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He's All That

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summer break.

The summer heat lays thick and heavy across his sweat slick skin. His head is cushioned on top of his arms, his legs stretched out behind him. To his left the clear aquamarine of the pool beckons, the inviting chill of the water, always kept ten degrees lower than is strictly comfortable, the faint scent of chlorine creeping over the edge and settling in his hair and nose. Somewhere over the right side of his body, the music abruptly changes. He had been listening to some delightful, summer pop playlist carefully curated by an intern at Spotify, but now the upbeat purring of like, Dua Lipa or whatever, turns to Pussy Riot. Which he can only recognize, because Natasha had refused to continue their friendship after their disastrous failure of a hook up if he didn’t fully immerse himself in the feminist pop punk political genre. Or something. Honestly, most of the time Natasha talks and Bucky uses his famed one hundred watt smile to pretend he’s listening and then goes back to daydreaming about puff pastries. Speaking of, his stomach grumbles. He’s been laying out in the sun for at least three or four hours now and not only is he tanned a magnificent golden brown, but he’s also, unfortunately, sticky and starving.

Bucky groans and turns his face from the water toward his best friend. His sunglasses jostle against the pool deck.

“One, you’re the worst kind of cliché,” he complains. “And two, my ears are bleeding.”

“You have no taste,” Natasha says lazily from her sunning chair.

“And three, I’m fucking starving.”

“Иди и накорми себя сам, ленивая ты корова,” Natasha rattles off. Go feed yourself, you lazy cow. She stretches her legs out in front of her. The sun glints off perfectly tanned, smooth, dancer’s legs. Her small black bikini has straps everywhere. Her red curls are pulled away from her long neck and tied up around the top of her head and her nails are painted an emerald that’s now burned into Bucky’s retinas. In other words, Natasha Romanoff looks lethal, and if Bucky hadn’t already tried and tested it during the aforementioned Disastrous Failure of a Hook Up, he would be salivating over her.

As it is, he just smiles at her instead.

“Aw honey, you know I love it when you speak to me in sonnets. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, and all that.”

“I was comparing you to a lazy cow,” Natasha says. She adjusts her own sunglasses and turns on her side.

“Is that from Sonnet 33 or 116? I’m moved. Shakespeare was a visionary of his times,” Bucky says.

“It’s from Sonnet You’re-a-Fucking-Nerd,” Natasha replies.

“You’re gonna hurt my feelings,” Bucky says with a yawn. Finally, finally, he manages to muster the energy to turn onto his back. He squints and grunts almost immediately, the sunlight an assault upon his person even through his sunglasses.

“I’m Russian,” Natasha says over Pussy Riot’s political activism. “I don’t understand feelings.”

Bucky’s about to reply to her when his phone starts ringing.

“Who the hell calls anymore?” Natasha says aloud, but Bucky ignores her.

He looks at the caller ID and grins.

“Look what the cat dragged in,” he says, answering it immediately. “How was your artist’s retreat?”

Over the phone, his boyfriend answers, dry and acerbic as kindling. Bucky listens to him lazily, murmuring his assent and disagreement in all the right places. He’s just too warm and lethargic to get worked up over his boyfriend’s brother issues today.

“So the problem is that he needed your help and that disrupted your--creative process?” Bucky asks. He thinks that’s what he said. Honestly, he’s so close to drifting off that he can’t be entirely sure.

His boyfriend answers again, at length, and this time Bucky does almost fall asleep, until he hears biting yelling over the line.

“I’m listening, I’m listening!” Bucky assures him, drowsily. He isn’t. He has no idea what he’s talking about. He has no desire to deal with it. So Bucky does what Bucky does best--he uses his charm and he evades. “Babe, listen. I’m--going through a tunnel. Yup. A tunnel. That’s--no of course I’m not by the pool with Natasha listening to overdone Russian punk and working on my tan and frankly, it’s insulting that you would accuse me of such a thing!”

The yelling intensifies and Bucky panics.

“Loki, listen I--!”

And then Bucky carefully sets his phone on the pool deck and rolls over with a loud splash! into the water.

On her sunning chair, Natasha turns over entirely to start working on her back.

Bucky lives in an estate in the Hamptons during the summer months because his father, George Barnes, of Barnes, Barnes, and Dugan LLC, and his mother, Winifred Barnes, also of Barnes, Barnes, and Dugan LLC, are named partners in one of New York City’s most preeminent Big Law firms. Or rather, they were, and now Winifred is a named partner in said preeminent Big Law firm and George is a senator in the New York State legislature and spends most of the year in a veritable mansion up in Albany.

