It happened slowly.
And because of that, it wasn’t weird, or creepy. Or so Steve told himself. It had happened so slowly he didn’t even realize it at first, until the pages in his sketchbook that were supposed to be filled with - and once were - the exotic animal life of the Central Park Zoo were filled with something (some one) else entirely.
The sketches that started off as exercises in capturing the movements of different creatures turned into a study of their different personalities. Each lemur, penguin, and grizzly bear had its own unique spirit, and Steve loved trying to capture them.
He also loved their interactions with the zookeepers: the familiar camaraderie with which the animals and their keepers regarded each other was a constant source of fascination for Steve. So he found the exhibits that had the most interesting dynamics and sketched them, unable to tear himself away.
His trips to the zoo began every few months between visits, and steadily increased in frequency. Now, maybe every week or so he would make the trek to Central Park.
It happened slowly, and because of the snow leopards.
Snow leopards, Steve found, were entirely imperialistic and had raging superiority complexes. Just like every other species of cat, he supposed. But what caught his attention more than them lazing about on their branches in the sun was when a certain zookeeper came to check up on them.
As soon as he entered their enclosure, the leopards darted towards the dark-haired man. His laugh rang out like music, and Steve was entranced. The cats circled and nuzzled the man, which made Steve laugh too. All things considered, snow leopards were some of the smaller big cats, and while still large and meaty, they didn’t dwarf the man with their size.
Rather, one flopped over onto the keeper’s feet and wriggled around, and the others tried to get his attention by climbing his torso and reaching upwards. The man scratched and pet their heads, and even bent over to pick up the smallest in his arms. Said cat (still entirely too large to be held without it looking ridiculous) immediately went lax like a rag doll and stared up at the man adoringly.
Steve had never related to an animal more than in that moment.
At first, he was compelled to draw the joy and safety the leopards clearly felt when playing with the man. But, after a few pages, Steve realized he was drawing less details on the cats and more on the human, trying to capture the way his shoulder-length hair caught in the gentle afternoon breeze. Or the way his neck arched when he threw his head back and laughed when one of the leopards tried sticking its head up his shirt. Or how that laugh sounded.
Jeez. How his laugh sounded?
Okay, so maybe it hadn’t happened slowly.
Maybe it had happened quick and instantaneous, like a lightning strike or a switch flip, and Steve only let himself react to it slowly.
Bucky didn’t often pay attention to the zoo guests, or if he did, there weren’t many he remembered. The guy hanging out with a sketchbook, presumably drawing the tamarins? Yeah, Bucky remembered him from the snow leopards a couple of weeks ago.
It wasn’t unusual to see people drawing or painting the animals on weekdays, when the zoo wasn’t at peak hours. What was unusual was just how damn attractive that dude was. So yeah, Bucky kept an eye out, so what? It was the normal thing to do. The zoo staff were just ordinary folk, and not at all immune to the wiles of beautiful people.
Bucky looked forward seeing Hot Artist Guy, and liked to pass the boring parts of his days wondering when and where they’d meet next.
It started with the snow leopards....and continued through the tamarins, the sea lions, the anteaters, the red panda, and fruit bats. Steve made sure to get each of the animals nice and detailed in his drawings, and tried to leave the zookeeper out of most of them.
Eventually, he resorted to multiple sketches: some for the animals, some for the keeper, and some together.
Bucky didn’t really mind filling in for the guys in the Polar Circle. He liked the team well enough, and though the penguins weren’t mammals, he enjoyed them immensely. He made a point to visit the birds at least once a day, lest they think he was neglecting them.
On this particular day, Bucky delegated the mammal tasks to his team and bundled up for the fifty-ish degree drop in temperature in the Polar Circle. He whistled a familiar tune to himself as he got a bucket of fish and stepped into the enclosure.
The penguins tottered over to him in greeting and excitement, and happiness always welled in Bucky’s chest at the sight. If he wasn’t so averse to the cold, and didn’t feel such kinship with mammals, he might have been a sea bird specialist. As it was, he was happy being the cool uncle to the permanent team’s parental roles, and passed out fish with familiar greetings.
“Hello, Francine, you’re looking especially fine this morning. Alice, pleasure as always. Claude, buddy, lookin’ good, there you go, yeah, get that fish! God damn it, Eustice!”
Claude was a handsome little fella, and Eustice was a towering, insufferable king penguin who was twice his size and used it to his advantage. He had knocked Claude down and stolen his fish.
“Quit being an asshole, Eustice!” he said as Claude righted himself, and Bucky heard chuckling from somewhere nearby. He gave the little guy another fish and patted his head, glaring after Eustice. “Hey, come back here, we need to talk about your behavior!”
