Driving to Brooklyn, NY first day of winter break, the ad reads. Can drop off anywhere along the way. Coming back January 3.
Pros: A ride home for Christmas break. Cheaper than a plane ticket, and the flight from DC to New York is so short it’s not really worth the cost and hassle of airport security, anyway. Cheaper than a bus ticket, too, and without tons of stops and probably having to leave at 4 am.
Cons: A ride home with a total stranger. Possible gruesome murder. Definitely awkward silences and stomach-pain-inducing anxiety.
But Steve knows when he reads it he’ll be riding with the guy—James—and risking death. He has to get home for Christmas, and he certainly can’t afford to fly. He could afford a bus ticket, but it’s such an extra hassle, getting to the station and dealing with stops and people throwing up in the seats around him.
My name is Steve and I saw your post on the ride board. Got spots open for Christmas still? He texts the number on the posting. He doesn’t get a response for over nine hours, until he’s typing furiously in an effort to finish up his Gender Theories final paper.
Ya, is the response. Where you going?
Red Hook, Steve says with some trepidation. The last time he tried to get a ride with someone, they said they’d take him all the way but instead dropped him off in Yonkers because “it’s basically the same thing, right?”
No shit? James says. Park Slope.
Steve doesn’t really know how to respond to that. If this guy’s a murderer, at least he’ll die close to home. Awesome, Steve says. How much?
Twenty each way, James says. So far no one else is coming but less if they do.
Steve can’t pass on that. I’m in, he says.
They make arrangements for James to pick Steve up in the afternoon on Saturday, after finals are over and they’ve both worked half a shift at their respective jobs; Steve’s a TA and has grading to turn in, and James works in the dining hall. Steve wonders idly if he’s seen James, but mostly he’s focused on getting his finals out of the way. He texts his mom and tells her he has a ride home, and she sends him back three hearts and a few exclamation points. He snorts and shakes his head a little. He can endure some awkwardness for her.
Saturday brings snow, and Steve frowns as he’s leaving work. He hopes the roads aren’t bad. He checks his phone, but doesn’t see anything from James, so he shrugs and packs. By “packs”, of course, he means he stuffs clothes into a duffel and makes sure his phone is fully charged. He huffs when he reads the note from Sam, his roommate, taped to the bathroom mirror: Hope you don’t get brutally murdered by the driver guy. Merry Christmas.
James shows up at 4 sharp, knocking a rat-tat-tat rhythm on Steve’s door, and Steve takes a deep breath before opening the door. It’ll be a little over four hours. He can handle it. He opens the door.
He can’t handle it.
James is gorgeous, even with a weird stain on his shirt that’s probably from work. He smells like cafeteria chili. He has long hair pulled into a messy bun, a few days’ worth of stubble shading his incredible jawline, and eyes so blue Steve immediately wants to figure out the paint he’d have to mix to get that color.
“Hi,” James says, and his voice is husky and nice. “I’m James.”
“Steve,” he manages to say.
“Nice to meet you,” James says. “Ready?”
“Uh-huh,” Steve says faintly. He hefts his bag over his shoulder and follows James out to a battered four-door, outside a little worse for wear but the interior clean and obviously well-cared for.
Things are a bit awkward as they get in and situated, and Steve’s already dreading the next four hours. He doesn’t handle awkwardness very well. He has his headphones, but it feels kind of rude to put them in when it’s just the two of them in the car.
“Uh, there’s some, uh, CDs down there,” James says. “If you want to pick one.”
“CDs?” Steve asks, surprised. When was the last time he got in a car and someone played a CD? James huffs a little laugh.
“Yeah. Old car. No aux plug-in.”
Steve shrugs and flips through the CD case. It’s an awful lot of 90s music. Mixed CDs. John Denver.
“Are you serious?” Steve blurts before he can stop himself. James glances over and his cheeks get a little pink, but he keeps his chin up high.
“He was a national treasure,” he says seriously, and Steve laughs out loud.
“Alright, fine,” Steve challenges. “We’ll listen to John Denver.”
James shrugs at him. “Don’t know why you’re acting like I’ll be torn up about it. ‘S my CD.”
He has a point, and Steve is the one who ends up cringing the whole time. James sings along, glancing at Steve from the corner of his eye and smirking. Of course he has an unfairly nice singing voice. Steve can’t carry a tune in bucket.
They get through the regular college get-to-know-you questions quickly: they’re both seniors, graduating in May. Steve’s major is art with a minor in sociology; James is double-majoring in physiology and engineering because he wants to build prosthetics. Steve has no siblings; James has three sisters. Steve lives with his best friend Sam; James lives with some guys he knows from high school.
“You didn’t want to ride with any of them?” Steve asks mildly.
“They all left last night or earlier in the week,” James explains. “I had to work today.”
“Double majoring and working?” Steve says. “That’s a lot.”
James shrugs. “Gotta do what I gotta do.”
Things get a little awkward. They’ve run out of basic topics to talk about. Steve isn’t very good at small talk, anyway; he’s never been the kind of guy who can walk into a room and instantly make friends. James looks like he’s the type, but he seems just as uncomfortable as Steve.
“So, is your family excited to see you?” Steve tries. They’ve been quiet for twenty minutes and it’s not a companionable silence. Steve has been conscious of every minute and every snowflake that has fallen in those twenty minutes.
James shifts a little awkwardly. “Uh. I don’t know.”
That strikes Steve as a little strange. “Okay,” he finally says. What the hell is he supposed to say to that?
“Just…” James stares out the windshield for a while, at the wiper blades cutting through snowflakes. “My family’s pretty religious.”
He doesn’t say anything else, and Steve just nods. That doesn’t seem to make any sense in regards to the question, but Steve’s not going to push it. He doesn’t even know this guy.
“What about you?” James asks gamely.
“My ma’s real excited,” Steve says, unable to keep the smile off his face. He’d been homeschooled for a year in middle school, thanks to his poor health, and he’s very close with his mother. Being apart from her is hard.
“That’s nice,” James tells him, and Steve doesn’t know him well but he thinks James’s voice is a little wistful.
“We watch a lot of cheesy old movies, drink too much hot cocoa until our stomachs hurt,” Steve says. He laughs a little. “It’s great.”
James smiles, and now Steve knows he’s not imagining the sadness in his eyes. “Your mom sounds great.”
“She is,” Steve agrees, because he feels a little bad rubbing it in this guy’s face when he obviously has some issues with his own family, but this is his mother they’re talking about and Steve can’t deny it.
They talk a bit about school and find out they’d had the same professor for a freshman seminar but were in different sections.
“You probably would’ve known if we’d been in the same class,” Steve admits. “I wasn’t real good at keeping my mouth shut.”
James barks out a little laugh. “What, you didn’t take to Anderson’s bigotry?”
Steve groans. “He was the absolute worst. Did he ever go off on a tangent about bisexuals? God, I was sitting there listening to that and just knowing he’s talking about me and I lost it. He almost kicked me out of class permanently.”