Bucky spends most of the year at SHIELD College, an inordinately expensive and prestigious liberal arts school a few hours outside of New York City, known for its Ivy League-educated faculty, competitive academic programs, and top tier soccer program, which Bucky, incidentally, happens to be captain for. Well, co-captain. If not for the fact that T’Challa is a dream of a forward, a natural-born leader, and unspeakably gorgeous, Bucky would have had the captaincy all to himself. As it was, the vote was split and Bucky himself voted for T’Challa after T’Challa had made the calculated move of, well, smiling at him.

It’s not his fault T’Challa is easily Top 10 Most Beautiful Men On Campus Other Men Would Sleep With If He Was At All Waffling On the Kinsey Scale.

But anyway, during the summer, Bucky and George and Winifred and his younger sister, Becca, live in the Hamptons, which really means that George and Winifred wine and dine with other rich New Yorkers who will donate to George’s next campaign fundraiser while Bucky and Becca alternately snipe at one another and lay out in the sun and pine for someone to feed them.

Sometimes, Bucky invites his friends over. Well, friend. He has the others, but Natasha is the only one he can really stand to be around for endless hours at a time and even then mostly because Natasha will curse him out in Russian when he says or does something stupid and he finds that rather entertaining. She also lowkey scares George and Winifred and he finds that straight up hilarious.

After the requisite time swimming and bathing in the sun, Bucky gets a text from Becca that’s just a fork and knife emoji.

“Finally,” he groans and hauls himself up and out of the water. He’s a little bit like a prune now, but a devastatingly attractive and well-tanned prune. “You stayin’ for dinner?”

“No,” Natasha says, finally sitting up as well. A few curls fall from her updo and land gracefully around her shoulders. She’s turned just the right shade of tan, not a degree more or less. It’s actually infuriating and borderline perplexing.

“Dance practice?” Bucky asks knowingly. He runs his towel through his hair.

“The American Ballet Theater does not recruit chumps,” Natasha says, pushing up her sunglasses. Her green eyes glitter at Bucky.

“Why do I feel like that comment is directed at me?” Bucky scratches his nose.

“Because it is,” Natasha says. She stretches in her seat, like a cat waking up from a long day of strenuous napping, and then rises to her feet in one graceful, fluid motion.

“I’m not a chump!” Bucky protests.

“You, James Barnes, are a chump,” Natasha says. “До скорого.” 

See you later.

She leaves no room for dissent, just picks up her phone and starts rapidly speaking into it in French as though she had been on a call this entire time, and as though it’s normal for one person to be a casual polyglot. Bucky watches her leave as he always does, more confused than he had been to begin with.

Bucky showers and heads downstairs, expecting to pick an apple from the kitchen counter until someone magically made food appear to settle his rumbling stomach. What he doesn’t expect is for Becca to catch his arm at the bottom of the staircase and hiss at him as she pulls him into the alcove underneath.

“What the--” he blinks at her, ruffled and confused.

“We’re having a family dinner,” she says to him. Her nails bite into his arm and he winces and simultaneously stares at her as though she’s grown a second head.

“A what?”

“A family. Dinner,” Becca repeats. “A dinner for the family. Family and dinner, together, simultaneously, in one room.”

“I’m aware of the concept,” Bucky says with a frown. “I’ve seen it on TV.”

“Well maybe George and Winifred have discovered Netflix, because there’s food on the table and we are both expected to sit there and eat it,” Becca says. And then adds, “With them.”

“What did you do?” Bucky blinks at her.

“What did you do?” Becca asks.

Neither sibling has a good answer because Bucky can rack his brain and come up with a list of ten things immediately and if Becca’s uneasiness is anything to go by, she has a comparable list ticking through her mind.

“Okay,” Bucky says slowly. “Okay, it’s not a problem. We just have to have a--”

“United front,” Becca says. She tucks long strands of brown hair, coming loose from a lazy ponytail, behind her ear. Her grey-blue eyes glint with solidarity. She looks exactly like Bucky, which Bucky would have to be blind not to notice.

“Don’t let them get to us,” Bucky says.

“There’s more of us than there are of them,” Becca says. And then amends, “Kinda.”

“We’re only as weak as we are divided or whatever Dumbledore said in Prisoner of Azkaban,” Bucky says. He fucking loved those books.

