For the past few Sundays, Steve's patience has been tested.
He hasn't always been as patient as he is now, or patient at all. Some would probably laugh if he were to claim he was ever patient in his youth which he takes no offense to because he knows how he used to be. In college, he couldn't keep track on how many times he almost threw his laptop out the window of his dorm room when it decided to crash or freeze because it happened multiple times a day.
He never did throw the laptop out the window because while he really wanted to, his voice of reason (Sam, sometimes Peggy) kept reminding him that he couldn't afford to get a new one and his education and future career depended on that laptop, as much as he hated it. There's only so much you can do with pen and paper, even back then.
Sometimes his thin patience wasn't so bad though. Steve used to run every morning in college and Sam joined him after they met in their first year though it didn't take long before he regretted it because Steve didn't run, he sprinted. The whole way. Going at Sam's jogging speed was boring and Steve got impatient.
He doesn't run as much these days and now his runs are much shorter and not quite as fast. He doesn't sprint anymore since he's thirty-five and not as fast as he used to be. Sam still refuses to join him though, despite that, but that's okay. Steve has another running partner who can mostly keep up with him because he's slowed down but he's still pretty fast.
Running is the one instance where having no patience benefited him. The rest just caused him to lose his temper but having a kid, well. He learned to be patient and ignore his short temper real quick.
But sometimes... sometimes his patience is still tested, even this many years later.
Steve pushes his sleeve up and looks at the time on his watch for what feels like the thousandth time but probably isn't more than the fifth. Ten minutes have passed since he got into his shoes and grabbed the walking bag with essentials (keys, treats, poop bags, etc) along with the leash.
Ten minutes of standing here, waiting while his four year old golden retriever Cooper sits in front of him and gives him the biggest, pleading eyes.
Cooper is smart. He has no concept of time like every other dog but he has somehow figured out when it's Sunday and he's ready for a trip to the dog park without a words said. Steve doesn't even have to grab his leash off the hook before he comes sprinting over to the front door and sits ready, tail wagging and eyes wide with excitement.
But now it's been ten minutes and he's starting to get impatient.
Steve doesn't blame him.
With a sigh, he drops his arm and looks down the hall to the room at the end.
“Lily!” he calls out, loud because the door is closed.
“What!” comes the reply, muffled by the door.
“It's been ten minutes, come on!”
A moment passes, then another, and then the door opens and his daughter pokes her head out. It still shocks him how big she's gotten. She's eleven now and the shortest in her class but he remembers when he could fit her in his own two hands like it was yesterday. Sometimes it leaves him flabbergasted when he remembers how much she's grown.
And how much of a personality she's developed.
At the moment she's looking at him like he's the biggest idiot in the universe—chin dipped, brows low, and eyes narrowed into slits—and to her, he probably is. He's used to being the receiver of looks like this and sometimes he even likes it but his patience is wearing thin so he returns it with his brows raised sternly.
“It hasn't been ten minutes,” she says as she steps out of her room.
She's dressed for a walk at least, though her hair is still loose over her shoulders.
“It has,” Steve says and taps the watch on his wrist. “I've been timing you.”
Lily rolls her eyes at him and walks over. She hands him a hair tie and turns her back to him the moment he takes it from between her fingers, throwing her long, blonde locks over her shoulders.
Out of habit, Steve doesn't even think when he rolls the hair tie down to his wrist and reaches out to gather her hair in his hands. He's done this enough times now, it's part of their daily routine. She's brushed it thoroughly this time unlike some mornings which is nice. His fingers glide right through.
“Can't do it yourself?” he asks her, brushing the hairs back from her face.
Lily shakes her head a little and hums mm-mm in denial.
Steve smiles at the back of her head and separates her hair into three sections. The braid is quick and maybe not his best work but it'll keep her hair out of her face for at least most of the walk. It's a bit windy today, he doesn't expect all her hair to stay in the braid. It never does, anyway.
“All done,” he says after and tosses the braid over her shoulder.
Lily lets it stay there today. Sometimes she doesn't. Sometimes she throws it right back and makes it a point to hit him with it but not today. She spins around on her heels with a toothy smile on her lips and says, “Thanks, dad.”
“You're very welcome,” Steve says with a smile. “You ready to go now?”