James gets a strange look on his face. “You’re bi?”
Steve’s stomach suddenly sinks. James had already said his family is religious. Is he going to drop Steve off here, in Maryland in the snow, with no way to get home?
“Yeah,” Steve says cautiously. “That gonna be a problem?”
James huffs a little as his aggressive tone. “Not with me, pal, I’m in the same boat.”
“Oh.” Steve thinks of how that might affect a religious family. He’s willing to bet that’s why James was all weird about his family. But again, Steve’s not going to pry.
“Anderson never went off like that in my section,” James says. “But he always put the black kids in class on the spot and asked how they felt about stuff in the Constitution. Like what the fuck are they supposed to say? Of course they think it’s bullshit, right? We should all think it’s bullshit!”
“You might’ve been in my friend Sam’s class,” Steve muses. “He mentioned that happening a few times.”
“Can’t believe the guy still has a job.” James shakes his head disgustedly and Steve feels butterflies in his stomach. Oh, great. He’s getting a crush on the guy who’s driving him home and could still turn out to be a murderer.
He doesn’t look like a murderer, though.
They start to relax a little, discovering their mutual hatred of the Yankees and love of old slapstick comedies. Before Steve knows it, half the trip has flown by, and he’s suddenly a little reluctant to get home.
The snow is falling thick and fast, and it’s dark now. Steve glances at James’s hands on the wheel. He seems steady as a rock. That might be Steve projecting his new crush. No matter how good of a driver James is, though, he can’t do anything about the road closure that greets them in some podunk town just outside Philly. They’re halfway, but the road is blocked off.
“We could probably find a back road,” James says dubiously. Steve makes a face.
“If the freeway’s bad enough to be closed, I don’t want to think about what a back road would look like,” he points out.
James sighs. “Yeah, you’re probably right.” He takes the exit, since they don’t actually have a choice, and pulls into a diner lit up with Christmas lights, wreaths in the windows. “We might as well get some dinner while we figure out what to do.”
The diner is packed, full of stranded travelers who are hungry and grumpy, and the waitress looks harried as she leads them to a table that isn’t completely wiped clean. She runs through the specials in a flat voice, speeding through, and Steve doesn’t bother to ask her to speak up. He gets the feeling she wouldn’t be happy to repeat herself.
James gets his phone out while they wait for the waitress to bring their food, frowning at the screen. “Well, there’s a bunch of motels,” he says. “I’m sure we could find at least one with a room. Don’t know what kind of place we’ll get, though.” He looks apologetic. “We might be roughing it a bit.”
Steve gives him a reassuring smile. “I can handle a shitty motel room,” he promises. “I’m sure I’ve lived in worse.”
They try to eat quickly, since there’s a bit of a crowd gathering around the fake Christmas tree, waiting for tables. Steve’s trying not to panic. How much is a motel room going to cost? His budget is pretty tight. He’s not so sure he can swing this. But he doesn’t really have a choice. He knows his mom will be slipping some money into a Christmas card for him. It won’t be much. He can live lean for a little while when he gets back to school. It’ll be okay.
“You want dessert?” James asks. Steve glances at the door, at the people standing and waiting, and shakes his head. “We could get something to go,” James suggests. “You don’t got a sweet tooth?”
Steve does, actually, love pie, and there’s a whole display case of holiday specials, but he’s not going to pay four dollars for a piece of pie when he already has to pay for a room tonight, too.
“I’m alright,” he says, making sure his tone is unaffected.
“Well, I’m gonna get some dessert,” James decides, grabbing their check and standing up. Steve follows him up to the line at the cash register, pulling his battered wallet out of his back pocket. James gives the guy on register a big smile.
“Hi,” he says, handing over the ticket and his credit card. “Lemme get, uh, let’s see…how about two slices of your apple pie, too. To go.”
“Sure,” the guy says, bored.
“Hey, wait,” Steve says. “We need our check split.”
“Nah,” James says, shaking his head at the guy. “Just put it all on there.”
“No way,” Steve protests. The guy raises his eyebrows, looking annoyed now.
“It’s fine,” James assures him, elbowing Steve lightly. “I got it.”
“James,” Steve starts.
“Steve,” James shoots back. “I got it,” he says firmly. The guy swipes his card and hands over the boxed up pie.
“Thanks,” Steve mumbles as they get back in the car. He’s never been very good at accepting people paying for things for him. It makes him feel sort of itchy under the collar.
“You can get coffee in the morning,” James promises. Steve nods firmly and doesn’t wince. He shouldn’t be buying coffee. But he has to pay James back.
“Alright,” James says, handing Steve his phone. “What’s the first place on the map?”
The first motel is full. The second only has the honeymoon suite available, for $200. The third has a room for them, if they don’t mind sharing.
“Is that okay with you?” James asks.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “No problem.”
It’s a little strange, sure. He met this guy about three hours ago. He’s not exactly in the habit of sharing rooms with people he doesn’t actually know. But it’s not like they have much choice. Steve can’t afford to pay for his own room, and besides, the whole town is pretty booked solid because of the road closure.
They get a room key and climb up the musty-smelling stairs to room 13C. James opens the door and it squeaks a little in protest. The room smells like stale cigarettes and cats, enough to make Steve’s eyes water a little.
There’s only one bed.
“Oh,” James says, eyebrows furrowed. “I’ll go back down and tell ‘em there’s a mistake.”
There’s no mistake. It’s the only room left. Steve’s not sure if he wants to laugh or cry. It’s one thing to endure a four-hour car ride with a stranger, and even to share a room with a stranger. But to share a bed?
“Well, I can sleep on the floor,” James says. He taps a foot against the carpet. “It’s not so bad.”
Steve looks dubiously at the floor. It’s not terribly clean. He’s not so sure the sheets on the bed are much better, but at least they presumably get washed.
“We can share,” Steve says. “If you’re fine with it. No reason for you to sleep on the floor.”
“You sure?” James asks. “I’m real sorry about all this. It probably seems like I orchestrated it, but I promise I’m not a murderer.”
Steve raises an eyebrow. “But isn’t that exactly what a weather-controlling murderer would tell me?”
James laughs. “I guess you got me there. No choice but to trust me.”
And Steve can’t help it—he does.
"So...do you mind if I take a shower?" James asks. "This is gross, sorry, but I didn't take one after work."
"Oh, I don't mind," Steve says, and he kind of means he doesn't mind if James takes a shower but mostly he means he doesn't mind that James didn't take one after work. He smells fine. The chili smell faded after a while, or Steve just got used to it.
James slips into the bathroom and Steve lets out a long breath. It's only 7 pm. He has no idea what they're going to for the next few hours. He waits until he hears the shower turn on before he calls his mom.
"Hi, baby, where are you?" She asks.
"Uh, well, just outside Philly," he says.
"Oh, no," she interrupts. "You're stuck?"
