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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.

 

Chapter Text

At work, Bucky can’t concentrate. It’s a slow day anyways, and he’s strictly on desk-and-patrols duty until he’s done with this damn experimental arm study. It’s not that he’s not grateful— he is, immensely— it’s just. He’s a detective, and lately, he’s been shuffling through cases of old grannies who reported their purses stolen. Total damages? In the file he’s skimming over now, $5.65.

Captain Fury had assured him that that once Stark clears the arm (and he passes his psych eval, of course), he’d be back on rotation, but right now he’s stuck here. One of the NYPD’s finest. Who would’ve thought, two years ago when Bucky held the highest recorded month of closed cases in precinct history, that this is where he’d end up? Trying to track down the kid who nabbed old Mrs. Garfield’s spare change.

Technically, he doesn’t even have to be at work. He got four months’ leave for physio after the accident, but coming in even three days a week is better than going stir-crazy at home.

With a sigh, Bucky accesses the security cameras on Mrs. Garfield’s street, fast-forwarding through with his cheek leaning on one hand. As he watches, he thinks (read: worries) about dinner, teeth gnawing at his bottom lip.

What does ‘dinner’ even mean? How fancy is ‘dinner’? Is this, like, one of those fancy-ass dinner parties where everyone’s in suits and cocktail dresses, like the Captain’s team dinners? Or like when Hill has them over for dinner during the superbowl, and they all shoot the shit in whatever they want.

Then again, Steve has a five-year-old. Bucky certainly can’t imagine stuffing Natasha into a fancy dress and getting her to sit still throughout, so he should be good with casual clothes, right? Maybe—

“Man, get down!”

Bucky starts at the yell, mind immediately panicking— who, what, danger, run— but before he can vault out of the seat, his mind fits the pieces together: it’s Barton yelling, gesticulating wildly at Bucky, who ducks just in time to avoid a remote-controlled helicopter crashing into his skull.

“What the fuck?” he demands, heartbeat still hammering in his chest. He’s safe, he scolds himself. He’s safe. It’s just Clint. He’s safe.

Clint shrugs, reaching behind him to high-five Coulson without looking. Show-offs, the two of them. “Prototype works.”

Bucky doesn’t bother asking. Barton may be a great detective, but he’s shit at acting like a competent adult (and okay, usually Bucky would join him in that, but today he is very much focused on serious things— like how to date his landlord, for one). “Where’s Sam?” he says, instead. “Still out on the Wellington case?”

“Yup.” The helicopter zips around the precinct, narrowly missing mugs of coffee and stacks of files. “He caught a break from what I heard, though, so— ah, shit.” Pocketing the remote with a flash of guilt, Clint stands, and Bucky swings around in his chair to follow the sightline. “Hey, Sarge.”

“Morning, Sarge,” says Bucky gleefully.

“Barnes.” Hill inclines her head ever-so-slightly. “Barton, mind shedding some light on why this thing is flying around my precinct?”

“Slow day?” Clint offers, and Bucky hides a grin.

Hill shrugs. “Well, the captain was just complaining about all the delays with paperwork this week. Why don’t you head into his office and see if you can help with that.”

“Sucker,” Bucky mouths as she departs, and Clint flies the helicopter into Bucky’s head.

 

***

Bucky knocks on the wooden door of apartment 43A, feeling unnervingly like he’s entering an audition or important interview. Not that he’s dressed for that. He’d spent a goddamn hour deliberating after the got home. After about fifteen outfit changes and a string of curses directed at Steve for being so vague, he’d settled on dark jeans and his leather jacket. Better underdressed than overdressed, anyways.

It’s not like this is a date, or anything. Sure, he wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to fuck Steve Rogers, but that’s neither here nor there. He has a feeling a guy with a kid wouldn’t do one-night stands, and the most long-term Bucky can offer is an open position as a fuck buddy.

Also, Steve isn’t even gay, so this is all moot, and Bucky needs to just get through this dinner and put the damn man out of his mind—

He hears feet skidding on the floor, and then the door’s thrown open; Natasha beams up at him. He’s relieved to see Steve behind her wearing a simple sweater. “Heard someone around here makes the best dinner in New York.”

Steve grins, motioning Bucky into the apartment. “You’ll have to judge for yourself.”

When Bucky walks in, he tries not to notice how Steve’s cologne smells woody and fresh, because inhaling your landlord’s scent is not a productive train of thought for a casual dinner, even if it is done appreciatively.

“Hello, Natasha,” he says, carefully not looking at Steve. She gives a small wave in return, suddenly shy. “It’s nice to see you again.” At this, she ducks her head and shuffles back so she’s hidden by Steve, who pulls her out from behind his leg with an amused head-shake.

“C’mon, Nat. Let’s show him how we do things around here.”

“Why do I feel like I’m about to be shown how to call for take-out like a pro?” Bucky says as he follows Steve past the airy kitchen, Natasha still stuck to him like glue. There’s no food anywhere that he can see, for starters; the apartment is spick-and-span clean, apart from the lego and dolls scattered haphazardly across the floor. “I mean, it’s not like I’ll be complaining if you decide to order some Chinese, but I was promised a home-cooked meal fit for a king.”

“We’ll deliver,” Steve promises. “Right, Natasha?” She perks up and nods fervently. “This way, Barnes.”

Bucky trails Steve into a huge living room, a few black leather couches sitting in the middle of the room, complimenting the floor-to-ceiling windows and well-worn bookshelves. It would be a room intimidating in its grandeur, if the floor wasn’t strewn with toys: princess tiaras and plastic swords, a few books and some crayons.

Steve follows his eye-line, shrugging with one shoulder. “Ah, yeah, sorry about the mess,” he says, shamefaced. “We didn’t get time to tidy up after school.”