“Goblet of Fire,” Becca corrects. She had introduced him to them.

“Thanks,” Bucky says.

“No problem,” Becca replies.

“Ride or die, Barnes,” Bucky nods. He sticks out a hand.

“Ride or die, Barnes,” Becca agrees and takes it.

It’s a code they had worked out when they were younger and realized that their high-powered parents were not only lowkey monsters with untenable expectations, but also desperately easy to manipulate if ganged upon by their two beloved and overachieving children. What it means in actuality is something closer to if I go down I’m taking you down with me, but, well, it’s been wildly successful for both of them for nearly a decade now.

Bucky and Becca look at one another and take a deep, united breath. Then they go in for a Barnes Family Dinner.

The truth is that Barnes Family Dinners occur with some infrequency, like when one of the Barnes children has done something commendable, or when George has been particularly politically successful, or when Winifred has won a particularly contentious case, or when three planets align in the sky and twelve other planets are in retrograde and no one has conflicting plans and they just decide family dinner might be a fun, even desirable activity. Bucky hasn’t done anything this summer other than get an excellent tan and ignore the LSAT review books his father had shoved at him, and Becca hasn’t done anything this summer other than redo her entire wardrobe and show up semi-regularly to her Teen Vogue internship, and neither George nor Winifred have had political and/or legal wins as far as Bucky’s been aware of, so that only leaves the planetary thing, which is a bit weird, but would explain why Bucky can’t seem to get his goddamn hair to settle properly in the back lately.

His mother and father are already seated at a table laden with all sorts of foods--potato salad and bright green beans, an enormous salad that takes up a quarter of the table, three cooked vegetable dishes, a basket of warm rolls, and an entire rotisserie chicken. There’s a glass of wine by each table setting, which makes Becca, who is quite certainly not 21 years old as of yet or even close, raise her eyebrow, but not utter a single word in case George and Winifred regain their senses.

Bucky has a sort of foreboding feeling in his stomach, like no table that serves this much delicious food when he’s this desperately hungry can possibly bring him any good news whatsoever.

“Darling,” Winifred smiles at him. She has her dark brown hair twisted into a braid that lays on her shoulder. She’s wearing a sleeveless dress and bangles that jingle on her wrists. “You look well rested. Chicken?”

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees cautiously and his eyes flicker over to Becca. Becca resolutely ignores them and helps herself to some rolls.

Bucky hands his mother his plate and she begins loading it with some of each dish, chattering away the entire time about whoever she had gotten lunch with that day and a new recruit to the law firm that they had swiped laterally from Cravath and how she was thinking of arranging for a last minute trip to the Maldives for the entire family just to celebrate a warm and lovely summer before everyone returned to their usual hectic schedules.

George replies by sipping at his wine and tearing a roll in half and reacting to Winifred’s stories with good humor, laughing in all the right places and interjecting with his own biting commentary in all of the other right places.

Bucky is hard pressed to keep the skepticism off his face. The Barnes family isn’t cold assholes, but it isn’t exactly the inexplicably joyful type either. Usually their dinners are casual, the parents talking shop and Bucky and Becca debating whatever Netflix binge they’re currently in the middle of. But this is—

“Are you getting married?” Becca hisses to him when George and Winifred are preoccupied. “Tell me quickly. Did you find someone for you? Did they find someone for you? Is this an arranged marriage? Are you marrying a Kennedy?”

“Fuck!” Bucky hisses back at her. “No? I think? I don’t know? Did they? Is it? Am I? Oh my god.”

Well, George and Winifred aren’t stupid, so they roll their eyes at their children’s antics.

“Oh stop your paranoia and eat your chicken,” his mother says and hands him back his plate. “We just want to celebrate our family and the summer. We can’t want to celebrate our family and the summer?”

“I think we’d be more inclined to celebrate our family and the summer if you guys found Bucky a Kennedy,” Becca says sweetly over her glass of wine and Bucky chokes on a cherry tomato.

Winifred giggles—she fucking giggles— and even George laughs.

“Not a Kennedy,” he says. “But the next best thing.”

“A Clinton? A Prince?” Becca asks. “Dad, Harry just got married like, a week ago.”

“Oh my fucking god,” Bucky groans and takes a gulp of wine.

“Language, James,” his mother chides, but this too is lazy and amused. “We are not getting James married to royalty.”

