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People are fucking idiots.

It’s not the first time Bucky’s come to this conclusion, but he’s even more sure of it now that’s he’s spent thirty minutes standing in line for the library computers just so he can check out a DVD his rehab therapist wants him to get.

Because people are fucking idiots, and don’t know how to use library computers.

When he’s finally got onto their search catalogue and found the right section, it doesn’t take him long to find the DVD (because he, unlike the patrons of this fine library, is not a fucking idiot). Luckily. He has a meeting with his new landlord in forty minutes, and he wants to get there with time to spare. 

As he’s standing at one of the self-checkout counters dotted around the library, he hears small thuds, and then lurches as something small and hard crashes into his shins.

“Ow!” It takes all his self-control not to let out a string of curses, and he’s glad for his restraint when he sees the cause of his pain: a small girl, with curly red hair, wide eyes blinking guiltily up at him. A long bag is strung over her shoulder, extending almost down to her knees. “Hi there.”

Her gaze slides to the left as she chews her lip, like she’s planning to make a run for it. Obviously thinking better of it, after a beat she replies with some wariness: “Hi.” 

“What’s the magic word?” It’s what his ma always said when one of her children forgot to apologize. 

The girl’s forehead crinkles. “Please?”

“No, the other one.”

“Um…” Her bottom lip slips back into her mouth. “Oh, thank you!” The kid’s beaming at him like she just invented quantum mechanics or some shit.

“Close…” Bucky draws the word out, trying to prompt her to get to it. When she just shrugs and regards him without blinking, he gives up. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay.” She says it like she’s doing him a favor by forgiving him. 

No.” This is why he doesn't get why anyone would ever voluntarily have a kid. “That’s the- Sorry. Sorry is the magic word.” Placing his hands on his hips, he does his best to look stern. “What do we say when we crash into someone?”

“We say sorry!” the girl chirps. 

Bucky looks down at her. “No running in the library, got it?”

“Okay.” The girl looks expectantly at him, as if to say, ‘now what?’

Bucky looks right. Looks left. This part of the library is rarely-visited, and he doesn’t see anyone apart from a few frazzled-looking college students with earphones hunched over books. Crouching down in front of the girl, he asks, “You alright?” 

“Yeah.”

“Where’s your mom?”

“Don’t know.” The girl raises her sleeve to her mouth and begins to chew on it- a nervous response if he ever saw one. Noticing his eyes follow the gesture, she stops instantly.

“Um. Okay.” Bucky rubs a hand along the back of his neck, a little unnerved. “Dad? Guardian? Uncle? Grocer? Give me something here, kid."

For the sake of thoroughness, he stands up for a quick, cursory scan of the mostly-empty section they’re standing in, but there doesn’t seem to be a parent in the vicinity.

Incompetent jerks. People shouldn't be having kids if they ain’t gonna be around to make sure they don’t run headlong into trouble.

The little redhead worries anxiously at her bottom lip. “I- Daddy’s here.”

“Oh, he is?” He smiles gently at her. “In this section?”

She shakes her head so hard her curls hit her nose. “He said to wait here. And he’d come back.”

“He said to wait… here?” In the non-fiction Psychoanalytic Sociology section. “That’s nice of him.”

Failing to understand his sarcasm, the girl nods enthusiastically. “Yeah. Except he went to the bathroom, and I should read here until he gets back.”

Bucky glances from her to the books, and back down. He wants to take her to security, but it feels like overkill for a dad gone to the bathroom for three minutes. He’s obviously planning on being back soon if he left her in the damn sociology section, so…

“Come on, then, let’s find you somewhere to sit until he’s back.” He extends a hand to her, expecting her to take it, but she hesitates. “What?”

“But where will you be?”

“Me?” A nod. Well, if she wants… “I can sit with you on the beanbags until he comes back, if you like,” he offers, and is met with a beam and an eager nod. “I’m Bucky, by the way. What’s your name?”

“Natasha. Can you read to me?”

Oh, so that’s her angle. “I see how it is,” he says, folding his arms in mock outrage. “You don’t want my company, you just want someone to read for you.”

“So can you?” 

Bucky grins, and then lets his arm swing loosely at his side in a clear invitation to hold his hand. After a moment, Natasha grasps onto his fingers. “How do you even know I can read?”

