See, here’s the thing: Steve has a problem.
And for once in his life, it’s not that he’s only five-foot-four and too skinny or that he gets winded running up the three flights of stairs to the apartment he can barely afford by working at the school library and picking up other odd student jobs or that he’s basically blind without his glasses. Because Steve’s good with his hands and he’s been able to smudge charcoal into beautiful lines and shapes for as long as he can remember, and here, amongst the various studio arts students, that’s all anyone cares about. Because here, even with all his health problems and the way he misses certain social cues because he’s too caught up in his own head most of the time, here he’s almost painfully ordinary, just another art student with ink crawling down his arms and his hair shoved up in a careful mess who wears too many flannel shirts and the same pair of beat up boots almost every day of the year, regardless of the weather.
For once in his life, Steve feels completely and utterly normal, and he spends his entire first year at NYU blissfully, ecstatically reveling in his newfound anonymity, so far removed from the bullshit that was high school and dumb bullies and petty comments about his small stature. And even as he starts to pick up a little bit of recognition at the end of his freshman year when a couple of his drawings are picked by the curator to go in the annual student show, all that amounts to is a pat on the back and a handful of people commenting on the precision of his line work, and no one even mentions the way that Steve’s breaths rattle in his chest every time he inhales because he’s getting over a cold.
It’s nice, he thinks, to finally get recognized for something other than the way his thin body bows over every time he falls into a coughing fit. It’s nice, and Steve resolutely wants nothing to change because he could get used to life like this, to focusing on being creative more than whether someone’s going to throw something at him in the halls because they heard a rumor that he’s gay (which he’s not, strictly speaking, but people believe what they want). And everything looks like it’s going to stay that way as his sophomore year begins and he settles into his new classes and rearranges the furniture in the apartment that he still can only barely afford, except that three weeks into the school year, Steve discovers that he has a problem.
His problem is embodied in almost six feet of cocky smiles and toned muscles and tattoos and it starts when his life drawing professor announces that they’re finally moving onto studying the human form and says, “This is James. He’s going to be our first model.”
And the guy steps up onto the platform in the middle of the room and undresses without a lick of self-consciousness, smirking all the while, and Steve thinks, Oh, hell.
It’s not like Steve hasn’t drawn attractive people before. It’s not like Steve hasn’t drawn naked people before. He’s been taking extra art classes every summer since he was fourteen; figure drawing is not foreign territory to him. But this guy, this James, is somehow, appallingly, different, and Steve, who’s always prided himself on his work ethic, kicks himself every time he fumbles with his charcoal, telling himself that it shouldn’t matter that James is easily the most attractive model he’s ever drawn, because a figure is a figure and he’s here to draw, not ogle, dammit. He tells himself that it doesn’t matter that James keeps toying with his lip ring in the most distracting way, the tip of his tongue poking out of his mouth to run over the metal, and he tells himself that he’s not staring at the curl of ink that disappears into the shadow where it dips into the curve of his inner thigh, because he’s being academic, okay? This is life drawing and if you’re not looking, you’re doing it wrong, and it’s just observing, not anything creepy.
Not that James is any help in Steve’s efforts not to stare. James, who lounges around during breaks in little more than his tattered jeans and pads around barefoot to peek at people’s drawings. Who always leans in a little too close when talking to pretty girls and looks just a little too intently at pretty boys. Who openly flirts with the professor in an amazingly bold display that Steve, who’s been with but never been with people and hasn’t done really anything in a long time, finds himself envying, just a little.
And then, the second week into James modeling for the class, he wanders over to Steve’s drawing table and lets out a breath and says, “Shit, you’re good.”
And Steve just blinks, wanting to say something like thank you but finding that his voice is stuck in his throat.
James turns to him, smiling, unfazed, and Steve can see that his eyes are startlingly blue and he’s got a piercing in his eyebrow to match the one in his lip and where the right side of his head is shaved, he has a tattoo of a red star.
“What year are you?” James asks.
Steve clears his throat and manages to say in a voice that sounds relatively normal and not at all shaky, “Sophomore.”
“Really?” James says, sounding mildly impressed. There’s a knot of what looks like scar tissue at his shoulder and running down his arm, all covered in an expanse of dense, intricate ink that branches out from a red star at the top of his arm, the same design that he has on the side of his head. It’s all Steve can do not to stare. “You know, you’re better than some of the seniors I’ve modeled for.”
“Oh,” Steve says in surprise. He’s not sure what he expected James to say, but it sure as hell wasn’t this. After a beat, Steve remembers to add, weakly, “Thanks.”
James’ mouth twists into something daring and full of things that he doesn’t openly say. “What’s your name?” he asks, and it’s casual and Steve knows that it’s probably meant to be an offhand thing, a formality, but it sounds expectant, anticipatory of something that Steve doesn’t know.
“Steve,” Steve manages to say, hoping that he only sounds nervous to himself.
“Nice to meet you, Steve,” James says, and even his voice is languid and unhurried, almost purring. His mouth moves around Steve’s name like he’s savoring it, and Steve wonders, absently, with whatever part of his brain that isn’t focused on the prickling sensation that runs across his skin when James speaks, if James speaks to everyone like this. Steve wonders what that would be like, to be so unapologetic and blatant about everything, even though he knows even as he thinks it that this would never be his style.
The professor claps her hands and calls everyone’s attention back for another pose, and when Steve next looks, James is already back in the middle of the room, undressed and contorting his body into interesting shapes for the class to draw. It takes Steve an embarrassingly long time to gather himself enough to remember that he’s supposed to actually be doing something.
Sam, because he’s lived with Steve for a year and is probably the most perceptive person that Steve knows, notices Steve’s preoccupation almost immediately. He doesn’t say anything for a couple weeks, of course, because he’s nice and understanding and gets that Steve sometimes gets caught up in silly things, but Steve can’t help noticing the sideways glances that Sam gives him each time he walks into their apartment after his life drawing classes.
“You want to talk about it?” Sam asks one evening, looking up at Steve over the textbook in his lap. He’s got an exam the next day and he’s got flashcards with things like “serotonin” and “cultural relativism” and “disruptive mood dysregulation disorder” written on them in his neat, all-caps handwriting scattered all around him.
Steve frowns and doesn’t meet Sam’s eyes, opting to stare at his laptop on the pretext of reading a couple articles for his History of Western Art class. “There’s nothing to talk about,” Steve mumbles.
Sam snorts. “Sure there isn’t,” he says. “You’ve only been sulking around the apartment every Tuesday and Thursday evening for the past few weeks. Don’t think I don’t know your schedule, Rogers. What, something happen in your art class? Your professor not like you or something?”
Steve cracks a smile and shakes his head at that, because they both know that last bit is a joke. Steve’s always been a model student, respectful and meticulous and careful, and he knows that he does good work; it’s never been adults that Steve’s had a problem with, really, just his peers.
“It’s nothing,” Steve insists, and he tries not to sound like he’s trying to convince himself of it while he talks.
“Uh huh,” Sam deadpans, clearly not believing a single thing Steve’s said. “Well, don’t come crying to me when your art starts to suffer because you’ve gone and accidentally fallen in love with someone you’ve barely spoken to.”
Steve almost chokes on nothing, because seriously, how does Sam do that? These days, Sam doesn’t even have to ask about Steve’s social life (not that there’s much to talk about anyways), because he already knows, like he can read it in the hunch of Steve’s shoulders or the curve of his brow. Steve should really stop being so surprised at this point, but every time Sam does something like this, Steve wonders, irrationally, if Sam’s jokes about psych majors being psychic actually hold some truth.
Sam laughs at Steve’s reaction, and Steve just turns his eyebrows down into what he hopes is a glare, because it’s hard to stay angry in the face of Sam’s unwavering cheerfulness.
“Shut up, Sam.”
As it turns out, Steve’s art doesn’t, in fact, suffer. On the contrary, Steve’s drawings are more incredible than ever, filled with a sense of depth and contrast that he’s never before been able to capture. Half the time, he doesn’t even remember drawing, just looks down halfway into a pose and realizes that he’s filled most of the page already without realizing it. And sometimes, he’ll be waiting for a break to be over and doodling in his sketchbook to pass the time and he’ll realize too late that he’s mapped out the bend of James’ knee or the twist of his smile as he lounges around in his jeans and they’re just mindless doodles and they’re still better than some of the things Steve has spent countless hours on and he can’t make a beginning or end of it.
His professor notices, of course, smiling at him and touching light fingers to his back and telling him how much she’s loving watching him come into his own as an artist, whatever that means. Steve almost feels guilty about it, because sometimes he feels like his hands are moving on their own and he’s just sitting back and looking on. Steve’s always believed that praise is something to be earned through hard work and he’s not sure if this counts, because yes, he’s drawing more than ever, but he almost doesn’t know how. He almost wants to tell her, but tell her what exactly? Tell her that he really has no idea how this is happening? Tell her that this progress might be less progress than a momentary thing, brought on by some guy he’s had all of one conversation with? And with each drawing that pops up out of nowhere, Steve returns home even more disgruntled than before, because as much as Steve is a creative soul, he loves and needs for things to make sense, for there to be some sort of internal logic about it all, and this doesn’t make sense, not any of it.
