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Blood Is Thicker Than Carpet Cleaner

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Steve loved his apartment. It was in a perfect location (far enough away from Stark Tower that it wasn’t hellishly expensive, and also Tony would find it slightly more difficult than a millisecond’s thought to spy on him), the neighbors were wonderfully friendly and didn’t ask awkward questions (like, ‘Why are you coming home at such odd hours?’ or ‘Why do you have famous people visiting you all the time?’), and the landlord didn’t mind when he had had contractors in to add in some bulletproofing and a false wall to hide his uniform and shield for when he had civilian company over.

Really, it was the best place for him. It was just a little too public, sometimes. Not that the general citizen knew (or cared) that A. Captain America was Steve Rogers, or B. that Steve Rogers happened to have an apartment in one of the shabbier neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, most of the people who declared themselves to be Captain America’s enemies were not what one might consider to be general citizens. It was fairly common knowledge among these people that Steve was Captain America (which was a matter of public record, actually--Steve was always surprised when someone recognized him, but it happened), and that Steve’s address could be found with a bit of clever googling.

This point was rather driven home (so to speak) when Steve was ambushed by a highly trained squad of Hydra agents as he walked through his front door with his groceries. After he’d finished with them, he looked around his wrecked living room in dismay. There was blood everywhere, and five (probably) unconscious men were lying on the ground. The milk bottle’s cheap plastic had burst when he smashed it into someone’s neck, and--there seemed to be something smoking on the shambles which used to be his coffee table. He took care of that (and the milk, as best he could; Steve had priorities, and spoiled milk stank much worse than blood) and then called Director Coulson to take care of the agents for him.

The (very small) fire was out, sure, and the Hydra agents were gone, and the milk had been thoroughly eradicated from his ugly rug, but that left Steve with all the bloodstains and scrapes which no amount of scrubbing or superpowered elbow grease could remove. Steve was at his wits’ end when he hung up on a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent laughing hysterically at his request for someone to please, please help him clean up. Apparently, they were a bit too busy with actual spy work, whatever that was.

Steve found a note on his kitchen table, written in what Natasha had allowed him to believe was her handwriting, when he came back from having lunch with her a week after the failed ambush. It had been an interesting week, in which Steve had had to open the door only a sliver and slither out somehow so that his neighbors didn’t spot the bloodstains on the ground and call the police--or worse, start up with those uncomfortable questions which had driven him out of his last apartment. It was probably a good thing she left the note, as Steve was getting dangerously close to deciding he should rip up the floor himself and put new ones in, which might make the landlord just a tad irritated with his tallest tenant.

The note said, ‘Have you tried looking up a cleaning service?’ with a smiley face and an arrow pointed at the phone book sitting on the table in the center of one of the larger dents his shield had made around his apartment. (Steve had fixed the dents in the walls, but he kind of liked having his furniture a little banged up. It added character, as his mother had said that time he’d accidentally thrown a baseball at his father’s old wardrobe and cracked the side.)

Steve sighed and smiled wryly. Even he knew phone books were rarely used any more, and he had been frozen in ice for seventy years. Natasha really enjoyed her age jokes at his expense. However…

Just because it had been a joke didn’t mean it was a bad idea. Steve opened the phone book to the business section and searched fruitlessly for the right entries for about six minutes until he finally came across ‘Cl’ by sheer luck when a few pages stuck together as he turned them.

For some reason, his eyes were immediately drawn to a small, bleak ad in the corner, with only a few words, a phone number, and a thin black border.

The ad’s content:

“Winter’s Cleaning Services. Fees paid half up front. Specializes in blood removal.”

Well. That was. Specific.

It was also his best chance yet, so Steve called the next day, a bit after ten in the morning.

“Yeah?” a man’s voice said, short and slightly garbled.

Steve winces. He’d tried to aim for normal business hours, but he hadn’t been sleeping well lately (going on three years now) and he’d been getting antsy just sitting around.

“Hi, I’m Steve. I saw your ad in the phone book and I was wondering if I could hire someone from Winter’s Cleaning Services?” Steve asked, pronouncing the company’s name carefully so that the man could understand even if he was half-asleep.

“That’s me,” said the man, sounding much more awake this time. “I have some open slots, sure. I like to have a meeting first, though, to get a feel for the job, and see if I take it.”

“That sound great. I’ll text you my address when we hang up.”