That throws her. She pulls back from him to study his features, eyebrows knitted together. “You can, right?”

“I don’t think so…” Bucky tilts his head to the side, purses his lips, and then shakes his head. “Nope, yeah, can’t read.”

“But. I can read a little. And you’re old.” Seeing his face, she adds hesitantly, “Right?”

“Thanks, kid,” Bucky murmurs. “I’m only thirty, goddamn.”

“I’m five.”

“Good for you.” He remembers he’s speaking to a child, and softens his words with a little shake and chuckle. “Five is a fun age.”

“So can you read to me?”

Bucky laughs- genuine this time- and lets go of her hand as they reach a pile of beanbags. “Sure, kid. You got a book, though? Because I can read Freud to you, but I’ve had colonoscopies more fun than I think that would be.”

“Huh?”

Sweet Jesus, he should be banned around kids. “Got any books?” he asks, remembering belatedly to smile.

Natasha thrusts her bag at him. “Here. You can pick.”

Bucky notices her staring at his arm, and her fingers twitch in his direction like she wants to touch it, and he waits for her to ask-- but she doesn't comment on it, which surprises him.

Settling himself down on a beanbag, he draws out the first hard cover his fingers grasp onto. “I haven’t read this one before.” This was a very, very bad idea. He’s not good with kids. He doesn’t do the character voices and all that shit. “Great. Um. So, here we go, I guess.” Bucky clears his throat. Natasha lifts his arm and- “Oh, okay then,” he says with some measure of surprise as she slides onto his lap.

“I can’t see the pictures,” she says simply. When Bucky doesn't immediately react, she adds, “You can read now.”

He does. By the time he’s halfway through, she’s sucking on her sleeve again, and her body is heavy and loose, her head resting against him. Still, when he’s done, she kicks at the bag.

“Another one.” And then adds, obviously remembering something she’s been told often, “Please?”

“I think we’d better go find your dad, kiddo,” he says softly. She whines, shaking her head so her hair tickles his nose.

“No, one more? Please? Sometimes he takes a long time in the bathroom.”

“We already read one.”

“That one was super short.” She taps his arm. “Please, Bucky?”

It was a short book- barely took three minutes to read. So, against his better judgement, Bucky says, “Alright. But just one more, you got it?”

“Got it.”

The damn devil-kid fucking falls asleep on him. 

Midway through the book.

Bucky doesn’t even realize she’s asleep until he closes the book and she doesn’t stir. When he does, he panics. 

“Natasha.” He tries to kind of shake a little, thinking the motion will wake her. “Kid, this ain’t funny.” No response. “Natasha,” he says again, more urgently. Still nothing.

Well shit.

He’s not entirely sure what to do in this situation. Is there a protocol of steps to follow when a stranger’s kid falls asleep on you? He doesn’t want to be an asshole and actually wake her up, but he can’t just sit here. And he has to leave in less than twenty minutes to get to the meeting with his landlord on time.

Desperation mounting, he manages to slip his phone out of his pocket and texts Sam. 

Some girl just fell asleep on me!!

A minute later, a reply: I knew you were bad in the sack, but that is a new low. And then, a few seconds later: Bit early in the day for that though, isn’t it?

She’s FIVE, Bucky texts back, trying to catch the eye of someone in this godforsaken hellhole. Aren’t there supposed to be librarians and shit in a library?

His phone beeps: 5 out of 10 ain’t bad. Don’t think you can judge, here. You’re so crap she fell asleep on you.

FIVE. YEARS. OLD.

For a minute, there’s no reply, and then his phone starts ringing. Bucky snatches it up before it can wake Natasha- he’s sending himself mixed signals, here- and picks up with a whispered, “Dude, what do I do?”

Sam’s hysterical. “Please take a picture. I’ll buy it off you.”

“Fuck you. I’m in a library and some kid is asleep on me and I have no clue where her damn dad is…” 

“Wake her up.” Sam says it like it’s the simplest thing in the world.

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

Bucky tries waving at one of the college students to get their attention. One of them meets his eyes, stares, and then waves back with a confused expression before returning to his work. “She’s a kid; I can’t wake her up!”

“So what do you want to do then?” Sam asks, sounding like he’s enjoying this way more than is possibly healthy.

“I need someone else to take her, but keep her asleep.” As he’s talking, Bucky hears what sounds like yelling. “You’re no help.”