Halfway through the semester, Steve gets invited to submit a few pieces to a small, school-sponsored show, and when one of his pieces is selected to be featured, he of course stops by when the show opens. It’s a modest thing, just a couple adjoining rooms with carefully chosen pieces created by students and faculty. When Steve finds his drawing, a charcoal study of the way James’ wrist curves over his bent knee so his hand can clutch onto a small ball, it’s placed between an enormous oil painting of some abstract landscape, beautiful and ethereal and almost heartbreaking in a way that Steve can’t quite place, and a delicate sculpture painstakingly woven from dried flowers that looks like it might shatter if you so much as breathed on it too hard. Steve almost wonders if his work really belongs here, amongst such incredible, creative pieces, but that feeling is quickly replaced by a quiet bubble of pride that swells up in his chest when one of the senior art faculty taps him on the shoulder and tells him that his ability to capture the sheer aliveness of his subject is breathtaking.
Steve’s just thinking that he might leave some thirty or forty minutes later (he’s had a glass of wine already and chatted with some of his fellow art majors and talked with the professors he cares about), but just as he’s turning to head for the exit, his eyes land on James, who’s inexplicably here, and he’s got his hair pulled up into a small ponytail and his hands stuffed in his pockets and is peering intently at one of the pieces. Steve almost trips over his own feet when he sees that James is looking at his drawing and panics for a brief moment, fearing, stupidly, that James will be able to read Steve’s strange fascination with him in the various shades of white and grey and black.
When James’ intrigued expression doesn’t change and Steve thinks he can see something like admiration in the way he looks at the drawing, he manages to calm himself down, if only just barely. He wonders if he should go say hi, if that’s the proper etiquette when confronted with the man you may or may not have more than a small crush on when said man is staring at a drawing you made of him more or less only because you liked the way his hands looked wrapped around something. He’s just thinking that maybe he should, that maybe James will recognize him even though they’ve only spoken once, when a petite girl beats him to it. She’s got fiery red hair and moves with a sort of elegance and grace that Steve doesn’t think he could ever capture, and she loops her arm through James’, standing up on her toes to whisper something in his ear. James laughs at whatever it is that she says and his eyes are soft and fond, and suddenly, it’s all too intimate for Steve, who quickly ducks out of the gallery before he’s caught staring.
As Steve walks home from the gallery, cold even under all his layers in the chilly late-autumn air, he can’t stop himself from feeling foolish and angry, because of course James has a girl, because of course Steve hadn’t even taken a moment to consider the possibility that James might be spoken for already even though he clearly would be, what with his easy charm and wide smiles and the way that his hair falls around the left side of his face to highlight the sharp angle of his jaw. Steve is angry for not realizing sooner and for letting himself get so caught up in this and getting so attached to someone who barely knows his name.
Sam notices when Steve kicks off his shoes a little too violently when he gets home and goes to make him a cup of tea without asking. Steve sits on the couch and frowns at nothing in particular and tries not to feel like he was cheated out of something, because it’s not like he had any claim to James in the first place. It’s not like anything’s different because there was nothing to change, but maybe that’s it, that there was nothing.
“Boys are dumb,” Steve grumbles as he takes a sip of his tea.
Sam laughs softly and pats Steve’s knee. “I know.”
Steve sits down the next Tuesday in his life drawing class having gathered himself together enough to keep an even expression as he waits for everyone else to arrive and James too. He’s spent the entire weekend feeling dumb and sorry for himself for getting so caught up in something that didn’t exist, and he’s over it, he tells himself, he’s over it now. Because it was stupid, this irrational hope that just because he’s stared for long enough, James must know, and he knows it’s stupid and he’s done hoping and he’s just done. He is. Really.
The classroom slowly fills with the dozen or so students in the class, all talking quietly amongst themselves and setting up their workspaces and pulling out various charcoals and erasers and large sheets of fine white drawing paper. The professor walks in a couple minutes before class starts and starts dragging a couple spotlights and a chair and blanket and various props into place. And then a girl walks in and over to the center of the room, and she’s blonde and lovely and very much not James and she starts undressing to pose.
“Alright, everyone, this is Sharon,” the professor says, clicking on the spotlights and dragging them around to find an interesting angle. “She’s going to be our new model so we can explore the female form.”
And all Steve can think is no, no this is so wrong, which is just ridiculous because of course they were always going to have to change models and there’s nothing wrong with drawing someone new. Of course James wasn’t going to pose for them forever, and Steve was silly to think that he was going to be with the class for more than a handful of weeks. And he tells himself that it’s fine, it’s fine, because it’s not like he’s obsessed with James or anything; that would just be ridiculous and creepy. It shouldn’t matter who models for the class, and anyways, this girl is cute and drawing her will be an interesting change from the bold lines and flat planes of James’ body.
Except that Steve looks down at his drawing halfway through class and actually cringes at how forced and stilted it looks. Except that Steve hasn’t drawn this poorly since his freshman year of high school. Except that Steve’s professor pulls him aside after class and asks him if everything is alright because Steve is better than this and they both know it.
And as Steve shoves his things in his bag at the end of the day and begins the walk home, shoulders hunched against the wind, he thinks, okay, so maybe not so over it after all.
The rest of the semester passes uneventfully and while Steve never manages to summon the blinding inspiration of those weeks when James modeled for his class, he throws himself into his art and works harder than ever and passes his classes with flying colors. Amidst final projects and papers and exams, Steve barely has time to think about anything other than work, but then winter break rolls around and Steve has nowhere to go because this apartment he shares with Sam is as much a home to him as anything he’s known since his mom passed away when he was sixteen. It seems like everyone Steve knows is leaving for the holidays, off to spend time with family and go on vacation and do all the things that Steve has never quite been able to associate with the holiday season.
Even Sam has plans to go home for Christmas and New Year’s and he’ll be back here the first week of January, but Steve can’t help feeling just a little bit lonely. But it’s not like it’s anything Steve’s not used to, he thinks as he sits at his favorite table in the back of his favorite coffee shop with Sam one day. Sam’s sipping at a cup of strong black tea and reading a book while Steve sketches and drinks too much coffee and frowns at his sketchbook, willing himself to find that spark of inspiration again.
It’s a long moment before Sam looks up from his book and laughs at Steve’s expression, the almost angry furrow of his eyebrows as he stares at the page in front of him in concentration.
“You look insulted,” Sam comments lightly, setting his book down and reaching for his tea. “What did your sketchbook do to offend you this time?”
Steve rolls his eyes. “Stop moving,” he says, trying to pencil in the precise lean of Sam’s shoulder.
“Is this about that guy?” Sam asks, insightful as always. “Because you know, you’ve been acting off since you came back from that art show a couple months ago.”
“Stop moving,” Steve repeats, still not looking up from his drawing. After a beat, he adds, “And I told you, I don’t want to talk about it.”
Sam snorts. “Right, because there’s totally nothing bothering you, huh?” Sam teases. And then after a moment, his expression drops into something softer, “You know you can always talk to me about anything, Steve. I’m your friend.”
Steve sighs and leans back in his chair, setting his pencil aside on the table in front of him and pushing his sketchbook onto the table because he’s clearly not going to make any progress on this drawing at the moment.
“Thanks,” he says and his voice is tenser than he means, “But I don’t need you to psychoanalyze me right now, okay? There’s nothing to talk about.”
Sam laughs and raises his hands in surrender. “Alright, alright,” he says, knowing better than to argue with Steve when he gets like this because he knows better than anyone that Steve can be a stubborn bastard when he wants to be.
Steve reaches out for his coffee. The ceramic cup is warm in his hands. “When’s your flight?” Steve asks because Sam’s leaving tomorrow and for some reason, he feels like if he knows more about it, he’ll feel less like he’s being left behind.
Sam makes a face. “Nine,” Sam says like it’s a complaint, “In the morning.”
Steve chuckles at Sam’s grumbling, because Sam’s the most morning person guy Steve has ever known.
The bell over the door of the coffee shop rings, and Steve, who’s facing the door, is momentarily distracted. He almost does a double take, because it can’t be, right? Only it is, and James is walking into the coffee shop and his cheeks are rosy from the cold and Steve has to remind himself not to stare, because James is smiling a little and his hair is a mess from the wind and he looks good, really good. Sam raises an eyebrow at Steve and follows Steve’s gaze, and then his eyes grow wide and he leans in towards Steve, smiling conspiratorially.
“Is that him?” Sam asks, eyes bright and excited. He keeps glancing over at James, who’s at the counter ordering coffee, and Steve feels his face heat.
“Yes,” he whispers, as if James could hear him over the chatter of the coffee shop. Steve shifts in his seat, suddenly uncomfortable. “Stop staring. He’ll see you.”
Sam leans in a little closer. “Go say hi,” he encourages.
Steve blinks. “What—No,” he hisses. “That’d be weird. He probably doesn’t even remember me.”
Sam rolls his eyes at Steve and leans back in his seat. He contemplates Steve for a moment, looking like he’s privately laughing at Steve.
“Right,” Sam says slowly, smiling. “That’s probably why he’s coming over here right now, isn’t it?”
Steve chokes on his coffee. “I—you—What?” Steve splutters, glances over to his left where sure enough, James is headed straight for them. Steve coughs. “What do I do? Should I say something?”
