gorgeous! You’re funny, you’re kind, you’re so sweet…! You’re honest?” He ticks off each adjective using his fingers, “You’re patient? God, Sarah throws half a tantrum and my world collapses. You’re dedicated. You’re---“

“Okay. Stop.” You mutter, cheeks burning hot, “I sleep on the couch next to a bottle of wine and have three pieces of furniture. We’re both disasters.”

Steve laughs and steps forward again, putting his hand over yours. “I just… didn’t want to mess anything up.” He whispers, “I like you so much… and… if we’re… talking about that. I haven’t… been with anyone in … two years. Other than you, I’ve only kissed one person my entire life… So, the question is—am I a bad kisser?”

You giggle as he gives you an apologetic smirk, shaking his head at the way you two have been aggressively complimenting each other. Standing on your tiptoes, you move to nuzzle your nose against his. “You’re a great kisser, Steve. The best.”

Darkness flutters over his eyes briefly before Steve expertly dodges your nose and catches your mouth with his instead. With a half-whimper, half-moan, Steve Rogers grabs the back of your neck in one large, warm hand and your lower back with the other and presses your body flush against his.

Oh.

He’s so tall he has to bend over and you’re so small against him that he’s nearly picking you up. A brief parting of your lips give you a moment to catch your breath, but he’s back again, tongue sliding against yours sweetly, as if asking a silent question.

Is this okay?

With a sigh of pleasure, you ask him to continue in the same, secret language. Your chest is burning hot, tummy quivering with nerves and delight as his hands roam your body. Firm. Strong. Almost desperate. Your own hands rest on his shoulders before one reaches up and cups his face, trailing your fingertips through his beard.

“D-does it bother you?” He mutters against your mouth before he slides down past your jaw and lands his lips on your neck, “My beard?”

“Mmm—no—” you’re breathless as he kneads his fingers into your waist, moving up to position them just below your breasts, “I like it—mmm-- lots.” You sigh, as his scruff tickles your shoulder, sending tingles all over your body. “I’d like to feel it… elsewhere, too.”

He freezes and pulls away. His hands place you back down on your feet-- back to Earth-- as he swallows hard, looking at you with open, red lips. Steve rolls the bottom one between his teeth and clenches his jaw, eyes half-lidded and lustful. You’re probably a wreck, too, you think as you catch yourself against a table.

“Can we---”

You cut him off, purse already in your hands, keys swinging around your finger.

“God. Yes. I’ll follow you.”

 

Steve tugs you from the driver’s seat of your car, hand entwined with yours as he leads you up the walkway and over the step. Once the front door shuts behind him and he’s made sure it’s locked, you’re pressed up against the wall, purse, shoes, keys, clattering onto the hardwood.

“Oh, honey,” he mumbles as he presses his face into your collar, scooping you up into his arms. “Oh, Jesus, sweetheart.”

You’re glad he knows how to navigate his house with his eyes closed because the whole way there, you can’t stop kissing him. Your hands tug his hair and your teeth pinch his bottom lip. Steve responds by growling softly, biting you back, squeezing your thighs before slowly easing you onto his bed.

It’s dark in his room, but you feel the bed dip as he climbs on too. Both your eyes are trying to adjust—trying to find each other. Your hands fumble around until you catch him, his knee. His hands find your stomach. Slowly, he reaches for the hem of your shirt and peels it up over your head. Then he does the same to his own shirt and both of you shimmy out of your pants.

He is hard and hot when your bare skin touches his. Steve lies down on his side to face you, panting slightly as you glide your hand up and down his arm. Oh fuck, it’s been two years and the first man you touch is more like a mythical creature than any man. It should be illegal for someone to feel this good.

Trembling, you touch the smooth planes of his torso, the ridges in his abdomen, the swell of his chest taking hard breaths. You shut your eyes and imagine the way he looks right now—breathless and wild. His knee parts your legs easily and one hand descends to feel your center. Your underwear is soaked.

“Jesus, baby,” Steve sighs into your neck. “You’re makin’ me crazy. This--” He begins to slide his digits up and down, getting the slippery wetness all over his fingers, “Already...”

A shudder rolls through your body upon hearing his words and you arch into his touch, moaning when he rubs your clit in perfect pulsing circles. He moves forward, kissing the tops of your breasts through your bra, nipping at the soft flesh spilling from the cups.

“Steve, you’ll make me come.” You admit, a little shyly even as your hips rock consciously into his hand. You paw at his arms, squeezing the ridges of thick muscles.

The mischievous chuckle that pours from his throat vibrates against your chest. Steve grabs onto your thigh and eases your leg over his hips inching closer and straightening himself until you’re aligned perfectly. He tilts back and guides you against him until your center slides against his bulge.

Just as you find the elastic of his waistband, he jerks away and places himself in-between your legs as he moves you onto your back. You scoot until your head hits the wall, propping yourself up on your elbows, giving him more room at the foot of the bed.

“You wanted to feel this?” Steve caresses your thighs with his cheek, the hairs on his beard tickling your sensitive skin. Your toes curl up reflexively as he moves back and forth, trailing his lips and face all over.

You squeal when the tip of his nose touches your mound, mouth hovering over your soaked panties. His mouth latches on, almost in a bite before he takes them off. Both his hands slide beneath your bottom, squeezing the soft flesh of your ass before he pulls your hips forward. You land on his face, eyes rolling back in ecstasy. 

“Steve,” You gasp, “This is unfair.” Your body jerks with every teasing kiss he presses to your folds. His breath comes out in a smug puff of air that purposefully continues to drive you unbelievably closer to what feels like breaking entirely.

“Baby…” he mutters—right into your cunt, Jesus! You groan at the way his face is nestled there. “Baby---mm— It’s been two years for me.” He whispers, “If I don’t get you off now, in a really good way—it’s not gonna be good at all.”

“Steve—you know—ah! It’s been the same amount of time for me too, right?!”

He ignores you, crawling his hands around onto your hips to keep you from squirming. When you settle finally, he moves one hand to your center, sliding a finger up and down your slippery folds. His mouth latches onto your clit as his finger continues their trail. You fist his hair with both hands at the same time he slips a digit inside.

But he doesn’t move. Other than his tongue’s soft licks on your swollen clit, Steve doesn’t move at all. He happily lets his finger rest inside of you, gathering your juices all over his hand.

You whimper, trying to shimmy against them, anything to create more contact. Its intrusion builds a terrible itch inside of your body, and goddamn it, you want to scratch.

It feels like an eternity passes before he finally lets you have another—adding one more thick finger inside, stretching you as he moves them both around, curling them, pumping them in and out. He sucks enthusiastically on your sensitive bud, fucks you with two fingers almost wildly, and your body responds with fervor. You gasp and moan, arching your back into his hand and face, goosebumps blooming all over your shoulders and down your arms and legs.

“C’mon, that’s it. Thassa good girl. You’re so close. Almost there… Good girl… Good girl.”

With a cry, you come undone, rolling your hips every which way as you reach orgasm on Steve’s hand. His voice continues to praise you, lips kissing your sweat-slicked thighs, beard tickling your sensitive skin.

Instead of pulling away, Steve continues to stroke you with his fingers, slowly prodding at your entrance with a third.

“Just trying to get you ready.” He murmurs, and your heart stills. Ready?

You voice your concern, “What do you mean?”

With a slight chuckle, he sits up, wiping his mouth and parts of his beard with the back of his hand. In the dark, Steve reaches for your arm, guiding you to feel exactly what he’s talking about. A strangled cry escapes your throat as you wrap your fingers around his cock. Hot. Throbbing. Big.

Sweet, sensitive, divorced, baker, artist, ceramicist, father Steve fuckin’ Rogers is packing. And it isn’t until you nervously grip him in both hands do you realize the importance of his last statement.

“Can I get you ready, baby?” He asks again.

For the millionth time that night, your eyes roll back and get lost in your head as you lean against the headboard with a whimper. Steve crawls over on top of you, scoops you up once again in his arms, and places you on his lap. Your legs wrap around his back loosely as he holds you still, previous two fingers pushing inside gently.

You rest your head on his shoulder as your body shakes under his ministrations, already tired and overstimulated. Your hands find their way to grip him, massaging his length tenderly, savoring the temperature of his body, spreading the beaded precum at the tip of his cock up and down his shaft. Steve groans, scissoring his fingers inside of you, spreading your walls.

The third finger meets resistance as you tense up.

“S-sorry,” You whisper, “I’m… I’m pretty nervous…” But you move his hand back and try again. He’s so tender and sweet with you as he turns his head to place kisses on your cheek and ear. It’s a few minutes of this exploration before you feel brave enough to shift and stroke him with determination. Steve takes the message as a confirmation and reaches into the end table for a condom.

It’s slipped on and you follow suit, gasping as Steve guides your hips with one hand, and grips himself with the other. Slowly, he fills you inch by inch until he’s so deep inside you think he could emerge from your throat.

“Oh… my… God!” You cry. There aren’t enough words to describe it— the sweetest sting, an all-encompassing and chilling burn, a mystifying and utter fullness that nearly brings tears to your eyes. You’re afraid to move, to lose this sensation, and afraid to feel what comes next. But you know that you want it.

Steve kisses your lips tenderly, babbling praise, whispering affirmations, soothing the shock that surges up your spine with his warm palm. Slowly, he rocks you back, holding onto your body with one hand, smoothing the hair that falls over your face with the other.

You’re gripping him so tightly it takes some effort to slide even an inch of him out— and there’s many inches of him. Sweat collects on your brow as you grind, dragging against his length, forcing shudders to course all over both your bodies. “Is this okay?” you mutter, delirious, “Steve? You feel so good.”

He flexes within you, grunts into your ear. A dry chuckle escapes him as his hand squeezes your back just a little too hard. He’s holding back, trying to prolong your pleasure, but his own is chasing him down, only a few steps away from pouncing.

You coax it towards him with faster snapping of your hips against his, clawing at his back, nibbling on his ear. “Come on, my love… just a little more.”

With a grunt and a shudder, and a hard kiss to your lips that makes your teeth clack against each other, Steve thrusts one last time as deeply as possible, riding out his orgasm as he pulls your hips against his. The two of you feel welded together, sticky with sweat and so tightly flushed that you’re not sure where he ends and you begin. You body slumps as you drape your arms over his neck. Steve turns his head to kiss your shoulder before making the effort to pull away and clean himself up. He goes into the bathroom first, lying you down and covering you with the blanket.

 

When he returns, Steve finds you already dozed off. You palm rests under your cheek as you lie on your side, breathing deeply.

As quietly as he can, he squeezes in beside you, fitting himself against your back. He’s read it somewhere, that falling in love is a little bit like falling asleep. As his eyes slip shut, he feels it happening, just like that quote had said: slowly at first, then… all at once.

In the darkness behind his lids, there is strangely so much light.

 

Chapter Text

Your first thought when you stir the next morning is that someone is cooking in your apartment. The second thought you have is purely frantic as you realize that no one should be cooking in your apartment, and then finally, that this isn’t your apartment at all.

The comforter is gray under your clenched fingers, not cream, like your own. The bedsheets are too smooth and silky, and the pillow under your head is much too nice to be anything you’ve bought for yourself. In the distance is the quiet hum of a range hood as well as a peppy whistling tune. Your heart begins to slow as you realize… it’s only Steve.

The alarm clock on top of his dresser blinks six-fifteen back at you and you wipe the sleep from your eyes with a traitorous yawn. From the commotion in the kitchen, he wasn’t joking when he said that he only slept four hours a night.

You only hope that you’re somewhat decent as you hear his footsteps coming closer to the bedroom. Should you pretend you’re asleep? Should you run to the restroom? It’s been so long since you’ve woken up next to anyone that you’re grasping at straws.

“Hey…” Steve greets shyly as he steps in, as if he’ll scare you off. “Good morning.”

He’s wearing grey lounge pants and an off-white tee, feet nestled in a pair of green house-slippers. His hair is slightly ruffled from sleep, but he is otherwise just as magical as ever. Glowing, almost, as he scratches his beard.

“I, um, made breakfast, if you’d like to join me? Monday’s my day off… so… no rush.”

You nod with a smile, but then point towards the restroom door. “Do you have an extra toothbrush?”

He dutifully dips into the room and pulls out one from the cabinet before picking up his own as well. You ease yourself from the warmth of his sheets, not quite ready to start the day, but hopeful that you can return to the plush fabric that smells fragrantly like him.

And, you think suddenly, like sex.

You become introverted like a timid maiden, blatantly aware of your nakedness in his bedroom. You slip on his shirt from last night—a faded, speckled grey jersey knit that hangs on you like a dress. You have no idea where your underwear is, so you’re glad Steve’s as large as a door because the hem swings a few inches above your knees, just enough for some modesty.

He’s already gently scrubbing at his teeth by the time you start, and you tilt your head forward so that he can’t see the blush that’s determinedly crawling up your neck.

He rinses and spits. Then moves to the door but stops.

“I… really like this…” He says quietly, trailing a finger down your spine. You rinse and spit too, standing up and wiping your mouth, catching his downcast eyes in the mirror as they trail over the shape of you through his clothing.

His gaze flickers upward, holding your own eyes steady in the reflection of the glass. Steve clamps his minty fresh teeth over lower his lip and takes a step forward until his knee is situated between the back of your two thighs.

When he presses his body against yours, the sudden shyness that seized you in the bedroom is nowhere to be found as the two of you watch each other in the glass.

“You should have more days off, I think...” You sigh distractedly as his hand reaches under the shirt. Steve smiles into the back of your neck, hums a musical agreeance, squeezes your sides.

 

Breakfast is cold by the time you make it to the kitchen, but you eat it anyway, both giggly and alive with newfound energy. Steve pulls your chair so close to his that you end up practically in his lap and nuzzles his nose into your neck any chance he gets.

The sunlight pours in from the opened blinds and cuts across the table and your legs with streaks of bright white. Scents of coffee, bacon, and spices fill the air. Steve licks frosting from your mouth as the two of you share a cinnamon roll and when you gasp at the way his tongue tickles, he promptly takes you back to bed to show you what else his tongue will do to you this morning.

It’s blissful like a dream, your time with him now that you’ve crossed this bridge. He makes love to you ardently, cradles your body like it’s made of glass, and breathes sincerity onto your extremities until all you feel is the warmth of Steve Rogers.

