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Ill With Want

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“Look, Bucky,” Marie sighs. “You’re a sweet guy. There are lots of girls out there who don’t like to do it either, and you’re gonna make one of them real happy.”

Bucky wants the sidewalk to swallow him. What can he say? That he likes it, just not with her? Even if that were true, and even if it wouldn’t earn him a well-deserved slap, Marie’s got two eyes and a working mirror at home. She knows damn well that any normal guy would give their left foot for a chance with her. He stammers out some half-assed justification, face burning with shame.

“It’s not… listen, I’m sorry doll, I just had a long day, is all. Really.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Sure, honey.” She feels bad for him, he can tell, and he’s not sure whether her kindness makes it better or worse.

“Maybe I’ll take you out next week?” He tries.

She smiles a little sadly. “I don’t think that’d work out better than the last two times.”

“Yeah.” He sags, but he really can’t blame her.

“It’s really fine, Bucky.” She puts a hand on his arm, and he feels nothing. “A girl’s got needs,” she grins, “but I do hope we’ll still be friends.”

“Yeah. Yeah,” he rubs his neck and puts on his best crooked smile. “I’m always up for a dance, at least.”

She kisses him on the cheek and goes inside. Bucky watches his dream girl disappear and wants to throw up, because he’s not even sad to see her go.

 

***

 

He drags his feet up three flights of stairs and unlocks the door to the apartment as quietly as he can, hoping Steve is already asleep. He doesn’t have the energy to pretend tonight went well, and he can hardly be honest about the reason it didn’t.

Tonight’s really not his night, because Steve is still awake and hunched over an ad he’s drawing for a nearby restaurant. He looks rumpled and soft in the yellow light of the desk lamp he’s set up on their kitchen table, his graceful, sooty fingers filling in the details. He glances over his shoulder when he hears Bucky come in.

“Hey.” He looks Bucky up and down, eyes skipping over him for less than two seconds before he says, “No good?”

Bucky wants to scream.

He shrugs a little, “Broke it off.”

“What’d you do?” Steve frowns. Bucky’s ma always says Steve’s gonna give himself an old man’s face by the time he’s thirty from scowling so much.

“What makes you think I did anything?” He did not, in fact, do anything, which was the problem.

“You wouldn’t’ve dumped her, she was too pretty.”

“Awfully shallow of you, Mr. Rogers.”

Steve rolls his eyes, “And smart, and funny, and a good dancer, and generally out of your league; figured I’d just pull from the top of the deck.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He shrugs. “It just didn’t work out, you know how it is.”

Steve nods vaguely and turns back to his drawing. Steve doesn’t know how it is; so far no one’s given him the time of day long enough to break his heart.

“In any case, I’m sorry.” Steve says. He’s gone back to shading the edge of a man’s nose, filling in the shadows with delicate cross hatching. “I know you liked her.” He’s deliberately giving Bucky some privacy, trying not to look straight at his fresh humiliation.

“Thanks,” he mumbles. “I’m gonna.... try to sleep, I think.” He starts toward the bedroom. “You mind if I have the radio on?”

“Nah, I was gonna turn it on myself.” Steve frowns again. “Wait, what time is it?”

“About 11, why?”

“What? Really?” Steve fumbles around under his papers for the watch he took off hours ago, glowering at it when it says the same thing as Bucky. “Shit.”

Bucky smiles, heart flipping over at the furrow in Steve’s brow. “You miss Fibber McGee and Molly again?”

Steve snorts in disgust, tossing his watch back under the pile.

“Don’t stay up all night, Da Vinci.” Bucky claps a hand on Steve’s shoulder as he passes, glancing at his drawing. It’s far better than the shitty little restaurant deserves and too good for what they’re paying him.

Bucky listens to the comforting drone of the radio and the occasional shuffle of papers in the kitchen. Only about twenty minutes pass before Steve yawns audibly. Bucky smiles as he hears him scoot out of the creaky wooden chair and start clearing up. He knows his messes drive Bucky nuts. He’ll probably be tidier for the next couple days because he feels bad about Marie.

Bucky pretends to be asleep when Steve crawls into bed, too tired to feel guilty over the quivery pleasure that settles in his belly when Steve’s arm brushes his. Steve falls asleep in about five minutes flat, unconsciously wedging his icy toes against Bucky’s leg. Bucky doesn’t move him.

He drifts to sleep in a comfortable haze and tries not to wonder where this feeling was two hours ago when he had Marie in his lap.

 

***

 

Work is slow. Bucky shouldn’t complain about his job; he was lucky to get something that pays all right this close to home, but sitting still this much always makes him feel like he’s about to crawl out of his skin. No wonder guys who work in offices their whole lives always die of heart attacks.

He’s finished the stack of filing from this morning and sent out what feels like a million letters, all functionally identical. His boss has gone home early again - it must be real nice being in charge - so he feels a little easier about slacking off until closing time. His eyes feel numb as he stares out the window.

The building across the street is getting a new facade and it’s been kind of interesting to watch the work. He’d make less money, but sometimes Bucky thinks he’d prefer to do something like that - be a construction worker or a mechanic, even just a warehouse worker, something where he could move around and use his hands. He’s fine with this office stuff; he’s quick with figures, but he’s so goddamn jumpy all the time, even when he goes dancing for hours. Steve gives him a hard time for doing pushups and crunches before bed because he thinks it’s just Bucky being vain again, which, okay, maybe it’s a little of that too; but how else is he supposed to sleep?

The workers across the street are hauling bricks from a delivery truck to a pulley that carries materials up the scaffold. A guy standing near the truck hefts loads of bricks onto a dolley, something satisfying in his movements. He’s stripped down to his undershirt and has a cigarette dangling from his cracked lips, dirty blond hair sweaty and falling into his face. His broad shoulders are smudged with concrete dust.

Bucky is transfixed by the movement of the muscle under his skin. The worker looks around, hearing someone call him. He has a sharp jaw and a slightly crooked nose, eyes distant and soft. He walks toward a man Bucky assumes is the boss, hips moving in a smooth, hypnotizing roll. He runs his hands through his hair and pulls the strain out of his shoulders.

Bucky startles as the idiot two desks over (Freddie? No, Frank, that’s his name) knocks a box of files to the ground with a thud. He closes his mouth and distracts himself with the mess.

“Jesus Christ, watch where you’re going,” he grumbles. The idiot glares at him before staring at the pile of papers like it insulted his mother. Bucky rolls his eyes and helps clean it up, his heart still rattling in his chest.

 

***

 

He hadn’t really felt like going out, but Bobby had been a real pain in the ass about it, so here he was. Out for a beer after work with the guys.

The guys were boring.

“Look, I’m not saying I don’t get the appeal, but I’m a guy who likes to plan ahead. Am I right, Bucky?”

Bucky looks up from his beer and tries to look like his head wasn’t in the clouds. “Sorry?”

“Pretty girls are a bad investment,” Bobby explains.

“I’m not looking to invest in anything!” Frank grumbles.

“Well that’s all fine, but when you are, you’re better off marrying one who’s, you know, not quite so cute.”

Bucky frowns. “I, uh. Never really thought about it.”

Frank rolls his eyes. “Christ, I don’t need to get married right now, I’m just looking for a little fun. No fun doing anything with a girl you can’t hardly stand to look at.”

“I didn’t say somebody you can’t stand to look at!”

“Hey, if I’m getting up close and personal, I want a dish. There’s a million girls out there, I’m not wasting my time on anything less.”

Bucky looks at Frank’s receding hair and ruddy face. He’s perpetually pink and swollen in a way that suggests he really oughtta drink less. “Not sure beggars can be choosers.”

Bobby snorts too loudly, giving Bucky a companionable jab in the shoulder. Steve’s probably home from work by now, even if he did remember to stop at the library and swap out their books.

He sighs and decides to be a good sport even though Steve and H. G. Wells are waiting for him. “All right, why wouldn’t you want to marry a pretty girl?”

Bobby shifts conspiratorially. Bucky feels like he’s about to get sold something. “Listen, it’s fine to fool around with the cute ones, but you don’t wanna get attached to something you can’t hang onto.” Bobby gestures a lot when he talks. “A real looker, she can have whoever she wants, right? And don’t think good-looking girls don’t know that. Oh sure, they act all coy about it, but they know.” He takes a slug of his beer. “Better off with a girl who hasn’t had a chance to get cocky.”

“Huh.” Bucky feels like he ought to have an opinion on this, but aside from a weird streak of sadness, there’s nothing.

Bobby continues. “You don’t want a girl to be too full of herself or think she’s too good for you.”

Bucky frowns. “If she agreed to marry you, I don’t see how you can say she thinks she’s too good for you.”

“Oh sure, at first. But you know how women are, always looking for something to be upset about. After a couple years, they start bitching about anything they can think of, maybe decide they’d be better off with somebody else.” Bobby nods as though he’s the expert. “But that’s no problem if nobody else would want ‘em. Or if they think nobody else would want ‘em.”

Bucky shrugs. “I wouldn’t want to be stuck married to somebody who didn’t want to be married to me.”

Frank and Bobby laugh like a couple of monkeys. Bucky prickles.

“Oh boy, listen to him!” Frank cackles. “A regular romantic.”

“What, you want to live your whole life with some girl who doesn’t even like you?”

“Buddy, what the hell d’you think being married is?”

Bucky makes himself laugh along. His stomach is in his shoes.

They move on to other topics, but Bucky’s only half-listening. He’s not sure why he’s still here besides the fact that he can’t think of a good reason to leave. What’s he gonna say? “Sorry fellas, I gotta go home so I can read some egghead novels and stare at my roommate while he draws cartoons?”

Christ.

He’s not sure how the guys manage to lure the girls over, but suddenly a round-faced blonde is batting her eyelashes at him. She’s gotta be better company than Bobby and Frank, at least.

She introduces herself as Gertie. She’s a typist for a law firm down the street. She’s got cute dimples and fantastic legs, and she’s leaning forward in that way that girls do when they know they’ve got a nice figure and want you to know it too, so he asks her to go out with him on Friday.

Eventually, Bobby and Frank manage to scare the other girls off, and Gertie reluctantly follows.

“Son of a bitch,” Bobby grumbles. “See, Barnes can afford to be a regular romantic.”

“What can I say,” Bucky sighs. “It’s a gift.”

 

***


It’s been a long day. Bucky was ten minutes late to work, got chewed out by his boss for something that happened a week ago, and spilled coffee over half his desk, all before ten A.M. He spent the whole day trying to correct financial records that had so many errors in them he actually stopped a few times and went around asking people if they might just be misfiled papers for something else. He’s planning on doing a whole lot of nothing all night, but he barely gets a chance to hang up his coat before Steve ambushes him. “Where do we wanna eat? Let’s get something good, we’re celebrating.”

He’s blindsided by Steve’s good mood. “We are?”

“Yup.”

“What are we celebrating?”

“My career as an art instructor.”

Bucky blinks a few times. “Excuse me?”

Steve grins. “You know those art classes the WPA does at the college? Some of the staff quit and I guess they’re real shorthanded, because they hired me.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah!”

Bucky beams. “You’re damn right we’re celebrating! Holy hell, how did you manage that?”

Steve preens a little. “Well, you know how I did all that work for Ollie Novak when I was taking classes? Apparently he put in a good word for me. He said me being in his class was no use ‘cause I already knew everything.”

“Huh. Nice that they’re letting guys with fucked up eyesight be art teachers these days,” Bucky snickers. “Hope he doesn’t drive.”

“Hey, you know what--”

“Are they allowed to hire you for something like that?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’re 20,” Bucky frowns.

Steve looks shifty. “Well.”

“Well what?”

“It’s… possible they don’t know that.”

Bucky stares at him for a beat. “Steve, did you lie to your employer?”

“I don’t know what their rules are, maybe they’re allowed to hire minors!”

“To teach, officially, on their payroll?”

“They didn’t ask!” He shrugs. “I’m nearly 21, anyway.”

Bucky snorts. “Interesting definition of ‘nearly.’”

“Shut up and take me to dinner.”

Bucky sorts out his hair and Steve puts on the tie that makes his eyes look even bluer. Bucky gives him a wolf-whistle and Steve throws a pomade tin at him. They end up at Balotelli’s, getting red sauce all over their faces and pretending the cheap house wine is fancy. Steve’s constant frown is taking the night off so he can laugh at Bucky’s retelling of the neighborhood gossip. Steve doesn’t pay much attention to the grapevine on his own, but when Bucky repeats it, he listens to every word. Steve lists all the ideas he has for his art classes. He’s glowing at the prospect of a steady paycheck doing something he’s good at, and Bucky soaks up his smiles like a cat in a sunbeam.

They catch a detective flick with a predictable plot and spend most of the movie giggling quietly and poking each other at the dumb parts.

“The girl was a dime, at least,” Bucky says. The comment skips off his tongue out of habit as they’re wandering out of the theater. Steve rolls his eyes.

“Then I imagine you’re satisfied,” he teases.

Bucky covers the twist in his gut with a grin. “I’m a simple man.”

“Yeah, you’re simple all right,” Steve snickers.

Bucky yanks him into a rough headlock and fucks up his hair something awful before Steve manages to elbow him in the kidney. They slap and shove at each other all the way to the deli that would never be open this late anywhere else. They’re still the very last customers, and the owner insists they take their cheesecake to go and get the hell out of his shop. They sit on someone else’s stoop and eat the slices with their hands. Bucky doesn’t know what time it is, and they only wander home when Steve starts to shiver.

They finally crawl into bed at two in the morning, still laughing and punch drunk, but it takes Bucky a long time to fall asleep. He curls toward Steve and watches his parted lips and fluttering eyelashes, smiling like a fool.

 

***

 

Gertie looks like a dream in her pretty blue dress and crisp lipstick. She’s a terrific dancer, too - a lot of girls get scared when he wants to lift them, but she loves it, giggling breathlessly at the end of every dance. Bucky feels deliciously dizzy and tired when they sit down with some drinks to rest for a while. The music and the sound of strangers laughing lights everything up all warm and golden.

He asks about her job and listens while she talks about her office. Turns out she’s a pretty good storyteller. Her boss is a real hardass, but she says she doesn’t mind, since she knows he’s not really yelling because of her, and she’d rather work for a grouch than a letch anyway.

“Are those your only options?”

“It sure seems like it. My best friend Margot works for an absolute pig. Boy, she’s got stories that would curl your hair.”

“I dunno,” he leans in and drops his voice to a stage whisper, pointing to his slicked hair. “You can’t tell when I’m out in polite company, see, but it’s already pretty curly.”

She rolls her eyes and giggles at him. “Oh, stop it. Anyway, who would you rather have for a boss, a guy who yells at you once in a while when he’s mad at his wife, or a guy who pinches your bottom every time you get too close?”

Bucky feels his face go hot. “Uh. Obviously the first thing.” His laughter sounds nervous. “But I’m not the type of fella who would want a guy getting fresh with me under any circumstances.”

“Trust me, girls feel just about the same way most of the time.”

He puts his hands up and chuckles. “Message received.”

She leans in and grins. “ Most of the time.”

They dance for hours, both tired and a little drunk by the time he walks her home. Gertie is hanging on his arm in a way he should probably appreciate. His feet and his head are sore.

When they arrive at her place, she doesn’t wait for him to kiss her or ask for a second date. She’s a real go-getter and takes care of it herself.

He not sure why he nearly turns her down. Her face starts to fall and he realizes he's hesitated for a beat too long. “Sure thing, doll. I had a great time.” He really did; they danced half the night and laughed the other half.

She beams, cute dimples framing her lips, and surprises him with a second kiss. Bucky’s never cared for the taste of lipstick.

She’s a real sweetheart. Maybe she could be his steady girl.

He walks home, tired in a way he’s not sure sleep will fix.

 

***

 

“Quit hovering,” Steve wheezes.

“I’m not hovering,” Bucky snaps. “I’m just standing here.”

“Staring at me like I’m gonna die if you don’t.”

“I wouldn’t put it past you!”

Steve makes a face.

“I don’t know what the hell you thought would happen,” Bucky says. “It’s allergy season.”

Every season is allergy season.”

Steve is lying on the sofa breathing like a rusty steam engine. He decided that today was the day to shake the rugs and curtains out and now he’s suffering the consequences.

“Why don’t you let me do shit like that?”

“You don’t have to do everything for me!”

“Well, no, not everything, but maybe stuff guaranteed to hurt you oughtta be my job, Steve.”

“Just shut up and find my damn cigarettes.”

Bucky rolls his eyes and digs around in the kitchen drawer. They try not to use asthma cigarettes too often, since they’re kind of expensive and sometimes make Steve see things that aren’t there, but they seem to help.

Steve is only drawing weak puffs of air, so Bucky perches on the arm of the sofa and lights the cigarette for him, sucking a mouthful of the strange, bitter smoke. Something odd shivers in his gut when Steve’s lips touch the paper where Bucky’s had been a moment before.

Steve exhales slowly and swallows, throat bobbing. “Sorry.”

Bucky grunts something dismissive.

“I know I’m a hassle.”

“You can say that again,” Bucky grumbles. Steve is still tense and wheezing, but speech seems to come easier. He looks ashamed. “Quit looking like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you just ran over somebody’s dog.” Bucky stands and lifts Steve’s legs so he can maneuver himself onto the sofa. He lets Steve’s calves rest in his lap, bare feet against his elbow. Steve’s feet are big compared to the rest of him, but small compared to everyone else’s.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about me.”

