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Someone to Stay

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His heart is beating quickly as he makes his way through the Brooklyn sidewalk traffic that afternoon, glancing over his shoulder every few moments to see if he’s still being followed. Each time, he can still see the man even though he’s kept a respectful distance between them so far. Except for the fact that the guy is still fucking following him to begin with.

Raking a hand through his short hair, Bucky exhales, trying to pull his rattled nerves into some semblance of order. It’s been harder to do that the last few months than ever before, and he doubts anyone can really blame him for being on constant edge, all things considered. He decides to take a new route, turning a corner and making his way down Decatur Street toward the market.

The guy won’t touch him in public, he knows. He also knows the police won’t do a goddamn thing if he tries calling them. His ex isn’t a cop, but he might as well be.

Glancing behind him once more, he groans with frustration to see that he still hasn’t managed to shake the guy. Maybe he could catch a taxi…

Just as he starts to seriously consider that -- even if he can’t really afford it, it’ll at least be easier to lose him in the streets if he’s not on foot -- he spots a tall blond man on the corner, frowning down at the phone in his hand. He’s not sure what makes him do it, but he calls out. “There you are!”

Steve is still not really used to reading directions off his phone. The thing is, he’s not used to needing directions at all, because this is Brooklyn and he grew up here -- but the thing also is, it’s like living in a weird funhouse Brooklyn, where everything is almost the same but not quite, and he actually ends up needing directions more than he’d like to admit.

(Then again, when your eyesight is as crappy as his was growing up, you tend to learn your way around by landmarks; and admittedly, nearly all of those landmarks are gone.)

But it’s a nice day, and it hadn’t seemed like navigating by phone would be all that hard. Except it is, and he’s standing there frowning at the little blinking dot in its colorful, cartoon street map like it can tell him why he isn’t where he expected to be, when he hears a voice that makes him look up, despite not being the only person out on the street.

But it seems like his instinct was right, because there’s a man making his way toward Steve with a single-minded determination that says he knows what he’s doing and he’s intending to do it. Steve can’t help the way his gaze fixes on the man, the hand with the phone dropping a little and his mouth opening a bit as he says, now that the guy is in range, “Uh -- yeah, here I am.”

Is it because the guy recognizes Steve? That does happen -- not as often as you’d think it might, but that’s because people don’t expect Captain America to be walking around on the street. (Well. People don’t expect Captain America to be alive; it’s only been two years, they still forget.) And even if they do, they seem to expect him to be wearing the red, white, and blue getup from the forties, or some form of forties fashion, and not the regular jeans and t-shirts and hoodies that people all seem to wear these days. People, including Steve, because he’s not stupid. Standing out is honestly the last thing he wants to do -- at least, on his days off.

Bucky can’t help casting a wary glance behind him once more, and sure enough -- the man’s still there even if he’s slowed down. He looks back at the tall blond, whose attention is now definitely focused on him, and Jesus, he’s actually gorgeous. His heart is beating impossibly fast and he wonders if he’s really about to do this -- it’s crazy, he knows that, but he doesn’t know any other ways to get the man following him to back off and leave him alone.

He grins at the man as he makes his way toward him, licking his lips nervously. “Please just go with it for a few minutes,” he says, voice just loud enough for the blond to hear. He hesitates a moment before moving closer and resting a hand at the back of his head, tugging him down for a soft kiss, eyes drifting shut.

This… was not how Steve was expecting today to go at all. Even accounting for being recognized, which he does have to work into most of his plans for going out, he hasn’t been pulled into a kiss by a stranger in, oh, about seventy years.

He actually hasn’t been pulled into a kiss by someone who’s not a stranger for roughly the same amount of time, which probably shows in the fact that even when ‘going along with it,’ Steve is not an experienced kisser.

But he is going along with it. Because everything else aside, the guy has this look in his eyes, like not-quite-perfectly concealed anxiety, and he’s giving off the same scent. It’s nothing anyone else would’ve probably picked up, but Steve’s stupid, oversensitive (alpha) nose definitely has; and that, coupled with the look on the guy’s face and the actual spoken plea, is enough to have Steve’s hand curling around the man’s lower back, palm resting flat there in a way that he hopes conveys I’ve got you while at the same time saying, I’m not trapping you here.

Sometimes, Steve still feels like he’s learning how to use this big, strong, alpha body. But sometimes -- a lot of the time, including now -- it’s worth it, because if something is wrong, and he can help, his instincts (alpha or omega, it never mattered) say he’d better jump to it.

His eyes do scan the crowd, though, around the curve of the brunette’s head. If there’s a threat, he wants to be ready to meet it.

It feels like Bucky’s brain shorts out the moment their lips meet, and all thoughts of his douchebag-of-an-ex-boyfriend following him are briefly obliterated. Something he can’t identify makes a bit of his anxiety ease, and he’s not sure if it’s the easy way that the blond has gone along with this farce or if it’s because of his sheer size. Either way, it signals to something in his brain that he’s safe, and he knows his ex well enough to know that he won’t make a scene in public even if he clearly gets off on intimidating Bucky every chance he gets.

The blond’s hand is warm against his back, even through the dark blue cotton henley he’s wearing. He pulls away slowly, not really in a hurry because despite his anxiety, despite not wanting to rope someone else into his troubles, it’s nice to be touched. Kissed. And the man’s lips are softer than he’d thought they would be, and he’s wearing just a touch of cologne that smells really good.

Bucky is holding his breath when the kiss ends, and he’s relieved to realize that no one is really paying them any attention. Points for New York, one of the best places to be if you need to hide in plain sight and not draw any attention to yourself regardless of whether you’ve just laid one on the most attractive man in the city or not. His hand moves to rest against the man’s shoulder and he glances over his own, eyes searching the crowd.