Lily takes the leash out of his hand and he lets her. She spins back around and looks at Cooper who hasn't moved from his spot on the floor. When she looks at him, his tail starts wagging again and this time it's so much that it makes his whole body shake. He lets out an impatient whine, eyes big and pleading.
Steve smiles at them and slings the walking bag across his chest while Lily holds out the leash and asks, “Wanna go for a walk?”
The answer she gets comes in a deep boof and then Cooper stands up on all fours. He does a little hop with his front paws and briefly goes over to her but then he turns and heads for the door, looking back at them when they don't immediately follow. His tail wags and he whines impatiently.
Steve says, “I don't think he wants to.”
Lily snorts at him. She puts the leash on Cooper and then they leave the apartment.
The dog park isn't far away but it still takes them almost thirty minutes to get there. Cooper stops them to relieve himself three times—once for poop, twice for pee—and Lily stops them halfway there to beg for ice cream. Steve buys her a popsicle because it's Sunday and she doesn't get one often.
There are already a good handful dogs when they finally get to the park. Some he recognizes because they've been coming here regularly since they got Cooper just over three years ago and a couple he doesn't. Most of them are big dogs around Cooper's size though there are a few smaller ones running around as well. Not that the big dogs seem to pay them any attention.
Cooper gets let off his leash after Steve has shut the gate they came through and Lily has gotten him to sit down. His attention is fully on the bundle of dogs play fighting further into the park and the second he gets the go-ahead, he sprints off toward them and joins them. Steve recognizes the husky and the German shepherd but there's a boxer he hasn't seen before too.
There are new dogs here more days than not so Steve thinks nothing of it. It's a gorgeous dog, he thinks while the dog steps over to Cooper and sniffs at him and Cooper sniffs back, but that's all the attention he gives them before he grabs Lily's hand and takes her with him over to the side so they're not in the way at the gate.
Lily is a lot more interested in that dog though. Not that that's surprising, she's a dog person.
“What kinda dog is that?” she asks him and points out to the bundle.
Steve follows her finger and asks, “Which one?”
“The one sniffing Cooper's butt.”
“Looks like a boxer. Big one, too.”
“How old is it?”
“I don't know.”
It doesn't take long before Cooper loses interest in the boxer and moves on to the other dogs, the ones he already knows. They start playing and Steve expects the boxer to join in as well but it doesn't. Instead it trots over toward one of the benches that are lined up along the fence around the park.
There's a man sitting there. He's leaned back against the bench with his hands resting on his thighs, though he brings them up when the boxer comes over to him. Steve can't see his face from where they're standing, the distance too long, but he can see that the man is wearing at least a few layers despite the spring weather and long, brown locks fall out from under the plain blue cap on his head.
The boxer starts wagging its tail before it reaches the man and it immediately leans into his hands when he reaches out and takes its head into them. The man must be the dog's owner, clearly a loving one too.
Steve takes his eyes off them and looks down at Lily. “We can go ask, if you want,” he says.
Lily looks up at him with huge eyes and that's answer enough.
He keeps her hand in his as they walk over there, his attention still partially on Cooper because he is his responsibility. The man on the bench doesn't look up before they're a few steps away and he only does because his dog notices them approaching and turns to them with a happy wag of its tail.
The man lifts his head which means the cap brim is no longer hiding his face and the friendly smile that was growing on Steve's lips suddenly freezes, as do his legs mid-step when his eyes lock with the man's startling blue ones.
He knows those eyes. Hell, he knows that face.
“Bucky?” he breathes out in surprise.
There's a light scruff running along his jaw, well taken care of and regularly groomed judging by the clear line from shaving under his chin, and there are age marks in the corners of his eyes but Steve knows that face. He knows those eyes, that cleft chin, those pink, plush lips that are currently pulled into tight line.
He has aged and he looks different but there is no doubt in Steve's mind that this is Bucky.
Bucky stares at him with a calculating look in his eyes, brows furrowed in confusion. It doesn't take more than a couple seconds before it seems to click for him too and those familiar eyes widen and those lips stretch out into a smile that creates crowfeet in the corners of his eyes.
“Steve?” he says and Steve can't help but let out an airy laugh.