“Buddy,” Bucky snorts. “You should see my place.”

Steve laughs, and then leads Bucky through a door into a dining room, large and shining in the glow of a chandelier; the dark wooden table’s already laid out with plates. “Wow… Your place is a lot bigger than mine.” His eyebrows rise at the view from the expansive windows: a breathtaking scene of the city skyline, or at least part of it.

Bucky’s apartment sure as hell doesn’t have that view— he faces the opposite side, and wakes up to the beautiful brick wall of the neighboring building.

“Yeah, the view’s great,” Steve says almost sheepishly, running a hand across the back of his neck. “Ours is actually three units with the walls knocked down, so we have this whole floor.”

“This is the fancy dining room.” Natasha still hasn’t let go of Steve’s leg. “We only eat here sometimes.”

“I must be special, then.” Bucky winks at Steve, delighted when the other man chuckles. “So where do you usually eat?”

“The kitchen.” She’s moved a little out of Steve’s shadow..

“Well,” he says, “I eat in the kitchen or in my bed, so you’ve got me beat there.”

“Ah, the bachelor life,” Steve says wistfully with a disarming grin. “Okay, speaking of eating— I’ll go get the food. Nat, you stay here and be a good host.” The little girl looks between him and Bucky, and then plasters herself to Steve’s side again; he snorts, grabbing her hand. “Alright, we’ll both go. Barnes, prep yourself. We’re about to blow your mind.”

Bucky stands admiring the panorama from the window, turning sharply when he smells— oh. Steve’s placing a dish of lasagna squarely in the centre of the table, golden cheese dripping off the top (along with a markedly less interesting plate of steamed vegetables). “Holy fucking hell, you made lasagna? That’s it, I’m coming over every day.”

Steve coughs, glancing down pointedly at Natasha, who’s looking between them both, wide-eyed. Bucky amends quickly, “Sorry, that’s… holy fudging heck, I’m looking forward to eating it! Great work, guys!” And he sits down.

After a beat where it looks like Steve very much wants to laugh, he joins Bucky, and Natasha slides into a seat next to her father.

Yeah, so kind of feels like he’s being interviewed by the Rogers, what with the two of them sitting across from him, but whatever. Free food is free food.

“So Bucky,” Steve starts, but Natasha cuts him off, shyness apparently having evaporated now that there’s a table between them: “Why is your name Bucky? I’ve never heard that before.”

“It’s short for Buchanan.”

“Bucky-cannon?”

“Buchanan,” he repeats, drawing out the syllables.

Natasha leans back in her chair. “That’s a weird name. Buchanan.”

Steve frowns at his daughter. “Natasha, that wasn’t very polite.”

“Why?”

“People’s names aren’t weird.”

Honestly, Bucky understands that this is a Parenting Moment, but he just wants lasagna.

“But what about people whose names are weird?” Natasha counters logically.

“Nobody’s name is weird,” Steve says. His tone says he knows he’s fighting a losing battle.

Is it rude if Bucky just goes for the lasagna? It’s just sitting there staring at him, daring him to touch its cheesy goodness. Goddamn, that’s a lot of cheese.

Huffing, Natasha folds her arms. “Okay. But if Bucky has a kid—”

“I’m not having a kid,” says Bucky firmly, attention momentarily diverted at the horrific thought.

“—and it’s called Fluffy-Monster, that’s a weird name. Right?”

Steve pauses for a beat, and then nods slowly. “Okay. Yes, that might be a bit of an unusual name. But if we think people’s names are weird, we don’t tell them.”

“Hey, I think the lasagna’s getting cold,” Bucky tries out, at a quiet volume so he doesn’t seem pushy.

Natasha, speaking at the volume of a loud-speaker, drowns him out: “So what do we say then?”

“You say: Fluffy-Monster, that’s an interesting name,” Steve smiles brightly, his tone jovial in illustration.

Pursing her lips, Natasha considers this. Then, turning back to Bucky, she says, in a scarily-perfect imitation of Steve’s intonation: “Buchanan, that’s an interesting name.”

“Good job.” Steve’s shaking his head at Bucky over the top of Natasha’s head, but smiling fondly. “James Buchanan Barnes,” he tries out. “I like it. Has a nice ring to it.”

“I prefer Bucky. Only my ma ever called me James, and only if I was in big trouble.”

Climbing onto her knees on her chair, Natasha informs him, “My trouble-name is Natasha Carter Rogers.” Her eyes are narrowed like she’s just daring him to call it weird.

“It’s nice to make your acquaintance, Natasha Carter Rogers,” — he’s basically given up on the lasagna, at this point— “I’m James Buchanan Barnes. And this must be Steve Carter Rogers?”

“No.” She giggles, leaning forward, “He’s not Carter.” Steve flattens his palm on her back until she sits properly again.

“What is he then?” Bucky cocks his head to one side, pretending to consider the conundrum sitting before him (and maybe also secretly checking out his jawline). “Oh, I got it— Steve Buchanan Rogers.” When Natasha shakes her head so hard her curls fan her cheeks, he adds, “I’m right, aren’t I? I knew it.”

“No!” She leans so the back of her head is pressed against Steve’s arm; he drops a light kiss to the top of her hair. “Daddy, you tell him.”

“Mission accepted.” Suddenly, Steve’s bright blue eyes are focused straight on Bucky. “Steven Grant Rogers. Pretty boring, eh?”

“Oh, so boring,” Bucky dead-pans. “Not like the rest of us.”

“Yeah! I have two last names and Bucky’s name is weird,” Natasha says, the sarcasm lost on her. Steve rolls his eyes at the ‘weird’ but doesn’t chide her. “You’re boring, Daddy.”