“Oh, no? Who should?”

“No one.”

“Sounds lonely.”

“Bucky.”

“Nobody’s holding a gun to my head forcing me to be your friend.”

Steve is silent, takes another puff. “Yeah.”

Bucky realizes he’s gently running his palm up and down Steve’s shins. Steve hasn’t said anything, so he doesn’t stop. The weight of Steve’s body settles something anxious and grasping in his chest.

The wheezing fades. Bucky knows time must be passing, because Steve’s episodes take a while to wind down, but the afternoon haze flattens the hours.

Bucky feels a stab of regret when Steve finally stands up and shuffles to the kitchen. It’s not that he really wanted to keep petting Steve’s legs. It’s just that he’s not sure when he’ll be allowed to do something like that again.

He doesn’t have time to wonder what the hell kind of thought that is, because Steve is clattering around in the icebox when he suddenly calls out, “Buck, don’t you have a date?”

Shit.

 

***

 

He shows up twenty minutes late.

“It’s really not polite to keep a girl waiting, Bucky,” Gertie says. She’s putting a light tone on it, but it’s clear she’s not happy with him.

He offers the best hangdog look he can manage. “I know, I’m sorry doll. My roommate - Steve, remember I mentioned him before? He was sick this afternoon. I didn’t even know what time it was ‘till he reminded me.”

Gertie still doesn’t look too pleased, but she softens. “Nothing catching, I hope?”

“Nah,” Bucky shakes his head, sitting down. “He’s got asthma, always has. This time of year’s kind of rough on him.”

“Oh,” her eyebrows jump. “Is he okay?”

“Sure, he’s fine. He didn’t turn blue this time, so I’ll call it a win.”

She smiles sympathetically. “It’s nice that you take care of him. A lot of people wouldn’t.”

Bucky carefully unclenches his jaw. “It’s… he’s not a burden or anything. He doesn’t look like much, but Steve’s the toughest guy I know.”

She laughs. “Little guy with a lot of attitude?”

“I mean, he’s not a troublemaker, he never starts fights. He’ll finish ‘em, though,” He grins. “Usually by losing.”

“Sounds like trouble to me.” She’s teasing, but Bucky has to settle the tightness in his shoulders again.

“It’s all right. We’ve been best pals since I was… what, seven years old? Feels like my whole life.”

“I guess he’s kind of more like a brother then, huh?”

He glances away. “Something like that,” he says. “Anyway, I’m sorry for being a bum. Can I make it up to you?”

She smiles coyly. “You better.”

 

***

 

The problem is, he doesn’t. Bucky tries not to worry, but Steve was still wheezing when he left. He swore up and down he was fine, but Bucky knows how he gets sometimes after he smokes a whole cigarette. Once he was up all night complaining about imaginary bedbugs and staring at shadows like there was something hiding in them.

Bucky doesn’t look at his watch too much, but only because he’s a gentleman, not because he’s not wondering.

When he kisses Gertie goodnight, she looks troubled.

“Bucky,” she sighs, her hand still on his chest. “You seem like a sweet guy, but I really prefer fellas who like me back.”

His stomach sinks. This keeps happening. Why does this keep happening?

“Come on Gertie, I do like you. You’re fantastic company,” he says. She shakes her head and moves away. “No, really. I’m sorry I can’t say the same for myself.”

“Bucky…”

“Listen, I know tonight was a bust, and that’s my fault. I should have just cancelled, probably, because I knew I wasn’t gonna be any fun. I’m worried about my friend, that’s all.”

“Why, because he’s sick with something he always has anyway?”

He rubs his forehead and tries not to sound angry. “I know it sounds dumb, but you don’t know how many times we’ve called the priest for that kid.”

Her shoulders fall and she looks embarrassed. “I’m sorry, that wasn’t nice. You’re right.” She looks at her shoes. “It’s just… it wasn’t only tonight.”

“I thought we had fun last time!”

“We did! But…” She shuffles a little. “I’m looking for more than fun. And I don’t think I can have that with a guy who kisses like somebody’s forcing him.”

He slumps. “Oh. Well. Don’t hold back to spare my feelings or anything.”

“I’m not saying you’re bad at it! I’m just saying it’s pretty clear you’d rather not be doing it.” She looks at him sadly. “I’m not the kind of girl who’s gonna drag a guy by his hair, you know?”

He stares at his shoes. There’s nothing he can say to that.

 

***


“Hey, we’re goin’ out for beers. You coming?” Frank and Bobby are halfway out the door.

Bucky squirms. His head is pounding and he doesn’t have the energy to pretend he likes these goobers for another two hours. “Oh, no thanks. You guys go on.”

“Ah, come on,” Bobby says. “You’re not doing anything tonight, you said so earlier.”

The dumbest part of Bucky’s brain, the part that just wants people to like him, starts whining at him to go. The rest begs for a night flopped on the couch with the radio on. “Sorry fellas, my head’s killing me. I’m turning in early tonight.”

The weather’s nice, at least a month still remaining until the grubby summer heat sets in, but every step he takes in the glaring sunlight makes his brain feel hot and swollen. He’s sweaty and sore when he finally makes it home. He kicks off his shoes and makes a beeline for the cabinet where they keep the aspirin, bolting it down with a whole glass of water before shuffling into the dim bedroom. He strips to his underclothes and flops into the unmade bed, too miserable to care that his pants are wrinkling on the floor.

A few minutes pass before the door rattles open again. Steve grumbles and swears, dropping things all over the place and putting stuff away in the kitchen. Bucky hears the squeaky sink handle turning, followed by Steve slurping water straight from the tap. He rolls his eyes and immediately regrets it. The floor creaks as Steve wanders into the bedroom to shrug off his shirt and tie.

“Oh.” He stops in the doorway. “You’re home.”

Bucky grunts. He can’t see the usual frown on Steve’s face, but he knows it’s there.

“You okay?”

“Headache,” Bucky mumbles into the pillow.

“Aspirin?”

“Took some.”

Steve slides over, his socked feet quiet on the bare wood. He picks up the abandoned pants and folds them over a chair. The mattress sags and Bucky can feel Steve’s thigh against his hip. Cool fingers slide through his hair, still chilled and damp from the sink. A sigh slips from Bucky’s throat.

Steve drags his fingertips along his scalp in slow strokes. “Long day?”

“Yeah,” he murmurs. Bucky’s not as proud as Steve and won’t resist being babied when he feels crummy.

“Frank still a dumbass?”

He sighs. “’Still’ makes it sound like nothing’s changed. Gotta recognize how much progress he’s made toward perfecting the craft.”

Steve snickers and presses his fingers gently into the back of his neck, kneading the tension out. Bucky’s eyes cross.

“M’job’s boring. Tell me what you did.” He feels himself going soupy and soft as a pat of butter on fresh toast.

“What I did, huh?” Steve hums. “Well, everyone got done with their sketches today, so we started on the actual painting.” He lets out a quiet laugh. “Oh yeah, Marlene dropped a whole palette paint-side down. Managed to get red paint on somebody’s shoes about ten feet away. Looked like a fuckin’ crime scene.”

Bucky snorts.

“Today she told me she wanted to try printmaking next fall, and I don’t think I managed to keep a straight face. I’m all for expanding your horizons, and god knows she’s talented, but I’m not sure anyone oughtta give Marlene sharp objects.”

“Not your problem,” Bucky mumbles, still smiling.

“No, just Ollie’s, I guess. Poor bastard.”

“You got her this time around, it’s his turn.”

Steve laughs. He’s moved to Bucky’s shoulders, digging into the knotted muscle until he feels loose all over. He floats in the heavy bliss of Steve’s firm touch and soft voice, the sensation syrupy and warm as the moment just before sleep.

Steve eventually moves back to Bucky’s hair and drags his nails against the tender spot behind his ear. “Feeling better?”

Bucky’s liquefied brain tries to identify which response will make Steve keep doing this. He shivers and settles on a pleased sigh.

“Mmhm,” he slurs.

“Good,” Steve says, his voice quiet and deep. “That’s good, Buck.”

Bucky knows how the strings of a violin feel when they’re played just right.

 

***

 

It’s two minutes to five and he’s nearly out the door when Angela, the secretary who always looks like she’s one broken nail away from a murder charge, frantically waves at him to stop. She has the phone pressed to her ear.

“We playin’ charades?”

She holds up a finger. “Please hold for just a moment sir, I’ll see if I can catch him.” She covers the receiver with one hand. “Someone asking for you, a Mr. Novak.”

“I don’t think I know him,” he frowns.

She gives him an icy look. “Well, he’s calling for you.”

Bucky sighs. He really wants to leave the goddamn office. “Fine, send him my way.”

The phone on his desk rings and he answers it a bit less politely than he should. “Barnes.”

A smooth news announcer accent crackles over the line. “Hello, Mr. Barnes? This is Oliver Novak, I work at Brooklyn College, just across the hall from Steve. He’s your roommate, isn’t he?”

“Oh, you’re Ollie!”

“I suppose I am.”

“Sorry, ‘Novak’ didn’t ring a bell; Steve doesn’t use it much. Everything okay?”

“Well...” He hears some shuffling on the other end. “He said not to bother you, but Steve always says things like that. He had a bit of a spell.”

God damn it. “Did he pass out again?”

“Afraid so. He’s fine, a student caught him before he could hit the ground and he wasn’t out for long, but I don’t feel right having him walk home by himself.”

“No no, I’m glad you called. He’s anemic and keeps forgetting his pills because he’s dumb as a rock.” Bucky rubs his face.

“He’s still pretty pale. I-- Oh, hold on.” Bucky can hear the distinctive sound of Steve bitching in the background as Ollie leans away from the receiver.

”I don’t care if it’s mostly a subway ride, being stuck in that smelly tin can with a hundred strangers is just as bad, and-- It doesn’t-- Steve, for heaven’s sake, I already have him on the phone, sit down.”

Bucky knocks his head against his desk a few times.

Ollie’s voice gets closer as he returns to the phone.

“Sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just... I’ll come get him. Tell him not to leave, I’ll be there in a few.”

“Past experience suggests that might not work.”

Bucky groans. “A guy can dream.” He calculates how long it’ll take him to go get Steve’s pills and then get to the college. Longer than Steve can be trusted, that’s for sure. “How big are you, Ollie? I don’t suppose I can persuade you to just sort of... sit on him until I get there?”

“I’m not that brave.”

“Aw, come on pal. His bark is a lot worse than his bite, it’s like fighting a half-cooked spaghetti noodle.”

Ollie chuckles. “I try to avoid getting punched as much as possible.”

“Okay, jokes aside, could you maybe just... ask him for a favor? You know how he is, he won’t go anywhere until it’s done. Give him something to clean or papers to sort. Please?”

“I’ll see what I can do.” Bucky hears the smile in his voice.

“I owe you one. Be there as quick as I can.”

 

***

 

When Bucky finally gets to the art building he’s relieved to find Steve still in Ollie’s classroom, up to his elbows in paint-clogged dishwater. He’s standing, but his skin is clammy and white. He’s resting his hips on the edge of the sink to keep his balance. Watching Steve tough it out when he looks like shit makes his chest go tight.

“So now you’re scaring the piss out of your coworkers and students too, huh?”

Steve gives him a sour look. “Fuck off, I’m fine.”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Yeah, you look swell.” He shakes the bottle of pills. “Take a couple before we leave, okay? And drink some water, it’s getting warm out.”

A tall man with glossy auburn hair and a perfectly square jaw glides into the room. He’s maybe four or five years older than Bucky, and his suit fits him so perfectly that he looks more like an illustration for the Saturday Evening Post than a real person. Bucky's almost startled by how handsome he is. “Steve, have you seen-- oh. Mr. Barnes?”

He takes a half a second too long to respond. “Uh, yeah. Call me Bucky.”

He offers a flawlessly dimpled grin and and gently shakes Bucky’s hand. “I’m Oliver.”

“Right, of course. Thanks for calling me. And sorry for the wait, I had to run home...” he trails off.

“It was no trouble, I’m usually here until seven anyway, and Steve is such good company. Besides, it’s so nice to meet you in person. I feel like I know you already; all I needed was a face to put with the name.”

Bucky sees Steve’s shoulders bunching up out of the corner of his eye. “Well, if Steve already told you about me, I guess my chances of making a good first impression are shot.”

Ollie laughs again, mellow and soft like a note played on a clarinet. “More like no need to make a good first impression. One would think you’re Cary Grant and Doc Savage combined going by Steve’s description.”

There’s a crash as Steve drops something in the sink and Bucky’s face is suddenly searing. Steve said that? “Uh--” he hears himself giggle, which is even more mortifying. “In-- in that case, sorry to disappoint.”

“Oh, not at all,” Ollie smiles, eyes flicking over Bucky from head to toe. “He’s not far off.”

Does Bucky have anemia too? He’s feeling dizzy; maybe he should take a pill just to be safe.

“I think we better get going,” Steve says, looking oddly frantic and pocketing the bottle of pills.

“Hey whoa, did you actually take one of those?”

“Yeah, sure, let’s go.”

“Just-- sit down. Give it a few minutes. Christ, you have a death wish.”

“I’m fine!” Steve snaps.

“Humor me!”

“Boys, please.” Ollie says. “Come on now, Steve. I’m sure poor Bucky doesn’t want to end up carrying you home.” He smiles mischievously. “Perhaps that would be fun under other circumstances, but not today.”

He floats toward the sink and gives Steve’s shoulder a companionable squeeze, and Bucky can’t quite identify any of the feelings he has about that. Steve looks flustered as well as sick, and he quietly accepts a cup of water when Ollie hands it to him.

A few minutes later Bucky concedes that it’s probably safe for them to head home. Steve sheepishly thanks Ollie for putting up with him.

“If anyone’s going to recuperate in my classroom, I’d much rather have it be someone I like. And don’t give your friend any more trouble, he’s too charming to deserve that kind of distress.” He winks at Bucky. Good-looking people shouldn’t be allowed to do that.

“He’s not as charming as he thinks he is,” Steve grumbles, his ears bright pink.

Ollie looks back at Bucky with a skeptical eyebrow raised. “Well, hopefully he’ll visit more often and let me decide for myself. Don’t be a stranger.”

Bucky hopes his smile doesn’t look as dumb as it feels. “Sure. See you around.”

 

***

 

It’s always hard to sleep the first night they leave the windows open. The building is never quiet, but at least the street noise is muffled when they’re shut. The bedroom feels too exposed like this, the sounds of talking and laughing and fighting wandering in from the outside.

Steve is a light sleeper even at the best of times, but now he’s tossing and turning and the bed frame is creaking more than usual. Bucky makes a mental note to borrow a screwdriver from the super tomorrow and see if he can tighten it up.

Steve lets out a deep sigh.

“Me too,” Bucky whispers.

“Fuckin’ noisy,” Steve grumbles.

There’s a sudden moan from outside. Bucky grins. “More like noisy fucking.”

They both giggle. The moaning gets louder and more dramatic in a way that no one can possibly find sexy, and suddenly they’re both choking with laughter.

“You know,” Steve wheezes, “I heard some guy at work say he thinks girls sometimes fake it in bed.”

“Yeah?” Bucky snickers.

“Uh huh. I can’t imagine where he got that idea.”

It’s not even that funny, but Bucky is nearly howling into his pillow. They spend the next ten minutes snickering and shushing each other while the lady performs a terrible impression of someone who’s enjoying getting screwed. To her credit, it’s probably a decent impression of an opera singer with laryngitis.

Steve has one hand over Bucky’s mouth and the other over his own. They’re both red and teary.

“Holy shit,” Steve rasps, still giggling.

“See now, Stevie, that’s why New York is the greatest city in the world. Where else could you get a show like that?”

“And cheap, too.”

“Entertainment right in your own home,” Bucky squeaks.

“You should expect nothing less in one of the world’s greatest cultural centers.”

Bucky starts to respond but gets too hung up laughing at his own joke. He finally manages to choke out, “Yeah, that’s why people come from all over.”

Neither of them can get another word out after that.

 

***

 

He hasn’t really gone out much since he and Gertie decided to go their separate ways. Normally, he spends at least a couple nights a week dancing and flirting and drinking a little more than he should, but lately he just keeps telling himself that maybe he’ll go out tomorrow night. It’s been over two weeks of tomorrow nights and he’s still turning down invitations from his coworkers and old buddies from school. His wallet is unusually fat, which is nice, but his legs feel like they’re about to go dancing without him if he doesn’t use them soon.

He’s been sitting on the floor dealing himself round after round of solitaire for the last hour. Steve’s on the sofa with a magazine on his chest.

“Steve?”

“Hmmmmh?”

Bucky smiles. Steve’s asleep, but sometimes he’ll still respond if you say his name.

“You wanna go somewhere, pal?”

Steve doesn’t say anything. His head gently rolls toward Bucky and he sighs, his lips parted. Bucky loses a few minutes watching his chest rise and fall. A lazy desire traces his skin, makes him think about running the tips of his fingers over Steve’s face, sliding his palm over his ribs and belly. He starts passively deciding to stay in again before he realizes what he’s doing and gives himself a shake. Stay in for what? So he can keep losing a card game to himself and looking at Steve’s lips?