“Bucky,” he says again and steps forward after letting go of Lily's hand.
Bucky moves to stand without letting go of his dog but Steve moves in and wraps his arms around him in a hug before he's all the way up anyway. Bucky laughs into his shoulder and throws an arm around him to hug him back, though only the one.
The hug is tight but short. It can't have been more than a couple seconds before Bucky leans back and Steve lets him go despite the urge to keep holding on. But he steps back and looks at Bucky, his smile so wide that his cheeks almost hurt from it.
It feels weird, looking at him like this. Steve was always the shorter one but now, he's standing with an inch or two on Bucky. It may not be the most obvious thing, especially not when they're not back to back or side by side, but it is to him. He was so short for the first fourteen years of his life, height is a hard thing not to notice.
It's also hard not to notice that Bucky doesn't keep standing but instead sits back down, his hand still on his dog's back. Steve's brows furrow momentarily but before he can even think about asking or commenting, Bucky speaks again.
“Look at you,” he says, eyes raking over him. “You got tall. Finally grew into your personality, huh?”
Steve narrows his eyes, smile going a little crooked. “Was that a compliment?”
“Absolutely not,” Bucky says. “That was an insult.”
Steve scoffs, his smile wide again.
“I'm kidding,” Bucky says with a chuckle. “You look good, pal.”
“Thanks,” Steve says, cheeks a little warm. “You look good too, Buck.”
Bucky smiles at him but he doesn't say anything. Instead he looks to the side and his smile softens. When Steve follows his gaze, he sees Lily coming up to his side. She slides her hand back into his and he curls his fingers around it, holding on.
“Lily,” he says and looks back at Bucky. “This is Bucky. He was my best friend when I was your age. Bucky, this is Lily. My daughter.”
A flash of something crosses Bucky's face and then it's gone. “You have a daughter,” he says.
Steve nods. “Eleven years old,” he says.
“And four months,” Lily adds.
“And four months,” Steve repeats.
Bucky stares at him for a moment, then he looks at Lily, smiles, and says, “It's nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” Lily says. “How old is your dog?”
“Titan?” Bucky looks down at his dog who's sat down between his legs now, leaning into his hand. “He just turned three last month.” He looks back up, eyes on Lily. “Which one's yours?”
“The golden retriever,” Lily says and points at Cooper who's gone to drink water from a bowl in the corner. “His name is Cooper and he's four years old. He's a rescue.”
“Oh yeah?” Bucky smiles at her and says, “That's awesome. How long have you had him?”
“We got him when he was one,” she says, “and I've taught him a bunch of tricks.”
“What kinda tricks?”
“He can do sit, lay down, roll over, shake, and spin.”
“Wow, that's impressive,” Bucky says and he sounds like he actually means it.
Steve smiles, the smile growing a little wider when Bucky meets his eye in a glance.
Bucky smiles back, soft around the edges.
“Does Titan know any tricks?” Lily asks.
“Oh, plenty,” Bucky says. “He can open doors, get my stuff from the drawer, grab a water bottle from the fridge, he knows lots of tricks. He's real smart.”
“He's a service dog?” Steve asks before he can stop himself.
“He's my service dog, yeah,” Bucky says and looks at him. “But he's off work right now.”
Steve looks back at him in silence for a moment. There are a million questions racing through his head but none are ones appropriate to ask someone he hasn't seen or talked to in eighteen years. A lot has happened and clearly not all has been good for Bucky. Not all has been good for Steve either but right now, Steve is just happy to see him.
After a moment, he smiles and asks, “Mind if we sit down for a bit?”
“Not at all,” Bucky says. He moves what's on his left—a leash and a red service dog vest, Steve notices then—into his lap and gestures to the open space left on the bench.
Steve lifts Lily off the ground and sits down next to Bucky on the bench. Lily makes herself comfortable in his lap, back leaned against his chest and legs thrown over his thigh. There's some space left between them and Bucky, even with Lily's feet on the bench. An appropriate amount of space, Steve thinks.
“So,” Bucky says after a beat. “You guys enjoying some father/daughter quality time while mom's asleep, huh?”
“My mom's not home,” Lily says. “She comes home in fifty-three days.”