“You know what would be super not-boring,” Bucky says lightly, an eyebrow cocked at Steve.

“What’s that?”

“Eating.”

Steve shakes his head, grinning widely. “Looks like there are two kids in the room,” he says, but he serves the food, so Bucky counts that as a win.

 

***

“So who’d you have to kill to afford a place like this?” Bucky asks, once they’ve all eaten a good amount.

He’s filled himself up with lasagna, and he’s been weighing up the benefits of asking for a take-away box because it’s fucking delicious. Is that rude? Or do hosts usually pack some food for the guests to bring home?

It’s been so long since Bucky’s been to a dinner, he can’t even remember. He’s willing to risk social shunning, though, if he can have this for lunch tomorrow.

Steve reaches down to wipe the sauce running down Natasha’s chin before answering. “I’m an artist. Illustrator, actually. For books.”

“Really? Huh.” Of all the jobs.

“He’s really good.” Natasha seems to have misread his response, her jaw jutted out as if it’s a challenge.

“I’m sure he is.”

“He is,” she repeats, eyes flashing ominously.

“He got it, Nat,” Steve says, brow furrowed apologetically at Bucky, who waves him off.

“Wish I had someone around to defend my honour,” he mocks lightly.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s a blessing.” Fork clinking against his plate, Steve asks casually, “So you live alone then?”

Shrugging, Bucky spears another piece of lasagna. “Eh, it’s not so bad. I’m not exactly what you’d call a people person anyways.”

“Really," says Steve, not sounding surprised at all.

Bucky’s eyes narrow at the teasing smirk on Steve’s face. “Tone down the sarcasm, Rogers.”

“Only because you’re a guest.” 

“You’re lucky you’re a great cook,” Bucky tells him, taking a very deliberate bite of lasagna to make his point, “and that I just got off work, so my standards aren’t very high right now.”

“Okay, a,” Steve starts, holding up one finger, “that lasagna just rocked your world, and you know it. And b, you never said what you do?”

“I’m… a cop. Homicide detective, usually.” He does not clarify the ‘usually’, and Steve is polite enough not to press, although Bucky notes his forehead crease minutely at the word.

“Like a real one?” Natasha asks, wide-eyed. At his nod, her expression is all slack-jawed awe. “Do you have a gun?”

Bucky’s eyes slide over to Steve before answering, not wanting to overstep. “I do.”

“Can you show me?”

“No,” Steve and Bucky say firmly at the same time, and Steve scoffs at Natasha’s scowl.

“So, anyways, this is nice for me,” Bucky’s trying to change the subject, because he’s not sure where Natasha’s ‘tantrum’ boundary is— she seems pretty relaxed, but they always do, before suddenly it’s World War III, “I don’t usually do sit-down meals.”

“Yeah, you eat things in your bedroom,” Natasha says in a low, scandalized tone.

“I eat a lot of things in my bedroom,” Bucky informs her seriously, impulsively, and then swallows. He purses his lips, steadfastly avoiding looking anywhere near Steve (whose ears are tipped pink), because there’s a fucking five-year-old in the room. Grinning inappropriately at a sex joke he made? Yeah, he has a feeling that won’t go down too well.

Natasha, for her part, obviously misses the innuendo. “Don’t you do proper dinners? Like at Christmas? With family?”

“Nah.” Careful to keep his tone light (this isn’t a subject he wants pity for, not from them, and not right now), he adds, “My parents’re long dead.”

“Oh.” There’s a flash of something in Natasha’s eyes, and Steve rubs a thumb absent-mindedly over her forehead.

“But I have a sister,” Bucky says cheerfully, trying to rescue the conversation. “She comes down every once in a while.”

“Yeah, Peggy's parents try to make it down for major events. We don't see them often, though; they live in London and tickets don't come cheap. Plus with taking time off work— Natasha, what are you doing?” Lip curled back, Bucky observes the girl liquifying her vegetables in a base of milk.

“My milk spilled,” she says, by way of explanation. “While you were talking.”

“It’s all Daddy’s fault.” Bucky's mocking statement earns him the full force of Steve's glower, but he just grins back; he's enjoying himself way more than he thought he would.

“I know,” Natasha agrees morosely, dragging her fork pathetically through some very soggy spinach.

Although he raises his eyes to the ceiling, Steve snorts and removes the plate from Natasha’s place. “Okay, I think you’re done.”

“Dessert time?” she asks hopefully.

“If Bucky’s done.”

Solemn green eyes bore into his. “Are you done?”

“Just about.” Okay, Bucky did not know dessert was going to be involved in this; his night just got ten times better.

 

*** 

The Bucky who thought the lasagna was the best thing he ever tasted was painfully naive. Because this? This mouth-watering, hot-fudge topped, brownie-cake-cookie-dough-whatever the fuck it is concoction of diabetes and sugar?

He’s died. He’s died and gone to heaven.

 

***

Steve and Bucky are alone in the living room, Natasha having scampered off to make use of the precious play-time she has while her dad sees Bucky out.

He knows Natasha has a bed-time, but Bucky still lingers at the book-shelves, fascinated by all the spines with ‘illustrator: Steve Rogers’ etched into them. One looks familiar, the light of the fire-place illuminating its golden edge, and he slides it out. Holy shit.

Holy shit.

“You draw for the Connie Cat series?” Bucky doesn’t have a kid, and he’s far too old for the series, but even he’s heard of it. It deals with issues like death, adoption, sexism, disabilities… you name it. It was picked up as a TV series a year or two ago, and that’s when it’s popularity exploded. “That’s insane.”

“You’ve heard of it?”

“Of course. First time a kid’s series has ever gotten so much attention.”

“Well.” Running his hand through his hair bashfully, Steve says modestly, “It’s the writer, she’s a genius. The topics really resonate with a lot of people.”