He goes to clean himself up and puts on a fresh shirt. He goes back and forth on which tie to wear for longer than the question deserves and messes with his hair for about ten minutes. Steve’s asleep and won’t tease him about it, so he can do whatever he damn well pleases.

He gives Steve’s leg a shake.

“Hhhmmwhat?” Steve mumbles. “Buck?”

“Hey, I’m gonna go out for a bit.”

“M’kay.”

“You want to come with?”

Steve blinks his eyes open and shakes his head. He looks sweet like this. “No,” he croaks. “Where’re you going?”

“Not sure yet. I’m kinda getting cabin fever, though.”

Steve smiles slightly. “Surprised you made it this long.”

Bucky slides on his shoes and jacket before he can change his mind. “Don’t wait up for me.”

“I’m not even up now,” Steve yawns.

Bucky doesn’t think about where he’s going, deciding to turn when he sees, hears, or smells something interesting. He knows the neighborhood inside and out, but some places are more familiar than others. He lets his mind and his feet wander in separate directions.

Thirty minutes later, he stops to reorient himself and realizes he’s a lot farther from home than he thought. He’s been to this neighborhood before, but never had a reason to spend much time here. He’s got nothing better to do, so he keeps going. He rounds a corner and sees an unassuming bar that somehow strikes him as different. It’s conspicuously average, looking almost as though it wants to be ignored.

He frowns at the sign, trying to read it in the dim light. “Eddie’s” isn’t the most innovative name for a bar. The door opens and a pair of men step out. Bucky’s thoughts grind to a halt.

Oh.

He doesn’t know how he knows, but there was something about the way those guys were standing together. He should shrug and keep walking; that’s what any regular guy would do. Instead, he’s overwhelmed with the impulse to go inside.

Why the hell would he do that?

He doesn’t know how long he stands frozen on the sidewalk, but eventually his curiosity gets the better of him. He flings the door open and marches inside before he can come to his senses and run away.

The bar is… well, it’s a bar. He’s not sure what he expected, exactly, but it looks like pretty much every other place he’s been in. The only difference is that there are no women. Or rather, there are, but they probably don’t look much like women when they’re not here.

He stands frozen until he feels the door open again. He apologizes to the guy behind him and walks toward the bar to get out of the way, landing on a stool near the back corner. He knows he’s hiding, which isn’t like him, but, well. Look where he is.

The bartender is an older guy, still good looking in a softened kind of way, with neat salt and pepper curls and a short, narrow frame that’s only just starting thicken around the middle. He ignores Bucky for a while, probably sensing that he hasn’t decided whether or not he’s staying. Eventually he wanders over and nods. “Hey handsome, what can I getcha?”

Bucky jolts. “Huh? Oh, uh…” he orders a beer without consciously deciding to do so. The bartender slides it over and studies him for a moment.

“You don’t have to look so scared, sweetheart. Nobody here bites.”

“What? Oh, I-- I know.” He doesn’t know what to say. He feels like he should explain himself, explain why he’s here, but it’s not like he knows either. And what would he need to explain to a guy running a queer bar, anyway?

“Could have fooled me.”

“I don’t normally--” Bucky cuts himself off. It’s a foolish thing to say, even he knows that. Everyone in the room probably made the same stupid excuse the first time they were here. Who cares what he normally does? Right now, he’s doing this.

The bartender has a complicated, sympathetic look on his face. “Sure, honey, I know. Wave if you need anything.”

Bucky stares at his drink. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that he needs something, although who the fuck knows what it is.

He furtively watches the rest of the bar. He can’t get over how ordinary it looks. If he lived in a world where this kind of thing was normal, he wouldn’t even notice these people. He almost has to remind himself to be shocked when he sees a couple kiss right in the middle of the room.

He finishes his beer a faster than he ought to. The bartender notices.

“Need another?”

“Um. Sure.” He promises himself he’ll go slow on this one. “Are you-- are you Eddie?” Usually small talk is so easy, but he feels shy in here.

The bartender grins. “No, I’m Irv. Eddie’s my fella.”

“Oh.” Bucky nods, trying to look as though he thinks this is a bland piece of information. “So you own this place? Together?”

“Sure do. Fifteen years now.”

Bucky’s heart squeezes oddly. “Wow. You’ve been… together that whole time?”

“Oh, longer than that. Twenty-three years.”

The need he couldn’t identify clutches at that answer, soothed without being satisfied. Twenty-three years.

“That’s really nice.”

Irv smiles. “Yep. I’m a lucky schmuck.”

“I’ve never been here before.”

“I know,” Irv chuckles.

“Right. Yeah.” Bucky fidgets. “You probably know most of the people here, huh?”

“It’s mostly regulars, sure,” he nods. “Also, you look like you’re about ready to faint.”

Bucky blushes. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, honey.”

“It’s not-- it’s fine, it’s just different.”

“I know.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“You’ll figure it out.” Irv smiles. “If you need any help, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of volunteers.”

Bucky barely manages not to choke on his beer.

 

***

 

Work is even worse now that the facade across the street is finished and there’s nothing to look at. The office is stuffy and hotter than hell even with the windows wide open. Angela set up a couple electric fans, but they mostly just blow papers out of order. Bobby looks feverish and sick in the heat, and Frank’s puffy pink face looks like a giant pimple. The boss is actually here today, hiding in his office except to poke his sweaty head out and holler at someone, apparently choosing his victims at random. Even Angela, who normally looks like something out of a Bloomingdale’s ad, is wilted and damp by three or four.

“I don’t think it was this hot last year,” Bobby whines.

“You say that every year,” Angela snaps. She’s never said a word in her life that didn’t come out waspish.

“Well, I’m right this year, sweetheart.”

She rolls her eyes and marches back to her desk.

“Christ,” he grumbles. “What a bitch.”

Bucky grunts. “And you’re prince charming.”

Bobby looks irritated and stomps off in a snit. His best quality is that it’s easy to piss him off just by being a slightly less horrible person than he is. It passes the time, but he’s buried in another stack of bank records that absolutely can’t be right, so the last hour of work feels like it takes about a week.

When he finally does get home, the apartment is empty. Usually Steve’s around on Thursdays, picking away at his commissions. Bucky wishes he could work in his shorts, but having to wear a tie all day in the heat is the price he pays for being a talentless putz.

There’s a note on the kitchen table weighed down with the new tin of drawing pencils Bucky gave Steve for his birthday last week.

Gone to the library. Will probably be there till closing. Go ahead and eat without me. Don’t worry, picking up the new Christie novel! -- S

Bucky smiles. He didn’t even have to ask.

Still, it’s nearly three hours until the library shuts down for the night, and he’ll lose his marbles if he has to spend all of it here alone.

He fusses with some papers on the table, washes a couple of dishes in the sink. Avoids doing what he knows he’s gonna do.

 

***

 

He’s got a routine at Eddie’s now. Granted, it’s a pathetic routine that doesn’t involve talking to anyone, but maybe that’s for the best.

“Hey stranger,” Irv greets him.

“Hey,” Bucky nods. As usual, he orders a beer, subjects Irv to a few minutes of awkward small talk, and then finds somewhere unobtrusive to sit. He doesn't know why he keeps doing this, exactly - it seems like the point of a place like this is for guys to meet each other, or for the ones that are already paired up to go on a date where they don’t have to pretend that’s not what they’re doing. He’s not used to feeling like a wallflower, but he’s not sure he wants to be anything more than that.

Eddie comes in and waves at him. He's the opposite of Irv in almost every way, tall, barrel-chested, and dark-skinned. He has a big, round face that'll still be handsome even if he lives to be 90. Bucky gets the feeling that he and Irv are friendlier to him than they would be to most new people. He knows he’s a sad case.

He looks around the room. There’s a pair of guys in the corner hanging on each other and laughing. He looks back at the bar just as Eddie leans over to give Irv a peck on the cheek. The gritty, angry feeling that’s been clogging his throat all day melts.

He gives the door a cursory glance as it opens. Tall guy, nice suit, auburn hair--

Bucky freezes. The man looks up and meets his eye just as he realizes who he’s looking at.

Bucky and Ollie stare at each other for a beat too long. Ollie looks a hell of a lot less surprised than he would have liked, and he feels himself drowning in panic.

And oh, fuck, he’s coming over. They’re not gonna pretend they didn’t see each other.

“Fancy meeting you here.”

Bucky’s brain is too full for him to focus on a specific thought. “Uh.”

“May I?” Ollie moves to sit on the stool next to him.

Bucky swallows hard. “Go for it.” He studies the nearby ashtray instead of meeting his eye.

“I had no idea this was your place. A bit out of your way, isn’t it?”

“It’s not my--” That’s a lie. How many times do you have to visit a bar before it becomes your place? “I uh. Just kind of wound up here.”

Ollie laughs. “Don’t we all.”

Bucky knew, somehow, that Ollie was that kind of guy. He hadn’t thought about it consciously, but of course he is.

“Where’s Steve?” Ollie asks.

Bucky’s heart climbs into his throat. It occurs to him that he doesn’t really know Ollie, doesn’t know what kind of person he is. He’s an artist, Steve likes him, and he’s apparently a queer. That’s the extent of Bucky’s knowledge. None of these things give any indication of his intentions or whether he can be trusted.

“Not here,” he says, a little too sharply. Whatever the hell Bucky's doing, he’s not dragging Steve down with him.

Ollie looks startled, then thoughtful. “Oh,” he looks closely at Bucky’s face. “Oh. I see.”

“What?” he bristles.

Ollie holds up a hand, gentle. “He doesn’t know you’re here?”

“Why the fuck would he know?”

“I mean, I assumed you were together.”

What?” Bucky nearly swallows his tongue. “No. No no. No, Steve’s not-- I’m not--”

“Okay, okay,” Ollie laughs a little, not unkindly, clearly trying to calm Bucky down. “I misinterpreted the nature of your relationship. My apologies.”

Bucky sighs. He’s an asshole. “No, shit. I’m sorry, I don’t-- I’m not used to this. You’re okay.” He rubs the back of his neck. “Hey, let me buy you a drink, yeah? You probably saved me having to drag Steve to the hospital before.”

“Oh, well, if you’re offering.”

They wave Eddie over and Bucky orders them a round. Eddie looks embarrassingly proud of him. It reminds him of his mom fussing over him at his Bar Mitzvah and he has to keep himself from rolling his eyes.

Ollie gives him a considering look, like he’s deciding whether or not to say what he’s thinking. “I’m surprised, though.”

“About what?”

“Well, even if you and Steve aren’t you and Steve,” he says, “he always makes it sound like you know everything about each other.”

Bucky scoffs and looks at Ollie like he’s lost his mind. “Yeah, I’m sure he does. You know, you’re right, why wouldn’t I mention this to him? Great idea, pal.”

Ollie looks at him blankly. “Your sarcasm would be much more effective if I knew an obvious answer to that question.”

“Did you hit your head or something?” Bucky asks. “Steve’s… normal, okay, I can’t tell him about this.”

Ollie looks inexplicably surprised for a moment before schooling his face. “Loving men is perfectly normal. It’s not our fault we live in a sick society.”

Bucky closes his eyes and takes a breath to keep from being rude. Maybe under different circumstances he'd want to hear the rest of that speech, but he’s not in a philosophical mood at the moment. “Whatever, that’s not--”

“I know, I know, you think Steve would be upset. I just don’t know why.”

“Everyone’s upset about this kind of thing.”

“He’s certainly not upset about me being a homosexual. We’re perfectly friendly, but he cares about me a great deal less than he cares about you. I highly doubt he would disown you for it.”

Bucky blinks a few times. “He knows about you?”

Ollie laughs. “It’s hardly a subtle aspect of my personality.”

I didn’t know for sure until I saw you here. And Steve’s got a lot of good qualities, but let me tell you, he’s not generally a skilled observer of human nature.”

“Well, all right, but there is the small detail of me having mentioned it.”

Bucky goes quiet. “He didn’t say anything?”

“No, not really.” He takes a sip of his drink. “Bucky, he’s an artist. I'm not the first one he’s met.”

The condensation on Bucky’s beer is pooling under the glass. He drags drops of water across the bar with the tip of his finger.

“Look,” he says. “I know Steve’s an open-minded guy. I’ve known him since he was six years old, and I’ve never seen him judge anyone for being different, but…” He closes his eyes for a moment. “You gotta understand, it’s one thing to be okay with a guy from work being queer. That’s no big deal. It’s different when it’s a guy you’ve spent half your life sharing a bed with.”

Ollie grins. “How charming. You’re sure you’re not together?”

“Ollie.”

“You don’t want your best friend to think you have designs on his virtue. A very common tale.”

Bucky’s suddenly boiling with anger. “Do you have to be so goddamn flippant about this?” He bites. “Maybe this seems stupid and petty to you, all right, fine. But I don’t have all your practice being a fairy, and I sure as hell don’t know what the fuck I’d do without Steve, okay?” Shit, his eyes are burning. It’s bad enough he’s sitting in this fucking place for the umpteenth time; he’s not gonna start crying in it too.

“You can act like I’m being dramatic all you like, but you don’t know what I’ve been through with him. If he looks at me differently one day? If he doesn’t trust me like he used to?” He shakes his head. “I would never, ever do anything I thought might hurt him. I'd rather die. But what if he doesn’t get that? You can say whatever you want about society being sick, but regular guys think what they think. If he felt weird sleeping next to me or changing in the same room, or…” or putting his cold toes on Bucky’s legs, or running his fingers through Bucky’s hair, or curling into his shoulder to smother a laugh at night… “Or whatever-- I couldn’t stand it. I don’t know what I’d do. I wouldn’t know how to be a fucking person if I couldn’t be the person I’ve always been with Steve.”

He can’t look at Ollie. He breathes slowly, trying to settle down. He feels a hand on his wrist for just a moment.

“You know, I’m not from New York.” Ollie says, quietly. “I grew up in Georgia.”

Bucky looks at him, frowning. His anger has cooled, but it’s not clear what this has to do with anything. “You don’t sound like it.”

“Well, I admit I did practice quite a bit to lose my accent.”

“It worked.”

“Thank you.” He takes another sip. “I had a best friend back home. I don’t even remember when we met; it seems like he was just always there. We were as close as you and Steve are.” He sighs. “Of course, I was in love with him, but I didn’t know that until I was about sixteen. I was less cautious than you.”

“You told him?”

“I did.”

“What happened?”

Ollie brushes away the lock of hair that always rests over his forehead. A pale white scar hugs his hairline. “Unfortunately, he was not as noble and tolerant a soul as yours is.”

Bucky swallows hard. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. In a way, I’m glad he hit me,” Ollie says. “If he’d let me down easy, I’d still be in love with him.” From the way he tilts the rest of his drink down his throat, Bucky suspects that last statement might be wishful thinking. “In any case, I truly don’t mean to be flippant. I of all people understand how you feel.”

Bucky chews his lip. “Yeah.” He swirls the last inch of beer in the bottom of the glass.

“To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you’re obligated to tell him anything.”

“I know.”

“But if it weighs on you,” he continues, “I doubt Steve will hit you in the head with bookend if you mention it.”

“I know he won't,” Bucky sighs. “It… it’s fine.”

“Are you sure?”

Bucky nods. “Yeah.” He wipes a hand over his face. “Jesus. I’m awful company tonight, aren’t I?”

“I’ve had better,” Ollie smiles, “but a face like yours is rarely awful company.”

Bucky laughs and rolls his eyes. Somehow he likes Ollie better knowing he's got sore spots, even if his pastel-perfect profile and manicured charm doesn’t hit as hard as it did before. “Thanks. For everything. And I owe you another drink for listening to my bitching.”

“Mr. Barnes, I hope you’re not trying to get me drunk.”

“Don’t start with me, pal. You’re about fourteen feet tall. Two drinks won’t do shit.”

“Oh, you caught me. But what if I want some plausible deniability later?”

Bucky grins. “You’re not getting off that easy.”

Ollie gives him a mock-scandalized look and Bucky giggles. They both know this isn’t going anywhere, but it's fun. It’s just like flirting with a girl, but he can be a little dirtier if he wants.

And he's not lying.

 

***

 

Bucky absolutely cannot move. It’s not possible. He’s gonna stay on this sofa for the rest of his sorry existence. Or at least for the rest of this sorry summer.

“Steve,” he whines.

“Mm.”

“It’s too hot.”

“Mhm.”

Steve is hunched over the kitchen table as usual, scratching at a half-finished eight pager. It’s his least favorite kind of commission. Only Bucky and a couple shady little publishing shops even know he draws them. They pay the rent, though, and Bucky helps him write the dialogue, since Steve’s too bashful to do that bit.

“Steve.” Bucky groans again.

“What, Buck?”

“Get me a glass of water.”

“Get it yourself.”

“It’s too hot.”

“I heard you the first time, and it’s hot in here too.”

Bucky doesn’t get up. Between the heat and the hypnotic whisper of Steve’s pencil against the paper, he starts to doze. He dreams about licking the sweat from a flat, pale stomach.

Later, he opens his eyes at the sound of Steve’s chair creaking. Steve peels off the white undershirt he’s been wearing before sticking his head under the faucet and soaking his hair. He stands up, dripping water onto the floor before making a half-assed attempt at drying off with the shirt.