“Hey, at least I never had a girl fall asleep on me before.” Sam snorts, and then adds, “Hey, can you hear that? Is that on your end or mine?”

The yelling is getting closer, and Bucky tenses, protective mindset kicking in. “Yeah. You know what, I’ll call you back.” As he hangs up, his academy-trained eyes quickly scout out the nearest exit in case of danger. 

The shouting’s getting closer, and it sounds like a man, and he sounds angry.

Bucky can’t quite make out what he’s screaming about, but it sounds like… feta jaw? Natch on shack?

“Natasha! Natasha! Na-” Suddenly, a blonde guy with arms bigger than Bucky’s head is rounding the corner. And he’s pissed. “What the fuck are you doing?”

For a second, Bucky’s baffled as to why someone that big would be charging at him like a bull on crack, but then he looks down, and- oh. 

Shit.

Alarmed, he tries to stand up, but it’s difficult with a lapful of sleeping five-year-old, and he doesn’t want to dump her onto the floor, so he settles for tugging her onto his hip as he stands, his free hand out. “Listen, she was just sleeping, it’s not what you think…”

The guy reaches for his kid, and he’s so rough about it that Bucky turns his body away and shields his arms over Natasha instinctively. 

That was stupid, he thinks belatedly. Letting out an honest-to-God snarl, Blondie wrenches Bucky’s shoulder hard enough to leave bruises. “Give me my daughter!”

“Here!” Bucky turns and shoves the girl at him; she’s woken up, thank God, and looks confused for a second before smiling sweetly at her father like she’s not the cause of his fucking arm almost being dislocated. 

“What the fuck.” Blonde Guy has both arms wrapped around her, breathing heavily and advancing so Bucky’s forced to take small steps backwards until his back hits a shelf. “What the fuck,” he repeats. “Jesus fucking Christ, you’re lucky I don’t call the cops.”

“Are you kidding me?” Bucky starts to say, but the guy’s already steamrolled over him.

“You were sitting with my kid on your lap!” He looks down at Bucky’s crotch, looks horrified (which is a great ego boost), and then growls with renewed vigor, “You realize I could have you arrested?”

“Your kid parked herself on my lap! I could have her arrested!” He glares at the redheaded traitor. He should. That would teach her a lesson. Did they even have jail for preschoolers?

“Sure she did.” There’s so much sarcasm lacing Blonde Guy’s tone it’s almost impressive. “And I’m sure she also walked herself to the other end of the library. All by herself.”

Bucky throws his hands in the air. “Yes. That’s exactly what she did!”

“Like hell she did,” Blondie spits out.

“Why wouldn’t she?” Bucky demands.

The guy shoulders his way into Bucky’s personal space, physically crowding him against the book-shelf. His eyebrows are lashed together, a vein on his temple throbbing. His eyes are very blue. “Because,” he says in a low, furious voice, finger jabbing into Bucky’s chest, “I taught her stranger danger.”

“Oops,” says Natasha, and then covers her mouth.

Bucky stares at him. “You taught her stranger danger.” He looks to the kid. “He taught you stranger danger.”

“Yes,” says Blondie.

“Maybe I forgot,” says Natasha.

Bucky wants to scream. “You tell your psychopathic dad,” he starts, pointing at Natasha and taking a step forward. Mr. Testosterone moves towards him aggressively, and Bucky’s finger pokes into Natasha, “that you-”

“Stranger danger?” Natasha says as Bucky’s finger prods her shoulder, sounding more like a question. Then she gives her father a huge smile, like he should be so proud of her.

“Oh god.” Bucky buries his face in his hands. He has to get to the meeting with his landlord in ten minutes… 

“Not the right time,” Blondie tells her quietly. “We’ll talk about it later.” Then he closes his eyes. When he opens them again, he’s calmer, “I’m calling security. And we are leaving.” 

As Blondie stalks away, Bucky hears Natasha ask, “Daddy, what does fucking mean?”

 

***

Bucky double checks the slip of paper with the address written on it, and then rings the doorbell of his new landlord’s apartment, wringing his hands. There’s only so many excuses that will fly for being this late. ‘I was held up by security for an hour and a half until they went over video footage to make sure I’m not a child predator’? Yeah, he has a feeling that won’t cut it. 