Sam laughs outright at Steve then. “Just be yourself, man,” he says, and he’s half serious and half just making fun of Steve. “No need to get so worked up.”
Steve glares at him. “Thanks,” he says flatly. “You’re a huge help, Sam.”
Steve has about three seconds to take a breath and try to calm his frayed nerves before James reaches their table. He smells like winter and cigarettes and he’s holding a to-go cup of coffee in his hands. Steve shoves his glasses up his nose nervously and scolds himself for not fixing his hair after walking here through the wind.
James grins when Steve looks up at him and says with a sort of unwarranted familiarity considering they’ve only spoken once, “Hey! It’s Steve, right? It’s good to see you again.” And then when Steve takes a second too long to answer, mostly because his throat is suddenly very dry, James adds, as if Steve could ever forget, “I modeled for that figure drawing class you were in.”
“Oh,” Steve says, as if he just remembered. “Right, yeah. You’re James, right?”
Steve hopes he sounds appropriately confused and not like he’s tried to rehearse this conversation a million times in his head, wondering what he’d say if he ever bumped into James again.
James laughs, and Steve’s feeble heart falters in his chest. It’s a warm sound that makes James’ eyes crinkle a little around the corners, and Steve just about loses his breath, almost worried that he might have an asthma attack right then and there.
“Only my ma calls me James,” he says, smiling like they’re sharing some sort of private joke. “Everyone else calls me Bucky.”
Steve forces himself to take slow, even breaths, because James—no, Bucky’s voice comes out in a low rumble, and Steve can almost feel it trickling down his spine.
“That’s an interesting nickname,” Steve says, proud at how steady his voice sounds.
Bucky grins. “Yeah, well, that’s what I get for having two history buffs as parents,” he says. “Thought it’d be funny to name me after the most obscure US president ever.” Steve’s confusion must show, because after a beat, Bucky helpfully supplies, “James Buchanan.”
“Oh,” Steve says, trying to process all the new information he’s just learned about Bucky, head spinning a little at how easily Bucky is talking to him, all casual charm like they’ve known each other for ages.
Steve scrambles for something to say and suddenly remembers that Sam’s sitting just across the table from him and finds that Sam is smiling at Steve like Steve’s his own personal entertainment for the day. Steve kicks Sam’s foot under the table, trying to convey the general feeling of act normal, you ass, this is important to me.
“Um, this is my friend Sam, by the way,” Steve says, aiming for casual and probably missing by a wide margin. How the hell do people do this all the time, this meeting new people and trying to impress them and hold their attention for long enough for feelings to develop?
“Oh, hey,” Bucky says, either not bothered by or just not noticing Steve’s awkwardness.
The two shake hands and Sam asks what Bucky’s studying (turns out it’s sociology, and somehow, Steve can’t imagine Bucky studying anything else), and the two bond over both studying social science disciplines, and Steve thinks, okay, okay, okay. Maybe this is not so bad after all. Maybe this is okay.
And then, of course, because it’s just Steve’s luck, that redhead that Steve saw with Bucky at the art show pops up at his side and loops an arm through his, reminding Steve of everything he can’t have.
“We’re going to be late for our movie,” she says, and her voice is soft and inoffensive, but Steve thinks he can hear something sharp on her tongue.
“Oh!” Bucky says, as if he’d forgotten. He smiles almost apologetically at Steve, like the two of them had made plans, like he’s sorry to go. “Um, it was great seeing you again.”
“Yeah,” Steve says weakly, whatever confidence he’d gained from their conversation slowly leaving him the longer Bucky stands there with that girl on his arm.
Bucky flashes him another quick smile and says that it was nice to meet Sam, and then he and the redhead are leaving, wrapping their scarves a little tighter around themselves and squishing themselves a little closer together, bracing themselves for the cold winter air.
“By the way,” Bucky calls over his shoulder. His smile is genuine and strangely quiet. “I’ve been meaning to tell you; I saw that drawing you had in that art show a couple months ago. It was really good.”
And then the redhead pulls on his arm and the bell over the coffee shop door rings and they’re out of earshot, hurrying through the snow to get where they need to be. Thank you dies on Steve’s tongue before he can say it. He sighs and slouches in his chair, frowning at his now lukewarm coffee. Sam raises his eyebrow at Steve.
“Are you all grumpy now because you think that’s his girlfriend?” Sam asks, and seriously, seriously Sam has to be psychic. “Because she’s definitely not.”
“You can’t know that,” Steve mumbles, fiddling with the handle of his cup.
“Steve,” Sam says, and he’s using that tone of voice again, like Steve’s being extra difficult just for the sake of it. “Didn’t you see how much he wanted to stay and keep talking to you? He likes you.”
“He doesn’t even know me,” Steve says, but it’s a weak argument because they both know that Steve doesn’t know Bucky at all either and yet here they are.
Sure enough, Sam rolls his eyes. “You’re one to talk.”
Steve frowns. “Whatever. Just drop it, okay?”
Winter break passes both more quickly and more slowly than Steve could’ve imagined. Most of his time is, embarrassingly, spent sitting in that coffee shop he loves, trying to convince himself he isn’t waiting for Bucky to walk through the door again. He sits and sketches the quiet couples gossiping in the corners of the coffee shop and the people bundled up against the cold and the way the snow is clumping on the rooftops, pretending like this is productive practice in gesture drawing, pretending like he doesn’t still feel every line he draws is awkward, his shading inconsistent.
Steve goes out and buys all his books for the next semester, and one day, he even rearranges all the furniture in his room again like he does every time he gets restless and uneasy, which takes all day because he has to take a break every half an hour because all the strenuous work makes his asthma flare up. He goes out and buys all sorts of random groceries from various ethnic shops nearby without even thinking about it even though he knows he can’t afford to spend this much money on a whim and winds up with bags filled with red, spiky fruits and vegetables he’s never eaten before and an armful of spices and seasonings that he doesn’t know how to cook with.
When Sam comes back to New York, he takes one look around the apartment and lets out a low whistle.
“Shit, Steve,” he says, far too familiar with Steve’s antics and what they mean at this point. “You really got it bad, don’t you?”
Steve glares at Sam over a pile of textbooks that arrived in the mail, but there’s no heat in it. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
With the new semester, all the things that had been bothering Steve quickly fall to the wayside. There’s new classes and new professors and new projects for Steve to tackle, and he’s taking an advanced studio class this semester that takes up more time than anticipated and he has to deal with changing up which shift he works at the library to accommodate his new schedule, and he’s mostly too caught up in the rush of having to actually do things again that he forgets, just a little, to think about Bucky.
And that’s how, without even quite knowing how, Steve looks up and realizes that it’s suddenly March. It’s still chilly, the lingering winter not fully ready to give up just yet, and Steve still has to wear several layers of clothing every day just so he won’t freeze, but the early signs of spring are showing, the days slowly growing longer and the faintest hints of new plant life popping up where it can. Steve turns in a huge paper for his Critical Studies for Studio Practice class at the end of the first week of March and walks home that day feeling like he just woke up from a coma, because he’s spent the better part of the last week and a half holed up in his room or the library and he doesn’t think he’s spoken to much of anyone outside of class in days.
“Hey,” Sam says when Steve walks into the apartment and starts peeling off all his layers. “What’re you doing tonight?”
Steve sighs as he kicks off his shoes. “Sleeping,” Steve says, fighting a yawn. His eyes are practically burning, he’s so tired.
“Wrong,” Sam corrects, grinning even as Steve scowls at him. “Go take a nap. We’re going out tonight.”
Steve frowns and grumbles even as he tosses his glasses aside and dives into the empty space on his bed, which is half covered in discarded clothing and books and stray papers. He feels like he hasn’t slept in weeks and he knows that Sam will be by in a few hours to rouse him and shove some dinner in him and then drag him out to go to whatever party Sam has heard about this week. And Steve knows that he doesn’t get out enough and Sam’s ideas usually turn out to be a lot of fun but Steve’s tired and really, he’d just like to sleep for the next five years.
And that’s how, several hours later, Steve finds himself in a cab with Sam going to some party that Sam heard about from someone, and Steve’s body still aches from sleep deprivation, but Sam promises that this’ll be worth it, that it’s going to be a ton of fun, and Steve, because he’s a good sport and because he really hasn’t been out in months, just sort of laughs and leans his head against the window, closing his eyes the whole ride there. Sam nudges him when they arrive some minutes later and hands a few bills to the cabbie, dragging Steve out of the cab and to a modest looking apartment building. By the time they make it up the four flights of stairs to where all the noise is coming from, Steve’s so winded that he forgets to ask whose party this is. It doesn’t matter, because Sam’s already knocking on the door and a moment later, it swings open and Steve freezes, because there, standing in the doorway is that petite redhead that Steve kept seeing with Bucky.
“Sam!” she exclaims, reaching out and pulling him into a one-armed hug. She presses a light kiss to his cheek as she pulls away and beams, “You made it!”
Sam laughs and shrugs. “Decided I needed a night out,” he says, comfortable, cheerful. He gestures to Steve, “This is Steve, by the way, my roommate.”