You spend the next few Monday mornings like this: lazy, indulgent, with sleepy eyes and roguish smiles.

The weekdays are spent mostly apart with Steve’s schedule of waking up at three to work out before he starts baking at Cap&Co. His timetable is strict and nothing like your own, so you don’t see him until he gets off work for dinner— when he still makes the meals. You try your best to help, washing the dishes afterward and wiping the counters. He’s usually so tired that he’s asleep before he hits the bed at nine, so you let yourself out and lock the door behind you.

And it’s not like you don’t have your own life. You see Heather for dinner and get together with some other co-workers when they go out for drinks. You also visit your mother—a five-hour drive away, and even slowly begin to add more furniture into your world.

Steve also gifts you a small watercolor kit and four very expensive brushes. When he’s busy at work, you continue practicing your painting. It gets better, slowly, and you branch out to different types of still-life: fruit, knick-knacks, silly arrangements you scrounge together with the items in your house.

Your days are spent looking forward to Sunday evening, when you meet up with Steve early, help him close, and trail him enthusiastically back to his house. The nights are full of fingertips and wine, knees knocking together following the rhythm of unhurried kisses and husky breaths, exultant laughter and pillow talk after the fact. Then, you both fall asleep in each other’s arms, naked as the day you were born.

 

Eight-thirty blinks on the clock when you finally settle on your side the third Monday of this divine ritual, tracing the lines of Steve’s face with your eyes. His room is rosy with daylight as the beams catch on his drawn curtains and scatter over the walls.

“Mm…” He hums, smiling, returning the gesture with his own inspection of your face. “What is it?”

“Nothing.” You say breathlessly, praying to every known deity that you looked okay, just as you do every morning with him. This new love still blooms butterflies in your stomach. “Just, appreciating you—you’re really handsome.”

He laughs, eyelashes landing on his cheeks before he begins to scrub his beard with his fist, “Thank you.”

“So you agree?” You ask mischievously, “You think you’re really handsome?”

His brow furrows before he pops one eye open and asks carefully, “Mean Girls?”

You shriek with laughter, turning over on your back and holding your sides- encased in another one of his shirt, “Oh my God!” You cry, “You’re perfect!”

He shares a lopsided grin with you, pulling you into his arms that you playfully take a bite of.

“So…” Steve croons, “You don’t just like me for my arms? You also like me for my knowledge of Mean Girls, is that right?”

You nod eagerly along, cheek pressed against his chest, and he gives you the equivalent of a noogie with his chin, the thick hairs on it scrrtch-scrrtching as the sound echoes along your skull.

It’s more of this bliss for the next half hour. Joking, playing, burrowing beneath the covers to stare at each other under diffused light. Your fingers are linked in his, and he’s telling you a story about his childhood when you start to nod off, dreaming about Steve as a boy, catching bus rides all over Brooklyn.

“Bucky and I would get into all sorts of trouble,” his disembodied voice floats over your fuzzy state of mind, “Bucky with the girls, and me… well, with everybody else.”

You chuckle softly as he kisses the top of your head.

“—we’d forgotten the fare—“

Back and forth, like floating on a Caribbean current, staring into the clouds, you sway.

“—and the dog chasing—“

You can almost hear it, a little terrier’s yelp. You’re warm and full of sunshine and affection for him. The young man, troublesome, and the grown man, tender and loving. Both blonde and blue and beaming at you with a smile brighter than any star. A sluggish smile spreads over your lips when Steve tilts his head down to check on you. He presses his nose into your scalp, breathing in the fragrant scent of his shampoo in your hair and a lingering aroma that’s solely yours.

“Love you.”

His eyebrows raise at your sudden admission. The words sound so nonchalant that he thought they might have belonged to someone who’s been in his life more than a month. He checks on you again because he was sure you’d fallen asleep already. And you are, heavy sighs caressing his sternum.

He rolls your words around in his mouth silently, the syllables making his chest swell with every touch of tongue to teeth. It’s new love, and he hasn’t felt a new love in over two decades. The excitement, the unknowing, the thrill of discovering, he’s never thought he’d look forward to ---

A shrill ring jerks you from your slumber and Steve from his musings.

He paws around the bed for his phone. Peggy’s number lights up and he knows it’s Sarah requesting a video chat. They’ve done this at least twice a week, but it’s the first time that you’re here, too. You rub your eyes and scoot to the edge of the bed, making sure that you’re out of sight when Sarah comes on screen.

“Daddy?” Her voice calls when he picks up.

You watch Steve’s profile light up with a grin as you rub the sleep out of your eyes. You smile too as you watch him beaming. “Sweetheart! I’ve missed you so much.”

“I miss you too daddy! I’m about to eat dinner and mummy is setting the table. Today mum, she took me to see this big clock thing and it’s name is Ben! And didja know? Didja know in London, the money is called a quid? Like a squid, daddy!”

Steve chuckles as Sarah rambles on, telling him more about her sightseeing in London. You hear her blow kisses and can’t help but smile because you also miss her.

“Daddy when I come back I’m gonna bring you some squids and—“

Your heart leaps when she asks if you’ll be there at the airport too. Steve sends a quick look your way and you reply with a nod. He reaches over to squeeze your hand before pulling it back.

“—Yay! I’ve been taking lots of pictures I want to show! Look, look! Here’s me and grandma and mummy—“

“Mummy, huh?” Steve asks, “Why, Sarah, you’re a certified Brit now, aren’t you?”

“Well, I’m half!” Sarah cries, “Here’s mummy and I put this flower in her hair. Isn’t she the most beautiful person in the world?”

A pang of jealousy hits your chest as soon as Sarah’s words leave her lips. Steve looks on, sadness eroding his formerly happy features. He doesn’t say anything, though, and you know it must be to spare your own feelings as you lie perfectly still only a couple of feet away. It feels like leagues of ocean as you float unsteadily, waiting selfishly for the moment to end. The rocking of the Caribbean is gone. You sink down like Atlantis now.

“Sarah, my dove,” A voice calls on the other line, growing closer. “Sweetheart, could I have the phone?”

“Can you talk to mumma today?”

His Adam’s apple bobs as he sits up quickly, back against the headboard. You watch him run his fingers through his hair, patting down the sides that have become disheveled. He’s become fearful like a deer in headlights.

“Hello, Peggy.” He says quietly when the screen shifts. If you weren’t motionless before, you certainly are now. A perfect frozen statue, steely and cold, drained of even your own breath.

“Steven,” she responds, “You look… healthy. I… I’m glad to see you. Have you been well?”

“Yes. You?”

“Yes.”

Even her voice sounds beautiful—polished and refined with that fantastic English accent Americans are so easily attracted to. You’ve seen pictures of her, of course, ones that Sarah has shown you all those months ago when the kids did a project over their parents. You only wish you felt the way you did then—appreciative of Peggy Carter’s loveliness in a completely disengaged way, rather than how you do now. Sick. Ill with envy and dread.

“That’s excellent. I just want to, well, I just want to let you know that she’s doing well on our little holiday.” You hear her voice lift a little, tell-tale sign of a smile, and you can only imagine just how radiant her smile is. “She’s very impressive, our girl.” Peggy says, “She’s really grown so much.”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees quietly, “She has. I’m glad she’s having fun. Thanks for letting me know, Peg.”

“Of course. Well, I’ll leave you be. Sarah’s already at the table so perhaps we’ll call you later tonight? If that’s alright with you?”

“Yeah... of course.”

A moment passes before they both say their goodbyes carefully and Steve tucks the phone face-down under the blanket next to his thigh. Yes, you know this feeling, you think as you watch him slide his palm over his forehead until the heel of it is the only thing touching his temple. His eyes are closed as he inhales deeply.

You don’t want to be the first to speak, so you wait for him to acknowledge you.

“I’m sorry about that.” He whispers, staring up at the stationary fan overhead.

“No, it’s nothing.” You respond. Your hand moves to take his, but you stop yourself. It suddenly feels wrong, and you feel wrong—like an unwelcome guest in his home, in his life. Tears prick at the corners of his eyes.

“I- I, uh, sorry!” He laughs bitterly, “Don’t know what’s come over me.”

“No, I understand.” You pluck up the courage to hold onto his hand, but it lies heavy over your own.

“I haven’t talked to Peggy in months,” he sighs, “It’s… it’s hard. You know? Being with someone for half your life and… now my life is… this.”

Of course, he doesn’t mean it that way, but you take his statement like a slap to the face because you are the this that he’s talking about—the other, the unknown thing that he’s fumbling with. There’s not a lot for you to compare what he’s feeling to, because your previous relationship is a blip compared to Steve and Peggy’s marriage.

Even though this new relationship is fun and thrilling, full of electricity and warmth, you know that the comfort of being with someone you know, someone you have loved, someone you can fall back to so easily… is just that. So damn easy.

Steve and Peggy have spent nearly two decades together. They know each other just as well as they know themselves. If this recent conversation is the beginning of a reconciliation, then, who are you to stand in the way of their family?

You’re full of concern and self-hatred as you suddenly feel like… like this: like four short weeks, like nothing at all.

“Y-yeah.” You breathe, because it’s all you can do.

 

Twenty minutes later you’re heading out the door, much earlier than your usual Mondays together. But the call from London had left a painful thorn in your side and a haze of discomfort over Steve. The two of you stepped around each other when you go to the restroom to shower, bumping into the doorframe and wall on accident. He reached for the curtain first, but you had the same thought, and your hands both retreated. Then you accidentally elbowed him when you tried to take off your shirt and, in his attempt to dodge the rest of your arm, he knocked into the sharp corner of the countertop.

Steve had snapped at you after that—asking you harshly to be more careful with what you’re doing, and it made you physically take a step back, cheeks burning with ire. He was so caught up--merely minutes later after talking to Peggy—that it was all he was thinking about.

“I think I’ll just go.” You said, hastily pulling on your clothes from the night before and sweeping your hair up into a bun.

 

He doesn’t even stop you, which makes it all the more painful.

 

He doesn’t text or call the next day. Or the day after that. And you conclude that both of those days signify the death of your new relationship. He doesn’t need to tell you it’s over for you to feel it in your heart. You think it’s better like this anyway and begin trying to sweep the memories of him into the back of your mind.

You spend the mornings sleeping in as late as your body will allow you to because any moment awake would be another moment that your mind will wander to Steve. You feel beyond torn, oscillating between accepting the fact that the man has a family and a history, and then growing infuriated that you let yourself fall into his trap in the first place.

What were you expecting, anyway? That he’d marry you? That he’d fall in love with you and you would live happily ever after in his cozy Four-Square sanctuary? You wish you had never said yes to him, never gone to the bakery, never given him your number, never kissed him or made love to him. Your body aches to think of him.

Less than thirty days ago, Steve Rogers was the absolute least of your worries. And now, you can only blame yourself.

You cry at the end of your jogs and into your bowls of oatmeal. You throw the watercolors against the wall. You stare angrily at the black hole of your phone screen. Your eyes burn into themselves any time you catch your reflection in the mirror.

“Idiot.” You chastise yourself to the emptiness of your apartment. “You goddamn idiot.”

--

On the phone, Bucky Barnes rolls his eyes and gestures incredulously to his girlfriend. Sometimes he can’t believe that Steve is capable of being so senseless.

“Rogers, you goddamn idiot!”

“I’m serious, Bucky.” Steve retorts, “It’s—you know it’s more complicated than that.”

Bucky scoffs loudly and disapprovingly, “I don’t think it is, man. Run it through for me again. C’mon—from the top.”

Steve sighs loudly and leans back on the couch, craning his neck to the ceiling as he cradles the phone against his ear. “For the last month, I’ve—“ 

“You’ve been seeing the teacher—someone you’ve pined after for like, a year.”

“Am I telling this? Or are you?”

Bucky snorts. “Go on, then.”

“We’ve been seeing each other the last four weeks—it’s been wonderful. She’s yeah, she’s exactly how I thought she’d be.” Steve mumbles almost apologetically, “Sweet. Kind. Hilarious. Beautiful… Listens to my shit. Takes me up on my painting lessons.”

“Good in bed.” Bucky supplies.

“Jesus, Buck.”

“Wasn’t she?”

“Jesus—yes, fine.” He groans forcefully, feeling his face grow warm with embarrassment. “But—I don’t know. Peggy’s been calling me again. She’s been… talking to me. A lot.”

“A lot being… two times.”

“Yes, but… God, Bucky. We talked for hours yesterday and—“

“And you’re convinced it’ll just snap back together like it used to be?”

“We were together for almost twenty years! That’s the equivalent of some people’s lifetimes. We have a daughter, Buck. Sarah wants her mother in her life. And Peggy is her mother.” A quiet passing of your name goes through the receiver—so softly Bucky almost misses it. Steve sounds like he’s grieving when he says it, “She’s so young— And she doesn’t even want kids, Buck. How can that work? I already have one.”

“Hey, man.” Bucky cuts him off, “Twenty years is somebody’s lifetime, sure. But so is four weeks. You get me?”

Steve doesn’t.

“Buddy, you called me every night for almost eight months. You spent days on my couch in shambles—you lost fifteen pounds! I still can’t look at Peggy. A lifetime is… fucking nothing to me. Nothing when I’m looking at you crying on the floor.”

The venom in Bucky’s voice stings Steve even from hundreds of miles away. He remembers those days—when Peggy first started pulling away from him, from Sarah, and he felt his heart begin to chip away until it crumbled all over the divorce papers as they finally slipped under his nose.

“You know Peggy’s only there when it’s convenient for her. You two brought an entire person into the world and she still left. This… this isn’t real, man.”

“But what if it is?”

“What if it is?” Bucky asks back, “What if what you already have is real, too? I know you think time and security is reassuring, but nothing about Peggy reassures me. I’d rather you raise Sarah on your own than get back together with Peggy and watch her leave for weeks at a time again. Did she say she’s going to quit her job?”

“No.” Steve admits, that’s the one thing they haven’t reached yet when they talk on the phone late into the night. They’ve reminisced about all sorts of things--- high school, their first dates, their wedding, Sarah’s birth, her interests, and even future ruminations—what she might be when she grows up. But not once did Peggy bring up the topic of her career as they discussed their broken little family. And Steve had been too scared to prod—too complacent in just enjoying the relief of her familiar voice, her laughter, like falling backwards into his own bed at the end of the day.

“If that wasn’t her first topic of discussion,” Bucky cuts through his thoughts, “Then it’s not one at all.”