Eustice ignored him and waddled off.
“You’ll be back, don’t think you won’t. I’m the one that’s got the fish!” Bucky said, brandishing one at the penguin’s back, and started in a campy, sing-song voice, “You’ll be back, time will tell, you’ll remember that I served you well…”
The penguins tittered around him, looking happy.
“Oh, like that, do you?” He asked, doling out more fish. “Rose, beautiful as ever. Jude, Patricia, pleasure as always.”
Bucky handed out more fish, and continued singing King George’s ‘da-da-da’s’ from his favorite Hamilton song. The penguins tittered happily, and Bucky heard that muffled laughter again. He looked up to see Hot Artist Guy sketching.
“Enjoying the show?” Bucky asked with a crooked grin.
“Immensely. And I’m glad there aren’t any children around, mouth like that.” Hot Artist Guy said wryly.
And oh, what jokes Bucky could make from that line, but he refused to take the bait. “What, about Eustice? He’s a dick, everyone knows it. Also, this is New York, you think those kids don’t hear worse every damn day?”
“Fair point,” Hot Artist Guy conceded. He then set his pencil down and rubbed his arms, obviously not prepared for the Polar Circle’s chill.
Bucky had the urge to warm him up in a variety of creative ways.
Instead, he just asked, “Whatcha drawin’ today?”
Hot Artist Guy blushed slightly, and stammered a bit. “Oh, I’m uh. I like to draw their movements? The animals, I mean. They all move and act different and it’s fascinating to try to capture.”
Bucky thought a moment. “Huh, I guess you’re right. I look at it and see their movements as evolutionary and physiological advantages, but I never thought about it from an artistic standpoint. Must be somethin’ pretty special, to keep you comin’ back.”
Hot Artist Guy blushed deeper, and Bucky felt satisfaction in that.
“Somethin’ like that. I’m Steve, by the way. And I’m an artist by trade, not some kind of creeper.”
“What, someone can’t be an artist and a creeper? That’s exclusionist, Steve. People can be all kinds of things.”
“Y’know what,” Steve began, trying to choke down more laughter.
Bucky grinned up at him. “I’m Bucky. I’m the mammal care supervisor specialist by trade. Also not a creeper. That I know of, anyway.”
Steve huffed a laugh. “Good to know. But aren’t uh, penguins not mammals, or do I need to go back to elementary school science?”
“Look, pal, I don’t know what kind of education you got, so you may very well need to go back to elementary science-” Steve gave an indignant squawk “-But you’re not wrong. Penguins are not mammals. I’m just fillin’ in today.”
Steve pulled an expression of playful indignance. “I’ll have you know I have a Bachelor’s in studio art from NYU.”
Bucky feigned looking impressed. “Ooooh, we got a fancypants NYU grad up in here, ladies and gentlemen! Well, I’ll see your NYU Bachelor’s and raise you Master’s in animal science with an emphasis in animal genetics from Cornell.”
Steve looked shocked, and his blush had returned. “Well...shit. You win.”
“Thought so,” Bucky smirked. “Also, with a degree like that, elementary school’s probably the last time you had science anyway. Also, language! What about those poor, innocent children you were so worried about earlier?”
Steve blushed harder, and threw his head back in a throaty laugh.
Bucky thought he might be in love.
It was a snow monkey day, apparently, and Steve was delighted with the monkeys’ moxie and the sassy responses from Bucky. He laughed and chatted with Bucky as he drew, filling page after page with quick, timed movement practices.
A man in a suit came up and looked over his shoulder.
“These are wonderful,” he said in a tone that was somehow monotonous and melodic. “Do you have any more?”
“Uh...sure? That whole book is zoo drawings, help yourself.”
The man flipped through the pages, and Steve glanced at Bucky, whose eyes were wide. Steve turned back to the man in the suit, who quickly finished the sketchbooks.
“You are very talented, mister…?”
“Rogers. Steve Rogers.”
“Well, Mr. Rogers, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Phil Coulson, and I sit on the board of the Wildlife Conservation Society.” At Steve’s blank look, he explained, “We’re kind of like the parent company to all the New York Zoos. Except we’re not a company.”
“You’re a society, right.”
“That’s right. You’re extremely talented. I know that’s not saying much coming from someone without a background in fine art, but your drawings capture that unique relationship between the animals and the keepers. With animal protection societies and misunderstood wars raging against the ‘inhumane institutions’ of zoos, it’s so nice to see someone able to capture what really happens.”
“I’m going to give you my card. Call that number, and give the lady that answers the best time for you to meet with our marketing director.”
Steve’s head was spinning.
