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if only you could see me (for the pie that i am)

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Steve baked his first pie with his mom when he was seven.

It was a grey afternoon and the forecast had predicted for it to rain for the rest of the day and so Steve was stuck indoors, his forgotten toys used up to all their potential ability hours ago.

“Stevie,” his mother called from the kitchen island behind him. “Would you like to help me make pie?”

Her voice was soft, teasing, already knowing the answer and Steve remembers clambering to his little feet, smaller than any of his classmates in elementary and scurrying to her side, excited to do something else than watch the cartoon reruns that began to blear against his eyelids.

They skinned the apples and caramelised them with cinnamon and nutmeg on the stove top, Sarah Rogers lifting Steve up by his underarms onto a little white stool so he could sprinkle the sugar at an altitude and watch them fall like make believe snow.

He can still taste the magic inside the even hard crust, something his mother was credited for throughout the neighbourhood. That special something that made his mother’s baking special. It’s funny how sense memory works, when Steve; twenty-five and the proud owner of Frost Bakery & Co, slides an apple pie into the oven and hopes for the chance of it to taste only remotely like what his mother made for him all those years ago. Just to have a connection to her when she’s been long gone.

It’s good. But it’s not his mom’s.


 

“Steve, buddy, you gotta find yourself a new taste dummy,” Sam says, even as he picks up another chocolate covered profiterole. “Did you lace these with crack? I think you laced these with crack.”

Somewhere in the kitchen of their shared apartment comes Steve’s indulgent chuckle. “A baker never reveals his secrets Sam, you know that.”

He hasn’t sat down since making a batch of profiteroles from scratch, bored and feeling useless on a day off Sharon and Peggy Carter may or may not have strong armed him into. Two skilled sisters fancying a chance to open their own bakery and deli while working for Steve in the meantime. Steve stopped feeling shame for being manhandled out of his own shop to “socialize like a regular twenty-something year old bachelor" a long time ago.

Whatever that means.

“You can take a break any second now,” Sam says, “the dishes can wait man.”

“I can’t stand a mess.” Steve replies, rinsing the last of the baking tray under the faucet and pulling the towel from his back pocket to wipe it down dry. From behind him, Sam’s phone blares his ringtone.

“That Sharon?”

“Do you even gotta ask?”

Steve sighs and turns, resting his weight on the palms of his hand and placates nonchalance. “Well, go ahead. Rat me out.” Sam just stares at him blankly for a beat, before answering the call. When he speaks, his voice is loud and boisterous, face splitting into a wide grin.

“Hey Sharon! How’s it going?”

Steve sags in relief, smiling fondly and refuses to let the guilt that pokes at the back of his gut make him feel anything but gratitude.

“Yeah, we’re at the Madison Hub…I mean it! I’m in the bathroom, we just shared two pitchers and I refuse to let Rogers drink me under the table.” Sam laughs at whatever Sharon says. “Nah, he’s having a good time…I wouldn’t push it…we’ll see. Alright. Yeah. I’m gonna make sure he didn’t bail…that’s our Steve! Later.” He hangs up, the loud persona trickling into a glossy fading finish.

“Thanks bud,” Steve says quietly.

Sam just levels him with a look and gets to his feet, stretching his back. “I’d never sell ya out pal. But you gotta know they’re talking real sense. Just looking out for you.”

If Steve shifts uncomfortably, he hopes Sam doesn’t see it. “I know, it’s just…” and as much as Sam is his best friend, always has been since sophomore year of college, sometimes Steve wishes he wasn’t so good at reading people. Especially when they don’t necessarily want to be. Sam raises his eyebrows, as to signify “it’s just…what?” and Steve buckles.

“I finally got what I wanted. My dream job, my own business. I did it on my own. I don’t wanna end up sabotaging that for,” he waves a trivial hand. “that.”

“And by,” Sam copies the gesture. “that, you mean new people? Relationships? God forbid, love?”

“I already have my love Sam,” Steve says, surer than he’s ever been in this moment. He deliberately makes a quick side glance to the crumbly platter of mauled desserts. “And you ate them all.”

Sam rolls his eyes.

 


 

Steve is in the back pantry when it happens.

He tells himself that he’s not hiding – not really – but that he just can’t decide if it’s the cinnamon and brown sugar ratio that keeps throwing off the apple pie or if it’s the type of AP flour. Not because he has a terrible poker face and crumbled under the pressure when Peggy asked him about last night, all excited and earnest. She wasn’t kidding when she said he couldn’t lie to save his life. The force of her glare and honest disappointment was enough to make him corner himself in the pantry for the past eight minutes, the bustling sounds of a semi-busy lunch hour muted behind the door when –

The door pushes open and it’s Peggy, in uniform, her dark blue apron wrapped neatly in a double knot around her hips. Steve smiles at her, testing out the waters but her face barely budges. Steve hasn't been five foot four nothing since sophomore year in high school, but right about now he sure as hell feels it. He holds up both jars of AP flour and brown sugar. “Ma’s recipe again, can’t decide. What do you think?”

If Steve didn’t know Peggy better, he wouldn’t have detected the way her face softens and her eyes wilt from stubborn frustration to exasperated fondness. Luckily, he does. “I think you would know better than I. And there’s a woman at the front desk asking for you? Red hair, can’t miss her.” And with that, she disappears back into the shop. Steve reluctantly places the jars back in their places before following her out, dusting his hands on his apron.

Peggy was right. The woman is hard to miss, even with her short stature and shoulder length fiery red hair, something about her exudes power and strength. Her pant suit is wide at the shins when Steve gets closer to the counter and she’s typing away with impressive dexterity on her phone. Her beauty could almost be delicate, if it wasn’t from the way her jaw is set. Clearly, she is annoyed by something – or someone – on her phone.

“Hi there, you asked for me Ms.…?” Steve lets that float between them. Her round green eyes flit up to meet his and she forces a smile that ends up spreading her lips into a straight line instead of up into a smile. Steve figures he’s not the only one who is a terrible liar.

“Romanoff. How are you Mr. Rogers?” she extends a hand and Steve spares half a grateful thought that he dusted his floury hands before he got here. “I’m here on behalf of Mr. Barnes, my employer from Barnes’ Bridal Affairs.”

Steve notices how she lingers after the announcement, as though she expects him to know what that is and immediately feels clumsy. He pulls his hand from hers and uses it to scratch a pretend itch under his jaw. “Um – “

“Mr. Barnes and I have organized some of the most prestigious and luxurious wedding events for the past half a decade. Word around the block here is that you’re the best there is this side of Washington.”

“Well, I have a lot of gifted people to help me out around here.” Steve says, sparing a quick glance over his shoulder at Peggy who is doing an impressive job to pretend she’s not obviously eavesdropping, making an intricate design under the cappuccino machine. “What can I help you and Mr. Barnes with?”

This time when Ms. Romanoff smiles, it’s a hair this side of something genuine and clips open her brown leather messenger bag, retrieving a black portfolio case. “Our last caterer from New York dropped out for…not so amicable reasons…and we’re kind of on a time crunch. We have just about two weeks to make this wedding ceremony perfect, lots of people to impress. We were hoping a partnership could be arranged.” Ms. Romanoff opens the binder to a collection of laminated photos of -- good lord is that a Marjolaine cake – from what Steve is gathering, previous creations from the past baker. “Just a little taste of what we expect,” is what Ms. Romanoff says, smiling flirtatiously and pushes it towards Steve across the counter.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Steve says, leafing through it. Backlava’s, chouquettes, bossche bols, and Steve squints, a really beautiful dacquoise. Steve, for the first time since culinary school, feels out of his depth. He can feels her eyes on him, and he shuts the binder to stare back at her evenly.

“Well Ms. Romanoff, I’ve never been known for backing down from a challenge.”

She smiles. “Good. And please, call me Natasha.” Natasha plucks one of the business cards nestled at the front of the register and slides it into the side pocket of her bag. “I’ll keep in touch. Expect a call soon, oh and,” she nudges her head towards the tray Peggy is currently pulling from the oven, the smell of freshly baked souffle’s melting into the air. “Is that raspberry?”


 

The second Steve gets home, he googles Barnes’ Bridal Affairs.

There aren’t any photos of Romanoff – Natasha – or her boss, Mr. James B. Barnes. Just a classic elegant page with a gallery of venues, delicacies and a contact number.

They just wrapped up the bat mitzvah for the Mayor’s daughter Kitty Pryde.

Steve needs a drink.


 

“I don’t see what the big deal is Steve, this can be life changing for you and the store,” Sam says, waving his beer bottle around.

They’re sitting on a patio, the sun just on the tail end of setting and waiting for Peggy to finish closing the store to meet them down there. Steve scrapes the remainder of salsa morosely with the basket of nachos ordered by Sam, half of the serving tray empty and eaten single-handedly. ("This ain’t a chick flick, if you’re gonna be a baby and mope, it’s with nachos. Not ice cream.")

“I know that Sam, but,” Steve cuts off with a sigh, chin resting on his closed fist. “You didn’t see it. You didn’t see her. I’m just a guy from Brooklyn. I don’t know if I can compete with that. And if I screw it up?” He makes a high whistling sound, using another nacho as a play on a crashing plane.

“Steven Rogers, always so dramatic.”

Peggy arrives, squeezing her way through the closely situated tables and drops her bag on the counter beside Steve. “You’ve got talent you bloody dimwit,” she says, plump red stained lips giving a supportive grin. “And they’d have to be blind not to see it.”

Sometimes, and sometimes often, Steve remembers why he fell in love with her all those years ago when they first met back in culinary school. Steve finds it difficult not to smile back. “Yeah.”

Peggy gives a curt nod, lifting her hand from his arm. “Good. Now, I was expecting margaritas..."


 

It’s 11:30 at night when he gets the call.

He’s stepping out of the shower, dripping wet on his bathroom floor and trailing it to where his cellphone is buzzing on his bathroom counter table. What in the hell –

The caller ID display glowing on the front of his smartphone simply says -- J. Barnes -- and the late registration of recognition behind that name – Barnes – makes his hand hesitate when he reaches for it. Get it together Rogers, Steve thinks and swipes to answer.

“Hello?” Steve answers, reaching blindly for a towel to wrap around his waist. No one’s around or even over, but it seems only polite.

“Am I speaking to Mr. Steven Rogers?” comes a curt reply. The baritone of the voice is higher than Steve’s, but it is accented in the oddest way. Like the words curl out of a smirking mouth.

“Speaking. How can I help you Mr. Barnes?” Steve says, hoping he doesn’t sound as nervous or as anxious as he feels right about now. It’s not like he’s rehearsed receiving this call or anything. Nope. Never.

“Natasha told me she dropped by your bakery earlier on today, I’m under the impression she stressed to you the kind of deadline we’re facing.” It’s not a question by any means and Steve doesn’t exactly know how to respond.

“Um.”

Wow.

“Right.” Mr. Barnes drawls out slowly. “Anyway, unfortunately she didn’t see the necessity to bring me a sample of what you have to offer and although I trust her word, I can’t afford any fuck ups.” Steve remotely feels the way his eyebrows furrow in distaste in the insinuation of doubt of his work. Just who does this guy –

“—appointment for 9am so would you be able to whip up a batch of about...a dozen – yeah, a dozen macaroons for me by 6.am tomorrow morning? I’d like a variety of six flavours. And half a dozen Palmiers. Wouldn’t want a one trick pony.” Barnes huffs off a laugh, but he’s the only one who’s laughing because Steve is about to break his cellphone in any second by the way he’s clutching at it.

“Mr. Barnes,” Steve says, his voice unnaturally calm and even. His eyes meet his bathroom clock. It reads 11:39pm. The rational side of his brain, the one he likes to believe he listens to the most, is saying to negotiate. Maybe ask for an extension due to the abrupt timing, or if he could drop the desserts early in the afternoon instead. The other side, the one everyone close in his life can attest to that he actually acts on the most, is scratching for an opportunity to prove himself to this pretentious, assuming sounding bastard.

And well, his own store already does open for 6am. All of the needed ingredients are still there in the kitchen and pantry.

“I just have one question,” he doesn’t even wait for an affirmation, making his way to his room and clicking the lights on. “Do you have any allergies?”


 

Honestly, by the way he slowly unlocks the front door and closes it behind himself softly, it feels like he’s breaking into his own bakery, which doesn’t even make any sense considering it’s just past one in the morning and Peggy won’t be here to help him open for another four and a half hours. Checking his watch as he flicks on the café lights, Steve curses, wanting to kick himself for stopping at the twenty four hour grocer and standing in the produce aisle for what might as well have been a century because he couldn’t decide. The palmiers won’t be a problem. They’re fairly simple to make and a run of the mill pop in the oven.

It’s the goddamn macaroons that are driving Steve up the wall.

Out of the infinity and one options he could make, choosing six flavours and making them unique and representative of his bakery in only – Steve checks his watch again – four hours…

Steve sighs for what feels like the hundredth time since he left his apartment and pushes the swinging door that leads to the kitchen with far too much force. It slams against the wall and rebounds back, catching and clipping his shoulder into the neighbouring stainless steel rack that should have been replaced back in the closet at close -- Sharon for the love of god, ow.

It takes half an hour to settle on the six flavours (he’s still not one hundred percent on the vanilla macaroon with hazelnut filling) but calling any of the Carter sisters this early in the morning for help is out of the question, so Steve goes with his gut and adds it to the list. The dark chocolate filling is a little on the overwhelmingly bitter side, having used the 90% dark chocolate instead of his favoured 70% but all that means is to add a hint of some sweetening agents to the pistachio batter that holds like a bright green shell. He samples one as he slides the four in the oven beneath the vanilla and hazelnut combination and it takes a lot of effort to hide the swell of pride in his chest.

While they bake off, Steve takes out his phone and google searches the company again to slide through the gallery portfolios again. He’s known for his homey and innovative creations, but it would be wise to try and mirror what Barnes’s Bridal Affairs expects from the productions coming out of his kitchen. Especially what Barnes himself expects. Steve rolls his eyes on a scoff at that. The bastard probably thinks he’s going to crash and burn on this task. Hell, he probably set it up expecting and even hoping he would.

Steve spots a beautiful tower of a French inspired lemon lavender cake and spares a moment to appreciate whoever was the last caterer. Petite with only four layers that grow smaller from the large base, but the lilac icing encasing it elevates its simplicity into something sublime. Steve adds honey and lavender macaroons to his short list. If this Barnes fella thinks he can get the jump on Steve, he’s got another thing coming.

In a last minute decision before adding the honey and lavender combination into the oven, Steve caramelizes some left over pecans that he’s been meaning to replace and turns them into a brittle before smashing them into fine, almost sand-like pieces and blends them on the honey filling that peeks from the middle of the pastry, creating a sparkling effect on the sides.

The rhubarb and lemon filled macaroons are next with the pumpkin and cinnamon ones closing behind it, which turns out to be Steve’s favourite. The autumn flavours and spices bring on memories of jumping into a wet pile of leaves, all pale skin and bones and a woman as equally brittle throwing the red orange and in-between combination right back into his smiling face.

When the very last batch slide into the oven underneath the second tray with the honey and lavender, the time on his wrist watch -- which he's been dutifully trying to avoid looking at all this time -- reads 4:55am. The almond dulce de leche has forty minutes left to cook, and Steve weighs his options. It's cutting it close for a nap. But when it was once easier to ignore the burn at the back of his eyelids when starting, it’s unbearable now. Forty minutes gives him enough time to get the macaroons out of the oven to cool and box them all in time before Peggy gets in.

“Yeah,” Steve sighs, nodding in agreement with himself.

Delirious, he takes the seat closest to the oven to not miss the ping of the timer and rests his head on his crossed arms. Lets himself slip.


 

Steve doesn’t wake to the sound of the ping.

He wakes up to Peggy standing across from him, soft and curly hair in a loose bun atop her head with her hands on her hips.

Steve wishes this was the first time he woke up like this.

It takes him all of a total of three seconds to snap out of his confusion as to why he’s asleep in the bakery kitchen when it all comes flooding back. Steve scrambles out of his seat. “Shit!” The clock on the oven reads 5:47 am.

“Calm down Rogers, your macaroons are in the fridge with the rest of the two dozen you have. Care to explain?” She quirks a thick eyebrow at him when he says nothing and only sways a little on his feet, half asleep.

“Um.” Steve looks around, a habitual instinct for some backup from Sam who is obviously, not here to get him out of this scrape. “Well, it’s for a delivery, actually.”

It’s honestly a miracle her eyes don’t roll out of her head. “I figured that much, but a dozen of macaroons and six elephant ears? That must have taken you what, four hours with prep time included.”

Four and fifteen actually, Steve thinks privately and then winces because once again, he has forgotten Peggy’s freaky mindreading skills.

“Steve, please don’t tell me you’ve been here since one in the morning baking alone.”

“Well, to be fair we needed extra supplies; and I figured it to be a win-win, if I dropped them off on my way home and just started early – okay, okay, fine, yes, I was. But it was for a last minute delivery date Peggy! It’s not like I had much of a choice.” Steve distantly feels himself backing away from Peggy’s advancements, and she’s only taken one foot forward.

“Is this because of that Romanoff woman the other day? Jesus Steve, you only got home at 11. You couldn’t have asked for an extension or – “

“No,” Steve says, finally finding his footing and wills his legs to stop moving on their own accord backwards. “You didn’t hear this guy when he called me. It was like he was– “ he doesn’t say; challenging me, because he knows where that conversation would be headed, “—look Peggs, it’s like what you and Sam said, this is a big oppourtunity for us. I’d be an idiot to pass it up! I had to make a good first impression.”

Peggy stares at him for a moment, studying him in the way he wishes she wouldn’t sometimes. She breaks the stand-off with a sigh, and a gaze heavenward, probably asking for the millionth time why she puts up with him. When she meets his eyes again, she smiles, her lips painted a deep red this morning instead of its usual poppy red. “Well, if that pumpkin and cinnamon macaroon tastes as good as it smells, I’m sure they’re up for one hell of an impression.”


 

Steve outright refuses to be sent home on his own delivery day.

Especially after all the hours he slaved over the outrageously timed orders. But in the end, agrees to be sent home at noon; albeit begrudgingly on the grounds that Sam would be called to man-handle him out of the bakery.

And really, he can’t stand another pair of judgy eyes on him okay? He’s gone through enough in the last twenty four and whatever amount of hours.

He’s surprised he even knows his own name.  


 

Natasha steps into the bakery at six o’clock on the dot, dressed in a knee length charcoal skirt and animal print flats with a white button up blouse that cuts off at the shoulders. She smiles when she enters, car keys still in hand.

“Hiya Rogers.” She manages to make everything come out as a coy flirtation. Steve is at the till with the two boxes of macaroons and mini two by four box of palmiers in the custom royal blue Frost’s design. He manages a smile back. Come on Rogers, look alive.

“Morning Natasha, how are you this, er – morning?”

Natasha shrugs with the shoulder not carrying a messenger bag. “Oh you know, this and that. Following a bright and early delivery for my less than reasonable boss.” She winks and opens her bag, pulling out a wallet. It takes a hell of a lot of willpower for Steve to not say; you’re damn right.

He feels more than sees Peggy come up on his left. “Oh, this is my second hand. Peggy Carter. Peg, this is Natasha Romanoff of – “

“Barnes’ Bridal Affairs, yes, I’ve heard much of you and your boss,” Peggy insists, the way she inflects on the word ‘boss’ coming off as an infection and it doesn’t slide past Natasha who’s mouth tightens for just a fraction before refracting into its regular coy smile.

“Nice to meet you Ms. Carter,” Natasha says and they shake hands.

Great, just perfect. Steve thinks.

“Well, thank you for your understanding and flexibility Steve,” Natasha says after retrieving her hand back from Peggy and sliding the money across the counter in exchange for the boxes. “Like I said, tight schedules these days. Enjoy the rest of your day, you should expect a call soon.” And she’s off before Steve can finish counting the money on the counter as Peggy watches her go with the tinkle for the doorbell. The morning rush begins to settle in with small waves.