“Going rate for a job’s twenty thousand,” the man said abruptly. “Half in advance, like the ad says. That sound reasonable?”

“Um,” said Steve, blinking at his shoes. “Is that the usual rate?”

“Hey, you don’t like it, don’t hire me,” replied the man breezily. “Actually, that’s pretty cheap for someone with my skills. You never done this before, huh?”

“No,” Steve told him truthfully. “All right, when can you come to my apartment? I’ll be there to meet you.”

“Next Tuesday sound good? Three pm?”

“Sure,” Steve said. The phone went dead.

Twenty thousand seemed a little steep to Steve, to be quite honest, but he wasn’t really familiar with the work required to clean something completely, unlike this man. After all, he decided, if the man could remove the terrible rusty brown stains from the upholstery of Steve’s favorite couch, it would be worth every penny.

Next Tuesday at 2:15 pm, an unmarked dark blue suburban pulled up into the street parking in front of Steve’s apartment building. A well-built brunet man in a dull brown jacket and a cap came around from the driver’s side with his hands in his pockets and an easy gait which Steve had seen used by more spies and agents than he could count with his fingers--or with the fingers of all the other Avengers, for that matter.

Steve was, naturally, immediately suspicious.

The man loitered, pacing slowly around the sidewalk for a good fifteen minutes. Steve was even more suspicious.

Coming down the front stairs after the man headed down the alley, Steve quietly followed the man around the side of the building and came at him from behind to spin him and push him against the wall with carefully human-normal strength.

“Who are you and why are you hanging around here?” Steve demanded.

“Whoa! Easy,” said the man, laughing and holding gloved hands up. “I got a meeting here at three, I was just checking the place out.”

That made sense to Steve, who had staked out a café from across the street for a week before deciding to make it his usual coffee spot. He relaxed his grip some, then a thought struck him. Steve felt very stupid, then.

“Wait, are you from Winter’s Cleaning Services?” he asked.

“Yeah,” answered the man. His eyes were narrowed and thoughtful. “Are you Steve?”

“That’s me,” replied Steve, letting go entirely and backing away like one of Tony’s robots was coming at him with a pair of scissors again. “Uh, sorry about that. I’ve been a little jumpy lately.”

“It’s fine, I get it,” said the man with a quick smile. “I’m Bucky, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, Bucky,” Steve said. “Do you mind coming up to my apartment a little early or do you want to stay down here a while longer?” Or did he want to leave? Steve hoped he didn’t leave. It was starting to feel like someone would be coming in soon with a camera team and a network deal, or maybe a health inspector. Possibly both. Probably both.

Bucky did want to come up, which was not quite an assurance that he’d take the job despite Steve probably freaking him out with the wall and the intimidation, but was definitely a step in the right direction.

When they reached Steve’s landing, he paused with his hand on the door and twisted to look at Bucky square in the face.

“I have to warn you,” said Steve apologetically. “Your job’s pretty messy.”

“I get paid for this shit,” replied the man, laughing a little. “Trust me when I say that I have seen messier than you could ever dream of.”

“I’m not sure of that,” Steve muttered ruefully, and finally opened the door.

“Jesus Christ,” said Bucky, looking around in bewilderment. “Did someone die here?”

“No, there was, uh, a bit of a disagreement,” Steve said.

Bucky turned and ran a quick assessing gaze down Steve’s body. Steve could imagine the data going into Bucky’s mental catalog right now: no injuries, blood probably not his. May be a serial killer. Should probably run away screaming, but money.

“Hell of a disagreement,” was the only comment out loud, however.

“Yeah, it was,” Steve agreed, relieved that Bucky didn’t seem to be scared, or about to call the police, which would be awkward all around.

“So what do you need done?” asked Bucky, ice-gray eyes focusing on Steve like laser sights in a fraction of a second.

Steve huffed and made a small gesture around the room. “The carpets have to be cleaned in the living room and hallway, obviously, and the sofa. I got everything up from the kitchen, I think, although you might want to give it a quick scrub just to make sure. There’s the scrapes on the walls, but I’ll probably have to paint over that. You won’t have to go in my bedroom, nothing got in there, and the bathroom only has a bit of blood on the carpet in the doorframe. That should be it, I think.”

Bucky looked utterly poleaxed. “Uh, what?” he asked. “I mean, what?”

Steve sighed patiently. “The carpets have to be cleaned and so does my couch. Everything else is fine.”