"How'd you know?"
"I was checking the roads and saw they're closed." She sighs. "I was hoping you'd made it through before they closed them."
"Nope," Steve says glumly, suddenly feeling like he wants to cry. He's so close but still too far from home. He just wants his mother. And now he has to spend even longer in an even more awkward situation.
"Did you find somewhere to stay?" His mom asks anxiously.
"Yeah, we got a room," he reassures her. "It'll be fine, Ma. They expect to open the roads tomorrow morning. I'll be home before lunch."
There's a little pause. "So...is he cute?" His mom asks.
"What? If you're stuck in a room overnight I hope he's at least cute."
"I'm not going to do anything with him!" Steve says, scandalized.
"Why not?" His mom mutters.
"Honey, it's been a long time since you've—"
"You don't know how long it's been!" He interrupts, voice high. His mom starts laughing.
"I was going to say since you've dated anyone, Steven, goodness."
"Oh." His face is burning, even though she can't see it.
"I know it hurt when you and Peggy—"
"Wow, Ma, no. I don't want to talk about this."
She doesn't say anything for a minute. "Well, you didn't answer my question," she points out. "But I can tell the answer is yes. What's his name?"
"James," Steve tells her reluctantly. "You don't sound very worried. What if he's a murderer?"
His mom makes a little noise in the back of her throat. "He's going to drive you to Philadelphia before he murders you?"
Steve scoffs. "Fine. But if I never make it there, he's double majoring in physiology and robotics and works at the dining hall. Tell the police."
His mother is laughing at him.
"Try to relax, okay?" She asks. "I'll see you tomorrow. I love you."
James comes out of the bathroom not long after Steve hangs up. His hair is wet, dripping onto his soft gray sweater, and he looks...snuggly, for lack of a better word. Steve can feel himself blushing, remembering what his mom was saying.
"Not a great shower," James tells him, wincing. "Pressure's shit."
"Long as the water isn't brown," Steve says.
James nods. "Good point."
They lapse into silence. James perches on be edge of the bed, on the opposite side from Steve. Steve almost can't breathe with the oppressive awkwardness between them. This is going to be a long night.
"Well..." He starts at the same time James says,
They both laugh awkwardly. "Wanna check out the pool?" James asks.
"You brought a swimsuit?" Steve asks skeptically. He doesn't bother to point out that James just took a shower. Wouldn't going in the pool defeat the purpose of his shower?
"Well, no," James admits. "But don't you have some workout shorts or something?"
Steve's eyebrows rise. "Do I look like someone who works out a lot?"
James huffs. "What do you sleep in?"
"Boxers," Steve says, and then he realizes: yeah. He sleeps in boxers. But he's sharing a bed with James tonight. He swallows. James doesn't seem to realize anything weird about it.
"So swim in your boxers!" He shrugs. "Come on, what's the fun of being at a hotel if you don't swim in the pool?"
Steve doesn't know how to refuse again without seeming weird and like a stick in the mud, so he shrugs back and says, "Alright, fine."
James claps his hands together and grabs some basketball shorts out of his bag, disappearing back into the bathroom. He tosses a towel at Steve when he reemerges in just the shorts, his own towel slung around his neck.
Steve's mouth goes dry. James clearly works out a lot. He's got abs like a model or something. Steve is suddenly distinctly aware of how his ribs stick out.
It takes them a few wrong turns to find the pool, but it breaks the ice a little as they laugh at themselves. James uses the keycard to open the door, and the smell of chlorine greets them strongly.
The pool is...gross. It doesn't look clean. Steve was already not excited to get in, but the water looks dirty. He glances at James and sees distress on his face.
"Yikes," James says. It makes Steve laugh.
"Well, maybe it's not so bad," he tries being positive. He steps up to the side of the pool and pulls his shirt over his head. Then a band-aid floats by.
"Oh hell no," James says, reaching out and grabbing Steve's arm. "Don't get in there, oh my God. We're going to get hepatitis."
He sounds so horrified it sets Steve off laughing again. James tugs him away from the side of the pool.
"I'm serious!" He insists, though he's laughing now too. "That's a band-aid! This is disgusting." His hand is warm on Steve's arm and Steve tries not to blush or look at it. James doesn't let go, leading him back to the door.
"We're gonna be lucky to get out of here without fleas," James says with a shudder. Steve tilts his head a little as he looks at James.
"Are you a germaphobe?" He asks, a little teasing in his voice. James narrows his eyes at Steve.
"I am not a germaphobe," he sniffs. "I have a healthy respect for cleanliness."
Steve laughs out loud. "You're a germaphobe."
James rolls his eyes and knocks his shoulder into Steve's. "Whatever."
But then they're back in their room, the one bed glaringly obvious. James puffs out a little breath and pulls his sweater back on.
"We could see if there's anything on TV," Steve suggests, putting on his own shirt.
The TV is a bust, too. There's only four channels, and two of them are in Spanish.
"Boy, I know how to show a guy a good time, huh?" James says sarcastically. Steve snorts.
"I didn't realize you were trying to impress me."
"Why wouldn't I be?" James says, arching an eyebrow in a way that makes Steve's stomach lurch a little. Is James flirting with him? He can feel his cheeks heating up a little. James is apparently oblivious to his internal turmoil, because he goes to his duffel and roots around. He emerges with a pack of cards.
Steve doesn't know how to play poker. But James doesn't know how to play gin, so they're sort of at an impasse until Steve says,
"Well...what about Go Fish?"
And that's how two grown college-students end up playing Go Fish on a dusty motel bedspread, eating apple pie that tastes a little old but not terrible.
"You fucker," James mutters after Steve gets the last of his 3s. "Gimme some 5s."
"That is not the correct way to ask," Steve scolds. James laughs a little and rolls his eyes before batting his eyelashes at Steve.
"Steven, dearest, hath thee any 5s?"
Steve can't help but laugh at that, so it's a second before he can answer, "Sorry. Go fish."
"Bullshit!" James gasps as Steve cackles. "There is no way you're beating me this badly!"
"I've played a lot of Go Fish in my day," Steve says, making himself sound like a 90-year-old man. James snorts.
Steve shrugs. "I was in the hospital a lot."
James abandons rearranging his massive hand of cards to look up at Steve. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm alright now," Steve promises, warmed a bit by the concern in James's eyes. "I had to get a few heart surgeries when I was a kid."
James gapes at him for a minute. "How many is a few?"
"Three," Steve admits. "But hey, my heart works now, so they were probably worth it."
"That sucks," James says with feeling. "Kids are s'posed to run around and get dirty and climb trees, not be stuck in the hospital all the time."
"Well, I got in plenty of fights, too," Steve confesses wryly. "Remember what I said about not being too good at keeping my mouth shut?"
"Good," James declares. "I'm glad."
"You're glad I got beat up all the time?"
James's brow furrows. "You didn't say you got beat up. You said you got in fights."