Steve snatches his hair in frustration because Bucky’s words on a side not invested in Peggy’s happiness or comfort, rings with deafening truth.

“And it wasn’t just a month, Stevie—you’ve seen your new girl for a year. And you’ve seen her through Sarah. Throw that not wanting kids thing out the window, pal. You said it yourself—you already got one, and they already know each other. What? You want another baby?”

“No! God, I don’t think so.”

“Then it doesn’t matter. Rogers, I swear to God—don’t be a sentimental idiot.” Bucky huffs angrily, “Twenty years…” He sounds like he’s rolling his eyes, “Those fucking years crushed you. Last month, man. I haven’t heard you that happy in almost ten years. If you care so much about numbers, think about that some, you dumbass.”

 

Steve hangs up minutes later when Bucky grows even more frustrated with him and groans loudly as he stares at his screen of recent calls. Bucky. Bucky. The bakery. Peggy. Peggy. Peggy. You. Bucky. You.

And then the trend is--- You. You. You. Peggy. You. You. You. You.

You.

He throws his head back once more. Steve Rogers hates himself. He hates himself so much. It’s been three days since he’s talked to you, and he knows, in his goddamn bones, he knows it’s wrong. He’s a coward. And he’s desperately clinging onto some hope that maybe he’ll wake up tomorrow and his whole life will be figured out and nothing will hurt anyone anymore. Steve shuts his eyes with a wretched whimper.

He wants what’s best for Sarah, which is her mother. The possibility of having his family back to one semi-chipped but almost-perfect piece is killing him, because that’s all he’s ever wanted.

But, it’s made him a selfish fucking asshole, he thinks. Because he convinced a perfectly happy woman to date him, and then ghosts her after four sublime weeks, right after she says that she loves him. And maybe it would have been forgivable if she was just any random woman.

But she’s not.

She’s the kind of woman who loves his daughter so much she spends twenty extra minutes at every parent-teacher conference to tell him as much detail as possible about her. The kind of woman who shares her lunch with her. Who advises him at every arbitrary panic-induced question he flings out about her. Who gifts his daughter her own camera so she can have fun on vacation. Who coaxes her out to apologize to him—something he can never do on his own.

She’s the kind of woman who conceded to quietly slip out of his life when he turned his back on her. Because she understands that he loves his daughter.

Because she loves his daughter too.

And he’s not even brave enough to apologize. Or say goodbye. Or do anything.

 

Steve’s fists land on the coffee table with a slam as lurches forward.

He needs to do something to get his mind off all this—even for a few minutes, because any more of it and he might just lose it. He clambers to the kitchen and starts tearing out cleaning supplies because that’s the kind of stupid domesticated shit that he does when he’s distressed—cleaning. Like a fucking giant, idiot Roomba.

He sprays and scrubs. Mops and vacuums. Polishes and dusts and scours every single surface of his house for any single speck of grime that he can wipe out of his sight. The more he cleans, the more he imagines doing it to his own conscience because it is so saturated with filth that he can hardly stand it. He doesn’t even bother to use gloves because maybe the solutions will simply eat the flesh of his hands right off because he fucking deserves that, too.

 

In the third hour of punishing himself, Steve ends up in the kitchen—the last room. Both his and Sarah’s bedrooms are spotless. The spare bedroom that he’s transformed into a study is immaculate, and he’s even rearranged the bookshelves so he can dust everything behind them. He’s cleaned out the garage, too, Jesus Christ Almighty, he’s thrown away so much crap that he’s been stupidly hoarding—at least three old mixers with broken paddles and frayed wires. The two bathrooms are bleached so brightly that they’re nearly blinding. The dining room looks like it’s been pulled straight out of an IKEA magazine.

He gets to work on the stovetop and the sink, spraying the ever-loving crap out of it before he grabs the rags from out underneath the cabinet. Then he moves objects off the bar counter, putting Sarah’s favorite potted plant on another surface and reaching for the next when something catches his eye.

Steve leans forward curiously as he finds a little plastic rectangle that had been hidden behind the plant’s pot, sprinkled lightly with soil. His chest seizes with guilt. It feels like it could collapse right into his guts.

Inside the tiny plastic rectangle between his fingers, there you are. Wearing that yellow summer dress with the flutter sleeves that he held onto so desperately. You’re sitting on your knees, leaning back and putting your weight on your hands as you grin fondly at Sarah.

And at him, now, four weeks later, after he’s broken your heart.

 

Steve doesn’t even bother washing his slightly burning hands as he drops the rags and runs back to the couch where he left his phone.

On the fourth ring, Peggy picks up—voice dazed and crackly as she breathes out an unsteady “Hello?”

“Are you quitting your job?” Steve says with as much confidence as he can.

“Steven? Goodness—what time---“

“Are you quitting your job?” He demands before she can finish.

“What?” He hears her rousing, pillows and sheets sliding around as she tries to catch onto his train of thought.

“Are you quitting your job, yes or no.”

“Steven what are you—I—what?”

“Why have you been calling me? Why have you been talking to me?” The longer he speaks, the louder his voice becomes, and the more assertive he grows as he stands next to the coffee table, absently nudging it with his shin. “This friendliness—it’s confusing Peggy. Because you know that what I want-- more than anything-- is for us to be a family again.”

Steve pauses, listening to see if she’s still there before he asks calmly, even though he feels like he could burst apart and erupt into tears following this mission. “So I need you to tell me, right now. Are you quitting your job?”

And she knows that he doesn’t mean for her to not be employed at all and live as a stay-at-home mother, but that he needs her with him, if this is to work. He needs her with Sarah. Stateside, at least. Home for more than a couple weekends a month, at least.

“No,” she whispers, after a silence, “No, Steven. I won’t be quitting my job. It’s my career—you know that. It’s my--”

“Goddamn it, Peg!” He cries, “What the hell has this been, huh? You just yankin’ my chain around? Watching me fall apart again?” Steve’s voice catches in his throat as it fizzles out. Tears spill from his eyes and he falls backwards onto the couch, placing his throbbing head in his hand. He tries to speak, but his voice only comes out as a raspy whisper, choked by a sob that shakes his whole body.

“You know I’d do anything for her.” He weeps. “You know that. I’d let you tear me apart again.”

Six hours ahead of his time, Peggy sighs deeply into the phone. “I’m sorry, Steven.” She says, “I didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s… hard for both of us. Please believe me… I’m sorry.” There’s a short breath being taken, as if Peggy would continue, perhaps explaining herself or continuing to apologize, but Steve’s had enough. His heart hurts so much he can hardly breathe.

Steve shakes his head, as if she can see it four thousand miles across the Atlantic, “Goodbye, Peggy.”

 

It’s eleven-thirty. He washes his hands and face in the immaculate guest sink and stares at himself unsteadily as he takes deep breaths. He should go to bed because he needs to wake up early tomorrow. But instead, he stares at his phone again.

The list of recent calls stares back at him. Peggy. Bucky. Bucky. The bakery. Peggy. Peggy. Peggy. You.

He hits the last number as time stops completely. He runs through every possible scenario in his head. What is there to say that could remedy this situation? How does he even begin to apologize for being such a selfish coward? Steve clutches onto your polaroid picture like a lifeline.

It goes to voicemail.

He tries again, only to receive the same automated tone— the phone doesn’t even ring. Have you blocked him? Of course, thinks, he deserves it.

He grabs his keys from the table and slams the door on the way out, chewing viciously on his lip the entire drive to your apartment complex. He even angrily punches the power button to turn off the radio because he’s punishing himself with silence. It’s only fair.

It’s dark and crickets chirp as he plods up the steps, reaching your door with the curling numbers hanging over mahogany paint.

Steve knocks.

Nothing.

He tries again. Nothing.

First, he thinks, it might be for the best. Then, because he’s an overreaching asshole, his mind leaps over into the conclusion that you might be in trouble. He rushes down the steps, as quietly as possible because it is midnight and normal people are asleep—not stalking their girlfriends. Steve winces at the thought. Perhaps ex-girlfriend is more fitting.

He whirls around the parking lot for any sign of your car, air whipping through his beard and hair as he searches frantically. It’s not in your usual spot, and for the life of him, he can’t find it anywhere.

Steve’s heart pounds. It’s midnight. Other than his house, where the hell could you go?

Defeatedly, he trudges back to his car where the quiet rumble of the engine rocks his body gently. There are a million and one thoughts racing through his mind. But he knows now, none of them are true other than the fact that you’re ignoring him. And he deserves it. Goddamn, does he deserve it.

He sighs and picks up his phone again. As expected, it cuts off before it even rings.

“Hey.” Steve sighs after the beep, “Hey. I—I’m so sorry.” He scrubs his beard and lays his head against the top of the steering wheel, letting the ridges press into his face.

“I know there’s nothing I can say that will actually express just how sorry I am. I... I really messed this up. I messed it all up, honey.”

He’s sniffling shamelessly at this point, letting the tears blur his vision as he stars blankly to the empty passenger seat and out the window. The streetlights look like fireflies. The sky an inky black sea staring down at him. Infinite twinkling eyes, asking what he’ll do next.

“If you’ll ever talk to me again—which I hope you will, please know... I want to make this better. Any way I can, I will.”

And then he pulls it out—the confession he’d been holding on to as soon as he heard you half-mutter it in your sleep. It’s desperate. It’s perhaps not the right time. But he blurts it anyway.

“I love you. I know how that sounds. I... just.. It's true. Please call me back when you’re ready.”

He uses when and not if because maybe the connotation will persuade you into calling him back sooner. He doesn’t want if. He wants when. He wants now.

Steve lingers in the car a few more minutes after he hangs up, holding as tightly as he can to the far-fetched hope that you’ll pull up in the empty space beside him. He thinks he’d jump out of the window if he could and fall to his knees. He’d beg. He’d cry and beg until both of his kneecaps bleed.

It would be another week before you hear his message. It would be even longer for you to actually listen to it.

-

It’s eight when you wake up. There is a tray of breakfast on the vanity to your right and the big gold mirror stares your reflection right back. Pink eyes, a little blue underneath, much better than last Monday, at least.

Your mother had let you stay with her when you showed up Wednesday night. She didn’t ask any questions and has been consistently accommodating by cooking, letting you have your space, watching movies with you in silence, and rubbing your back when you suddenly burst into tears. You return her kindness by picking up groceries, doing the dishes, watering the plants, anything that allows you to stay busy.

It’s been nice. Peaceful and dumbly idyllic back home. Old neighbors wave to you and remind you of when you used to run around under the sprinklers as a child. Your brother even comes by with his wife and daughter and at the sight of her little pudgy 6-year-old cheeks you almost crumble right there in the front yard.

They ask you what’s wrong. You lie and say you just really love children. Your brother knows you better than that, but he doesn’t say anything more of it.

His daughter only reminds you that teacher workdays begin in two days, then it’s back to school the following week. You’re absolutely not ready because you know you’ll see Sarah’s sandy blonde head and pudgy cheeks. You’ll see her father’s blue eyes and beautiful lashes in the carline. You’ll see the weeks you’ve spent with him, reflecting back at you.

Chapter Text

The phone in your hand feels like it weighs a damn ton.

Steve’s message echoes through your apartment, bouncing off the walls of your brain, too. Honey. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.

“Stupid!” You chuck the phone on your bed where it bounces into the dresser before tumbling to the floor with a thud. The insult is both for yourself and Steve, and you huff the entire time as you finish getting ready and head out the door for your first workday. In your head, a single string of words spin uncontrollably: How could he? How could he? How could he?

 

“You all right there?” Heather’s concerned voice snaps you out of the miserable derailing train of your thoughts—crashing right into a cliffside.

“Hm? Yeah. Totally fine.” You smile at her. The two of you are exiting the gym together and heading to lunch. The morning has been full of professional developments which feel like what hell might be if it was led by your Operations Manager—monotone, unqualified, boring. The packet of strategies in your hand is heavy and you’ll probably shred it with your bare hands once you return to your room. You’re in quite a mood.

In the teacher’s lounge sits a spread of pastries to celebrate the first workday. You know exactly where it’s been ordered from and you pass right through the room. Jessica Sweetwater calls out to you to try out the pie and you grin, promising to come back as soon as you drop off your things.

Heather closes the door when you’ve both returned to the dusty room with the still-stacked chairs and desks. The windows are drawn. She flips on one light switch when you plop down in your swivel chair.

“Got anything for me to do?” She volunteers meekly. She knows something has happened between you and Steve; it’s hard to hide and too easy to put together.

“No, it’s okay. Enjoy your lunch.” What are the five stages of grief again?

“Huh?” Heather asks. You shake your head—must have said it out loud.

“Nothing. Sorry.”

The phone rings, and you absently fiddle around in your pocket for it. Steve’s face lights up on the screen— now cracked from when it pitched into the corner of the dresser. It’s a picture the two of you took together on the couch, with your head against his shoulder, eyes closed and laughing. He’s smiling too— perfect white teeth as he looks into the camera. Full brown beard. Ocean eyes, olive flecked. Damn it.

Your hand shakes, and from across the room, Heather sends you a sympathetic glimpse before she steps out and closes the door.

“Hello.” You say in monotone.

Silence on the other line greets you back.

You ask again, steeling your voice, and finally, a shuddering breath passes. Steve stutters your name a few times before asking, “Did you get my message?”

“Yes.” Your brain is melting. You can hear the sincerity in his voice, and you know he’s sorry. He sounds like he’s been crying because his voice is a bit scratchy and gruff. You probably do too.

“I- I uh… What can I do?”

Abrupt anger burns out the sympathy in you. “Oh, go fuck yourself!” and then it quells as quickly as it had arrived. “Ugh. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.” You mutter, face heated. “No! I’m not sorry.”

You’re backtracking and unable to find the right feeling to begin with—Hurt? Resentment? Disappointment? Or understanding? Because all of them are here, mixing together in a sickly-sweet potion.

Then, a wretched sob escapes, and you feel so stupid for breaking down over just the sound of his voice.

“Oh baby,” He sighs, “God. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I hurt you like this.”

It pours out of your eyes and nose and mouth like the smashing of an hourglass, releasing a summer’s worth of sand. You press your hand to your forehead and try to hold it back, but it continues relentlessly.

You scold him angrily in-between choked sobs. “You didn’t even call. You did nothing, Steve. Fuck. I understand your priorities. I know you love Sarah and want what’s best for her. I do too, you know!”