He’s gone. A rush of air escapes him as relief washes over him. Thank God. Except now he’s gotta deal with the fallout of his own impulsive actions. He chews his lower lip and glances up at the blond through his eyelashes, feeling uncharacteristically shy all of a sudden. “Thank you. I’m sorry,” he begins.

It’s a lot to process at once -- fortunately, processing a lot at once is exactly what Steve’s designed to do, and he was actually not bad at it before the serum, either. Right now, though, his attention feels pulled in several different directions: whatever possible threat is coming, the -- frankly amazing -- taste of this guy’s lips (should he be noticing or thinking that?), the way the body pressed up close feels solid and warm, the way the nervousness that was bubbling up from the guy seems to start to fade, the longer the kiss goes on.

Steve doesn’t see anyone headed for them, and the search admittedly stops as soon as the man in his arms shifts and starts to pull away. Steve follows suit, pulling back immediately even if his hand slips over a little, to rest at the guy’s hip, like he’s still trying to hold him close, protect him. That instinct is still blaring at the back of his brain, and for a moment that’s all Steve can really focus on, until the other actually speaks.

And Steve frowns. “What? No, I --” He stops himself before he can say he smelled the guy’s panic; firstly, it’s rude to just say that, and secondly, most people wouldn’t be able to, without being bonded or soulmates or maybe family. Steve’s just the one with the super-sensitive nose, and it feels way too invasive to admit, so he bites it back and instead finishes with, “Don’t apologize. I mean, it seemed important.”

Which is what also makes him ask, “Should I walk you home? Or -- somewhere safe?”

He’s not about to pretend he’s okay with random strangers just kissing him, but this seems like extenuating circumstances. He’s suddenly not even sure if the guy’s clocked him as Cap. And either way, it doesn’t matter -- if he was running from someone or something, then Steve’s going to help him see this through. Omegas shouldn’t need big, strong alphas to walk them home. But maybe for once, playing into the stereotype might be for the best, dirty and conflicted though it might make Steve feel.

Part of Bucky is expecting the other man to demand an explanation; after all, it’s not often that a stranger marches up and kisses you out of the blue. He’s braced himself for anger, maybe even a punch to the face, but he hasn’t prepared himself for the possibility of concern, which is what he’s actually faced with. His lips part and he hesitantly looks at the other guy -- an alpha, he’s certain, even though there’s not really a way of telling by looking at someone; his gut tells him he’s right. Or maybe he’s just subconsciously picked up on pheromones.

He’s annoyed with himself for letting Brock get to him like this, for allowing himself to be intimidated by anyone, really. He’d been a soldier, dammit. And a good one. But months of physical therapy still haven’t recovered the full use of his left arm and by now he’s accepted that it might not happen at all, and he knows that it makes him more vulnerable than he used to be. He hates it, but he’s also not stupid by any means. Chances are Brock has fucked off for the time being, but there’s a tiny part of him that’s worried he’ll turn up waiting for Bucky outside the shop, and he knows if that’s true, Brock will be really pissed.

“I’m -- “ Bucky hesitates, wondering again about the wisdom of dragging some unknown stranger into his drama. It isn’t fair, and for all he knows this guy’s even worse than Brock ever thought about being. But no. His mind shuts that thought down as soon as he thinks about it. He’s always been a good judge of character when he’s in his right mind. The blond isn’t a threat, even if he is an alpha. There’s far too much sincerity clouding his blue eyes. “I need to head back to work,” he admits, scratching the back of his neck absently. “I’m sure you have more important things to do -- it looked like you were doing something important.” He motions toward the phone in Steve’s hand.

Since the serum, Steve’s had a better intuition for alpha and omega than he used to. Doctors have blamed it on his heightened sense of, well, everything. Still, he’s never felt quite like this before, even toward other people he’s been sure were omegas. And whatever he is feeling now, it makes it easy for him to make a soft, dismissive sound, and pull the hand with the phone around to show the other guy the little blinking dot. “Nah. I was just getting lost.”

And besides, “It’s my day off,” he adds. “I don’t have anywhere to be. But --” He frowns again, because he realizes that what he’s doing, right here and now, is exactly the kind of thing he used to hate. “If you say you’re okay, then you’re okay. I just wanted to offer. In case it might help.”

Everything about the guy’s body language says he’s torn. That makes Steve feel a little less bad for offering, but he isn’t about to insist. People can make decisions for themselves. He’s got no right to decide for them, and he wouldn’t blame this complete and total stranger, who was obviously looking to get away from some kind of bad situation, for not wanting Steve -- also a complete and total stranger -- to know where he works, let alone lives.

Even if he’s got to give the guy props for creativity in getting out of said bad situation. His lips still feel a little warm and tingly, and the part of him that feels like it should lecture the guy on why you shouldn’t just kiss random strangers is not loud enough to bother listening to.

The man’s voice is earnest in a way that Bucky is so unfamiliar with at this point, he feels a little like he’s stepped onto a merry-go-round. The fact that the expression on his face matches that earnestness makes something in chest feel tight and warm and God -- he shouldn’t do this. He’ll probably end up regretting it later, but he’s so tired that his shoulders drop almost involuntarily as he exhales.

“If you’re sure,” he says, voice quieter than before. “It’s a few blocks in the opposite direction.” Because Brock had, of course, chosen his lunch hour to show up. Maybe he should have just ordered something in and locked the doors while he ate. But it’s such a nice day that all morning he’d been looking forward to going outside, getting some fresh air. He spends so much time at the shop already that once in awhile he can’t stop himself when he gets the urge to go out.

The guy honestly looks a little shell shocked by the offer; it makes Steve frown a little without realizing, wondering just what kind of situation he’s coming from -- and whether it’s really that weird to offer to walk someone somewhere these days. That… might be it, he reasons. People don’t do things they way they used to, and he’ll still say or do something that seems perfectly normal, and end up getting a lot of very strange looks for it. He’s doing his best to fit in, but seventy years of societal change is apparently a lot more than a person might bank on.