“Right,” Bucky agreed. “Those stains look hard to get out.”

“They are,” said Steve, “which is why I hired a cleaning service.”

“Oh,” Bucky replied, nodding, then, “Oh! A cleaning service. That’s me. I’m the cleaning service.”

“Yes,” said Steve.

“Oh my God,” muttered Bucky, glancing helplessly around, somehow more panicked now than when he’d seen the blood to begin with. Perhaps he’d gone into shock upon first seeing it and only just come out of it? A resolved look stole across Bucky’s face; then, louder, “I think this’ll take a few days, at least. Will you be here next week, starting on Monday?”

“Yes,” Steve told him. He was determined to be here no matter who decided to invade New York next week, no matter how many Central Park statues went missing mysteriously or how green the sky got. “Monday, at least. And I’ll have a key made so you can get in while I’m not here.”

Bucky raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth, but looked around again quickly and shut it with a stunned shrug. “That sounds good to me,” he said.

“Great!” Steve exclaimed, smiling, and handed Bucky the check he’d filled out earlier. “I wasn’t sure who to fill it out to, but the rest of it’s there.”

Bucky blinked at the check a few times and then stared at Steve incredulously. “This is ten thousand dollars.”

“I’m pretty sure you said half up front,” said Steve, who remembered Bucky saying those exact words in a very grumpy tone.

“I did,” Bucky said, nodding. “I did indeed say that. You’re right. You are absolutely right. Thanks for--for the check. I will be right back here on Monday.”

“You’re welcome?” Steve supposed that was the right answer, but he had to admit to being confused as Bucky walked out of the room in a daze. Well, he supposed some people were uncomfortable seeing so much blood. Still, it was odd that the company had hired Bucky when they explicitly advertised that they were the best at cleaning up blood, but maybe there were extenuating circumstances.

Steve didn’t really care all that much as long as his apartment would finally get back to some semblance of normality.

Blessedly, nothing happened during the week (or the weekend) which might mess with his Monday plans, and he was able to get his key copied and his uniform and shield safely stowed away behind the false wall before Bucky showed up early Monday morning.

“Hi,” said Steve. “You’re very early today.”

Bucky grimaced in an approximation of a smile, swinging three buckets, a pile of towels, and a few bottles of various cleaning solutions off his arm. “Early bird gets the dirt, or whatever it is,” he said, mostly coherently. “G’morning, by the way.”

“Morning,” Steve replied, amused. “You want breakfast before you start?”

“Yes, please,” sighed Bucky in relief, dropping all his gear and slumping over to the least damaged of the kitchen chairs. Steve had prepared for this possibility with (terrible, but familiar) coffee and pancake mix, with which he made a truly astounding amount of waffles.

Bucky’s face was a mask of joy when Steve put Bucky’s plate down in front of him.

“Uh, I hope you’re hungry,” said Steve, and mentally reviewed what he remembered of normal humans’ eating habits. “Very, very hungry.”

“I am,” Bucky assured him, and proved it in short order. He nearly outstripped Steve for speed and volume, which Steve had thought impossible (barring Thor).

“I ought to get to work,” mentioned Bucky, eyeing the crumbs on his plate lovingly.

“All right,” Steve said, putting his own plate in the sink and leaning against the counter with his coffee.

They stared at each other. Steve placed his mug delicately on the counter.

“I guess it would be weird for me to stay here and watch you,” observed Steve.

“Probably,” Bucky agreed.

Steve nodded, picked up his coffee to take another sip, and went to grab his coat. He paused in the kitchen doorway for a second.

“Here,” he said, and tossed Bucky the key he’d had made. Bucky caught it effortlessly. “Lock the door if I’m not back by the time you leave, please.”

“Sure thing, Steve,” Bucky responded with a charming smile.

Steve flashed his best smirk back at Bucky and continued on his way.

Bucky was still there when Steve got back hours later, looking extremely frazzled (his hair was gathered into a ponytail, and there was a streak of orange on his no-longer-entirely-white t-shirt) and wildly triumphant.

“Two down, seventeen and a half to go!” he shouted as Steve shut the door, throwing up his hands like he’d just won a wrestling match. Steve held back a laugh.

“Nice,” Steve praised approvingly. “Out of curiosity, what’s the half?”

“You know that little bit of blood spatter in the hallway?” Bucky said rhetorically.