“Because I want to show the world the conservation impact that zoos have, and I think your art could play a huge part in that. I’m offering you a job, if you’d like it. A big one.”
Steve blinked, and accepted the proffered card.
“Okay. Thank you.”
Mr. Coulson gave Steve a small but serious smile, and then looked over to Bucky and nodded in acknowledgement. “Barnes,” he said with a tilt of his head.
“Mr. Coulson,” Bucky greeted with a lazy salute, coming over to Steve as Coulson walked away.
“What was that about?” Bucky asked.
“I think it was a job offer? He told me to set up a meeting with the marketing director. He said he wants to use my drawings in a campaign, I think.”
Bucky grinned at him.
Coulson’s offer was indeed legit, lucrative (at least to an unknown artist in NYC,) and right up Steve’s alley. Bucky seemed happy to have Steve around more, even if he did have to split his time between Bucky and the other keepers.
Steve spent the next several weeks getting to know the animals and keepers, and had clear favorites. Namely: the polar bears Gus and Ida, Claude the penguin, a particularly salty ring-tailed lemur, and Bucky.
Steve was in the tropics exhibit with Clint, the aviary specialist, when Bucky brought him lunch from the Dancing Crane Café one day. They nearly choked on their greasy food with laughter when a toucan pooed on Clint’s shoulder and his only reaction was a sad, “Aw, toucan, no.”
Steve drew a quick sketch and Bucky left it in Clint’s locker.
A couple of Bucky’s guys had called in sick, and he was spending his morning mucking out bear shit in the grizzly habitat. It wasn’t his favorite task, but that was one of the things about being a good supervisor: if you wanted your department to run smoothly, sometimes you had to muck some shit. It just so happened that in Bucky’s case, the shit was literal.
After a while, Bucky took a break to scratch the back of one of the bears that had come to say hello. It was his bear, in fact, his namesake, thanks to Clint’s bright idea. After a few minutes of good attention, Bucky Bear went to lay in the shade and take a nap, and Bucky Senior went back to mucking.
A while later, Bucky saw Steve standing there with his supplies and a coffee, watching Bucky Bear snooze in a frankly ridiculous position.
“Move along, nothin’ to see here,” he called.
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once at the top of his game, Bucky Barnes suddenly finds himself on the bottom once more,” Steve said mockingly, and with a grin.
Bucky didn’t even pause his shoveling before he replied casually, “That’s okay, I prefer bottoming anyway.”
Steve choked on his coffee, which Bucky took an obscene amount of pride in.
Steve felt like he had drawn every damn animal in the Central Park Zoo, and maybe had. But Coulson and his team had decided that they were so happy with Steve’s work, they wanted him to branch out and draw portraits of the animals and staff at their other locations, mainly the crown jewel of the Animal Conservation Society, the Bronx Zoo.
This was a good thing. It was a thick, steady paycheck, and something amazing to put in his portfolio and on his resume.
It was a good thing.
Except he wouldn’t see Bucky regularly anymore.
Steve really, really wanted to ask Bucky out, but he couldn’t. Not while Bucky was at work, not while he wasn’t free to reasonably say no (and Steve legit hated people that would pull that kind of stunt,) and they never saw each other outside of the zoo. So that was that, Steve thought sadly. One more trip to Central Park for old time’s sake and to say goodbye, and then he’d be taking the train up to the Bronx.
The next day, Steve decided to draw whatever the fuck he felt like. All of his portraits were with the marketing department, and if this was his last day at the Central Park Zoo for who knew how long, Steve was gonna draw whatever he wanted.
And what he wanted was Bucky.
It kind of sucked, knowing that this would be Steve’s last day at the zoo for probably a while. Bucky wanted to ask Steve out, but while he had gotten plenty of blushes and rises out of dirty jokes, he still wasn’t entirely sure of Steve’s sexuality and didn’t want to make any assumptions.
As it was, Steve was leaning against the railing, sketching the snow leopards one last time. Bucky watched them tumble and play, and one of his staff called him over. Something needed to be dealt with in another enclosure, so he said a quick ‘be right back’ to Steve, and tended to his business.
After the matter was dealt with, he took the long way back to the snow leopard enclosure, which was the actual zoo walkways and not the secret passages for the staff. Bucky walked up behind Steve, taking pleasure because it was one of the few times there wasn’t a wall or fencing between them, and Bucky could frankly get used to it.
He approached Steve and peered over his shoulder, curious to see how he’d drawn the leopards since they weren’t holding still at all that morning. Instead, what he saw set his heart aflutter and his face aflame.
It was him.
It was Bucky, a grin splitting his face, his hair messy and tousled around his shoulders, eyes crinkled with laughter. It was beautiful.