“I’m sure. It’s nice out. Gotta get my exercise, right?” That’s a thing people do seem to say these days; Steve laughs maybe a little awkwardly, but then he finally pockets his phone and sticks out his hand -- either for shaking or for grabbing, if the guy thinks they might still be being watched. Steve isn’t so naive to think that just because he doesn’t see a threat means it’s not there. “I’m Steve,” he says, quietly. “You don’t have to tell me your name if you don’t want to.” But it’s not like he’s not used to people knowing his already. In fact, half of him expects this guy to just say, I know.

Bucky watches him for a moment, glancing down at his hand when he offers it, and finds himself relaxing even more at the introduction and the reassurance. He sticks his own hand out, shaking Steve’s. “Bucky,” he tells him. “It’s - a nickname.” It’s his preference over his real name, anyway. “Nice to meet you, Steve.” His eyes meet the blond’s and he manages a real smile this time, not the forced please play along kind that he’d displayed moments before.
Steve’s smile goes from a little awkward to genuinely pleased; nickname or not, it feels like he’s being trusted with something important, and his grip is sure as they shake hands. “Well. It’s nice to meet you, Bucky. You’re the best kiss I’ve had in longer than I should probably admit.”

Which… maybe just makes it awkward all over again, as Steve’s smile turns a little helpless and he takes his hand back, indicating the sidewalk. “Lead on.”

Of course, he doesn’t plan to just trail after Bucky; as they get moving, he falls into step with him like they are friends, keeping his hands to himself but in a loose, carefree way that won’t say he’s trying not to touch the other, only that he’s choosing not to at the moment. “Has this happened before?” he asks, as quietly and casually as he can, not in any way insinuating that Bucky hasn’t been able to handle an ongoing situation, but wondering whether he should be offering more than a short walk. “Or -- should I just shut up and look pretty?”

Not that Steve has ever been good at the latter.

The comment about being the best kiss Steve’s had in while catches him off guard entirely and a short bark of laughter escapes him. “Yeah, well. Likewise.” And it’s not a lie. Brock might be a decent kisser, but there’s never really been anything resembling warmth in his affections. He can see that the other feels a little awkward with his own words so he nods and turns the other way, relieved when Steve falls into step with him.

He considers, figuring Steve has the right to ask, considering he’d just unwittingly saved his ass. Plus, alphas tend to expect answers when they ask questions. “A couple times. Just -- an ex that doesn’t like to take no for an answer.” He says it casually when it feels anything but. He blinks, though, at the wording, casting a sidelong glance at Steve and momentarily doubting if he really is an alpha. He decides to play that off lightly, too. “Well, you don’t have anything to worry about with the pretty part, Steve.” He shoots him a playful grin.

Honestly, being told he’s Bucky’s best kiss in a while catches Steve just as much off guard. “Oh, God -- I’m sorry?” he offers, laughing a little, before the (somewhat) deeper explanation of Bucky’s situation steals all the laughter out of him. “Well, good on you for making him an ex,” feels like all he can say to that -- and it definitely doesn’t feel like enough.

People like that -- people who think they’re entitled to someone else -- are pretty high on Steve’s list of people he doesn’t like. Nobody owns anybody else, not even when they’re bonded, not in his book. But he knows that a lot of people -- a lot of alphas -- don’t see it that way, and that is not how it’s supposed to work. Relationships, any relationships, are supposed to be partnerships. Give and take. Not just one or the other.

But it seems like that’s all Bucky wants to say about that, and Steve has no right to pry deeper. He knows he wouldn’t want someone to do that to him, and he wants to extend that courtesy to Bucky. Even though what that means is turning the focus back on himself, in a manner of speaking, as he laughs self-consciously and runs a hand through his short hair, making it stand up a little in disarray. “I guess that’s something,” he offers, though it’s hard to joke about things like that when he’s spent so much of his life adamantly against them. But this isn’t a rally, or a protest, or a speech, or anything. This is just him trying to do the right thing and walk a guy to work.

And yet somehow, he already feels like a mess, trying to make conversation and good God, this is why he doesn’t date.

He clears his throat and buries his hand back in his pocket before asking, “Where do you work?” like he’s not going to see it for himself when they get there.

Bucky smiles more fleetingly at that, knowing he should have ended things with Brock a lot sooner than he had, but it is what it is. He can’t help but marvel over Steve’s self-consciousness, though. The guy is built like a brick shithouse and he’s gorgeous to boot. And polite enough to walk him home, which is an actual first.

“Book Barnes’,” he answers with a tiny, wistful smile. “Heard of it?” It’s been around for awhile, since his grandpa was in his late sixties and decided that instead of retirement, he’d wanted to own a bookstore. His grandma had passed by then already, and his gramps had never been one to “sit around on his laurels.”

Steve tilts his head, giving the name some consideration, but -- “I haven’t,” he has to admit; though this time his embarrassment is good-natured. “But I’ve been gone for a while. The landscape’s changed, and I’m not, uh, up on most of the new additions.” That is the right use of the term. He thinks.

But even without having heard of it, he grins a little. “Let me guess. Bookstore?” He might even look a little excited at the prospect, because he might not know all the places that have changed and cropped up since he enlisted and left, but he does know that bookstores seem to be going out of fashion -- and he likes to read. Real books, not just something on a screen. So, if the place really is a bookstore, it kind of feels like Steve’s lucky day, despite it all.

Or maybe despite isn’t really the right word. Even given the circumstances.

Bucky’s not sure whether to laugh or wince, really. The store doesn’t do near the kind of business it did back when his gramps was running it, but he’s determined to do what he can turn that around. Hopefully. “Yeah.” He smiles, too, glancing sideways at Steve as they walk.

“It’s kinda tucked away in a weird spot but when it was first built it was right next door to a Ma and Pa’s grocery store. Course that’s been gone for ages now. You like to read?” There’s a hint of hopefulness in his voice. He already has an idea nestled in his head.