He stands at the sink in nothing but his shorts, quietly gazing out the window. The blinding summer light makes his skin glow, the angles of his shoulders lit in sharp relief. He sighs and hangs the damp shirt on a cabinet handle before plucking a glass from the dish rack and filling it. Bucky watches his hands, smudged palms, thin fingers, and bitten nails.

He closes his eyes and fakes sleep when Steve turns around. Steve creeps over to the sofa and gently sets the glass on the side table. He reaches over to shake Bucky awake, but reconsiders, his hand hovering above the bare skin of his shoulder. Bucky can nearly feel the heat of his palm. Steve decides to let him sleep and pulls away without touching him. The floorboards creak as he pads back to the kitchen, turning the radio on as he passes. There’s a ball game on, but the Dodgers are losing. Assholes.

Ten minutes pass before Bucky’s too thirsty to keep faking sleep. He sits up and downs half the glass.

Steve glances at him and smiles when he thinks he’s looking away.

“Thanks,” Bucky says softly.

“Hm?”

Bucky shakes his head and stands to stretch. He nods at the abandoned shirt. “You got the right idea.”

“Surprised yours is still on.”

He peels his shirt off and throws it over the back of a chair, then refills his glass before sitting down across from Steve. The permanent scowl is firmly in place.

“How’s it going?” he gestures at the comic.

“Eh. These are quick, at least.”

“Who’s in this one?”

“Nobody. I mean, they’re just generic.”

“Didn’t feel like committing intellectual property theft or libel today, huh?”

“Nah, too tired.”

Bucky grins. Tijuana bibles are illegal and everybody knows it, but they care about that law about as much as they cared about prohibition. Anyway, the only people who ever get busted are the distributors, not the artists.

“Christ, Steve.”

“What?”

“She’s more tits than girl.”

Steve grimaces. “Yeah, well, the publisher told me, and I quote: ‘we don’t need any of that artsy-fartsy realistic stuff this time.’”

“This the same publisher as before?”

“Yep.”

“I thought he liked your drawings?”

“Apparently he’d like ‘em better if the people looked less like people,” He sits up and puffs his chest out, mocking the publisher. “‘This is for men, you know, regular guys. Save the sappy shit for the romance pulps. Broads love that crap.’”

Bucky snorts. “The bar for romance is lower than I thought.”

Steve raises an eyebrow and nods. He’s moved on to inking over his sketches. Bucky watches him draw a smooth black line along the curve of a the girl’s ass. “He did like your jokes in the last one, though.”

“Toldja,” Bucky grins.

“They were disgusting.”

“Of course they were, I heard ‘em from Frank.” He shrugs. “That’s who buys this crap, might as well know your audience.”

“Guess so.” He carefully dots the nipples. “Next one might be tough.”

“He wants another already?”

“Well, not right now, but in a month or two, yeah.” He frowns, tracing a speech bubble. “Figure it’s probably for a different market.”

“How do you mean?”

Steve coughs. “He wants one with, uh. Just fellas. Apparently there’s a demand for that.”

Bucky shifts in his chair and tries not to blush. “Shit.”

“I don’t know, I’m probably thinking too much,” Steve says. Bucky can tell he’s trying real hard to sound casual. “It’s just twice as many cocks as usual, right?”

“S’one way of looking at it.”

Steve looks up for a beat too long, then goes back to filling in the dialogue. Bucky watches his cheeks go pink. He’s already written the words in with pencil, but he gets embarrassed all over again inking them.

Bucky grins and leans in. Steve’s blushes are one of those little things he tries to take time to appreciate. “Stevie, how is it you can sit there looking bored while you draw a guy with his face mashed into some girl’s cunt, but you practically turn purple writing someone just talking about it?”

“Shut up.”

“It’s an honest question.”

“You can honestly shut up.”

Bucky’s smirk softens, leaning on his elbows and watching Steve’s careful handwriting appear on the page. “Come on, I’m curious.”

Steve glares at him. His shoulders hunch up around his ears. “It’s gruesome, that’s why.”

“So are the drawings.” He gestures at one of the completed cells. “Pricks don’t come that big, pal.”

“The drawings are just stupid cartoons,” Steve grumbles. “The words…” he sighs, frustrated. “Maybe if they weren’t so nasty.”

“That’s kinda the point of dirty talk.”

Steve’s face is stormy. “This is worse, though. I just… I guess I wouldn’t want anybody talking to me like that, is all.”

Bucky scoffs. “You’re really complaining that the shitty pornos you’re drawing aren’t nice enough?”

“Go fuck yourself.”

Bucky notices that Steve’s not blushing anymore. He looks… sad?

“Wait, really?” He sits up and actually looks at him, no longer teasing. “For real, that’s what bothers you?”

“Don’t laugh at me.”

“I’m not.”

Steve is guarded and tense.

Huh.

“You know,” he hesitates. “These things, they’re just dumb jokes, or you know, fantasies. People don’t really-- I mean, even when they do talk dirty, it’s not like this.”

“I know that.”

“No you don’t.”

Steve glares.

Bucky sighs. “It’s not stupid or anything, if you don’t like what’s in these.” He shrugs. “I… I mean, don’t either, actually. I can write ‘em, because I know what they usually say, but,” He clears his throat and decides he owes Steve a little honesty after giving him a hard time. “They could maybe stand to be a little more, uh. Well, romantic. I guess.” He fidgets and looks anywhere but Steve’s face. “I’d rather somebody was sweet with me. In real life.”

Steve’s cheeks flush pink again, but his shoulders drop. He bites his lip and meets Bucky’s eye for a moment. “Yeah.”

They both look away. Bucky’s heart is in his throat, but it feels good. 

Steve smiles, crooked and friendly. “Hey, it’s a paycheck, right?”

Bucky smiles back. “Even a starving artist’s gotta eat.”

Steve sighs and slumps back in his seat. “Speaking of, we have a problem.”

“We either have to turn on the stove to cook or put on our fucking clothes to go out?

“Mhm.”

Bucky groans.

 

***

 

They decide to go to the automat for dinner since the benefit of having cold cokes outweighs the evil of getting back into their clothes, but they strip down to their shorts again the second they get home. There’s no way they’re sleeping inside tonight.

In the worst heat waves, they join the dozens of other families sleeping outside in their skivvies and pretending no one can see them. The fire escape is outside the living room window, and there’s just enough space to roll up their shitty mattress and cram it onto the landing. It folds up at the corners and part of it hangs over the open space where the stairs start, so they don’t quite have as much room, but it still beats lying in the stifling bedroom.

The only good thing about the weather is not needing to boil water to heat up the bath. For once, the cold water feels heavenly, and Bucky threatens to stay in the tub all night. Steve eventually lures him out with promises of books.

“Gimme.”

“Get out here, and I will,” Steve shouts from the fire escape.

“I can read in here,” he calls back.

“No, you can’t.”

“Why not?”

“You’re not reading library books in the tub. You can wreck your own books dropping them in the bath.”

“You’re no fun.” He hears Steve’s bare feet hit the living room floor.

He pokes his head into the kitchen and gives Bucky an unimpressed look. “I brought you books with grotesque fucking aliens on the cover, and you say I’m no fun. A guy could start to feel unappreciated.”

Bucky gives him a dopey grin. “Wouldn’t want that.”

Steve waves a book with a colorful cover in Bucky’s direction. Those are some unusually ugly aliens. “Come and get it,” Steve calls, backing into the living room.

Bucky sighs and hauls himself out of the water, pulling the plug as he hears Steve climbing through the window.

“Don’t make a mess,” Steve shouts.

He looks down at the puddle on the kitchen floor as he buttons his shorts. “I’m not!”

 

***

 

Bucky wakes slowly, the light from the rising sun gradually illuminating the street. He feels too good to move just yet, his whole body loose and relaxed. There’s a warm, grasping feeling in his belly that makes him want to snuggle closer to--

He notices the hot weight pressed against him head to toe.

Bucky is lying on his back and Steve is wrapped around him, sleeping like the dead with his face against Bucky’s neck and his arm around his stomach. Bucky realizes he’s got his own arm around Steve’s back, holding him against his chest.

Steve shifts a little in his sleep and his lips brush Bucky’s collarbone. He settles closer and Bucky’s heart nearly stops. It’s morning, that’s all, that’s the only reason Steve is hard.

He rests his free hand on Steve’s arm. He shouldn’t be doing this; he should get up and pretend this didn’t happen, not pull Steve closer. He turns his head into Steve’s hair. God, it smells so good. He uses the same soap as Bucky; how does he always smell so wonderful? He wants to press his face to the spot below his ear and breathe him in.

He knows he’s hard too. He really needs to get up.

Steve murmurs nonsense in his sleep, his voice a soft moan that hits Bucky like a punch in the stomach. He can’t stop himself from sliding his hand up into Steve’s hair. The skin on the back of his neck feels silky and tender, impossible not to touch. He stares at the underside of the neighbors’ fire escape landing and resists the impulse to press kisses to Steve’s temple.

He’s gonna wake up. He’s gonna wake up and wonder why the hell Bucky’s holding him and petting him and smelling his hair like some kind of freak, but Bucky can’t make himself let go. The weight of Steve’s stupid skinny body against his chest makes him want to stay here forever. He wants to keep his bare skin pressed against Steve’s. He wants to touch everything he can reach.

Steve sighs and unconsciously rolls his hips and Bucky is so hard it hurts and he can’t take it, he just can’t, it’s too much, he can’t let himself sit here with Steve’s soft skin and and good smell and morning wood, he’ll ruin everything--

He throws Steve off and scrambles through the window, running to the bathroom to hide. Dread fills his stomach when he hears Steve knock against the railing of the fire escape, followed by gasping and swearing.

He doesn’t go out to check on him. He sits on the toilet seat and breathes slowly. He tries to picture Frank naked, because if he jerks off right now, he won’t be able to think about anything but Steve’s hot skin and his dick poking Bucky’s hip through his shorts. He can’t. He just can’t do that to Steve.

He swallows the lump in his throat. He doesn’t recognize himself. He feels reduced to a bottomless pit of need, not a person, just a thing that wants. It’s sickening and horrible, a sticky black pool of craving inside him. He wants to cry, or throw up, or cut out whatever’s making him feel like this.

He wants to run to Steve, wants to have his best pal tell him that it’s all gonna be okay, that he’ll feel better soon. Just another thing he wants and can’t have.

 

***

 

Days pass and they don’t talk about it. Sleep is awkward, because of course there’s still only one goddamn bed. They sleep inside on the unspoken grounds that they can’t afford to sacrifice elbow room on the fire escape. Bucky could always go sleep on the sofa, but that would be worse, somehow; admitting that something was wrong. Steve looks hunted and won’t meet his eye. Neither of them have said anything about the bruises on his arm from where he bonked it against the railing, but Bucky can’t stop looking at the stains he left on Steve’s skin.

He wants to go back to the night before all this happened, when they were freshly washed and fed and leaning against the hot brick wall of their building, Bucky with his ugly aliens and Steve with Edgar Allen Poe. That was what he was trying not to ruin by getting whatever’s wrong with him all over Steve, but he blew it. Now he just sits across the table from his best friend and misses him like he’s a thousand miles away.

He doesn’t go to Eddie’s anymore. Being there felt wrong for a reason; he shouldn’t have gone in the first place. It got into his head, made him let his guard down. But the fact is, it’s been hot out, work’s driving him nuts, and everybody has a tough time meeting the right girl. None of that’s an excuse to start doing crazy shit. He just needs to try harder.

Joey at work has a younger sister who came by the office to say hi, and she was real cute. No ring on her finger. He likes Joey well enough, and he didn’t seem to mind Bucky flirting with her, so maybe that’s something.

He can do this, really. It’s just that he can’t breathe sometimes.

 

***

 

Joey’s sister dances like someone who ought to be played by Boris Karloff.

Angela’s friend is clearly after a guy with deeper pockets than Bucky.

The girl he chats up at the store laughs like a donkey, and it gets on his nerves. She’s not too hot on him either, but she sets him up with her cousin. She’s nice enough except for her hollering meathead of a father, and Bucky’s got no time for that nonsense.

Their new neighbor’s daughter is so nervous he can hardly hear her speak.

The girl one of his old school buddies sets him up with makes it very clear she’d rather not be there.

Becca’s new friend from work is still in love with the guy who dumped her last year.

The girl his ma sets him up with is a Yankees fan, and he’s a little affronted that his own mother didn’t think to check up on that before she sent her only son on a blind date.

The girl who runs the nearby soup kitchen is… maybe a little more than Bucky can handle, but he’s sure some guy who buys Steve’s eight pagers will be thrilled to meet her.

Bucky keeps to his side of the bed and dreams about bony shoulders and soft, bruised skin. It’s too hot to sleep.

 

***

 

Bucky’s avoidance of his coworkers and packed social calendar have earned him a reputation for being either a wet blanket or a Don Juan, depending on who you ask. He suspects the bad press is partly due to Frank and Bobby’s unconcealed resentment that he won’t go out drinking with them anymore - not that they’re so eager to be pals, mind you; they just know he tends to attract cute girls and seem to think it’s his responsibility to share the wealth.

He nearly says no when Charlie from downstairs comes to invite him to an after-work thing. “Unless you’ve got another hot date, that is,” Charlie leers, wiggling his eyebrows.

He and Charlie barely know each other. “Nah, I’m free. My dance card’s not nearly as full as people seem to think.”

Charlie laughs. “Hey, take the compliment, I’m jealous.”

Bucky swallows a feeling of hysteria.

Half the office ends up at a bar down the block. It’s stifling and loud inside, the smell of spilled beer and sour bodies choking the air. Men are down to their shirtsleeves and girls powder their faces compulsively. Bucky bounces between people he knows and total strangers for an hour, drinking too fast and picking through disjointed conversations. Angela looks pinched as always - he’s not sure why she comes to these things given how much she seems to hate everyone and everything.

He’s had too many drinks and he’s already buzzed enough to think that maybe he can cheer her up. She’s probably just bad-tempered because everyone she works with is a bonehead. God knows that makes Bucky grouchy. He feels kind of bad for her, come to think of it.

He plops down on a stool next to her. “Heya, Angie,” he grins. “Having fun?”

“I suppose.”

“That’s good.” He sighs. “You know, we’ve worked together for almost a year, and we’re practically strangers. I feel like I oughtta know more about you.”

She gives him a critical look. “Is that right?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Like you said,” she snaps. “We’ve worked together for almost a year. I wasn’t born yesterday, Mr. Barnes.”

“Sorry?”

“Go bother some poor girl who doesn’t know any better.”

He feels like he just walked into a lamp post. “What do you mean?”

She rolls her eyes. “I’m not interested.”

Bucky’s got his mouth hanging open like a fish. “I wasn’t-- I didn’t mean to make a pass at you or, or--”

“Sure.” She swallows the last of her drink and gets up, walking away like she’d already been planning to leave.

God help him, there’s no right way to be.

 

***

 

Once Angela drops him like yesterday’s newspapers, he decides it’s time to switch to the hard stuff. Things go fuzzy and stretched after that. He remembers wandering out of the bar without saying goodnight to any of the people he came with, and he remembers arriving at a much worse bar several blocks away, but the bit in the middle is lost.

The bartender at the new place pretends not to notice that Bucky should be done drinking and happily pours him a double on the grounds that he’s not starting a tab. Bucky tosses him twice as much as he owes.

He realizes halfway through a conversation that he’s talking to a pile of blonde curls. The girl underneath them is short and curvy. Bucky’s not in a state to decide whether or not she’s pretty, but who cares. He flirts without effort or intent, pushing his luck with lines that would usually get him a slap in the face, and for some reason, it doesn’t make her go away.

Suddenly, there’s a tongue in his mouth. A second one, that is, not just the usual one he’s got in there all the time. He gives the owner of the tongue a gentle push backwards, and Blonde Curls comes back into focus. She giggles, a cruel edge to her laughter. “What’s the matter, don’t you like girls?”

You know what? Fuck it.

“I love ‘em,” he snarls. He knocks back his drink and leans in, boozy breath in her face. “How ‘bout you come find out how much, huh?”

They’re leaving the bar, and then they’re going… somewhere? Blonde Curls is drunk too, but she seems a lot more coordinated, so he lets her steer. He doesn’t recognize the street. They eventually stumble into the apartment she shares with a skinny roommate whose voice belongs on a cartoon chipmunk. Blonde Curls and the chipmunk have a brief fight, which Bucky gathers is about him. He’s not really listening, too absorbed in the marks on the door jamb - lines with dates and ages next to them. The kid they measured probably doesn’t live here anymore. He remembers his ma doing the same thing with him and Becca.

He’s in a dark bedroom and Blonde Curls is kissing him, so he kisses back. He loses some clothing along the way, and then he’s on top of her, and she’s making noises that suggest she’s having a good time, so he ignores the sloshy feeling in his stomach and does what you’re supposed to do in this situation. He moves without thinking, unsure how much time has passed and hearing her voice like street noise through a window pane.

He can’t remember what the girl’s face looks like, can’t even remember the details of how he got here. There’s a clenching horror in his gut and he desperately wants to be anywhere else. He didn’t want to be touching this girl in the first place. He climbs off of her without bothering to fake like he’s finished or make any excuses, squirming into his discarded clothes and buttoning his fly. He distantly hears her complaining and telling him to come back, but he can’t stay. This room is too small, too dark, it smells like the wrong kind of soap and sweat. He’s drowning in the kind of fear that gets you in nightmares, the vague but overwhelming terror of running from something you can’t see. He barely avoids falling on his face going down the stairs and he crashes into the chipmunk, who shrieks at him and calls him a scumbag. She’s not wrong, exactly.