That blood spatter came from when Steve had broken one agent’s nose on his knee, so yes, Steve knew it. He gave an affirmative hum and cast about for a new subject. Steve fell back on something safe: food.

“Want lunch before you wrap up for today?” he asked. Bucky perked up from his purposeful hunch and grinned.

“That sounds great,” said Bucky. “What’re you making?”

(Bucky took off his nitrile gloves with a wary glance toward Steve, who didn’t react. Steve definitely noticed the metal hand, but decided it would be rude to ask, especially when Bucky had just been scrubbing Steve’s floors.)

Between them, they polished off a baker’s dozen of corned beef sandwiches and a gallon of milk.

“I feel like I haven’t had corned beef in a hundred years,” Bucky moaned, mouth full. “Or nearabouts, anyways.”

“Yeah, I know how you feel,” agreed Steve, smiling in a private joke to himself.

They sat for a minute in comfortable silence, Steve nursing his glass of milk and Bucky rubbing at his stomach contentedly.

“You’re not asking questions, about the blood,” Steve noted. “Aren’t you curious?”

“Oh, I’m curious,” said Bucky, laughter in his voice. “But I figure it’s none of my business who you fight in your own apartment, except for the parts which are, well, my business. As in, the blood. You seem like a pretty good guy, I doubt you’d do much to anyone without a reason.”

“Not always true,” Steve sighed, leaning back and looking away. “But I try.”

Bucky barked out a laugh. “Don’t we all,” he said ruefully.

This became the pattern for the next week: Bucky would show up and have breakfast with Steve, Steve would leave for a few hours for S.H.I.E.L.D. or for general ambling about the city, and then he would go back for lunch and goodbyes until the next day.

And then Natasha cornered him at headquarters on Sunday, in one of the hospital rooms where surveillance was low-tech because it was actually dangerous to patients’ health to have too much security in the room.

Natasha was still in that particular way which meant there was trouble afoot.

“Steve,” said Natasha, excruciatingly calmly. “Don’t panic, but your cleaning guy is not who he claims to be.”

“He claims to be Bucky Barnes,” Steve told her, confused. “That would be a terrible fake name, it’s too memorable. I’m pretty sure he’s not lying about that.”

“No, he’s not,” she admitted. “But Bucky Barnes is also known as the Winter Soldier, an infamous assassin for whoever has the right kind of money.”

“He’s pretty good at cleaning my floor, for an assassin,” Steve said automatically, mind whirring.

“I’m not sure what his plans are, but I doubt they have your best interest in mind. This man has been killing people for half of your life, Steve, and that’s no small feat.”

“You mean, since…”

“Since 1956. This isn’t a joke, Steve,” Natasha said, words strong despite the low volume.

“I didn’t think it was, it wasn’t funny,” said Steve. “Look, Bucky may or may not be this assassin you’re talking about, but I don’t think you understand. He’s cleaning my floor. He’s been doing it every day for a week. He’s had plenty of opportunity to take me out, especially when my back is turned as I make breakfast or lunch for us.”

Natasha stared at him. A smirk slowly took over her face.

“You’ve been cooking for him?”

“Uh huh,” Steve replied warily, unsure where she was going with this.

“You don’t cook for Sam or me,” she pointed out.

“You guys take over whenever food’s mentioned. You won’t even let me make toast. I think Sam’s afraid I’m going to boil the bread,” said Steve, and quietly added, “Bucky likes what I make him.”

“So, that’s your type, is it?” she asked innocently. “Very attractive, good at getting blood out of anything, eats your food, and could kill a man in a blink. This is giving me all sorts of new information about you, Steve.”

“I don’t have a type,” protested Steve half-heartedly. Natasha’s face was filled with mischief, however.

“You should bring him to meet the team,” Natasha suggested gleefully.

“No!” Steve replied, eyes wide. “No, that’s a terrible idea. Especially since he has no idea I’m Captain America.”

Natasha scoffed. “Oh, please, Steve. He’s not an idiot, he probably researched you the second you hung up the first time.”

“I don’t think so,” said Steve, thinking back to that first meeting. “Maybe after the meeting, sure. But he didn’t know me. Wait. Natasha. Natasha, I hired an assassin.”

“Well, yes, that’s what I’ve been telling you,” Natasha said patiently.

“No, Natasha, I mean he’s not a cleaner at all. That’s a cover. No wonder he was so surprised I was paying twenty thousand dollars for him cleaning up my apartment!” hissed Steve. “He thought I wanted someone killed. Damn.”