“A lot of people?” Bucky snorts. “Try the entire child-bearing population in the city. No wonder your place is so swanky and shit.”

“Yeah.” There’s a warmth in Steve’s eyes as he watches Bucky open the pages and trace the illustrations with his fingertips. “I’m lucky. The art keeps me sane, too.”

“How’d you get into this?”

Steve’s expression takes on a slightly distant glaze. “I told you Peggy— Natasha’s mom— she’s in the Middle East?”

“Yeah.”

“I was in the army too— it’s where I met her. When Nat was born, though, I couldn’t take the thought of her growing up without both parents.” He smiles ruefully, eyes still far away, and flickering in the light of the fire. “Or even with one parent, if that one parent wasn’t me. When I got back to the city, I applied for every job I could fine, and, well… here I am.” Snapping out of his daze, he clears his throat: “It wasn’t a big deal for me to leave the army, anyways. I was only there for two months.”

“You’re a good dad,” Bucky says quietly, when they’re silent for a few moments. “The kid adores you.”

“I wouldn’t have to do much for her to adore me.”

“True,” Bucky allows, placing the book carefully back on the shelf and pulling out a new one: Liho and Connie go to the dentist. “Kids are basically dogs, in that way.” Steve’s eyebrows rise, but he looks like he’s holding back a grin, and Bucky back-tracks. “That’s— not supportive.”

“No, but thank you for calling my child a dog.”

“Okay, you know what…” Bucky prods a finger into Steve’s chest— which is a giant mistake because before, he could just drool over the sight of the muscles. Now he knows what they feel like, he’s done for. “Use it as inspiration for your next book. ‘Connie Cat gets called a dog’. I’m really helping you, here.”

“Wait until you have kids of your own,” Steve says. “I’m going to call them every animal under the sun.”

The thought of being saddled with a bunch of kids, with all his issues, is enough to make Bucky pull a face. “You keep dreaming, pal. Kids ’n me don’t mix.”

“You say that now.”

“Nope. I ain’t having a single rugrat— human or animal.” As an afterthought, he says: “Uh, yours is great, though.”

Steve snorts. “Thanks.”

As Bucky moves to put the book back, his metal arm brushes Steve’s very-human one, and he freezes as the other man tenses at the cold. “I— sorry.”

“No, no, sorry, I— my bad.” Steve looks so kind, Bucky almost hates it. “Can I ask what happened…?”

“Nope.” Softening the answer, Bucky adds, “It’s not particularly… you know. It’s just—”

“No worries.” Steve nods at the arm though, eyes tracing the line of metal plates. “Guy I know does prosthetics like that, although I don’t think they’re as high-tech.”

“Yep.” Bucky tries his hardest not to sound bitter; he’s in Stark’s experimental treatment, and he should be grateful, even if it means he's stuck at a desk job, and weekly physio, and the never-ending meetings with the doctors. It'll be worth it, in the end (is what he keeps telling himself). “It’s a new program.” Then changing the subject slightly: “Your kid didn’t ask about it.”

“Who, Nat?”

“Got any other kids running around that you haven’t told me about?” Bucky nudges Steve, careful to do it with his good arm.

“God, no,” — “That you know of,” Bucky says, a wicked smirk playing at his lips, and Steve elbows him gently — “She knows better than to ask. Mr. Lee, on the floor below, has a prosthetic leg. We’ve talked about it.”

“She’s a good kid,” Bucky says, and means it. “Little on the scary side, and God forbid the next woman who tries to date you doesn’t meet up to her standards, but— she’s really great.”

“A handful, more like,” says Steve darkly, but he has that pleased crinkle around his eyes, the warm flush of a parent hearing their child praised. A second later— “Oh, crap.”

“Bed-time?” Bucky guesses, following his eyes to the clock on the wall. 8:10 p.m.

“Little past,” Steve says, frowning. “And we haven’t even started the bedtime routine— stop laughing!”

“I’m sorry… you see why I don’t want kids?”

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, buddy.”

Still sniggering, Bucky moves away from Steve, feeling an odd sense of loss as he does. “I’ll get out of your hair. Thanks for dinner.”

“No problem.” There’s a sense of awkwardness now, in the formal good-byes after the flow of easy conversation. “Hey, if you have any problems, call me, alright?” After a beat, he clarifies: “I— sorry, not to be pushy, I meant… problems with your apartment. I’m your landlord,” he finishes lamely.

“Aw.” Bucky mock-frowns. “You mean I can’t call you with my dating woes?”

“Sure you can.” Steve gestures vaguely in a direction Bucky’s assuming is Natasha’s bedroom. “My solution would probably be ‘set Nat on them’, though. I haven’t dated in, like, five years.”

“Coincidentally,” Bucky grins, “Natasha is five. And now we have item #3000 on the list of why I will never have kids.” Steve shoves him for that, laughing.

“Dating with a kid is hard, alright? She’s not— oh my God, it’s late. Natasha!” A few seconds later, her curly red head emerges from the other room. “Say goodnight to Bucky, please. And—”

“Night.” She pops back out.

“Beautifully concise.” Bucky smiles at Steve. “Gonna be a poet, that one.”

“Natasha, get back in here, I wasn’t done,” Steve orders, as he walks Bucky to the front door. They’re already at the door when she joins them, looking sullen. “Play-time’s over, okay?”

“Five more minutes?”

“Nope.”

“Please?”

“Sorry, honey.” Idly, he smooths a flyaway hair as she leans moodily into his side. “It’s late. Way past your bed-time. I’m just saying bye to Bucky, and I want you to go brush your—”

“But I’m not tired!” Natasha bursts out, her foot kicking at the floor.