He must have gasped or something because Steve turned around, startled.
“Oh, uh, it’s not what it looks like…” he said, covering his sketchbook guiltily.
“You wanna go out? With...me.”
Steve stared at him blankly for a second before responding. “Like...a date?”
“Yeah, like a date. Nothing platonic about it. I wanna hold your hand and stuff.”
Steve blushed deeply and smiled. “Sure, Less Eloquent John Lennon. I’ll go on a date with you.”
Bucky was head over heels.
Steve met Bucky outside of a pretentious gallery in Midtown. Bucky’s hair was sort of pushed back, and instead of the zoo-issued greens, grays, and khakis, was wearing a dark blue button-up shirt and jeans. Steve had never seen him in anything but his uniform, and he liked it.
They hugged hello and Steve’s head spun with the close contact and how great Bucky smelled. He willed himself under control and raised an eyebrow at the gallery.
“Okay, hear me out. I know you’re a traditional artist, but my sister showed me some of this photographer’s work and it’s their first actual exhibit, and I thought it might be nice…”
Bucky trailed off and rubbed the back of his neck, suddenly looking entirely too self-conscious. Steve reached for the hand behind Bucky’s head and pulled it down. He laced his fingers with Bucky’s and smiled, heart pounding wildly.
“Let’s go see some pictures.”
They walked into the gallery to see several time-lapse, long-exposure photographs of different parts of the city, each with a pattern. They all started off with the a clear dawn sky, to overcast midday, to a thunderstorm evening. Each was a different setting: the Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn bridge, several parks, a couple of delis.
They were breathtaking.
Steve and Bucky perused the photographs, hand in hand, and each picked a favorite. Bucky was fascinated with one of the park ones and was leaning close to it.
“Look at this, you can practically see the barometric pressure change!”
“Uh?” Steve answered.
“Look at the leaves! They’re still, and then cycling, and then floating… it’s how planes fly, y’know?”
Steve didn’t know, but he was happy to have Bucky explain it to him as long as it kept that sparkle in his eye.
“See, it’s like this…” he began and then grabbed a pamphlet and folded it into a wing. And honestly Steve stopped paying attention to what Bucky was saying because he was so very attractive when he was explaining science things and Steve couldn’t stop staring at his mouth.
Completely without his brain’s consent, Steve’s body leaned in close to Bucky’s and he gently kissed him, crumpling the pamphlet-wing in the process. Bucky didn’t seem to mind if his sparkling eyes and happy smile were anything to go by.
They perused the exhibit for a while longer before Bucky asked, “You wanna get something to eat?”
“Sure, but if you absolutely can’t wait, I’ve got something to tide you over.”
“Oh?” Bucky asked huskily.
“Yeah.” Steve leaned in close, almost like he was going to kiss Bucky again, and then pulled a packet of animal crackers out of his pocket and held them up.
Bucky rolled his eyes. “You’re an asshole, Eustice.”
Steve was in love.
Steve got to choose their second date, and since Bucky lived closer to the theater district, Steve was picking him up at his apartment.
Bucky buzzed him up and gave him a quirked eyebrow when Steve handed him a plush, small stuffed snow leopard.
“Cuz, for me, um. You. Well, it started with the snow leopards.”
Bucky stared at him like he’d hung the moon. “Sap,” he accused.
“Nerd,” Steve countered. “Anyway, I hope you’re ready to get your mind blown.”
“Big talk from a big sap!” Bucky teased, but immediately shut up when Steve held up tickets for Hamilton. “How?” Bucky asked reverently, eyes wide.
“I’ve got a friend, Natasha. She’s really good at procuring things, and honestly, I’ve learned to not ask too many questions.”
“These are tenth row center!” Bucky breathed.
“Yeah, like I said. Don’t ask questions.”
“I’m so, so not asking anything of the kind. You know, I love the concept and I love the soundtrack, but I’ve never actually seen it before!”
“Shall we, to the theater?”
Bucky nodded and kissed the life out of Steve. “Penguins,” he said, when they were both trying to catch their breaths. “For me, it started with the penguins.”
Later that night, riding a high of happiness and months of longing, Steve pushed inside of Bucky and his whole body screamed with the rightness of how it felt. He was consumed with yesyesyes and home and Bucky. It was the best thing he’d ever felt.
If Bucky’s moans and the scratches on Steve’s back were anything to go by, he felt the same.
Phil Coulson was very observational. He had to be, to oversee the amount of staff and animals in his care (and arguments could be made for which was which at times.) So when he saw Barnes and Rogers sitting by the sea lions, hand in hand and trading lazy kisses and animal crackers…
He saw that coming from a mile off, and so did everyone else, staff and animals alike.