“You’re paying him twenty thousand dollars for this?” Natasha repeated, sounding impressed.

“He said it was his going rate!”

“I’m sure it is. I can’t blame him for taking the job,” said Natasha dryly. “It would actually cost less to have someone killed, if you discount the price of the respective supplies from the total fee. This way he gets more money and he doesn’t even have to kill someone. I’d do it, too.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Steve said, unimpressed.

“No, I wouldn’t,” Natasha gave a small smile. “But I’d think about it for a moment, at least.”

Sam died of laughter when they Skyped him in the afternoon after retreating to Steve’s apartment, then resurrected himself to ask seriously if Steve was sure it was safe and whether he needed backup. Steve really did have good friends, even if they were a bunch of assholes. (Steve turned down the backup offer. He figured that there were more efficient ways to kill or capture a man than clean his apartment for a week. Actually, Steve could come up with about twelve off-the-cuff, and only one of them involved breaking out some real weapons. Natasha could probably think of more, and if Bucky was really an assassin, he was fully aware of every single one of them.)

Monday breakfast was very uncomfortable--or at least it was for Steve. He kept tearing his eyes away to keep from looking suspicious, then looking back at Bucky when he remembered that it would be out of character for him to avoid Bucky’s gaze.

“Anything wrong?” Bucky asked, watching with raised eyebrows as Steve twitched and suppressed a guilty face.

“Nope!” Steve said, pasting on that cheesy smile which had been immortalized on war bond posters throughout America. It was not very convincing in real life, he’d found, but every now and then he unintentionally fell back on the acting lessons drilled into him before his tour circuit rather than the training the S.S.R. and S.H.I.E.L.D. had given him over the years.

“That was real convincing, buddy,” commented Bucky, but let it go to shovel more scrambled eggs onto his plate and drown them in ketchup until there wasn’t a speck of yellow remaining.

“Want some egg with that ketchup there, Buck?” Steve teased, unable to help himself.

Bucky glared playfully. “Don’t mind if I do,” he said, and swiped the serving plate to dump even more egg on top of his mountain of ketchup. Then he actually took a bite.

Steve made a face. “You’re basically drinking ketchup with a hint of scrambled egg,” he groaned. “That’s terrible. How--how are you still eating that?”

Bucky wasn’t even reacting to the taste as he inhaled his breakfast with minimal help from his fork. “I’ve had worse,” he mumbled through his eggy ketchup. “Besides, I like ketchup. It’s damn tasty.”

“I like ketchup, too--if you spared any for me--just not as much as you seem to,” Steve said, reaching for the bottle. There was enough for Steve’s eggs, luckily, although he’d have to run out for more later. He probably ought to take his shopping list when he went out in a few minutes. “Hey, do you need anything from the store? I’m going grocery shopping today.”

Bucky lowered his fork slowly and squinted at Steve. “Could you grab me some hairbands? I’m on my last one here and they break like they’re made of straw,” he asked finally.

Steve nodded and made a note in his journal. “Any thoughts for lunch?”

“Anything you make’s good, up to you,” said Bucky, shrugging.

Steve smiled widely, nodded again, and stood. He patted Bucky’s shoulder amiably and meandered into the hall closet to grab his coat.

“Leaving already?” Bucky called, sounding disappointed.

“Yeah,” replied Steve. “Figured if I left early I’d get back early. And you’re almost finished cleaning, right? Maybe we could do something to celebrate.”

A huge grin stole across Bucky’s face. “Yeah, all right. Better make something good, Rogers, I’ve been working hard.”

Steve snorted. “Not today, you haven’t.” He dodged Bucky’s careless punch and laughed, clapping Bucky on the shoulder again with affection. “See you later, Buck.”

“See you,” Bucky responded as he shut the door.

Steve came back to Bucky taking a nap on his (officially clean, as of last Thursday) couch. He set his groceries nearly silently in the kitchen and stared at Bucky’s sleeping face.

Was this really an assassin? Did all assassins fall asleep on random men’s sofas without a care in the world? Wasn’t that unsafe?

“If you’re trying to creep me out, it’s not working,” Bucky grumbled, eyes still closed. “If you just want to admire me, carry on. I’ll even stay still in case you want to draw me.”

“Who said I drew anything?” asked Steve, caught off-balance.