“I know—”

You gasp and cut him off, take a breath to calm your voice. “I get it. Okay? I get it. It doesn’t change the fact that I feel so stupid.”

“You’re not.” He whispers, “You’re not. It’s me. It’s all my fault. I know I have no right to ask you...” He pauses. “I-- Yester—Sarah asked if you were coming to the airport.”

A scoff finds its way out when the anger returns. Tears well up again in your eyes. Fuck! Why is he doing this? “Her flight lands at eight Friday night. She really misses you.” He continues. “She... would like to see you. I do too.”

“Is that right? You want to see me after the last two weeks? Fuck you.”

You hang up, slamming the phone face-down on the table while another sob wrenches itself from your throat.

Pulling your shirt over your face, you muffle the howling scream in your palms.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

You show up at the airport fifteen minutes early and park your car underneath the shade of the blue section. Lot 5. A three-minute walk across the way. Your last workday consisted of rearranging your room back to its former glory. Dusting. Hanging posters. Sorting books and changing out colored butcher paper. Laminating so many things. Writing 24 new names on binders. And journals. And folders. And workbooks.

You dragged yourself home at 3:30 and took a swig of wine and a long nap. Your wrists hurt. Your feet hurt. Your heart, most of all, hurts.

Then, you spent the next three hours debating whether or not this was going to be either fine, or goddamnstupidwhatthefuck. So far, it has been fine.

Now, as you cross the street and see Steve standing with his fists shoved in his pockets, the switch reverses and fine becomes goddamnitstupidwhatthefuck. How does his beard stay so fucking --- ugh! His hair has grown, too, the ends of it flipping out when it touches it neck.

You take in a shaky breath with every step your feet cross the road’s white block lines. Your hands come up to smooth your white and orange flower print blouse, but you put them back down. There’s no one to impress here, you chide yourself.

Steve’s smile is wary and sad, and he dips his head low to regard you. His greeting gets lost in the honking and bathumpthump of cars running over speed bumps. “She’ll be out soon. Want to go in?”

You step behind him, holding onto the strap of your purse like it is the only thing to keep you on earth. Through the sliding doors and into the bag check line, the two of you stand awkwardly, waiting until the next teller is available. You let your thoughts loose amongst the strangers with roller bags and pressed suits, or mothers wearing sweatpants, teenagers returning from summer vacations, finding anything else to care about but him.

“Sorry sir, there’s no unaccompanied minor by that name on the flight.”

Steve shakes his head, “That can’t be right— look, it’s my daughter and we need passes to get her at the gate.”

“Sir, the passenger with that name isn’t traveling alone. You’ll have to wait by luggage pick-up for them.”

Steve frowns and steps away as you follow him. He shakes his head, “I didn’t know Peggy would be coming back with Sarah.” He tells you in a hushed voice, “If you.. if you want to leave… I understand.”

Part of you wants to disintegrate from this airport, not just leave. Leave is a term that sounds serene, normal, decidedly rational— a term for people who have the grace to choose to depart. Your departure would be instant, like being struck by lightning and cremated on the spot.

But it’s already too late. You are already here, with him. And it is 8:38, the plane has already landed. So, you smile defeatedly and shake your head. “I’m fine.” The former Misses Peggy Rogers will shatter you with her perfect white teeth and prim posture while Mister Rogers stands watch and you’ll kiss Sarah on the cheek before you go home to pick up what’s left of your pieces.

Steve doesn’t push it. He only leads you to baggage claim 6 and stares at the flight of stairs that disappear up to the second floor. The first wave of arrivals streams down with scattered footsteps. Two families and a few young men with backpacks come to stand by the dusty conveyor belt. A few more passengers follow them before the crowd picks up with a steady current of arrivals.

Clicking heels and a high-pitched voice alerts you of the one arrival you are here for.

And then you see them, walking down the escalator because Peggy Carter doesn’t stand still for anything. Even on an already moving platform she is face-forward and in motion by her own accord. Sarah follows her with the same determination, holding her hand and slipping through standing people easily.

“That baby cried a lot, mumma. I couldn’t fall asleep.”

“Shh, Sarah. It’s rude to say those things. Babies cry, it’s natural, my love.”

“Did I cry a lot?”

“Yes, darling, you did.”

Steve sucks in a sharp breath upon seeing them, and you exhale just a little bit for him. You could cry too, like that baby, because the wave of emotions crashing over you is exploding saltwater into every single wound that has been punctured into you this summer. Seeing them, the three of them now, all together, is the final nail in the coffin. The final puncture, and the final seal— hard, metal, definitive.

You are the lonely remainder in this familial equation.

Sarah catches sight of you first and takes off as soon as her feet hit the slate tight-knit airport carpet. She’s yelling your last name in between shrieks of “Daddy!” and when you think she might pause to say hello to her father, she leaps forward into you, instead.

Third time is the charm, you think, as she careens into your arms and you pitch over with a small squeal. It happens too quickly, you’re too far away, and Steve doesn’t catch you this time. The idea of how fitting it all is tears a laugh from your throat.

“Sarah!” Her parents exclaim in unison as they both rush forward. You put your hand up when Steve bends down and brush yourself off, picking bits of fibers from your knees. Sarah doesn’t give you a chance to stand as she reaches into a pink and orange fanny pack around her middle.

“Look!! I used the camera a lot! Look at this horse with a carriage! And this man with the tall hat just like in our Snapshots book when Nate went to the U.K.!”

She dumps the contents of her pack out onto the floor and all over your legs as you stare on, open-mouthed. “Thank you thank you thank you so much for letting me use the camera!” She surges forward into your arms again and wraps all four appendages around your body.

You’re glad you wore pants as you pat her back with a smile, “I’m happy you liked it, Sarah. C’mon, let’s clean this up.” You quickly scoop as many polaroids into your hands as possible so that neither of the other adults will try to help you. Sarah tugs open the mouth of her pack and you slip them in before standing.

Steve and Peggy exchange firm, grim lines of their mouths, speaking in low tones to each other about why the flight has changed—why Peggy’s in town, and why she didn’t tell Steve. You stand around awkwardly and clear your throat. “Well—uh, Sarah. You ready to go home?” You ask, eyes fixed on the young girl. She blinks by your side, as if suddenly remembering that she hasn’t said a word to her father at all.

“Yeah! Daddy!” But mid-step, she turns around to tug at your hand. “Can you come over for dinner again?”

Steve shushes her and lifts her up onto his hip, “You don’t want to spend time with your dear old dad, Sarah?” She’s ready to argue with him, but Peggy steps up and pinches her cheeks.

“Steven, would you mind getting our bags from the luggage claim?”

He sends the two of you a worried look, but his daughter has already hopped out of his arms and tugging him towards the crowd of people who wait for their bags. You are left alone with the former Misses Peggy Rogers and her flawlessly lined red lipstick.

“Hello.” She smiles carefully, placing her hands together. You stare on, as if gazing into the sun, blinded by her composure. The two of you must look like complete opposites—her in a pressed black suit and matching pencil skirt, creamy silk button up decorated with delicate lace collars, polished black heels pointing forward directly at you who is dressed down in a blouse and blue jeans. Your ballet flats are well-worn and dirty. Your hair is a knotted and tangled bun.

“I know what you must think of me,” Peggy begins, sending you a sad smile. “I just—well, I had business in the states, but I really wanted to come and apologize to you.”

“I’m sorry, what?” You blurt. “Apologize?”

She laughs a disappointed tone, as if she’s scolding herself, “Green’s never been a good color for me. And I suppose I needed the reminder.”

What the fresh hell is she talking about, you think as you continue to listen as much as you can. If that comet is coming to incinerate you, you only wish it would hurry up.

“Sarah wouldn’t stop talking about you when she arrived. Really, the whole time. And I… I just felt so replaced that I acted selfishly and irresponsibly—I.. I was so jealous. I knew who you were, of course—” Yes, of course. You’ve been sending her weekly newsletters all year, the same as you send every other parent in your classroom. You begin to shake your head- to stop her from continuing because you can’t bear to hear any more of it, but she pushes through, and her will is leaps and bounds stronger than your own.

“I saw how… changed Sarah was. How she’d grown. And I know that I have you to thank for it. I just… I felt as if suddenly my little girl had forgotten all about me and… I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I’ve ruined what you and Steve have.”

“Had.” You correct her candidly. “And thank you. For your apology. But I’m just Sarah’s former teacher—I’m not your replacement, in any way. Really.”

You slip away from Peggy’s apologetic brown eyes and linked fingers. You don’t bother to look behind you when she calls out to you. Your muddy flats stomp as quickly as they can out the sliding doors and back into the safe confines of your car where you blare the radio as loudly as you can to drown out the static fritz in your mind.

--

The lights in your apartment are turned off, save for the one strand of Christmas lights you line around the perimeter of your room. The walls glow a melting array of peach and rose, dappled with blue-green, and you plant yourself face-first into the mattress that smells only like detergent. He’s been washed out. You sigh.

In bed, you think about Peggy Carter’s apology and her manicured fingers clutched together and squeezing themselves so tightly.

It doesn’t matter. She’s not even the person you’re most upset with.

It doesn’t matter at all.

The first day back to school is in five days, with a whole new set of children who require your attention. You have bigger concerns than your crumpled little feelings.

--

There are thirteen students in the gym who sit bouncing their knees. You’ve met some of them at the early open house yesterday and some of their parents at the orientation after the final Monday workday. You remember a few—Kalyn, Carson, Phoebe, Meredith. Some were harder to recall, like the set of similar-lengthed brown hair of two girls.

They file in slowly before the first bell, and soon enough you meet all twenty-four pairs of big eyes full of wonder as they search around the tops of their classmates’ heads looking for familiar friends from Kindergarten.

You read them a book—First Day Jitters, about a character who is afraid of the first day of school because she doesn’t know if her peers will like her at the new school. At the end of the story, it turns out the character is the teacher and the class erupts into laughter and asks you if you are nervous.

Yes! Of course! you reply. You are. They titter and wiggle their heads. Your heart is about to burst.

At recess, you chat with Heather and walk around the grassy path, keeping your eye on as many of your students as possible. Jared scrapes his knee in a rather physical game of soccer, and you catch Ruby before she slips off a swing. When you blow the whistle to line up, you see that second grade is already filing out the back door.

It’s complete and utter chaos. They stream down the ramp and screech and your mostly single-file line begins to wobble and curve. Heather briskly walks back and forth down the row to reel them in, counting the tops of heads by twos, making sure all are present.

“Woah! It’s okay. Let’s scoot over so the big kids don’t run into us!” You call over the shouts of a hundred children.

The other first grade classes aren’t faring any better as more yelling breaks out.

Just as you think you can begin leading them back in, a body crashes into the back of your legs and you stagger.

It’s Sarah. She’s pressing her face into your hip and there are two rivers running from her eyes. “I wanna go home!” Behind her are Harper and Grayson, both shyly waving.

“Sarah,” You say firmly, taking a second to signal to your previous students. Then you try to peel her grip from your legs, “Sarah, I have to go with my class.” Her teacher stands by the railing, giving you a silent plead with her eyes. All morning, she mouths, hasn’t stopped.

“No! No no no no! Please please please!” She’s heartbroken, squeezing her eyes shut as if it could be the balm to ease her crying. If she keeps this up, she’ll likely vomit. “Please don’t go please don’t go! D-”

“Sarah!” You put a finger up as you kneel, then you motion for Heather to take the rest of the class inside. “Sarah Rogers, listen to me.” The hiccupping ceases for only a second.

“You’re in second grade now and I know it’s tough, but you have to stop.”

Then, it gets louder, more panicked, almost to a shriek as she grips you tighter. You’re in way over your head as the last child in your class disappears into the school, and your brain is spinning every possibility you have to find one that is best suited for this situation. You mouth a message back to her teacher—who graciously nods, and then you tug Sarah along inside. She sniffles the whole way and when she gets to the door to your room, she’s wailing again. “Stay here.” You say.

Heather starts the kids on lunchtime, and you grab your phone. “Sarah. I’m going to call your dad. He is going to talk to you. You may eat lunch with me. And then you are going to go back to class. Okay?”

She nods tearfully.

“But this is the only time. This cannot happen again.”

She nods once more.

Steve picks up on the second ring—alert, confused, a little hopeful. “Hello, Mister Rogers,” You say as calmly as possible even as his daughter continues to sputter in the background. It’s like you’re reading a television prompter, but the plan in your head must go just right or else Sarah’s breakdown is going to also cause the rest of your kids to panic.

“Sarah is having a very emotional morning. I have invited her to eat lunch with me, but could you please console her just for a second?”

He pauses- begins to say yes, halts, begins a different sentence, but finally, he stops and breathes a sigh. “Yes. Thank you for reaching out to me.”

The wall of necessary professionalism separates you both.

--

Lunch is spent mostly fielding off Sarah’s questions about when you’ll come back to her house. She speaks much too loudly about the time you watched The Little Mermaid and soon enough the rest of your class wants to know when you’ll be visiting each of them for a sleepover.

“Not a sleepover!” You exclaim, but the moshpit of voices only responds with, “Yay, sleepover!”

Heather is laughing so hard she’s pitched over her desk. You grumble and put your head down before escorting Sarah back to her class at the end of lunch.

Her teacher meets you at the door and ushers her in quietly.

“Thank you so much.” She sighs, “Apparently it’s been like this for days. Dad walked her to the room this morning really tardy and he was... not happy.” She says the last bit painfully and you can just imagine what Steve must have looked like. “He said he’s not working today but I wasn’t sure if calling him was a good idea. First day, you know?”

You push your hair from your forehead, hum a little because it’s Wednesday and Steve isn’t working? Also—being tardy is very unlike him.

“Yeah. I mean...” You find your words again and peek through the door’s window to where Sarah has laid her head down. “You’re fine, Christine. It’s... this happened at the end of the year last year. She should be okay for the rest of the day. Esther is usually pretty good with her, too. Have you tried calling her?”

“Yes. And Esther sent her back. I’m pretty worried—if this is frequent, does she need a behavioral plan?”

Oh Christ, you think, it’s really not that serious. And Steve is going to lose his mind if he gets summoned to sit in a conference for behavioral intervention in the first week. You shake your head quickly, “It might be too early to tell. Can you send her to my room at dismissal? I’ll talk to dad at the end of the day.”