The smile on Bucky's lips stiffens. He blinks, then shoots a confused look at Steve.
Steve offers him a small smile and mouths deployed.
The smile doesn't get less stiff. “Gotcha,” Bucky says and nods.
Steve looks at him, observes him. There's a tightness in Bucky's lips, like he wants to say something but is holding himself back. Bucky averts his eye and looks down at Titan instead, pretending to focus on running his right hand over the top of his head.
Steve says, “You can say it.”
Next to him, Bucky shrugs. “Say what?”
“You got this look on your face when I said deployed, so. You can say it.”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
Steve gives him a look. “Bucky.”
“It's just...” Bucky visibly hesitates, then he makes a face. “The military. It's—”
“Awful,” Steve finishes for him.
“Stupid,” Lily adds quietly.
Bucky's face relaxes. He looks at them and slowly asks, “You agree?”
“We do,” Steve says with a nod. “Neither of us are particular fans of the military.”
“Oh.” Bucky lets out a breath. It sounds relieved. “I thought you'd be all... pro-army and that.”
“Why would I?”
“Well, I mean. Because your wife is in the military.”
Steve smiles. “I'm not married.”
“Don't have one.”
Bucky stares at him.
“Lily's mom and I aren't together,” Steve explains.
After a beat, Bucky asks, “Because she's in the military?”
Steve laughs and says, “It didn't help but no, for other reasons. It's, uh. A long story.”
“Right,” Bucky says. “One you don't wanna share with someone who's practically a stranger.”
Steve smiles apologetically.
“It's okay,” Bucky says and smiles back. “I get it.”
“I don't want you to be a stranger,” Steve says quietly after a moment.
“Steve,” Bucky says, his smile softening. “It's been eighteen years.”
“Yeah but.” Steve moves Lily on his lap, shifting her weight. He pauses for a long moment, then he smiles, albeit sadly. “I've missed you, Buck.”
“I've missed you too, pal,” Bucky says quietly.
Steve opens his mouth to say something else. What, he doesn't know, but before he can, Cooper comes running up to them and steals his attention away from Bucky. Cooper momentarily sniffs at Titan but when he senses the disinterest, he moves over to Steve and Lily and looks up at them, eyes bright and tongue lolling out of his mouth as he pants.
Lily shifts and repositions herself in Steve's lap so she can scoot forward and reach Cooper. He leans into her hands immediately, drooling onto Steve's pants but not Lily's despite them being right there too.
“Dad,” Lily says as she plays with Cooper's ears. “Can we buy Cooper a new toy?”
“You don't think he has enough already?” Steve asks.
Lily gives him a look over her shoulder.
Next to him, Bucky stifles a laugh.
Steve does the same and says, “Forget I asked. Sure. Wanna do that now?”
“Yeah,” Lily says. “We gotta go home and get my money first.”
“Okay.” Steve turns to Bucky with an apologetic smile and says, “Sorry. Guess we're leaving.”
“It's okay,” Bucky says with a shake of his head. “Your kid comes first, I get it.”
Steve nods and then moves to stand. Cooper backs up when he does and when he's on his feet, he sets Lily down on the ground. While she gets the leash back on Cooper, Steve turns to look at Bucky.
“I'll, uh.” He clears his throat, rubs at his legs. “I'll see you around. Right?”
“I live here,” Bucky says. “And this park is the closest to my apartment. We'll probably be coming here once in a while so Titan can get to be a normal dog. So yeah, you'll see me around.”
“We're here every Sunday,” Lily pipes up next to Steve.
“Every Sunday,” Steve confirms with a half shrug. “It's tradition.”
Bucky pauses and looks at Steve. “Are you sure you want me to impose on your tradition?” he asks carefully.
“We don't mind,” Steve says. “Do we, Lily?”
“Nope,” Lily says. “We don't mind.”
Bucky smiles at Steve, then Lily. “Okay,” he says. “I'll see you around, then.”
Steve smiles back. “See you around.”
That night, his dreams are filled with a familiar face.
It smiles at him and follows him through memory after memory and when the alarm on his phone washes it all away by waking him, Steve wants nothing more than to throw it at the wall and dive back into that land of memories. But that's not an option because before he can even reach out and shut the alarm off, the bed dips and then there's a rough tongue licking his cheek.