“Peggy.”

“What?”

“Why am I holding three hundred dollars?”


 

As promised, Sam bullies Steve out of his own store by eleven thirty despite his pleas and to be fair, unreasonable reasons such as (this is my own damn store Sam, you can’t just--) and (she’s exaggerating, honestly, I’m not even tired anymore). Trust Steve to believe he actually had until noon.

He already lost the fight, who cares if he nods off in Sam’s car on the way back to their apartment.


 

His body is molded into his bed. His body and bed have become one and it’s Steve’s civic and human based duty to not tear this union apart.

Steve slowly opens his eyes, vision blurry and waits until the lamp on his bedside table comes into focus. It’s the only light on, giving his room a warm twilight glow even though the clock next to it reads four in the afternoon.

“Sam?” Steve rolls over onto his back and yep, there it is, the concave of his stomach and ache due to hours of skipped meals. Dimly, he hears a memory of Sam mentioning going out to grab groceries and pizza.

“Sam?” he tries again, even louder and scrubs at his eyes.

“In the kitchen buddy!” shouts Sam. “You better be hungry!” The mere prospect of pizza gets Steve onto his feet and out into the hall towards the kitchen in record time. He’s still in his jeans and shirt, but must have taken off his socks in his sleep.

Sam is already at the stove, chopped vegetables on a board and a pot simmering and browning meat going. There’s a large box of pizza on the kitchen table. Steve lifts the lid to see three slices already eaten. Half pineapple and extra cheese with chili flakes, half pepperoni and extra mushrooms. Steve could cry.

“Did you get – “

“In the fridge,” Sam answers and salts the meat. “You’re welcome by the way.”

Steve retrieves the ranch dipping sauce from the fridge and a bottle of water. “Sam, you know I told you after the incident in 09’ that I am forever thanking you.” That earns a snort from Sam and Steve smiles, tearing two pieces of mushroom pepperoni and folding them together, taking a huge bite.

Sam peers over his shoulder with a gap toothed grin. “I know bud, just like the reminder.”

“Good, cause I don’t.” Steve mutters and opts for another bite after dipping some into the ranch. Sam shakes his head and turns his attention back on the sauce, sliding diced tomatoes in. “I swear I’ll never understand your metabolism.”

“Aw, you jealous Wilson?”

“Of your modesty? Always.” Sam pauses, and lowers the stove temperature to medium heat before turning to Steve, who is all but up to the crust. He digs out Steve’s cellphone from his back pocket and slides it onto the table. Steve slows down his chews.

“Should I ask?” Steve says slowly and lowers his pizza onto the top of the box, dusting off the excess grease on his jeans and slides open his phone. There’s no new notifications.

“Check your texts.” Is all Sam gives him and Steve is really not liking the nosedive in light heartedness as of now.

Something indignant rises inside his chest. “You read my messages while I was asleep?”

Sam crosses his arms, dark muscles bulging. Steve frowns and does what he says, there’s one at the very top from an unknown number but the preview message says it all.

The packages were approved. We would like to offer you and your bakery a full time catering position for Barnes’ Bridal Affairs if you are hopefully still interested. (: Nat.

A wave of relief and pride wraps tight around Steve’s gut and he lets out a sigh he didn’t know he was holding. Smiling, he looks up at Sam whose face hasn’t changed. “What’s the problem here? This is good news, right?”

“Yeah it is Steve,” Sam starts, “unless they expect you to do these last minute miracles again.”

For some reason, Steve feels his body go into the defensive. “I’m sure it was a one time thing Sam. I mean, Natasha told me beforehand they were in a crunch.”

Sam waves him off. “But now they know you can handle the time crunch. I’m telling you man, they might take advantage. You got some serious skills, but if this job is just gonna burn you out? Maybe think of another offer.”

“You know I can’t do that.” Won’t do that, Steve thinks to himself truthfully.

Sam’s eyes narrow slightly. “This isn’t about the money is it?”

And that? That right there, is just – “No,” Steve says sharply, half unbelieving that Sam would even go there. “No. This is about so much more than a few extra bills to help expand – “ Steve shakes his head and makes for his forgotten pizza.

He chews in silence before Sam lays a strong hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.” And Steve couldn’t be mad at Sam for longer than two minutes if he even tried, his shoulders sag.

“I gotta put myself and this business out there Sam,” he looks up and shrugs helplessly, “I get your concerns, trust me, I do. This wedding company might be it for us. I can handle it.”

And Sam, brilliant, smart and understanding Sam smiles to ease the tension so Steve half-heartedly smiles back. “Alright,” he says, holding up his hands as a sign of surrender. “Just promise me you won’t let this Barnes character turn you into his whipping boy.” And turns back to the stove, turning the flame back up on high.

“Oh I won’t,” Steve says, mood darkening at the mention of that name and responds a confirmation back to Natasha after adding her into his contacts, “I’m sure it was just a test anyway.”



Two days later at six pm after serving his last customer a blueberry turn over, Steve’s phone rings.


 

Sam is shrill over the phone. “He wants a what now?!

“A prinzregententort in the next,” Steve checks over his shoulder, his cellphone crooked on the other. “Two and a half hours.”

“A what?”

“It’s a German seven layer chocolate cake, basically.” Steve sounds awfully calm, even to himself and he’s currently covered in excess flour, baking powder and chocolate filling on his fingertips. He really shouldn’t be handling a phone right now when he thinks about it.

“Dude, I just googled it and – “

“Yep,” letting the ‘p’ pop. Steve folds the melting butter into the chocolate over a double boiler.

(“A prinzregententorte?” Steve clarified slowly and took a seat on one of the customer tables because he really needed to sit down.

“Oh great, so you’ve heard of it.” Mr. Barnes said through a whistle, authentically relieved as though breaking the cake description down into elementary diction: ‘a seven layered chocolate cake for a German rehearsal wedding’ wasn’t going to be enough for Steve to catch a clue.

“As I’ve told you before Mr. Barnes – “

“James. Oh god, just call me James, I actually think I can feel my hair turn white every time people call me that.”

“—James,” Steve pressed through gritted teeth. “I’m a thoroughly trained pastry chef. I like to believe I know what I’m doing.” Thank you very much you pretentious –

“Just keeping you on your toes Steve,” came a surely fabricated chirpy reply. Steve could almost hear the snark beneath the tone, like James knew exactly what Steve was really thinking and really, really didn’t give a damn about it anyway. “I’ll need it delivered by 8:30pm please, if you can. I would pick it up myself but my schedule is a disaster. Seriously, it would put Martha Stewart into a coma. And from what I know about you and your store, you should be closed by now?”

“Well, yes but – “ The damn thing takes at least one hundred and twenty minutes to prep and bake all together --

“Perfect. I’ll have a driver come by to pick it up.”)

“How in the world is this asshole a professional?” Sam says.

Steve snorts, his neck starting to grow a cramp. “Beats me. The thing is, it’s fairly straight forward to make – “

“Oh god, Steve, don’t make excuses for this douchewad –“

“I’m not. Jesus Sam, I’m not.” Steve reassures him and sets the melted chocolate aside to check on the sponge cake. “It just takes a total time of one hundred and twenty minutes to finish, at least. And that’s not including cooling and packaging and – “ Steve feels his heart rate start to climb and his chest grows tight. Asthma. From when he was little.

“Steve, Steve, breathe.” Sam says calmly through the phone and it sets his breathing rate to an even pace. Still deep and coddled with anxiety, but regular. Steve sighs and rubs his head, knowing he smeared some left over chocolate across his forehead.

“I repeat,” Sam sounds angrier than Steve felt after ending that call, which is saying a lot. “How is this guy a professional?”

“He probably doesn’t understand or even respect the principles of baking," he says, pushing the button on his mixer that contains egg whites and lemon and watches it go. "Or hell, to be honest, he probably does and just wants to screw me over.” Steve replies, and feels a little weak in the knees when his whipped cream comes out at a perfect stiff peak.

“Huh. Well good luck for him.” Sam says. “Should I call Peggy and Sharon for backup?”

“I got this Sam. I’m almost done anyway.” After he starts on the other twenty things on his list. “Don’t you have papers to grade or something?”

It’s a cheap shot and knowing Sam, he knows it too, but he plays along anyhow. “Don’t say I didn’t tell you so!” And hangs up.

Steve follows suit, stares at his phone. “Yeah yeah.”


 

The prinzregententorte turns out stunning. Glistening. And for a rare minute, Steve stares at it wide eyed, completely enraptured and immeasurably proud.

And then his phone bleeps a text from Natasha.
Natasha Romanoff (8:26pm) Parking on the curb in five. Black Mercedes. Can’t wait to see the newest masterpiece ;)

Steve hesitates. As he always does when talking to a girl who isn’t Peggy or Sharon or even Mrs. Fuentes who lives down the hall with a pet iguana.

Steve Rogers (8:26pm) Should I come out and meet you?

In less than a minute he gets a reply:

Natasha Romanoff (8:26pm) Happy will take the cake at the door. I’m sure you’ve done enough, don’t you think Steve? :)

It takes a moment for Steve to realize Happy is a person. It takes even longer for Steve to think about what to say before finally giving in:

Steve Rogers (8:28pm) :)


 

Happy is a lightly tanned round guy with a thick brown moustache he says he’s trying to grow out. His smile is infectious and chisels away the rest of Steve’s agitation, so he can’t help but laugh when Happy takes a quick peek of the cake and asks almost shyly for a slice of cherry cheesecake that’s behind on the display.


 

The phone is silent for two weeks, which makes Steve itchy and jumpy but Peggy reassures him that Natasha’s last text was a good one.

“You need time off anyway, you have your own business to look after remember?” she reminds him with a soft nudge at dinner while he kept giving side glances to his unmoving phone. Sharon snatches it.

“Hey!”

“We’re supposed to be having a night out. It’s the long weekend, your store's closed.” She surveys him. “You need a beer.”

“I do not.” Steve says affronted.

“Steve needs a beer. Sam, get Steve a beer please?” Sharon says as Sam approaches the bar table with his own beer. “Aye aye,” he replies on the turn of his heel right back to the bartender. Steve groans.

“What if he calls me?” It’s possible. Oh god, it’s so entirely possible.

“Then he can leave you a bloody voice-mail.” Peggy counters, squeezing her lime into her vodka tonic. “Or worse, answer to me.”

And that is entirely, entirely more horrific than a drunk Steve losing all inhibition and letting it all out on James.

“Seriously, I don’t like how this new business deal is treating you. I’ve never seen you this worked up.” Sharon takes a large gulp of her own beer. “I mean, not that I haven’t ever seen you stressed but that’s usually over your mom’s – “ catching herself too late, Sharon winces. “Shit. Steve – “

He waves a hand quickly. “No, you’re right. Actually now that you bring it up,” Steve says slowly, “I haven’t had the time to work at it because of all the,” he makes a complicated gesture that he hopes conveys shitshow.

Peggy smiles and leans forward. “Maybe with this break you can finally have some time to.”

He grins back tightly. “Yeah.”

“Yeah!” Sam’s back, sliding the tall cold glass of beer to Steve and takes his seat across from him and beside Peggy. “So, what’re we talking about?”


 

Honestly, Steve should have known by now that the universe isn’t one to pity him. Ever.

At least at this juncture, Sam, Peggy and Sharon have stopped trying to reason with Steve.


 

“You sure you can’t come over for a movie? It’s the Incredibles,” Sam dangles. It’s bait. Very alluring bait.

“I can’t,” and god does he wish that he could. Steve dips a finger into the fifth batch of whip he’s made and makes a face. “I have a twelve layer cake I need to start and I can’t figure out how to stop making the butterscotch cranberry whip taste so goddamn awful.”

“Dude just tell the guy he needs to get his shit together or you’re done. You haven’t slept in 22 hours.”

“If I sleep he wins.”

Sam pauses. “Do you even hear yourself right now?”


 

Or that one with the order of sixty profiteroles due in four hours while Steve steps out from the gym with Sam who’s bending over unlocking his bike.

“So,” James drags out, it sounds like he’s walking somewhere downtown and quickly, with the sounds of honking and traffic in the background. He’s a little out of breath. “You're saying you can't slip in any pomegranate cream inside with the chantilly?"

Steve would feel sorry for the slight franticness in his voice, but he’s too busy dealing with his own. He hasn’t even showered. Steve feels his teeth clench together. "I'm saying I could have. If you had called me maybe three hours earlier." Steve grits back, phone on his shoulder and counting to ten backwards in his head as he unlocks his own bike.

Sam quirks an eyebrow over his shoulder.

James sighs dramatically. “Fuck, can you hold – TAXI! Thank you – is that a no? Because I really hope for our sake – “

“No. I mean, no it’s not a no. I’ll call Natasha when I’m finished.” Steve hangs up and swings his leg over his bike.

“I’m not even gonna ask,” Sam says, strapping on his helmet.

“Don’t.”

 


 

 Or Peggy’s favourite story to tell over a couple of pints according to Sharon, the infamous Mille-feuille order:

"He thinks I'm gonna crumble under the pressure," Steve says, molding the puff pastry and in Peggy's professional opinion right now, maybe even over kneading it. It's 2:45am.

"Well, he picked the wrong baker. Pass me the butter would ya? You chilled it for two hours right? Thanks." He asks and Peggy hands the wrapped cold butter into Steve's out stretched hand. He hasn't looked up at her for the entire conversation, beckoning her welcome in with a "let yourself in Peggs!"

Peggy has long learned that it’s futile to stop Steve when he’s got an idea and is driven. So instead, she opens the fridge and pours out a tall glass of cold water and leaves it on the counter as she takes a seat on his living room couch. Maybe Kitchen Nightmares is on.

"I'll show him." She hears him mutter.


 

By the second month, Steve’s mother’s apple pie recipe is left forgotten on the muddled kitchen counter, half peeled apples and cling wrapped dough balled in a corner. In their place are a tray of finished Yiddish pastries that, well.

"Don't kill me man,” Sam starts, “but, these hamantashes look like shit."

Steve groans and slumps in his chair. "I know." Sam pats his shoulder, his other hand scanning the pitiful triangle mess.

"What's it for?"

"A nice Jewish wedding." Steve recites faux-cheerfully and then buries his face in his hands. Sam didn't know Steve could do bitter, sad and sardonic all at once.

"Fuck."

"I know."

A couple of beats pass before Sam suggests hopefully. "Maybe if you, I dunno, couldn't you crust the edges with some chocolate and some kind of nut? Try and hide the folds that don't look too hot instead of starting over? You don’t have much time. Well, like you ever do, but it could work.”

Steve slowly pulls his face out of his hands and looks up at Sam, eyes wide and grateful.


 

“What, in the hell is that?” Sharon asks.

The tart is one of three so far, the filling a shade of bright lime green that cannot be real and yet here it is before her eyes, looking like the goop that falls on celebrities at that Nickelodeon Award thing that she so doesn’t watch. Steve finishes the final dollop of chocolate ganache in the centre of it.

“It’s called a carac, it’s Swiss.”

“And you’re making it because, why?

Steve’s jaw clenches and it would be oddly and uncomfortably hot if she didn’t recognize that tick and who it is usually associated with.

“Ah.” She says. Fruitlessly she asks, “need any help? Doesn’t seem as fancy as the other dishes that dick head makes you shell out.”

He sets the piping bag on the table and rubs at his eyes. “No thank you,” his smile is a tired one that Sharon is seriously sick and tired of witnessing.

“I’m almost done and it’s for the children at a christening. The colours are attractive to them.” He glances down, and huffs out a laugh. “Apparently.”


 

Steve has got it down into a science.

It takes a two and a half months for Steve to notice the pattern.

Barnes’ Bridal Affairs is busy and popular enough to have frequent events but because of the type of clientele, the orders are ostentatiously extravagant and more often than not, on the wedding pages of the city newspaper.

The bright side is, Steve finds his bakery store and name printed and credited for when an event is big and successful enough. The store is buzzing, busier and more lively than it ever was and to be fair, the income has taken home to a nice savings account.

The down side is that James has turned from careless arrogant son of a bitch to Satan in black Armani.

Not that Steve has ever seen James in person still, but something in his gut doesn’t think the image is too far from the reality.

So far, it’s been canele after trdelník after twin tiramisus, after a particularly tricky Paris–Brest. Steve has lost count of how many traditional and yet abstract desserts he’s had to make with a maximum of two days-notice between each. It’s gotten to the point that Steve kinda wants to meet the man who has been currently making his life into a hilariously-unfunny, ironic, dream-turned-nightmare, so he can happily and personally, strangle him to death.


 

 

Bleary eyed and home alone, Steve is having another go at his mother’s apple pie.

The buttery crust is formed and wrapped tightly around cling film, as Steve stirs the deep brown colours in the sauce pan. He dips a finger for a taste and feels the all too frequent sinking clench in his gut because it’s not there.

Steve scrubs a hand down his face not caring what he definitely has smeared against it. Sarah Rogers had left a recipe book; mostly compiled with the recipes her mother and father had passed down when she was his age but there are more empty pages than filled. Sarah would always tap her temple when the satisfied and inquisitive people she just fed asked her where she kept her recipes. The ingredients for the apple pie is scribbled at the last completed page, handwriting shaky and loopy from illness – an all too close recognition to her failing health – and maybe because it’s still so raw, the memory of it all, that Steve keeps failing at perfecting the rustic dish.

But deep down, he knows that isn’t true. Steve had memorized the recipe at the age of thirteen and could bake it perfectly every time he needed to. Sneaking into the hospital room and sharing crumbly slices in a Tupperware with her when she complained about the hospital food.

And then she died. And the magic died with her.

The filling is too sweet and Steve judges the cinnamon shaker in his hand like it’s the culprit. Maybe nutmeg...

His cellphone buzzes, hard -- against the tiled table when Steve gets a glance at the name flicking at the front: J. Barnes, he feels his blood and body burn.

“Rogers.” Steve answers. It comes out more like a what? than a professional greeting but as he watches the cinnamon glazed apples bubble and pop grotesquely, he can’t find it within himself to give a damn.

“Well good evening to you too Rogers,” drawls Barnes, “bad time?”

Oh like you give a shit, Steve thinks derisively.

“Same as always,” Steve shuts off the burner and spoons the mess into the sink.

“That’s too bad.” James doesn’t sound sorry at all. “Maybe the calming sensations of baking a dobosh cake will take the edge off? You know, I hear baking can be very therapeutic, or whatever. It’s what the brides’ mother in law wants for the wedding cake but they’re demanding a sample before signing off. I need it in 2.5 hours.”

The hot water jets down the face of the pan and Steve watches the steam rise, pressing heat against his cheeks and pulses away what’s left of burnt, failed attempts and –

“No.”

The pause is deafening and Steve straightens his back, stands tall like he’s confronting the man face to face.

“What do you mean no?” Barnes says, tone flat.

“It means – “

“Yeah, I know what it means Rogers, I’m just confused because I didn’t think there was another answer besides 'yes James.'

“I didn’t think so either sir,” Steve says, “but there is now and I can’t.”

“You can’t or you won’t?” James snaps, voice sharp with absolutely no trace of his teasing tone in sight.

“Won’t. I’m busy, sir. And maybe if you had called me a day in advance, hell, maybe even two days, this could have been done and perfected for your wedding. But if you can’t take your job seriously enough to respect mine than neither will I. Goodnight Mr. Barnes, and good luck.”

Hanging up feels like a triumph.

Until Steve spares a look at the lonely sizzling pan in the sink and doesn’t miss the irony. He sighs and opens the fridge for fresh granny smiths.


 

The next five days go by without any contact from Barnes or even Natasha. It’s unsurprisingly peaceful.