“Yet,” Becca wriggles her eyebrows and George winks.

“Yet,” he says.

It’s fundamentally unfair, Bucky mourns to himself in the safety of his head, that he and Becca could look exactly the same and their father would still love her the most. Like okay, he gets it, Becca’s his favorite too, brat as she is, but also monumental unfairness.

“I have a boyfriend,” Bucky says out loud.

“Not that we’ve met him,” Winifred says pointedly.

“Semantics,” Bucky mutters into a forkful of potato salad.

“Semantics are the most important thing,” George says. And he swells then—really, just, chest puffs out and swells and Bucky can tell that this, this is what he’s been waiting for, this is why the Barnes Family Dinner has been called. “In law and politics.”

Bucky and Becca just stare at him.

“Daddy, jokes just don’t work that way,” Becca says after a moment of confusion. “For one, they have to be funny.”

“Hush,” George says good naturedly. Then he turns his eagle-eyed stare toward Bucky in a way that Bucky has memorized, in a way that makes his stomach flip and drop in the same motion.

He knows what’s coming next, or some version of it. It’s been written in the introductory emails with Deans of Admission that George has sent to Bucky over the past year, in the student bar association networking events and happy hours he’s been unwittingly signed up for, in the stacks of LSAT prep books that he’d found adorning his room the first day he came home for summer break, backpack slinging off his shoulder and suitcase handle in one hand.

George and Winifred had met at Harvard Law School decades ago and it had been the hardest and best three years of their lives. They had graduated at the top of their class, racking up accolades between them, been scooped up immediately by two of the most prestigious law firms in Washington D.C., both feeder firms for Supreme Court clerkships. Winifred had gone on to clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and George had almost clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer, but had decided last moment to take a two figure salary bump to be snatched up by a rival law firm instead.

They had been wildly successful then and had opened their own firm and, two children notwithstanding, were wildly successful now.

What all of that amounted to was unparalleled ambition and almost astronomical standards for their children. Becca, at least, was still in high school and, luckily, had more than a fleeting interest in the law. Bucky was going to be a junior in college, which was the perfect time for his father to be inundating him with propaganda for law school.

He realizes, at some level, that he’s fulfilling some dire stereotypes about whining rich kids, but it doesn’t change how out of control his life feels when he stops to think about it. George and Winifred have had his next steps planned out for him since he started taking steps. Bucky can’t remember the last consequential decision about his own life that he had any voice in. And this would be the ultimate capitulation, his future handed to him by his father and mother--the field, the school, the career path packaged and delivered with the best of intentions, sealed with love, and knocking every last breath out of his body.

Bucky doesn’t have anything against the law. The law has served his family inordinately well. It was for his mother and father. It might be for his sister. But it’s not for him. He knows this as surely as he knows that the constant, anxious knot in his stomach at every introductory email and networking event and happy hour isn’t from nerves.

When Bucky closes his eyes and imagines this future, a future laid out for him, i’s dotted and t’s crossed before he was even born, a future that looks exactly like his parents, same schools, same concentrations, same law firm, he finds it difficult to breathe. His insides grow cold, a bitter, metallic taste in his mouth, his chest closed tight from anxiety, his lungs refusing air. He gasps, over and over, wakes up in the middle of the night in a sweat. He falls. He panics.

Bucky opens his eyes now, feeling his chest constrict, that familiar buzzing sound cascade around his ears. His father’s shape swims in and out of his vision. He realizes he’s holding his wine goblet so hard it’s on the verge of cracking.

Across the table, Becca watches him, eyes wide. She pantomimes taking a deep, deep breath.

Bucky follows her lead.

He takes a breath.

It’s shaky, but it’s air.

“--there’s one in February and one next June,” his father is saying. He’s smiling, bushy mustache wrinkling and twitching as he voices his pleasure. “With all that you’ve been studying, I’m sure you’ll be ready for it in February, but if you think you’d rather take the entire year to really nail the 180, we can sign you up for June. And--this is the surprise, I met the Deans of Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law at the fundraiser last week and they’ve each agreed to meet with you during the school year. I gave them your email address and phone number, so expect a call from their assistants to schedule an interview.”

The words flow in and out of Bucky’s ears like rivulets in a river. He blinks for a moment, trying to process, and somewhere between Becca’s stricken face and his father’s beaming one and his mother beside him, smiling, laughing, and reaching over to touch his arm, obviously thrilled for him, because he must be thrilled, because why wouldn’t he be thrilled, Bucky, well.