“Yeah, I do,” Steve says, with maybe a little undercurrent of a laugh. “Everything I can get my hands on.” He shrugs a little. “I still prefer books to a screen. I guess I’m old-fashioned like that.” Not that it feels old-fashioned -- but then, there’s a lot in his life that feels that way. Completely normal for him -- and completely out of step with the rest of the world.

“I still prefer the little ma and pa grocery stores, too,” he says, lips tugging into a crooked half-smile. “But like you said -- they’re even harder to find than bookstores, these days. What kind of books do you sell?” Some of the places he’s found that are still open are mostly specialty shops, low on books and longer on gifts and novelties. But Bucky asked if he liked to read, so maybe the store he works in has more of a selection. Steve’s already wondering if it would be weird to browse around after walking him back. Or to stop by later -- would that make it more weird, or less?

Bucky’s face brightens at that. “Yeah. Yeah, me too. There’s something about having an actual book in your hands -- the electronic kind doesn’t do it justice. And I’m not just saying that because of personal gain.” He laughs quietly. “I like the way they smell. The texture of the pages. Plus it’s easier on your eyes than a screen anyway, and who can afford bad eyes, really?” Especially when you've already got a bum arm.

“Sell a little of everything, but we specialize in stuff that’s hard to get print copies of these days,” he admits. “Spend a lot of time searching ebay and other websites looking for treasures.” He smiles. “Do a lot of business with other shops across the country, too, especially if someone puts in a request for something specific.”

“Bad eyes are not a thing you want to live with,” Steve agrees, tone teasing enough, but there’s some undercurrent of truth, of deeper understanding, there as well. But really, most of his attention is on the way Bucky looks, having perked up a little, lips curved upward in a smile instead of flat and thin with tension. It’s a good look on him -- and, Steve tells himself, of course it is, because nobody wants to see another person looking tense and unhappy. That’s just reasonable.

He has noticed that Bucky holds his left arm differently than his right. He has also, by sheer force of will, not asked whether the alleged ex had anything to do with it, or whether Bucky wants someone to take a look at it. If there’s anything Steve actually can be tactful about, it’s people’s abilities to manage their own hurts.

But he can still worry, even if he doesn’t say anything.

Still, “It sounds real nice,” he’s got to admit, looking impressed and not trying to hide it. And, finally, he decides that -- being weird be damned. At least, not without asking: “Can I come in and look, or would that just be weird?”

Bucky’s too caught up in his own love for books, and thoughts of the store, to notice the way Steve’s looking at him, but the interest in his voice doesn’t escape his stellar observational skills. The question gives him pause, though, and he glances at him sideways, offering him a small, wry grin. “I think considering the way I basically jumped on you back there, it’s probably the least weird outcome of the day, Steve.”

There’s a hint of self-deprecation in his voice. He can just imagine what his next encounter with Brock is going to be like. He’d lied to him weeks ago and told him he’d moved on, that he’d found someone else, but Brock had simply scoffed. Rightly so, considering how very single Bucky still was. Either seeing Bucky kissing another guy is going to finally make him back off, or really piss him off. Brock wasn’t the most predictable at the best of circumstances.

“Seriously, though. You should definitely come in and look around. It’s not like other bookstores. I mean, not really.” He rakes his right hand through his hair absently. “I used to just go and hang out there when I was growing up. There’s these really comfy chairs and we do free tea or coffee for whoever wants it.” It’s something his gramps had always insisted on -- giving people something to sip while they browsed or just hunkered down in one of the chairs and read for awhile.

“I’ve gotta be honest, my rubric for ‘weird’ is kind of skewed,” Steve says, but that grin of Bucky’s -- that really, really nice-looking wry grin of Bucky’s -- basically tells him that Bucky means what he says. It won’t be too weird, and Steve’s going to do it, then. Because he really would like to look around, just as much as he really would like to make sure Bucky gets safely to where he’s going with no more run-ins with the ex.

“For example, you aren’t the first stranger who’s ever grabbed me and kissed me? I mean, it doesn’t happen a lot, but… it’s happened before. Once. Under different circumstances, I don’t think she was trying to throw somebody off the chase so much as trying to have some fun, but -- I should probably stop talking about that and more about books,” Steve decides mid-sentence, and yeah, when did he become absolute shit at talking to people? Maybe, he thinks, when he got pulled out of a block of ice and into an era where he has exactly zero friends, and exactly all the work acquaintances. All of whom are… intense. And not the kind of people he thinks a person can just spend time with.

Not that he’s given too much thought to a person just to spend time with, in a long time.

“It sounds like this place has been around a while, though,” he says -- because okay, it’s not talking books, exactly, but it’s tangential enough. “Did you want to work there when you were a kid, too?”

Bucky can’t help the way his eyebrows raise, restraining himself from making a comment about how he’s not all that surprised that he isn’t the first who’s grabbed and kissed him. He’s surprised it’s only happened one other time, frankly. Not that it’s polite to go around kissing complete strangers, but if you have to do it, apparently Steve’s the best person to do it with. He’s known him all of ten minutes, and he already likes him. He’s always been a people person, even if the last few months have made things complicated.

“No, feel free. Sounds like you’ve lived an interesting life.” His voice is light, a hint of teasing there. He tries not to focus too much on the thought that Steve might very well be bonded with someone. Not that it matters, really. After today it’s unlikely he’ll see him again, anyway. He tries to ignore the tug of sadness that thought brings with it. “I have to say, though, it was a first for me. I don’t generally go around kissing strange guys, no matter how attractive they are.” His cheeks grow warm and he shakes his head.

“Oh. Yeah. God, yeah. It’s - it was my grandpa’s shop,” he confesses. “I loved spending time there. Especially in the summers.”