With his mothers’ pie taking the back burner of his attention, Steve finally has enough time to accomplish things for the bakery. He has to put up with some new adjustments with the once simple and homey menu to elevate it to the new wave of clientele enticed by the positive reviews on various newspapers. Steve finds he spends most of his breaks in the break room, coming up with more diverse desserts filled with sweet fillings or even mince, with the occasional chocolate chip and peanut butter cookie baking in the background to remind himself of where he came from.

Sam has stopped asking why he hasn’t been getting any calls from 'that douchebag' when Steve curtly asked him to drop it while out grocery shopping for dinner. Peggy and Sharon never asked. Probably thrilled to have Steve around without bags under his eyes and finding him dozing off in the pantry with AP flour in his hair. It also means that he can get around to giving them more space on the menu for the sisters to try items out with customers and show the world what great talent they have.

Things are great, Steve keeps telling himself when he comes home early after closing at six pm and finding his apartment empty and tranquil. With Sam out for parent-teacher interviews, Steve feels his fingers itch.


 

On the sixth day, Steve can say he’s honestly surprised when Natasha steps into the store at half past eleven in the morning. Her hair is straightened and falls to her collarbone and Steve notices as he wipes down the display glass that she’s not in her usual professional uniform – instead, wearing a tight blue shirt tucked into black shorts. She saunters up to the counter and Steve swallows up a growing lump in his throat, straightening to his full height.

“Hiya stranger,” she smiles, resting her dark painted nails on the counter. “Got any of that coffee brewing?”

“Uh, yeah, of course. Nothing to eat with that Natasha?” he calls behind himself, setting a large ceramic cup under the nossle of the coffee dispenser. He hears Natasha hum noncommitedly before she answers. “I was thinking maybe we could grab some brunch instead. Have you been to Sunflower’s?”

Steve’s fingers still as he sets the cup atop a saucer. He has heard of it, actually. It’s his favourite lunch spot in the city and something tells him he wouldn’t be off course if he suspects Natasha already knew that.

“I’m kinda working here Nat.” His back still to her.

“Oh, I can see that,” she pipes up, voice smiling, “but I also can see that you have backup with Peggy.” Steve turns around and Natasha is smiling brightly but with a closed mouth. She nods towards the swinging door that leads to the pantry and kitchen. Peggy is there, but she’s been clearing back stock for the past half an hour. Steve’s eyes narrow.

“It’ll be quick. My treat.” Steve stares at her and then –

“Should I put this to go?” He unties his apron like a man going to his execution.

“Please,” she says and slaps a five dollar bill on the counter.

Steve slips it into the register and hands her the change but she shakes her hand, making him sigh and dump the change in the tip jar. “Let me just,” Steve finishes that with pointing a thumb towards where Peggy is.

Natasha nods, waving a hand. “Take your time Steve. I’ll be in my car.” And after accepting the steaming cup, walks out with nothing but a wink thrown over her shoulder.

 


 

The Sunflower is a tiny lunch bistro a fifteen minute drive away from Steve’s bakery. The interior is painted white with shades of blue and yellow as its prime accents and the patio is set up on street level for the perfect vantage point to people watch. All walks of life travelling left and right; on their phones, strolling or in a rush to hail a cab. It's not exactly a spot one would consider private.

(Natasha finished the cup of coffee before they entered, praising Steve the entire drive there for being the one reason she doesn’t skip town and fly back home to Russia for the real deal. Steve hid his blush by scratching a pretend itch on the left side of his face but Natasha totally noticed).

“And I’ll have the sunset chicken club with a side of fruit please.” Natasha orders politely and smiles brightly as the waiter takes both their menus under his arm and heads back inside. She turns to Steve who is fiddling with his silverware like a twelve year old.

“So.” He starts off for her and meets her gaze evenly.

“So.”

“Are you here to ask me to come back?” Normally, Steve would be embarrassed and a little ashamed for his abrasiveness if this was any other issue. But then again, he’s never been known for beating around the bush. Or so everyone likes to remind him.

“Not if that’s not what you want to hear,” Natasha stirs her mimosa with a straw slowly. “But I wouldn’t want to lie and say it’s something I wouldn’t want to hear.”

Steve huffs out a laugh and looks away. “Huh. Well, I think I’ll pass, thanks.”

“But you must be so bored now that you have all this time to yourself,” she swings, raising a perfect eyebrow.

“I’m not bored.” He is so, so bored.

“Aw, Rogers. You can’t have hated us all that badly.”

“Not you.” And damn it, Steve winces. Way to go for a petulant child Rogers, way to fucking go. When he finds the gall to look back at her after openly insulting her boss, he’s surprised to see her grinning, teeth and all. When she laughs, it’s a soft raspy thing.

“Yeah.” She sounds fond. “James has that effect on a lot of people. And frankly? There doesn’t come a minute of a day where I don’t feel like strangling the living shit out of him.”

“But?”

“But. He’s just stubborn, and he’s got a lot to prove to a lot of important people who don’t give a damn about him or even wanna know what he had to put on the line for this business to exist. James came from nothing. He’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. He just …” she breaks off, choosing her words more carefully now. “he just doesn’t know how to ask for help.”

“Doesn’t he have you for that?” Steve isn’t one to sidestep excuses but getting to hear James in this frame of light is making him more uncomfortable than he expected he would feel by agreeing to this meeting. His story sounding too much like –

“He only has me. I’ve been trying to get him to – that’s not the point Steve.” Natasha purses her lips for a moment. “He thinks he can handle this alone and that’s just not the way you run a business. You have Peggy and Sharon at your side.” She shrugs and leans back. “He’s got me. And while I am pretty indispensable, I only pretend to be infallible.”

The waiter comes back with their food, setting Natasha’s sandwich and fruit down and Steve’s order of Sunset Super: scrambled eggs, two sausages, two pancakes and a bed of home fries. “Maybe he’s in the wrong business.”

“No,” Natasha counters, opening her sandwich and dousing the chicken with hot sauce. “He’s just stubborn.” And when she looks up, she’s smiling that smile again. Like she knows something he doesn’t. “Like you.”

Steve really doesn’t like how well this woman he’s barely known for four months can read him. For a brief moment, Steve pictures her in league with Sam and barely withholds a shudder. He’d never have a private thought ever again.

He pretends to think, chewing slowly around the mixed bite of perfectly fluffy eggs and hot sausage. “Be honest with me.”

“I’m always honest.”

Oh please. “He didn’t put you up to this?”

Natasha rolls her eyes and takes a sip from her drink. “Believe me, if James knew I was here with you now, he’d lose his shit.”

And that? That is enough. “I have some conditions first…”


 

The conditions are fairly simple and short.

1) No orders made less than three days in advance and 2) No requests after 8pm. Natasha beamed as she transferred the message along to her boss via text message when their plates were cleared and all that was left on the table were her three empty glasses of mimosas and Steve’s partially finished cinnamon roll. When her phone bleeps a received text ten minutes later, she laughs for a good minute before saying, “he said that works just fine.”

Steve would bet his life savings that he’s pretty sure that’s not all he said.


 

“Someone looks fresh faced,” Sharon teases three weeks later, nudging his shoulder as she walks by behind the counter. The café is bustling but still not busy enough for it to be necessary for two of them to be working. For once, Sharon doesn’t fight him on this when he decided to cut her, actually bursting out of her apron and skipping to the back.

Steve narrows his eyes, smiling at her from where she’s quickly restocking the coffee beans while he finishes the last of the line at the register. “Someone looks like they’re in a hurry. Got a date?”

Sharon pushes the button to activate the grinder. “Oh Rogers, you know I’d never tell you.”

“No, but you’ll tell Sam,” Steve agrees and quickly rings up the teenaged looking customer in soccer gear, sliding a banana cream muffin onto a saucer with a polite smile. “Have a nice day ---- who will obviously tell me so I’m just saving you the trouble.” Steve turns, resting his weight on his palms.

Sharon laughs, shaking her head and pats Steve’s shoulder on her way out. “Nice try.”

The moment he hears the entrance door jingle her departure, Steve lets her words sink in. He has been gaining back the hours of sleep he’d missed the first time he signed on even though the rate in which the requests keep flowing in hasn’t changed all that much. Steve has the hiring of the new assistant – Barton – to thank for it all. Natasha had mentioned the name flippantly one windy morning when she came to pick up a baumkuchen cake. Apparently she finally got her boss to listen to her in adding more support to their team, but Steve personally thinks he was just bullied into it.

So now there's leisure time. More gaps in Steve's days to avoid the garden of apples he has stocked in his fridge that Sam knows not to complain about for taking up so much space, and drink cheap beer while his friends not so conspicuously plot to find him someone to date.

Steve zeroes in on a piping bag left behind on a table leaking pink frosting on a cutting board.

“Shit,” Steve sighs, remembering the birthday cake for Peggy’s little cousin he was supposed to start constructing and picks it up a little too hard, squirting pink frosting on his white and blue apron.

“Shit.” He wipes it off with his hands, smearing it some more. Great.

“Uh.” Someone clears their throat.

Steve turns, wiping his hands again on reflex like he didn’t just learn his lesson and make it worse.

The guy at the register is staring at Steve with dark eyebrows raised slightly, equally dark hair wind swept and cut short but front bangs kept long, falling past his eyes and almost level to a strong, perfectly straight nose. Dressed in a black leather jacket that’s open showing a plain white crew neck and a brown leather messenger bag slung around his shoulder. He’s beautiful.

And Steve’s still holding the pink piping bag. Limply.

“Uh,” Steve mimics and something in the man’s eyes change. They begin to sparkle in amusement, his mouth twisting like he’s holding back a grin. “Hi,” Steve tries again. And wow. “Can I get you anything?” Wow.

“I should hope so, you work here.” He says, leaning onto the counter and looking around. “Is the owner around?”

“You’re lookin’ at him.” Steve replies and puts down the bag, wiping his hands with the towel he carries in the front pocket of his apron. The silence that forms is thickening.

Steve looks back up at the customer who is looking at him completely differently. Expression slack, thrown, and red mouth open a little. Steve bites back another ‘um’ and is thankful to whoever is listening in the sky that he did.

“You okay sir? We have some banana cream muffins that just came out of the oven?” Steve suggests helpfully.

The dark haired man blinks a few times and shuffles, clearing his throat again. He looks frustrated at himself. “Oh. Uh, not really a big fan of bananas. Taste funny. So you’re the famous Rogers huh?” And that smile is back again. “Been seeing a lot of you in the paper.”

Something in Steve’s stomach rolls warmly. “Thanks, it’s been a good change for the store,” Steve extends a hand, the cleaner one. “Steve.”

Steve swears the man hesitates for a brief second, like he’s thinking something over before finally taking it firmly. “Call me Bucky.” His smile is wide but closed. Steve’s face must have registered the confusion when Bucky barrels on, taking the hand he shook Steve’s with back to make a waving gesture. “My parents were history professors and clearly thought it would be a knee slapper to name me after a dead president literally no one has ever heard of.”

Steve’s about to inquire as to which one, pretty well graphed on U.S history when Bucky says, “I’d rather not share,” and he mocks a shudder, “too many vivid and traumatic flashbacks. Not for the faint hearted.” He winks.

The snort that comes out of Steve is dead on embarrassing and he would be just as embarrassed if not for the way Bucky’s eyes flash, like making Steve laugh is a victory he prides himself with.

“Have you seen what I’ve had to cater?” Steve jokes, “not quite the faint hearted material.”

“Now that, is very true.” Bucky places his hands in his coat pockets and rocks a bit on his heels. Steve is close enough to the front counter to finally get a good look on his attire. The jeans he wears look perfectly tapered and his loafers are bright and pristine. He looks like he was styled by Maison Martin Margiela personally. “So a little birdy tells me you make some badass coffee.”

“Just got a batch brewing right now,” Steve says, sidestepping the compliment with familiarity.

“One of that if ya don’t mind, although I’m warning you, I was born in Eastern Europe.” Bucky says, raising his eyebrows like it’s a challenge. Steve rolls his eyes not unkindly and holds his hand out as Bucky retrieves a travelling thermos from his messenger bag.

He makes his way to the dispenser, setting it under the nozzle. “Yeah and I’m from Brooklyn, I think I know a thing or two about coffee.” It feels old. The witty rejoinders and chat. Like they’ve done this millions of times before in another life.

A pause. “You’re from Brooklyn?” Steve doesn’t have to turn around to hear the smile in his voice. Steve bites down one of his own before turning back around. Get it together Rogers.

Bucky is smiling, his teeth perfectly straight and takes back his mug. “Born and raised.” Bucky lifts the thermos to his nose and inhales, his eyes falling shut and it feels like a punch in the gut just looking at him. Bucky hums. “Same. Raised there actually,” his eyes still shut.

Steve needs air. Immediately.

“Would that be it, or?” Steve lets the question hang, a group of business women entering the store. Bucky catches them too over his shoulder.

“Hm, what would you recommend?”

Steve thinks to the chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies that he secretly likes to splurge on when he’s stressed and that remind him of lazy afternoons in Brooklyn. Sitting alone at lunch and recess to freshly made and wrapped cookies the size of his hand and finding it was the only time he liked his enforced solitude.

Bucky’s taking out his wallet from his bag, attention wrapped in riffling through the over stocked contents that are disorganized. Laminated folders and a few portfolio cases. Steve catches the brand on the bag. Prada.

“The bankets are pretty popular.” Steve says. They are. So why does he feel like he’s lying.

Bucky finally fishes out his wallet, and pushes back the strands of hair that fell into his eyes during his search and tucks it behind his ear. “Actually, you know what, do you have any cookies? Chocolate chip or maybe just an oatmeal or peanut butter? I need one as big as my face.” He takes out a ten dollar bill. “I’m feeling like sticking to the basics, you know?”

Steve beams. “I know what you mean.”


 

Bucky ends up taking three more after almost offending the old ladies sitting behind him by the sound he made as he bit into the peanut butter. He tips ten dollars even though his complete order was ten dollars and promises to be back soon, raising his thermos as a mock salute before he’s out the door.

Steve waits until the pitter patter of his heart dies down. And. Well.

Fuck.


 

“Okay, what’s your deal?” Sam finally says, putting his pen down from grading a test paper.

Steve blinks. “What?”

“What’s got you all goo-goo eyed?” Sam reiterates, and leans in. “I haven’t seen you like this since you heard Disney was going back into hand drawn animation.”

Steve foolishly goes for the blasé and gets up from his seat across from Sam at the dinner table, making for the fridge. “I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about Sam. I can’t have a good day or something?”

Sam says nothing immediately, but Steve can basically hear his eye roll. He continues to pretend to look for something in the freezer. A pile of Hungry Man stares back at him. “Hey, so do you wanna go bowling?”

“And he goes for the segue. Real smart Rogers.”

“Sam – “

“Fine, I’ll play along. Sure, when are you thinking?” Sam says, voice coming from behind.

“How about in an hour? It’s Thursday and they’ve got that ten dollar pitcher with pizza deal if I remember correctly.” Steve’s confident enough, but then again, he was really off his face that night too. He closes the freezer door when Sam falls silent again.

Sam’s staring at him, frowning slightly. “You wanna go bowling and get drinks at nine thirty at night? Right now.” He repeats.

Steve tries not to be offended. It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy kicking it back and going out every now and again. It’s just that he’d been busy for months and all his free time was spent on getting a few hours of shut eye before work. Even though that hasn’t been happening much lately. If at all. But that doesn’t mean he’s strictly opposed to nights out. He can be spontaneous okay? Steve used to get into brawls with kids three times his size because of his spontaneous nature. It’s only that come recently he hasn’t found the occasion –

Okay, maybe Sam’s got a point there.

Still. “Yeah. And?”

Sam just stares back, this time looking more and more suspicious. Steve is well educated in that look. It’s the Sam look #13 that means: you’re acting real fishy right now and if you don’t think I’m gonna get to the bottom of it you’re shit out of luck.

“Okay, forget I asked. Maybe I just didn’t wanna eat a frozen dinner with mystery meat tonight,” Steve says defensively and turns back to the fridge, retrieving one of the dinners.

“No, no, let’s not forget it. Beers and pizza is always a good time in my books,” Sam apologizes. Steve punches open the microwave door stubbornly.

“Hey! Dumb dumb,” Sam lobs his pen perfectly at the back of Steve’s head.

“Ow, what the – Christ,” Steve rubs the back of his head, looking at Sam who’s getting to his feet, cracking his neck.

“Let’s blow this joint. I need to forget about the failure in literacy our future is doomed with.” Sam makes for his room to change. “Don’t think this is over!” He calls before he shuts his door.

Steve groans.


 

The bowling alley is packed unsurprisingly enough and Sam finds them a nice table in the thick of it all. Steve calls it quits after losing to Sam best three games out of five. Sam’s victory dance was embarrassing enough for the both of them really, and Steve spilled most of his sixth pint of beer down his shirt from laughing so hard.

“So Mr. Lovey Dovey eyes, you finally gonna confess?” Sam says, picking up a slice of Steve’s Hawaiian. Sam only eats Hawaiian when he’s drunk.

Steve thinks about side parted dark hair and flushed lips and wide blue eyes and takes a few gratuitous pulls of beer to disguise the smile he knows is coming. When he lowers it, Sam’s smirking. “I still don’t know – “

Sam levels him with the look.

“—okay fine, it was a customer at the shop this afternoon. There. You win. Happy?”

“Hell yes I am. Fucking over the moon happy,” Sam says and sticks out a fist for a bump. Steve acquiesces albeit without the same level of enthusiasm.

“So what’s the problem? Did you do something to turn them off?”

“If he wasn’t turned off by the pink frosting all over me I don’t think anything else will,” Steve mutters as he peels off the crust. Sam squawks loudly.

Oh my god.

“Yep.”

“Okay, I’m confused. Why are you sulking now? You were blushing like a pre-teen all up until just now – “

“I was not – “

“Did you get his number?” Sam presses and takes a large bite. He kicks Steve under the table when Steve doesn’t answer.

“I uh, didn’t think it would be…appropriate.” Steve says lamely. He dunks his crust into the ranch sauce even more so.

Sam slows down his chewing pace and looks at Steve like he can’t believe this is his best friend. Steve gets that look a lot. He swallows. “I take it back. I am so not happy about this anymore.”

“I know,” Steve says. All he could think about, what was nagging at the back of his dizzying happy state was that maybe Bucky didn’t mean it. Maybe he wasn’t coming back and Steve would never see him again. He doubts he could find him by the name alone, and something tells him that Bucky is more of a nickname than an official one. It all feels very maudlin all of a sudden.

Steve shrugs, not making Sam’s eye. “Maybe it’s for the best. He seemed out of my league.”

Sam dismisses that automatically. “Oh please. Did he say he’d come back?”

“Yeah but – “

“Well then there,” Sam says, like that says enough and everything is set in stone and people don’t break promises. “And when he does, don’t fuck up and wuss out. Make me proud.” Sam finishes his slice and lets out a burp.

Steve’s nose crinkles. “You really shouldn’t have ordered olives and jalapeños on your half.”

“Your opinion on toppings are irrelevant to me,” Sam says and laughs out, pineapples on pizza, like he didn’t just steal a slice.

“Steve Rogers has a crush. Oh man. Peggy’s gonna freak,” Sam mutters to himself and really, Steve expected that much.


 

Bucky does come back.

It’s almost a week later and Steve spent the majority of it trying not to let it get to him after closing day after day without seeing a trace of him. He also had to spend it sighing and saying “no” over and over each time a guy distantly resembling Bucky’s description would walk in and Peggy would ask “is that him?”

All of it was very disconcerting and overall, unpromising.

Sharon comes in through the back doors where Steve is struggling with the wedding cake samples. Five orders of butter pecan, red velvet, vanilla marmalade, cappuccino mocha and pistachio cream. The icing of the marmalade keeps coming out too tart for Steve’s liking.

“Sharon, can you taste this for me real quick?” he asks, whipping the mixing bowl with a wooden spoon, one eye on the oven clock. “The couple wasn’t really specific on how tart they wanted the marmalade icing and I keep second guessing the combination of citrus.”