This apartment is perfect- the only downside is living in the same building as his landlord, which Bucky guesses could also be seen as a positive. If he needs an appliance fixed, or something. And the landlord had told him after several email exchanges that the unit was his, as long as he signed the papers today. He’d seemed like a great guy, and if being this late screws up his chances of getting to live in this place… he’s going to track down Blondie and make him pay. Because of that asshole, security hadn’t let him go until they’d validated his story by reading his texts and then calling Sam. 

Who, incidentally, is never going to let him live this down.

The door hasn’t opened yet. 

Ah, shit, what if the landlord had to go somewhere? He might not even be home.

Great, Bucky. Good going.

He’s never going near a kid again. Ever. 

Just then, he hears footsteps approaching from inside, and squares his shoulders, preparing his best ‘I’m sorry’ face. 

The door swings open.

“Fucking fuck.” He raises his palms in what he hopes is a placating gesture, because two feet away from his face is Blondie, one arm braced against the door frame, and Bucky really does not want to go home with a bloody nose. He backs away. “Look, I swear I’m not stalking you- I’m just hear to meet my landlord,” he fumbles with the slip of paper in his pocket, “It’s- I must have the wrong unit, I’m just gonna-”

James?”

No. 

Oh, no. 

“… Steve?” Please, let this be a huge cosmic practical joke. “Steve Rogers?”

Steve nods once, and then he groans and thumps his forehead against the doorframe. 

Great. 

Just perfect. 

Bucky gives a small, hopeless smile and starts to turn away, but Steve darts forwards and grabs his arm. “No! No, please.” Realizing he’s still holding Bucky’s arm, he lets go like he’s been burned. “I’m so glad to- Nat said you were just helping. I’m so sorry, honestly, I swear I’m not usually that- You must think…. I just, uh… Come inside?” After a second where Bucky doesn’t move, trying to decide if this is some type of con to lure him into the house and murder him, Steve adds, “Please?”

Bucky can’t say no to that. Because here’s the thing: when he’s not in an incensed rage directed straight at Bucky, Steve Rogers is gorgeous. Like, so hot that Bucky's frozen for a second. He can't believe he didn't noticed that Natasha's dad apparently walked out of a porno. His blonde hair is disheveled in a way that's just begging Bucky to run his fingers through, and he's biting his soft, pink lips as he waits for a response. Bucky's traitorous mind instantly jumps to the image of that mouth wrapped around his dick, and okay, no way, not going there right now.

"James?"

Suddenly, Bucky realizes he's staring-- and straight at Steve Rogers' lips. “I-- yeah, sure. It’s Bucky, by the way. Only my teachers ever called me James.”

“Bucky, then.” Steve smiles, tentative. “Come inside?” As Bucky follows him into the house, he tries not to stare at his potential landlord’s ass. 

Inside, Natasha’s coloring on the floor, and Steve takes a seat at the kitchen counter, bending down to bury his face in his arms. His shirt looks about three sizes too small for him, because the fabric is tightening wonderfully around his back and shoulders, and doing a fine-ass job of displaying the curves of his muscles. 

“Bucky!” Natasha squeals when she sees him.

“Hey there, traitor,” he replies in a monotone. “Try to ruin anyone else’s life today?”

“Oh, God.” Steve’s forehead rests on the counter, his voice coming out muffled. “I’m sorry. She told me what happened. ” He lifts his head up. “I’m so sorry, Jesus Christ.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Natasha corrects helpfully.

Steve’s head thumps back down onto the counter. After a beat, he looks up again. “Natty, I told you already, we don’t say that.” Before she can open her mouth to argue, he says to Bucky, “Her mom’s going to kill me if she hears that.”

Oh.

Oh, of course. Steve obviously didn’t give birth to Natasha all on his own. 

“Is her mom at work?” Bucky hopes his face doesn’t show any of the pangs of  disappointment he feels. Especially because it was stupid of him to assume in the first place that Steve was single. Or that he even likes men. 

“She’s stationed in the Middle East. She'll be back in a month, give or take.” As Steve nods to a picture frame on the mantle- a gorgeous brunette with a wide smile and sharp eyes, Bucky notices Natasha still. “We’re divorced, but on good terms,” Steve adds, in a low voice, too low for his daughter to hear. 