Uh… this is awkward for Bucky. He edges towards the door as Steve sighs and picks her up, Natasha wrapping her bony arms around his neck and burying her face in his shoulder. “I want to play.”

“I know you do, and you can play a lot tomorrow,” Steve promises, before turning back to Bucky. He holds out his hand, the other arm full of Natasha, and shakes Bucky’s hand. “Sorry, she’s tired.”

“Better get her to bed.” Green eyes glare at him for his traitorous statement, beginning to water. Okay, that’s his cue to leave. “Thanks again for dinner.”

“Thanks for coming!” Steve calls— Bucky’s already out the door.

“Yep. Great meeting you both,” he rushes out, before shutting the door firmly.

So that was fun.

Chapter Text

Bucky doesn’t see Steve or Natasha for a while after the first night. Somehow he was expecting to run into them every so often- there was this whole image in his head, of what living in the same building would mean. Seeing Steve as he heads out to work, bumping elbows as they grab their mail, holding the door open for each other when Bucky gets back from work and Steve’s bringing Natasha back from school.

But nope, the universe apparently hates him because it dropped a hot guy right in his lap, dangled him in front of Bucky’s eyes and everything, and then took him away.

In a bout of desperation, Bucky starts taking the stairs to and from his apartment— twenty-three floors is no joke, thank you very much, even if he’s developing calves to die for— pausing on the nineteenth floor in the hope of the door opening.

(In hindsight, he’s glad that didn’t pan out, because it would’ve been pretty difficult to play off as a coincidence. Unless Steve’s dense enough to believe that Bucky regularly climbs two-dozen flights of stairs for exercise, dressed in his nicest jeans to boot.)

But he doesn’t see them at all. Once- and he will never, ever admit to this, even under torture- he even presses his ear against the door, but it’s silent.

He’s close to sending some type of awful ‘how’s it going/why aren’t you around/are you dead’ message— he has the text composed and everything, just gotta hit send— but at the last minute decides against it. When the fuck did this happen? How did he allow himself to turn into such a pathetic, desperate mess? Bucky is usually a stone-cold casanova, the do-‘em-and-ditch-‘em type. Now he’s spending his evenings trawling through pages of NYC gossip mags looking for photos of his landlord at well-to-do gatherings.

Finally, after a week or so of basically killing himself, Bucky gives up on the stairs and takes to lingering in the lobby, pretending to check his mail, during the times he figures Natasha would be leaving for school, or in the afternoon when she’d be picked up.

Still nothing. For days. He’s there so often, the mailman’s on a first-name basis with him. Which, first of all? Is just sad. And second of all, as much as Fred is a really swell guy, Bucky only has so much patience when it comes to smiling and exchanging pleasantries.

It’s like the Rogers have disappeared off the face of the planet.

Maybe they’ve moved, he considers one night, laying morosely on his bed and scowling at the moth circling the yellow ceiling light. It’s possible Steve either sold or rented out his unit. The thing is, though, Bucky’s pretty sure your landlord’s supposed to inform you of those sorts of essential facts.

He thinks. There has to be a law about it, or something.

The next day at work, he asks Barton.

“Is it illegal for a landlord to move without informing their tenant,” Clint repeats, slowly, like Bucky’s dumb. “You know, I might not have been to law school, but I’m pretty damn sure that’s allowed.”

Bucky flops down onto his desk with an undignified “Hmmpf”.

“Why?” Coulson asks, looking up from his paperwork. “If you need to track down your landlord because there’s a problem with your apartment and they’re refusing to respond, that might be illegal.”

There is a problem with his apartment. A big one. With his bed, specifically. And that problem is that Steve’s not in it.

Sam, ever the voice of reason, gestures to the computer. “Why don’t you just look him up?”

“What?” Bucky lifts his head.

“Search him up. If he’s moved, you’ll get his new address.”

Bucky could kiss Sam. He logs onto the NYPD database and types in ‘Steve(n) Rogers’, waiting for the program to generate matches. It’s not technically allowed, what he’s doing, and Hill would have his ass on a platter if she knew, but he trusts the boys to warn him if she leaves her office. The page finishes loading, and… three-hundred and twelve results.

Bucky swears under his breath. Okay. So that’s annoying, but not insurmountable. Selecting filters quickly, he gets to work. Age: 30s. Previously married to Peggy Carter, daughter Natasha Carter Rogers.

He doesn’t even finish typing in Natasha’s name, because Steve— his Steve— is already the only result when he adds the marriage filter. (Bucky ignores the fact that he’s now thinking of Steve as ‘his’ as he pulls up the record).

The address is unchanged. Steve’s lived there for almost five years exactly, and bought Bucky’s unit three years ago. The knowledge brings him a lot more relief than it should. Then, having confirmed that Steve has not, in fact, just up and left, he begins browsing through the rest of the profile idly. Wow, the guy grew up in a really shitty part of town. And Bucky spent his childhood sharing a mattress on the floor with Becca, so he knows what he’s talking about.

He clicks on Current Identification, and, huh. There’s Steve, looking dapper as fuck on his driver’s license photo. He’s working those beautiful eyes and everything. Which is just unfair, in Bucky’s opinion. Looking shitty in the DMV picture is, like, a rite of passage for all Americans. Clearly Steve’s just not American enough.

Birthday: July 4th.

This time, Bucky lets out an honest-to-god growl of frustration, causing the three other detectives’ heads to swing around to him.

“What?” Clint cranes his neck to look at Bucky’s screen, getting a look before he can close the tab. He whistles in appreciation. “That is one fine man. I don’t even swing that way, but for him, I would. Phil, come look at Bucky’s landlord.”

Coulson does, with the disapproving air of someone who will absolutely take part in gossip while insisting the entire time that they should all stop.