Sharon steals the bowl out of his hand right when the timer goes off, signalling the end of his butter pecan sponge. Now where the hell did I put the oven mitts, Steve thinks, looking around.

“I think this is good,” Sharon says, smacking her lips. “Is that blood orange?”

“Yeah, last minute change,” he finds them and opens the oven door, the warm smell blasting across his face in a heated rush.

“Good choice, also,” she says, “you got a Bucky here to see you.”

Steve almost drops the tray. Sharon’s beaming brightly, grinning and takes the towel in her apron pocket out. “You give me this, I’ll take care of it and you, go get him,” she says, shoving at him with her foot. Steve stumbles a little towards the door, and stops on his way through the pantry that leads to the front of the house.

Steve hates himself a little bit for pausing to fix his hair, even though he knows it’s probably useless and realizes late that he’s still wearing the pink flower print oven gloves. Not for the first or last time, Steve’s pretty sure the universe is trying to tell him something.

Bucky is leaning at the front desk, holding half a wrapped sandwich in his hand and talking to Peggy with a pair of sunglasses pushed to the top of his head, his dark hair swung back showing a glistening forehead. It’s one of the hotter days this afternoon, and he’s dressed in the same jeans again but with a black t shirt this time that doesn't leave much to the imagination. Whatever he says to Peggy makes them both laugh. The way he’s looking at her, combined with his posture is soaked with lazy confidence and flirtation. Steve really wants to disappear back into the kitchen.

“Took ya long enough,” Bucky says, catching Steve’s arrival and straightening up to wave. “Hi.”

“Hey, you came back,” Steve greets, stating the obvious and mentally kicks himself.

“Buddy, you couldn’t keep me away from this place if you tried.” And Steve really doesn’t know how to take that. He feels his face flush. Bucky smiles softly.

“You got one hell of a girl here,” Bucky goes on and raises his sandwich, “this brisket sandwich made me a little weak in the knees I gotta say.”

“You can keep saying that but you’re still paying,” Peggy counters, just as friendly and side steps Steve to the line of customers flocking in and takes more orders, leaving Steve and Bucky alone at the end of the bar rail.

Steve feels clumsy, and it’s all wrong. The easiness of whatever this is faded and gone on Steve’s end. Logically, Steve knows that Peggy wouldn’t try to openly flirt with the guy she’s been nagging him about to finally meet and see but he also recognizes that as much as it feels like they’ve known each other for decades, he doesn’t know much of a thing about Bucky.

Bucky takes a seat on the stool and swings it side to side before settling in. “I almost didn’t recognize you without all the pink,” Bucky tries, laughing to himself and it jars Steve out of the internal dilemma. It takes a moment for the words to register and he cracks a smile.

“Jerk,” he says, shaking his head.

“Hey, it’s a good look, meant no offence,” Bucky teases and it’s like a dam has broken free, things flowing free and setting right back into place.

A generic ringtone goes off and Bucky freezes for a moment until finally answering it, mouthing a sorry. “Yeah? Well I’m not in the office and I have caller ID…I’m grabbing a bite because someone likes to remind me that I can’t live off coffee and Maltesers,” Bucky laughs fondly, eyes crinkling at the sides at whoever is on the other line and Steve needs to do something to keep busy. “I should fire you for saying that…yeah, you’re right. I would die.”

Steve catches Peggy looking at him as he makes for the blender and makes himself a mango smoothie, letting the loud whirring drown out the conversation.

“…I have a million and one things to – Christ okay, I’ll be over later. Yes. Lots and lots of vodka. Okay. Okay bye.” Bucky ends the call and sighs, tossing his phone back into the messy contents of his bag.

“Trouble in paradise?” Steve says, and smiles to take the edge off the barely concealed sadness. Of course he’s in a relationship. Just look at him.

Bucky leans his elbows on the counter. “I don’t think there was ever a paradise. More like another day in hell.” It’s meant to be a joke but it slows down Steve’s motion as he pours the bright contents into a recyclable cup. He likes this guy. Is totally enraptured, if he wants to be honest with himself. But hearing him talk about his partner like that isn’t right.

“Girlfriend?” He tries.

Bucky smiles, that Cheshire grin and tilts his head. “Nope. Not boyfriend either, just a smartass colleague.” After a beat. “Are you fishing? It sounded like you were fishing.”

“Fishing?” Steve repeats, genuinely confused but silently revelling under the warmth and confirmation of the fact. He stabs a straw through the lid and takes a long pull.

“Yeah. Fishing. Wanting to see if I’m available and all that. I am, by the way. If you’re interested.” Bucky says, like he didn’t just take the ground out from under Steve’s feet. He almost chokes around the smoothie. It makes Bucky’s eyes do that crinkling thing again, and Steve’s chest tightens seeing it directed at him. Like Steve is something particularly funny to him and that they’re sharing an inside joke that Steve isn’t privy to yet.

Steve sets down the cup. “What if I am?”

Bucky hums non-committedly and that will never stop making the bottom of Steve’s belly burn. The amount of feelings this guy can erupt within Steve is powerfully unsettling and thrilling all at once, and it’s dizzying to keep up. Steve wonders if it’s as obvious to notice as it feels. If Bucky is feeling them all too.

“Then I’d say what are your plans this Saturday?” He swipes the mango smoothie from the table and takes a sip. “Can I get this to go too? It’s hot as fuck outside.”

Steve smiles, he’s finding this happens a lot when they’re in proximity. “Sure.”

But then –

Steve feels his heart sink. He has that order of Croquembouche that he has to start that night, with Peggy’s cousin’s birthday party in the early afternoon to attend too as well. The store will be closed.

“Actually,” Steve starts and Bucky’s smile falls, he was already taking out his blackberry from the abyss of his bag. “I have an order to do that day, it’s kind of the only time I can do it.”

“What’re you making?” Bucky asks tentatively, setting the smoothie back down on the counter and staring at it intensely. Steve doesn’t think he’s ever seen Bucky’s face like this, devoid of its bright and flirtatious nature and flush.

“A French wedding cake, really intense. It’s called a Croquembouche? It sounds just as confusing as it looks.”

“Oh.”

Steve is honestly experiencing the biggest case of whiplash humanly possible. He wonders what he did wrong.

“But we can work something out,” he saves quickly, hoping he doesn’t sound as desperate as he truly is. “I have a pretty forgiving schedule lately. You should have seen it before,” Steve laughs, hoping to defuse whatever this weird tension is. “I swear I don’t think I slept for days. Completely merciless.”

Bucky echoes his laugh, but it doesn’t reach his eyes and he’s still staring at the mango smoothie that’s beginning to create condensation on the sides.

“That is…if you’re still –“

“I am, trust me, I am,” Bucky interrupts, snapping up and slipping back into that sleek bravado he wears like a suit. He begins to fiddle around on his phone. After a moment of cursing and phases of biting his lip that makes Steve’s eyes go into tunnel vision Bucky finally comes up with something.

“I have a morning free from eight am till noon a week next Tuesday.” Like that’s the best he can do. Steve counts. It’s twelve days away.

“That works.” And then, genuinely curious and baffled it never came up. “What do you do anyway?”

Bucky puts something into his phone, and answers like it’s an afterthought. “I’m an entrepreneur. Of sorts.” He looks up, grinning and nods to the smoothie. “Come on, that smoothie won’t make itself Steve.”


 

Steve sneaks glances at the contact number saved on his phone under the name Bucky for the remainder of the day.

He gets a text later on in the night while watching a movie with Sam.

Bucky 9:31pm: You better have this number saved. I don’t give it away that easy.

Steve humbly side steps that give away joke.

Steve Rogers 9:35pm: You’re on the list.

Bucky 9:36pm: I’m honoured.

Steve Rogers 9:38pm: You damn well should be. It’s a very long list.

Bucky 9:41pm: Shit Steve, didn’t know you had it in you.

Steve laughs and Sam shoots him a look from their spots on the couch, the movie a vacant memory playing in the background.

Steve Rogers 9:41pm: Jerk.

Bucky 9:44pm: Oh please, like you aren’t one too. I see right through your Mr. Rogers emulation.
Bucky 9:44pm: Get it? Mr. Rogers Mr. Rogers?

Steve Rogers 9:45pm: Hilarious. Like I haven’t heard that one before.

Bucky 9:47pm: Punk :o)

“If you’re sexting your so-called sexy boyfriend you can do that in your room.” Sam says, turning up the volume as the explosions on screen go off.

“He’s not my boyfriend.” Steve says, politely pocketing his phone but the smile on his face says different. Wishes different.

“Sure pal, whatever you say.”


 

The thing is, Bucky isn’t Steve’s boyfriend. He’s not – seriously Sam, quit it -- despite what Sam and Sharon tease on nights out when his phone would buzz in his pocket. He doesn’t even know his last name to be fair, and they haven’t gone on a single date. Or at least, Steve doesn’t think they’re dates.

Bucky comes around the shop routinely after the birthday cake was delivered on the Saturday. Every other day on average or at least, makes sure to text Steve if he won’t be making it by. It’s like he’s making it as an apology for not having enough time of his schedule to squeeze Steve in for more than an hour. Not that Steve blames him for it, having his own off-beat and unpredictable schedule of his own.

On Sunday, the busiest day of the week, Bucky comes in at 7 am, intelligently dodging the afternoon rush and wearing sunglasses despite the mild sun outside. There’s only two other customers inside, already out the door to where the parking lot is located across the street.

“Hungover?” Steve says, as a way of greeting. Bucky slides into his spot at the bar table, dressed in a hoodie beneath dark blue flannel.

“Still drunk, I think,” he says. “Caffeine me.” He takes off his glasses entirely, eyes a little red. Steve knows those eyes. He’s seen them in the mirror when he made that insane tiramisu order for a family of triplets birthday party. (Spoiler alert: they all had nut allergies).

“Why do I feel like your dealer all of a sudden?” teases Steve.

He hears Bucky huff out a laugh and when he turns to hand over the cup, Bucky’s head is on the cool white table.

“If you’re drooling I’m kicking you out.” Bucky gives him the finger to Steve’s amusement. “I’m guessing the only reason you’re up is because of – “ Steve hesitates and places the cup down. “- work.”

Bucky raises his head at the smell of coffee and takes it into his hands, taking a cautious sip. It should be scorching his mouth, Steve thinks for not the first time. Bucky straightens up and runs a hand through his hair, messing it up. “Believe me pal, I’d rather be in bed but,” he makes a face. “Duty calls. Or whatever.”

“What time do you need to head out?” Steve asks, he still doesn’t know what Bucky is an entrepreneur for, but he doesn’t want to push.

“Technically I shouldn’t really be here but,” he shrugs and flickers his gaze to Steve almost shyly. Steve can hear the “but I wanted to see you” unspoken in the silence. He feels his face warm.

“But, I have about twenty minutes to get to – “

“Bucky!”

He raises his hands in surrender, laughing through a minor wince. “Hey, hungover remember? Jesus lower the volume. I got a ride coming any minute.”

This guy is going to be the death of me, Steve thinks and fuck, even his thoughts sound sappy. “Partying late when you have to be up at this hour for work?” Steve mocks a tsk, grinning and rests his hands on his hips. “I’d hate to see you in college.”

Bucky takes another sip and mutters, “you and me both.”

The ride comes three minutes after, Bucky’s phone going off and Steve notices belatedly while Bucky waves goodbye that it’s different than the Blackberry he previously had.


 

Tuesday, Bucky comes in five minutes before Steve’s hour break. He looks suspiciously at Peggy who just smiles and says, “what?” before going back to take the proofed loaves of bread out and into the oven behind cash. And really, is he even complaining?

Bucky raises his eyebrows as greeting when Steve slides in a seat across from him, untying his apron from around his waist. It’s been a long day and he still can’t decide between pumpkin or milk chocolate turnovers for Sam’s bake sale.

“Shit, that’s tough,” Bucky says. He’s not carrying his over bulging messenger bag today. There's no bag in sight and he's lounging in a jean jacket over a white shirt with even darker jeans. “If only I had a friend who could give me a sample to help me decide.” He says dramatically and then raises his eyebrows playfully, which always makes Steve chortle. It's just another thing that Bucky has learned about him.

“Yeah me too.” Steve says dryly and Bucky tosses his head back and laughs and laughs.

They talk for the entire hour. Steve finds out they lived pretty much in the same area back home in Brooklyn, the name of Bucky’s high school ringing a bell but nowhere near enough to know anyone who went there. They both think Leone’s Diner had the best pizza and Bucky’s eyes sparkle when he says: wow, I bet I walked past you a hundred times. Was the veal sandwich killer or what? I fucking loved that place. Crazy huh?

So far, Steve has learned about Bucky:

1) Bucky speaks fluent Russian, German, French and Romanian. ("Travelled a lot when I was a kid," he says with a half-shrug). When he’s drunk, apparently all he speaks is Romanian. Which Steve really wants to see some time. Although Bucky swears up and down he really, really doesn’t. 
i) Steve imagines Bucky, drunk off his face and mouth curling around the softened curves of the Romanian language and he shoves down the urge to ask him to say something in French. Knowing Bucky -- and funny that is, how quick and soon he knows this man, can feel it in his bones –- he would probably choose a swear word. Or something absurdly graphic.

2) He’s a vodka guy but will drink anything as long as it’s not dark rum or anything too sweet. But he does enjoy a cosmopolitan from time to time.
i) (“Do I really gotta pinky swea – Buck I won’t te – are you pouting? Are you a child?”)

3) He lives on his own, about a half an hour drive from Steve. Unsurprisingly in the better part of town and has a little sister studying astrophysics. (He says that with air quotes because apparently “And I quote: I don’t have the time to sit you down Bucky and explain the very complicated shit I do for a living if you’re just gonna fall asleep on me. Which is a total lie – “
“Sure Buck.”)
i) His parents are retired and travelling somewhere in the south of Italy according to their last postcard.

4) Apparently has a tattoo but won’t tell Steve where when asked. Only gives a wink. Steve face palms.

5) He favours pie over cake. Apple, specifically. But his favourite pastry flavour is lemon, which Steve already knew due to the rate his lemon bars are disappearing.
i) Bucky kicks him under the table when Steve says that.
ii) But says that chocolate wins over all. Always. (Steve agrees which gets a quirked eyebrow and that smug grin, like Bucky is trying very hard to bite back a laugh. “Always figured you as a vanilla guy.” Steve flicks his soda at him with the end of his straw, just to hear Bucky laugh.)

Bucky learns some things too. That Steve’s an only child, orphaned but getting by and living with a friend. That this store is his pride and joy, started and built from the ground up. He learns about Steve’s history obsession and the several collections of sketchbooks he's kept for years since he was eight. A great love of his, and yet something he sees more now as a fond hobby. Was able to combine his interest in artistry to his baking. Bucky smiles throughout the story and makes him promise to show him some of his work and for once, that doesn’t make Steve squirm in his seat. He wants to share with Bucky, wants to show him a part of his world. Maybe he can then be a part of it for real then.

When Steve finally checks the time, he’s already over an extra ten minutes of his break and Peggy didn’t even come over to remind him that his break was up. The sneak. He feels a little stupid walking Bucky to the exit door. He feels even more stupid for not going with his gut and going in for a goodbye hug instead of a kiss.


 

“You know, I’m a little offended that everyone has met this guy besides me.” Sam punctuates with tossing an olive in his mouth from his martini.

“It’s not exactly like I have him kept in a basement – thank you,” he says gratefully to the waitress as she places his dinner in front of him – chili tossed lentils with a rack of lamb and yogurt mint sauce. He should start ordering something different. “And we’re not dating.”

“Right.” Sam agrees in that way where he doesn’t agree at all and accepts his own plate of couscous and grilled chicken and zucchini. “It’s not like he comes to visit you and knows your schedule and basically told you up front that he’s interested. Very interested. Or so I’ve heard.”

“I really can’t believe my life is the most exciting topic of conversation for you and Sharon.” Steve says, cutting into the medium rare meat. “There’s nothing going on.”

“Yet. Yet. I can hear the yet hanging right after that sentence, begging for you to notice it. It’s so sad. You’re making me sad – “

“Well look who it is.”

Steve looks up, mid chew to a casually dressed Bucky. More casual than usual, in a pair of black sweats and a NIKE shirt that’s a size too small. His hair mostly hidden by a backwards cap but the long strands in front visible. Steve swallows. Bucky grins.

“Hiya Buck,” and Sam stops eating and turns in his seat. Fuck.

“Um,” Steve starts and really hopes Sam will have enough mercy to not embarrass him right now. He also hopes there isn’t any yogurt sauce on his face. He grabs a napkin anyway and Bucky’s grin splits bigger, if that’s even possible. “I didn’t know you came here.”

“Anyone who likes actual Lebanese comes here, or I hope they do.” Bucky shakes the take out bag he’s holding. “Beef shawarma, extra spicy. Whatcha got there?”

Steve glances down, he doesn’t really need to. “The lamb special. I don’t order anything else really.”

“That, pal, is such a shame.” Bucky says, still smiling like Steve is something personally and endlessly hilarious. His eyes flick to Sam.

“Oh, this is my room mate Sam. Sam this is Bucky, the – “ guy that I can’t stop thinking about? Shit.

“—new friend of yours, I’ve heard a bit about you.” Sam says, grinning like this is the best day of his life and also saving the skin off of Steve’s back at the same time, shaking Bucky’s hand.

“Oh really?” Bucky says slowly, the way his voice rolls makes Steve’s face burn and looks at Steve. “Same here. You really a school teacher?”

Sam takes his hand back. “Formally a guidance counsellor, but you’re right.”

“Shit.”

“It’s not so bad. Only when it’s really bad.” And Bucky throws his head back at that and laughs. Really hard. It’s infectious, Steve can’t stop himself from joining in.

“Well, I’d love to talk work misery but I gotta run. I’ll call ya later Steve.” and raises his bag again, “expand your horizons.” And he’s gone.

Sam turns back in his seat to look at Steve who is trying very hard not to meet his gaze.

“Stop looking at me like that.”

“Steve.”

Sam.

“I’m just sayin’, if you don’t wanna admit how badly you wanna be all over that, I’ll take him.”


 

It becomes a thing.

Sometimes Steve finds Bucky behind the counter, stressed and pressing buttons on his Blackberry relentlessly at a million words per second. His face only softening into something fond, a look entirely different than the seductive looseness he started off with when he first met Steve.

Other times he’s entirely relaxed and at home in his swagger, taking his now regular seat at the bar and eating all of Steve’s lemon bars, even though Steve starts to hide them because other people like them too. Most of the time, Steve barely gets to see him for more than thirty minutes; the deliveries picking up pace as spring rolls into summer.

There’s no word or call from James Barnes. Not even an email.

Steve is beginning to think he officially ran the guy off, which is fine by him if he’s being perfectly honest. Instead, all of the orders come via text through Clint Barton, and from the looks of how things are going, Clint knows what he’s doing in an organized manner. There’s still a flood of orders, but they are meticulously spread a part. Giving Steve more time for the simple things. Specifically, to find room for Bucky. Bucky, who is creeping an inch at a time into Steve’s life.

It shouldn’t make sense in the scheme of things. Bucky is inconsistent, a little all over the place and mysteriously always at arms-reach. He’s shamelessly flirtatious and kind of an asshole when Steve thinks about it, but all the same laughing together at whatever comes out of that mouth like two boys on a playground. And well, Steve is kind of a bigger one. Or so Bucky likes to remind him.

His consistency lies in the area of talk that Steve has discovered shuts him down – work.

Whenever Steve gets close to asking more, curious and wanting to know more about him, Bucky’s face, once easy and smiling turns into something tragically sullen, maybe even remorseful. And if there’s one thing Steve has learned from having Sam Wilson as a best friend and room mate is to respect the boundaries of others, no matter how much you sincerely want to help or ease them out of it. So Steve drops it.