Now Bucky feels like the biggest asshole in the world for being glad this guy’s relationship didn’t work out. He’s going to hell; he knows it. “That… sucks,” he says, trying to put at least a little inflection into his voice. 

“Yeah, um. Anyways.” Steve clears his throat. “Thank you, by the way, for reading to her. She didn’t stop talking about you for an hour.”

“She could’ve started a little earlier,” Bucky says, with no bitterness. 

Steve closes his eyes, and a groan turns into a laugh. “I am honestly so sorry. I’m not usually that aggressive…”

Natasha clambers onto the kitchen barstools, gesturing Bucky closer. “He is,” she whispers very loudly with a blow of hot air in his ear.

“Oh, he is?” Bucky grins at Steve, his tone low enough to be a mock-whisper. Of course, Steve can hear every word. “He go around yellin’ at everyone?”

“Yeah.” Natasha nods seriously. “He scares everybody.

“Okay, that’s enough.” Steve quickly separates them by pulling Natasha bodily off of Bucky. “He doesn’t need to be hearing- fake- horror stories about his new landlord.”

“New landlord?” Bucky stares at Steve, relief and joy bubbling inside him. 

The other man misinterprets his repetition. “I mean, if you want to.” He bounces Natasha on his hip, fingers tapping on the counter. “I understand, absolutely, if you don’t feel comfortable…”

“No,” Bucky cuts him off quickly. He’s smiling so big his cheeks hurt. “I can sign right now, if you have a pen?”

 

***

Maybe, he thinks later that night, as he stares at Steve Rogers’ cellphone number in his contacts list with a dopey grin, just maybe, this cosmic practical joke turned out okay.

He almost drops his phone when it begins ringing. 

Steve Rogers calling…

Should he pick up? Is that a normal response to a landlord calling you? He should be smooth. Yeah, smooth and charming. 

Bucky swipes right and raises the phone to his ear. “Hi,” he says in a deep voice. “How’s it goin’?”

And immediately he wants to kick himself because why the hell did he think it was a good idea to pitch his voice that low?! Steve probably thinks he’s crazy.

“It’s good!” Natasha. 

He’s torn between acute relief that Steve didn’t hear his attempt at being smooth, and overwhelming dismay, because even if Steve had heard him make a fool of himself, at least that would’ve meant that Steve actually called him.

“Hey, Natasha,” he says. “Wow, it’s been almost two hours since I last talked to you. That’s gotta be some sorta record.”

She giggles, although he knows she doesn’t understand what he means. “I have a pro- por- porposal!”

“A proposal?”

“Yup. You gotta come for dinner tomorrow.”

“Is this your idea or your dad’s?” Knowing this kid, she invited him over without running it by her father first. 

“Both of us!” There’s a pause. “Mostly him, though. And he was too shy to call, so I- whoa!”

“Natasha?” Bucky sits up in bed as he hears small yelps and rustling sounds, his brow creased. “You alright?”

It’s Steve’s voice that answers him. “She’s fine! Yeah, we’re all good here. Everything’s good. We were just wondering if you’d come over for dinner?” When Bucky, who’s still trying to figure out what just happened, doesn’t reply, Steve adds, “To get to know you, as your neighbors. And, ah, also to apologize properly.”

“You guys plannin’ on apologizing every day for as long as I’m here?” Bucky can feel a slow smile spreading across his face. “Because you know, I can think of better ways to make it up to me.”

“Yeah?” Steve asks. His voice is tentative, but there’s a teasing undercurrent to it. “And how’s that?”

“Well,” Bucky pretends to think, “I mean, I wouldn’t complain about a year of rent-free living.”

On the phone, Steve lets out a long, genuine laugh, and Bucky can hear Natasha in the background: ‘What’s so funny? What’s funny? What’d he say?’ Eventually, when he catches his breath, Steve says, “How ‘bout we just cook you the best meal you’ve had in your life and we call it even?”

“That’s a high bar to set, Rogers.”

“So is that a yes, then?” 

“I can’t exactly pass up the opportunity to taste New York’s finest meal, can I?”

Bucky can feel Steve smiling. Is that even possible? “6 pm. Don’t be late, or I’ll feed you to Natasha.” The phone clicks off.

Bucky stares at the screen, and then he smiles, and doesn’t stop smiling for the rest of the night.