Bucky has a panic attack.

* * * *

The thing is, it’s absolutely unfair. He’s used to the heat, right? Because every summer he rents a closet that’s inevitably up a four story walk up that would have an elevator if the building was built during modern times and not the fucking Stone Age, which wreaks havoc on his asthma, but like, what college student can pay for an apartment in Brooklyn off of the meager, remaining dregs of their student loan and what paltry money they earn from their minimum wage job as a weekend Starbucks barista? Anyway, the Closet Known As His Apartment never has air conditioning because, again, the Stone Age, nevermind that he rents a different closet every summer, they’re all at the top of a four story walk up and none of them ever have air conditioning.

Anyway, the point is, it’s absolutely unfair because the amount of time he spends in the aforementioned Closet in the humid, unbearable New York City summer heat combined with the sheer amount of time he spends waiting for the F train in the humid, intolerable MTA subway station should make him immune to the humid, insufferable summer weather, especially when he’s outside, in what’s supposed to be fresh air, but somehow, despite all of the above, it remains deeply untrue. It’s so hot that not only is he sweating through his white t-shirt, there’s rivulets of sweat streaming down the back of his neck and his blond hair doesn’t resemble hair anymore so much as a damp mop. It’s so hot that he’s been forced to drink approximately a gallon of ice cold water, which means he’s peed roughly ten times in the last hour and sweated the rest out anyway. It’s so hot that he thinks he’s going to have an asthma attack.

“You’re not going to have an asthma attack,” Steve mutters to himself and hopes that by saying it out loud, he can will it into existence.

He trudges across hot concrete that smells like spoiled garbage and up a hill that’s only slightly inclined, but enough to make him breathe heavily by the time he gets to where he needs to be. After that, he passes through the gates, nodding his head to the guard.

He knows exactly how many steps to take now, has memorized what comes before and what comes after. He would know the directions blindfolded, in the dark, senseless.

Steve knows where Sarah Rogers rests by heart.

He puts the bouquet of flowers down by the headstone, replacing the wilted flowers he had brought only last week. The flowers this week are the same as the flowers last week--tulips, her favorite flower, and yellow, her favorite color.

“Hey, Ma,” Steve says. He runs a hand across the top of her gravestone, like he always does.

“I missed you,” he says, like he always does.

Sarah Rogers doesn’t reply, but she never does.

Steve sits on the grass in front of his mother’s grave, etching into his sketchpad. There’s nothing in particular he’s working on, except he’s going into his junior year of college, so all of the bullshit general education requirements are done and now he’s up to his eyeballs in his art concentration. He had taken a few of the required beginning art courses during his last spring semester, but the professor had taken one look at Steve’s first assignment and insisted this was both a waste of his time and Steve’s talents. He had sent Steve to the head of the department--Abraham Erskine and well, that had been the start of this.

This being the ceremonial title given to the stabs of anxiety and insecurity he had every time he picked up a charcoal pencil or a paintbrush.

It’s not that Erskine was unfair or unkind--anything but--but he was critical and tough and Steve desperately wanted him to be his senior advisor. The only problem was that as kind as Erskine was, there was always something a little off when he saw Steve’s work, as though he always expected better and Steve, although he would make the grade, could never quite reach that mark. He just wanted to impress Professor Erskine. He just wanted to make his Ma proud.

He sketches mindlessly until he realizes the curves of his pencil haven’t been mindless at all. A face emerges in the drawing, sweet and soft, sad and sick. He can’t color in the soft, straw blonde of her hair, but he can see it in his mind, the wisps framing her heart-shaped face, blue eyes brightening an already bright smile. Steve, with his floppy blond hair, fair skin, delicate cheekbones, strong nose, and bird-like frame, had inherited only a few things from Sarah Rogers, but her blue eyes and bright smile were two of the best.

That is, when he smiled at all anymore. It had been harder since she had passed, a year and a half ago, one semester into his freshman year of college. That first year had been the most difficult, a blur of shapes and memories that probably existed, but that Steve was hard put to recall. He remembers the agonizing, earth-shattering feeling of her loss and the emptiness that had come thereafter. Everything else in between that horrible night and the one year mark had been nothing more than a deeply grey and miserable nightmare. But the last semester had been okay. The summer had been okay. Steve still doesn’t smile or laugh as easily as he used to, but he’s stopped wishing for an early death, so that’s a sign of progress. Or so his therapist seems to think.