Really, he does.

 


 

The Charlotte cake for an anniversary luncheon is finished and set in the fridge. Steve let Sam help him pipe the lady finger mixture on the sheet tray to put into the oven, but put his foot down when he gave interest on the strawberry mousse filling. (The last time Steve made a Charlotte cake was in culinary school, and having to execute it perfectly for the first time since graduation still made his palms sweat.)

Steve all but crashes onto his bed at midnight and crawls to the top, grateful he put his sleep pants on before he got started on the finished product, because getting up to change right now feels like an herculean deed. Steve nestles into his pillow and tries to wiggle into a good position –

His phone rings from where it’s perched next to his bedside.

“Bucky?” Steve asks blearily, he glances at the clock perched on his bedside. 12:08am.

“Shit. Sorry. Did I wake you?” Bucky sounds alert, wide awake. Steve shifts underneath the covers and starts to prop his pillows upright.

“No, no, you didn’t.” Steve stops himself from the: I was just about to fall asleep, that dies on his lips. Bucky genuinely sounds sorry on the other line and if falling asleep in the pantry (again) is the price for staying on the phone and talking for the next hour, Steve will gladly exchange it.

“You sure? I forget sometimes that not everyone is awake until the crack of dawn. I can always – “

Steve pinches the bridge of his nose, smiling. He wishes Bucky could see it, just so he could stop apologizing. “Buck, it’s fine. Seriously. It’s not exactly like it’s the first time I sacrificed a good night’s sleep. Talk to me. You still gotta go to Boston?”

There’s a long pause, long enough that Steve has to look at his phone to check if the call dropped or if he accidentally muted himself with his face. But everything is functional and it’s just Bucky, gone silent over the line. Not for the first time, Steve back pedals his words, wonders where he stepped wrong.

“Actually, that’s the whole reason why I called,” Bucky recovers, although his voice sounds off. It’s there again. The strange sadness that makes Steve’s stomach clench into something pathetic and morose. “Turns out there was a last minute fall out and I’m not going to be needed there.”

“Is this bad news or good news?” Steve tests.

“Absolutely fucking great news. Namely, because it means I have a weekend available for this guy. You might know him? Tall and freakishly built? Kind of a dork actually. Totally not a natural blonde.”

The tightness in Steve’s chest unravels so fast it makes Steve dizzy from all the relief. Steve sighs. “Remind me again why I even put up with you?”

And because Bucky is Bucky. “Because I put out on the first date?”

Steve’s face grows hot and fuck, he’d be lying if he denied the fact that that specific image hasn’t flooded his brain more often than not – of Bucky with his hair sweat gleamed and tossed, lying in his bed -- this bed -- and staring up at him as Steve brackets his smaller body with his arms. He wants. God help him, he wants.

He barely hears Bucky’s bark of laughter until he gets to the end of it. “Oh man, I wish I could’ve seen your face. Are you blushing? Tell me you’re blushing right now.”

“I’m hanging up now.”

“Wait, wait,” Bucky says, voice smiling. “Okay, seriously. Let’s grab something to eat, and not something from your store. No offence. But all of our dates so far have kind of always been there. I can pick you up for noon this Friday if that’s cool.”

Steve’s head is still spinning over the “all of our dates” epiphany if he’s being completely honest. He’s still trying to catch up with how fast this is coming together. How this all became his life.

Somewhere, Sam is slamming his head against a wall – repeatedly.

“Sure. That sounds – “ perfect – Steve clears his throat. “uh, what do you feel like?”

“Breakfast for lunch?” Bucky says hopefully.

Steve grins. “I know just the place.”


 

When the Sunset Super is delivered in front of Steve, Bucky blinks. His right hand frozen over spreading butter on his twelve grain toast.

“Where are you going to put all of that?” he says.

Steve shrugs, already chewing on a generous bite of sausage. “Most important meal of the day.”

Bucky rolls his eyes and finishes buttering his toast before going in for his own plate: corned beef hash served with three eggs (over-easy) and home fries on the side.

“Christ, why haven’t I found this place before?” Bucky asks no one after taking a forkful. Steve makes an “I told you so” face.

“It’s my favourite spot in the city. Well,” Steve smacks his lips and considers briefly if he should be honest. “Compared to the usual dive bars with cheap drinks and specials.”

It’s hard to not notice and marvel at the way Bucky’s eyes light up at the thought of Steve at a seedy bar getting equally as drunk as he probably suspects. “I think I’d like to see one of those bars.”

On a cold day in hell my friend. “One day.” Steve says and cracks fresh pepper over his eggs.

“I’m all yours.” Bucky says and cool as a cucumber plucks a fry from Steve’s plate. He winks.

“You have your own.”

Bucky shrugs and twists open the ketchup bottle. “Yours taste better.”

“You’re insane.”

When they finish their late lunch, Steve fights back the urge to unbuckle his belt, full beyond belief and listening to Bucky laugh at him for ordering such a ridiculously heavy lunch and yet openly and shamelessly admiring his physique. Apparently they run the same track down on St Clair Street, only Steve gets there for 5am if he can and Bucky only does a late evening run before dinner.

It’s strange, ironic really, how much of their lives have just been lived in passing.

Bucky has a fistful of home fries left, overly coated in ketchup and it makes Steve queasy. “I’m just saying Stevie. Pancakes, eggs and sausage with fries? Not the genius idea I expected from you. Now, am impressed?” Bucky says, still smiling and twirls his straw between his very long fingers. “Yes. But I feel bad for the towing company that’s gonna have to wheel your ass out of here.”

Steve laughs, drunk on the new nickname and doesn’t dare call Bucky out on it lest he never hear it again. “That’s exactly what Nat said.” He thinks, tilting his head and smiling fondly. “You’d like her come to think of it. Same twisted and sadistic sense of humor.”

He expects a kick under the table, or at least a generous eye roll. What he gets is Bucky stiffening, the straw freezing between the spaces between his fingers.

Bucky recovers quickly and sinks his straw back into his sparkling water, eyebrows furrowed. When he speaks, his voice is overly calm. Forced. Practiced and so achingly and heartbreakingly familiar now to Steve.

“Oh yeah? You bring other girls here?” He’s trying to be playful, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. Steve, already on the road to fix this desperately plays along.

“She brought me here. Dragged me, actually. Nat – uh, Natasha, actually is a part of the company I cater for. Great woman. Scary,” Steve stresses, laughing as an afterthought, “but great.”

When Bucky says nothing, Steve presses onward, flailing for something, anything. Just not again. “She saved my sanity if I’m going to be truthful here. I was about to lose my mind.”

Bucky only responds after the waitress comes asking for any dessert requests, and he asks for an espresso which Steve doubles, and also for a pumpkin banana loaf because he’s a masochist and can’t deny pumpkin flavoured anything to save his life. Once the smiling waitress departs for their orders, Bucky turns back to Steve, attentive as he leans in, resting on his forearms and Steve perks in his seat at the attention, willing his heart to stop pounding irregularly like a fucking Pavlovian response every time those slate blue eyes meet his.

“So,” he starts, “saved your sanity huh? Should I be jealous?” He’s trying, that much is clear, even though Steve can easily still see the left over tenseness and rigidity of Bucky’s posture from a mile away – something so obtuse and verse from how open and beautifully free he was a minute ago, before he even brought it up. Steve wonders if he should drop it while he still has a chance.

Steve shrugs, “my old boss just used to drive me nuts. Well, I guess he’s still my boss but I haven’t heard from him directly since after I sort of…quit.” It takes Steve saying the words out loud for himself to grasp two things at once: one -- that it really has been a long time since he last heard from Mr. Barnes. Second, the fact that he did quit. Something he never would imagine his name would ever be attached to. For reasons lost to him, Steve feels a wave of an uneasy displacement of guilt.

“Do you regret it?” Bucky asks, his voice pulling Steve out of much belated thoughts.

“Now I do,” Steve says, laughing on it easily. “To be honest I’m not really much of a quitter. I try to see things till the end of the line, no matter how difficult it is. Or how difficult people can be or become.”

Bucky smiles and it’s heartbreakingly soft. “I meant if you regret going back. This boss of yours sounds like a dick.”

“He was,” Steve says offhandedly as their coffee is delivered with the pastry placed in the middle to share. “I don’t like bullies, and believe me I’ve had a lifetimes’ share of being picked on already. But it’s not so bad. He wasn’t so bad.” The words Natasha said to him that first brunch fill his head: James came from nothing. He’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. He just doesn’t know how to ask for help…

Bucky hasn’t touched his coffee, still staring at Steve like he’s something to behold and revel at and it makes Steve’s head swim funny. “You’re incredible Steve.”

He says it like reporting that the sky is blue and that blood pumps red. And then –

“If I were you I’d have had my hands around his neck.”

Steve feels his face flush. “The thought has crossed my mind. But maybe I was too hard on the guy. It’s not exactly easy to work with such a small team.” I should know.

Something in Bucky’s eyes flash, hard, but not against Steve. For Steve. Like he’s genuinely angry on his behalf. “Buddy, we both know that ain’t a real excuse. You make it work with only two extra pair of hands at your back. In my books, he deserved it.” His voice is protective and despite Steve’s usual tact to defend himself when people assume he needs protection, there’s something instinctual and natural to have Bucky stand up for him and have his back. It feels like warmth and understanding. Like coming home after he’s been wandering lost for years.

And then just like that, Bucky melts. Hard exterior fading into his usual languid self and digging into the cake with newly awakened vigour. Steve decides to let him have most of it. Bucky loves pumpkin. “I hope you’re happy,” he says around a mouthful. “I’m gonna gain a hundred pounds at this rate.”

Steve thinks he’d still want this man even if he gained a thousand pounds. Knows he would and lets himself ease and melt with him. Let’s himself smile around the lip of his cup.


 

It’s a slow day. The dreary weather and threatening grey clouds outside forcing people in rather than out which is why Steve doesn’t kick Sam out for staying at the bar counter for the past two hours for distracting him.

They don’t talk about that time where Sam made Steve spit take over a muffin he handed to a customer and almost died of horror.

Sam’s lazily planning the next homework group assignment and eating all of the mini white chocolate brownies when the email he’s been waiting for from Natasha finally comes in on his phone.

It’s not from Natasha.

jamesbarnes@gmail.com
To: Steve Rogers steveng.rogers@gmail.com
Mr. Rogers. The Buche de Noel for the Cardinal’s brisk can be picked up by Hogan at your earliest convenience that day.
B.

Steve is re-reading the email for the fifth time when Bucky walks in. Steve only notes his arrival by Sam’s voice, beckoning him over with a wave. “Hey man!”

Steve looks up and like clockwork, something in his chest jumps when he lays eyes on Bucky, whose hair is a little damp from the light drizzle outside and has some of it tucked behind his ear. He’s wearing a blazer over a tight white shirt that's sticking to his abs.

Bucky claps a hand on Sam shoulder as he slides into his usual seat once Sam moves his bag over onto the floor. “Hiya Steve.”

Steve sizes him up. “How many cups of coffee have you had already?”

Bucky lays a hand on his chest, mock admonished. “I can’t believe you’d think I’d go back to drinking swill when I have this place to give me ulcers on the regular.”

Sam laughs, eyes closed and Steve is torn between half thinking: don’t encourage him Sam and oh god, these two are forces that should have never collided.

“I think Steve was already on his way to get an ulcer,” Sam says, still smiling and nods to the phone still in Steve’s hand. “What’s the verdict?”

“What? Oh,” Steve says and looks back down at the email and can’t for the life of him see anything but a saccharine attempt to appear flexible. Especially when the order was originally signed off for four days before the third of the month after he had sent the tester and gotten a confirmation. He hadn’t even complained. Steve racks his brain if he might have said something offhandedly to Natasha but --

“What are we talking about?” Bucky asks, already breaking the lemon and cranberry cookie in half that Steve may or may not have made freshly earlier on in the morning and left them at arms-reach of where Bucky normally sits.

Steve squints at it again. “I don’t get it. Does he think all of a sudden I can't handle it? I already agreed to the original time. Hell, I could even have it a day earlier if I move some things around."

“Dude. Barnes again?” Sam says and then leans in conspiratorially into Bucky who is chewing around the dessert slowly and already piling four more onto his folded open napkin. “And by some things he means the blood donation he had scheduled tomorrow afternoon and movies with Peggy and about a dozen other things he has to do around this place.”

"Maybe he's just giving you some extra time for the sake of it," Bucky says after he’s gotten the first cookie down and Steve notes the extra time he puts into picking the next one. They’re all the same. When Steve laughs a little unkindly, Bucky frowns as he pulls his glass of milk close to his chest.

"What?"

"I really don't think him underestimating you is the problem man, I mean, remember that tres leches cake fiasco? I still have no clue how you pulled that one off." Sam whistles, and completely ignores the day old pretzels Steve left out especially for him, and goes for the oat fudge bars under the dessert pedestal, even though Steve told him to lay off like twice. "It was ugly pal," he continues, elbowing Bucky who is paused in dipping a cookie in his glass of milk. He's held it there too long. It's starting to disintegrate. "Steve almost brained himself from all the spilt milk. And they say don't cry."

"You what?" alert all of a sudden, Bucky sits up from where he had sunken in his seat. "Were you alright?"

"Ha ha." Steve says, eyeing Sam sternly and hoping he gets the clue to shut the hell up. "Sam here thinks he's a comedian."

"I damn well am."

"Steve."

"It was okay, I promise. Sam likes to exaggerate for dramatic effect." He smiles assuredly down at Bucky. "And if you must know, it came out just fine."

But Bucky is still looking at Steve like he’s an idiot for caring about how the cake came out rather than nearly cracking his skull in the process. He opens his mouth like he’s about to voice this but then snaps it shut and –

“Except for, you know, the falling down part." Sam mutters and takes another large bite of his brownie.

Steve sighs. "Sam, I told you --"

“—so are you goin’ to take it?” Bucky interrupts. His cookie is destroyed. Sunken down to the bottom of the glass like the stern of a long forgotten ship.

Steve hesitates before answering, because there it is again, and half thinks he’s going crazy because Sam is completely ignorant of the shift -- happily invested in his treats and getting back to his assignment. Or maybe this is the side effect of diving deep into the ocean that is Bucky. Twisting and unpredictable currents that keep pulling him in, in.

“I guess a few extra days won’t hurt,” Steve decides and smiles hopefully at Bucky. “How does a day trip sound? Next Tuesday?”

The smile Bucky gives Steve is one he’s never seen before. It’s small. Tight around the edges like he’s forcing every nerve and muscle in his face to make it and his body is failing miserably. Just as miserable as his eyes look and in the slight worry of his eyebrows.

Steve never wants to see that look again.

“Sure.”


 

Steve doesn’t hear from Bucky the days leading to Tuesday.

 


 

He doesn’t take it too seriously.

He has a menu to remodel with Peggy and Sharon and has to find time to schedule an interior designer to help with the shop because he’s got some ideas but wants to make clear that he wants to paint it himself. And even though his mother’s pie is left on the back-burner for now it doesn’t mean he gets to stop pumping out desserts on the regular.

He gets it. He does. He doesn’t wanna come off as overbearing. That’s what he tells himself every time he checks his phone and there’s Sam, Peggy, Natasha and Peggy again. But no Bucky.

He’s busy too. He’s sure Bucky would let him know if they needed to reschedule anyway.


 

Monday rolls along and Steve is humming “Fly Me to the Moon” as he pops the last of the chocolate truffles in the fridge for no other reason than he wants chocolate truffles and Sam is bringing Sharon home for a Netflix-a-thon.

After setting the timer Steve figures it’s about time to at least ask where they plan on going. He knows of an exhibit going on at the Smithsonian that sounded pretty cool.

Steve Rogers 8:13pm: Hey Buck. How does the Smithsonian sound? Promise not to sleep on me and maybe I’ll let you pick the next place.

Steve reads it over before letting it send and clears off the kitchen, pretending to not keep an ear out for the awaiting ping.

He gets it. But it comes nearly fifteen minutes later.

Bucky 8:25pm: Ok.

Steve’s blood runs cold.

Steve remembers one winter in Brooklyn being shoved into a fort of snow by a group of laughing kids while waiting for his mom to pick him up after school. Sarah Rogers had brought him a thermos filled with scalding hot water to keep his fingers from getting frostbite. The broken down car had an even more broken down heater. Steve remembers sitting in the passengers’ seat, bundled in every winter gear imaginable. Steve remembers being ten and thinking he had never been so cold in his entire life.

This is worse.

Bucky is a bouncy ball. He’s quick and sarcastic and knows how to keep Steve on his toes. Bucky goes on tangents about everything and nothing at all and has conversations that Steve listens to more than partakes in because he’s just that – a talker. A smooth one. And loves to push and tease at Steve’s buttons until he gets that dry response Steve knows he wants to hear until he laughs with it. And while Steve doesn’t always know what to expect from Bucky, he knows to expect something to come back. An inappropriate joke or a wink or a smile he thinks Steve can’t see from the corner of his eye. Bucky always comes back.

It takes five minutes for Steve to make up his mind and collect all of his left over courage to press call because if this is it, whatever this is (or was—he corrects himself) he’ll be damned if it’s over a text.

Bucky answers after the third ring. “Hey.” There’s nothing going on in the background. He doesn’t sound busy. He doesn’t really sound like anything.

Again, desperately and fruitlessly Steve begs his heart to stop racing. “Bucky? Is everything okay?”

“Yeah Stevie, everything’s fine.” And it’s so obvious that everything’s not. The timer goes off on deaf ears.

“Buck – you can talk to me, remember? Did I – “ Steve swallows and it hurts. He doesn’t understand why it hurts to swallow. “Did I do something?”

Because I’ll fix it. I’ll fix whatever I did that hurt you or upset you and never do it again. I’ll do that stupid pinky promise you always make me do if it’ll make you happy and make things right. I can’t stand hearing you like this. I don’t even know what you mean to me but I don’t wanna lose that Buck.

He wants to say it. But –

“This isn’t a great time Steve, I’m sorry.” He sounds pained.

Before making the call, Steve had expected to hear Bucky sound distant and cold and maybe even angry.

This is making his head spin.

Because Bucky sounds almost as miserable as Steve does. Maybe even worse. Like he’s watching a ship carrying someone he loves sail away and knows it’s a one-way and he’s waving good bye. Trying and failing to sound strong.

“When will it be?” Steve asks. He’s digging now. For scraps or whatever Bucky will give him and throwing his shame and ego to the wind.

“I don’t know. I gotta go Steve. I’m sorry.” And he’s gone.


 

Steve feels like his chest has been kicked in.

He’s had it happen before. He knows the feeling.


 

Bucky doesn’t come into the store and he doesn’t answer any of Steve’s texts and after the second try goes to direct voice-mail, Steve stops calling. And the thing is, it doesn’t even make sense.

Because Steve has known Bucky for all of two and a half months and it shouldn’t feel this way. Logically, Steve shouldn’t be finding it harder every day to get up and get into the shower and forget to get out, all pruney and cold because he can’t stop running every conversation over and over in his head to figure out what went wrong.

Steve shouldn’t be forgetting how to make a basic lava cake without it falling every time he gets it out of the oven.

Steve shouldn’t be cancelling on Peggy and Sharon when they invite him out after work because he doesn’t want their pity. Even though he knows that’s not what it is but it’s what he needs to keep telling himself because he doesn’t get it.

How someone could slip so casually into his life like they were meant for it and there was a space always just there, waiting for them. Only to get up and walk out. It shouldn’t be so damn easy, Steve tells himself.

And it’s true because it’s not easy.

Sam had been trying to get Steve to date someone for years and it’s not as though Steve hadn’t tried. He had. And he knew why all his past attempts never worked out. Steve had never been that great in opening up to people. And try as he may, it wasn't exactly easy to find someone with shared life experience. Someone to connect with.  