Her green eyes shift to Steve, and Steve suddenly feels like he’s been put under a microscope, her eyes sharp and inquisitive. “Oh,” she says, and for a moment, Steve is worried that she’s going to be hostile. But then she smiles, and her face is suddenly warm and open again, “Hey, yeah, I remember. You were in that coffee shop that one time, right?” She talks in quick, efficient syllables and doesn’t wait for Steve to answer, just sticks her hand out for Steve to shake. “I’m Natasha. I live here.”
Steve smiles and shakes her hand. Her grip is surprisingly firm. She waves them both in, and Steve can see that the apartment is teeming with people, laughing and shouting at each other over the music thumping in the background.
“Drinks are in the kitchen,” Natasha says, pointing. “I think they’re playing beer pong in the dining room. Just make yourselves at home.”
“How do you two—?” Steve asks, because there’s a certain level of familiarity that’s passed between Sam and Natasha that seems rather unwarranted, considering how little he’s seen the two interact.
Natasha grins. “I’m taking a psych class this semester,” she says. “Sam also happens to be in it and was kind enough to help me study for a test we had last week.”
Steve blinks. “Oh.”
Natasha laughs and leads the way into the apartment, her red curls bouncing behind her as she weaves through clusters of people Steve doesn’t know. She waves her arm over her head.
“Bucky!” she calls, and Steve’s heart just about stops.
Of course, he thinks, of course Bucky’s here; he should’ve known from the moment that he saw Natasha at the door that Bucky would be here and he should’ve turned and bolted when he had the chance, but now it’s too late, and Bucky has already heard Natasha and he’s turning away from a conversation to make his way over to them. His mouth is pulled into a wide smile, and Steve has about two seconds to remember to breathe before Bucky is there and Natasha is saying, “You know my roommate” and then Bucky is standing right next to Steve and greeting them.
“Steve!” Bucky says, reaching out with the hand that isn’t cradling a drink to clap a warm hand on Steve’s shoulder, jostling his thin frame. He grins at Sam. “Sam! Glad you guys made it.”
Bucky doesn’t move his hand for a long moment, and Steve suddenly feels too warm all over. He’s glad when Sam replies, because Steve isn’t sure he knows where his voice has gone to at the moment.
“Yeah, well thanks for inviting us,” Sam says easily, so much better than Steve at knowing just what to say. “And happy birthday, by the way.”
Bucky laughs. “Thanks,” he says as he lifts his cup up to his mouth and takes a sip of his drink. He gestures to the general space around them and says, “Please, help yourselves to whatever. Nat pulled out all the stops for this, what with it being my last birthday as a college student and all, so you guys better make it worth it.”
And Steve’s still stuck on the fact that this is Bucky’s birthday party and Sam didn’t even mention anything about it (Steve thinks he would feel ambushed if Bucky didn’t seem so welcoming) to notice Sam going off with Natasha to grab a drink and greet some people he obviously knows but Steve doesn’t. Steve doesn’t quite realize what that means until a moment later when Bucky rocks back on his heels and says:
“So, can I get you a drink?”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” Steve manages to say and finds himself following Bucky to the kitchen, not entirely sure how this happened, not entirely sure that this wasn’t in some way planned.
Bucky makes him something that’s a lot of rum and a splash of what looks like some sort of juice and hands it over before grabbing his own drink again and nodding for Steve to follow him out to the dining room. Sam’s already playing beer pong at the dining room table, laughing and cheering and chattering away with a group of people Steve vaguely recognizes as other social science majors, a couple psychology students and maybe an anthropology major. Steve takes a sip of the drink Bucky made him. It tastes mildly sweet and citrusy and it settles warm in Steve’s stomach. Steve thinks about how different this party is from what he’s used to, because the social science majors are loud, all shouting over one another and laughing at each other, too affectionate and too much everything, and Steve is suddenly glad that he’s here, lingering at the fringes of it all with Bucky rather than right in the middle.
“I’m sorry, um, I didn’t know it was your birthday,” Steve says after a moment, because he feels like he should say something and this is the only remotely appropriate thing he can think of.
Bucky laughs and waves his hand. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “This is all really mostly just Nat’s thinly veiled excuse to have a bunch of people over and make a bunch of noise.” And then he leans in a little closer and says, almost conspiratorially, “Plus, there’s this guy – I think his name’s Clint or something – that Nat’s kind of into. I think she wanted a reason to invite him over.”
Steve laughs in surprise at that, trying not to sound like a horrible, sickening pressure has been lifted from his chest, because while he’s been hoping that Sam was right all along about this whole is Natasha Bucky’s girlfriend crisis, he’s been so sure all this time that it’s just been wishful thinking, that it’s all just been in his head. But here it all is, spelled out to him in black and white, and Bucky’s leaning close to Steve and his blue eyes are bright, and Steve feels his pulse leap erratically under his skin and hopes desperately that his wild excitement isn’t too obvious.
“Hey,” Bucky says, smile wicked and mischievous. Steve momentarily forgets how to his lungs work. “Want to see something cool?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and immediately hates how breathless he sounds.
Bucky’s smile grows wider. “C’mon,” he says, nodding for Steve to follow.
Bucky ducks back into the kitchen and grabs a mostly full bottle of scotch on his way through before heading out to the living room. He lifts open a window and steps out onto the fire escape, holding a hand out to help Steve out when Steve hesitates.
“Trust me,” Bucky says, and even though Steve has no reason to, even though for all he knows this could be a terrible mistake, he finds himself wanting to.
He follows Bucky up the fire escape ladder, trying not to spill his drink, and finds himself climbing up two stories to the roof of the building, and by the time he gets to the top, he’s panting, just about gasping for breath because he was already tired when he got here and even though he’s only had about half of his drink, but it’s strong and he’s so skinny that it’s already making him sluggish. Bucky whips his head around at the sound of Steve’s ragged breaths, his face suddenly concerned instead of excited and he touches a concerned hand to Steve’s shoulder.
“Hey,” Bucky says, and he’s suddenly very close to Steve and his hand is warm, even through three layers of clothing. “Hey, are you okay?”
Steve nods and tries to focus on taking even breaths and rasps, “Yeah, I just—Asthma—Just—I need a sec.”
Bucky lets out a sigh and runs a hand through his hair. “Shit,” he says, sounding genuinely apologetic. “Shit, Steve, I’m sorry. You should’ve said something. Is this—Are you going to be okay?”
“Yes,” Steve says emphatically, and he can already feel his airways starting to loosen up, and really, he just needs a moment to calm down and he’s going to be fine, if only Bucky would stop asking him questions and let him.
Bucky seems to get the hint and snaps his mouth shut, settling for pressing his mouth into a thin, worried line. It takes a couple minutes for Steve to get himself settled enough to remember to be embarrassed about this whole thing, because if he hadn’t made it clear already by stumbling over his words and just generally making a fool of himself, he really is just such a mess, and really, Bucky can’t want to spend more time with him at this point. Except Bucky just places a gentle hand on the small of his back and guides him over to a little table in the middle of the roof and sits him down in a chair, and his face is soft and concerned as he waits for Steve’s breathing to return to normal instead of running away.
“Sorry,” Bucky says again quietly, sinking down into a chair himself.
Steve smiles and shrugs, going to take a sip of his drink. It’s chilly out here, but the rum sits nice and warm in his stomach.
“It’s fine,” Steve says. “I’m used to it. It is what it is.”
Bucky gives him an odd, thoughtful look, like he wants to say something else, but instead he just nods and reaches out for the bottle of scotch that he brought out here and pours himself a generous amount. Steve cradles his drink in his hands, the cup still almost half full, and leans back in the chair. Now that he’s not entirely focused on not coughing his lungs up, he can finally look around him and he just about loses his breath all over again at the view. The city is spread all around them, lit up in a constellation of yellow points, tall, darkened buildings towering over warmly lit apartments glowing from the inside, and Steve feels himself itching to sketch it all out, almost wishing that he’d brought his sketchbook with him.
“Wow,” Steve says softly.
Bucky looks out at the view and smiles, his mouth curving up into something quieter than the wide, cocky grins he’d been tossing around earlier, and this somehow feels more private, more intimate. Steve wishes he could hold onto that smile forever.
“Yeah,” Bucky says, and his voice is almost reverent. “This is my favorite thing about this building. I spend a ton of time up here.”
Steve can see why, because up here, surrounded by the not-quite-darkness of nighttime in New York, the whir of cars rushing by beneath them and the silhouettes of tall buildings all around them, Steve almost feels like they could be alone, the rest of the world and that apartment filled with people Steve doesn’t know melting into the night, into the soft look in Bucky’s eyes, into the curl of Bucky’s fingers around his cup. And for just a moment, Steve forgets to be nervous at all, forgets to be anything but calm, because it feels like Bucky is sharing a secret with Steve that only he and this quiet little bubble have ever known.
“So,” Bucky says, breaking the quiet and pulling that playful smile back onto his face again. “I’ve been meaning to ask – are you really from Brooklyn?”
“What—?” Steve starts, and then he remembers the letters skipping across his knuckles in dark ink, his first tattoo and the last gift his mother ever gave him before she died (his sixteenth birthday and him not quite believing that she was just going along with it and her smiling and pressing a kiss to his knuckles where the letters were going to live for the rest of his life and looking at him like she knew, even then, that he was going to do something with his life and saying, “Never forget where you came from, Stevie.”), and he looks down and curls his fingers into a fist. He smiles a little at the memory and says quietly, “Oh. Yeah. Lived my whole life there.”