Steve just snorts a little, leaning in and bumping Bucky gently on the shoulder for that. “Yeah, like I said -- my rubric for weird is definitely skewed.” Calling his life interesting is like calling the Mona Lisa a well-known painting. It’s not untrue, it’s just definitely lowballing things.

Although, “It’s probably not the best thing to do a whole lot, in polite society,” he says, with a laugh this time. “But under extenuating circumstances… well. I hope you don’t need to use it as an out again.”

He actually opens his mouth, about to add, “Maybe I should give you my number, so you could just text next time.” But that seems… back to weird. So he shuts it again, honestly not sure where the hell all of this is coming from. Steve can make himself act like a people person. But he isn’t much of one, naturally. He’s usually too prickly or too fixated on something else. With Bucky, though, it’s easy. It feels like he’s known him a lot longer than a handful of minutes. It -- might be the pheromones, he tries to reason. He’s on suppressants, of course, and even ones specifically tailored to his super soldier physiology. But the problem is, he keeps developing a resistance to them over time, and that means if no one’s upped his dose in a while, he starts to notice.

Maybe that’s what this is. Urges and instincts leaking through. He’d probably better talk to somebody about it on Monday, unsavory though those conversations always are.

Steve does his best to focus instead just on the conversation. “That sounds nice,” he says, and it’s not just an empty statement. It does sound nice. “All the books you can read, and your family right there? Now I think I’m jealous.” Although he hadn’t missed the was in that sentence. “He doesn’t own it anymore?”

He chuckles quietly at the playful shoulder bump, shaking his head ruefully. “Yeah. I hope I don’t either. No offense to you, by any means.” His voice goes more sincere and they pause at a stop light. “Honestly...I half expected to get punched in the face.” He wouldn’t have even blamed Steve for it. If someone grabbed and kissed him, he’d definitely have thrown a punch. Fortunately for his face, Steve hadn’t reacted that way. Because given his size, he’s sure it would have hurt. A lot.

Bucky draws in a slow breath and then exhales. “No, he passed a couple years ago. 86 years old. Lived a nice long life.” He doesn’t mention that he’d missed the funeral because of his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. Doesn’t mention that he still hasn’t brought himself to go and visit his grave even though he knows he should. Knows he needs to. “He was a great guy. Always wanted to be just like him, you know?” His voice is wistful.

Steve hums; “Once upon a time, I might’ve,” he says, which is not untrue. He’d had plenty of alphas give him a hard time when he was growing up, either heckling him for being useless, or heckling him because he wouldn’t make time with them, which was the only use they figured he had. That kind of thing had definitely warranted a punch in the face.

But Bucky? Bucky had looked at him with tension in every line of his body, and anxiety and pleading in his scent, and Steve can’t tell him that, but it had counted for more than anything. “Lucky for you, I’ve grown as a person.”

And isn’t that just the most hilarious pun Steve has ever delivered in his life, and -- he really doesn’t think Bucky realizes who he is, so it’s going to fall on deaf ears.

“Yeah -- that is a long life.” It is -- and Steve can’t help but think of how old the guy would’ve been, when he’d been growing up, and that just serves to make him feel old all over again, and he manages to shove that down pretty quick. “Well, you must have succeeded at least a little bit, if you’re working his store now.” He almost says more, but he doesn’t want to presume anything about Bucky’s family and end up putting his foot in his mouth. He’s flexible, but that’s never any fun. “I spent a lot of time as a kid reading, too, but it was all library books.”

“Lucky for me,” Bucky agrees quietly. There had been an ample amount of people on the sidewalk and he could have picked any of them, but in the moment it felt like he’d had tunnel vision. His gaze had landed on Steve, and it had been like there weren’t any other options at all. Strange, probably. Fortunately for him it had worked out all right, for once. There’s a hint of humor in Steve’s voice, though, and he glances at him, curious, feeling like he’s missed out on a joke he should have understood.

But he also doesn’t question him about it.

Nor does he correct him by telling him that he’s now the owner of Book Barnes’. He’s not entirely sure but he can’t shake the feeling that Steve’s either assumed he’s an omega, or he’s just a very protective kind of guy if someone seems like they’re in trouble, and if on the off chance he’s pegged him wrong, he can’t risk losing the store. So he simply hums in his throat, crossing the street when the light changes and leading him down another city block toward the store, anxiety spiking momentarily as he scans the area for any sign of Brock.

Thankfully, he doesn’t see him anywhere around. It doesn’t mean he’s not lurking nearby, because he seems to do that a lot, but he thinks he might be out of the woods for the time being. “Always loved libraries, too,” he tells Steve, glancing at him with a small, warm smile as he pulls the keys to the shop out of his jeans pocket, pausing in front of the door and unlocking it, stepping inside and flipping the lights on, and flipping the sign to “open” once more. “Come on in. Make yourself comfy.”

Steve maybe doesn’t miss the way Bucky starts getting tenser as they approach what must be the bookstore. He definitely doesn’t miss the way Bucky starts looking around, like he’s scanning for active threats -- does he think his ex will show up here? That admittedly gets Steve’s hackles up a little, but a moment later Bucky relaxes, and Steve slowly starts to do the same.

They amble up to the front door of, from Steve’s very first impression, a comfortable, inviting bookshop nestled, between two other storefronts. The keys jingle in the lock as Bucky turns them, and then the scent of well-worn paper hits him square in the face, and Steve kind of can’t help the way he inhales deeply. It is a good smell.

Maybe especially with that subtle smell of Bucky laced through it -- and that feels pretty damn invasive, so Steve cuts that thought right off and starts breathing like a normal human being again.

“Thanks,” he says, grabbing the door over Bucky’s head as the other precedes him in, stepping into the store behind him and letting the door swing shut behind them. “I’ll just -- I’d like to take a look around. Just pretend I’m not here.”

He offers a smile that he hopes is stupid and reassuring, but which might be bordering on shy, and starts off down the first row of shelves, because he means it. He wants to take a look around.