“Your sketchbook says that, Steve. You leave it around like you want people to snoop.”

“No, I d--”

“You put it right next to the bucket I was using before you left on Wednesday, Steve,” Bucky reminded.

Steve looked down. “Well, maybe.”

Luckily, Bucky’s laughter was interrupted by a knock on the door.

Unluckily, when Steve opened it, he was struck in the chest with a battering ram.

The fight was over relatively quickly, as these poor fools had only brought ten men against Captain America and the Winter Soldier, who probably could have taken care of them with minor difficulty on their own. Together, it took maybe three minutes.

“You okay?” Bucky checked, eyeing Steve.

Steve rubbed at his chest, which was a little sore. “I might have a bruise in a bit. I’ll survive.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, then looked around. One of the agents moaned, then stopped abruptly when Bucky kicked him. “I can’t believe this. I just finished cleaning up all that blood and now there’s more?” continued Bucky mournfully.

“That must be terrible for you,” said Steve, glancing around his battered apartment once before marching off to grab zip ties and passing half to Bucky. “Maybe I’ll have to hire you again, how’s that sound?”

Bucky’s face went through an interesting series of expressions. “At the same price?” he ventured.

“Maybe a little less this time,” Steve told him, leveling his best unimpressed look on Bucky, who grinned suddenly.

“Guess you looked around at real cleaning service rates, huh,” he said, restraining his laughter.

“Yeah,” replied Steve, and, “Interesting that you say real cleaning services, Bucky.”

Bucky froze. If there had been a mind-reader around, they would have been compulsively repeating ‘oh shit oh shit oh shit’ out loud, so strong were Bucky’s current thoughts.

“So you’re the Winter Soldier,” Steve said, enjoying Bucky’s reaction immensely.

“And you’re Captain America,” replied Bucky in one of the worst attempts at retaliation Steve had seen since Clint’s attempt at revenge for Natasha switching around all the labels on his arrows.

Steve pouted slightly, disappointed that he didn’t get to see Bucky’s reaction to that particular reveal. “You googled me, huh?” he asked.

“Um, no,” admitted Bucky. “I didn’t think of that, actually. I was snooping and I found your costume.”

“You admit to snooping for my uniform, but not for my sketchbook?” Steve commented incredulously.

“I really wasn’t snooping through your sketchbook, Steve!” Bucky protested. “I swear to God you left it open. And your comics about the other Avengers were what led me to look for your costume. I’m not as creepy as my job implies.”

“That killing people job?”

“I screen my clients,” said Bucky adamantly. “I only go after bad guys now. It’s more of a hobby anyways, I don’t do the indiscriminate killing thing any more.”

“I read your file,” Steve replied, and Bucky’s face crumpled into defensive anger.

“And what did you find? My kill list? My ‘Most Valuable Hydra Asset’ badge? Tell me, Steve, I want to know what kind of monster they say I am,” Bucky growled.

“It talked about how you were taken as a prisoner of war and tortured, and then used by Hydra for decades to achieve their goals,” Steve told him gently.

“I think I might’ve preferred the badge,” said Bucky, glaring at the floor and the agent lying there.

“Maybe, but it’s good to know,” Steve said. “It means instead of taking you in to S.H.I.E.L.D. without thinking about it, I’m talking with you over a bunch of guys who really should be taken in to S.H.I.E.L.D.. This way you get to help me clean up.”

“Oh, so that’s why you’re sweet-talking me now,” Bucky joked, trying to lighten the mood. “I’d wondered why you were buttering me up.”

Steve gave him a smile and let him change the subject. “I really do need to call this in,” Steve said, gazing longingly at the window and the bright blue sky behind it. “I can’t have any of them waking up and disturbing the neighbors. They don’t deserve to be irritated by these jerks.”

“You have great neighbors,” Bucky agreed. “Mrs. Paganotti gave me a slice of fruitcake on my way out the other day. I haven’t had fruitcake since my mom died.”

“She won’t give me the recipe,” complained Steve, phone in hand. “But yeah, they’re fantastic. And I’m calling now, shh.”

Bucky was silent and unnervingly still for the entirety of the phone call (“I had some unwelcome visitors. I’m going to need you to help me get them to leave.” and other carefully implied information) then started to make his excuses. “I don’t think I should be here when your friends show up.”