Your colleague smiles and thanks you again before slipping back into her class. You wander down the hallway, take a deep breath, and return to your own post.

--

Sarah links her fingers through yours and stares at her feet as she walks. “I’m sorry.” She says as you lead her down the ramp and around the dismissal cones. “I don’t like school.”

“Don’t say that, Sarah. You liked school last year.”

“No. I like you. I don’t like Miss Parsons.”

“You don’t know Miss Parsons. You might hurt her feelings if you say that.”

“Daddy says you are upset with him. And that you can’t be his friend anymore because he did something wrong…. did he hurt your feelings?”

You shut your eyes for a second, and you hope Sarah’s out of harm’s way. You hope a little that somebody’s SUV full of children will pummel right into you. Let you splat over the traffic circle. Add a little color to the concrete.

“He said he was very sorry.” Sarah peers up at you with those giant doll-eyes.

“Yes, he did.”

“Okay. Can you come over today?”

“Sarah... it’s not that simple.” But to her, it certainly is. Saying sorry means, you take responsibility for what you did—the wrong that you did—and it is an all-absolving expression. Then the hurt and the wrong disappears and then you can be friends with that person again.

The world of adults is not that simple, but Sarah Rogers does not yet live in that world.

“Daddy!” She perks up at the sight of the familiar blue sedan.

Steve steps out of the car sporting a cap and sunglasses. It really is his day off. He rushes over, “Hey.” He breathes when his feet finally point at you and still.

“Hey.” You motion for Sarah to get into the car and she does, waving to you and yanking the handle until the door swings shut. “She cried all day. Before and after lunch with me.”

Steve puts his face in both his hands, “Shit, I’m sorry. It’s been like this since she got home.”

“Since Friday?” You ask in disbelief.

His defeated nod almost breaks your heart. “It’s constant. Nothing helps. We’ve gone to the movies, the pool, made her favorite dinner... which apparently has now become the yuckiest thing, and she just...”

“Did you talk to her mom about it?” You venture to ask, steeling your heart that begins to squeeze at the idea of Peggy. “Did she experience this on the trip?”

He takes off his sunglasses and you see the deep blue that rests below his eyelids. You feel as tired as he looks as the sun beats down on you both. “Yes. She said the only thing that helped was the camera.” Steve looks slightly uncomfortable and you sigh because you know exactly what he’s thinking. Now that Sarah is back home, the camera has finished serving its purpose. Now she needs more. And he thinks she needs you.

“Christine is thinking about a behavioral plan.” You admit, and then correct yourself when Steve doesn’t seem to recall the name, “Parsons. Steve, your child’s teacher. Christine Parsons.”

He shakes his head, “Shit. Sorry, I knew that. What is a behavioral plan?”

You explain the process of him being called into a conference and how the teacher will outline with interventionists ways to implement and manage behavior modification. You try your best not to use the kind of jargon that only educators understand, but it’s really hard to explain to a man that his daughter is throwing a tantrum and needs to be mediated with without making it sound like she’s just a brat. Because she’s not.

“Jesus.”

“It sounds worse than it is... but it is kind of bad. Especially since...” You shrug, unsure of how to word the next part. How would you say it if you didn’t know him? It would be so disengaged, you think, and you really need for Steve to understand that it is urgent.

“Because she wasn’t like this with you last year?”

“It’s not me.” You reply, “And it’s not her teacher, either.”

“So it’s me?” He steps back, crossing his arms. No, he’s not understanding at all. You almost roll your eyes at the way he cocks his eyebrow and pulls his mouth, but another teacher breezes by and smiles so the exasperation you have pushes itself down. You forget sometimes that Steve Rogers isn’t perfect. He can also be a little snide and short-tempered.

He’s looking at you now, sunglasses hanging from his shirt collar, standing defensively with his weight on one leg.

“Okay,” You sigh, exhausted by him. He wouldn’t act like this if you weren’t who you were. “This is really neither the time nor the place. I’m not your child’s teacher. Take it up with her, Mister Rogers.” And then you turn to walk away but damn your conscience—it pulls you back despite how angry you are with him.

You wish you could say fuck you like you’ve done before but little Sarah is sitting in the car bopping her head along to the radio and you can’t stop thinking about how she was bawling her eyes out for five hours today.

“Listen up, Steve.” You announce, “You and I aside, I’d like to impart some knowledge onto you as a professional, and also a bit as a child of divorce.”

Stepping closer, you glare into his eyes, which are now wide with shock at your firm tone.

“Your child is suffering, and that is a bold word, but it’s true. She doesn’t know it, but you do, and I do. And because you are privileged enough to afford her the courtesy—I suggest you take her to a child therapist who can talk to her about her emotions and work through them before they fester into something worse.”

He swallows, “Therapy?”

“Yes. Therapy. We have a school counselor, but Sarah does not want to see her. And unfortunately, I think it’s going to take more than Esther. Take her to therapy. Go for forty-five minutes once or twice a week and see the difference it will make. It will. Don’t think about the stigma. Think about your child.”

Steve opens his mouth again, but you push right through his protests, “From my personal experience, I wish I had that option. But instead—as you know-- my rough patch involved a lot of running away from home. My mother did not know how to talk to me, and I did not know how to talk to her. A therapist would have helped both of us if we could have afforded it—or even known about it.”

Then, quieter, you frown. “Steve, even if my attempts weren’t serious—and even if Sarah’s acting out might not be as bad as you think, what happened with my mother and I changed our relationship for years. Do you want that?"

A soft banging on the window pulls both of your attention back to the car where Sarah has started pressing her face to it until her cheeks become flattened white circles against the glass.

“Daddy!” Her voice is muffled, “Daddy! I’m hungry! Is Miss Marnie coming? Or am I going with you?”

He whips over to her and then back to you. You wave to Sarah one last time and then begin to cross the street where cars carefully pull around the bend and back out the circle. “Take the advice, Steve. It’s good.”

“Okay.” Steve calls faintly at your retreating back. “Okay.”

Thank God, you think. Thank God that Steve Rogers loves his daughter more than his pride because you have figuratively eviscerated him in broad daylight. A part of you is so sad that it had to be you who tells him this—in this way. But you’re not confident that anyone else could have. He loves Sarah. He loves her so much that it’s easy for him to become defensive about it, and you know it hurts him to realize that his love alone isn’t enough to raise her.

With a final tight-lipped smile, you respectfully go back inside.

--

The second day runs a lot more smoothly, and the third day is as easy as a breeze. Granted, it’s a hot, humid, sticky type of summer breeze as you Clorox wipe down twenty-four desks smeared with Elmer’s Glue. How they manage to do this in such a small amount of time is both fascinating and disturbing.

On the fourth day, you arrive at work to a surprise back-to-school Teacher Breakfast and you book it to your classroom without another thought. Later on, as you hear from Heather, there were no Rogers-es in sight. You grumble a little at the thought of missing out on two free yogurts and a bagel. But alas, life moves on just fine without both the breakfast and the Rogers-es.

You return to equilibrium in the following weeks: in bed at eleven, up at six, work-work-work, repeat. Wine still exists and is soothing. Your cabinets are stocked once again with tuna. British Bake Show is still fantastic and bless Noel Fielding for dressing himself. There are no more sightings of Sarah in tears and no more run-ins with Steve in parking lots.

On a bright Saturday morning, you put on some flower-patched denim shorts and head to the PTA picnic where it is crawling with parents and children on the front lawn of your school. There are checkered red and white blankets and corn-hole games set up all around. In the middle are three picnic tables side-by-side littered with tinfoil trays of food. Even a popsicle truck is parked to the side.

You put your contribution in the middle of the table after waving to familiar faces in the crowd. Edward’s mom is there, wearing apple-shaped earrings and you smile at how he’s grown so much. It’s barely a second after you set down the homemade rice-krispies that someone comes by and peeks over your shoulder.

“Those look awesome.”

Turning, you tilt the brim of your sunhat away from your face to find the source of the compliment. It’s hard to see, because the sun shines right into your eyes when you try.

“Thanks!” You blink the burn away and try again. “Sorry—wish I could actually look at you when I talk to you!”

The man laughs a little and reaches forward to take a star-shaped treat from your tray. “Nah. Honestly I’ve just been walking with my eyes shut for the past twenty minutes. Forgot my sunglasses.” He takes a big bite of the treat and a leg of the star gets crushed into his mouth.

“How’s it?” You ask timidly when the blinding afterimages fade away and you can finally make out his features. The first thing you see is –Jesus, that adorable gap between his front teeth. True to his word, his eyes are squeezed tightly.

“Oh man, these are so good. And you cut them into stars? You must be a teacher.”

You laugh again because his mirth is so infectious, “I am. First grade. And thanks!”

“Mmf—don’t let the kids see me. I’ve been eating all their desserts.” He swallows the mouthful and brushes the crumbs from his fingers. “I’m Sam.”

You give him your name and shake his hand, even though both of you have little sticky spots from the marshmallow.

He steps to the side when a student of yours comes tumbling over and gives your leg a hug. You make a bit of chit-chat with her before something else shinier comes along and she’s bounding across the yard to a newly set up face-paint stand.

“So…” You motion vaguely, “What brings you to—”

“the PTA Picnic? Since I’m obviously too good-looking to be a teacher or a dad?”

You shrug shyly, ignoring his overt teasing, “Well, I meant the dessert table. I’ve only seen you here, and you’ve admitted to stealing sweets from all the children.”

He crosses his arms and laughs again, showing you that gap in his teeth and the round shape of his high cheekbones. Gosh, he’s really charming, you think. Sam picks up another treat from your aluminum foil tray and rolls his eyes in exaggeration.

“You know how in The Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka is super paranoid that his competitors sent spies to steal his ideas?”

“O…kay…”

“Right, right—yeah not a good way to start a conversation, I definitely see that now.” He shakes his head, “Anyway, I’m like the spy because look at all these desserts and… listen, I just started this new job and you can never have too many ideas, right? Baker, by the way.”

You realize you are frowning at him when he sends you a curious look.

“My Wonka reference put you off that bad, huh?”

“You’re a baker?” You’re blighted or something. Another freakin’ baker? There must be a neon sign that is pointing them to you, and you would really like for that sign to shut off.

“Yeah. You might have heard of the place before—pretty popular. Oh! There’s my boss.” He tips his finger in the air over your head and you don’t need to turn around to see who his boss is. Instead, you pull the brim of your hat down and sigh. You can already hear Steve’s unyielding strides reaching the table.

He stops next to you and whispers a quiet hello and you respond in the same clipped tone. Sam looks suspiciously between the two of your suddenly stiff bodies and raises an eyebrow. “Is this?” He waggles his finger back and forth, “Oh. This isOh… shhhhhhhhit…”

After circling the dessert table for the last half-hour since his arrival, Sam Wilson suddenly finds the corn-hole game on the other side of the lawn very interesting. He doesn’t even bother to come up with any kind of excuse as he takes two long steps away from Steve and then books it because as a relatively new employee, flirting with your boss’ ex-girlfriend seems like a sure-fire way to get fired.

 

Chapter Text

You watch Sam take off into the crowd and groan lightly at the way he almost resembles the road runner from those old Saturday morning cartoons, billowing dust clouds behind him and all. Steve clears his throat beside you and finally, you turn begrudgingly to regard him.

It’s been three weeks since the parking lot catastrophe, and almost two months since you’ve broken up. He stands now, blocking the sun, so that you’re eclipsed by the cool shade of his figure. It feels ominous, like a foreshadowing of how he might always be someone who takes the light but gives the shade. In this moment, you are both thankful and wary of the shade.

“Hey,” his voice is soft and careful. “I uh--- just wanted to say hi.”

“Yep, you said it.” You smile back, so that any passerby or watcher might interpret the look as one of warmth; no one is close enough to hear the stiff tone. But, to make polite conversation, since he did stalk you all this way, you ask, “Sarah with you?”

Steve points to the popsicle truck where Sarah bounces on her feet with Marnie holding onto her hand. There is a baseball cap on her head and a slight residue of pasty sunscreen on her arms that are quickly becoming ruddy in the sun.

It’s a little disappointing to see her like this, attached to her babysitter’s hip rather than her father’s. You’ve always wondered what the point of having a child was if parents don’t consistently spend time with them. It seems hypocritical that Steve and Peggy’s relationship fell apart because of her inability to spend time with Sarah—but here he is, too: not spending time with Sarah.

As if he could read your souring look, Steve shoves his hands in his pocket.

“I took your advice, you know.”

Your eyes flicker up to his as he kicks at a patch of vibrant green grass inattentively, “She’s been seeing a counselor... there’s-- as you said, lots of discussion. About the divorce. It’s getting better.”

A family comes up behind you to grab a piece of pie, so you and Steve find the right moment to move away from the front of the dessert table, taking your conversation away from possible eavesdropping ears. Chatter rises from the background, full of laughter and children's joyful shrieking. Popsicles shine in the daytime sun, sugary ice in dazzling and flamboyant hues, waving in the air as their owners run across the lawn. Colorful celebration flags flop noisily in the wind, adding their own percussion.

“And I… listened to the other thing you said, too.”

Sarah calls and waves to you from the line, pointing to the menu. You wave back with your best excited teacher face.

There’s no memory of that conversation sparking in your mind. You’re sure you’ve always thought so because he works so damn much—but can’t recall when it came up until your eyes begin to roam over the faded shirt stretched tightly over his chest. Speckled and gray, and perplexingly familiar. “What th—"

Suddenly the hazy sensation of your knees softly thumping against wood cabinets doors rushes into your mind. Soft grunts. A breathy laugh and low moans.

Oh.

A blush creeps over your cheeks when you remember the last time you saw that shirt.

No, it wasn’t much of a conversation then, rather, more like a plead—a sigh passing your lips to encourage his hands as they slid over your body. The shirt, that Monday, had stayed on you for the rest of the day, even as Steve aligned his hips behind yours on the other side of the mirror.

You remember, too, its hem being rucked up when he took you back to bed again only a few hours later, sunlight pouring over you both and illuminating the thread-bare stipples of grey and white as he busied himself between your thighs. Steve couldn’t stop grinning each time he mentioned, “I really like this shirt on you,” even as his face was pressed into your lap.

The same grin graces his mouth now as you pull the brim of your hat down over your face once more. It’s a futile attempt to shield yourself from him and his knowing look, catching you in that burning memory.