Sam’s getting up to look, too, but just as he stands, the door handle to Fury’s office makes its familiar creak-wobble-creak, and they disperse in an instant. Bucky hastily logs off the database.

“That case pile’s not getting any smaller, gentlemen,” Fury says as he strides through the bullpen and out to the elevators.

“Aye, aye, Cap’n.” Clint salutes, grinning when the captain tilts his head, eyes narrowed. It’s an act, and they all know it. Fury’s a big softie— and so is Hill— even if they both like to pretend they’re the biggest, baddest hard-asses this precinct has ever had the misfortune to have.

They stay silent for a few minutes, chided into working, making no noise but for the clicking of their keyboards. At least, Bucky, Sam and Coulson are working. Barton is staring at his monitor dreamily, Steve’s picture pulled up.

“Phil, am I bi?” he asks, chin resting on his hand. “I think I’m bi. I’m bi for Bucky’s landlord.”

“Hands off!” Bucky orders. “He’s mine.” Barton better keep his grubby paws off Steve.

“Barnes, this man is responsible for my sexual awakening,” Clint says. “I deserve him more.”

“I think so too,” Sam interjects, pointing at Clint, the little shit. But the database lookup was his idea, so Bucky lets it slide. For two seconds. Then he flips them both off.

“It’s my sexual awakening too,” he says, right as Hill exits her office. “I looked at him and realized- yup, definitely gay. Two-hundred percent gay.”

Without looking at or making eye contact with any of them, Hill reaches out and solemnly fist-bumps Bucky as she walks past his desk. Sam guffaws, but even though Hill is pretty cool, they get back to work (for real this time), until she’s safely into the elevators and the doors have slid shut.

Clint is once again the first to break the silence. “Okay, but, like. I may actually be bi, no joke.”

***

The confirmation that the Rogers are still living in Bucky’s building assuages his overwhelming desire to see them somewhat. He’s still impatient as fuck, but he figures he has to run into them sooner or later, right?

He's downstairs collecting the envelopes in his mailbox one morning, rolling his eyes as he rifles through them: questionnaire about his physical health from Stark Industries, cheque from the precinct, monthly newsletter from the NYPD, coupons, survey about the arm from Stark Industries, letter from Stark Industries reminding him of his next check-up.

He shoves the cheque into the pocket of his sweats, dumps the coupons and the newsletter, and then the surveys from Stark, too. They see him every two weeks anyways, so why do they keep bothering him with all this shit to fill out? Waste of paper. Bucky should write to Stark about global warming.

“Bucky!” Someone calls his name, and, oh fuck, it’s Steve, with Natasha trailing after him. Motherfucker couldn’t show up when Bucky was in those amazing jeans that make his ass look great, or when he spent 20 minutes getting his hair just right. No, he has to show up now, when Bucky’s drowning in baggy, pizza-stained sweats.

Natasha had looked up when her father called out, and her face lights up when she sees Bucky. “Bucky! Hey, guess what!”

“What?”

“Today at school Mr. Banner let me feed the fishes. And I was so good at it.”

“Wow.” Bucky is not sure if he should be praising her for this. She’s clearly expecting it, but how hard could it be to sprinkle some fish food into water? Come on. “That’s… impressive. A hard skill to learn.”

“It is. I’m the best in my class.”

“Sounds like a class full of winners.”

Beside her, Steve’s hiding a smile. “We haven’t seen you in a while,” he says warmly.

Bucky tries not to look incredulous. They haven’t seen him in a while? “I’ve been keeping busy,” he says, going for casual. “I thought I’d see you and the kid around more, what with school drop-offs.”

“I guess our comings and goings don’t really coincide with your work hours.”

Yeah, maybe not, but they should coincide with the amount of time Bucky’s spent learning about Fred-the-mailman’s three kids.

“School’s what, 8:30 to 3?” He glances at his watch, then eyes Natasha suspiciously… she does look a bit peaky. “You’re early. Is she sick?” He takes a giant step back.

“No, she’s in kindergarten. Half-day. Starts later, ends earlier.” He tugs his daughter in front of him; she’d been running her fingers along the edge of the mailboxes. “Don’t touch that, it’s dirty. Now you have to wash your hands.”

“I always wash my hands.” When nobody says anything for a beat, Natasha adds, “Are we going up now?”

“Um, yeah.” Steve clears his throat. “Yeah, just, uh… how’s the apartment, Bucky? I’ve been meaning to drop by, you know, to check up. But then I figured, hey, he probably wouldn’t appreciate his landlord just showing up whenever.”

“You can come anytime,” Bucky says, a little too quickly, and then kicks himself. “I mean, it’s your place.”

“Technically, I guess, but… I don’t know, I just felt it might be better to only stop by if you need me to. Appliances malfunctioning and the like.”

As Steve grabs Natasha’s hand to stop her from shoving her pinky into one of the mailbox keyholes, Bucky nods. “Mm, probably for the best. I’ll call you if I need you— and only if I need you, don’t worry. I ain’t about to make you come down for every little thing.”

Steve laughs. “Well, I appreciate that, but if you do need anything at all, you have my number.”

As they head off towards the elevators, Bucky leans agains the mailboxes, a quiet grin working over his face. Appliances malfunctioning… now there’s an idea.

***

Bucky probably shouldn’t be taking a screwdriver to his dryer. In his defense, he knows exactly how to fix it, should Steve prove to be inept. Somehow, Bucky doesn’t think he will be, though. You can’t grow up as broke as Steve apparently did, going by his childhood address, without knowing how to fix a faulty fridge or two.

He painstakingly times the hour to call, when Natasha would be at school but Steve should be home. After two rings, Steve picks up, sounding a little out of breath.