“You’re right, you shouldn’t,” agreed Steve. Bucky looked hurt for a second, but Steve continued, “And neither should I. We haven’t eaten yet, where do you want to go? My treat.”

“But don’t you have to let these S.H.I.E.L.D. guys in?”

Steve snorted. “If you think they can’t get in without me here, I don’t know what to tell you.”

A slow smile took over Bucky’s face. “Well, in that case...”

Bucky led him to a little hole-in-the-wall place which was dark and windowless and smelled absolutely incredible.

“This is amazing,” Steve said, sneaking peeks of other people’s food. “How’d you find this place?”

“I killed a man here,” Bucky replied, blank-faced.

Steve went tense. “Um,” he said.

“I’m kidding,” Bucky told him. “That would be unsanitary. No, one of my clients wanted to meet here, probably because there aren’t any security cameras on the entrance. I liked the food, so I’ve been coming back ever since.”

“Oh, thank God,” Steve muttered, slumping in relief.

Bucky laughed suddenly, then, without moving his lips, said, “Does your blond friend know that I can see him?”

Steve looked around surreptitiously and spotted Clint Barton, wearing sunglasses but clearly staring at them from the corner. “Huh,” he said. “Probably. He can be subtle, sometimes. He’s probably here to distract attention from Natasha.”

Bucky hummed. “Oh. You’re right. There she is.”

Steve was impressed, but didn’t turn to check for the sake of discretion. “That was fast,” he said. “Usually no one sees her.”

“Ah, she wants to be seen, I think,” Bucky informed him, smirking. “She’s counting all of the weapons she has on her right now under her breath. That’s called an intimidation tactic, Stevie, I know you’ve never heard of them.”

“Shut up, jerk,” replied Steve. “Most of my enemies are intimidated when I show up. It’s the suit, I think.”

“Or the muscles, maybe,” Bucky said, taking a swift glance at Steve’s torso.

“They help a bit, sure,” agreed Steve. “What’s Nat doing now?”

Bucky’s eyebrows had shot up. “She’s naming them. I didn’t know people could even carry four different kinds of grenades in civilian clothes, I need to up my game.”

“I think she uses a spell or something to fit everything,” Steve confessed. “It’s getting ridiculous. Anyway, don’t worry, she does this on my dates even when she’s arranged it, although it’s usually more ‘spying’ than ‘list the ways she could kill you’.”

“Is this a date?”

“Don’t all of your dates start with fighting against people trying to kill both of you?”

“Only the fun ones,” Bucky said with a wicked smile.

“I hope this is living up to your expectations, then,” replied Steve.

“Oh, Steve, you exceed every expectation,” Bucky teased. “You and your gorgeous...hair.” He let his eyes drift along Steve’s shoulders and biceps and waggled his eyebrows, making it clear that no, he was not actually talking about Steve’s hair.

“Thanks,” Steve said dryly. “I like your...hair...too.”

Bucky made a flexing motion which seemed to be mostly unintentional, judging by his expression of amused embarrassment a few seconds later. Steve burst into laughter.

“I’m glad you think I’m funny,” Bucky told him, his smile putting the lie to the sarcasm in his voice. “No, really, keep laughing. I love it when people laugh at me.”

“I appreciate learning these things about you,” said Steve almost sincerely.

“I guess I’ll have to learn to put up with you being a little shit,” Bucky sighed, still grinning. “Where’s the romance, I ask you?”

“I can do romance!” protested Steve. “I love, uh, food. Romantic dinners are on the table. Um. Movies. Movies are good. And...holding hands! I can hold hands.”

“Oh, yeah?” Bucky challenged, face bright like he’d won something. “Prove it.”

Steve proved it with gusto. He grabbed for Bucky’s hands over the table, lacing all of their fingers together into a great romantic ball of metal and flesh.

“Your hands are warm,” said Steve, surprised.

“Yeah, they tend to be. Yours aren’t.” Bucky swiped his thumbs over the backs of Steve’s hands to warm them some.

“I run cold,” Steve told him quietly. “I keep my heat up in the apartment ‘cause I like to be warm.”

“We can work on that,” said Bucky softly. His smile was warmth enough for Steve, who leaned in close to kiss Bucky’s cheek.

They were still holding hands when Clint came over to loom at Bucky, and also to inform them that this restaurant served lunch buffet until three and that it would be a good two hours if they were waiting for a server to come to their table.

(And they didn't start cleaning up the new bloodstains until that Friday, four days later.)