“What do you want, Steve?”

“I know this isn’t the best time...”

“Yeah, no kidding.” You hiss, but Sarah comes flying back with two popsicles in her hand, one melted orange drop splattering on your knee.

“Sorry!” She laughs before pushing it to Steve’s face, “Here you go, Daddy!!”

Then, she’s off again, tugging Marnie along as she finds Christine Parsons in the distance and jumps into her arms. It makes your heart hurt just a little, how easy it is for children to find solace in new caretakers. Even Sarah, whom you’ve grown so close to and spent personal time with, has seem to have forgotten all about you.

You can’t blame her, though, because it’s only the third week of class and all you think about every second of the day are your own twenty-four litter of students. Such is life in an elementary school. At least she’s not proclaiming her hatred for her teacher anymore.

But you watch Sarah dance around Christine now, tossing a beanbag in the air and catching it clumsily. In the small timespan of three weeks, she’s shot up another inch—growing so quickly from the already rapid change during the summer break. Her face has shifted slightly, elongating, nose becoming less round and taller, so many little details that add up to one seemingly giant transformation.

Yes. You understand Peggy Carter’s envy.

A bead of sweat trickles down your neck. Steve hands you the popsicle in his fist and you take it without thinking.

“I hired Sam after we--- you know, well…” He pauses, rubbing the back of his neck.  “I realized my life needed some reupholstering. I had been too comfortable—falling into complacency, when I should have been paying more attention to the things that really matter.” His mouth turns into a forlorn crescent.

You glare, turning side to side, catching the eyes of the crowd shifting all around looking at the conversation that seems too serious to be in the middle of a bustling school picnic. He really has no sense at all, you think. Big, dumb, man.

Big, dumb, stupid, man.

Steve, unaware because he’s a big, dumb, stupid man, sighs as if he’s holding the weight of the entire world on his shoulders. “You told me you loved me, do you remember?”

To your right, a mother stops midway while reaching for a cut of brownie and you can see her eyes widen briefly before she quickly grabs the fudge square and plops it on her plate. She shuffles a little further away, but still in earshot as she pretends to look for another dessert for her tray. You think about saying something, but your eyes glaze over, trying to find the particular memory he’s referencing, instead.

No. Nothing. A cold trail slips down your palm and you realize the popsicle in your hand is dripping orange all the way down to your wrist.

Steve produces a tissue from his pocket and begins dabbing the melted ice away.

“I got ya.”

Your uninvited and eavesdropping audience member opens her mouth in a small round shape. Her eyebrows slope together as she absently places her hand to her chest, as if saying “aw.” Steve is tenderly wiping the bright orange trickle from your skin before he motions from the popsicle to your chin.

“You gonna eat that?”

When you stand too shocked and frankly flabbergasted to respond, he takes the opportunity to grab it and stick it in his own mouth, crunching the ice between his teeth and sucking the stick dry. A drop of sugar water lands in his beard.

“Huh--” He muses, “Thas pretty good!”

Your teeth gnash together in an attempt to push your suddenly growing smile away. Your eyes slip shut, frustrated with him. What the fuck, you think. Why is he like this? A smile weasels its way onto your face, tugging the left side of your mouth upward into a lopsided grin before you bite it down.

The mom, now taking an inordinate about of time to get a plate of dessert, smiles too.

“Is that a yes?” Steve whispers, peering down into your eyes. “You remember?”

“No.” You respond. “You’re being annoying. And messy.”

“Really?” He laughs, “Is that the best you got?”

Now you are glaring, because no, you’ve got so much more. He seems to pick up the cue and puts his hands up defensively. Then, out of reflex, Steve wipes your hand one more time for good measure. “Sorry, shouldn’t push it. Hey...” his voice grows softer now, and he leans in until you’re both sure the mother who is – goddamn it, still there—can no longer hear.

“Please give me another chance. Please, sweetheart. I really do love you.”

“Steve,” You snap, “That’s not something you say lightly. And it’s not something you say when you’re desperate, either. I have to go, and you should too because your daughter needs to spend time with you and not her babysitter, don’t you think?”

A sad smile tugs at his lips. “Yeah,” he admits, “Yeah. That’s why I hired Sam. He’s really good, you know? I wanted to show him the ropes around our fundraising events, but he’s been at the shop for almost a month now.”

It makes you pause.

“I’ve started taking off on the weekends. Come in just a few times—Wednesdays, for inventory. Fridays to prep for the Sunday rush. This is the first time I’ve called Marnie in almost a week.”

He looks so proud of himself, but he tucks his chin to his chest and regards you with shy eyes like a student waiting for a prize. Even his hands are inside his pockets again and he rocks back and forth on his heels, teeth tugging his heavy bottom lip gently. Big blue eyes. Stupid pretty eyelashes. Steven Grant Rogers knows exactly what he’s doing.

You begin to dig around in your purse in retaliation. Your fingers touch the edge of your phone—no, that’s not what you want. So, you continue to search as he waits.

Truly, you’re very proud of him-- beyond thrilled that he’s taken your advice to heart and has put Sarah first. Over at a game of cornhole, she cheers and claps when her teacher makes a beanbag in. Three weeks ago, that little girl was falling apart and cursing all of second grade.

The idea of him, finally not waking up at three in the morning and working until he literally drops seventeen hours later sweeps over your chest like a soothing current. You remember how exhausted he always was when you’d see him—and it was only summertime. His workload doubled with Sarah during the schoolyear. You remember coming over for spaghetti, and him, about to burst into tears while rolling meatballs.

It makes you relieved to know he would finally be taking care of not just his daughter, but himself as well.

Yes, you’re very proud of him.

Your fingers finally catch what you've been searching for. Slowly, with a ruinous smile, you peel off the points from the thin sheet of plastic and take it out of your purse.

“Congratulations, Steven,” you announce, sticking a quarter-sized and iridescent gold star over his chest. You hold up two thumbs and push them under his nose. “A-plus. Would you like a high-five, too?”

No, you’re not going to let him get away with his shit so easily.

Down the table, three more women have congregated, and they clap and cheer when Steve chuckles and leans his head back in mock defeat.

--

It’s four-thirty and you are slathering aloe vera on your shoulders when a knock pounds at your door. “No!” You yell, “Go away, Steve!”

You avoided him for the rest of the PTA Picnic, mingling with parents and your colleagues instead, but every time you would accidentally find his eyes over the yard, he’d smile at you. A few times, he actually waved. The star sticker, meant to be an insult, he wore as a badge of honor.

Big. Dumb. Stupid. Man.

Eventually, it got to the point where other people (other, other people, not just the eavesdropping mothers) noticed too. After the third person of the day asked if you were seeing Steve Rogers, you excused yourself and went home to nurse your growing sunburns.

“C’mon, hon!” Steve calls from the door, exceedingly pathetic.

“Fuck off!” Even though a laugh might escape.

“Sarah’s here!”

You yelp, because the f-bomb is fine and dandy, but not to her ears. When you yank the door open, wet glistening shoulders and all, ready to apologize... there’s no one there but Steve and two dozen roses freckled with baby’s breath and pearly wax flowers. Your arms cross and you think you might put your fist right through that outrageous arrangement. “Are you serious?”

Steve peeks over the massive amount of deep red and a river of words tumbles out.

“Yeah, Sam was positive that he clocked a flowers-and-chocolate girl from meeting you just one time and wouldn’t let me go without these. Figured it couldn’t hurt... but I got you something else...” He pulls a brown paper bag from behind his back and dangles it one-strapped from his pointer finger.

Two loaves of banana bread sit sandwiched next to each other inside- not even wrapped, just embedded in crinkled confetti-colored butcher paper. On top, a similarly colored scrap has scrawled in rushed and sloppy all-caps handwriting: UNLIMITED BANANA BREAD-- CAP&CO!

“You’re such an idiot.” You berate.

“I know!” Steve cries, “I know! I know! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please, please let me come in so I can talk to you. God, please? Even if it’s just so you can yell at me some more?”

“I am not yelling at you.” You retort, but let him in, anyway. “You’ll know when I’m yelling.”

Steve sits cautiously on the couch, places your gifts on the coffee table, and then looks around curiously. Things are a little different since he’s been here last. There are more plants, and you’ve gotten a little square bookshelf positioned in the corner of the room by the T.V. The kitchen even hangs a few wooden panels with abstract strokes and your corkboard of polaroid photos has been changed out for small doodles and tiny watercolor pieces.

He realizes, as he peeks over into the dining room, that you’ve been painting in his absence. Each picture is more refined than the last, as if you’ve been practicing. His little hobby that he pressed upon you hastily, you’ve taken to heart and improved on, even though he’s been gone.

It probably hurt so bad, he thinks, to have those paints in your house, to be reminded of him. Steve shuts his eyes and counts to ten. He doesn’t deserve you, but he wants you. He wants you so much.

“So?” You ask, brow furrowed on the sofa chair to his right. Now that he’s physically inside your apartment, the mood has changed considerably. The snarky banter in public and goading at the door has transformed into solemn and dead air. You don’t know what he might say, and even worse, you don’t know what it is you’ll do in return.

It’s easy. So easy to care for him. So easy to fall back into that routine of being with Steve Rogers.

But he’s shown you that he finds it easy to return to Peggy, too. And you— the easiest one of them all, will just forgive him for it? Your breath sticks to your lungs and refuses to come out. If you could go back to that day in bed and have pleaded with him not to pick up the phone, you probably would.

No, that’s too simple. It’s childish, and naïve, too.

“I’m sorry.” Steve finally speaks into the silence of your living room. His hands are folded over his knees, and he is looking at you like he is trying to bury those words inside your body. He calls your name. “Baby, I am so sorry. I am so goddamn sorry.”

It hurts. It hurts all over, but you won’t let him see you cry. “Okay.” You reply tepidly. Sorry isn’t enough.

“The truth is, I made a mistake. A really big mistake, and what’s worse is, I was too scared to admit it. I could think up of a million reasons why —about Peggy, or Sarah… It’s… so hard.” Steve puts his head in his hands, “The hard thing is that I have always been… stubborn. I was stubborn enough to move Sarah here by myself. I was stubborn to think that I could raise her on my own. Obviously, I couldn’t; I was falling apart, working too much, didn’t know how to talk to my daughter… and hadn’t spoken to Peggy in months. God, I hated being away from Sarah.  And when an easy road made its presence known to me— I went right for it.”

You want to focus on his words, because you know he means them, but a part of you begins to disengage to ease your own suffering.

“You got caught right up in the middle of it.” Steve whispers, choked on his sentences. “I wanted to badly to make my family work again, I didn’t realize that family doesn’t need to mean… what I think it means. It can be anything. And love can be anything.”

“What the fuck are you talking about, Steve?”

The both of you are in tears now. Your breath comes out in short and sharp puffs as you try to contain the pooling wells of your eyes. Steve’s own face is flushed pink, as wipes his cheeks with the heel of his palm.

“Honey,” he stutters, “I love you. I love you so much. I know your love and it’s wonderful.”

“Y-you didn’t even c-call— I’m not— I’m not a fucking back up plan, Steve!”

He rushes off the couch in a fumble of noisy limbs and falls to your feet on his knees. You retreat into the cushion of the sofa chair, legs drawn and wrap your arms around yourself. Instinctively, you want to be protected from the hurt-- from him. You’re a jumble of wracked sobs and groans as your head begins to pound.

“I know you’re not.” His arms wrap around yours, digging behind your back as he shifts to move onto the seat as well. You’re an absolute mess, completely shattered into pieces in his embrace, jaw clenched and frozen as your eyes leak all the way down to your neck.

Steve holds on tighter, buries his head into your neck where droplets run down your shoulder and onto your back. He rubs your spine gently, shushing your cries.

He feels so warm and good to lean into. And in this moment of weakness and sadness, all you want is that warmth again, just for a single minute— even if it’s foolish.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I was afraid and stupid. I thought it would be easier to go back to something I had already known, but I know now that being with you is what I really want. Your love is a wonderful thing. I’m so sorry I ruined it.”

He says it into the top of your head, his warm breath washing over you with each exhale. Steve pulls you to his chest and you can hear his heart hammering in his ribcage. Your own is near identical to his, deafeningly loud in the quiet rest of the apartment. His hands rub up and down your arms.

“Could you love me again?” He asks softly. “Could you try? I won’t let you down this time... I swear.”

His words are sweet like the very honey he stirs into his recipes. They slide down his tongue and out his mouth and soak you in their sticky, syrupy promise. You pull away and look into his eyes, red and blue, glassy and crawling with veins. He wipes a tear from your cheek, and you do the same to him.

Everything is fuzzy. You feel worn down and scattered about, pieces of you lost and trying to find each other.

The two of you sit there, looking at one another on the tiny sofa couch. Then, distractedly, you sniff.

“Where is Sarah?”

Steve erupts into a sharp, wet, laugh before he inhales and blinks his tears away, “God, I thought you were going to headbutt me.” He admits.

“She’s with Marnie at a movie. I asked her to give me an hour and a half before dinner. Time’s almost up.” When you hum softly, he takes the opportunity to press his nose against yours. When you sigh, he does it again before sliding his lips over your mouth.

“I love you.” He whispers against your cheek. One then the other, he places kisses over your face. “I love you.” Your tongue sits swollen in your mouth, unable to find the right words for this moment. “I’d never say it if I didn’t mean it.”

You feel both heavy and weightless, wavering between acceptance and denial. “I--I don’t know, Steve.” You whisper.

“Let’s try again, baby,” he pleads, trailing his lips over your jaw, the two of you scrunched up like pretzels, legs entwined, arms linked and gripped tight.

It’s obvious why clichés like breakup sex and secret relationships are exciting. The aspect of having a potentially glorious thing one last time is a thrill. This, too-- this apologetic, tender, intimacy-- is thrilling. Steve Rogers, torn open and laid bare for you, waiting for you, pleading for you, makes your stomach flip and sink.

He smells like sandalwood and pine. Clean shampoo and summer sun. You try to swallow the deadened weight of your tongue away, but it only grows larger.

Finally, you sigh, wipe your face one last time, and wipe his eyes too. With a crooked smile, you say, “Let’s go get Sarah.”