And then Bucky, god, Bucky, Steve thinks and his whole body sinks and his chest hurts. Bucky had to sweep in and change everything. Had to look at Steve like he was staring at the sun and the sun was specifically choosing his eyes to gaze back into. Had to smile and crinkle his eyes whenever he found whatever Steve said particularly funny and become someone to Steve. Something he could keep and learn the edges of and he did, god, did Bucky give him the very real chance for it all.

They hadn’t even kissed yet.

And even in the short time they had together. Dating. Dating, he has to remind himself, Bucky had wormed himself in like he always belonged there to begin with and they were always just waiting to find the other. Steve doesn’t understand how he let that happen. How he let this happen to him.

He doesn’t know where it came from. He doesn’t know how it went wrong. He doesn’t know.

He doesn’t know why it hurts so much.


 

“Okay Steve, this has got to stop.”

Steve looks up from where he is wrapped in a blue blanket and watching Property Brothers. He didn’t even hear Sam come in.

“Hi?” Steve tries.

“I told myself if I came home and you were doing something real, like actual productive things than I wouldn’t have to do this but you’ve forced my hand Steve.” Sam says and drops his keys on the counter loudly and puts his hands on his hips. He’s not taking off his coat.

“Um.”

“Steve. You’re sulking.”

And on pure defensive reflex – “No I’m not.”

“You are watching the W Network and I bet if I come closer there will be a box of Krispy Crème next to you.”

“What’s wrong with the W Network?” Steve sidesteps and uses the back of his heel to push back the empty box under the couch.

“You make doughnuts better than any doughnut manufacturer in the state and everyone knows it. Which leads to the bigger issue. Your baking? Slippery slope pal.”

“Hey –“

Sam waves him off and takes out his phone, and presses in a text quick to the chirp he got a second ago.

Steve sits up, but won’t remove himself from his blanket fort. “Look, I’m not sulking. I’m not,” he insists at Sam’s look. “I just. Okay. I am. Whatever. I need time to figure this out.” Because I swear to God Sam it’s driving me insane.

“Yeah. Not gonna happen. I’ve seen you trying to do this on your own for the past two weeks and that was me giving you time to get a grip and tell me what even happened. That time has expired.”

“Sam you’re making this sound really dramatic – “

“Hey, anything that hurts my best friend should be taken – “

“And thanks for the concern but –“

“You’re gonna take a shower and meet me in the garage in fifteen and then we’re gonna meet Peggy for drinks because there is no way we’re gonna do this sober. Don’t pretend that I haven’t noticed you stare at your phone like a lovesick puppy or how many times you deflate when it’s not him ringing you. Because honestly dude, and I say this because you’re my best friend and I care about you,” Sam has made his way to the couch throughout his speech and gently pulls the covers from Steve’s body. Steve lets him. “Either you forget about this guy, which I don’t think is an option for you because you’re stubborn like that. Or you get him back.”

Trust Sam to be the captain of tough love, but it's how he's learnt to handle Steve sans-kid gloves. Especially since it's the way Steve had been handled for the majority of his life and hated every moment of it. And because Sam can’t maintain a serious moment for more than five minutes, he slaps a hand hard on Steve’s back and grins. Steve tries his best to recreate it. “Rise and shine kiddo. Beers on me.” And scoops up his keys from the table on his way out.


 

“Now before you ask, Sharon is at the shop finishing an order for tomorrow.” Peggy says, nursing a beer the moment Steve settles in across from her.

“Wait, what?” He panics, about to shrug his leather jacket back on because what the hell –

“Relax Steve. It was an order for a senator’s anniversary – “ Steve thinks he might have a sudden panic attack “and Sharon is perfectly qualified and has got it handled.” The unlike you goes without saying.

“I didn’t know we had an order.” Is what he says instead, his heart rate slowing down and removes his jacket.

“Well duh, we made sure you wouldn’t know about it.” Sam chimes in as he studies the drink menu.

“Natasha was very understanding.” Peggy adds.

Steve doesn’t understand why Natasha would agree to not contacting Steve directly and listening to Peggy and Sharon and Sam over the owner of the company that he owns. But he figures he doesn’t understand much these days.

“Oh here we go,” Sam says, indicating to Steve’s face.

“Damn. You’ve really got it bad don’t you Steve?” and it’s the soft and sad way that Peggy says it that doesn’t put Steve on the defensive road of denial and instead, makes him sink into all the feelings he’s been putting at bay.

“It sucks.” He admits. “This really fucking sucks.” And he tells them.

“Man, that’s complex,” Sam says when he’s done and there’s a table full of empty and half empty pints of beer. “What’re you going to do?”

Steve shrugs helplessly and watches as the bubbles float to the top and dissipate into the foam. Rise bubble pop. Repeat.

“Well if this were any other situation, I’d tell you good riddance.” Peggy says honestly and Steve flinches at that and looks up. Her hair is straightened, a rare sight and her lips aren’t painted a shade of anything. “But Steve, I say this honestly, I haven’t seen you that carefree and happy in so long I can’t even begin to remember. An experience like that deserves to be ended understood. If it has to end that is.”

“She’s got a point man,” Sam says solemnly and Steve knows. It’s probably why he hasn’t reached out since it all happened. Because maybe Bucky will pick up and lay it all out for him. That it wasn’t ever a long term deal. That Steve was into him more than he was and it was time they found other people. And Steve can’t bear to hear it.

“I don’t get how I could feel like this over a guy I barely know.” Steve releases and trails a lone finger down the side of his glass. Even the words sound false coming out of his mouth. He knows Bucky. Knows that if anything deep in his bones.

“That’s the thing about emotions Steve,” Peggy says softly and urges him with a smile. “They’re not meant to be understood or judged. Just acknowledged.”


 

Steve means to call Bucky. Really.

But when he gets home, his stomach is full with beer and even though he’s pretty drunk, he knows it’s a bad idea.


 

“I’m coming, I’m coming, Christ.” Steve mumbles, rubbing at his eyes and making his way to the door. He checks the time on his watch before opening the door – 12:54am – and hopes whoever it is that it better be good.

He opens the door.

“Hi,” Bucky says. “I uh, couldn’t sleep.”

Steve wonders vaguely if he’s dreaming. He blinks. Once. Twice.

Bucky is standing at his door dressed in light blue pyjama pants and a grey sleep shirt that looks soft and worn under a heavy leather jacket and Steve hasn’t seen Bucky or heard his voice in two weeks and he’s here.

And then it all comes rushing back to him like a bucket of ice water and all the confusion and hurt rushes out of him with it and he’s left with just the –

“Are you kidding me? That’s all you have to say?” Steve says, suddenly all awake and fuming.

Bucky flinches inwardly and then recovers. “I deserve that. I deserve a lot worse too. But it’s true Steve. I can’t sleep.”

“And you decide to break all the rules of ignoring that I exist to come here and tell me that? Thanks. Good to know.” This is going completely left of how Steve planned this all in his head but far be it that he listen to that nagging voice at the back of his head that begs to keep him here and close. To listen to him. Which, well, wasn’t that what he always wanted?

Bucky looks at Steve. “I haven’t been sleeping because of you.” He says and Steve can see it now in the dim light of his apartment. Bucky looks like shit.

“And this is my fault?” Steve snaps and his hand flexes on the door knob echoing the struggle to slam it or let him in.

“Fuck, no – Steve – “ Bucky takes a moment, clearly angry at himself and runs a hand through his hair once, twice, before rubbing it down his face hard where he has begun to grow scruff. “Okay. I fucked up. I know I did. I hurt you and was a fucking child because – “ Steve perks but Bucky stops, face scrunched up and really, all Steve wants to do is peer into the enigmatic inner workings of Bucky and fix him.

Bucky lets out a breath and meets Steve’s eyes. Blue on blue. “I couldn’t get a handle on what was beginning to happen in my life and I couldn’t keep looking at you and keep lying to you about how my day was or how I was feeling because you – “ Bucky breaks off on a laugh and shakes his head, “you matter too much Stevie.” He shrugs and spreads his arms wide. “It’s the truth. And I don’t know if you even wanna hear that or if you believe it but it’s true.”

Steve feels as though he’s been hit over the head, his hand slipping off the doorknob. Slack. “And so you ran away.”

“I ran away.” Bucky echoes. “And I went through all your messages and I was so fucking miserable. Still am. Still will be after this, most likely.” He scratches his head and rests a hand on the door frame, leaning and staring at Steve and smiling something heartbreaking and hopeful.

“But I’m sorry Steve. I got a lot of sense knocked into me and passing someone like you up because of all my stupid?” He tries again at a smile, a joke, and Steve feels his body pound back into life, the cold and ice in his veins thawing softly. Slowly.

It shouldn’t be this easy.

But –

“I think we’ve got something good here. Wanna give it a go? For real this time?” Bucky finally asks, laying everything on the line, open and raw. “It’s your call. You want me gone, I’ll do it. It’ll kill me, but whatever you want Steve. Whatever you want. I’m all yours.”

And just the thought of losing Bucky all over again, to watch him turn his back and disappear for the second time is enough to shift the balance and make up his mind.

He takes too long, because Bucky’s face falls – crumples – and he begins to nod and step away and no, no, no

“Buck, wait.”

Steve’s got a grip on Bucky’s jacket mid-turn and turns him around just as softly. Bucky’s not looking at him and so Steve straightens and gathers enough strength for the both of them.

Says, “I missed you too.”

Bucky’s eyes flit up at that. “Yeah?”

Steve nods. “Yeah.”

Bucky studies him, searching for a tell and of course he would know it if he saw it. He knows Steve, as absurd as it is true. Knows him like they’ve spent a lifetime together in another existence. He smiles and it’s the one Steve likes the best. The honest, wide, toothy smile that curls at the edges. His lips are so red.

“Can I?” And Steve doesn’t even know what he’s asking for before he nods and takes a step. Bucky has him in his arms. He’s kind of cold and Steve’s not wearing a shirt but he hugs him back just as tightly and shuts his eyes. Thinks, god, I might have serious feelings for you and then covets it and shoves it down as Bucky holds him tighter like he might run if he hugs any looser.

“I’m such an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot Buck,” Steve says but it comes off muffled against the shoulder of his jacket.

Bucky pulls back a little until they're face to face, only an inch shorter to make any difference. “Steve.” He says, searching Steve’s eyes up close. It’s overwhelming up close. Steve’s heart can barely handle it from across a room and he swears Bucky can hear it because the sound of his rushing blood is crashing in his ears.

When their lips meet Steve can’t pinpoint a better moment in time for this to finally happen than now.

Bucky kisses like he does everything. It’s deep and consuming and curious, learning the curves of Steve’s mouth and cataloguing everything he can learn from it with his own. His large hands cradling Steve’s jaw.

“Okay – “ another kiss, “okay,” Steve says, laughing and Bucky laughs too just as he closes in for another obscene kiss between Steve’s eyebrows. “Okay, you’re an idiot. Such an idiot –


 

Bucky stays for a quick breakfast the next morning, even though technically he really shouldn’t if the consistent phone buzzing at the table has anything to say about it. Steve opts for cereal but makes Bucky a stack of French toast with strawberries and scrambles some eggs to save in the oven for Sam when he gets home.

“Stevie, you can’t just make me these things and expect me to go,” Bucky whines, on his last piece and the calling has moved onto honking from outside the apartment. Steve winces. He really doesn’t wanna have to face Mrs. Fuentes.

“I’m gonna be late too you dimwit, get a move on,” Steve says and tries not to laugh when Bucky does that dumb nuzzling thing under his jaw that is on the borderline of ticklish and something else.

“Okay, okay, I’m gone.” And he leaves with a dorky salute.


 

He forgot his leather jacket, sprawled across the back of a chair and well, Steve can’t be blamed for putting it on.

 


 

“So you’re back together?” Sharon concludes and Steve bites back the automatic response that is “technically we weren’t officially together in the first place” but nods anyway. It’s the third time he’s had to recite this story and it’s only been two days since Bucky made his way to Steve’s door.

Sam handled it fine. Had eaten his eggs and made Steve promise that they didn’t do anything funny on the couch. Peggy had smiled on their walk to work, with an indulgent “men.”

Sharon though, is a little hard to read. Steve turns to look at her. The store is closed for the rest of the evening and Sharon had agreed to stay behind to help pick out an accent colour for the renovation starting in a month. They’ve been staring at the four copies of swatches nailed to the wall of the bakery.

“My dad’s an ex-cop. I know how to use a gun.” Sharon says calmly and then smiles at Steve’s blink of horror. “Hand me that paintbrush? And is Caribbean Mist supposed to look any different that Rain Water or is this some art school thing --”

“Hey,” sings a voice from behind. Natasha, poised as usual waves with a set of keys that jingle in her hand, boot heels clicking as she approaches them. Steve already regrets giving her that key. Sharon waves back. “Whose dad was an ex-cop?” Natasha asks and raises a perfect eyebrow coming to rest. Steve wonders how much she heard.

“That would be me,” Sharon says. “DCPD for twenty five years.”

Natasha nods, seemingly impressed. Steve though looks between them a little helplessly. “That’s quite the position. I used to be a part of a force too back home – “ Steve definitely doesn’t miss the ominous ‘a force’ in that sentence and is sure Sharon didn’t either – “not quite as long but you know,” she shrugs but there’s something defensive in her eyes as she says, “people don’t forget.”

And yeah, okay –

“What can I get you Nat? I didn’t know there was anything scheduled for today,” Steve interjects before sparks fly, literally.

Natasha smiles and tilts her head. “There isn’t. That’s why I’m here. The company won’t be having any events for the next two weeks precisely. Turns out Barton made sure to clear the clientele before the big wedding coming up in August. Croquembouche tower cake, eight pm reception.” Steve nods, he remembers. “So until then you have some valuable time off.”

“Oh,” Steve says faintly.

Natasha waves it off. “Please, by all means. Take the time. I’m sure there are much more important things you guys have to focus on than little old us.”

And why does Steve feel like she’s talking about two different things at once? It wouldn’t be the first time.

“Yeah,” Steve says and can barely hide the smile beginning to grow. Natasha’s face splits into a grin too, although it’s still a lot smaller. “You’re right.”


 

“Man, this is way better than the theatres,” says Bucky, plopping his head on Steve’s lap across the couch like there’s no other logical place he could put it. “But I’m starving.”

Steve shakes his head and flicks through Sam’s Netflix. He has the better movies. Steve’s is chalk full of documentaries and cartoons. His fingers find themselves in Bucky’s hair, soft to the touch. “We just had hot dogs.”

“But that was two hours ago,” Bucky complains and rolls onto his back so he’s staring up at Steve with that ridiculous pout. Steve is well trained in that look. He doesn’t make eye-contact.

“Not gonna work.”

“Oh come on Stevie.”

“Nice try.”

“Just the ones with the powdered sugar. I’ll even help this time! Honest!”

“And by helping you mean?”

“I mean not talkin’ your ear off and eating most of the –“

“Most?” He can't help it, and bends to kiss those pouting lips.

“—chocolate chips.”

“I dunno Buck, seems like quite the task for you. Don’t know if you’re up for it.”

Bucky laughs, and Steve will never prevent himself from getting a good look at him when he’s laughing.

 


 

Knowing that Bucky lives in the better part of town and seeing it are two completely different things.

It’s definitely New York inspired Steve thinks while walking up the steps to the brownstone apartment. It’s stupid really, the nervousness that creeps into him after he rings the doorbell twice and tries to hastily fix his hair.

When the door opens, Steve is met with a slicked haired Bucky obviously freshly out of the shower, his shirt clinging damply to his chest and towel wrapped around his waist.

“I’m late, I know, I know, sorry, come in,” he says and is already retreading back into his home, and the fact that Bucky isn’t even ready yet is so far back and forgotten in the back of Steve’s mind that he can’t find any care in the world to be annoyed by it. And really, tardiness sort of comes with the package of dating Bucky.

(Dating. Dating. Dating. )

The interior of Bucky’s apartment is just as shocking as the outside because, well --

The walls are painted a light blue with brown accents and adorned with pieces of art: some of them familiar shots of iconic sights, restaurants and parks in New York. A snapshot of the Brooklyn Bridge hangs next to a mirror that is set above a coffee table next to the coat rack. Bucky’s bustling about upstairs so Steve lets himself further inside. To the right, the floor expands to a spacious living room with different coloured furniture. A dark blue plaid four cushioned sofa couch and a chocolate brown camelback sofa with a large round coffee table littered with empty cups, a nearly finished bag of Doritos, comic books and Bucky’s messenger bag. There are more photos that continue the home away from home theme, only now the portraits are personal.

Two frames sit above the fireplace that looks like it’s more there for design than for actual use. It takes a moment for Steve to realize he’s staring at Bucky’s family: the man and woman holding up large plates of pasta and smiling with laugh lines around their mouths – his parents, Steve thinks, next to a photo of a young girl spreading a dark haired boys cheeks into a smile. She’s grinning with a missing tooth and the boy looks less than impressed. It’s so obviously Bucky that Steve can’t help but grin.

Something crashes and Bucky curses loudly from upstairs.

He turns to the grandiose piano sitting adjacent. And not one of the kinds one could pick up anywhere, but the real deal, large and encompassing. The brown wood gleaming in the light the curtains let bypass. A guitar leans against it, old.

The more Steve explores down, the more it expands and the more it reveals. There are trinkets that look like they’ve been collected from around the world and a towering bookshelf is positioned against the wall in the hallway. More pieces of art – expressionism – that Steve wants to geek out more on but he moves forward and it’s all so…normal.

The kitchen separates the living room from the second one that ends the first floor. It doesn’t look like it’s been used or maybe Bucky cleaned up before he got here. It’s double the size of Steve’s own kitchen, which isn't small by any means. Kitchen size the number one factor for when he chose the apartment in the first place, but he still finds the irony that the one person who probably can’t boil water and toast bread without having to call the fire department has the kitchen out of any chefs' dreams.

Steve plops down in the second living room that is painted a muted red and immediately, it becomes clear this is the room Bucky spends most of his time in.

It’s an organized mess, a sofa bed propped against a wall with an unmade duvet half on the ground, slept in. There’s a liquor cabinet and fully stocked mini bar in a corner. Movie DVDS lay across one of the desks across from the television: V for Vendetta, Shawshank Redemption, Rio, The Mask and The Shining. The radio is playing light jazz. It’s so perfectly Bucky: all scattered and unpredictable, but classic and calming. It feels like slipping into a well-worn jacket.

Steve looks up at the high definition television propped on the wall. It’s on but muted. It’s playing “Whose Wedding is it Anyway?”

“Steve?” Bucky’s voice calls and he enters the room, still towelling his hair on its way to dry. He’s ready and dressed in black jeans and a soft blue flannel buttoned over a white crew neck. His eyes flicker to where Steve is watching the television and –

“Should I ask?” Steve teases lightly and gets to his feet. Bucky laughs, a little oddly and swats Steve with the towel.


 

“Buck – no,” Steve starts but laughing while saying it probably doesn’t voice how serious he is. Kind of.

“No, you said you want it, so I’m gonna get it,” Buck calls out over his shoulder as he marches through the crowd towards the shooting game at the carnival, dragging Steve by the wrist behind him. Steve navigates expertly through the throng of people Bucky pulls him through with corn dog in hand just in time to see Bucky slap down five dollars on the counter and pick up the sniper gun.

The object in question is a large plush of Dumbo. Steve is already second guessing his entire life.

Steve’s just about to tell him to forget it when Bucky gets into position and Steve’s seen enough world war two documentaries to recognize the professionalism in the stance Bucky takes, the stillness. In five clear shots, Bucky takes down each of the moving targets, bulls-eyeing all of them with horrifying precision. The little crowd that gathered to watch clap and whoop. Bucky lowers the gun and points to the toy before handing the massive thing over to Steve. Grinning like a proud child and not like he just demonstrated frighteningly accurate sniper shots like a professional.