“Hey.” Bucky’s going for suave, cool, casual. ‘My dryer broke down, but I’m so easy-going, I don’t even care’ type of vibe. “Are you busy?”

“No, all good. What’s up?”

“So, you know we were talking about appliances malfunctioning yesterday?”

There’s a pause. “Ye-es…” Steve answers slowly, drawing out the syllables.

“Well. You can probably guess, but… yeah. That. The dryer, specifically.”

“What’s the damage?”

Bucky flounders for a second, about to say ‘I think a screw’s loose’… but that would be giving away too much, and Steve would wonder why Bucky can’t fix it himself. “Honestly, I don’t even know. It just won’t close. The door’s half-off its hinges.”

“Okay.” In the background, Bucky can hear Steve moving around. “That shouldn’t be too hard to fix. Gimme a minute, I’ll be right down.”

“No, I wouldn’t want to bother you—”

“Don’t worry about it.” The phone clicks off.

Bucky fist-bumps his reflection in the mirror.

***

For all his self-flagellation, Bucky actually, genuinely believes that he might be a genius. All evidence points to it. Does anyone else in New York have Steve Rogers bending down in their laundry room as the muscles in his back struggle deliciously against his shirt?

(Steve is not quite as handy with tools as Bucky had assumed, and it’d taken a few little nudges to get him to see the problem. But that just means more time spent in the apartment, making little grunting sounds as he works, so Bucky’s not complaining.)

“There!” Steve emerges triumphant, a pleased little grin on his face. “I think I got it.”

Obligingly, Bucky grabs the handle, and moves the door up and down a few times. “Wow,” he says, “You’ve got some pretty good tricks.” It’d only taken, what, twenty minutes to identify the source of the problem— even though the damn thing was creaking where it was loose, for crying out loud— and then another ten to screw it back in.

Steve shrugs, one hand moving up to rub the back of his neck, bashful. He’s so fucking cute it hurts. “Oh, you know. It was no big deal, just a screw loose.”

“I thought I was going to have to call someone in.” Is he overdoing it? Maybe that was too much. Nope, the punk gives him a happy thumbs-up.

“Nah, don’t do that. I can usually figure out how to fix most things around the house.”

“Are you sure?” Bucky asks. “I don’t want to be a nuisance…” Oh God, he’s such an asshole. He’s always been a jerk, but this is a new low.

“Bucky. Seriously. Anything you need, just say the word. It’s what I’m here for.”

“Thanks, Steve,” Bucky says fervently as he shows Steve out. “You’re a real life-saver.”

***

A week later, Steve stands in Bucky’s kitchen, scratching his chin like the fridge has just posed the biggest philosophical question known to man. “I don’t understand why it’s not working.”

“Beats me.” Bucky is such an asshole. But this time Steve came down looking like something straight out of a porno, wife-beater half-tucked into dark denim, so really, it’s Steve’s own fault.

The problem with the fridge barely even qualifies as an actual issue, seeing as all that’s wrong is that Bucky just reset the temperature dial from below freezing to completely off. So, you know, all Steve has to do is turn it the other way. There’s numbers on the dial and everything, it’s not like you have to go looking for it.

Instead, Steve spent a quarter of an hour unplugging and re-plugging the whole fridge, again and again, then looking hopefully at it.

“Maybe the wires at the back aren’t plugged into the freezer part tightly enough,” he muses— which, what?

“Yeah,” Bucky nods, as if Steve’s just come up with a brilliant plan. “That’s probably it.”

Satisfied with the response, Steve gets back to work. Bucky hops up on the counter, biting into an apple from the fruit bowl.

“Why don’t you take a break? It’s been a while.”

“I want to get it fixed before I have to go get Nat from school.” He glances at his watch, then at the apple in Bucky’s hand. “Well, I guess I do have time for a short break.”

Bucky throws him an apple, which he catches deftly, almost without looking— so at least he’s not completely without hand-eye coordination, even if his technical expertise is sorely lacking.

“Why aren’t you at work today?” Bucky knows Steve actually does go to work and doesn’t just draw from home, because this is the third time he’s reset the dial and called, and each time there was no answer.

“My hours are all over the place. I can do the bulk of the drawing at home, but most days I go into work because there’s some new client to meet, or there’s promotional shit I need to deal with.” He takes a large bite, swallowing before speaking. “The Connie Cat limited edition set is coming out in a few weeks, so I’ll have to go in a lot more around then.”

“At least you have flexibility with the scheduling,” Bucky points out, because Steve seems a little jaded and tired today. “That’s a blessing, especially with a kid.”

“Yeah.” Steve nods, tongue darting out to lick juice that splattered around his mouth. Bucky realizes he’s staring, and averts his eyes. “I usually schedule my meetings so that I can at least pick Natasha up from school, even if I have to leave sometime in the afternoon. That’s nice to be able to do.”

“Plus,” says Bucky logically, “you make a fuckton of money.”

“That’s true,” Steve laughs, reaching over to shove Bucky, who mimes as if he’s falling off the counter but manages to catch himself at the last minute. “Don’t even try that, I barely touched you.”

“Almost killed me.”

“Jerk.”

Oh, Steve has no idea. “Guilty as charged.”

“So why aren’t you at work?”

Bucky really does not want to get into this. “They have me on desk duty,” he says shortly, lifting his left shoulder enough that Steve gets it, his eyes scanning the metal prosthetic. “I don’t even have to go in at all.”

Steve clearly senses that this is a touchy topic. “And you’re taking them up on that?” He tuts, shaking his head. “Lazy ass.”

“Hey, fuck you. You wanna sit there tracking down who stole Mrs. Garfield’s ten bucks? Because I’m tellin’ ya, pal, your punk ass would go crazy after a day.”