Steve laughs a little self-deprecatingly. "And you took one look at how tough I seem and thought I won a lot of those fights?"
James throws a few cards at him. "You're scrappy, aren't you? You seem scrappy."
Now Steve laughs for real. "What does that even mean?"
James chuckles too. "Well, I don't really know. But it's what people say about fighters sometimes."
They go to bed early, almost more out of a lack of anything else to do than because they want to, and the awkwardness that had finally dissipated returns in full force as they stare at each other from across the bed.
"I can sleep on the floor," James offers again. Steve gives him a look. Now that he knows how James feels about germs, it would be even crueler to ask of him.
“How about I sleep on the floor?” Steve counters.
“No way,” James protests immediately. “That floor is filth—” He cuts himself off, looking a little sheepish as Steve raises his eyebrows.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “That’s what I thought. Come on, you’ve never shared a bed with a stranger before?”
James huffs. “Uh, yeah, but the circumstances are usually a little different,” he mutters, and Steve goes bright red. Right. That.
They turn back-to-back under the musty sheets. The heater makes a rattling sound and Steve can already feel the dust aggravating his lungs. He made sure to set his inhaler at the top of his backpack, just in case, but he prays he won’t need it. He hates having an asthma attack in front of people, especially people he doesn’t know.
Especially attractive people he doesn’t know.
“Goodnight,” James murmurs.
“Night,” Steve answers. He doesn’t fall asleep for a long time, listening to the wind outside and James’s steady breaths and the weird hiss of the heater. He’s wearing sweats and he’s uncomfortable with the unfamiliarity of wearing clothes to bed. He’s tense with the effort of making sure not even one part of his body touches James. They didn’t close the curtains, and the Christmas lights on the building across the parking lot shine into their room. James smells like hotel shampoo and whatever his deodorant is, probably something with a name like winter ice or something. It's a good smell, a clean smell, and it's much better than the old smell of the room, but it’s another distraction.
He sleeps fitfully, too aware of James beside him to relax into a restful sleep, and tries not to toss and turn too much lest he bug James. He finally drops off for real sometime in the early hours of predawn, and the next thing he knows he’s waking up, the whole bed to himself and James nowhere to be found.
Panic seizes him for a minute. What if James left him there and already drove off? But after he scrambles for his glasses on the bedside table, he sees James’s duffle still on the floor. Steve sighs in relief. James didn’t seem the type to just drive off and leave him, but still. He hardly knows the guy.
The door opens then, and James stomps some snow off his shoes. “Oh, good morning,” he says cheerfully. Steve wants to groan.
“Are you a morning person?” He asks, muffled by the arm he threw over his face. James laughs a little.
“An idle mind is the devil’s playground, you know,” he cautions, and Steve remembers what he said about his family being religious. “We always had lots of chores and stuff we had to do before school. So I’m used to getting up early. It’s a nice day out there. Lotta snow.”
Now Steve does groan. A lot of snow is not in his definition of a nice day.
“Aw, come on,” James wheedles. “The sign says there’s free breakfast downstairs.”
That gets Steve up. He doesn’t bother changing out of his sweats, just pulls a sweatshirt over the T-shirt he slept in and shoves his feet into his shoes before following James out the door.
There’s a sign that says BREAKFAST, with an arrow pointing to a table. James stares at Steve.
“Is this a joke?” He asks.
There’s a package of powdered donuts on the table. That’s it. There’s not even any fruit or anything. There’s not even coffee. Steve can’t help it—he starts laughing. It’s a combination of how ridiculous the entire experience has been and the absolute shock on James’s face.
“This isn’t funny,” James scolds, but his lips are twitching. The desk clerk looks over at the sound of their commotion.
“You boys get some breakfast?” She asks, gesturing at the donuts, and Steve laughs harder. She raises an eyebrow. “Your boyfriend alright?” She asks James.
The stops Steve’s laughter.
“Uh, he’s fine,” James says. “Thanks.” He grabs a napkin and a few donuts, stuffing one in his mouth. “You gonna eat?” He asks with his mouth full. Somehow that doesn’t seem like something a religious mother would allow. Steve wrinkles his nose but follows his lead, grabbing some donuts and hoping it’ll last him another two hours until he gets home. He knows his mom will have food waiting.
They gather up their stuff and James salutes the room behind them. “You sheltered us,” he says dramatically. “And that’s all we can say about that.”
Steve snorts. “You’re a weirdo,” he says, almost against his will. James’s eyes flick over to him, but he takes in Steve’s smile and smiles too.
“Takes one to know one,” he shoots back loftily. Steve bumps his bag into James’s, and James bumps him right back, hard enough to make Steve stagger a little. Steve cracks up laughing at the guilty look on James’s face.
James’s car is already cleared from the snow, and Steve feels bad thinking of him digging it out while Steve slept in. He wants to say sorry, but it won’t do anything to help now, so instead he says,
“So, I owe you some coffee.”
James grins. “Thought you’d never mention it.”
They go through the drive-thru at Starbucks and Steve raises an eyebrow at James’s sugary, seasonal concoction. James raises his eyebrow right back.
“Coffee doesn’t have to be jet fuel to be coffee, you know.”
“Fine,” Steve says. “I’ll get the same thing.”
James looks happier than the situation really warrants, and Steve feels those little butterflies in his stomach again. It’s ridiculous. He hasn’t even known James for twenty-four hours. He should not be getting a crush on him.
“Okay,” James says seriously as he navigates onto the freeway. “There’s something we need to discuss.”
“What?” Steve asks cautiously.
“Can we please listen to Christmas music?” James glances over and gives Steve a quick puppy-dog pout before turning his attention back to the road. Steve rolls his eyes, but he can’t help smiling.
“Fine,” he acquiesces, sighing like it’s such a chore. “We can listen to Christmas music with our peppermint lattes as we drive through the snow. What, do you think it’s two days before Christmas or something?”
James’s answering smile is so big Steve has to blink and look down into his latte before he pulls out a sketchbook and draws it. James really is incredibly attractive.
James sings along to the Christmas music and they occasionally judge each other for music choices. Steve laughs when James doesn’t know any of the words to Mariah Carey’s classic All I Want for Christmas Is You.
“Really?” He asks. “James, come on!”
“Bucky,” James says. For a second, with Steve’s bad hearing, he almost thinks James said fuck me, and his eyes fly open wide. Then he wrinkles his brow as the words catch up.
“Bucky,” James repeats. “You can call me Bucky.”
“What’s a Bucky?” Steve asks, deadpan.
James points at his chest. “I’m a Bucky. It’s what my friends call me.”
Warmth spreads through Steve’s chest and he glances down into his lap, an involuntary smile tugging at his lips. “We’re friends, huh?”
“Well, we already slept together,” James says cheekily, tossing an over-the-top wink at Steve that makes him groan and roll his eyes.
“Why Bucky?” He asks a few songs later.