Bucky can’t quite shake the warm feeling in his chest at the smile that Steve gives him before disappearing in between a row of bookshelves, and a soft smile touches his mouth, too. He moves toward the table by the counter, picking up the empty pot of coffee and then heading toward the bathroom tucked into the back of the store, washing it out thoroughly before filling it with cold water and replacing it in the coffee pot, starting a fresh pot of coffee. He doesn’t know if Steve likes coffee, but he spends a few minutes straightening things up -- including the little single packs of tea and the mugs that are set there.

He keeps an eye on the door as he works, just in case a customer decides to wander in, or god forbid, Brock.
Then he settles himself behind the counter, curling up in his comfortable chair and picking up the book he’s currently reading, “The Taking” by Dean Koontz. It had come out when he was still in high school, but it’s one of his favorites, and within moments he’s completely absorbed into the story, the smell of coffee wafting through the air.

It’s easy to get lost among the books -- the smell, the feel, the (admittedly strong) nostalgia. But it’s also a little tempting to stay lost, as Steve hears the sounds of Bucky shuffling around the front of the store, then the sound of running water and, not long after, the unmistakable smell of percolating coffee.

Steve does like coffee -- and tea, which he learned to drink in England -- and his lips tick up at Bucky’s thoughtfulness, despite the fact that the other had clearly said he offers free tea and coffee to anyone who comes in the shop. Right now, that’s just Steve, and it feels private and quiet and he isn’t quite sure what he’s going to do when he has to come back to the front of the shop and face Bucky again. Not that it’s hard, but that’s actually why it’s hard -- it’s easy to talk to Bucky already, and that isn’t something he’s used to.

So Steve maybe lets himself get a little lost, just for a few minutes; although when he does reappear at the front, it’s with a couple of books carefully tucked into the crook of his elbow, to find Bucky lost in a book of his own. “See, that’s the real perk of working someplace like this,” he says, coming back up to the counter. “You just get to read all day when you don’t have any customers.”

Bucky is vaguely aware of Steve moving through the stacks as he reads, but it doesn’t set his nerves on edge the way it might have if it were anyone else. If anything, knowing he’s around eases his mind in a way he can’t really explain. He chalks it up to the fact that Steve helped him out when he didn’t have to, that he actually walked him back to work to make sure he was safe, and that he actually seems to be a genuinely good person. It’s strange, because Steve is definitely a lot bigger than he is, and these days that usually makes him uneasy, but -- it’s somehow different. Like it wouldn’t cross his mind to use his sheer size as a reason to intimidate someone.

He grins involuntarily as he hears footsteps approaching the counter. “You’re not wrong,” he says easily, marking his page with a bookmark of the aurora borealis and setting it to the side. He rises to his feet, curious to see what Steve had found in his perusal of the store. “Please help yourself to a cup of coffee. Or tea if you want.” He leans his arms on the counter. “Or if you’d prefer hot chocolate, I have that, too, but that’s a secret that you’re now under obligation to keep. I won’t make it for just anyone.”

At that moment, a six pound ball of white fur leaped down from the top of the bookshelf behind Bucky and onto the counter, tail swishing back and forth.

“Uh, you’re not allergic to cats, right?” Bucky asks, reaching out to collect her just in case.

Steve’s got a couple of classics -- well, classics by most people’s definitions, but in truth, they’re on his list because he’s never read them: Fahrenheit 451, Catch-22, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But he’s also got two straight-out history books (funny enough, both on “his” war, but he’s maybe been trying to get as many perspectives on it as he can, see what people think about it after the fact, for all the righteous anger that sometimes causes) and one art history book, because its pages were large and colorful and he’s already flipped through at least half of it, and it seems only fair to actually pay for the thing at that point. Plus, his apartment is pretty bare on color; maybe he can find some pieces in here to copy for some practice before he dives into doing anything more on his own. He hasn’t really done a lot of drawing, let alone painting, since 1941. And that was before he could even see the color red.

He sets the stack down and is just humming, trying to figure out how to say that hot chocolate sounds pretty amazing without feeling guilty over making Bucky put in any extra work to get it for him, when a cat appears almost as if by magic (but really just from a nearby bookshelf). Steve blinks -- but then he shakes his head, laughing a little. “I don’t think so,” he admits, because he’s never exactly tested it after the serum, but it would be pretty ridiculous to be immune to every pathogen and chemical toxin known to man, only to be felled by a cat. “D’you pay her in tuna fish?”

Bucky strokes his hand down the cat’s spine gently, smiling when she headbutts his forehead. He laughs at the insinuation that she’s an employee. “Tuna fish, chicken, Purina. Pretty much whatever she wants as long as it’s okay for her to eat it without hurting her.” The cat turns to look at Steve, eying him curiously and letting out a meow that sounds far too big to come from her little body. “Her name’s Alpine.”

He glances at the books that Steve’s set on the counter, eager to see what he’d found and a little surprised that there are so many in the stack. He makes a quiet, pleased sound, though. “You like art?” he asks, nodding toward the books and then shifting his gaze back to Steve’s face.

Steve doesn’t have a lot of experience with cats, but this one seems all right. He leans a little closer, keeping his hands to himself, not sure whether she’s only friendly with Bucky or whether she might be amenable to a stranger, too -- although he can’t imagine letting her run freely around the store if she’s got too big a problem with new people. “Hi, Alpine. It’s nice to meet you.”

At the question, Steve smiles sheepishly. “Yeah. I -- used to be an artist. If taking one year of art school and painting signs on the side for half a living counts.” He realizes too late that nobody probably paints signs anymore, but it’s out and he can’t take it back. And it is the truth. “I haven’t picked up a pencil in a while, though. I thought maybe this’d inspire me, you know?”

Alpine walks closer to Steve, leaning down and sniffing at his hands on the counter before lying down on his stack of books and stretching out as though claiming them for herself.