He lopes along in circles, lost in the unfamiliar neighborhood until he recognizes a sign for a furniture shop and knows where he is. He starts stumbling home, floating with relief.

 

***

 

When he finally makes it to the door of his apartment, he can’t find his key. He’s so drunk and miserable and plain stupid that he doesn’t knock, just flops against the door and groans.

“What the hell are you--” the door opens and he nearly tips over, catching his balance before he lands on Steve. “Jesus, Bucky.”

Steve. God, he misses Steve so much; how can he have Steve back? How can he fix it?

“Steve,” he whines. “I losss... My keys. Lost ‘em.”

Steve doesn’t look too sympathetic. “You lost your keys?” he pulls Bucky inside, closing the door behind him.

“Yeah, they’re gone. I donnn have’m.”

Steve gingerly reaches into Bucky’s pocket, his hand brushing his thigh. “These keys?”

His mouth drops open. Steve is a perfect angel and a miracle worker. “How’d you do that?”

He rolls his eyes. “I’m talented.”

“Yeah,” Bucky sighs, swaying and sounding dreamy. “You’re so… You’re the best.”

Steve snorts and hides a smile. “And you’re halfway to being preserved in a jar.”

“Mm. Yep.”

“What happened?”

Bucky sags. He doesn’t want to think about the last few hours. He just wants some sleep and for Steve to like him again. “Dunno. Juss’ out after work I guess.” Something rattles in his chest, his stomach feels tight, his eyes are burning--

“Whoa, okay.” Steve looks startled. “Hey, it’s all right, don’t cry on me, you’re fine.”

Bucky doesn’t cry when he’s drunk. He’s more the type to laugh a lot and tell everybody how swell they are, but now he’s weeping, slumped against the door.

“Don’t go. Please.”

Steve is frozen. It’s not like him to look so unsure. “I’m not going anywhere.” His hand hovers near Bucky’s arm. “Buck? It’s really okay, pal.”

“I miss you,” he chokes.

Steve gapes at him. “I’m right here. I’ve been here.”

“Can we go back to how it was?”

Steve’s eyes are wide. He doesn’t ask what Bucky means.

“Stevie?”

“Yeah. It’s okay. We’re okay, right?” It’s not really a question.

Bucky nods and sniffs loudly, holding his breath to try to stop blubbering. His whole body is trembling.

“Jesus Christ,” Steve mutters. “Come here.” He wraps his bony arms around Bucky’s shoulders and runs his hands over his back.

Bucky starts crying again, looping his arms around Steve’s middle. They fit beautifully. “Sorry.” He whispers.

“Yeah, no shit you are, you smell like a fucking brewery. And a lot of other stuff.” Bucky can nearly hear him wrinkling his nose. “Worse stuff.”

“S’not what I mean.”

Steve tenses. “Don’t. I mean--” he forces himself to relax and gives Bucky an awkward pat before letting him go. “Uh. Me too.”

Bucky frowns, but his pickled brain doesn’t have time to wonder what the hell that means before Steve pulls him to the sink and makes him wash up, pushing him under the tap to splash his face and rinse the tacky leftover pomade out of his hair. Bucky is lucid enough to be embarrassed about it, but he missed Steve’s hands; missed Steve bossing him around and trying to look put-upon even while he’s being nice.

“Better?”

Bucky dries off and nods, wobbling over to one of the kitchen chairs. Steve puts an aspirin and a glass of water into his hands, standing there frowning while he waits for him to swallow it. Bucky loves this, loves the dance they do together. What does it say about him that sometimes he’s glad to be sick, just so Steve will take care of him?

He tips forward and rests his forehead on Steve’s belly. “Don’t go,” he whispers again.

Steve is silent and motionless for a minute, but then there are hands on the back of his neck. “You see me going anywhere?”

“Stay. Please.” He murmurs. “I promise, I won’t.”

“Won’t what?”

Bucky breathes in Steve’s clean shirt and warm skin and doesn’t answer.

They go to bed and Bucky curls around him, pushing his face into his neck. He knows it’s too much, but he’s greedy and miserable and wants to be fussed over some more. Steve lets out a breath that sounds strangely shaky, but not fearful or unhappy. He musses Bucky’s wet hair and pulls him in, and Bucky wants to thank every god that’s ever been thought of.

He doesn’t quite settle until he realizes that the air coming through the open window is cool and damp. There’s a roll of thunder and a soft, insistent gust of wind, and then fat raindrops are pounding the streets. Bucky feels Steve’s chest rise and fall and a deep sigh brushing his hair. They fall asleep pressed together, the delicious smell of sudden rain filling the room.

 

***

 

Saturday morning brings brilliant sunshine bouncing off wet streets. It’ll warm up later, but there’s still a cool breeze as the last of the clouds blow away. The sound of tires, hooves, and shoes on the slick pavement is snappy and crisp. The whole city is in a better mood after the rain.

Bucky wants to fucking die.

At least he’s an experienced drunk. He drags his ass out of bed, anticipating the urge to puke rather than waiting until it’s too late. He counts the steps to the toilet. He doesn’t make any sudden moves, walking as smoothly as he can. He opens the door, and then immediately flings himself to the ground.

“It’s a beautiful morning, huh?” Steve calls. Loudly, just to be sure Bucky can hear him over his own retching.

Bucky breathes through the pounding agony in his head, rides out another wave of nausea, and reminds himself that if he stabs Steve in the throat, there’ll be no one to pay his half of the rent.

It’s tempting anyway, though, because now Steve has the nerve to be whistling. Fucking whistling . Bucky wants to go back in time and stop himself from teaching him how. Nine-year-old Bucky was an idiot who didn’t know what a hangover was and didn’t see the potential disaster associated with teaching Steve how to make loud, high pitched noises.

“I will fucking disassemble you with my bare hands,” he groans into the toilet bowl.

Steve pokes his head into the bathroom.

“You could spare the guy who went out early and got you fresh eggs a little more courtesy than that, Buck.”

The thought of food induces another heave. Bucky whines some more.

Steve snickers and gently kicks his foot. “And there’s coffee.”

Bucky rolls his head against the toilet seat. “Thank you.” His voice sounds very loud and very quiet at the same time. Steve smiles, and everything is okay.

 

***

 

“Please tell me you’ve moved today.”

Steve grumbles something indistinct. Normally he’s got classes on Tuesdays, but they were cancelled after a pipe burst in the art building, so he’s been home working on commissions until they fix it. He’s visibly scruffy, which is pretty impressive given how little scruff Steve has to grow.

“I’ve been away for a solid nine hours and you’re in the same seat.”

“Yes, I’ve moved,” he mutters.

Bucky hums and glances over the messy table, strewn with scrap paper, references, and half-finished projects. “Have you eaten?”

Steve looks offended, which means the answer is no.

Bucky sighs and starts making them both sandwiches for dinner. There’s still some grapes and half a bottle of milk in the icebox, so he pulls those out too. He cuts even slices of bread, something quiet and satisfying in the motion. Bucky likes cooking, or what passes for it in their crummy little kitchen. He likes following the steps, anticipating a meal. He likes putting a plate in front of Steve and watching him wolf it down like he hasn’t eaten in a week. Steve is underfed more often than not because he tends to mistake hunger for another illness that can’t be cured except by waiting.

“So what’re you stuck on?”

“Hm?”

“You’re a bigger asshole than usual and I don’t see anything finished, which means you’re stuck. What’s the holdup?” He rinses a tomato and cuts it into thick slices. It’s perfect, just this side of too ripe.

Steve sits up and coughs. “Nothing.”

It’s a lie, so Bucky keeps going like Steve hasn’t said anything. “I know it’s not the shoelace ad, you were blowing through that one.”

“No, that’s done.” The chair creaks as he shifts, sitting up. “Do we still have grapes?”

“Got ‘em.” Bucky grabs the plates and hovers over the table. “Move your shit.”

Steve scoops up handfuls of papers and stacks them up without too much concern for preservation. Bucky catches a glance at a couple small booklets on top.

“Oh, that’s what’s wrong,” he teases, grinning.

“Hm?” Steve’s got no pokerface.

Bucky sets their dinner down and plucks the tijuana bibles from the stack. “What, you’re doing research on your dirty pictures now? My sage advice isn’t good enough for you?”

“Not for this one,” Steve mumbles, turning pink.

Bucky flips through them and freezes.

“Oh.” He swallows. “Yeah this is… maybe outside my area of expertise.” Not as far as it should be, but Steve doesn’t need to know that.

He can’t even make fun of him for blushing, because his own face is on fire. The cartoons aren’t any dirtier than the one’s he’s seen before - if anything, they’re tame by comparison - but these ones are all men. He clears his throat.

“Well. That’s… something.” He sits down. “Eat,” he nods at Steve’s dinner.

“Yeah,” Steve fidgets for a moment. “Thanks.”

They chew in silence for a few minutes.

“It’s like you said before, right?” Bucky says. “It’s probably not that different. Just draw stuff like you would with girls, only make the girl another man.”

Steve looks at him for a second before returning his focus to a wayward bit of tomato on his plate. “Yeah, sure.” Steve starts to say something and then changes his mind.

“What?”

“It’s just I’ve, um. I’ve got the same problem as usual with the words.” He glances up at Bucky again. His ears are red.

“Oh.”

Bucky looks back at the booklet. His stomach feels strange. The pictures aren’t really sexy, but they’re fascinating, like anything you’re not supposed to look at.

Steve was right, these things are gruesome. They’re violent and mean-spirited, and the guys in them don’t look like people any more than the girls in the other ones do, sort of empty and pathetic. They invite you to be disgusted. Is this what guys like him want? Or is this just what other people think guys like him want? That might be worse, though in a different way. All he knows is that they’re not as funny as they think they are and they’re nothing like his own fantasies.

“Well. I’ll-- I’ll think about it, I guess.” Bucky says, putting the book aside.

“It’s okay if you can’t.” Steve says, nervous. There’s something intense in his eyes.

“No, I--” He coughs again, grins stiffly. “It’s not like I’ll do any worse than you would.”

Steve slumps and rolls his eyes. “Thanks.”

“You’d be lost without me, huh?”

“Don’t push your luck.”

 

***

 

It’s still summer, but fall is starting to get impatient. The cooler air is nice and it’s early enough that Bucky can look forward to the change without thinking about the soggy freeze that comes after it.

“I still can’t believe you’re the one dragging me to a party for once.”

“Dragging?” Steve looks unimpressed. “The only place I had to drag you was away from the mirror. You look like you’re gonna bounce off the sidewalk.”

Marlene from Steve’s classes is having some kind of to-do at her place, and to Bucky’s complete shock, they’re actually going. When Steve asked him to come, he’d made a big show of checking Steve’s head for lumps until he socked him in the arm.

As it turns out, Marlene Greenbaum is one of those people who lets out a noise like an exotic bird every time she encounters someone she knows. She looks like a cartoon of an art student - a mass of frizzy black hair, thick glasses, and a bizarre outfit with so much jewelry that she’d sink like a rock if you threw her in the river. She’s disheveled in a way that has to be intentional, like she got her fill of being called pretty one day and decided to make sure it never happened again.

“Steve!” She shrieks, moving aside to let them in. “I wasn’t sure you’d come!”

“Oh, well. Here I am,” Steve nods. The apartment is a bit more beat up that theirs, but it’s also about three times the size and packed with people. “Wow, you’ve got half the art program here, huh?”

“I never understood the point of a small party,” She says. “Who’s your friend?”

Steve turns to Bucky. “Buck, this is Marlene.” He gives Bucky a look indicating that he’ll have his balls if he mentions any of the stories he’s told about her. “Marlene, this is my pal Bucky.”

“Oh, Bucky! I know all about you.”

“You do?” He blurts. He keeps being surprised that Steve mentions him to other people, though he’s not sure why. Who the hell else would Steve talk about? “Er. Yeah, Steve’s mentioned you too. Nice to meet you finally.”

“You too.” She looks between the two of them for slightly awkward moment and Bucky’s neck feels hot. “Oh! Go get some punch, it’s in the kitchen. Or wait until someone eventually dumps rum in it, it’s vile right now. Your choice,” She winks and runs off.

“Thanks,” Steve calls after her. He turns to Bucky and nods once, looking vaguely embarrassed. “So. That’s Marlene.”

“That sure is Marlene,” Bucky nods back.

They wade through the crowd and Steve gets stopped seven times between the front door and the kitchen. Bucky’s not used to being overlooked so consistently, but the novelty of seeing Steve be the popular guy at the party is so boggling that he can’t focus on anything else.

“Holy shit, Steve.”

“What?”

“You have friends.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Don’t act so shocked.”

“You always act like you’re incapable.”

“They’re not really friends, I just work with them.”

“Well, friends or not, they all like you.”

Steve waves Bucky off, but he’s smiling just the tiniest bit. Steve, smiling at a party! It’s a goddamn miracle.

Bucky finally squeezes into the kitchen for some punch while Steve’s talking to an older lady with an accent he can’t identify.

“Oh good, you’re alive after all.”

Bucky looks up. “Oh, Ollie. How ya doing?”

Ollie gives him a look that’s critical, but not unsympathetic. “I’m fine. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Bucky shuffles awkwardly and hums in agreement.

“You’re with Steve, I assume?”

Bucky frowns, and Ollie responds with a too-innocent grin. The son of a bitch knows what he’s doing. “Steve brought you, I mean.”

Bucky raises an eyebrow. “Cute. Yeah, Steve’s here. What about you, got a date?”

Ollie flushes, and isn’t that interesting. “Oh no, I just brought a… colleague.”

Bucky gives him a wolfish grin. “Another artistic type?”

“He’s in the mathematics department.”

Bucky drops his voice. “That doesn’t answer my question.”

Ollie gives him a look, which does answer his question.

“Buck, there’s fish in the bathtub.”

Bucky startles a little and turns around. Steve snuck up on him. “What?”

“Look. Fish. Tub.” Steve’s peering into the bathtub, which is splattered with about a dozen different colors of paint. Bucky leans over and realizes that yes, there are live carp drifting around inside.

“Would you look at that.”

“Hey Ollie,” Steve says offhandedly, like they’re passing each other in the hall. He doesn’t take his eyes off the fish.

Ollie nods and wanders over to look. “I’m not sure I see the point in slowly suffocating a few fish in New York tap water.”

Steve gives an exaggerated sniff. “Philistine.”

“Speaking of, have you met Marlene’s new beau?”

Steve looks up, confused. “A fella?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. I sort of had the impression there was something going on with her and--”

“There was.” Ollie raises his eyebrows significantly. “I see you’re behind on the gossip.”

“I guess so. What happened to Josie?”

Bucky’s behind on a whole lot of things. He glances back into the living room at Marlene. Is she--?

“My understanding is that there was some sort of screaming fight and a lot of tears.”

“Jeez. That’s too bad, they seemed good for each other.” Steve realizes there’s a glass of punch in his hand. “Oh. Thanks Bucky.”

Bucky nods. “What’s wrong with the new guy?”

Ollie shrugs lightly and picks at an invisible bit of lint on his sleeve. “Who said there was anything wrong with him?”

Bucky would accuse Ollie of being a rotten busybody and an even worse actor, but that would be hypocritical. Steve gives Ollie the same sharp look he gives Bucky when he knows he’s dying to blab about somebody’s business.

“Well, you’ll see. He’s a clod.” Ollie mutters. “He’s perfectly pleasant, he just has no taste to speak of. I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned out to be illiterate.”

Steve snorts. “Maybe Marlene could use ‘perfectly pleasant’ after Josie.”

“I like Josie.”

“Me too, but I’ve never met anybody more ready to get in a fight in my life.”

Bucky tries not to inhale his drink laughing. Good old Steve, one of the smartest guys he knows and still dumb as a rock. At least he’s pretty.

“Please don’t drown on the punch, Bucky, it’s not good enough to be worth that,” Ollie sighs.

Ollie pokes around in an open cabinet as though he lives here. It takes a few seconds before it even occurs to Bucky that this might be considered rude by some people. “In any case, I give it two weeks before they’re back together.”

“You think?”

Ollie finds the booze he was apparently looking for. “Oh, I’d say so.” He glances over his shoulder and finds no one watching him, so he empties half the bottle into the punch bowl. “You’ve only known her for a few months. This happens sometimes.”

“Swell,” Steve chuckles.

It’s so strange, to be standing here at a party openly gossiping about some girl’s falling out with her… what, her girlfriend? Like it’s normal, average stuff. Like they don’t send girls like her to the looney bin.

“Oh, there you are.” Bucky turns at the sound of a new voice. There’s a dark, broad-shouldered man with a sweet face and a teasing smile standing in the doorway. He might be imposing if he didn’t look so embarrassed about how much space he takes up. As it is, it looks like you could dump a whole pot of coffee on him and he’d apologize to you. Still, Ollie is no longer the best-looking guy in the room. “I thought you’d escaped.”