“See. Just like in the movies,” Bucky says, sunglasses on when they make their way down the strip and nudges Steve who is carrying the Dumbo on his shoulders. Steve side-eyes him.

“Where did you learn to shoot like that?”

“Military kid.” Bucky shrugs, he pats down his jacket pockets and retrieves a pack of cigarettes.

“I thought your parents were academics.”

“Can’t they be both?”

“Oh God you’re a spy.” He’s half-joking.

Bucky rolls his eyes. “This isn’t Mr. and Mrs. Smith pal.”

“Well I dunno, you did just say ‘just like the movies.’” Steve knows it’s coming but lets Bucky shove him to the side anyway.

“Shut up and eat your corn dog.”


 

The photo booth photos are ridiculous and make Steve feel silly for how often he looks at them.

Four square photos in colour with Dumbo’s head creeping in all of them because they couldn't quit arguing to agree on leaving it outside or bringing it in even though it took up most of the space.

They’re not ready in the first one, Bucky’s face a blur and eyes hidden by the Ray Bans and a thick strand of hair in the way as he tries to shove Dumbo’s head down and Steve’s mouth is open, mid-sentence.

The second one is better. Bucky’s got his glasses pushed back this time, hair tucked behind his ears and arm thrown around Steve’s shoulders. Both smiling.

Bucky’s face is pulled into an over exaggerated frown in the third one, face closer to the lens with his nose scrunched up and Steve’s eyes are closed tight. Laughing.

The last one is probably Steve’s favourite, a shot of both their profiles right before Bucky went in for a kiss, so they’re just looking at each other. It’s private and it’s the one Steve keeps hidden in the sleeve of his wallet. The third one is on the fridge. It never stops making him laugh.


 

“Are you nervous?”

“I’m not nervous.”

“There’s nothing to be nervous about,” which Steve thinks after, is very much a lie. Bucky must smell it on him as they walk towards the table in the crowded bar.

“I’m not fucking nervous, jesus Steve. I think that’s them over there,” he says and nods towards the table Steve knows is the one they’ve crowned as their own.

Sharon, Peggy and Sam are already there, they’ve pulled up an extra chair and there’s a platter of potato skins waiting for them. Sharon breaks mid conversation with her sister to wave them over.

It’s a little redundant to go over introductions but Bucky shakes their hands anyway before sitting between Steve and Peggy.

“So this is the famous Madison,” Bucky says, getting a good look around. It’s not very large, easily booked, and has an Irish pub feel that clashes a bit with the top 40 playlist that gets way too loud on weekends. “Is it true Steve threw up in the women’s bathroom here?” and really, Steve shouldn’t even be surprised that those are the first words to come out of Bucky’s mouth. Sam barks out a laugh and Peggy smiles around a bite of food.

Sharon smiles wickedly between them both. “You say that like that was the only time.”

Bucky’s eyes light up like a Christmas tree.

Steve steals the menu from Bucky who barely notices. “Lay it on me folks.” He says. Steve needs a beer. Or ten.


 

Bucky’s text four days later says that he’ll be over in twenty minutes and Steve looks around from the bakery kitchen. He still has one last cheesecake to finish and set in the fridge before he can close for the day. Sighing and guilty because they’re going to miss the poetry slam most likely, he shoots a text of apology and says he can make it home in forty at best.

Bucky 6:32pm: We can just catch the midnight one don’t sweat it. Should I meet you at the shop?

Steve Rogers 6:32pm: Sam should be home. He’ll let you in and I’ll be there as soon as I can.

Bucky 6:34pm: Cool. I’d like a lemon bar please and thanks! :o)

Steve Rogers 6:35pm: Shocker.


 

Steve packs four.

 


 

By the time Steve gets home and opens the door with doggy bag in tow, he’s welcome to the sounds of pure unadulterated laughter from Sam and Bucky.

Both seated at the kitchen table and wheezing. There’s a bottle of wine nearly finished and only one glass and Sam’s leaning back in his chair, holding his stomach while Bucky has his head in his hands, laughter barely muffled.

Just. What.

“Oh hey man,” Sam says, grin wide enough to take over his face.

Bucky looks up, eyes red and he wipes a tear. His face is blotchy and Steve is so, so confused –

“Steve, oh Stevie,” he chokes, “you did what in 09’?”


 

They find themselves tangled together in Steve’s bed a week later, lazy and cozy. Too caught up in each other; their shared warmth and feel of their bodies, to get out of bed. Bucky’s naked chest is a touch hairy in the middle and Steve now knows the tattoo joke was only half a joke, a large red star on the top of Bucky’s left shoulder that trails black spider web patterns towards his heart.

It’s Steve’s day off. Bucky yawns into the pillow, lying on his stomach with the covers kicked to the end of the bed.

“Steve.”

“Mm?”

“Stevie.”

“Whatever you’re thinking, no.” Steve groans as he rolls over to face Bucky who places his cold feet on Steve’s shins because he’s a dick. Steve squirms away only to have Bucky hook his ankle into the crook of his knee and reel him in.

“Sometimes I think you only want me for my food,” Steve says, smiling through it and Bucky shifts, peeling his face from the pillow and climbs onto his elbows and wraps his long fingers around the nape of Steve's neck softly. He shakes his head and leans in for a firm chaste kiss -- an answer. Steve’s not on his feet, but if he was, he would feel his knees buckle.

“Let’s order in?” He whispers after. Steve’s stomach grumbles in response to greasy food he doesn’t have to make.

“Yeah, yeah okay Buck.” And leans in for a kiss of his own, opens Bucky’s mouth this time and steals a taste of him. Bucky makes a soft sound and pulls away after a moment. And because he’s the biggest drama queen that Steve has ever met, flops on his back and starfishes.

“I can’t fool around on an empty stomach,” he moans like it’s a moral travesty. Steve shoves him off playfully and reaches for his phone.

“Siam House?”

“Do you even gotta ask?”


 

“You don’t gotta make anything Steve,” Bucky yawns, padding into the kitchen in only his boxer briefs and pulling on his Smith’s t-shirt that was tossed aside hours ago. Steve turns on the oven to preheat and gets a good look of Bucky sitting on his kitchen landing, cheek resting on his palm and thinks that maybe one day he’d like to draw him. Encapsulate and memorialize him in time forever through the lines of charcoal and pencil.

“I know, but what’s dinner without dessert.” Steve says instead and takes out the basic ingredients. Flour, butter, baking powder and then turns to Bucky who is just staring at Steve with that look again.

“Don’t get spoiled, you get one request here so make it count,” jokes Steve if only to level out that look of pure tenderness and something else Steve is afraid to examine lest he ends up wrong. A bunch of feelings locked in a box labelled ‘Bucky’ that he tries not to open.

Bucky pretends to think. “Apple pie? Keepin’ it old school.”

Steve feels like the world has been shifted two centimetres to the left and he stares at the contents of his fridge for far too long, the bounty of apples in the bottom drawer like a constant reminder. He had completely forgotten about them. About the recreation. He forgot

“Or, whatever you want.” Bucky says quickly, reading the new rigidity of Steve’s back facing him.

Steve takes a breath and shakes his head. It wouldn’t hurt. It’s not like the pie comes out bad, but it’s not what – and Bucky wouldn’t know –

“No, apple pie sounds great actually,” Steve reassures him, gathering the granny smiths from their place in the fridge and places them on the board. He meets Bucky with a pressed grin and Bucky doesn’t look entirely convinced, but seems to play along.

“You want a hand?” he asks.

“I think I learned my lesson from asking you to help me bake the last time,” Steve teases and pulls out his knife.


 

By the time they’ve finished their meal, (Bucky reminding Steve every other minute not to over eat because "that pie smells fucking amazing Stevie"), the pie is out and cooling from out the oven.

Steve is dreading to cut into it, plates ready and it’s a stark contrast to Bucky who is fully awake, bouncing on his heels beside Steve as he cuts into the crust that crunches nicely. He had been trying to sneak a taste the entire time Steve was making the filling.

Bucky cuts a piece with the edge of his fork and takes a big bite. “Oh fuck me,” Bucky sighs and cuts off a bigger slice. “Steve, I know you don’t need to hear it, but you’ve got a gift. Tastes just like home.”

Steve blushes because how can he not with the combination of Bucky moaning ‘fuck me’, even though they'd just finished doing exactly that, and then complimenting him with so much pure honesty. Steve goes for his own slice tentatively and holds a bated breath bringing the fork to his lips and –

He’s seven.

He’s seven years old and it’s raining outside and Sarah Rogers barely has to coax Steve to help her make apple pie because his toys have lost all appeal and there’s no one outside who knows Steve or would want to play with him if they did. There aren’t any words in the English language to explain what it is, but it is. It’s his mother.

Steve’s heart is throwing itself against his chest and his chest is already too tight with emotion to handle it. Bucky is in his own world, already carving himself another slice and raving on about it and that’s when all the discarded, scattered and hidden pieces finally, finally come together like a forgotten puzzle. What was missing every single time he tried to bake this pie and failed.

Love. A feeling Steve had been missing ever since his mother passed and struggled to retrieve for the years that came after ward. It was lost to him, entirely foreign and had become a sad and distant mirage that existed for other people. Sitting at the edge of the world and Steve couldn’t find the value in travelling to the ends of the earth to obtain it because he thought he already had it. Thought the store was enough.

Until Bucky. Bucky, who had just given Steve back his mother all in one flourish and doesn’t even know it.

He’s not stupid. It had been itching at the back of Steve’s mind for weeks now, maybe even months if he wants to study it further, but there’s absolutely no denying it now. I love him. God, I love him.

“- now. Stevie? Steve? Is there something on my face?” Bucky’s voice comes back and drifts Steve home into the present. He’s still chewing, holding his plate and waves his fork in front of Steve’s face.

Steve blinks, realizing he had been staring at Bucky for who knows how long. “No,” he answers softly, smiling and allowing the fresh warmth spread throughout every pore and muscle of his body. He’s in it for the long-haul now.

Bucky grins back. “What’re you lookin’ at?”

“You,” Steve says and reels Bucky in, chasing the taste of apples and family and love, so much love, in his mouth and hopes Bucky gets it. “Just you,’ against his lips.

Bucky pulls back, laughing and licks his lips and is staring at Steve like that again. Like he’s a marvel that demands global awe. “Woah, I didn’t know apples were aphrodisiacs.” And lets Steve press him into the kitchen table and kiss him again, again.


 

It’s beautiful. It’s the best month of his life and there’s Bucky everywhere in his apartment.

On the couch where they sprawl across each other to watch movies until they end up making out like teenagers, because Bucky knows how to flirt with his entire body even when he pretends he’s doing no such thing and nights like those never end up any different. Steve never wants them to.

In the bathroom that has a spare toothbrush whenever Bucky’s too tired to make it home. To the extra pillow that Steve only takes out when Bucky stays over because he can’t bear to sleep with it when he’s not on the other side.

Scattered across the sheets of Steve's bed where Steve watches the rise and fall of Bucky's tattoo with every hitch of breath as he rides him, panting and gasping Steve's name with every joined thrust.

He’s in every crevice of the kitchen, lounging on the stool next to the island and the addition of cappuccino ice cream in the freezer that no one touches because it's Bucky's.

The miraculous thing though is that the apple pie is made daily these days and it’s not a fluke. Steve adds it to the menu to Peggy and Sharon’s delight and praise and each time it comes out just the way he remembers it from his childhood and Steve finds himself going to bed happy, grinning into his pillow with every dumb phone call that he gets before bed or last minute date when their schedules align perfectly.

It’s a dream. It can’t be real.


 

“I’m getting a little tired of making these croquembouches,” Steve says to Peggy after ending a call from Natasha that she won’t be available for the in person delivery but reminds him to call Happy twenty minutes before the cake is complete so he can pick it up. Peggy’s shift is over and she shrugs on her trench coat.

”Think of it this way, you’ve made them so often you can get them done in time to see your boyfriend,” she counters and rely on Peggy Carter to always find tact in everything she encounters.

Steve flips the sign closed, walking her to the door. “Nah, Buck has work late tonight.”

Peggy presses a quick kiss to Steve’s cheek and he unlocks the door to let her out. “Cheer up. Call me later?”

Steve nods and locks the door behind her. Gets to work.


 

The twelve layered tower is a masterpiece. The dark rich chocolate dipped round pastries have solidified and compliment the strawberries that fill in the spaces between each choux pastry ball.

Steve checks his watch, the wedding reception is still a little under an hour ahead but it seems almost sacrilegious to let the wedding cake sit and wait until it’s time to call Happy.

Steve slides open his phone and leafs through his older messages with Natasha and finds the address for the wedding ceremony. It’s roughly about a fifteen minute drive if traffic is in his good graces and well, Steve thinks suddenly in a good mood, maybe he’ll give Happy the day off this afternoon and drop the cake off himself for once.

 


 

To say Steve’s blue pick-up truck stands out would be an understatement. A few groups of people are making their way into the hall dressed in suits and dresses and there’s a valet line up for chrissake. Steve briefly considers just u-turning out of there once he looks down at his attire, chinos and a long sleeved shirt rolled up to the elbows but turns off the engine and hoists the cake out with him, wrapped and covered.

The security guard at the door gives him a funny look, sizing him up and looks between the towering French cake and back to Steve. “Name?”

“Um. Rogers. Steven. I’m the caterer?” Steve says and shifts the cake for better support. Tries not to look suspicious under the guys scrutiny. It’s not like he’s lying. And who is this wedding for anyway? The fucking president?

“Yeah pal, you’re not on the list but,” the man shrugs a little, “I’ve seen enough of your fufu cakes coming in and outta these events to know it when I see it. Make it quick.”

Excuse me?! Steve is suddenly tempted to clock – he squints – Logan – in the jaw but doubts getting thrown out of the wedding his buyer paid him to cater for would sound good on his resume. Steve steels himself and bites out a ‘thanks’ before moving past him into the reception. Ass.

It must still be early because despite how packed its beginning to get people are still flooding in, bustling in excitement and happiness and joining other attendees who sip on drinks handed out by the waiting staff. The hall is decadent and beautifully lain: firefly string lights looping across pristine white droops of fabric and a hanging chandelier set in the middle. Steve feels a little clunky, manoeuvring around the crowds of people who point at the veiled cake he carries with smiling faces and Steve tries very hard not to focus too hard on the level of attention he’s getting. At least it’s warm. He barely has a moment to breathe after setting the cake down before people approach him introducing themselves, shaking his hand and complimenting his work.

“I’ll add you to the list, thank you,” Steve says to the last person requesting his services sometime in the future and lets out a rush of breath the moment they wander off. He really needs to find someone to sign off on it so he can leave before the reception starts –

“You lost pal?”

Steve turns to a man with closely cropped brown hair dressed in a three piece suit and holding a glass of red wine. He’s wearing hearing aids and when Steve says nothing, raises both his eyebrows.

“Uh, do you work for the people organizing this?”

The shorter man just nods, looking more and more confused and maybe even judging Steve a little.

“Oh good. I’m just looking for Natasha? Or Barton?” Maybe even Barnes, he thinks, “I’m the caterer and need this to be taken care of before I can get outta your hair.” Steve says, pointing a thumb over his shoulder.

The man’s face changes then, his jaw dropping a little and eyes widening, slack. Steve actually looks over his shoulder to make sure no one had come in wielding an axe or anything.

“Oh shit.” He says, still staring at Steve.

“Um.”

The guys shakes his head, “wow, fuck, uh – yeah, hey we’ve talked on the phone a few times? Clint Barton.” He holds out a hand but he’s still making that face, although the sides of his mouth are kind of twitching. Like he’s torn between laughing or grimacing. About to bolt.

Steve feels his face flush. “Jesus, I’m sorry. It’s great to finally meet you,” Steve takes his hand and maybe shakes it a little vigorously like he can shake out the embarrassment. “I guess I’m just bad with voices.”

“You’re tellin’ me pal,” Clint says and yeah, he’s totally full-on smiling now. Steve has the compelling urge to get the hell out of dodge. The brides’ limo is pulling up from outside the open doors.

“Um.”

“Yeah I gotcha buddy, here – “ Clint takes the mail order from Steve and signs it with a flourish before pushing it back into Steve’s chest. “Catch ya later.” He salutes lazily and then takes out a walkie that’s clipped to his trouser pocket as he turns back, disappearing into the newly settling crowd. Steve barely hears the start of the conversation but it sounds vaguely like “Hawk to Widow, you’re not gonna believe…”

Steve knows when he’s over stayed his welcome and is already hurriedly – not running okay – heading for the door when he hears it.

It’s one of the brides’ step mother who talked his ear off about the decline of good Russian delicacies in the state of Washington earlier on and she appears to be doing the same to someone else. “—you must give me the number of your contractor Mr. Barnes, this is just exquisite.”

There’s an all too familiar chuckle and Steve’s feet freeze automatically. “I could but then I’d have to kill you Sandy, and we wouldn’t want to upset Julia on her wedding day. And please, call me James.”

He doesn’t want to turn, but he has to, he has to

And it’s Bucky – no, James – standing with his hands in his pockets and dressed in a navy three piece tuxedo, hair slicked back and smiling.

Steve’s heart throws itself so hard against his ribcage he feels sick with it. Physically sick to his stomach and he’s pretty sure he’s experiencing a heavy case of instant vertigo but he can’t for the life of himself and his health look away because it’s right there, flaunted in front of his face and it all so perfectly and painfully makes sense.

He’s not more than five steps away and as much as he wants to run, flee, his legs aren’t responding and of course, that’s when Bucky notices the tall frozen man just staring.

Steve doesn’t know what his face looks like, but Bucky’s smile falls directly off his face. All trace of laughter and humor vanquished and the lady looks over her shoulder and recognizes Steve, she smiles and waves. “Oh hello Steven,” and turns back to Bucky who is still staring at Steve, shattered. “You have a talented young man at your disposal. Have you two met? What am I talking about, of course you must have.” She claps his arm with a gloved hand and wanders off.

Bucky takes a step towards Steve. It’s a shaky, uncertain movement. “Steve – “

Mercifully, his legs kick into fight or flight and for once in his twenty five years of life, Steve chooses flight and is out the door into the settling sun.


 

Steve has eight missed calls and five texts from Bucky.

He lets the first four go to voicemail before turning his phone off all together at the stern suggestion from Sam after he reads the following texts:

Bucky 6:03pm: Steve, pick up. Please.

Bucky 6:06pm: It’s not what you think. This is all so fucked. Please answer your phone.

Bucky 6:10pm: Please just let me explain Steve.

Bucky 6:14pm: I’m begging you here. I fucked up I know. Say something

Bucky 6:17pm: I’m so sorry.

 


 

They were supposed to have a guys night and play pool. But.

“We don’t gotta stay here you know.”

Steve shakes his head, leaning against his pool stick. “No I’m okay Sam – “

“You’re obviously not.”

“We made plans –“

“It’s no skin off my back man –“

“And I’m not gonna let him ruin our night – “

“Okay.” Sam says, and that’s his serious let’s get something straight voice Steve is all too familiar with. “Under no circumstance do I buy anything you’re tryin’ to sell me here. Now, I’m gonna ask you again okay? Do you wanna go home?”

Steve closes his eyes and breathes hard through his nose. “Yeah.”

“Okay,” Sam says warmly and Steve thanks his stars for Sam Wilson.


 

The drive home is in comforting silence and Steve leans against the window, the glass screen rolled down so he can breathe.

Steve digs his phone out of his front pocket.

“Steve,” Sam starts and Steve shakes his head, turning it on. After a moment, his phone chimes to life with ping after ping after ping. All from Bucky – no James, he reminds himself again, James, and one from Natasha.

He carefully ignores the texts from James and opens Natasha’s.

Nat 10:26pm: I know it’s not really any of my business but I don’t care. Whatever you’re thinking that’s making you act like this you’re wrong. Just hear him out.

Steve laughs bitterly.