James—Bucky—makes a face. “My middle name’s Buchanan. I have two cousins named James. So…” He shrugs. “I don’t know, kids make weird nicknames.”
“Your name is James Buchanan?” Steve asks, making sure not to laugh. Bucky barks a laugh, though.
“I know,” he says ruefully. “Ridiculous.”
“I like it,” Steve declares, almost without meaning to, and he catches Bucky’s ears going a little red. Isn’t that interesting?
Bucky gets tenser and tenser the closer they get to Brooklyn. His hands clench around the steering wheel, knuckles going white as Steve gives him directions. They pull in front of Steve’s apartment building and Steve looks up to the third floor. His mom must be watching out the window, because as soon as he steps out of the car, his front door opens and she comes out.
Bucky gets out to help Steve heft his bag out of the backseat, and Sarah raises her eyebrows at Steve. He gives her a dirty look.
“Thanks for bringing him home,” she calls down to Bucky.
“My pleasure, ma’am,” Bucky says, and he sounds like he actually means it. Steve can tell his mom is charmed by Bucky’s manners. He knows he is.
“Thanks,” Steve says, suddenly awkward and a little embarrassed as he hands Bucky two twenties.
“No problem,” Bucky replies with a little grin. “See ya in a week, if you can handle driving back with me.”
A smile tugs at Steve’s lips. “We’ll see if I get any better offers,” he teases, making Bucky roll his eyes and laugh.
“Merry Christmas,” Bucky tosses over his shoulder just before he gets in his car.
“Merry Christmas,” Steve echoes.
Christmas is wonderful. It’s everything Steve’s been aching for, homesick even as a senior in college. He and his mom watch White Christmas, curled up on the couches and drinking homemade hot cocoa with cinnamon and go to midnight mass. His mom loves the Celtic Tree of Life painting he did for her and ahhs over the beautiful green sweater he found that perfectly matches her eyes, and she of course got him way too much—fuzzy socks because his feet are always cold, new charcoals, a gorgeous book of the complete Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books, and a gift card to his favorite art supply store.
But as they’re eating pie on the day after Christmas, Steve thinks of Bucky, and he remembers the wistfulness in his eyes. He pulls Bucky’s number up in his phone—saved as James Ride Board—and taps out a quick message.
How was your Christmas?
He figures it’ll take a while to hear back, since it took forever to get a response from Bucky before, and he’s home with his family, but it’s not even a full minute.
Real swell. We acted out the nativity and I was the ass.
Steve snorts. Typecasting.
Bucky sends him back a selfie. He’s flipping off the camera, but the corners of his mouth are turned up like he’s trying not to smile. It makes Steve’s stomach hurt. He can’t stop thinking about Bucky’s white knuckles on the steering wheel. Steve hesitates, but he sends the next text before he can second-guess himself.
Want to see a movie or something tomorrow? Of course, he immediately panics. Why did he do that? He’s an idiot. Bucky doesn’t want to hang out with him. He has friends from high school he can hang out with.
Absolutely, Bucky answers, and Steve sucks in a quiet little breath. He can’t stop smiling down at his phone as they make arrangements. His mom politely waits until he’s put his phone back in his pocket before pouncing.
“Who was that?”
Steve stifles a groan. “Bucky.”
His mom’s brow wrinkles. “Bucky?” She sounds supremely confused.
“…James,” Steve admits. “He goes by Bucky. His middle name’s Buchanan.”
His mother’s eyebrows attack her hairline, a fact he steadfastly ignores. “His middle name’s Buchanan,” she repeats. “Okay. And you’re texting each other?”
“Ma, we’re just—we’re both here, and his family kinda sucks, so we’re gonna see a movie.”
Now she’s frowning. “His family sucks how?”
“I don’t really know,” Steve says. “He didn’t tell me, but he did say they’re real religious and I’m guessing it’s a problem with, you know…” He stops, because he knows what he says next is going to make her jump to conclusions. “Because he’s bi,” he mumbles.
To her credit, she only looks triumphant for a second before going back to frowning. “So they have a problem with him, huh?”
Steve shrugs. “Well, I’m just guessing.”
His mom looks pissed. Sarah Rogers is not a woman who appreciates people who love their children conditionally. Steve’s always been supremely grateful for that.
“Well, good,” she says decisively. “I’m glad you’re friends. Sounds like he could use a good friend.”
Steve narrows his eyes at her suspiciously. “We’re just friends.”
“That’s what I said,” she points out. But when he heads down the hall to his room, he hears her mutter, “Methinks he doth protest too much.”
Bucky is wearing a red sweater under his coat and scarf, and Steve’s breath almost catches at the sight of him. There are still Christmas trees lit up in shop windows and lights twinkling around them, and he’s gorgeous. And then Bucky looks up and sees him, and his face lights up in a grin. Now Steve’s breath does catch.
“Hi,” he says, hoping he doesn’t sound as breathless as he feels.
“Hey,” Bucky says happily. “How ya doing?”
“Good,” Steve answers. “You?”
Bucky’s smile only slips for the barest fraction of a second, but Steve sees. Probably because he’s so intent on Bucky’s face. “Yeah, good,” Bucky says.
They see some action movie that’s a sequel to a movie Steve never saw, but it doesn’t really matter. They’re sharing a bucket of popcorn and Bucky keeps leaning over to whisper in Steve’s ear, snarky little comments that make him laugh and snip back, eager to come off as witty and make Bucky laugh. By the time the movie ends, Steve’s face hurts from grinning so much and the couple in front of them has turned around and leveled glares at them four times.
They get frozen yogurt and Steve teases Bucky about the number of toppings he piles onto his yogurt. “Why don’t you just skip the yogurt?” Steve asks. “Probably cheaper that way.”
Bucky mock glares at him. “It’s about the combination, okay? The flavors have to touch and then come together on your tongue.”
Steve fights a blush. Does Bucky have any idea how sensual that sounds? Probably not, because Bucky doesn’t have his mind in the gutter.
“So, uh, everything okay?” Steve asks. He’s being awkward. They hardly know each other. He should keep his mouth shut. Bucky’s lips twist. It’s almost a smile.
“Well, I’m having a pretty good today,” he says pointedly. Steve takes it for the dismissal it is. Normally, he wouldn’t let something lie like that—he’s not real great at letting go of things when he gets an idea in his head—but that’s pretty personal. Bucky doesn’t have to tell him. They’re barely friends, nickname aside.
“See ya,” Bucky says as they part at the subway.
“Bye,” Steve says. He bites his lip. “Hey,” he calls at Bucky’s back. Bucky turns around and walks backward a few paces. “You can, uh. Text me or call me or whatever. If you need to. Anytime.”
Bucky stops walking and tilts his head a little. Steve feels stupid. He’s being nosy, prying into things that he shouldn’t, and he’s already overly invested. He’s not being normal. Bucky smiles at him, eyes soft.
“Thanks,” he says before waving and getting swallowed up in the crowd, and Steve stays warm the whole way home.