Bucky’s face is delighted and slightly surprised. “Really?” he says, eyes bright. “I’m from Brooklyn too. What neighborhood did you grow up in?”
And it turns out that they grew up close, but not close enough, just missing each other in terms of school districts, and Bucky babbles on about that’s so crazy we grew up so close to one another and didn’t even know it and wow, small world, huh? and could you imagine if we’d gone to the same high school and met each other sooner, and Steve finds himself laughing and laughing and laughing because Bucky’s so utterly fascinated by the proximity of their lives and he keeps saying these ridiculous things like god, we could’ve been best friends, don’t you feel that? and if Steve doesn’t laugh, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do (something stupid, probably, like kiss Bucky on that ridiculously red mouth of his just to shut him up and taste all of the imagined scenarios on his tongue).
They end up talking about everything and nothing at all, Bucky getting progressively chattier the more he drinks, and Steve learns that Bucky takes his coffee black and that he was an army brat and spent his childhood bouncing around the country before his father was stationed at Fort Hamilton when he was about to start high school. Steve learns that Bucky took a gap year after high school because he couldn’t figure out what to do with his life (“I was just sort of, y’know, drifting,” Bucky says, and his face is sad even as he smiles and Steve decides, violently, that he never wants to see Bucky look like that ever again) and that during that year, Bucky got in a motorcycle accident and nearly lost his left arm. When Steve’s eyes go wide with concern and he tries to stammer out sympathies, his words tumbling inelegantly out of his mouth, drunk, uncoordinated, Bucky just laughs and waves it off (“I said nearly, right? ’S all fine now.”).
And the whole time, Bucky keeps refilling Steve’s cup and Steve keeps drinking because it makes him feel warm all over, Bucky makes him feel warm all over, and when he leans over to refill into Steve’s cup, he smells like cigarettes and aftershave and the scotch they’ve been drinking together all night, and Steve is so, so glad that he let Sam talk him into coming out tonight, because this is the best thing to have happened to him in a long time. By the time the bottle is almost empty, Steve is drunker than he’s ever been and happier than he can remember and he watches Bucky gesture wildly as he tells Steve about the time he went to a toga party with Natasha and he decided it’d be a good idea to steal an exit sign and ended up having to smuggle it back to the apartment under the sheet she’d been wearing because of course she’d had the foresight to actually wear something underneath while he hadn’t. Bucky’s cheeks are rosy from the cold and the alcohol and his eyes are bright and glassy in the manner of the truly drunk, and Steve thinks that if this was the only thing he could ever have for the rest of his life, he could probably die happy. The thought hits him out of the blue, after all these months of watching and waiting and trying to fight the feeling in the pit of his stomach, and he feels it all so fiercely that it almost knocks him off his chair.
God help me, Steve thinks, terrified and thrilled and nervous all at once. I might actually be in love with him.
By the time Bucky gathers Steve up and all but carries him down the fire escape and back to Bucky’s apartment, it’s very, very late and Steve is very, very drunk. He winds up back in Bucky’s living room without realizing it, and it’s empty and where did all those people go anyways because it feels like just the other second, this place was bursting with noise, but then Steve thinks about it, or tries to, and slowly comes to the realization that it’s been hours since they snuck up to the roof. Off to the side and a little down a short hallway, he sees a closed door that must be Natasha’s because there’s a bra hanging around the doorknob, and Bucky laughs a little when he sees it.
“Good for her,” he mutters, probably mostly to himself, and hands Steve his phone back and Steve just stares at it because he can’t for the life of him figure out when Bucky took it from him. Bucky smiles and helps Steve to the door and down the stairs and says, “Texted Sam to tell him that you’re okay and I’m sending you home.”
“Oh,” Steve says. He blinks slowly and stumbles going down the stairs. Bucky loops a strong arm around his waist to steady him. “Thanks.”
Bucky just grins and suddenly they’re out on the street and Bucky’s trying to hail Steve a cab. Steve frowns at Bucky, at the relative steadiness in his step, the way he doesn’t seem to be swaying as much as the world feels like it is.
“You’re not drunk?” Steve asks, his words slurring together clumsily.
Bucky laughs. “Oh, I am, trust me,” he says, all good humor. “But I’m a little bit bigger than you and I think I’ve got a few more year’s of experience with alcohol than you do.”
Steve tries to take a step or two closer to Bucky, because his arm was warm going down the stairs and Steve liked the way the broad expanse of him pressed against Steve’s side, but his foot catches a crack in the sidewalk and Bucky has to reach out to catch him and he laughs.
“Careful,” Bucky says quietly, and his face is suddenly very close to Steve’s and his eyes are very intent and flick down to Steve’s mouth and Steve thinks for one wild moment that Bucky’s going to kiss him. But then Bucky smiles and there’s something odd in the curve of his lips that Steve doesn’t quite understand, and Bucky straightens them both up and just says, “I had fun tonight. I’m glad you came.”
Steve blinks. “Yeah,” he says, leaning maybe a little too much into Bucky’s side.
Bucky finally manages to flag down a cab and Steve is able to gather himself enough to remember his address to tell the cabbie and Bucky reaches into his pocket to pull out a few bills. It takes Steve a moment to realize what Bucky is doing and by the time he moves to protest, Bucky’s already handing the man the money and it’s too late.
“I can pay for my own cabs,” Steve says, knowing he sounds petulant and childish and too far gone to care.
Bucky smiles, a little soft around the edges. “Maybe next time,” he says and reaches to open the car door and tries to get Steve inside.
“I’ll pay you back,” Steve insists, and then he has a great idea and whirls around as Bucky’s trying to get him into the cab, almost tripping over his own feet in the process. “Hey,” he says in the fervent tone of someone who doesn’t know what the hell he’s saying. “I could draw you something. You said you like my drawings, you said so, remember? Whatever you want. I could do it.”
Bucky laughs again, and god, has Bucky always looked that pretty when he laughs?
“Sounds good,” Bucky says and this time, Steve lets himself be all but poured into the cab. Bucky lingers as he goes to close the door and he says, quieter now, “Goodnight, Steve” and then after half a beat, adds, “Maybe drink a glass of water before you go to bed, yeah?”
“You got it,” Steve hears himself saying.
And then Bucky is shutting the door and waving goodbye and the cab is moving and Steve doesn’t realize until he’s stumbling up the stairs to his apartment that he still has no way of contacting Bucky. Steve stops in his tracks and leans against the wall of the stairwell and says to the ceiling:
Steve wakes up the next morning feeling like he wants to die. He manages to stumble to the bathroom before throwing up, which he considers that a win, under the circumstances. When Steve finally manages to drag himself into the kitchen, he still feels disgusting but no longer like he’s about to puke up his entire stomach. He groans and lays his head down on the table, relishing in the coolness of its surface against his skin.
“I’m never drinking again,” Steve says, heartfelt.
Sam laughs and looks very much like he wants to say something snarky but Steve probably looks like the very definition of pitiful so Sam opts for pouring Steve a cup of coffee instead of making fun of him and goes to make breakfast. Sam comes back to the table some minutes later and sets down a huge glass of water and a plate of bacon and eggs down in front of Steve.
“Eat,” Sam says, sitting down with a cup of coffee for himself. “And drink some water too. It helps, I promise.”
Steve doesn’t have the energy to respond but he dutifully shovels food in his mouth and it’s greasy and too salty and he should be disgusted because he doesn’t usually like food like this for breakfast, typically preferring something simpler like toast or a bagel with just a touch of cream cheese, but it’s exactly what he needs right now and when he finishes his food and downs the entire glass of water in one go, he feels a million times better than he did when he woke up (which isn’t hard, since he woke up feeling like he’d been hit by a truck, but still).
“So,” Sam says when he sees that Steve’s looking a bit more human. He asks around a smile, “Have a good night?”
Steve frowns. “Um,” he says, trying to figure out what last night even was, because it’s all a blur of Bucky’s insane stories and the feeling of his side pressed up against Steve’s and that look he’d given Steve before he very much didn’t kiss Steve. “I mean, sort of, I guess. I don’t know.”
Sam raises his eyebrows at Steve. “It’s a yes or no question, Steve,” Sam says, looking like he’s doing his very best not to laugh. “There’s no ‘sort of’ about it.”
Steve glares at Sam, or at least tries to. He hadn’t put his glasses on in his rush to get to the bathroom, so he’s not entirely sure if he looks like he’s actually glaring or just squinting.
“Shut up,” Steve says.
Sam rolls his eyes. He sips thoughtfully at his coffee and says casually after a moment, “Wasn’t sure you’d be coming home last night.”
Steve narrows his eyes at Sam. He wonders, not for the first time, or even the second, if Sam planned for things to end up this way. He wouldn’t be surprised if Sam did.
“Why?” Steve says, averting his eyes to his coffee. He can feel his face start to heat. “It’s not like anything happened. We just talked.”
Sam scoffs. “Right,” he says. “For four hours?”
“Yes,” Steve shoots back, perhaps more viciously than he means. “Hell, I didn’t even get his number. I’m probably never going to see him again.”
Sam hums. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” he says cryptically, before getting up to place his empty cup in the sink and pad out of the room. He calls over his shoulder, “You’re not going to throw up again are you? I want to take a shower.”