 --

The car ride to Steve’s house is as quiet as a funeral. Your radio remains off the whole time and your brain is wiped completely blank by sheer emotional exhaustion. Any time a thought of whether you’ve done the right or wrong thing arises, it turns into snowy static and disappears. Maybe you’re a saint. Or an idiot. Maybe idiots can also be saints, and maybe that’s what you are.

What you really want is to stop feeling so much. The ache has subsided but its now replaced by unease laced with a steady drumbeat of something that resembles elation. You can’t help but feel excited again, because Steve is here. Steve is back. Steve has promised. And you hope he will deliver. Your chest thumps noisily and at light speed when you remember how happy he made you just a few months ago.

The reality of that approaching happiness resurrects itself inside of you, taking off on eagerly flapping wings.

Yet, the concerned part of you still stands planted on the earth, arrow raised and nocked, waiting to loose the bolt to shoot that bird down.

The two of them watch each other guardedly as they grow further and further apart.

 

You turn off the engine and meet him on the sidewalk where he stands waiting patiently. Marnie’s car isn’t here yet, so he leads you inside by the hand and brings you a glass of water, observing you all the while.

“What?” You ask hoarsely after a big gulp.

He smiles—wide, blindingly white, reminiscent of the old wallpaper on your phone. “Just glad you’re here.” He says, suddenly shy.

“Yeah,” You reply sadly, “Me too. I think.”

Steve takes the glass from your hand and sets it on the countertop. “It’s okay.” He whispers, tugging lightly on your finger like a lost child, “It’s okay.”

A knock from the front door pulls your attention away and you can hear Sarah chattering on the other side. Marnie opens the door with her spare key and Sarah leads here in with a half-eaten bag of popcorn clutched to her chest. She does look so tall now, you think, and older with her hair pulled back into a ponytail and her jawline beginning to angle just slightly more like her father’s.

“Hi daddy!” She says in-between a crunching mouthful, and then pauses when she sees you behind her father. “Hi!!! Wow! Are you gonna stay for a sleepover? Daddy doesn’t work tomorrow! Can we go somewhere?”

She places the bag on the nearest counter and runs over to where you stand by the coffee table, jumping right up into your arms.

You stumble, because she’s even bigger than the last time she did it, and your life flashes before your eyes.

This time, because he was expecting it, Steve catches you against his chest and sets you right. Marnie smiles and waves goodbye from the doorway.

--

You wash dishes side-by-side in the kitchen after Steve tucks Sarah into bed at eight. She’s worn out from spending her day outside and running around so much that over dinner you watched her nearly doze off while eating her vegetables.

Steve had made dinner with fluffy brown rice and sautéed shrimp and lemon zest. On the side, he steamed summer squash and cut fresh slices of sweet peppers. Once more, you and Sarah set the dinner table and poured the drinks while he arranged the plates.

Dessert was simple: plump, blood red cherries from the farmer’s market. Sarah splashed burgundy over her shirt, and you dabbed some vinegar on it before rinsing it out for her in the restroom. Her nose had scrunched up at the smell and she pretended to barf until she actually dry heaved a little.

Huh. Second grade, you thought, as you backed away from her.

Patting the dishes dry, you stack them neatly into their respective cabinets before washing your own hands. Steve brushes a strand of your hair away from your face and leads you back to the couch where it’s safe: neither too forward nor too modest. Appropriate enough for two adults to talk while Sarah sleeps in her room with the door cracked.

Her bedtime playlist slips down the hall as a tinny, melodic voice. The lights are dimmed low, just enough for the two of you to see each other and not much else.

His hands sandwich yours and he places them in his lap. As he turns to look at you, the lamp behind his head illuminates his long hair, casting radiance all around him. Your breath quickens.

Big. Stupid. Beautiful. Man.

“You know what I thought the first time I met you?” He asks suddenly, a sly smile growing on his face. You frown. The hand on top of yours brushes over your knuckles, fingers rubbing back and forth slowly as he continues, “I thought—”

“I was too young.” You interject, rolling your eyes at the memory of his crass words at Open House.

“Yes.” He laughs. “I did think you were too young. Inexperienced. I had this idea of what a teacher should have been… But then—” he snickers again suddenly, clapping his hand over yours, “then you handed me your resume and flicked me off at the same time.”

You grin, because yeah, you remember that, too. It was a pretty audacious move on your part, but he had really pissed you off. “Is that what won you over?”

“Yeah. It really was. It was impressive—your resume, and your middle finger.”

“I didn’t like you very much when I met you.” You admit, “Didn’t like you … for a long time.”

“Oh, I know, sweetheart.” Steve chuckles, “You would literally run away from me. I had to chase you down with a plate of food-- with specially made banana bread! Jesus, that recipe was so hard.”

“Well, Steve Rogers,” You sigh, “Thank God I like you now.”

“Not God,” Steve corrects, “Thank Bucky. He really set me straight— twice.”

Steve told you once over a conversation all about Bucky and Natasha, the two old friends you briefly met in early June. Bucky was the one who had encouraged Steve to ask you in the first place. You remember replying how you’d have to thank him next time you see him for giving Steve the idea. Apparently, you’ll have to thank him again, too.

“He pretty much yelled at me for twenty minutes after… you know.”

“You deserved it.” You say.

“Yeah,” Steve replies, “I really did.”

Then, after a moment of silence, because both of you are unsure where to take this conversation next—too soon to apologize again and too soon to start acting like nothing is wrong again, Steve clears his throat.

“I talked to Peggy, after the airport.” He says carefully, as if the very mention of her name might make you burst into tears. You’re pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t, but again, it wasn’t her you had been upset with. So, you nod quietly and wait for him to continue.

“I think... we’re all on the same page.”

“Which page is that?”

“That you’re too good for me.”

It’s supposed to come out as a humorous thing, a thing you would laugh at and tell him the opposite. He even holds his breath in wait for the moment when your laugh would escape in a joyful exhale, but instead you glare. “I’m just a person.” You say grimly, and he doesn’t quite understand why the joke that was supposed to be funny has suddenly turned serious.

“I’m just a person. Not a substitute. Not a replacement guardian. Not an idea of a lover or mother or--”

“Woah!” And then the tears are falling down your face again and Steve’s chest feels like it might break open. “Honey, I don’t love you as anyone but yourself. I love you as the caring teacher. The… new painter?” He offers you a sweet smile, “The funny, beautiful, glorious, and gracious girlfriend…”

My girlfriend?” He asks bashfully.

A small laugh escapes as you wipe your eyes, “Don’t forget I’m good in bed, too.” You tack on jokingly.

Steve puts his forehead in his hand, “Jeez, you gotta meet Bucky again. You two are two of a kind.”

He peeks at you between his fingers. A slow, tender gaze, full of affection and promise. Steve bites his bottom lip, looks at you with hooded eyes and takes a deep breath in. His tongue rubs against the edge of his teeth. “Can’t wait to spend time with just you.” He says in a single quick breath. “I want to make you feel better, baby.”

You roll your eyes but can’t help smiling. “Don’t disappoint me, Rogers.”

The comment that is meant to be a joke flips on its head. Steve surges forward and tucks both arms under yours, pressing his chest to your chest, burying his face into your neck. “I won’t.” He murmurs, pained. His beard tickles when it scrapes against your skin, but his hot breath wicks it away.

“I won’t ever again.”

“Okay, Steve” You sigh, cheek resting on his head, “Okay.”

 

Chapter Text

Your relationship becomes a complicated affair. There are various intricacies to navigate now that school is back in session and Sarah has returned. Your schedule is identical to his daughter’s, so there isn’t a lot of time either of you have to spend alone. 

It’s good, at first, because you are still wary of jumping in too quickly. But then by the end of the first week, you can’t help but crave the physical intimacy a relationship provides, especially now that you have it once more.  

In the afternoons that Steve comes to pick Sarah up, he looks at you with a smile at your cone before he pulls away. You keep him at arm’s length to separate your personal and professional life, and to not confuse Sarah. As far as she knows, you and Steve are friends; you don’t spend the night, and he doesn’t kiss you goodbye. 

If she were ever to come to school and announce that you stayed the night in her father’s room, you’d probably fire yourself

So, your weeknights are spent at your apartment, texting, calling briefly, pining for each other even though he’s only a 15-minute car ride away.  

Weekends are spent at the park or movies, trips to the children’s museum, and then making dinner together. He brushes up against your elbow while you wash vegetables, noses your shoulder when Sarah turns around. Once, when you were both sure Sarah had fallen asleep, you sneaked over to him on the couch, but then she called out from her room and you scrambled off. You haven’t been brave enough to let him try again. 

At the end of the second week, you’re wound so tightly, you feel like you could spring loose any second. 

Friday comes to an end and you are organizing the mess your classroom has become during the week and pulling out the necessary items for the next one. There are handfuls of manipulatives to be sorted, folders to be organized, crayons to pick up, and inexplicable smudges found in all sorts of places. Damn it, how  do they do this? 

A knock on your door draws your attention away from the frustrating state of your desk. Looking up, you see Steve leaning against the doorframe, fingers on the handle as he peeks in coyly.  

“Hey, you,” he calls, and your heart swells in your chest at the sight of him before it speeds up, panicked. 

“What are you doing here?” You ask quickly, motioning for him to come in and shut the door. “You shouldn’t be here! Where’s Sarah?” 

“She’s spending the night at a friend’s house… I wanted to surprise you.” He closes the door with a quiet click just in time as the teacher down the hall shoots you a goodbye, voice echoing. “Wanna go to dinner?” 

Wordlessly, he begins to clear the clutter from your desk, placing them neatly on the shelves before he returns to stand with his hip against the frame. Suddenly, the urgency of cleaning slithers away. Stacking your papers and zipping up your bag, you laugh, “Is that your way of asking me on a date?” 

He takes the bag from you and slings it over his shoulder. On you, it looks comically large. On him, quite the opposite; he looks like Billy Madison going back to first grade. “Depends… is that your way of saying yes?” 

-- 

Dinner is casual at a greasy little diner you have been craving for. It’s a mom-n-pop kind of place, old booths and ripped cushions, unassuming hole-in-the-wall near the edge of downtown where every menu item is a hit . The burger is so stuffed it slides right out of your hands and you have to hold it upside down for a good bite—a trick you learned from a student. Steve crunches on golden tater tots and you suck on mouthfuls of thick strawberry milkshake.  

“So— youch! Good! Cold! Uuuuugh…” You mumble when the brain-freeze catches you. “Wanna little?” 

He laughs and leans over the table, kissing the sweet cream from your lips and leaving behind a warm impression of his mouth. It tingles all over your tongue and rushes to every inch of your face. “Yum. Very good, baby.” Steve says with a smirk as he rubs his thumb over his bottom lip. 

You roll your eyes, “Alright, Steve,” You can play this game, “I feel like you’re sending me lots of hints. Should we knock out a quickie in the men’s room?” Your resolve is weak, and you burst out into laughter at the thought of two adults going at it in a dingy old tiled restroom. 

His eyebrows raise in surprise, but he stops to squint at you, “Don’t tease me, I’ll do it; I’ll do you .” 

Jesus Christ in heaven, your stomach is either aching from laughing too much, eating too much, or because Steve is staring at you like he could devour you whole—and because he just said he would do you —like he might be eighteen and head over heels in love. 

“Can we—” 

Like a repeat of the first night you spent at his house, you’re already packed up with your purse over your shoulder, and way ahead of him. You’re out the door and halfway into your car before Steve catches up. 

“This time,” You breathe, “You’re staying the night with me.”  

 

Suffice to say you’ve been daydreaming about this moment almost every day for the past seemingly endless few weeks. Steve seems to be more desperate, even calling you on the short drive back just to tell you how excited  he is, how he’s been so good, waiting to be with you again.  

You make him hang up because it’s still twenty minutes away and you joke that you can’t spend another second listening to dirty talk.  

“I’m excited, too.” You admit, and the groan he sends on the other line is enough to make your thighs clench. 

He’s almost bouncing by the time you reach your door, chewing on his lip and staring at you intently. You warn him that you have neighbors and he needs to calm down, but it falls on deaf ears as he only smiles wider. 

And then, his hands are scooping you up, his foot kicking the door closed, and he drops you on the couch without another word, palming your arms and waist and falling to his knees. His beard rubs against your calf as he finds his way up your legs, hand sliding beneath your skirt to squeeze the inside of your thighs. 

“Steve,” you stutter, “Let me wash up and get out of my work clothes, at least.” 

“Uh-uh. Can’t wait.” Your skirt is rucked up, bunching around your hips while he unbuckles his belt, the faint clink of its metal registering in your ears. “Gotta get this off you.” His undressing is left unattended as he fumbles to yank your zipper down. 

He doesn’t know what he wants to do first; it’s only three minutes in but he wants all of it—of you— right now. His head is empty, foggy, yet so full of possibilities.  

Steve latches his mouth to yours, slips his tongue in, slides off your skirt and blouse, breaking away for just a second to pull it off your head. “Bed.” He commands, and then picks you up again while you giggle in his arms. 

The bedroom is glowing with Christmas lights, something he has always found a little endearing and so perfectly you. Tonight, their colors shimmer and warm your skin, turns you rosy and ethereal in the darkness, a flower unfurling under his heated gaze. He tugs the collar of his shirt over his head and glides right out from under it before kicking off his pants.  

And then he’s crawling over to you, hot and needy, and moaning when your bodies meet. Through the thin layer of underclothes, you feel him. His eyes shine purple under the decorations, rolling back as he shifts and grinds into your center. 

“Jesus...” Steve hisses, “Fuck me. You feel so good.”  

There’s nothing you can say either way, the mass of him overtakes every thought or comment. His big hands roam every inch of your body, his thigh spreads your legs apart, quickly being replaced with rubbing and eager fingers. You let him work, leaning into his touch. He leaves kisses down your sternum, yanking off the bralette before returning to each breast, flicking his tongue over your nipple. Left and right, he moves back and forth as if he’s trying to be attentive to both at the same time.  

He is everywhere, but he wants more. He pleads with obscene phrases, whines with intimate oaths, mouthfuls of expressions that nearly shock you. Steve Rogers, your returned lover, known to be so often pleasant, talks so filthy and fierce you might catch fire. 

You shimmy out of your underwear, letting him have it. 

“I’m gonna turn you inside out, baby.” He vows, slipping his fingers inside, pushing in knuckle deep, arm flexed straight and against you. It becomes the fixture that keeps you on earth even though it feels like you could float right up to the heavens. Weeks have passed without feeling each other, and now that you have the chance, your body demands him. 