Ollie’s cheeks go pink again. “I wouldn’t abandon you,” he grins, looking uncharacteristically flustered. Bucky hides a smile behind his punch. “This is George Herrera, a friend from the college. George, this is Steve Rogers, he’s that upsettingly talented teacher in the room across from mine.” Steve hides a blush and Bucky puffs up with pride on his behalf. “And this is Bucky Barnes, he’s a friend of Steve’s.” He glances over. “And mine by extension, I suppose?”

Bucky nods. “Sure.” That explanation beats the alternative.

There are handshakes all around and Bucky watches Steve like a hawk. He waits for him to show some kind of surprise or discomfort, anything that suggests he’s out of his element in a kitchen full of queers, but it doesn’t happen. He’s cool as a cucumber.

“Anyway, I didn’t mean to toss you to a swarm of artists and run away. Was it awful?”

“I was defenseless.”

“Oh, poor thing.”

Steve glances at Bucky and grins. Bucky’s heart kicks in his chest. Steve’s happy. He’s happy that his queer coworker has a fella. They’re flirting in Marlene’s kitchen, and not only does Steve have a brilliant smile on his face, his first instinct is to share it with Bucky.

He plucks at Bucky’s sleeve. “Hey Buck, there’s more people you gotta meet.”

“There are?” Bucky looks at him. “Oh. Yeah, sure.” He nods at George. “Nice meeting you.”

George gives him a warm smile before his attention snaps back to Ollie. He’s got hearts in his eyes.

Steve eases his way through the crowd, Bucky close behind him. “They’re good together, huh?” he asks.

Bucky shuffles along, clearing his throat. “Yeah. Yeah I… Jeez, I could never have pictured Ollie looking so rattled,” he laughs.

“Oh yeah, he’s got it bad.” He glances back at the kitchen. “You didn’t see him mooning over him for the last month and a half. I’d’ve felt sorry for him if he wasn’t being so dumb about it.”

“How d’you mean?”

Steve nods. “You saw how George is. They could have had their shit together ages ago.”

Steve is briefly distracted waving at someone across the room. Bucky stares at him. “Yeah. They’re--” He looks back and sees the twitterpated beam on Ollie’s face. “They’re lucky, aren’t they?”

Steve looks at Bucky with something unreadable on his face. “Yeah.”

 

***

 

He starts hanging around Eddie’s again. Irv is happy to see him and he flirts with a couple guys, but he chickens out before those conversations can go anywhere. Still, it quiets the ache in his chest.

It’s strange feeling like he does with Steve so close. He doesn’t sleep too well, running through their conversations over the past few months and looking for evidence of… something. Bucky’s stupid with how much he wants him, too crazy over his long eyelashes and narrow hips to read anything clearly. Is Steve thinking about kissing Bucky too, or does Bucky just wish he was?

He pictures confessing, but all he can imagine is Steve rejecting him. The thing is, he knows how kind he’d be. He’d tell Bucky how much he cares about him, how flattered he is that of all the guys Bucky’s fucked up heart could want, it landed on him. He’d say how much he wishes he could give Bucky what he wants, and he’d mean it, because Steve loves making him happy. For all his piss and vinegar, Steve’s the gentlest guy on earth when he’s got someone’s heart in his hands. Bucky should know; that’s where his has been for as long as he can remember.

Bucky would nod and try to brush it off, act like it’s nothing but a crush that’ll go away with time. He would have a definitive ‘no,’ and maybe he could move on, but it would be like having his heart cut out with nail scissors - slow, careful, and excruciating beyond belief.

Maybe Ollie wasn’t just bullshitting when he said he was glad his best pal hit him.

 

***

 

The days are growing even shorter and there’s a hint of a chill, so they take advantage of the little bit of summer still left. They’re sprawling in the grass and getting what passes for fresh air, skimming through a couple books they’ve already read. Bucky’s been working through the Sherlock Holmes stories for about the tenth time. He’s always liked “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

“Steve?”

“Hm?”

“Do you think Holmes and Watson are supposed to be queers?”

Steve gives him a look. “Never thought about it, I guess.”

“I mean, Watson makes a big deal about how Holmes wasn’t interested in Irene Alder even though she’s a dime. And Holmes seems pretty upset when Watson gets married.”

“Sounds like you think they’re queers.” Steve’s eyes are closed and he’s smiling the way he does when he’s humoring Bucky about something and having a ball doing it.

“Plus, remember that time Watson got shot and Holmes sort of threatened to kill the guy who did it?”

Steve snorts. “If someone shot you, I’d be grouchy too.”

A tiny sparkler lights up in Bucky’s chest. He steps on it. “Yeah, but you wouldn’t tell people it was worth getting shot just to find out that I like you, which is what Watson does.”

“I already know you like me, I don’t need to get shot for that,” Steve says mildly. He frowns. “Are you saying I’m Watson?”

“I mean-”

“I’m not Watson, you drip.”

“What’s wrong with Watson?”

“He’s the sidekick!”

“He is not!” Bucky says. “They’re partners. Anyway, I like Watson, he’s a heroic gentleman. All the ladies love him.”

“See? That sounds like you, not me.”

“I’m not heroic. And girls that have the good sense to be paying attention like you just fine.”

Steve looks at him carefully. There’s something searching on his face, and Bucky feels like he’s climbed onto a chair to reach a high shelf without realizing that one leg is shorter than the others.

“You saying I should grow a moustache?”

Bucky snorts. “Maybe if you could .”

Steve kicks him a few times until Bucky throws a leg over his feet.

Steve smirks. “I guess you are like Holmes, in a way.”

Bucky smiles back. “How’s that?”

“He’s a dramatic egghead and he’s fussy about how he dresses. Sounds like someone I know.”

Bucky rolls his eyes and pokes Steve in the stomach until he squawks.

Bucky goes still for a few minutes. He feels like he’s about to dive into a pool he’s only mostly sure has water in it. “Maybe it’s just Holmes who’s queer,” he says. “I mean-- everything I said before, about him not being interested in Irene and being upset about things that happened to Watson, that’s all Holmes.”

Steve glances at him with another expression Bucky’s not sure how to interpret, and it makes him feel wobbly again. “Watson wrote sixty stories about how amazing his roommate was.” He turns away, gazing at the clear afternoon sky. “If you’re right about them, I think it went both ways.”

Bucky forces himself to look away. His heart is beating so hard his whole body seems to shake.

 

***

 

“There’s some guy here to see you.”

Bucky holds up a finger for a moment, finishing the mental math and writing it down.

“Sorry, what?”

Bobby sighs. “I said there’s a guy asking for you. Angie told me to come get you.”

“Who is it?”

“If I knew, I wouldn’t say ‘some guy.’”

Bucky walks out to the lobby.

“Hey,” Steve holds up a paper sack. “You left this.”

Bucky blinks a few times. “You came down here because I forgot my lunch?”

“Of course, his majesty must have his cheese sandwich,” Steve scoffs. “No, I’m on my way to the printer, and incidentally, I thought I’d make sure you don’t starve.”

“My hero.” Bucky opens the bag. There’s a candy bar inside that wasn’t there when he packed it this morning. He smiles and nearly comments on it before he plays back the last sentence in his head.

“Wait, the printer? I thought they didn’t have the money to pay you yet?”

“Huh?”

“For the cough drop tin?”

“Oh.” Steve flushes. “No no, that one’s still on hold. It’s, um. The other thing.”

Bucky looks at Steve’s portfolio. He looks back at Steve.

It dawns on him that Steve is carrying some of the most illegal pornography imaginable inside his briefcase while standing in Bucky’s office. He’s not sure whether to scream or start laughing hysterically.

He settles for staring at Steve’s guilty pink face for a good five seconds, then staring down at his lunch.

“Okay then.” He nods firmly. “Thanks. For, you know,” he shakes the bag a little.

“Yeah.”

“And the candy bar,” he smiles.

“Dunno what you’re talking about.”

“Get out of here.”

Steve strolls out looking pleased with himself and Bucky walks back to his desk in a distracted haze.

“Aw, look, Barnes’ wife brought him lunch.”

Bucky prickles. None of the ladies are in the room right now, so he flips Frank off, but apparently that’s not the end of it.

“Oh, did that hit a nerve?” Bobby and Frank have taken to recreationally disliking him. They don’t really suspect anything, but this line of bullying will do as well as anything else.

He lands in his chair and drops the sack into its usual drawer without responding, but his spine feels tight.

“I’m just saying,” Frank needles. “He looks like the type.”

“What type?” Bucky snaps, immediately kicking himself for taking the bait.

“Didn’t you say he was some kind of artsy intellectual?” Frank pretends to frown thoughtfully, a cruel gleam in his eyes. “Those shrimpy little guys that read a lot are usually fairies.”

Bucky’s suddenly melting with rage, the edges of his vision white and hazy. He hates his job. He hates this office full of mean, petty, heartless people. He hates Bobby and Frank for being so slimy and shallow. He hates Angela for always seeing the worst in everyone, no matter what they do. He hates that his boss gets away with treating everyone like shit and never does a damn bit of work. He hates that everyone here seems to go through life with no idea how stupid and small-minded they are, because he shouldn’t have to be the only asshole in the room who’s drowning in self-doubt and second thoughts.

“If everyone smarter than you was a queer, the human race woulda died out already,” he snarls. “You know, if it pisses you off so much seeing somebody be smart and talented and nice enough to bring me my fucking sandwich when I leave it on the counter, maybe that’s not because there’s anything wrong with Steve. Maybe it just eats you up knowing you’re not worth the watered down beer and stale bar nuts it takes to keep your sorry ass alive.”

Bucky’s brain catches up to his mouth. Ah, shit.

Frank looks startled, less because the retort is hurtful and more because it’s fucking weird and too intense for what the situation warrants. Bucky realizes he’s gone past an acceptable degree of ribbing and he watches as Frank’s face shifts from surprise to a nasty, knowing satisfaction.

Bucky goes back to cooking the books. Crunching numbers calms him down enough that he can panic properly. Frank doesn’t know anything, but after that little display, he knows there’s something to know. Bucky breathes and stares at the record book full of numbers that shouldn’t be possible, and he slowly realizes that he doesn’t care.

Sure, he’s terrified. But he’s only terrified that he’ll lose his job, that he’ll get beat to shit or get arrested. For the first time in his life, he’s not terrified that he’ll deserve it. He sits there sweating and watching himself work as though someone else is holding the pen, drugged with a nauseous stew of fear and relief and worry and righteous anger, but even in all that mess, he finds he’s no longer ashamed.

Thank god he’s not like them. He’ll take his lumps if he has to, because fuck Frank, and fuck everyone else too.

 

***

 

Steve is slouched in the tub when he gets home, neck against the edge and knees bent. He looks like he’s been there for a while. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Bucky nods. He fiddles with the mail and avoids looking at Steve for more than a second or two. Sometimes it hurts to have him sitting there all exposed and soft. “How’d the printer go?”

“All right,” Steve nods.

“But?”

“Huh?”

“I heard a ‘but’ in that ‘all right.’”

“Oh, no. It was fine.” He shrugs. “Glad to be done with it. Cashed the check on the way home, so that’s the next month’s rent and then some.”

Bucky’s eyebrows fly up. “Seriously?”

“Yeah."

“Shit. Why so much?”

Steve is quiet for a moment. “Apparently no one else was willing to draw that one.”

Bucky frowns. “They’ll draw Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse fucking, but two fellas is too much, huh?”

Steve wrinkles his nose. “Tell me you made that up.”

“I wish.”

He sighs and picks at his nails. “No accounting for taste, I guess.”

Bucky looks at him for a long moment. Steve gets like this sometimes when he’s out of steam, sort of quiet and heartsick.

“Hey, you know what,” Bucky chirps, “it’s been a while since we saw a movie. They’re playing that one we missed last spring again, about the pilot?”

Steve hums vaguely.

“We oughtta go see that.”

“If you want.”

“Maybe we should get something to eat. You hungry? I could eat.”

Steve smiles a little and raises an eyebrow at Bucky. “Jesus, all right, I can take a hint.”

“What?”

“I’ll stop moping and let you cheer me up,” he grumbles, like it’s a chore.

Bucky scoffs. “Oh, well, that’s awfully charitable of you.”

“It is, actually, since it’s my commission money we’ll be spending.”

“I mean, now that you mention it.”

Steve hoists himself out of the tub and pulls the stopper. He reaches for the cabinet handle where he normally hangs up a towel and glares at it like it insulted his ma when he realizes he forgot to do that. Bucky smiles and opens the dented airing cupboard crammed in the corner of the kitchen.

“Here you go, genius,” he says, and it sounds softer than he thought it would. He comes up behind him and tosses the towel over his head. Steve makes a surprised noise like he’s about to start bitching or throwing elbows, but he stills when Bucky starts drying his hair, pushing firmly enough to wobble him. Bucky slides the towel down over his neck, squeezing his shoulders. Steve doesn’t say anything, just stands there and lets him do it.

Okay, that’s… that’s enough.

“I’m gonna go get a different shirt.” Bucky murmurs. He pats his shoulder one last time and takes his hands away.

Steve glances back at him, almost shy. “Yeah.” His eyelashes look even longer when they’re damp. He pulls the towel off his shoulders and starts drying the rest of him. Bucky swallows the ache in his throat and doesn’t watch.

He stands in the bedroom and breathes slowly, staring into the wardrobe. His clothes on one side; Steve’s on the other.

The floorboards creak as Steve pads into the bedroom. Bucky turns around.

Steve is just standing in the doorway looking at him, towel around his hips. There’s a question on his face, and Bucky wishes he was smarter so he could know what it is without asking.

“So,” Bucky says, trying to sound cheerful, “What are we thinking for dinner? How sharp should I look?”

Steve shrugs. He doesn’t roll his eyes or make a crack about how he oughtta look a lot better than his dumb face allows, which is what Bucky’s expecting. He just leans against the doorframe a little.

“I dunno, anything you want is fine.”

Bucky slumps. “Hey, come on, kid. I’m doing my best here.”

Steve smiles sadly and shakes his head a little, looking at the floor. “Sorry, I know.”

Bucky closes the wardrobe. “Seriously, what the hell happened today? You said the printer went fine. You got paid way more than you usually do.” He makes a show of giving Steve a once-over. “Nobody kicked your ass on the way home.”

Steve’s still looking at his feet. “Nothing, Buck, it’s not… you know how I get low sometimes, I’ll snap out of it.”

“Sure.” He sighs. “Come on, you want something cheap and greasy, or do you wanna go to Balotelli’s or something?” He opens the wardrobe again and pulls out something clean. “We could always go get some Chinese food, I know you like that.”

“There’s nothing dirty about it, is all.”

Bucky frowns. “I mean, that’s true, I think Mrs. Liu mops that goddamn floor about three times a day--”

“No, I mean the--” Steve coughs. “The other thing.”

He’s quiet for a moment too long trying to figure what Steve’s talking about. Steve must take it for disagreement, because his face twists into an angry pout. “It’s not. Or at least not more than the stuff with girls in it.”

“Oh. The… oh.” He catches up and nods a little too quickly. “Right.”

Steve looks tense and hurt, like Bucky’s disappointed him somehow.

“Why shouldn’t anyone else want to draw it? Why should that be something they pay extra for? There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Bucky feels the pieces snap together. The world doesn’t deserve this stupid sweetheart of a guy.

“Steve,” he sighs, “just consider the extra money a consolation prize for putting up with people who think there is, yeah?”

Steve’s anger drains. His shoulders slump and he looks at his feet. His voice is quiet and bitter when he speaks.

“As if that were enough.”

It’s like a punch in the gut. Bucky hears that question he couldn’t read before, loud and clear. Can I be honest with you?

And that’s what does it, that’s what always breaks him in the end; Steve grudgingly showing his sore spots and asking Bucky to make them better. He feels like he might float right through the ceiling because dear god, he can’t think of any bruise he’d rather kiss.

“I know, Stevie.”

“Do you?” he croaks.

He takes a deep breath. “Yeah. I really do.”

Steve’s shoulders rise and fall, slow and heavy. Bucky doesn’t notice himself moving, but then he’s standing inches away with those pretty pink lips right there, so kissable he thinks he must have dreamed them. Steve looks up at him with ravenous eyes, and oh .

Jesus, he could absolutely kick his own ass for missing it. It was there the whole time.

Steve hesitantly rests his hands on Bucky’s chest and Bucky’s heart beats thank you, thank you, thank you under his palms, a whole ticker-tape parade marching through his ribcage. He doesn’t even think to suppress the moan that tears out of him when their lips meet.

Oh god, he’s kissing Steve. He bites just a little, just gently, and Steve shivers. He slips his arms around Bucky’s waist and clings, growling and teasing with his tongue. Bucky’s pretty sure Steve’s only kissed people who were too polite to tell him if he did it wrong, but he’s so fucking dizzy with relief it feels like the best kiss he’s ever had. He feels frantic. He wants this to go on forever, but he can’t stand to wait for anything either.

He presses Steve against the door jamb and cradles his head in his hands, turning his face to a better angle. Steve’s chest is heaving and Bucky worries that he’s crushing him, but Steve pulls him even closer, clutching him in a bruising squeeze. He pulls away and just looks at him for a second, because he can’t get his head around the idea that this is real. It is real, though, and it’s really Steve, eyes roving over Bucky’s face and wet lips parted.  He looks wrecked. Over Bucky . God, how the fuck did he miss it?