Two nights later, Bucky texts him as he’s lying in bed watching Netflix. Do you know what you’re doing after graduation?
Steve puffs out a breath. Not a clue. Thanks for bringing that up. What are you, an aunt I see twice a year?
Just asking! Bucky defends himself. I don’t know either. Thinking of running away to Mexico or something.
Steve smiles a little. I didn’t know you spoke Spanish.
I don’t. Even my escape plan sucks.
Steve laughs quietly under his breath. Pretty even odds I’ll move back home, he says.
It takes a long time for Bucky to respond, long enough that Steve’s shut off his computer and is lying in the dark, eyes closed as he waits for sleep. The answer makes his heart ache a little, and he doesn’t know how to respond.
“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Sarah asks for the third time. “I can stay in tonight.”
“Ma, come on,” Steve says. “I’m twenty-two. I can handle staying home alone.”
“You’re only home for a short little while,” she frets. She’s wearing the sweater he bought her for Christmas and her hair is loose and curling around her shoulders. She looks beautiful. He smiles his biggest smile at her.
“Your date’s gonna be fine,” he promises. “Text me if you want me to scram.”
She shrieks out a little laugh. “Steven,” she scolds, still grinning.
“What, you can dish it out but you can’t take it?”
“I don’t have to,” she says haughtily. “I carried you nine months and spent six hours in labor bringing you into the world. I can tease you however I want.”
There’s a knock on the door and Steve watches his mother bite her lip. She’s twisting her ring around her finger. She’s worn her ring on her right hand as long as Steve can remember—his father died when he was just four, a hazy memory Steve’s not even sure is truly his—and twisting it has always been her sign of discomfort.
Steve opens the door. The guy waiting on the other side is slightly balding, and he smiles at Steve. “You must be Steven,” he says. “Sarah’s told me a lot about you.”
Steve relaxes a little. This guy seems nice enough. “I’ll see if she’s ready,” he says. “Come on in.”
He’s eating leftovers by himself in front of the TV when he starts to get an ache in his throat. He’s happy for his mom. He wants her to be happy. But it’s been a long time since Steve went on a date, and even longer since he was excited and nervous for a date instead of just dreading it. He doesn’t let himself think too hard before he picks up his phone and texts Bucky.
My mother is on a date.
Is that good or bad?
Good, Steve texts back quickly. The guy seemed fine. It’s just weird sometimes.
I’m guessing she didn’t date a lot when you were a kid, Bucky says. Steve stuffs the last bite of potatoes in his mouth. They’re still a little cold in the middle.
Not really, Steve agrees. Not a lot of guys want to date a single mom, especially when her kid’s about to die every other month and getting in fights once a week.
Bucky doesn’t answer for a while, and Steve wishes he hadn’t said that. He sounded bitterer than he meant to, and he still hardly knows Bucky. He shouldn’t be dumping this on the poor guy, especially when he knows Bucky’s got worse problems than he does.
Your ma did right to stick with you instead of settling for someone who wouldn't be good to you, Bucky says, and for some reason it makes tears prick in Steve’s eyes. He knows that. He knows his mom was lonely for a long time because she gave everything for Steve. Before he can say anything, his phone buzzes with another text.
I wish we’d gone to the same school so we coulda been friends.
Steve snorts. Being friends with me was a pretty quick ticket to getting suspended, he reveals. Lotta parents didn’t want their kids hanging around me.
Yeah, well, fuck them. You’re awesome.
Steve’s heart swells. He ducks his head, even though Bucky isn’t even there in front of him. Thanks, he says. You’re alright.
Bucky sends him another flipping-him-off selfie. Steve hopes no one ever finds out he’s saving them to his phone. In a fit of bravery, he sends Bucky a selfie back, mugging for the camera. Bucky sends him back a thumbs-up emoji and Steve’s at a loss for how to respond. He locks his phone, not wanting to push his luck. He doesn’t want to bug Bucky too much and make him sick of Steve.
It’s ten minutes to midnight when Steve’s phone buzzes. He’s at their building’s New Year party with his mom, the party they’ve been going to every year since he was nine. Luisa Walters, Steve’s first kiss, is married and has a baby already. Old Mrs. McGrady, who used to swat at him with her broom when he got too loud out on the street, keeps giving him suspicious looks.
He looks down at his phone, expecting another Happy New Year!!! text from one of his friends or more drunken commentary about Sam's night, but instead his phone is ringing. James Ride Board. He hasn’t changed the contact name to Bucky yet.
“Steeeeeve!” Bucky cries in his ear. Wherever he is, it’s loud. “It’s almost the new year!”
“Yeah, about ten minutes, Buck. You drunk?”
“I am drunk,” Bucky agrees. Steve laughs. “You drunk, Stevie? You having a good time?”
“I’m at a neighborhood party, Bucky. I’m not drunk,” Steve tells him. “Although I think someone might’ve spiked the punch.”
“Steve, you should be drunk!” Bucky shouts. “It’s New Year’s Eve! Drink some champagne!”
Steve laughs again. “Bucky, are you at a high-class party with champagne?”
“There’s hors d’oeurves and shit,” Bucky tells him. “I just ate like 500 water chestnuts wrapped in bacon. Fucking delicious. Water chestnuts—have you ever had water chestnuts?” Bucky asks conversationally. “They’re so—they’re crunchy, Steve. They don’t look like they should be crunchy but they are. And I like it a lot. You should try them. Nice crunch.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Steve says, still laughing at Bucky.
“But Steve.” Bucky is completely serious, as serious as he can be when he’s drunk. “You really should get drunk.”
“I don’t have anyone to get drunk with or anything to—” Steve stops as his mom comes over with a little bottle and wiggling eyebrows. “Oh, hang on,” he tells Bucky.
“Schnapps,” his mom tells him.
“My mom just came over with schnapps,” he says.
“Schnapps,” Bucky echoes, cracking up laughing. “You’re gonna get drunk on schnapps, oh my God. Is it peach schnapps?”
“Laugh it up, champagne boy,” Steve shoots back, making Bucky laugh harder. They’re happy little peals of laughter that make Steve smile despite himself.
Who is that? His mom mouths.
Bucky, he mouths back. Her mouth makes a little o and her eyes open wide. She’s definitely been nipping at the bottle. The guy she went out with the other night, Nathaniel-you-can-call-me-Nathan, is standing behind her, cheeks flushed. He looks a little awkward. Steve’s not sure if he likes the guy, but he’s trying to be fair. He might just not like him because his mom’s dating him.
“Alright, Buck, I’m drinking,” Steve promises. Bucky lets out a triumphant cheer.
“Hey, it’s almost time!” Someone in the background on Bucky’s end yells.
“Steve,” Bucky says, and he suddenly sounds a little desperate. “You got someone over there you’re gonna kiss?”
