It’s a little before full dark when Bucky kisses Steve’s temple and says, “I really do have to get ready.”
They’re curled together in their small bed, sheet tangled around their hips as a compromise between modesty and the heavy summer heat that’s lain thick over the city for the better part of a month. Even with the windows thrown open and a rattling fan set on top of the dresser it’s still stifling in their room. It’s even warmer pressed together, but Bucky doesn’t care. These moments anchor him.
Steve makes a noise in the back of his throat and presses his face to Bucky’s shoulder. His hair is mussed from an afternoon spent alternating between easy, slow sex and sleeping. “Don’t want you to,” he mumbles to Bucky’s skin.
“I have to,” Bucky chuckles. He skims his hand over Steve’s bony shoulder. “I don’t make any money in this bed.”
With a huff, Steve reluctantly rolls onto his back and folds his arms beneath his head. “I know,” he says, with a wry, weary little grin.
Bucky leans over and kisses him, trying to soothe away the old guilt Steve can’t seem to shake that this is the way their lives have fallen out. Bucky’s told Steve again and again that him spending his nights lounging on a street corner in the Tenderloin is no fault of Steve’s. But Steve, God love him, lives and dies on his responsibility to others.
He knows that Bucky’s money helps pay for art school. Bucky argues back, kissing him to punctuate the points, that Bucky would sell pieces of his soul for Steve and count it a more than fair trade.
Bucky climbs out of bed with a rusty squeak of the old metal frame and walks to the bathroom, skimming his fingers through his hair. The door separating it from their bedroom finally fell of the rotted hinges last winter, and they haven’t yet had the desire or money to replace it. Standing at the sink, he can see Steve shift onto his stomach with a pillow folded beneath his chin, watching.
“Like what you see?” Bucky calls, batting his eyelashes.
Steve ducks his head and blushes a little. “Maybe,” he says.
He turns the faucet on as cold as it will go, tapping his thumb against the spigot for the couple seconds it takes for the water to gutter through the pipes and spit out. It’s a little brown at first, but runs clear relatively quickly. Bucky cups his hands beneath the flow and splashes it onto his face, washing away the lingering sense of Steve’s careful, affectionate touch. His mouth, his hands, his scent.
Buyers don’t like to have any sense that they’re putting down crumpled bills for used goods. Bucky learned that fast. They like virginal, no matter how many times they drive up to the same corner.
Bucky brushes his teeth and watches Steve reach under the bed for one of his sketchbooks and the old cigar box he keeps his pencils in. He settles with a pillow against the wall to lean on and flips the book open, brow creasing in concentration.
Smiling to himself, Bucky looks at his reflection in the mirror and starts setting Steve aside. It’s a thing he does -- has to do -- before he leaves their Brooklyn shoebox masquerading as an apartment and heads to the corners he stands on. He’s not one of the guys who has another name and another past, some grandiose story they feed to the few buyers who ever think to ask. Bucky just draws a line between who is and what he does. It works.
He opens the jar of pomade and slicks a little onto his fingers, then runs it into his hair. He pushes it away from his face. It’s a little soldier, he thinks, and that works for a lot of buyers. Next to the pomade on the sink is a tube of lipstick that he very lightly dabs over his mouth. Bucky has learned that to look like he’s wearing make up invites trouble, but to make his mouth just a little more prominent invites buyers.
It’s a fine line to walk, but he’s good at it.
“Do you think it’s too obvious if I don’t wear any shirt at all?” he calls, shoving down his underwear.
Steve looks up from his sketchbook and cocks his head. “It is hot,” he says. “I mean, half the men sitting on their stoops aren’t wearing shirts.”
“True,” Bucky agrees. “Better not risk it, though. The last thing I need is a obscenity charge from the cops.”
“Half of them are customers,” Steve says flatly, and Bucky laughs.
Bucky pulls on a pair of jeans a size or two smaller than he’s usually wear, and a white tee shirt that he stole from Steve that stretches tight across his chest. It feels a little like armor, too, as though Steve’s irrational, incomprehensible courage could somehow have been sunk into the cotton from the four times he ever wore it.
He looks at himself again. He grins, sharp at the edges. It’ll do.
Outside their bedroom window the sun’s just barely coloring the sky with the last streaks of orange before dark falls. He can hear the low crackle of radios pulled up to open first floor windows, tuned to the baseball game. There are voices, too, old men and their sons and their grandsons talking prospects, wives and daughters and granddaughters laughing as they hand out beer and sodas.
He walks to the bed and sits on the edge beside Steve’s hip. Steve looks up from his drawing and grins softly at Bucky, just a touch sad at the corners. “I should go,” he says, and cups Steve’s jaw in his hand. “You should try sitting on that stoop for a little bit. Talk to people. You never know what might happen.”
Steve rolls his eyes and curls his hand around Bucky’s wrist. “You never know,” he agrees. “You have your knife?”
“Every night,” Bucky says, reaching for the little pocket knife on their bedside table. He tucks it deeply into his front pocket. “I’ll be okay.”
“You always are,” Steve sighs. “I love you.”
Bucky leans over his sketchbook and kisses him, lets himself drink in Steve for a last few seconds while the sun is still up. “You too. I’ll see you in the morning.”