“Sweetheart,” he hears himself sigh, and Steve melts. He slides his hands down Steve’s bare shoulders, wrapping his arms around him and kissing his ear, his jaw, his neck. There are goosebumps on Steve’s arms and his breathing is ragged. He smells so good up close, all clean and soft, hair still damp from the bath. Steve lets the towel drop to the floor and pulls away to rest his forehead against Bucky’s.

Bucky is fully clothed, a whole head taller, and 60 pounds heavier than Steve. Steve is pressed against him, naked and vulnerable, and Bucky feels totally helpless.

Steve’s voice rumbles in his ear, rough and deep and too big for his skinny bones. “Gonna take me to bed, honey?”

He swears quietly in a shaky, weak breath and leans into Steve’s neck, kissing at his ear again, real soft. “God, yes.”

He slides his hands under Steve’s ass to lift him and Steve gasps and wraps his legs around his waist. Bucky can feel his cock pressed against him through his pants, hips moving in tiny thrusts. Steve tugs his hair and he feels like he’s been hit by lightning, so hard he can barely see straight. He drops him on the lumpy mattress and crawls on top of him, pressing him into the unmade sheets and groaning softly.

“Steve, Steve,” he sighs. “Oh god, baby.”

“I got you,” Steve says, petting his neck and holding him like Bucky’s the blushing virgin and he’s the big man with all the worldly experience. Bucky’s such a mess he doesn’t question it, rolling onto his back when Steve pushes him and jumping to obey when Steve tells him to take off his clothes. He feels like he can’t move fast enough.

Steve looks at Bucky’s underwear like he might tear it off with his teeth if Bucky doesn’t get a move on. Bucky composes himself enough to pause and grin, roll his hips a little, try to get him flustered.

“See something you like, Stevie?”

Steve leans down to kiss him again and mumbles against his lips. “Every time I look at you, Buck.”

It’s the dumbest line he’s ever heard and it turns him to mush all over again.

“Come on, get out of these.” Steve starts rubbing him through his shorts while he’s distracted, and suddenly the situation is a hell of a lot more urgent. He swears and pleads and shuffles them off. Steve murmurs praise and strokes his hair and Bucky flushes with pride. He did what Steve said. He was good.

He grabs Steve’s hips and shifts underneath him, wrapping a leg around him so they’re pressed together. He can’t get close enough, but having his bare skin against Steve’s is so good he’s in real danger of never leaving this bed. Steve shudders and starts moving, rolling his hips hard against Bucky’s, sending hot sparks flying in his gut. Bucky whines and bites his lip to keep from running his mouth. There are plenty of things he wants to say, but they deserve to be said when he’s not hard.

He curls up to meet Steve’s lips again and Steve groans into his mouth and thrusts harder. Bucky pulls him down so that he’s lying on his chest, tilts his head so they can kiss deep and slow. He plants his feet and rocks up against him, stroking his back and running his fingers through his hair.

Steve slips a hand down Bucky’s chest and over his hip, grabs at the soft spot where the meat of his ass meets the inside of his thigh, and Bucky is suddenly caught right on the edge, breath rushing out of him in a panicked moan. Steve bites at his throat and grinds down a little more, and that’s all Bucky can take. He claps a hand over his own mouth and comes, blind with too much good feeling.

When he comes to his senses he’s gasping for breath and clinging to Steve, every muscle and bone singing. Steve’s body is tense and hot against him, waiting.

Bucky’s heart flips when he realizes what he wants to do next. He’s thought about it a lot.

“Come on, doll,” he murmurs, petting the back of Steve’s neck and rolling them over. He kisses him slowly until Steve’s hips are twitching and thrusting.

“Bucky…” he whines.

“Shh,” Bucky sighs, kissing down his neck and running his thumbs over his nipples. Steve is blotchy red from his cheeks to his belly, chest heaving with contained moans. Bucky’s having fun teasing him, but he also needs a minute to build up some courage.

“Jesus Christ, do you want me to beg?”

That would be fun. Maybe later. He smiles against Steve’s throat, leaving one more light kiss before he sits up and slides off the bed, knees on the floor and elbows on the mattress.

Steve lifts his head to look at him, bewildered until Bucky leans down and pushes his thighs apart to kiss the soft skin on the inside.

“Oh, god, that’s…” Steve’s gravelly voice breaks, and Bucky is pretty sure he’s never been happier in his entire life than he is right now.

He takes a breath and carefully slides his mouth over Steve’s cock and Steve gasps like he’s drowning. It feels bigger than it looks, the skin hot and salty on his tongue. Bucky is making it up as he goes, but he must be doing it right, because Steve yelps and squirms and digs his hands into Bucky’s hair like he means to tear it clean out of his head, barely holding his hips steady enough to keep from choking him. Bucky sucks a little harder and Steve jolts like he’s been punched, arching his back and shaking as he comes. Bucky pulls away with a cough. He might need to practice that part.

“Oh my god. Bucky,” Steve sighs. His eyes are dazed and glassy. “C’mere.”

Bucky wipes his mouth and crawls back on top of him. He wants to lick the sweat from his collarbone.

“Buck, you’re… oh god, you’re so good, honey.”

Bucky’s dick perks up a little. Steve feels it and laughs.

“Jesus, give me a minute.”

Bucky blushes. “Sorry.”

“Stop it,” he grins, not teasing, just happy. “That get you going? Me sweet-talking you?”

“Shut up.”

“You’re so good to me, sweetheart,” he murmurs.

Bucky hides his face in Steve’s neck and presses his lips along his throat. “Somebody oughtta be.”

“Fuck,” Steve sighs, sounding almost upset. “I love you. I’m fucking crazy about you. Did you know that?”

Bucky’s throat feels tight. “Nope, brand new concept,” he whispers. “Say it again, so I remember.”

Steve puts his fingers under Bucky’s chin, tilts his head up to look him in the eye. It turns him to jelly. “I love you.”

Bucky swallows. “I love you too.”

Never in a million years could Bucky have imagined the look on Steve’s face right now. “You better, you asshole.”

 

***

 

Steve tends to wear out quick, but he makes up for it with stunning enthusiasm, dropping what he’s doing the second Bucky kisses him for just a little bit too long. Bucky struggles not to abuse his new power and mostly fails. Dragging himself out of bed to go to work is even more miserable now that he’s got permission to paw at Steve anytime he feels like it.

“Tell ‘em you’re sick,” Steve breathes before kissing him again.

Bucky hums against his lips “Mmm. They won’t care.”

“I think you’re probably running a fever. You better stay home,” he runs his nails down Bucky’s stomach, making him gasp and squirm, “so I can take care of you.”

Bucky laughs a little. “That sounds good.”

“So don’t go.”

“I have to, baby. Gotta bring home the bacon.”

Steve pinches Bucky’s ass. “Only bacon I care about.”

Bucky snorts. “Terrible line.”

“Learned from a professional.”

“Bullshit you did, it doesn’t even make sense.”

“Sure it does.”

“Who calls someone’s ass bacon?”

“Mmm, I dunno, there are… sayings. Whatcha call ‘em. Idioms.”

“Probably sacreligious to compare me to pork.”

Steve snorts. “Don’t pretend you’re good at being Jewish.”

“I’m great at being Jewish.”

“You keep expecting me to forget about that time you cooked latkes in bacon grease, but it’s not gonna happen.”

“You liked ‘em.”

“They were fucking delicious, but that’s not the point.”

Bucky groans and rolls onto his back, stretching and dragging himself away from Steve. “I gotta get up, sweetheart.”

“Yeah,” Steve sighs. “Make it through another day without putting Frank’s lights out and I’ll blow you when you get home.”

“You’ll blow me anyway.”

“Not with that attitude I won’t.”

He finally peels himself out of bed and gets dressed, though Steve makes no effort to help him. The little shit just lies there, naked and squirming around half hard like he still thinks he might tempt Bucky to come back, but Bucky is a responsible goddamn adult and eventually escapes the apartment.

The walk to work would be pleasant if it weren’t for the destination. It’s sunny and just slightly cold - not enough for Bucky to need a jacket, but enough for him to start nagging Steve about wearing one. They’ve been keeping the windows shut at night and closing the curtains so they can fool around without anyone seeing. It should scare him, this thing with Steve, but it doesn’t. He walks around feeling like he’s full of champagne bubbles, like he’s got good news and can’t wait to tell someone.

He takes a breath before he walks into the building. It’s gonna be a good day. He won’t get in a fight with Frank, he’ll be nice to Angie, he won’t get bent out of shape if his boss yells at him, and at the end of the day, he’ll go home and work Steve over so good he’ll stop scowling for an hour or two.

When he reaches the top of the stairs, the hallway out in front of the office is packed. Everyone’s milling around looking worried, peering into the darkened windows and rattling the doorknob with no success.

Bucky frowns. “Somebody lose the key again?”

Angela sighs like she’s answered that question too many times this morning. “No, I’ve got it right here. It won’t open.”

“What do you mean it won’t open?”

“I mean, it won’t open!”

“It opened yesterday.”

“Oh gee, really?”

“Want me to try it?”

“I can turn a key, Bucky.”

He shrugs. “Maybe it broke.” He rattles the handle. “D’you think maybe somebody tried to pick it and something got stuck?”

She huffs. “You’ve been reading too many crime novels.”

“Well, that’s true.” He peers into the lock. He’s never looked at it too closely before, so he’s not sure what he’s looking for now.

“Huh. That’s odd.”

“What’s odd?”

There’s a rough spot on the metal, sharp and fresh. That doesn’t sit right.

“When was the last time the lock got changed?”

Angela frowns. “What do you mean? Never.”

“Never?”

“Not that I know of.”

“So as long as the company’s been here, we’ve had the same lock, same set of keys, yeah?”

She shrugs. “They haven’t changed it since I started, that’s for sure.”

He gently plucks the keys from her hand. They’re dented and dirty, probably at least a decade old.

“Angie, this lock is brand new.”

She leans down to look, and Bucky runs a finger over the burr. “See?”

Her shoulders slump and she rolls her eyes. “Typical. No one tells me anything. Would it have been so difficult to give me the right keys or tell me the locksmith was coming? No. But of course, the receptionist always has to find everything out herself.”

Bucky frowns. “I’m not sure…”

There’s a commotion at the end of the hall. Two men in suits and a couple beat cops are making their way toward the crowd.

“Morning folks. Maybe not a good one, though. You all work here?”

Everyone murmurs and nods.

“That’s too bad.”

“What’s going on?” Angie asks.

He sighs. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but I’m afraid none of you have a job anymore. The company is being liquidated.”

“Liquidated?” Bobby squawks. “What the hell for?”

“We’ve got good reason to believe the owner of this corporation has been appropriating company funds for his own use for the last decade. The business is bankrupt. He’s been swindling your clients for years, folks.”

Bucky’s coworkers probably sound upset right now. Bucky wouldn’t know, because he can’t hear them over the choir of angels that’s just started singing.

He starts laughing. Everyone looks at him like he’s nuts, but he can’t stop.

“That was what was wrong with the goddamn bank records,” he crows. “God! I knew those couldn’t be right! I thought I was losing my mind.”

The detective looks at him. “Bank records?”

Bucky’s still giggling like a fool. “Yeah, that filing cabinet along the east wall? Enjoy that, buddy. Fascinating, completely impossible shit.”

He realizes there’s not a single damn thing he needs to keep from his desk, so he wanders down the hall, practically skipping. He can feel half the room staring at him like he’s lost his marbles, but he couldn’t care less if he tried. He never has to see the inside of this dump again.

 

***

 

Steve looks up from his mess, brow furrowed as usual. “The hell are you doing home?”

Bucky grins. “Well, Stevie, you’ll be proud of me. I didn’t punch Frank today.”

“No shit, you didn’t have time. What’s going on?”

“My fucking do-nothing asshole boss is a criminal. Company’s gone.”

Steve blinks a few times. “What?”

“They shut the place down because he was stealing money. Has been for years and years.”

Steve stares at him for a few seconds, which is understandable, because this whole situation is bizarre. “Uh. Wow. You’re not in any trouble, are you?”

“What? No, I’m fine. Nothing to do with me, this shit got started when I still had a paper route.”

“So you’re… fired?”

“Something like that. More like my job doesn’t exist anymore.” He beams. “My horrible fucking job doesn’t exist because my boss is a fraud.”

“Huh.” Steve nods. “Poor guy, you look real broken up about it.”

“Oh yeah, I’m miserable.”

“I can tell.” He sighs. Something about the set of his shoulders changes, and it’s so small, but it’s enough to make Bucky’s mouth go dry. “Guess I’ll have to cheer you up, huh?”

Bucky pouts. “Well, yeah, how else will I recover?”

 

***

 

Bucky stretches and yawns. He never wants to put on clothes again.

Steve yawns in response. “Mm. Not to put a dark cloud in this silver lining, but it is actually bad that you’re unemployed.”

Bucky sighs. “Yeah, I know.” The reality of the situation is sinking in. “I’m sure I’ll find something soon, I can do… stuff.”

“Ooh, stuff. Impressive.”

“We’re okay for now, right?”

Steve nods, tucking himself into Bucky’s side. “Yeah, we’re all right. Teaching doesn’t pay much, but it pays steady.”

Bucky hums. “Jesus. Where would we be without Ollie.”

“Poorer.”

“Among other things.”

“Mm?”

Bucky shakes his head and pulls Steve closer, kisses the top of his head. His hair is a mess and could use a wash.

Steve lets out a long breath, absently running a finger around one of Bucky’s nipples. “I should get back to work.”

Bucky grumbles and Steve smiles a little against his chest.

“What’re you working on?”

“Lesson plan. Kind of.”

“Mm?”

“Fuckin’ model cancelled.”

“Get another one?”

“Yeah, easier said than done. You’d almost think being naked in a room full of strangers was unappealing to most people.”

Bucky snorts. “If I can do it, probably anyone can. Hardest part’s staying still.”

“The times you sat for me don’t count. Emphasis on ‘room full of strangers.’”

“That’s not nearly as bad, are you kidding me?”

Steve lifts his head to look at him like he’s out of his mind. “How is it harder to have thirty people you don’t know staring at you with your ass out than to sit on your own sofa with one guy you’ve known your whole life?”

Bucky fidgets. He debates making a joke instead of answering.

“I mean. I don’t care if they like what they see.”

Steve’s face softens. “Oh.”

Bucky shrugs a little, like it’s not important.

Steve settles down again, resting his head on Bucky’s shoulder. They stay like that for a minute or two.

“That’s pretty stupid, Buck.”

“Hey.”

Steve smiles again, softer this time. “You know, one time I told my mom I wished I looked like you.”

Bucky looks down at him and laughs a little. “No shit?”

“Yeah.”

“When was this?”

“Eh, I think I must’ve been about 13?”

Now it’s Bucky’s turn to look at Steve like he’s an idiot. “So, when I was 14?”

“Yeah.”

“The absolute worst I have ever looked in my life?”

“Mm. She asked why I said that and I--” Steve snickers at himself. “I said you looked like a movie star.”

Bucky absolutely can’t deal with that.

“Okay, it’s not that funny.”

“Jesus Christ,” he wheezes, “Did she laugh?”

“Amazingly, no.”

“Fuck. The Oscar goes to Sarah Rogers.”

Steve’s laughing too. “She had a lotta practice.” He sighs. “Anyway. I--” he shakes his head a little. “I like it. You, I mean. Always.”

Bucky swallows hard. “Yeah.”

“Why d’you think I’m always bothering you to sit for me?”

He grins. “Oh, I see.”

“What?”

“Here I thought I was advancing great art, but turns out somebody just wanted to see the goods.”

“It was both!”

Bucky smirks. “Baby, if you wanted to take a good look at my dick, you could have just said so.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “I meant I wanted to draw you because I was crazy in love with you, but fine, make it about your dick.”

“You sure it wasn’t about my dick?”

“No!” Steve has the nerve to look offended. “I mean… okay, but only a little.”

Bucky giggles. “Sure, honey.”

Steve sighs and runs his hand over Bucky’s stomach, trailing his fingers through the hair below his navel.

“I should really get up.”

“Five more minutes,” Bucky mumbles, petting Steve’s back in an effort to make it more than that.

“Still gotta figure out what I’m doing tomorrow.”

Bucky stares at the cracks in the ceiling and shrugs. “I could always do it.”

Steve frowns. “Do what?”

“Sit for your class.”

“What? No!” Steve looks embarrassed. “You don’t have to do that.”

“I know I don’t have to; I’m offering to.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m unemployed and it’ll make you quit looking worried.”

“Bucky…”

“Come on, it’ll be no big deal. Problem solved.”

He looks guilty. “You’re sure?”

“Absolutely,” he grins. “You got some good striptease music ready for me, or do I gotta bring my own?”

Steve flops on top of him and buries his face in his neck. “Thank you.”

 

***

 

They stand chest to chest, nearly crushed by strangers in the humid subway car. They hang on the straps and don’t talk. Bucky’s whole body is aware of Steve. It’s a comfortable silence, but he wishes he could put his arms around him.

They set up the classroom with easels arranged in a circle and Steve rolls a platform to the center of the room. He goes to the storage room a few doors over and Bucky hears something fall, followed by a string of creative profanity.

“You need a hand?”

“No, I can’t find--” Steve audibly shakes his head. “Is Ollie here?”