Bucky studies him curiously but without any traces of judgement in his eyes. For an alpha -- which is still an assumption on his part -- to admit that he’s interested in art is uncommon, to say the least. But maybe he’s just that secure in who he is, in which case, is pretty incredible if you ask Bucky. The overwhelming majority of alphas he’s met have been the exact opposite.

“Yeah?” His eyes widen a little at that, gaze immediately flickering to the welcome sign at the front of the store that’s in dire need of being redone. “What do you do for a living the rest of the time?” He can’t help but ask.

Steve ends up laughing a little as the cat claims his books, mostly because, “You know, if your cat claims all the books back, it’s gotta be hard to sell ‘em.”

He’s still grinning at Bucky when -- of course -- he asks what else Steve does for a living. Which is, of course, pretty much all Steve does for a living these days. He barely keeps the grimace at bay, and if anything, he seems almost more embarrassed about explaining this than the art, when maybe it should be the other way around: “Uh -- special ops. I’m sort of…”

What, he thinks, sort of Captain America?

Bucky definitely doesn’t know. He can’t know, because pretending not to know at this point would be cruel, and Steve’s only known the guy about half an hour, but he knows already that Bucky isn’t cruel. And he can’t say why he doesn’t want to just tell him, except that when most people realize, they suddenly don’t seem to know how to act around him anymore and there are a hundred ways to make it awkward and Steve just doesn’t want to do that. He doesn’t want things to actually get awkward. Not now, not this time, if he can help it.

“They call me in when they need me, and the rest of the time, my time is mostly my own, if I’m not training or doing paperwork.” And Steve hates paperwork.

He chuckles at Alpine’s antics, too, because she’s ridiculously full of personality and has no problem showing it. He reaches out and pets her absently, prickle of nervousness spiking through him at the mention of special ops, but the wariness doesn’t show on his face. “Yeah? You army?” he asks casually as he leans his elbows on the counter once more, studying Steve from beneath his eyelashes.

On one hand, hearing that Steve’s special ops definitely confirms that he’s either an alpha or a beta. On the other hand, Brock is also special ops and the idea that maybe they actually know each other makes him unsettled at best. He refuses to believe that Steve would be friends with someone like that, but it’s not like he could judge him if he was. Not when he’d dated Brock for months.

“Got it in one,” Steve says, lips twitching into a little half-smile. “Now my orders come from a different place, but they never actually technically discharged me, so… I guess I’m on loan?” It’s sort of a weird kind of limbo. The Army hadn’t wanted to give up its claim on Captain America to an organization most people don’t even know exists, so limbo it is. He sometimes feels a little bit like a ragdoll that two children are fighting over.

“What, I don’t seem like I could be a pilot?” he asks, spreading his arms a little, maybe trying to make the situation seem a little lighter because… well, it’s not anything Bucky did or said, exactly. But somehow, Steve gets the idea that something changed, when he said that -- or maybe Bucky’s putting together who he is, and is about to tear into him for it. It’s not like some big state secret, anyway -- Steve Rogers is Captain America, and it hasn’t been classified for a long time. Longer than Steve had been in the ice, even. But it’s still nice to not be on display, or to have people treat him like he’s ninety, or put on the kid gloves.

So he maybe looks a little unsure, like he might have just stepped in it.

Bucky listens intently, pretty sure he knows what Steve means. There are any number of covert organizations in the United States that pull active service men and women from duty all the time in order to utilize their skills. Most people don’t happen to know how often it happens. Steve just doesn’t seem the type to be in that kind of operation, but it wouldn’t be the first time Bucky’s been wrong about something like that, either.

He smiles at the idea of Steve being a pilot, though. “You don’t strike me as the glory hound type,” he says honestly. “Not that all pilots are, but the handful I’ve met...well.” He shrugs and Alpine bites lightly at his fingers. “They were thrill seekers. You seem pretty down to earth. Seems more like a fellow army man to me.” He’s not sure what to make of the sudden uncertainty on his face, but he meets Steve’s eyes and gives him a faint grin. He stands up a little straighter and tugs the dogtags out from beneath his shirt to show him momentarily before tucking them back into place.

Steve hums, though it’s maybe not clear whether he’s conceding the point or begging to differ. Not that he’d consider himself a thrill seeker, per se -- he does what needs to get done, and if it gets his adrenaline pumping, well, that’s part and parcel of the serum. It keeps his adrenaline high because he needs it to keep going. Helps him ignore pain and fatigue, when they do try to catch up with him.

If he maybe likes it sometimes… well, that’s nobody’s business but his own.

Besides, what really gets his attention is what Bucky says next. Steve’s face lights up just a little, when Bucky pulls out his dog tags -- except at the same time, there’s this weird twisting in his gut, because he knows omegas still aren’t allowed to serve, and something in him has pegged Bucky as an omega.

Which must be wrong. Just because he thought he’d smelled omega panic doesn’t mean he did, he reasons. Or it could have been someone else on the street (which isn’t the better option, actually, so he shuts down that line of thought real quick). Maybe his brain has just wanted Bucky to be an omega because he’s so easy to get along with, because they feel compatible somehow, even just as friends -- and friends is fine, Steve tells his twisting gut and now his brain, which is unhelpfully supplying him with pictures of Peggy. Peggy, the beautiful, amazing, alpha. Peggy, who was probably always out of reach, but who became the ultimate taboo the second he’d stepped out of the Rebirth pod.

And now he has no idea how long he’s been quiet or what his face is doing, so he schools it back into interest (not feigned at all) and asks, “How long did you serve? Or are you between tours?” He doesn’t think that even these days, the Army lets people work in bookstores in their downtime, but he has to admit, he hasn’t asked.

Bucky watches the faint surprise that flickers over Steve’s face -- yep, he’d definitely thought Bucky was an omega, he thinks -- that quickly changes to a brightening of his expression. And why wouldn’t it? It’s not like male omegas have anything to offer to the world. Just ask anyone. He shoves that bitterness aside quickly because it’s not Steve he’s angry with by any means; he’s angry with the world.