Steve glances around at the married couples, old ladies, and middle-schoolers running around the room. “Not at all,” he says truthfully, a little bitterly. He’s never kissed anyone at midnight on New Year’s.
“Okay,” Bucky says. Then he adds, “That’s too bad.”
“Nothing new,” Steve says with a shrug Bucky can’t see.
“You can’t find anyone?” Bucky presses.
“I’m not looking to kiss just anyone,” Steve says, cheeks heating up a little. Maybe Bucky won’t remember this in the morning. He’s quiet for a long time.
“That’s good,” he finally says softly as everyone starts counting down from ten. Steve’s stomach swoops. It almost sounds like Bucky…
Steve stops himself from finishing the thought.
“5, 4, 3,” Bucky murmurs in Steve’s ear.
“2, 1,” Steve joins him.
“Happy New Year,” Bucky says, voice low and soft and making Steve swallow hard.
“Happy New Year,” Steve echoes.
The next morning, Steve’s folding laundry with his mom when his phone rings. It’s Bucky, name changed in Steve’s phone and with an accompanying picture of him flipping off the camera.
“Good morning,” Steve says extra-cheerfully and a little too loud.
“Uuuugh,” Bucky groans.
“I thought that might be how you’re feeling. Not such a morning person today, are you?”
“Did I call you last night and blabber for ten minutes?” Bucky asks.
“You were very passionate about water chestnuts,” Steve informs him.
“Yeah, I found four of them stuffed in my pockets,” Bucky confesses ruefully. Steve laughs. His mom makes a little humming sound and he shoots her a dirty look.
“Well, you’re a very happy drunk.”
“I just—uh, I mean, sorry. I’m sorry I drunk dialed you,” Bucky says. He sounds sheepish and Steve tries to picture the look on his face.
“That’s alright,” Steve tells him. “It was amusing, at least. Made the last ten minutes before the ball drop go by faster.”
“I do live to drop balls,” Bucky says, and it doesn’t even really make sense but it still makes Steve snort.
“That was terrible.”
“I’m hungover,” Bucky whines. “Cut me some slack.”
There’s silence between them, and Steve doesn’t know what to say. Bucky breaks it after a few breaths.
“Alright, well, just wanted to apologize for getting white-girl wasted,” he says. “I’ll see you in a few days.”
“Yeah, I’ll see you,” Steve says. “Bye.”
He stares down at his phone for a minute after they hang up and ignores the way his mom is laughing at him under her breath.
They exchange a few texts over the next two days, but nothing major. Before Steve knows it, it’s time to head back to school. Classes actually don’t start for another week, but he likes to get back early so he can start his lesson plans, and Bucky has to work. His mom sits on his bed and supervises while he packs.
“Did you get your extra socks?” She checks.
“Got ‘em,” Steve confirms, holding them up so she can see. She nods and they’re both quiet for a few minutes. His mom sighs.
“I’m proud of you, you know that, right?” She asks. Steve feels himself blushing.
“Yeah, I know,” he promises.
“But it doesn’t mean I don’t miss you when you’re gone.” She reaches out and ruffles his hair a little. He dodges out of the way.
“Ma,” he complains. She raises her eyebrows.
“Oh, is there a reason you’re worried about your hair for a four-hour drive?” She teases. “Could there be someone you’re going to see that you want to impress?”
Steve scowls at her and smoothes down his hair, not dignifying it with a response. It doesn’t matter. She’s laughing at him again. She seems to find his dumb little crush hilarious. He’s glad someone does.
“Are you going to ask him out on a date?” Sarah asks.
“No,” Steve huffs. “He doesn’t like me like that.”
His mother gives him an intensely unimpressed look. “He got drunk on New Year’s Eve and called you at midnight.”
She rolls her eyes a little but then her face gets serious and Steve winces. “Steven, honey. Just because you’re scared of getting hurt again doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”
“Who says I’m scared?” Steve shoots back challengingly. She doesn’t say anything, just gives him a look.
“It doesn’t have to be him,” Sarah says as she stands up off his bed. “But take a chance on someone.” There’s a knock on the door and Steve’s stomach lurches. It’s Bucky. “Besides,” his mother adds. “He likes you. And you like him. Go for it.”
She answers the door and Steve hears her talking and Bucky’s lower answers, their voices a blend of noise he can’t make out. He takes a deep breath as he zips up his backpack. His mom’s words are giving him bubbles of nerves in his stomach. He’s pretty sure Bucky does like him. He’s gotten some hints, and, contrary to popular belief, he’s not completely oblivious.
But just because Bucky might like him a little bit doesn’t mean they should go out. Maybe they should just be friends. Maybe after they get back to school they’ll never talk again. Steve doesn’t know. They’d never met before this; they obviously don’t run in the same circles.
He shakes his head and grabs his bags. It’s not like he needs to figure anything out right now. Right now he needs to spend four hours in an enclosed space with Bucky and not hyperventilate. He walks out and sees his mother and Bucky laughing with each other, and Bucky’s wearing black skinny jeans and a blue sweater that brings out his eyes. Steve wants to make a pained noise and lie down.
“Hi,” he says instead. They better not be laughing at him. He gives his mom a little stink eye just in case.
“Hey,” Bucky answers, grinning at him. Steve wants to clutch his chest. This isn’t fair. “Ready to go?”
“Yep.” Steve holds up his backpack to show it, then berates himself. That was so dorky.
“Well, don’t worry,” Bucky says. “I checked out the roads, and I’m not going to kidnap you overnight again.” He laughs a little and Steve makes himself laugh, too. He wouldn’t necessarily mind it.
Steve’s not embarrassed to accept a hug and a kiss on the cheek from his mom before they leave. “Be good,” she murmurs in his ear. “Call me when you get there. I love you.”
“Love you too,” Steve answers. She follows them to the stairs and watches from the front porch as they load up and get in the car.
“Your mom is great,” Bucky says, still chewing on a cookie Sarah had shoved at him.
“Yeah, I like her,” Steve agrees.
“She’s funny. The guy she dating funny? He better be.”
“He’s kind of awkward,” Steve says as Bucky maneuvers out of the apartment complex. “But maybe he was just weird about meeting me. He probably makes her laugh. She’s gone out with him a few times, so…something about him must be good.”
“Well, I’m sure he’s not good enough for her,” Bucky says decisively. “But I hope he makes her happy.” It makes something warm fill up Steve’s belly, hearing Bucky talk about Sarah that way. Steve thinks that, of course, but it means more to him than he would’ve expected to know Bucky sees how great his mother is.
“I made us a road trip CD,” Bucky reveals, smiling a little sheepishly. “If you want to listen to it. We don’t have to.”
Steve laughs delightedly. “Hell yes, I do,” he says, diving for the CD case at his feet. Steve and Bucky Road Trip Mix, Volume 1 is the first CD in the case.
“Volume one?” Steve asks, flipping to the next CD. Steve and Bucky Road Trip Mix, Volume 2. “How many volumes are there?”