Steve groans and shoves Cooper's muzzle away, though halfheartedly. It only gives him a couple seconds' peace, just time enough to roll over onto his side and turn the alarm off, and then Cooper is right back on him, licking his face insistently.
Steve doesn't push him away this time but he sighs and mutters, “Cooper, stop. It's too early.”
Cooper responds with an impatient huff and paws at his shoulder.
Steve puts up with it for almost a minute, then he gives in and sits up with a groan. Cooper moves away when he does. He hops off the bed and trots out of the room with his tail held high. Steve has no choice but to get up and follow him out, quickly stepping into a pair of sweats that's been thrown onto the chair by his desk.
He takes Cooper outside to relieve himself. There's a yard behind the building, fenced in and gated off. It's not particularly big but there are patches of grass and old furniture that's surprisingly not broken yet despite looking one kick away from falling apart. Steve only comes here a few times a day, whenever Cooper needs to relieve himself.
When Cooper is done and has sniffed to every corner, Steve leads him back inside. Their apartment is on the first floor so they only have to climb one set of stairs and round one corner before they make it back to the door. He unlocks it, gets Cooper inside, and closes the door behind himself.
“Go wake Lily,” he says as he hangs the keys on the hook nearby.
Cooper is already on his way to Lily's room when he says it and he disappears behind the door standing ajar before Steve has stepped all the way out of his shoes. Steve doesn't follow him, instead he heads for the kitchen to get the coffee and breakfast made.
The coffee is brewing when Cooper comes back out with no Lily following him. Some mornings she is, other mornings she has a harder time getting out of bed. Monday mornings are usually the ones that are hardest and sometimes Steve has to drag her out. Today he doesn't because by the time he's pouring a cup of coffee for himself, Lily comes shuffling into the kitchen with her mouth dropped open in a yawn.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” he greets her and smiles.
The response he gets is a long groan as Lily drags her feet over to him. There's a hair tie between her two fingers when she holds her hand up and Steve, setting his cup down, takes it. She turns around and he gathers her hair into his hands.
“Did you brush it?” he asks, rhetorically because he can already tell.
“Yeah,” Lily mutters sleepily.
Lily hums and nods her head.
“So I won't find any knots?”
Steve smiles and kisses the top of her head. “Good girl.”
He puts her hair in a simple braid because it's the one he can do the quickest and while they don't have the busiest mornings, usually, they also don't have time to sit and braid hair for very long. As much as Steve knows Lily would like it. When it's done and secured with the tie, he makes her breakfast while Lily gives Cooper his.
With those two settled, Steve heads into the bathroom and showers. He stands with his head tipped back, eyes closed, and the water falling over his naked body while his mind drifts. It drifts back to his dreams, to yesterday, to the face he knows so well that has changed so much yet is still so familiar.
It doesn't matter how long it's been, Bucky still makes him feel... everything.
Both good and bad.
He snaps himself out of it after a minute and is quick to finish the shower, then he steps out and gets into his scrubs. They're dark blue today. He doesn't always get dressed at home, sometimes he does it at the hospital, but it's easier to do it at home. It doesn't waste as much time either.
When he comes back out, he finds Lily planted on the couch with the tablet in her lap and Cooper half asleep on the cushion next to her. She's dressed for school and her bag is leaning against the wall in the foyer so he assumes she must've packed it already too.
“Got your lunch?” he asks her and grabs his wallet from the dining room table.
“Yep,” Lily says without looking up.
“Your carrots too?”
Lily wrinkles her nose. “But I don't like them,” she says.
“You ate some for dinner last night.”
“Yeah but they tasted good.”
“These do too.”
“No, they don't.”
“Have you had them before?”
Lily pauses, slumping further down with a pout. “Yes,” she says.
Steve gives her a look. “Your nose just grew.”
Lily sighs and looks up from the tablet. “Dad,” she whines. “I don't want them.”
“Too bad,” Steve says. “Go put them in your bag.”
Lily groans but she puts the tablet down and gets up. She walks to the kitchen with her arms heavy down her sides and a scowl on her lips. She grabs the bag of baby carrots from the fridge and shoves them into the front room of her bag, then she turns to him and her scowl deepens.