Steve just waves a hand at him and stares at the dregs of his coffee for a long moment, thinking about what Sam just said. The way Sam was talking, it sounded like he knows more than Steve does about this whole situation, but what is there to know? Bucky hadn’t even kissed him, even though there had been a perfect opportunity to do so at the end of the night. And though he didn’t seem to mind keeping so close to Steve, he could very well have just been trying to be helpful and get Steve’s drunk ass home in one piece. It could very well mean nothing at all.
Steve sighs and shoves a hand through his hair. From the bathroom, the sound of water running starts up. Steve sits a moment longer before he decides that he’d really like to sleep a few more hours and it’s Saturday anyways and he has nowhere to be, so he dumps his dishes in the sink and staggers back to his room, shutting the door behind him. He slips back into bed and pulls his comforter up high over his chin, a habit from when he’d been a kid, sick too often in the winter and living in an apartment where the heating was spotty at best.
Steve’s eyes land on his nightstand, where he’d somehow had the foresight to leave his phone last night, even though he hardly remembers getting home at all. He vaguely remembers his phone in Bucky’s hands and Bucky pressing Steve’s phone back into Steve’s palm and Steve chews on his lip for a second before reaching an arm out to grab it, curious.
It takes him a moment for him to locate his glasses, which he finds lying on the ground next to the jeans he’d been wearing last night and somehow, thankfully, had the presence of mind to take off before passing out. He shoves his glasses on and opens up his texts and sees in his conversation with Sam a couple texts he doesn’t remember sending.
Steve [3:48am]: hey, it's bucky i've got steve and he'fs fine i'll be sending him hlome to you soon
Sam [3:51am]: thanks
Sam [3:51am]: you keep him if you want though i’m sure he won’t mind
Steve [3:55am]: maek sure he doesn't throw up idn his sleep
Sam [3:58am]: yeah yeah will do
Steve [3:58am]: :o)
And as Steve stares at the texts that Bucky and Sam have sent back and forth, Steve really should be horrified, because Sam all but told Bucky that Steve wouldn’t hesitate to take anything Bucky would give him, if the opportunity ever presented himself, but Steve’s more distracted by the adorable little smiley face that Bucky used at the end and he forgets to be angry.
As he’s flicking through his phone and trying to see if Bucky fucked around with his phone at all, because he still has no idea how long Bucky had his phone for, he notices something even better (later, Steve realizes that since Sam was the one who dragged him to the party in the first place and therefore, whether this was planned or not, gets all the credit for all the good to come out of the night, Steve probably has no right to ever be mad at Sam ever again).
In his contacts, there’s a new entry. Bucky Barnes and a string of numbers have been dutifully entered into his phone.
Steve feels his heart flail wildly in his chest and he tries not to think about how ridiculous he’s being for freaking out so much about getting a fucking phone number, because it could mean nothing for all he knows and maybe this is just Bucky’s way of saying that he wants to be friends, and Steve spends way too long trying to figure out something appropriately casual to send to Bucky to start a conversation.
After deliberating for ten minutes, Steve ends up sending something like hey, it’s Steve thanks for taking care of me last night, and then he immediately panics and wonders if he should’ve said something different and shoves his phone away from him. He tosses his glasses aside and yanks his comforter up over his head, trying to block out the voice in his head that’s telling him that he’s maybe already royally fucked this up, before anything even happened.
Steve wakes up again three hours later, still not feeling entirely back to normal but much better than when he woke the first time. He blearily gropes around his bed for his phone and glasses, wondering if Bucky texted him back, wondering if he should be scared. He finds his phone tucked under his comforter by his foot and his glasses shoved under one of his pillows. He slips his glasses on and sure enough, he has one new text message.
yeah no problem. you feeling okay today?
Steve smiles a little, unable to stop the warm feeling that swells up in his chest. He sends back: more or less. Bucky doesn’t respond, but then again, he texted Steve something like two and a half hours ago, when Steve had been asleep, or anyway, that’s what Steve tells himself to calm himself down as he stretches and slides out of bed, thinking he’ll take a shower before he decides what to do with the rest of his day. It’s already almost three in the afternoon, but he thinks that he might still be able to squeeze some productivity out of it.
When he returns back to his room after showering, he finds that he’s got a text from Bucky. Steve tries and fails miserably not to be too excited about it.
got any plans for today?
Steve realizes as he’s typing a response that he’s got this ridiculous, huge grin on his face and privately wonders when this became his life.
I might get coffee and sketch a little. I have some sketchbook pages due on Monday.
This time, it only takes Bucky a moment to respond.
cool maybe i'll come join you. same place as before right?
Steve’s heart leaps into his throat as he texts back yeah and this shouldn’t make him nervous, Bucky casually inviting himself into Steve’s life like this, Bucky remembering Steve’s favorite coffee shop, but it does, because it feels like there’s so much expectation, like there’s so much riding on this interaction, because if it goes well, it could be the first successful, lengthy interaction Steve’s ever had with Bucky outside of that party (which he’s still not sure if he should count because they were both too drunk to be concerned about embarrassment) and that would bode well for whatever comes in the future. And if it goes poorly, well, Steve doesn’t even want to think about it.
Steve spends too long considering what to wear before he decides he’s being stupid and just throws on a pair of dark jeans that are starting to wear through at the knees and grabs a t-shirt and his favorite blue cardigan that’s a little too big for him but it’s the softest thing in the entire world. He shoves one of his sketchbooks in his bag and a handful of pencils and grabs a scarf on the way out because it’s still chilly out and he’s not great with cold weather. When he passes through the living room on his way to the door, Sam looks up from where he’s situated on the couch and raises his eyebrows.
“Where are you all in a rush to get to?” he asks.
Steve pauses, his hand halfway to reaching his coat, debating how much to tell Sam. “I think Bucky’s meeting me for coffee,” he says, unsure of how to say it, because it’s not like Steve asked Bucky out or anything; Bucky just sort of decided to go along with it.
Sam grins. “I thought you said Bucky didn’t give you his number,” he teases.
Steve shrugs and slips his coat on, trying to quash the nervousness building up in his stomach.
Sam’s smile turns conspiratorial. “Should I vacate the premises so you two can have some alone time if you bring him home?”
Steve rolls his eyes and slings his bag over his shoulder. “Whatever you want, Sam.”
“Remember,” Sam calls after him, “If you’re going to have sex, the couch is off limits! We can’t wash this thing!”
“Shut up,” Steve shouts over his shoulder as he slams the door closed, his face turning bright red at the thought.
Behind him, Sam’s laugh floats out into the hallway.
Steve is settled at his usual table by the window in the back something like ten minutes later, sketching aimlessly in his sketchbook. His coffee slowly cools on the table in front of him. Steve pencils in the curve of the back of the girl hunched over her laptop in one of the corner booths and stares out the window, wondering if Bucky really will show up or if that was just a sort of empty promise. He frowns and turns back to his sketchbook, trying to remember if his professor said they needed to hand in three drawings on Monday or four.
Steve almost jumps out of his seat in surprise, looking up to find Bucky sliding into the chair across from him. Steve’s feeble heart is beating so fast he’s almost worried that it’ll give out. He hadn’t even heard Bucky approach.
Bucky cracks a small smile and sets his coffee down on the table. “Sorry,” he says, sounding like he only halfway means it. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I—It’s fine,” Steve says, kicking himself internally when his voice wavers.
Bucky takes a sip of his coffee, slate blue eyes combing over Steve’s appearance. Steve ducks his head on the pretext of getting back to his drawing so Bucky won’t see the spots of color that are starting to appear on his cheeks.
“You look surprisingly okay today,” Bucky notes, and there’s a light laugh in his voice.
“Yeah, no thanks to you,” Steve shoots back without thinking about it and has half a second to panic, worried that he shouldn’t have said that, before Bucky laughs and Steve learns that when Bucky is truly amused, he laughs with his whole body, eyes crinkling at the corners and head tucked down and bowing over with the force of it. Steve thinks to himself that he could watch Bucky laugh like that all day and not get bored.
“Hey now,” Bucky says, still grinning, something bright and playful in his eyes that makes Steve’s stomach feel like it’s doing backflips. “It was my birthday. I’m allowed to let myself get a little carried away for once.”
Steve snorts. “Why do I not believe you when you say ‘for once’?” he says, and he’s not sure where all of this is coming from all of a sudden, this weird, easy banter like they’ve known each other for ages, but he suspects it has something to do with the way Bucky is smiling at him, secretive like the two of them know something that the rest of the world doesn’t.
Bucky chuckles and leans in a little, resting his forearms on the table. “Clever,” he says, and the word rolls around his mouth like he’s drawing it out for all it’s worth. His mouth settles into something mischievous, more like a smirk. “And here I was starting to think you were just a pretty face.”
Steve all but chokes on his coffee. “I—You—I mean,” Steve splutters before he clears his throat, momentary ease gone in favor of his usual shyness around Bucky. “Don’t you have work to do?”
Bucky’s looking at Steve like he’s something especially funny and Steve can’t tell if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Bucky shrugs.
“I should be,” he says, leaning back in his chair and taking a sip of his coffee. He smiles at Steve over the rim of his cup, his eyes shining like he’s about to divulge a private sin. “My thesis advisor’s been getting on my case all week about things I need to do.”