“Did two tours in Afghanistan with the 107th,” he tells him. “Got an honorable discharge about ten months ago. Little earlier than I planned, but.” He moves to indicate his left arm, though not a lot. “Didn’t get much choice in the matter.” Which is an understatement. He definitely wouldn’t have chosen to become a POW. Or to be one of the only men from his unit who’d made it out alive. He had no right to complain, no matter how shitty his own circumstances were. Even if there had been a multitude of times in the last few months where he’d been to the point where he’d wished he hadn’t survived, either.

He draws in a breath and manages a small smile. “Guess we never know what life has in store for us, do we?”

“No, we sure don’t,” Steve has to admit, on an exhale that’s almost a laugh. Isn’t that the truth. His eyes maybe do go to Bucky’s arm, with the unspoken permission to at least acknowledge it, and that makes sense -- he’d been moving it like it was stiff earlier, and now Steve has an explanation of sorts. Or, at least, an explanation that’s more than good enough for him.

But, “The 107th, that was my -- dad’s company, actually,” he says, fumbling only a little not because it’s a lie, but because he realizes mid-sentence that he can’t say it was his, because then there’s no explanation for why he and Bucky haven’t met before now. It honestly just drives another spike in him to feel like he’s willfully misdirecting Bucky on this, but chances are he’ll never see the guy again, so what can it hurt? Especially if he’s an alpha -- although, Steve’s brain now (actually) helpfully supplies, he could be a beta. Those relationships are fine, after all.

But he’s definitely getting way, way too ahead of himself -- despite the fact that this feels a lot like meeting Peggy for the first time, for all that it’s completely different. With Peggy, he’d kind of been head over heels immediately, drawn to her attitude as much as her looks. With Bucky, it’s… different, somehow, because things started out so very weird, but if he stops and takes a second to take stock of himself, he realizes it’s the same feeling.

It’s as terrifying as it is exhilarating, and he’s definitely not about to say anything right here and now.

“I’m sorry, though. It’s never what you want, to have the choice taken away from you,” he says.

Bucky’s not bothered by the quick glance at his arm that Steve gives him -- mainly because he’s invited it to happen by way of explanation, but also because at least it’s covered up and he can’t see the actual scarring. The handful of times that Brock had seen it, there’d been no disguising the disgust on his face or in his eyes and after that he’d taken to wearing long-sleeved shirts year-round, regardless of the temperatures.

But he’s caught off guard by the fact that Steve’s dad was in the 107th, too. “Seriously?” That’s kind of nuts to think about. He knows it’s a weirdly small world in the way that people connect with one another, and if he and Steve are both Brooklyn boys, he supposes that makes a little bit of sense, that he and Steve’s dad would have both been in the same company.

“Thanks.” His voice grows a little more quiet at that, because being discharged from the army isn’t the only choice that had been ripped right out of his grasp in recent history, and it’s definitely not what he wanted. “It’s okay. Gotta roll with the punches, right?” It’s not like there’s another option. At least not yet. Maybe one day, if he has anything to say about it, ultimately.

Alpine stretches and meows before getting up and scampering off the counter and heading toward the back of the store when the front door of the shop opens, the bell above the door jingling as a couple of young women come in, giggling and whispering to one another as they look at their cell phones.

Bucky glances at them briefly. “Welcome to Book Barnes’,” he greets them with a warm smile.

“I guess that is the best option,” Steve’s starting to say -- well, it’s what he’s always done, too, even if he does his damnedest to get back up after he rolls -- when the door opens and he doesn’t quite freeze, but he definitely tenses. Bucky hasn’t recognized him, which is kind of sheer dumb luck given that Steve had left the house today without his usual baseball cap and only a scarf to tuck his nose into if he needed to. But girls with cell phones are kind of his worst enemy (you know, after Nazis) because they’re always asking for selfies and making a big deal and that is exactly what he doesn’t want right now. That will most definitely leave Bucky with a bad impression.

Not that what he’s about to do is probably any better. Steve turns a little more toward Bucky, away from the door, and offers him a smile that he hopes is more sheepish than tight. “I guess I shouldn’t stand here and take up all your time. Could you ring me up for these, please, and I’ll get out of your hair?”

Bucky’s a little surprised by the abruptness, but he reminds himself that Steve had helped him out to be nice. They’re still complete strangers, even if they’d discovered they had some things in common. So he simply nods, pushing aside his disappointment and he reaches for the stack of books, jotting down their titles and purchase dates on his clipboard and making out a handwritten receipt for him. “It’ll be thirty dollars even,” he tells him, holding the receipt out to him with a soft smile.

Steve smiles gratefully, trying to turn on the charm (as if he ever knew how) as he pulls his wallet out and trades cash for the receipt. “Thanks,” he says, meaning it for so much more than just the transaction, wishing he could explain but realizing that it would just make things even more awkward.

He hefts the books back into the crook of his elbow, pulls up his scarf a little, and offers Bucky a last smile that he hopes conveys how sorry he is to run out like this. Steve Rogers fucking hates running away, but this isn’t a fight, and it’s not running so much as a strategic retreat, he tells himself, to avoid making a big fuss in Bucky’s bookstore.

He still tucks his head down a little, posture changing from tall and confident to slouching and insignificant before he slips past the giggling women and out the door with his books, feeling like he’s let Bucky down somehow, and not really knowing why.

He ends up heading straight home -- after a bit of fumbling with his phone -- and it isn’t until later that evening, when he goes to put the receipt in the little folder he keeps of them (mostly out of habit, it isn’t like he spends beyond his means these days, when his means are absolutely ridiculous compared with what he’s used to) that he realizes Bucky didn’t charge him for the art book.

Well, damn. He’s going to have to go back and set that right, he thinks, with something that might be a smile.