Bucky knocks on the door across from Steve’s and pokes his head inside. Ollie’s doing the same thing they are, shirtsleeves rolled up as he moves easels around the room.

“Oh, Bucky!”

“Hey.”

“What brings you here?”

“Helping Steve with some stuff.” He turns around and shouts down the hall. “Yeah, he’s here, whaddya want?”

“Does he have the good chair?”

“What does that mean?”

“Just ask him!”

Ollie rolls his eyes. “Why do New Yorkers do this? Are you deafened by the constant street noise, is that why you’re always shouting at each other?”

Bucky shrugs.

“I don’t have it, Ruth does,” Ollie calls, walking toward the storage room.

“Ruth? The hell does she need it for?”

“She didn’t say. You’re welcome to go ask for it, I suppose.”

There’s a pointed silence. “I’m good.” He pokes his head out and sighs. “Buck, you mind standing?”

“I don’t care.”

Ollie looks him over. “Standing?”

“Yeah, for Steve’s class.”

He looks between the two of them and his eyes widen slightly. He smiles. “Lucky class.”

“Damn right,” Bucky nods.

“What happened to Gene?”

“Says his grandmother died.”

“Oh no, the other one too?”

Steve finally picks his way out carrying some drop cloths and a few flat cushions. “This is grandmother number four. My sympathy is limited.”

Steve wanders back into the classroom, leaving Bucky standing next to Ollie.

“‘I can’t tell him, Ollie, you don’t understand, Ollie, stop being flippant,’” Ollie simpers.

“Hey, fuck you.”

“You could have listened to me, but no.”

“If you knew he was--” Bucky gestures instead of finishing the sentence, “Why’d you let me go through all that?”

“I do enough for you simpletons without having your conversations for you. Do you need help with your shoelaces as well? Maybe your buttons?”

“Okay, okay, I’m hopelessly incompetent and embarrassing, got it.” He tries to glare and ends up laughing. “Jesus Christ.”

Ollie smiles fondly. “Aren’t we all.”

There’s some more shuffling around in the classroom before Steve pokes his head out. “You fellas are having too much fun out here.”

Bucky looks Steve for a moment, then at Ollie, and then back at Steve. Now there’s an idea.

“Steve, let’s go out tomorrow night, yeah? I know a place.”

“Oh,” Steve frowns, “I-- sure?”

He turns to Ollie. “You should come, bring George.”

“Bring him where?” Steve looks lost. Ollie doesn’t.

“Eddie’s,” Ollie grins. “You’ll like it.”

 

***

 

He's not about to admit that Steve was right. Bucky’s not shy; god knows he’s spent plenty of time in the YMCA locker room without feeling self-conscious, but there are girls in Steve’s class. He’s been naked in front of women, but he’s no longer kidding himself that he was ever easy about it.

He distracts himself with Steve. Watching him work makes Bucky glow. Nobody ever sees it at first blush, but authority suits Steve. All his prickly, defensive bullshit melts into quiet self-assurance when people are looking up to him. He walks around the room, leaning over shoulders and making suggestions. He has a knack for correcting people in a way that doesn’t sound like criticism, which is a skill Bucky wishes he’d apply to conversations that currently get him into bar fights.

“Hold still, Buck,” Steve says. There’s a smile in his voice.

Bucky raises an eyebrow. He is standing still, and Steve should try it himself sometime if he wants to bitch.

He tunes out the ache in his limbs and watches the students work. It’s almost funny how indifferent they are. Sure, they stare, but he might as well be a bowl of apples as far as they’re concerned.

A few minutes later, Steve calls time on the pose and asks everyone to flip their drawing boards.

“Here,” Steve hands him a frayed, paint-splattered kimono. “It’s clean.” He puts it on, and his stomach feels knotted and warm as he sits on his heels draped in silk. Everyone props up their boards, a few dozen charcoal likenesses surrounding him. Most people didn’t have time to draw his whole body - some drawings are faceless, some armless, quite a few are dickless (now he knows who the prudes are). The class goes around and critiques each one. Steve finds room for improvement in every drawing, but he finds something good in all of them, too. It’s like watching a magic show, seeing him like this.

“You’re all doing a fantastic job,” Steve smiles. “On the whole, I’d say my biggest criticism is a slight lack of realism.” A few people frown.

“You should all be making Bucky significantly uglier, because-- ow!” Bucky kicks Steve in the leg and the class giggles.

“All right, all right, let’s do another one.”

 

***

 

Bucky wanders among the easels wrapped in the kimono while the class takes a ten minute break, his bare feet cool on the gritty floor.

There’s one he likes over near the windows. It doesn’t really look like him, but it’s beautiful anyway.

“Jo is something, huh?”

Marlene appears holding a little cup of water. Her fingers are black and smearing against the waxed paper.

“Yeah, this is good.” He thinks for a second. “Who?”

“It’s Jo’s. She’s a friend of mine.”

He blinks. “Josie?”

“Oh, you know her?”

“Not personally.” He schools his face. “Steve’s mentioned her. Ollie too.”

They look at each other for a beat too long. Bucky’s nearly gotten used to looking at another guy and knowing that they both know, but it’s kind of funny having that conversation with Marlene.

“So how’d you end up with this gig?” Marlene asks airily. “I thought you had some buttoned-up office job.”

“Oh,” he shrugs. “The company went under.”

“Jeez. Well, that’s the times, I guess.”

“Seems that way.” He’s bored with telling the story of what actually happened, so he skips it. “Anyway, I don’t have much else going on, so here I am.”

She grins. “Pretty drastic change.”

He smiles back. “Pretty drastic improvement.”

“I know what you mean.” She crumples her cup and tosses it into a trash can a few feet away. “I tried being a secretary for a while. Just about lost my mind it was so boring.”

Bucky hums.

“And ever since I quit, my aunt and uncle have been bugging me to work at their grocery store. They’ve been running that damn place since Methuselah was a baby, I swear. I’m sort of sentimental about it, but not nearly sentimental enough to go work there.” She rolls her eyes. “I mean, I get it, they’re not getting any younger. But I know myself, I’d bankrupt the place in a week. That sort of thing’s just not for me.”

Bucky thinks it must be awfully nice to to declare a paying job “just not for me,” but that thought is fueled by envy more than anything else, so he keeps his mouth shut.

“I wouldn’t be much help hauling boxes, either. That’s the real problem, I think. My uncle says he can do all the stock himself, but I don't buy it.” She sighs. “Anyway, like I said, it’s not my type of thing.”

“Sounds like an okay job to me.”

She snorts. “I guess anything’s an okay job after being stuck in an office.”

“I shouldn’t’ve hated it so much, really, the pay was all right. But the people, ugh.” He grimaces. “And I got sick of being chained to a desk. Honestly, I’d love to haul boxes around all day. Sounds great.”

She hums, then looks at him for a long moment. “Huh.”

“What?”

She shrugs. “Maybe you should do it.”

“Do what?”

“Go work at the store.”

He blinks dumbly. “You mean work for your aunt and uncle?”

“Sure, why not?” She pokes his shoulder. “You look like a big strong fella. You okay with numbers?”

“Yeah, definitely, I’m-- sorry, don’t they have some other guy in the family that needs a job? A kid from the neighborhood?”

“Nah, everybody else is booked. And I dunno about the neighborhood kids, but they haven’t asked any of them.”

He stares at her for a second. She doesn’t look like she’s kidding. “Are you serious?”

“Sure, maybe it’ll get ‘em off my back.” She wipes her hands on her smock and tears a scrap of butcher paper off the roll. “You look pretty square when you’ve got your pants on, I’m sure they’ll love you. Got a last name, Bucky?”

“Barnes. And my first name is James, actually.”

“Yeesh, you should’ve stuck with that.”

“Hey, Steve gave me the stupid nickname, blame him.”

She snorts. “You’re the one that kept it.” She hands him the paper to write down his information.

Steve comes back into the room. “Okay, let’s get going.” Bucky smiles without thinking and starts moving back to the center of the room.

“His master’s voice,” Marlene laughs. Bucky startles a little, not sure of her tone.

“Don’t worry,” she says. A short, freckled woman with a man’s haircut strides toward them and Marlene turns to mush. “I know the feeling.”

 

***

 

The room whispers with the sound of paper flipping over, the shuffle of feet, and the scrape of charcoal.

Bucky slides out of the kimono and stands on the platform.

“Here, this way.”

Steve turns him to face the people who were behind him for the first pose. There are moments when he feels kind of shy, because a few of these people are folks he recognizes from Marlene’s party. They’re just as unconcerned as the rest of the class, though, so he gives the tightness in his chest permission to leave. It’s relaxing, almost, like sitting in Eddie’s. He’s exposed, but no one particularly gives a shit.

“Put your weight on this side,” Steve murmurs. He touches Bucky’s hip, just barely. “Good. And turn your foot… yeah.”

Bucky’s filled with a strange, pleasant warmth. He likes this. He likes that Steve brought him here to be arranged to his liking and looked at. There’s something satisfying about being here as something that belongs to Steve, like a favorite possession he’s showing off. He’s dimly aware that it’s a weird thought, but he doesn’t want to spoil the feeling by criticizing it.

Steve smiles. “Perfect. Hold still.”

He does. He holds still and watches this little world revolve around him and Steve, the quiet of the classroom loud enough to drown his discomfort and self-doubt. He feels all sugary soft, like fresh cotton candy. When Steve meets his eye, he can see he’s not the only one.

 

***

 

The subway ride home feels three times longer than usual and the door of the apartment is barely shut before Steve slams him against it. Bucky can’t get enough air and parts of him are burning to ash. He presses his hands to Steve’s rib cage and rolls his hips, groaning when Steve grabs his ass and bites his lip hard enough to hurt.

“You’re a very distracting model,” Steve growls.

Bucky shudders. “You’re a pretty fucking distracting teacher. You’re…” He swallows hard. “I like watching you.”

“Watching me teach?”

“Watching you be in charge.”

He can feel a shudder ripple through Steve’s body. “Is that right?”

He slowly undoes Bucky’s belt and pops open his fly. Bucky whines.

“You can watch me be in charge all you like, sweetheart.”

Bucky clings tighter and kisses hard enough to tilt Steve's head back, rubbing against the hand on his fly.

It takes them ages to actually make it to the bed, losing clothing as they go and bruising their shins against furniture. They sprawl on the mattress and Bucky starts to shimmy down to get Steve in his mouth, kissing everything he can reach on the way, but he stops when Steve grabs his shoulder. “Wait,” he gasps.

Bucky stares at him and Steve just breathes, looking unsure. He’s already blushing down to his belly.

“Whatever you’re about to ask for, yes,” Bucky says.

He sits up and tugs Bucky toward him by his hair, kissing him sweetly. “You might change your mind,” he murmurs.

“Yes please.”

Steve rolls his eyes and kisses him again, softer this time. He slides his hands down to Bucky’s ass and squeezes hard.

He groans and pleads under his breath.

“I was just thinking,” Steve sighs between kisses, “if you want, we could… you know.”

Bucky doesn’t know, and he’s about to say as much, but then he feels Steve’s fingers slide between his cheeks. His heart stutters with a sudden burst of nerves and his face is on fire. The thought of it makes him whimper.

“Oh god,” he whispers.

“We don’t have to. Or you could, uh, pitch, and I could catch. I don’t care.”

He doesn’t answer immediately, trying to pull something out of the radio static in his head.

“Buck?”

“Please fuck me,” he blurts.

Steve grins for half a second before he’s shoving him down onto the bed. Bucky drags him close. There’s not enough air in the room.

“God, you looked good today,” Steve sighs.

Bucky waits for his brain to produce some words in response, but it just gives him a melty feeling and a dumb look on his face. He can feel his pulse everywhere.

“Did you like it? Having everybody stare at you like that?”

He swallows hard. “Yeah.”

“You did such a good job, baby.” He reaches for the jar of vaseline near the bed. “I was thinking about doing this to you all day.”

Bucky’s mouth is dry and his skin feels hot and oversensitive. God, he wants it so bad.

Steve tells him to turn over, so he does. It’s quiet for a long moment, the sound of his own breath and heartbeat rushing in his ears as he hides his face in a pillow and tries to calm down. He’s too aware of the texture of the sheets and the sound of Steve moving behind him. He hears the jar open and his stomach twists up. He’s getting anxious without Steve sweet-talking him.

“Hey, Buck.” He says, quiet now. “If you don’t like it, tell me, okay?”

He nods. He’s nervous, but he still wants it. The vaseline feels cool and strange on his skin. It’s weird having someone else touch him there. Bucky suddenly realizes that Steve is hesitating because he’s also nervous, and for some reason that makes him laugh. He smothers it in the sheets, but Steve snorts and starts giggling too.

“Shut up,” he snickers, “I’m doing my best, dickhead.”

Bucky gives in to the giggles. “You wanna do your best a little faster?”

Steve audibly rolls his eyes and leans down to blow a raspberry on Bucky’s asscheek. Bucky makes an embarrassing squeak that gets them going all over again.

When they settle down, the heat has dissolved a little, but so have the nerves.

Steve pushes a finger into him, moving slowly to let him adjust. It’s odd, but not bad. He’s not sure he understands the fuss quite yet, but he’s heard some guys say this is their favorite thing to do, so he’ll give it a second.

“Okay?”

“Yeah.”

Steve adds another finger, which hurts a little, but not in a way he wants to stop. The ache fades into something that makes him want to wiggle around and press back against Steve’s hand, like poking a bruise.

Then Steve twists in a particular way and Bucky’s breath stops in his chest. His stomach lurches and he has to bury his face in the pillow again to keep from being audible to the mean old lady upstairs, people in Hawaii, and those ugly aliens twenty galaxies away.

His hips move without permission and he feels his back arch almost painfully as he pushes up onto his knees, his chest still pressed to the bed. He gasps for breath and rocks against Steve’s hand. He knows the noises coming out of him are gibberish, but he hopes Steve understands, looking back over his shoulder to find him staring with wide eyes and a slack jaw.

“Holy shit, Buck,” he breathes.

He whines something he hopes means “don’t stop.” Steve gets the point and does whatever it was again and again until Bucky’s eyes roll and the air scrapes out of his lungs in a pathetic moan. He’s squirming and begging and harder than he’s ever been in his life, and maybe he should be embarrassed, but he can’t remember what that even feels like.

Steve is looking at him with undisguised craving, pressing his free hand against his dick and chewing his lip raw.

“Stevie,” Bucky sighs, answering the question Steve didn’t have time to ask.

Steve leans over and kisses the small of his back. Bucky’s patience is shot and he hears himself complaining seconds after Steve pulls his fingers out of him.

“Shhh, I know,” Steve purrs. “God, Bucky.”

He feels the mattress shift as Steve moves, but he doesn’t look. He closes his eyes and breathes slow, waiting, trying to be good as Steve slides into him and makes a wounded noise. The bruised feeling returns and the muscles below Bucky’s navel quiver. He feels tender and raw and desperate. It’s good like too-hot coffee or riding the Cyclone, like dancing when you’re too tired to keep going but can’t make yourself stop. He reaches back behind himself and grabs Steve’s thigh just to have something to hold.

Steve sounds like he’s barely in control of himself, but when Bucky touches him, he reaches down to take his hand. He pushes Bucky’s hips down so he’s flat on the bed and lies on top of him, joining their hands by Bucky’s shoulders.

Bucky is pinned to the mattress with Steve moving on top of him, and it’s so good it’s nearly unbearable. Why doesn’t everyone do this? How can anyone be going to work and doing the shopping and calling the plumber and checking the mail when they could be in bed getting fucked?

Maybe if he could keep himself from rubbing against the sheets he’d last a little longer, but that’ll have to be a question for another day. The ache that’s been building since Steve tackled him in the kitchen bursts. His lungs seize and his vision blurs for a moment, his body tensing and releasing in waves as he comes. Steve’s movements are erratic and panicked and he sounds like he’s just run to Hell’s Kitchen and back. He sinks his teeth into Bucky’s shoulder and comes a moment later.

They lie there with Steve sprawled over his back until they both start to feel sticky and stiff. They shuffle away from the wet spot and into a more normal position a few minutes later.

Bucky feels like he’s just learned the best secret on earth. Steve is curled around him with a gobsmacked expression, not bothering to push the sweaty lock of hair that’s hanging in his eyes off of his face. Bucky gently brushes it away.

“Steve.”

He looks down, and Bucky wonders again how he could have doubted how Steve felt about him. It might as well be stamped on his forehead. He scoots up and kisses him softly, barely pressing their lips together.

“What are you doing to me, sweetheart?” Bucky whispers against his lips. “You think anybody else is ever gonna be enough for me now?”

Steve smiles and kisses him again. “You started it.”

“Nuh uh.”

“You kissed me first.”

Bucky huffs and nips at his jaw. “Yeah, I gotta do everything myself.”

Steve pulls back and looks unimpressed. “Really? Five minutes after I get done screwing you--” He yelps when Bucky pinches his nipple.

“Jerk,” he whispers, smothered by Bucky’s lips.

They fall back together without conscious thought, kissing and lying pressed together on their ruined sheets. Time stretches and bends and they slow to a crawl, bodies relaxed on the verge of sleep. Bucky gets a little distracted petting the peach fuzz on Steve’s butt.

Steve kisses him one last time and dozes off. Bucky watches him napping with his face mashed into his shoulder and smiles. Thank god there’s no cure for this.