“Just two.” Bucky sounds a little defensive. “It’s a four-hour drive.”
“You made a mix that’s going to last the whole drive?” Steve asks. He wants to laugh. It’s so dorky. But it’s also…well, adorable. He loads the CD and then gives Bucky an outraged look when John Denver fills the car. Bucky cracks up laughing.
“I had to!” He says. “We listened to him on the way here. We’re John Denver people now.”
“I am not a John Denver person,” Steve protests. “I never will be.”
“John Denver is our song now,” Bucky points out. “You will never hear John Denver without thinking of me ever again.”
“When will I ever hear John Denver again?” Steve asks to cover up his reaction to that. Bucky’s saying they have a song. That sounds…romantic. Steve shakes his head at himself. That’s not what Bucky meant.
The ride back is far less eventful than the ride there. But it’s also a lot more comfortable, because they know each other better now. Steve’s not too embarrassed to sing along to some of the songs he knows on the CD.
“Okay,” Bucky says at one point. “You got in fights a lot as a kid, right?”
“All the time,” Steve agrees.
“What was the stupidest thing you ever got in a fight over?”
A little laugh bubbles its way out of Steve’s chest. It’s an easy answer. “Fourth grade. We read Flat Stanley in school and Tim Anderson told everyone I got flattened by a bulletin board just like in the book and that’s why I was so skinny.”
Bucky roars with laughter. “I’m sure you taught him a lesson.”
Steve shakes his head ruefully. “He was at least twice my size. He almost broke my arm.”
Bucky stops laughing. “Did he get in trouble?” He asks indignantly.
“Well, yeah, we both did, ‘cause we were fighting.” Steve shrugs. “Not the worst I’ve had. In high school Brock Rumlow did break my arm. My wrist, anyway. He was stuffing me in a locker.”
Bucky’s mouth is a thin line now. “And where exactly is this Brock Rumlow now?”
“I don’t know,” Steve says. “I think he got a football scholarship somewhere.”
“I hope someone knocks him out,” Bucky says. “If he was anywhere close I’d go knock him out.”
Steve can’t help the smile that overtakes his face. “It was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter now.”
“It sure fucking does,” Bucky argues. “Shit that happens to you in high school stays with you. And he broke your arm. That’s a big deal. He was a star football player? Bet he didn’t even get in trouble for it, did he?”
“He had to write me an apology letter,” Steve remembers. “He said it was nothing personal.”
Bucky makes a noise of disgust. “I hate that guy.”
Steve shakes his head, but he’s still smiling. “You don’t even know him.”
“Yeah, well, I know what he did. And by their fruits ye shall know them.”
“You weren’t kidding about your family being religious, were you?” Steve asks. Bucky’s quiet for a long time, almost through all of Queen’s Somebody To Love, and Steve worries he said something wrong.
“My stepdad is a pastor,” Bucky finally says. That sentence makes a few things click together in Steve’s brain. Stepdad. Pastor. He can’t imagine that was easy to grow up with.
“How old were you when your mom married him?” Steve asks.
“Nine. Becca was six. Then they had two little girls right away.” Bucky’s hands tighten on the steering wheel. “When he caught me kissing a guy in high school he wanted me to move out. Thought I’d be a corrupting influence on his daughters.”
Steve’s heart aches for Bucky. He remembers the first time he’d realized he liked boys as much as he liked girls and how confusing it was for him; he can’t imagine throwing in family drama with it, too.
“But your mom wouldn’t let him kick you out?” Steve asks hopefully.
Bucky takes a deep breath. “Becca’s the one who got him to change his mind. Reminded him of the whole I was a stranger, and ye took me in part of the Bible.”
Steve looks at Bucky’s profile, the way his jaw is tightened a little. He wants to reach over and touch him.
“Your mom didn’t…stand up for you?” Steve asks in a small voice.
Bucky shrugs, staring straight ahead out the windshield. “My mom’s had a hard life,” he says softly. “She doesn’t have a lot of fight left in her.”
Steve feels impossibly sad. How can Bucky be this kind with a life like that? He doesn’t second-guess himself before he reaches out a hand and touches Bucky’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he says. He goes for a joking tone. “My mom’d love to adopt you. You’re polite and I bet you clean a lot, since you’re a germaphobe and all.”
Bucky laughs a little, shooting Steve a smile fond enough to make his breath catch. “I can think of a few reasons I’d like that.”
They’re both quiet after that while Bucky takes the exit that will lead back to campus and Steve pulls his hand back to settle in his lap. His stomach is fluttering like he swallowed a whole kaleidoscope of butterflies. He’s pretty sure Bucky is…suggesting something. He’s nervous. How can he know for sure?
Bucky pulls up in front of Steve’s building. The CD isn’t over yet. Bucky must have misjudged the time. The song that’s playing is a slow jazz one, kind of at odds with the upbeat music they’ve been listening to so far. Steve pulls his backpack up into his lap and opens his mouth to start thanking Bucky when the chorus of the song starts and he hears the words.
What are you doing New Year’s, New Year’s Eve?
Steve’s mouth goes dry. A song about wanting to kiss someone on New Year’s Eve? After Bucky called him at midnight and told him he should be kissing someone? Steve swallows hard and chances a look over at Bucky.
Bucky’s looking back at him steadily. “I guess it’s cheesy,” he murmurs. “But…” He shrugs. “Stop me if I’m wrong,” he adds, and Steve feels a moment of confusion before Bucky’s leaning over the center console toward him.
Steve’s heart stops. He doesn’t move a muscle, and then Bucky’s lips are against his, soft and warm, a gentle press that gets his heart pounding back in full force. Bucky pulls back and searches his eyes.
“I wanted to do that since we woke up in Philly,” he reveals. “But I didn’t want to be stuck in the car with you on the way back with it all weird if you didn’t want it.”
That gets a laugh out of Steve, and it startles his brain back to life. Bucky just kissed him. Bucky just kissed him. All those hints were real. Steve was right. A slow smile starts growing on Steve’s face, and Bucky’s eyes sparkle at the sight of it. Steve leans back in and Bucky meets him halfway and then they’re kissing again. Bucky tastes like coffee and peppermint and sugar cookies—Christmas. Bucky tastes like Christmas, even a week later.
The song ends and the CD starts over. Steve pulls back.
“Did you seriously calculate exactly how many songs you’d need so that song would come up right when you were dropping me off?” He asks disbelievingly.
Bucky runs a hand through his hair. “I had to calculate how long each song had to be, too,” he admits, halfway between sheepish and proud. “It took me the entire break.”
Steve shakes his head and laughs, and then he leans in and kisses Bucky again. That kind of dedication and hard work deserves a reward, and Steve is nothing if not appreciative.
The next year, Bucky sends him three John Denver songs in a row on New Year’s Eve from across their living room before following them up with What Are You Doing New Year's Eve. Steve shakes his head and laughs, but later that night, he finally gets his first New Year’s kiss.