You want to touch him, too. 

Rolling him over with a bit of a struggle because Steve is stubborn like that, you press yourself flat against his chest, wiggle your hips over his, let him slide between your thighs. With one hand over your back, you grip him from behind and rub him until he’s slick. 

This is as much foreplay as either of you will get— you’re desperate and impatient for him. 

“Oh fuck...” He groans, “Fuck.” 

“Turn me inside out, Rogers?” 

“Can’t say I have any complaints, hon-- ” The husky chuckle is cut off when you push him in, tilting your hips until he bottoms out, completely encased. His skin breaks out into goosebumps as he arches up, groaning, heavy lidded and watching you. “God, baby. You look so good.” 

You had forgotten how he feels, buried like this, like he could live inside of you— stiff and big and perfect. The blood coursing through your veins burns torrid and sears into every bit, pooling slippery and wet until it’s drenching. You rock on top of him, gripping his chest and arm, back and forth and panting for breath. Steve kisses your palms and wrists, placing one hand on the small of your back and sitting up until you’re flush with your ankles crossed around his waist. 

The position harkens back to your first time, months ago, the two of you blind with affection and want for each other as you fumbled around in his bed. 

He is flushed under the lights, still holding tightly to your side, sliding you back and forth, hitting so deeply it almost hurts. Steve’s hands run the length of your thighs before palming your ass to pull you closer, bucking.  

“Come on.” He grunts, “Little more, honey. So fucking good.” He latches onto your neck, licks at the sensitive skin beneath your ear and makes you tremble all over. “That’s my girl.” He repeats it again when you clamp down harder. “Do you like that? Being my girl?” 

“God…” you mutter, a little embarrassed because apparently that’s what does it for you. It’s something about the way he says it and the way he holds onto you like a lifeline with his strong arms.  

It’s the way it is after two weeks aching for him, knowing he is yours to have, but not having him. It’s the breaking of your will, crushed and shattered with every plunge and withdraw. 

“My girl,” a smile presses into your cheek, “So good. So fucking tight for me.” You could weep with the coil in your belly twisting tightly on the edge of snapping. 

“I’m—Steve— gonna— come,” you moan, nails digging into his back. The two of you melting together, clawing, mouths open, tongues touching. It’s messy, sticky, and sweaty, but the way he burns is sweet. 

“Look at me,” Steve urges your fluttering eyes, peppering kisses to your jaw as he soaks in the way your lips part dreamily. “I love you so much. Come for me, baby.” 

You’re done for, crying out in the warm heat of the room, seizing him by his shoulders and then down his back and pressing crescent shaped indents in his skin. He watches you shake and whimper, licking his teeth as pleasure stirs him harder. Your wrap him in pulses, make it tougher for him to wedge his way out and in, and he loves it, feeling the new sensation all the way up to his eyes.  

With a grunt and a string of expletives that might have surprised you before tonight, Steve wrenches himself out, pumps himself three, four, times and spills creamy with a gasp over your stomach and hip. “Fuck.” He hisses, “God damn.” 

 

Everything is blushing rose, damp with the scent of your exertion and him, wet and salty on your body. The lights look like flowers dappling alien luminescence, casting shadows over his open mouth. Steve kisses you, slow and silent, again and again, one hand on your spine and the other on your thigh to keep you close. 

“I love you.” He breathes against your lips, “I love you. And I’m gonna keep lovin’ you, baby. Until you want me to stop, and even then, I’ll still love you.” 

Your nose stings with a rush of emotion, eyes squeezing shut when your voice seeps out as a whimper, cheek pressed to his shoulder. 

“Don’t break my heart, Rogers.” You plead. 

With a shake of his head, Steve kisses you once more, “Never again. I promise.”  

-- 

His love returns in constantly cresting waves, drowning you every second with adoration and devotion and you can’t fathom how Peggy did it—how she loved something else more than him. It’s been weeks and weeks and he has shown you nothing but his goodness. 

No, he’s not perfect. He’s a mess, as he’s admitted, he’s irritable and peevish at times, he dives headfirst into everything and gets himself worked up before burning out.  

But in the end, he comes back and apologizes. He’s always the first to admit his mistakes and always eager to talk it through, change, make it better, make it good again.  

You watch him flourish with his new and unwinding schedule as he finds more time to pursue his hobbies- painting, ceramics, experimenting with newer recipes and introducing them on the days he comes in. Every chance you get, you thank Sam for accepting the position. Sam thanks you back for keeping Steve out of the café. 

He volunteers more at the school, too. He goes with Sarah on her field trips, takes her with him, teaches her to paint and bake and it shows when shines at school, comes out of her moods, glows again.  

Her teacher pulls you aside one day. “Thank you.” She says quietly during the end of your planning period while her students work diligently. “She’s the sweetest little thing, and…  thank you.” You smile instead of answer, because you don’t feel like you did anything. But then, Christine’s mouth pulls itself tight, the corner lifting. “They’re lucky to have you.” 

Slow dread sets in as you rummage around your brain, unsure of how much she knows, or how much anyone else knows. But then she looks back through the window of her class and she says goodbye with a wink. Your heart is pounding when you return to your line of kids, waiting patiently. 

You run the information in your head again, paranoid the rest of the day any time a co-worker glances your way. Christine probably knows. Heather probably—definitely-- knows. She doesn’t mention it ever, because she understands your reasons, but does she mention it to other people

Will it ultimately spread like a virus until everyone becomes infected with the knowledge that you are dating Steve Rogers? 

It completely fucks with your head, rips you out of your element, and at the end of the day you’ve completely enclosed yourself in the terror that when people look at you, they see someone disreputable. You’ve even forgotten completely that it’s your birthday and Steve has asked you to come by for dinner and cake. 

By the time you leave your classroom, the entire school seems to be empty. The hallways echo with your somber footsteps and you nearly jump out of your skin when your phone rings. 

“Honey?” Steve asks with concern, “Where are you? It’s almost seven.” 

“Oh shit! I’m so sorry… I just—I’m so--something funny kind of happened and I’m freaking out.” 

“Take a breath, okay? Drive safe and let me know when you’re here. Sarah’s worried bout ya.” 

“Yeah. Sorry! Tell her I’m on my way.”  

 

The windows are dark when you arrive, and you’re confused as to why. The house across the street is packed with cars lined up like sardines and you struggled to find a decent spot, resulting in the stressful task of parallel parking between a grey sedan and a minivan. Stupid neighborhood parties on a stupid Thursday. 

“Steve?” You call from the door when you find that it’s unlocked, wandering down the hall to find the switch. “Have you turned crotchety again? The electricity bill is  not  that high!” 

A flash of light blinds you briefly as a chorus of “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” explodes from the living room. You scream and jump backwards, dropping your purse with a clatter. 

Sarah runs up and hurdles into your arms. This time, you catch her, but her bottom slips from your grasp and she continues to slide down the length of your body until she’s planted once more. “Happy Birthday!” She yells, “Did I scare you!?”  

“Yes!” You cry, staring out into the sea of your co-workers’ eyes, expectant and joyful. “What- what is everyone doing here?” For a fleeting and terrible moment, you can’t help but think god damn it everyone knows!  

Your heart clobbers your ribcage as your eyes roam the room, in awe and a bit of anxiety. Crinkled streamers hang from each corner to the middle of the ceiling fan- pastel pink and ginger orange and buttery yellow, like an array of sherbet. Around the perimeter are filled up silver birthday balloons with helium and tied delicate ribbons to each.   

You don’t know what to say or do as your tongue sits uselessly inside the cavern of your dry mouth. 

But then, a balmy glow from around the kitchen corner arrives and your racing heart leaps at the sight of Steve carrying the cake. Sarah bobs back and forth, clapping her hands together in anticipation. 

“Happy Birthday.” He smiles behind a curtain of candles and then the room breaks out into a convivial song—twenty voices vocalizing in unison. When they stop and end the tune with scattered applause, you catch Heather wiping her eyes and Christine clapping her hand over her heart.  

The rest of the first-grade team is there, too, grinning with damp cheeks. The receptionist at the front desk who you worked with your first year. Ms. Sweetwater, Edward’s mom, other parents from last year and one from this year.  

Jesus, even the principal—Evelyn Graham-- stands, sniffling behind the sofa chair. 

Sam and Marnie, crooked smiles plastered on sweetly.  

“Make a wish.” Your mind draws a blank as you stare into his face. “Candles are melting on the ganache, sweetheart. I worked real hard for that glaze.” 

A sob breaks its way free from your throat, “You’re such a  dummy .” You whisper to his widening grin, Sarah giggling at her father’s expense. With his chin, he urges you on, tears rolling down your face like melted candlewax. Then, slowly, because the chocolate varnish is starting to look like it might completely crust over with opaque grey speckles, you take a breath and extinguish the flames. 

Cheers and whoops fill your ears and you bury your face in your palms. Steve holds the cake closer to his chest, tilts his face down to meet the top of your head, but sneaks a kiss to your cheek instead. “I’ll be right back.” 

Heather touches your elbow when Steve dips away into the kitchen. With one hand on her hip, she raises her eyebrow, “Didn’t I tell ya?” She asks with a wink, making you roll your eyes dramatically. “Honey, that man is  struck  by you. And it is plain as day to see.” 

“Guess it must be if  everyone  is here.” You gesture to the mingling crowd, all smiles when they glance your way.  

“The boy’s hard to miss!” Sam calls. 

Evelyn approaches you with a friendly shrug, “He certainly doesn’t smile at me like that during carline.” She teases and your face turns the exact color as the raspberries that Steve brings out on top of the cake. 

“Alright, who’s ready?” He asks, oblivious to the conversation surrounding him. 

 

Thick, fluffy slices are served on cute little ceramic plates from the café and everyone collectively seems to sigh when they take the first bite. Sam sticks close to you, letting you know that the party has been in the works for the past week. Steve petitioned Heather first about the surprise and she was happy to be on-board, passing the news around your workplace covertly. 

It astonishes you the way everyone is so supportive. Edward’s mom gives you a new pair of homemade earrings in the shape of croissants and you put them on straight away. Steve claps his hands together and vows that next week, Cap&Co is going to have a croissant special. It makes the whole room laugh. You’re still bashful and nervous, wringing your hands together and chewing on a soft raspberry quietly while Sarah sits on Steve’s hip, face smeared with chocolate. 

People begin to leave around nine, waving goodbye and giving you hugs. Heather squeezes you by the door and pats your shoulder, “You deserve this, girl.” 

Evelyn is right there behind her, “You’re a wonderful teacher. And a wonderful person. We’re all so glad to see you happy. We’ve known all along. It’s…” she laughs, “It’s been very obvious to us.”  

A part of you feels like she’s not talking entirely about your relationship—more about your ability and potential. You swell with pride and a little with embarrassment because it seems like you’ve missed the glaring truth all this time: you are cared for here. You have more than just your job and yourself—you have a whole damn community who isn’t looking to gossip and undermine. 

They see you. 

And Steve has brought it all to light. 

Gazing back down the walkway into the dining room where he stands next to Sam, giving tips and pointers about the ganache, you shake your head with a smile. Evelyn slips out the door quietly and leaves you to your thoughts. 

You’re not even aware of Sarah as she slides over to tug on your blouse playfully. 

“Does this mean you can spend the night now?” She asks. 

“Huh?” 

“Ya know… cause you’re daddy’s girlfriend ?” A cluster of giggles escapes her and she blushes head to toe as if the very word itself is something taboo. 

You blush too, but shove it away as you roughly grab her by the middle and sling her onto your hip, “You know what, Sarah!” You act indignant, “Little miss smarty mouth!” 

She’s screeching and thrashing in your arms, hollering laughter down the path as you stomp back to the living room and deposit her onto the couch. Sam and Steve quirk their heads over when you descend to tickle her. “You’re gonna get it!” You threaten, and she replies only with “Girlfriend Girlfriend ! You and daddy sitting in a tree! K-I-S—” 

You shriek and smother her with a cushion. This child will be the death of you, you swear it. 

“Are you killin’ my kid?” Steve asks from the dining room. 

“No.” You say calmly, “Just, a friendly game of put-the-pillow-on-Sarah’s-face.”  

She resurfaces to continue the song and you smother yourself with the pillow this time. 

Moonlight shimmers in from the open window. Sarah has been tucked in, the house is quiet and still, warmth lingering from the laughter that radiated only hours ago. The Little Mermaid  was attempted again, but Sarah couldn’t keep her eyes open past the first song.  

You and Steve saved it once more for another night and made way to bed where he shows you a card Bucky and Natasha sent in the mail. He had forgotten all about it in the bustle of the celebration.  

The front is decorated cutely— fat honeybees float on daisies, speech bubbles conglomerating to read HapBEE Birthday!  

On the inside, in surprisingly delicate penmanship, it reads: 

Happy Birthday from two people you have only met once….  

Hope he’s doing good by you and making it special. We’re excited to meet you and thank you for making that stupid boy so happy.  If he ever gives you any  more  trouble, just let me know— he’s always been slow  on the draw.  And Natasha  will  kick his ass no sweat.  

-Bucky and Nat  

 

Steve watches you read the card under the lamplight, laughing before tucking it away on the end table. “They’re great.” You say softly, licking your lips with a minty tongue and scooting back down under the comforter. “I’d love to see Natasha kick your ass.” 

He laughs too, because it’s the truth. You yawn and lean over to tug the light off, smiling when he grunts from the shifting of your weight on top of his torso. His eyes take a second to readjust, but he follows your blue shadow back over to your side of his bed. Your side. It makes him pinch his lips together with joy. 

He doesn’t know how someone can light up a room like you, just sitting there in his t-shirt, doing nothing but smile. “Honey,” he says quietly, like he doesn’t want to disturb the moment but can’t help himself. He just wants to see you looking at him. 

“Yeah?” You turn your head ever so slightly, peek up under flared lashes— sleepy eyes struggling to stay awake— still sparkling. “What is it?” 

“Honey, I love you.” Is all he can manage. Everything else seems to fade away. 

And then you smile, a slow curling of your soft lips, cupid’s bow catching a moonbeam. You smile so sweetly his heart stops in his chest. The world comes rushing back with your tired sigh and your small hand linking itself with his. One beat, two beats, steadily, heavily, his blood pulses again when you kiss his cheek and murmur, 

“I love you, too.”