“You gonna call him?” Sam asks, flicking a look at Steve.

“I think it’s about time he has a taste of his own medicine. It’s only fair,” Steve says and leans to turn on the radio. Light jazz.


 

Bucky is sitting in front of their apartment door when they get home.

Steve comes to a stop when Bucky turns his head down the hall at them. He looks like he’s been crying.

“You wanna handle this?” Sam asks calmly and nods when Steve croaks out a yes. Bucky gets to his feet and steps aside as Sam gets to the door, unlocking it and sparing no word of a greeting as he enters and shuts the door behind him with a sharp click.

He’s not sure how much he has left, but Steve searches for all his will power and strength. Lets it propel himself forward to Bucky.

“Steve,” he sniffs. He’s still in his tuxedo, but the front buttons are undone and his tie is loosened to the point that it’s almost unravelled. His eyes are puffy. Steve’s not sure which of those things breaks his heart the most. If there’s even enough of it to try.

“Steve,” he tries again. “I don’t – “ he runs a hand through his hair, a nervous habit. “I don’t even know where to start.”

“How about the truth.” Steve offers and unabashedly proud of the strength behind his own voice.

“I came to apologize – “

“Yeah I get that.

“No, before.” Bucky says, he looks exhausted. “When we first met,” and he winces, licking his lips. “Officially. I got an earful from Natasha about the shitty way I had been treating you and I knew she was right. So I came by the store to start over with you and say sorry for being the biggest asshole on the face of the planet. But then – “

“Chose to lie to me and thought it would be a big old laugh to get into my pants as a bonus?”

Bucky looks like Steve just stabbed him in the gut. It’s probably the same difference. “What? No. No. Steve. All I had ever known was your voice over the phone and you were always so pissed at me – for good reason,” he adds when Steve opens his mouth again angrily. “But then you were there. Smiling and covered in pink icing and…” his face lightens up marginally, like he’s seeing it all reflect behind his eyelids from memory. “I’d never seen anyone so beautiful. Kind.”

Steve desperately, desperately needs Bucky to stop talking. But –

His hands are in his hair again, but his eyes are locked into Steve’s who can’t look away. “I had to know you Steve. I had to. But you gotta understand. You hated me. And I knew, fuck, I fucking knew if I told you I was James Barnes,” he spits out the name like trash, “I’d lose any chance I had. I’d lose you.”

“So you lied to me,” Steve stresses again, because he refuses to give in, refuses to give into the scratching voice at the back of his head that says ‘he’s right, you would have.’

“If it was between that and never getting to know you? Never getting the chance to be with you? I’d do it all over again. And I know how sick that is, fuck.” Bucky pulls at his hair and Steve is surprised he hasn’t yanked a patch out yet. “It’s the truth.”

Steve crosses his arms against his chest, lets it act as a barrier between them because it’s all too much. “Were you ever going to tell me?” He asks quietly.

Bucky nods vigorously. “I was. I swear Steve, I was. Every single day I wanted to tell you but every time I just backed out. You make it so easy to forget. I’d forget who I was,” he presses a hand to his chest, eyes open and honest. “But then I’d get reminded of how much I made your life a living hell – you almost cracked your head open because of me – and I didn’t deserve it. Didn’t deserve you.”

Steve feels dizzy with how much is falling into place all in front of him. That night in the hallway. “That’s…why you…” he slurs.

“I’m a fucking coward Steve. Whenever you got too close I knew one day I’d have to tell you and I would lose all this. Just like how I’m losing you now,” he says, wrecked with it and eyes beginning to water. Steve can’t look away.

“But you gotta know Steve,” Bucky whispers and makes an abortive action of stepping close and raising a hand to touch. “I didn’t think this would happen. I kept making excuses for it in my head over and over but in the end it all came down to the fact that I was beginning to see my life in the future and you were in it. Every time. And knowing you’d walk outta that was too much to – “ he breaks off again, the words coming out tighter and tighter each time Bucky has to swallow and try again. “I’m a selfish bastard. I knew it was wrong and I knew it was fucked up and the closer I got to tellin’ you the more I got scared cause’ I wanted all of you. Stevie, I lo –“

“Don’t,” Steve says, finally finding his voice. “Just, please, don’t.” He can’t hear any more of this. He can’t fucking breathe –

Steve.” It’s a prayer. A desperate prayer from a dying man.

Steve gets inside his apartment and leans against the door as soon as he shuts it behind him. Sam’s standing there, probably heard everything.

“I’m sorry man.”

Steve barely notices that he’d been crying. “Me too.”


 

The next week and a half go by in a colourless blur.

Steve gets back into the routine of work easily enough and keeps his head down, stationing himself to the back of house and giving Peggy the front (it physically hurts to look at the lemon bars on display) and continues rolling out desserts and coffee for the shop. His connection to Natasha and Clint becomes strictly professional. Mostly just questions and confirmations.

He’s in the back kitchen making cheesecake brownies even though he clocked out at least an hour ago because they’re so easy to make you can be emotionally numb to the entire process. It’s working in his favour, as he systematically swirls his rubber spatula through the chocolate filling, the white cheesecake compound spreading into web-like designs. He doesn’t notice Peggy walk in and sit down across the metal work surface table.

“We can switch shifts if you’d like,” she says, “might as well get paid if you’re gonna coop yourself in here.”

“You don’t need to keep checking up on me Peggs,” he says a little petulantly and drops the spatula in the nearby sink.

“And you don’t need to be acting like a child,” she doesn’t sound angry or even offended, and Steve looks up at her with her growing brown hair tied in a knot on the top of her head. “He hasn’t showed up, in case you’re done hiding.”

Steve ignores the twist in his gut, doesn’t even try to deny it. He is hiding. “Well that settles it.”

Peggy shakes her head. “Doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about you any less. He probably feels just as bad as you do. ”

“So you’re on his side then?” And he knows how he sounds, but still.

“No, you idiot.” Peggy says with a warm smile. "I'm on yours. Always yours."

“Did you know?” He doesn’t know why he asks.

Peggy sighs and thinks for a moment. “I had a feeling after you mentioned he was named after a president and how…off, he could sometimes behave. But it was too much of a long shot to seriously consider.”

“Would you have?” Steve looks her dead in the eye, “if you knew for sure?”

Peggy considers him, calculatingly and Steve holds his breath. “Are you still angry?”

Steve shakes his head wordlessly for a moment. “I feel like an idiot,” he clarifies. He should really be putting the brownie mixture into the oven.

She smiles at him, almost sadly, but then gets to her feet and unties her apron. “I’m going to head home. You should take my last two hours. It might do you some good.”


 

Because Steve’s life is one big cosmic cruel joke, he lasts ten minutes at the front before Natasha walks in casual as you like in jeans and a tank top.

“Before you say anything I’m only here because I’m sick of avoiding this place and being subject to shitty coffee, so I would like a large cup please. Hold the moping.”

Steve closes his mouth around a greeting and narrows his eyes. “Well hello to you too Natasha.”

“Spare me, I’ve had enough testosterone induced drama for a whole other lifetime,” she waves him off and Steve makes her coffee faster than normal if only to get her out of here.

He’s giving her back her change when she says, “as much as he fucked up, you’re fucking up a lot worse.”

Steve feels a spark of anger flash and climb up his spine. “Fuck you.” It comes out as a harsh bite, surprising Steve at the viciousness of it because she has no right and no idea. No idea –

But Natasha appears un-phased and has already turned on her heel for the door, muttering “чертовские идиоты.


 

It takes Steve three whole days of stewing to finally ask the question out loud.

“Am I being unreasonable?”

Sam and Sharon stop arguing over Legally Blonde or Miss Congeniality for movie night and both share a long look before looking back at Steve who is sitting with his knees folded to his chest in the couch adjacent.

The look says enough.

“It’s not really our place to say,” Sharon starts.

“Guys,” Steve says, he’s got to hear it. He has to know.

“Well, I’m not going first,” Sam says, raising his hands up and Sharon rolls her eyes at him before turning to Steve.

“Steve you've got every right in the book to be upset. You did nothing wrong here." Sharon says and Sam nods in agreement but Steve can hear the upcoming but. "But from the way you told it, it's hard not to see Bucky's point in all this – no, no, you wanted to hear it, then hear it – “ she says to his open mouth, “what was he really supposed to say? Hey nice to meet you I’m James Barnes, your boss that you wanted to punch in the face for two months and almost made you lose your mind due to sleep deprivation. Yeah. Oh also would you wanna go for a coffee sometime?” Sharon spreads her arms wide. “Sure. He could have gone in completely honest. I think we can all agree that that's the right thing to do. Steve, you’re a saint, but do you honestly believe that your relationship with him would have went anywhere if he did?”

It's an honest question and Steve knows she's right deep down. Steve had known it the moment Bucky had said it two weeks ago, red eyed and pleading: You hated me. And I knew, fuck, I fucking knew if I told you I was James Barnes…

He had spat out his own name like he hated his association to it. Like Steve made him hate who he was and if it was even further possible, Steve feels his already mauled and beat up heart flay itself on principle.

Sam finally chimes in, always the voice of reason and says gently. “I know you feel played man, and being the last to know sucks, I get that and I'd be pissed to all hell too if I were in your shoes. He royally fucked up his chance with you as James Barnes. But as Bucky?” He shrugs. “Dude didn’t wanna risk that again. He really loved you, we all could see it and I know you did too. If there's one layer of truth here, it was that. That wasn't a lie.”

Steve immediately closes up and before he knows it, is already shaking his head. “No. No he didn’t.” But I did. I loved him so much.

(Stevie. I lo--)


 

The apple pie tastes mediocre, generic.

Steve takes it off the menu.

 


 

He’s in his apartment nearly a full three weeks later.

Sam's at a parent-teacher conference and Peggy ended up dragging Sharon to a pool-party that some guy – Howard – invited her to at his place. Steve was invited too by extension but declined for completely un-moping reasons. Like the orders of religieuse and beignets he has to finish for a W.A.S.P-y retirement party tomorrow morning. It’s all pretty cut and dry and by the time they’re both in the oven, Steve plops down at the kitchen island with a tired sigh, about to send an ETA back to Clint but --

There’s an unread email notification and Steve’s lungs shrivel in on themselves. He knows it in his gut, even though there’s no possible way and there’s a handful of other people it could be.

Steve opens it, breath caught in his throat.

jamesbarnes@gmail.com
To: Steve Rogers steveng.rogers@gmail.com

I know I ruined it. But it was real. All of it. I will always love you.

James B. Barnes.

Steve lets his face fall into his hands, choking, shaking hands muffling sobs.

(“I had to know you Steve. I had to.”)

And he did. He learnt every inch and curve of Steve until it was something to keep and covet for his own. Studied every nuance, tick and side of Steve until there wasn’t any more to discover. Until Steve was surprised at what Bucky was able to find because he didn’t even know he had it in the first place until Bucky shone a light over it.

And didn’t Steve know him too? He was so sure about his knowing of Bucky. Knew him like the back of his hand and was confident with it until it no longer bewildered him to look at a smiling Bucky, eyes sparkling and teasing, red mouth upturned in a knowing smirk like they knew something the world was clueless about, and think -- I feel like I’ve known him for an entire lifetime-- and be so sure.

It was easy. Like breathing in and out and taking a blind step forward. And right now, leaning back in his seat, scrubbing the tears off his face messily and staring with wide, new open eyes, Steve can finally see.

Bucky fucked up, but so did Steve.

He shouldn't have been sitting around, nearly for a month now just waiting for something to fall from the sky and into his lap that will remedy everything that blew up in his face. He is so painfully fed up and done with sitting around.

Steve almost falls out of his chair to turn off the oven, ruining the pastries and not giving a wordless damn.

 


 

Beep. “Sam, it’s Steve. I won’t be home but if you touch the cakes in the oven I’ll kill you. Okay gotta go.”

 


 

Steve’s motorcycle rumbles to a stop outside the museum, double checking the address on his phone and wincing against the glare of it at night. He’s got it right, he just hopes it's not too late.

The security guard from before is leaning at the archway, smoking a cigar when Steve jogs to the entrance, he can hear a band playing music from the echoing halls inside. He raises a thick eyebrow. “You again.”

“Is James Barnes still in here?” Steve says sharply.

The guy puffs out a cloud of smoke, eyeing the Tupperware container in Steve’s hands and his windblown hair. “We already got your pie – “

It was a Battenberg cake. Is James Barnes still here?” Steve snaps and the guy with weird hair actually smiles, teeth sharp around his cigar.

“I think I like you bub. He’s inside,” he jerks his head behind him and Steve tries his best not to shoulder past him.

Once again, Steve is floored by the intricate beauty of the arrangement. Sleek and soft with lights that spill from the high ceiling, weaving silver and gold with baby's breath pedals interlaced up the pillars. The museum landing floor is cleared and the band is the main thing lit on stage, playing music bumping enough for people to dance to but not crazy enough so everyone is on their feet. Steve hardly has to scan the crowd until he finds Bucky through the dim lighting. He's sitting alone. It’s just the back of him, hair a bit longer now that he can actually manage a small bun, but it’s unequivocally him, shoulders slack and holding a bottle of champagne in one hand.

Well, here goes, Steve thinks and like he always has, moves forward.

Bucky looks up, mid swing and the just opened bottle almost falls from his now slack grip.

“Hi,” Steve says and tries not to show his panic because his entire premeditated script has scattered into the wind, leaving him driving blind.

“Hey,” Bucky responds, voice raspy.

It’s awkward. So unbelievably awkward and unlike them and Steve hasn’t seen Bucky’s face since he was in his apartment hallway all those weeks ago and he’s still so ornately beautiful in his silver suit and blue tie. Steve’s eyes drink up the sight, thirsty after all their wasted time a part.

“I got your email,” Steve starts and Bucky shifts in his seat. Steve thinks he might be blushing.

“Oh, that.”

“Yeah, that.” Steve takes a deep breath. “I’ve been a real jerk Buck. Really,” he adds to Bucky’s clear attempt to say otherwise. “And I might never be able to forgive myself for how I handled this whole shitshow – “

“There’s nothing you need to be sorry about Steve,” Bucky says, because he’s always got to get a word in and defend Steve and Steve bites back saying it out loud, not ready. “I messed up – “

“And I messed up too. 'Cause I wasted all this time stewing in all these confusing feelings when I should have been telling you this: I'm still mad Buck. I trusted you. And I didn’t know what to do with how you took that trust. I wasn’t even sure if I knew who you were any more.”

Bucky looks like Steve just stepped on his chest, face torn.

“But then it hit me Buck. I do know you, and all that crap before can't change that. I’ve always known you. And I don’t think I can keep trying to trick myself into not believing that. I don’t care who you are, James, Bucky, you could be a goddamned spy for all I care.” Steve makes sure to look Bucky in the eye, and they’re blown wide with hope and awe. “But you’re you, okay Buck? I loved you before I knew your whole name. So can we just, stop this? I’m getting real tired of being stupid and miserable without you.”

Bucky just stares up at Steve and blinks slow, once and then notices what’s in his hands. “Did you bring me lemon bars?

“Bucky.”

Bucky’s on his feet, and his grief stricken face is wiped clean, replaced with a blinding grin that punches a hole into Steve’s chest with how much he missed it. Steve wishes he had more light to admire. His face hurts. He’s probably grinning like a loon too.

You love me," Bucky says, still in awe with it. "You brought me lets-make-up lemon bars,” he's beaming, eyes twinkling.

“You’re such a jerk.”

“Punk. I love you too though. Guess we’re both idiots.”

Steve doesn’t wait and presses their mouths together because he’s sick of not tangling everything he is with everything Bucky is and Bucky surges into him, cupping his jaw gently, so gently it feels like going back in time. Like starting over.


 

“You’re gonna get me fired,” Bucky says against Steve’s mouth and making it difficult for Steve to find the sense to stop making out at a wedding reception next to the hors-d'oeuvres.

“Then let’s go home.”

“I can’t leave until everyone’s gone,” he whines, breaking off to pout at the sky miserably. Steve laughs.

“Mature James.”

“You’re not really gonna start calling me that are you,” Bucky says, peering at him and sounding a little panicked. Steve’s laughing again like he always can’t help with Bucky, and laces their fingers together.

It takes a lot of restraint to hold back the childish chant of: James James James James James that goes on in his head. “Sorry. Mr. Barnes.” And woah, there might be something there for that.

“I wasn’t lying when I said I literally can feel myself age when I hear that – “

Steve pulls him in again by the nape, loving the new and longer strands he finds there that peek from his bun. “James Buchanan Barnes,” he says into his red mouth like a promise. He’s James. He’s Bucky. He’s both.

Bucky sighs happily against it. “Yeah.”


 

(Four Months Later)

Steve's standing on a chair, painting the top half of Bucky’s upstairs hallway a periwinkle blue while Bucky goes to answer the doorbell a little too hurriedly, obviously keen to get out of painting duty.

(“But you’re so much better at it Stevie. You’re the artist out of this relationship.”

“And what, you’re the brains?”)

Steve shakes his head smiling and huffs out a laugh, brings the roller down. He’s been staying at Bucky’s more often than not these days, which Sam likes to remind him is totally cool by him because now he gets to freely parade around their apartment in his underwear.

(“You say that like you’ve never done that before,” Steve had said dryly over the phone to Sam’s bark of laughter.)

He still sees Sam for beers or pool or sometimes to just simply sit in their pajamas and watch football with enough popcorn to feed an army and some extra to get lost between the cushions because they always end up in a popcorn war. Peggy and Sharon – and now Natasha, refuse to clean up after them.

It’s a new sort of family, with the official joining of Steve’s company and Bucky’s and the inclusion of Clint who is one of the few people to be able to match Steve’s dry humor with a darker sense of one, which apparently Bucky thinks is starting to taint Steve.

Steve hears the front door shut but Bucky doesn’t make a move up the stairs. Steve climbs down the chair and peeks over the railing and only glimpses the top of Bucky’s head, hair cropped shorter.

“Buck?” He asks, and when he doesn’t get a response, makes his way down the stairs bare footed. “What’s up?”

Bucky’s holding a postcard in his hands and Steve looks at it over his shoulder. It’s from Sardinia. “Oh, those your folks again?” Bucky just nods almost numbly and Steve’s starting to feel a little uneasy.

“Uh – “

“They’re um,” he clears his throat and turns to Steve. “Coming home for Christmas.”

“Oh. That’s…great?” Steve tries and Bucky shakes his head quickly, eyes comically wide.

“They wanna meet you. They’re inviting you over to Christmas dinner.” Bucky says, like he’s revealing catastrophic news and needs Steve to get on board to openly panic with him. Steve blinks a few times before letting it dawn on him and smiles.

“God, really? Tell them I can’t wait. If they’re anything like Becca, I’m sure I’ll love them.”

Bucky looks at Steve like he’s grown two heads and they’re both vomiting. He doesn’t take it seriously, he knows Bucky secretly loves how well he and his little sister get along.

(“Wow Becca, you’re really gonna change the world someday soon.”

“See Bucky,” she had beamed from where she had finished showing Steve a diagram of an experiment she’d been working on. “Steve doesn’t sleep when I talk about work.”

“I wasn’t --" )

“You say that now Steve,” Bucky warns and begins to head for the kitchen like forewarning a naïve child and Steve trails behind him. “Man I’m starving. I need to eat away the impending doom.”

The marble panels are cool under Steve’s feet and he opens the fridge that’s more full these days because of Steve. “Whatdya feel like?”

Bucky yawns from somewhere behind him and there’s the click of the coffee machine stowed with the beans from Steve’s store that he definitely did not turn a blind eye to Bucky stealing. “Pie?”

Always.

Steve calms his heart before it starts to hitch into overdrive and wonders if there will ever come a day when he’ll tell this man what he gave back to him. His mother -- in every shared bite and smell and apple laced kiss. Maybe one day. Maybe never.

Maybe Bucky already knows.