“I'm not eating them,” she says.
“Oh yeah?” Steve shrugs and says, “That's fine. More dessert for me tonight.”
Lily whines, her scowl turning into a pout. “You're mean.”
“I sure am,” he says, then gestures to the door. “Come on, let's go before we're late.”
Steve rushes back onto the subway after dropping Lily off at school. It's filled with people on their way to work or school or wherever and he knows there won't be any seating space or someone else will need it more than him so he doesn't bother even thinking about it and steps aside, grabs hold onto a pole just as the train starts moving instead.
It doesn't take long before his mind starts to drift and before he knows it, he's back to thinking about Bucky. He hasn't thought about him in so many years, so long that he was certain he'd forgotten about him, and now he's all he can think about.
Steve met Bucky when he was eight and Bucky was seven. By all accounts, they shouldn't have worked as friends. Bucky was a happy, outgoing kid from an upper-middle class family who was friends with everyone on the playground and Steve was the angry kid from a poor family that no one wanted to go near, except bullies to push him into the dirt.
It was a day much like any other when Bucky shoved his way into his life. A kid from Steve's class had called him something. He doesn't remember what it was and it doesn't matter much either but it pissed him off so he'd punched the kid in the face. Or, he had tried to but the kid dodged and Steve ended up being the one to get punched in the face, hard enough to knock him on his ass.
He remembers blacking out for maybe a couple seconds, maybe a full minute, he doesn't know, but when he came to again, he was being dragged to the school nurse by Bucky. He'd sat with him while the nurse patched him up, stayed until his mom came to pick him up, and then he just never left again.
To this day, Steve doesn't know why Bucky decided to stick around because Steve wasn't exactly an easy person to be around but he did.
And then college happened.
Bucky'd gotten accepted at a college in another state and was moving away, while Steve was staying in New York. They'd had one last night together the night before Bucky left. A night full of sadness and mistakes and then, well. Then Bucky left and they lost contact, little by little.
That was eighteen years ago.
Seeing Bucky again, after all this time, has made Steve... confused. Disoriented.
Steve snaps out of his drifting thoughts when he nears his stop. He gets off and walks the rest of the way to the hospital but his mind stays stuck on Bucky. He's still thinking about him, a frown on his lips, when he walks into the staff locker room and heads to his locker to put his things away.
Claire is there, getting her things from the locker next to his. She's on the night shift before his morning shift most days of the week so they usually run into each other when he arrives. This morning is no different, except Steve doesn't immediately wish her a good morning—or a belated good night.
“Uh oh,” she says and shuts her locker. “Someone doesn't look happy. Rough morning?”
“Nah, I'm just...” Steve sighs and finishes, “Thinking.”
“About anything interesting?”
Steve stuffs his bag into the locker, then he says, “I ran into my childhood best friend yesterday.”
Claire closes her locker, shoves her bag over her shoulder, and leans against the locker. She doesn't say anything but she looks at him expectantly, a silent go on, and Steve scratches his bearded cheek in hesitation. He makes up his mind quick and shoots her a glance.
“Shouldn't you be heading home?” he asks.
“I should,” Claire says, “but not if you've got something you need to get off your chest.”
Steve looks at her. She looks exhausted, her eyes blinking slowly. He could honestly talk about this whole... Bucky thing for a while but a part of him doesn't want to just because he doesn't want to think about how their friendship ended and another part of him doesn't want to keep Claire here and away from her bed and much needed rest.
So he smiles at her and says, “Go home, Claire. Get some rest.”
“Alright,” Claire says and stands back up. “If you're sure.”
“I'm sure,” he assures her, nodding.
“Alright,” Claire says, again.
She puts a hand on his shoulder and gives him a little squeeze before she walks past him and heads out of the staff room. It leaves him standing alone. He takes in a deep breath and closes his locker after changing into the shoes he's dedicated to work; a pair of worn running shoes. He puts his lunch in the fridge and then heads out get himself a cup of hospital coffee from the crappy brewer.
With it in hand, he sits down in front of the computer to catch up on his patient reports before he gets started on the day. And he does his best not to think about Bucky for a single second during the day.
(He fails. Multiple times.
Better luck tomorrow, he hopes.)