Steve blinks, caught off guard. He’s known without knowing how he knows that Bucky’s not exactly an unintelligent person; there’s something about the way Bucky carries himself when he talks about things that aren’t just small talk or complete bullshit that feels too careful for Bucky to just be one of those college students who coast by studying something they hardly care about just to get a degree. But Steve hadn’t imagined that Bucky would be doing an honors thesis. He just hadn’t thought about it.
“That’s—I mean, you—What is it about?” Steve asks, his words inelegant and tripping over one another, too eager to learn more about Bucky’s life now that he’s sharing.
Bucky shrugs like it’s nothing. “I’m looking at the development of queer culture and changing views on issues of gender and sexuality throughout World War II in America and various regions in Europe,” he says, and there’s something about the way he says it that sounds like there’s so much more to it, that this is just the ten-second elevator pitch that he’s thrown together after answering the same question too often, and Steve wants to hear more, wants to know what goes on in Bucky’s head, wants to know his carefully researched opinions on topics that Steve knows nowhere near as much about.
“Oh,” Steve says, because that’s all he can manage to say without sounding crazy and obsessive. “Wow, that’s, um, that’s really cool.”
Bucky smiles, something soft like he’s thankful that’s the way Steve sees it, like he’s relieved, like Steve’s opinion matters.
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “I like to think so.”
Steve offers what he hopes is a warm smile in return, but it feels awkward on his face and he tucks his chin down and fiddles with his sketchbook to hide the blush that’s fighting to make itself known. It’s quiet for a moment and when Steve peeks up, he sees that Bucky is just sitting and staring out the window, people watching maybe, and drinking his coffee, not bored in the slightest even though he brought nothing to do and Steve would think that just sort of sitting and watching Steve draw wouldn’t be terribly interesting. Bucky glances over at Steve, catching him staring, which only serves to make Steve blush all over again, but Bucky sets his coffee down and leans in, interested.
“What’re you working on?” he asks, and he sounds genuinely curious.
Steve shrugs and looks back at his drawing, which he hasn’t actually touched in several long minutes. “Just some sketches,” he mumbles. “My professor wants us to do some studies of life scenes.”
Bucky grins. “Cool,” he says, sounding like he means it. His face turns thoughtful after a moment and he looks like he’s considering something carefully before he opens his mouth again and asks slowly, “Hey, were you being serious last night when you offered to draw me something?”
No, Steve thinks, even as he finds himself saying, “Yeah, sure. What do you want me to draw?”
Bucky shrugs. “Whatever you like,” he says. “You’re the artist.”
And Steve knows, he knows what he wants to draw more than anything, and here Bucky is, giving him a free pass to ask for whatever he wants, and Steve might actually be getting a chance to satisfy the raw gnawing at the pit of his stomach that’s been there since Steve first saw Bucky walk into his life drawing class last semester. Steve knows it’s an odd request and he doesn’t want to scare Bucky off, not now that he’s finally somehow inched himself closer to Bucky, but this feeling, this almost crazed need has been simmering under Steve’s skin for too long for him to just let his opportunity slip by.
“Um, I don’t know if you—I mean, I—Sorry, this is going to sound so weird, but could I—Would you mind if—Can I draw you?” Steve asks, his words coming out in a jumble, jumpy and unorganized. His voice is too loud, too frantic, and for a brief moment, Bucky just stares at him, and Steve fears that he’s gone and fucked it up for good. But then Bucky smiles, and Steve feels something come loose in his chest.
“Me?” Bucky asks, but he’s more amused than anything, blue eyes bright and playful.
“I just—When you were modeling for that class,” Steve says, trying to sound a little less like he’s a huge bundle of nervous energy right now. “When you were modeling, it was like—I’ve never drawn like that before, and I just thought—If I could just draw you again, maybe I could—”
“Sure,” Bucky says, quiet and easy, a sort of sly smile on his face like he knows exactly what Steve is trying to get at, like he can tell that Steve’s spent too many nights thinking about the flat planes of his body and his stupidly red lips.
“I—Really?” Steve asks, hating how his voice comes out in a surprised squeak.
Bucky leans back in his chair, his eyes just this side of too intent. “Why not?” he says.
Steve blinks and pushes his glasses back up his nose nervously. “Oh, um, okay,” Steve stammers out. “Um, when are you free?”
Bucky shrugs. “I got no plans today,” he says, and there’s something tucked between his words that Steve can’t quite figure out.
“Oh,” Steve says, and then the immediacy of what Bucky is offering hits him full force and he forgets for a moment how to think. “Oh, I—Yeah, okay. Today, um, today works.”
Bucky grins at Steve, and Steve somehow manages to gather up all his things without dropping all of his things all over the floor, which he suppose he should consider a win, and he thinks okay, this is actually happening. Okay. Okay.
They end up going back to Steve’s apartment, because he lives about ten minutes away from the coffee shop and it’s the closest place where Steve’s got all the things he needs and they won’t be disturbed. The whole walk back, Steve tries not to think about all the things Sam shouted at him as he’d left the apartment earlier, but he’s glad to find that Sam did in fact, thankfully, leave the apartment. Steve wonders if Sam was actually that optimistic about Steve’s prospects or if he’s just trying to be encouraging.
“Um, sorry about the mess,” Steve says as he walks in and kicks off his shoes by the door. Steve’s messy by nature, though he does actually know where all of his things are as long as no one moves them, so he just kind of goes with it, and Sam has this habit of going on a cleaning spree something like once a month but in between his careful organization always falls apart.
“No, it’s fine,” Bucky says, grinning and looking around. His eyes are soft and fond. “You should see how my apartment gets. Nat and I are both shit at housework.”
Steve laughs, hoping that it doesn’t sound breathy and anxious. “All my art stuff is in my room,” Steve says, trailing off at the end because he doesn’t know how to say that without saying that they should do this, this thing in his bedroom, because just thinking about it is too much for him to deal with.
But Bucky just takes it all in stride and nods and follows Steve when he goes to his room to get his things and peers at the sketches of the New York City skyline and various parks and city streets that Steve has taped up on the walls.
“These are really nice,” Bucky says, and even though he’s not facing Steve, Steve can hear the smile in his voice.
“Thanks,” Steve says quietly, lifting up a couple books from his desk so he can reach his favorite sketchbook, the large one with heavy, cream colored paper that he probably shouldn’t have spent so much money on but it’s beautiful and it was his birthday present to himself last year.
Bucky turns around, hands stuffed in his pockets, and he looks curiously around Steve’s room and asks, “So do you want to do this here, or—?”
Steve swallows. “Sure.”
And then Bucky nods and moves to undress, and Steve looks away and busies himself with tidying up the space a little bit, grabbing stray books that are scattered all over his bed and floor and shoving them in the corner of his room, collecting handfuls of papers of notes and sketches and studies for larger works and pinning them securely under a cup of cold tea on his desk. When he next glances up, Bucky’s down to just his underwear, and oh god, how did Steve ever think that this could be a good idea? Because Bucky at a distance, ten or fifteen or so feet across a classroom from Steve was already beautiful, but this, Bucky standing not five feet away from Steve in his cramped bedroom, this is something else altogether. Steve can see with startling clarity the broadness of his shoulders, the taught skin stretched over toned muscle, the dense spread of tattoos running over knotted scar tissue from the top of his left shoulder to his wrist, trying to make something beautiful out of an ugly part of his life. Steve could stare for hours at the strong line of Bucky’s thighs or the soft sweep of his back, probably would, drawing all but forgotten, if Bucky didn’t bring his attention back to the fact that this is supposed to be about paying back a favor, that this most likely isn’t a come-on, that Steve can’t actually have Bucky the way he wants, despite the generous show of bare skin.
“Should I—?” Bucky gestures to Steve’s bed.
Steve shoves a pile of clothing off of his desk chair so he can sit, so he doesn’t have to look at Bucky when he says, “Sure.”
There’s a soft rustling, and when Steve looks up again, Bucky’s lying lazily on his stomach on Steve’s bed, propping his chin up on his hand.
“How do you want me?” Bucky asks, and his voice is low and rumbly and Steve can feel it all the way down to his bones.
Steve has no idea why he ever thought this would be a good idea. But it’s too late to back out now, and Steve’s not about to turn and run, not now.
“Um, that’s—just move your hand down, yeah like that with your arms folded,” Steve says, trying to sound as confident as possible, trying not to blush. “And could you just rest your head on your arms. Tilt your head a little to the right, chin up a little.”
Steve pauses and chews on the end of his pencil, thinking, trying to will himself into the right headspace to be drawing, but Bucky’s looking up at him through those ridiculously long eyelashes and a smile is toying at the corners of his mouth and there’s just so much of Bucky on display and mostly, it’s just getting a little hard to breathe.
“Like this?” Bucky asks, quiet, almost daring.
Steve presses his lips together and ignores how hot his cheeks feel at Bucky’s casual innuendos.
“Yeah, that’s good,” Steve says, paging his sketchbook open to a blank page and hoping that once he actually starts drawing, he’ll actually be able to focus and think a little less about the light dusting of freckles that run across Bucky’s shoulders and down his back like he lays out in the sun too much when the weather starts turning warm enough.