His landlord laughs again, low and throaty. It just makes Bucky look at his gorgeous pink lips. “Fair enough.” His eyes flick to Bucky, mischievous. “Still a lazy ass, though.”

Wow, Steve really is a little shit. Bucky likes him more already. He points to the fridge sternly. “I think your lazy ass better get back to work, mister.”

“Your wish is my command.”

As Steve bends down to fiddle with the two wires connected to the fridge, Bucky sidles up casually. Hey, Steve looks like he could use a win today. So, careful to hide what he’s doing, he turns the dial all the way to the right, back to 30 F.

The fridge rumbles back to life. “Ah, there we go.” Steve stands, brushing non-existent dirt off his hands onto his jeans, acting like he totally knows what he just did to fix it. “That should do it.”

Bucky wants to kiss the smirk off his dumb mug.

***

“I’m so sorry, I swear this isn’t all just cheapo crap I bought off craigslist.” Steve looks like he’s really regretting including appliances with the rent.

“You sure?” Bucky teases, passing Steve a nut driver when he points at it. They’re in the kitchen again, and this time Bucky actually did just fiddle with a wire until it came loose, figuring that’s what Steve’ll go for first. Except, no, because Steve came up and instead asked for a toolbox— a toolbox, like he knows what to do with any of the tools— and is now uselessly pawing at the dishwasher with a nut driver.

That’s not even how you use a nut driver.

Bucky’s a little scared Steve’s actually going to fuck up his dishwasher beyond repair, and then he’ll genuinely have to call someone in to fix it (and fork over cash for the bill; even he’s not enough of an asshole to make his landlord pay to repair a dishwasher he basically broke himself).

“Well, okay, maybe the washing machine,” Steve admits. “It wasn’t cheap though, I swear.”

“Don’t worry, it’s fine. Probably a loose wire again.” Okay, seriously, that’s gotta be the fifth time he’s said loose wire, how many times…? For a moment, it looks like Steve’s about to listen, but then he grits his teeth and resolutely continues what he’s doing— which is, in a nutshell, banging the nut driver against the back of the dishwasher where the pipes connect. Like that’s gonna do shit. “You probably don’t ever have tenants calling you over this much, huh?”

“No, you’re special.” Steve winks at him.

Bucky grins. “I’m flattered.”

“You join a long list of all sorts of crazy demands.”

“Hey!” Bucky protests. “This ain’t a crazy demand. You could call someone-- who’s asking you to get down and dirty?” After a second, he thinks ‘fuck it’, and adds, “Not that I ever mind if anyone wants to get on their knees in front of me.”

Steve doesn’t take it as the come-on it is, and just shakes his head, grinning. “I’ve been a landlord for a while though. I’ve dealt with a lot worse than you, trust me.”

“You are full of shit,” Bucky pronounces. “You’ve had this place three years- that makes me, what, your fourth tenant? If that?”

“You’re my third, actually, but— wait, what?” Steve breaks off, peering suspiciously at Bucky. Oh, fuck. “How did you know it’s been three years?”

Bucky should just keep his big mouth shut. He should just tape it closed and never speak again. “Uh… okay, fine, look. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I looked you up.”

“Looked me up online?”

“Um. No.” Bucky is in so much shit. He gives a half-hearted chuckle, hoping Steve sees the funny side. This is kind of hilarious, right? In a way? (He’s so fucked). “I work for the police, remember?”

“Oh.” Rather than looking upset or angry, Steve seems… embarrassed. “Oh, I- Okay. I guess I can’t be mad about that. I looked you up too.”

“You what?” Bucky yelps. He’s completely aware that this is, like, ten levels of hypocritical, but he happens to be a cop. Have the good citizens of New York entrusted Steve with their safety while Bucky wasn’t looking? No they have not. “How did you even do that?”

“I… know a guy.” Steve, unlike Bucky, has the decency to look ashamed. “He’s very good with computers. It was less of, uh, ‘looking you up’, and more… well, pretty much everything about your life and online activities.”

Bucky’s flabbergasted. The nerve of him. At least his own reason for searching the database was to find Steve’s address, and he didn’t run a whole background check to meet his goals. “Why would you want to do that?!”

Brow furrowed, Steve cocks his head to one side. “Well… same reason you looked me up. Safety. You think I’d let my daughter within five feet of anyone who could be dangerous?”

Oh. Steve thinks Bucky looked him up to check that he wasn’t signing on with a psychopath… which makes total sense. And which is a lot less stalker-ish than Bucky’s reason, so that’s what he’s going with, he decides.

“Right. Safety. That makes— that’s good,” he finishes, somewhat lamely. “I’m not a child predator, by the way. Just getting that out there.”

“I know.” Steve says it with such simple confidence that for a second Bucky’s flattered. Apparently, despite them not knowing each other all that well, Steve has a good opinion of his character and trusts him. Then his eyes narrow.

“When you said ‘online activities’, you didn’t just mean email and social media, did you?”

Steve instantly looks guilty again and shakes his head, then raises his hands up. “No, but— okay, I know how that sounds… it’s not like that. I don’t know anything. The guy I asked has his employees look; they report back, I don't know anything. I swear.”

Steve is a ridiculous, protective motherfucker and Bucky really just wants to fuck him agains the wall.

“Fine,” he grouches after a drawn-out pause. Mostly because Steve looks like a kicked puppy, and Bucky's goin' fucking soft. In an effort to claw back some dignity, he grumbles: “But you owe me.”

“Yes!” Steve says quickly. “One hundred percent. Another dinner, maybe?”

“Tomorrow.” Bucky feels like he’s entitled to being a little demanding, here.

“Tomorrow works.”

“And I want that brownie thing again.”

“Done.”