Steve spends the entire hot, humid day with Sarah, talking to her in intervals, sketching her and then sketching everything around them--old headstones, the giant tree nestled to the side of the white mausoleum, the tombstones and statues made to look like angels, the clear, July sky, Steve’s memory of Sam’s profile.

As if Sam knows exactly what Steve is doing, Steve’s phone starts ringing.

“Hey Sam,” Steve says with a grin. He leans back on a hand, legs stretched out in front of him. A grasshopper hops onto the rubber sole of his worn, battered Converses and hops away. “How’s your grandma?”

Sam’s grandmother is a 90 year old matriarch of an enormous family who Sam swears-- swears --has killed a man. He’s equally terrified and reverent of her, which Steve supposes is how one should treat a 90 year old matriarch who has possibly and even probably killed a man.

She’s gonna outlive us all, man,” Sam says on the other end. “You with your Ma?

“Yeah,” Steve says. It hits him like a pang, the deep ache in his chest at that question. He is with his Ma, it’s true, but the question makes him think he should be able to answer a different way, like yeah I’m with my Ma, you wanna talk to her? Here let me put her on because she’s very, very much alive. He swallows and looks up at the quietly darkening sky.

He’s been out here so long the colors are changing.

Tell her I said hi,” Sam says because Sam is the best friend Steve could ever wish for. “Are you spending the day with her?

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Gotta spend today with her. It’s tradition.”

There’s a pause over the line and Steve can tell Sam wants to say something. Maybe it makes Sam sad. Steve is sad. But then, Steve is usually sad these days.

You don’t have any other plans?” Sam tries. “Friends in the city? Coworkers?

Steve shakes his head even though Sam can’t see. His throat is tight, his voice dangerously close to watery.

“It’s tradition, Sam,” Steve says. “I can’t break tradition.”

Sam might understand and he might not, but he’s a good enough person to not ask one way or another. He accepts Steve’s answer and allows him this, his one moment of peace. That doesn’t mean he stops talking to Steve though. If anything, it gives him more motivation to continue talking to him, catching him up on the latest Wilson Family Drama, and planning their apartment for the upcoming school year. Sam talks to him for so long that the colors stop changing. They’ve changed into a navy, inky blue.

Suddenly, in the distance, something pops and lights spring into the air.

“Oh,” Steve says quietly.

Over there too?” Sam asks.

Steve watches the fireworks blossom in the dark of the sky, sparks and showers of reds and blues, greens and whites, golds and oranges. It doesn’t matter how old he gets or how many times he sees them, Steve thinks he will always see fireworks and be awed by the sheer joy of them, their absolutely immense magnitude.

He will look at fireworks in the sky on the Fourth of July and remember his mother taking his face between her hands and kissing the crown of his little blond forehead and saying, they’re for you, my darling, they’re celebrating you .

Happy Birthday, Steve,” Sam says after a while.

“Thanks, Sam,” Steve replies. “See you soon.”

He hangs up the phone and then it’s just him here, him and his Ma, and the grass beneath his knees, and the fireworks lighting up the sky, and the sketchpad of drawings, all of her, in some way, resting on his thighs.

In the background, someone plays country music from the stereo of a parked car.

Happy 21st Birthday, my darling, Steve imagines his mother saying to him just then. Look, they’re for you. They’re celebrating you. Or; I’m here with you. I’m here celebrating you.

Steve pulls up his knees to his chest, tips his forehead onto his knees, and cries.

Steve’s internship with the Brooklyn Historical Society wraps up at the beginning of August, which is just as well because a mouse starts cohabiting The Closet with him and in the eventual battle for dominance, Steve suspects the mouse would win.

He packs his one suitcase and one box of belongings, carefully puts away his art supplies, and tells Starbucks not to expect him back. Unsurprisingly, Starbucks isn’t fazed, but Wanda, his favorite coworker, does make him a venti cotton candy frappuccino with soy milk as a going away present that’s so sweet it nearly induces him into diabetic shock.

He painstakingly shuffles to Port Authority in 95, feels like 110, degree weather and by the time he collapses onto his Greyhound seat heading back upstate he is surprisingly, shockingly, ready for the school year to begin.

upperclassmen, here go hell come, Sam texts.

Steve pushes his messy, unruly blond bangs back out of his eyes and picks at leftover paint from his left hand.

Yeah, he thinks after a breath. Here go, hell come.