For once, the universe is kind to Steve, and as he touches his pencil to the blank paper in front of him, he finds himself in the middle of that crazed frenzy again, moving his hand to block in the bold lines of Bucky’s posture without much thought. And just like that, suddenly, drawing becomes as easy as breathing again, his hands flying across the page as if racing against some ticking clock to pencil in all the little details he sees, all the details he doesn’t want to forget. It’s like all those months of struggling to relearn how to feel at ease with a pencil in his hand are melting away, until all he can remember is this, the scratch of graphite against paper, the feeling of absolute, fluid grace beneath his fingertips. Steve draws for something like half an hour without realizing it, and even though the drawing in front of him is still a little rough and he still has to finish adding in all the various shadows and decide what to do for a background, he thinks it might be his best work yet.
Bucky is still and quiet as Steve draws, patient and calm, but there’s something almost sharp in his eyes like he’s trying to figure Steve out. Steve can all but see the cogs turning in Bucky’s head, and it would be distracting, except that after about ten minutes, Steve gets so caught up in the act of observing and recording and just doing that he forgets to wonder what Bucky could be so interested in.
“Are we really going to keep playing this game?” Bucky asks, finally, maybe forty-five minutes after Steve began drawing.
Steve starts, Bucky’s voice sounding abnormally loud in his tiny, quiet room. Heart pounding in his ears, not entirely from surprise, Steve asks, “What?”
Bucky’s mouth curves up into something that Steve would call dangerous, if Bucky ever gave Steve a reason to be afraid of him.
“Oh, come on, Steve,” Bucky says, words rolling off his tongue soft and sweet. “Don’t play dumb. It’s not your color.”
“I—” Steve stammers. “I don’t—”
“The way you keep sidestepping around me,” Bucky clarifies, as if Steve hadn’t already guessed that Bucky had noticed. Bucky’s smile widens. “The way you keep acting like none of this means anything to you. Or are we just going to pretend like you don’t keep looking at me like you want to jump my bones?”
Steve’s face is probably bright red by this point, but he’s never backed down from a single confrontation in his life, so he just sticks his chin out and clutches his sketchbook in his hands so hard that his knuckles turn white. Bucky shifts his head a fraction of an inch like he wants to move and thinks better of it.
“Will it fuck your drawing up if I move right now?” Bucky asks, quiet.
Steve blinks. The drawing’s almost done. Just some shading left. “No.”
Bucky smiles. “Good,” he says, and sits up and slides over to the edge of the bed closest to Steve, movements smooth and catlike. He sticks one of his legs out to hook a foot around the base of Steve’s desk chair and pull him closer. He reaches to take Steve’s sketchbook, which Steve is still holding between them like a shield, like it’s the last thing standing between the two of them and the truth, and asks, “May I?”
Steve finds himself nodding, terrified that Bucky’s going to look because without realizing it, Steve has made his drawing too tender, too personal, but Bucky just sets the sketchbook aside, never taking his eyes off of Steve, and suddenly, Steve is terrified that maybe he looks too tender.
“So,” Bucky says, drawing out the word in his mouth. “I’m curious. Were you ever going to do anything about it or just keep staring at me with those puppy dog eyes of yours? I mean, I am naked in your bedroom. I’m not sure if I can make my interest any clearer.”
And Steve can barely hear through the blood rushing through his ears, much less process that Bucky is trying to convince him that he’s actually interested. He spends far too long staring with his mouth hanging open, trying to string together enough words to form a coherent sentence.
“But I thought—I mean, you—Last night,” Steve manages to say. “Last night, you—I thought you were going to kiss me, and then I—You—”
“Steve,” Bucky laughs, lifting his hands to trail his fingers lightly over Steve’s fragile jawline. “You were drunk. I was drunk. I couldn’t just—It wouldn’t have been right for me to do it that way.”
Bucky’s hands are cool on Steve’s heated skin, and Steve’s head is spinning with all the new information and the sudden closeness to Bucky that he’s been allowed, and mostly, mostly he’s trying to figure out how the hell this is even possible. That Bucky could want Steve. That Bucky apparently has wanted Steve for some time now. Because Bucky is everything that Steve isn’t – tall and strong and a little rough around the edges but gorgeous in a sort of effortless, just-rolled-out-of-bed way that has always eluded Steve. Steve looks at Bucky and can’t imagine what Bucky sees, because Steve’s all awkward corners and lanky limbs that puberty did nothing to help, and Steve just doesn’t get it.
Steve wants to say all of this and more, but all he manages to ask is, “Why me?”
Bucky laughs again, but this time it’s almost sad, like he can’t believe what Steve is saying, like Steve is the crazy one.
“You can’t be—My god, Steve,” Bucky breathes, and his face is so close to Steve’s now that Steve can see the little flecks of green in Bucky’s eyes. “You have to know that you’re incredible. I look at your art, I look at you, and I’m absolutely blown away. You’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met, and trust me, I’ve met my fair share of interesting people.”
“I—What?” Steve splutters, because this is all happening way too fast and his mind is whirling to keep up. “But you—I thought—You—”
Bucky smiles, and it’s something soft and quiet like Steve thinks that maybe he’s seen before, once or twice when he wasn’t paying attention and thinks to himself Oh god, I’m an idiot.
And then Bucky says, “I’m going to shut you up now.”
And then Bucky leans in across the scant few inches separating them and kisses him, light and chaste and just for a second, but it’s enough to make Steve’s heart slam wildly in his chest, and when Bucky pulls away, Steve finds himself feeling hollow. Steve stares at Bucky, stuck for a moment in disbelief before everything kicks back into gear, and Steve leans in to kiss Bucky again, hungry and eager and maybe just a touch too enthusiastic, all teeth and tongue, now that he knows beyond a doubt that he’s allowed this, that Bucky wants this. He lets his hands wander over Bucky’s skin, warm all over but still cooler than Steve feels, feels out the firm planes of Bucky’s chest, the curve of his shoulders, the uneven distortions where his skin ripples over old wounds. Bucky groans into Steve’s mouth and pulls him closer, pulling at his clothes, trying to get at bare skin, and Steve shivers when he feels Bucky’s hands brush across his sharp hipbones. And then suddenly, Bucky’s yanking Steve’s jeans open and sinking down onto his knees and all Steve can think is oh god, oh god, oh god, this is actually happening, this is real and then he’s coming apart – too much, too much, the wet heat of it all, the pressure of Bucky’s tongue just so, blinding, excruciating, perfect – and it would be embarrassing how quick it all is, except when he can finally see again, he finds Bucky grinning up at him and surging up to kiss him again, smug and satisfied and fervent, and Steve wonders why it took him so long to figure all this out, wonders how he could keep this forever.
Later finds Steve sitting on his bed with Bucky and leaning back against Bucky’s chest and cradling his sketchbook in his lap again, filling in shadows and details he hadn’t gotten around to earlier. Bucky’s wrapped all around Steve, lazy and languid and pressing soft kisses into the curve of Steve’s neck. It tickles a little, but it’s nice.
“Okay,” Steve says finally, scribbling his name and the date at the bottom of the page. “Okay, I’m done.”
Bucky hums and tucks his chin over Steve’s shoulder to look. Steve feels Bucky draw in a sharp breath.
“Shit,” Bucky says, low and reverent like on that first day Bucky ever saw one of Steve’s drawings, only better now because Steve knows what his mouth tastes like when he laughs. “That’s amazing. You’re a fucking genius, you know that?”
Steve snorts and rolls his eyes, elbowing Bucky even as a light pink blush spreads onto his cheeks. “Watch it,” Steve says. “If you keep saying stuff like that, my ego’s going to get all out of whack.”
“Doubt it,” Bucky says absently, lifting the sketchbook out of Steve’s hands so he can look at it closer. A slow smile eases its way onto his face and he sets the sketchbook aside a moment later so he can press a kiss to Steve’s lips. “Thank you.”
Steve raises an eyebrow at Bucky, trying not to grin like an idiot. It probably doesn’t work.
“You’re actually going to keep it?” Steve asks. “You mean this wasn’t all some big trick to get in my pants?”
Bucky shrugs. “Can’t I do both?” he says slyly, his mouth wrapping around the words prettily.
Steve lets out a soft, surprised laugh, still not fully believing that this is a thing that’s happened to him, that this is actually his life. Bucky smiles and reaches out to push Steve’s hair out of his face.
“Let me buy you dinner,” Bucky says suddenly, and there’s something quiet and sincere running through his voice that makes Steve’s chest ache.
Steve blinks, his heart in his throat. “Is this—Are asking me out on a date?” he asks.
“If you like,” Bucky says, sounding maybe just a little more earnest than he meant to.
“Isn’t the date supposed to come before the sex?” Steve teases, trying to see if he can get Bucky to laugh again, because when he does, it’s like clouds clearing after a storm and Steve finds himself thinking for the first time in years that this could be home.
Bucky’s mouth pulls wide into a smile and he lets a chuckle slip out. “I suppose,” he says, eyes turning devious again. “Never been great at following rules, though.”
Steve’s quiet for a moment, just taking it all in, the startling softness around Bucky’s eyes, the messy sweep of his hair across his face.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “You can buy me dinner.”
“Good,” Bucky says, and when he kisses Steve, warm and gentle, it feels like a promise.