Here is how Bucky Barnes’s life goes to shit.
His best friend and secret love of his life comes skittering in front of him, out of breath, and says, “Bucky, I need you to fake date me.”
Bucky has one of those moments, you know? That little record scratching sound pinging somewhere in the back of his head, a close up of his confused face looking into the camera, and his own voice, speaking over the disaster background of his life like: so. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation.
He’ll remember this moment, later.
For now, he stares at Steve, almost out of breath, thick, cable-knit white sweater barely pulled across his threatening-to-become-too-big torso, black glasses askew, blond hair sticking up every which way, because he’s been tugging on it frantically, and Bucky—actually, he loses his train of thought.
“What?” he asks dumbly.
He’s at his desk, grading a mediocre sophomore essay on the lasting impact of the fur trade on the American Revolutionary effort, his own hair probably standing on end, his glasses sliding down the slope of his nose, and Steve has one hand on his door frame, the other on the door knob, and, momentarily, Bucky confuses everything and thinks Steve’s said, Lucky, Smell You Take Rate Me?
Steve lets out a breath like he’s sucked in all of the air in the room and then realized he’s risking carbon monoxide poisoning or something.
He sags a little, but then straightens, and with absolute crazy eyes asks:
“Bucky. Will you fake date me?”
Here’s what happens, according to Bucky’s absolute idiot apple of his eye.
“Okay, so, Coulson—you know Coulson,” Steve says, collapsing into the couch Bucky keeps for his students and also, sometimes, for himself to nap on after one of his three hour seminars. Students think those seminars are bad? Try preparing for one and listening to a room of 20 year olds attempt to parse through 18th century primary sources about the American Revolution and like, philosophical discourse about the nature of rights and humanity, which they clearly haven’t read.
That reminds him, he has to add Locke to the syllabus before midterms.
“Yes Steve,” Bucky says, ignoring the twitching in his temple and wiping his glasses on his own cozy, floral printed sweater. “I know Phil Coulson, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to which our departments belong.”
“Oh, right,” Steve says and deflates some more. Bucky flicks a pen at him and it smacks Steve in the forehead. He yelps, scrubbing at the spot furiously. “Hey!”
“I have papers to grade, Rogers,” Bucky says, gesturing to the unmitigated disaster of student essays in front of him. “I don’t have time for your theatrics.”
“I’m not theatric,” Steve mutters, but it must not be a sticking point, because he sucks in a breath, sits up straight and explains. “Well, I just ran into Coulson at the gym and—”
“Coulson goes to the gym?” Bucky asks, a little in horror.
“Yeah, it wasn’t a great moment for me,” Steve agrees. “Anyway, he’s on the elliptical and I’m on the treadmill and I notice only too late and then I run really really fast to try to avoid him and—”
“You have asthma, you little shit,” Bucky grumbles, but Steve flaps that away.
“—and then I get off the machine and he’s disappeared and I think I’ve escaped, so I go to the weight room, thinking I’ve avoided all disaster, but. Guess what.” Steve says, dramatically.
“You didn’t avoid disaster,” Bucky guesses, dryly.
“He was in the weight room with me,” Steve groans.
“Honestly disturbing, but go on,” Bucky empathizes.
“Well we have to make small talk, I guess, he’s the Dean and all,” Steve sighs and runs a large hand through his already mussed blond strands. They stand up even more and Bucky watches them with blatant, unreserved interest. Steve always does this and it always looks like sex hair and that doesn’t help Bucky’s—well, anyway. “So he asks me about my research and publication and classes and I ask him about, you know, the school and all that and budget cuts and funding and he says to me. Bucky Barnes, Phil Coulson looks me in the eyes and he tells me, actually Rogers, I have something to ask you.”
Now here’s the thing about Steve Rogers.
He is absolutely, 100%, without a single doubt, the most genuine, generous, smartest, funniest, reckless, and idiotic person Bucky has ever met. He is the most beautiful human Bucky has ever laid eyes on. He’s a human disaster. Bucky’s been gone on him for like, fucking four years or something.
Anyway, the thing about Steve is that he’s absolutely the most infuriating storyteller Bucky has ever met in his life. It’s like he never learned how.
“On with it, Rogers!” Bucky barks and threatens to throw another pen without letting Steve know it’s actually an empty threat because he doesn’t know where his pens keep disappearing to, but he only has like two left on his desk and he has to get back to grading at some point this century.
“He says to me, Rogers, I know you’ve been applying for funding for your research on ethnolinguistic diversity as an indicator of cross-cultural evolutionary anthropology as demonstrated in small-scale indigenous societies in Peru,” Steve says, but Bucky interrupts.
“He said that? All those words?” he asks.
“Sure,” Steve says, dubiously. “Anyway, he says, Steve, I know you need this to begin collecting data for your research in South America. Well there’s a diversity fellowship I think you’d be a good contender for.”
“Really?” Bucky says, forgetting his ire. “Holy shit! Steve that’s great—” Then Bucky frowns. “Wait, what diversity do you qualify for? The asthmatic white man scholarship?”
“Hey, fuck you, my lungs are doing the best they can,” Steve says, without heat. “No, here’s the kicker. He then says to me, Rogers, I saw you and Barnes last month and I want you to know how brave I think it is that you two are out together. I want you to know you have my full support and the full support of the faculty. Anything you need, you have an ally in me.”
Bucky stares at his best friend as though he’s absolutely lost what’s left of his dumbass mind.
“Excuse me?” he asks dumbly.
Steve sighs and sags back onto the couch, covering his face dramatically with one large, well-manicured hand.
“Dean Coulson thinks we’re dating. And gay. But like, for each other. And now I need you to fake date me so I can convince the Chancellor to fund my research.”
It takes Bucky a full minute of bewildered silence to process.
“Are you stupid?” he asks, eyes bugging out.
“Hmm,” Steve muses. “No.”
“Are you kidding?” Bucky asks, seriously, eyes popping.
“Hmm,” Steve says again and shakes his head. “Definitely not.”
“Okay,” Bucky says and his eyes are like balloons, floating in front of his face, comically and tragically. “Have you lost your goddamned mind?”
To this Steve removes his hand from his face and waves it in the air like: so-so.
The thing is, Steve is gay. Or like, bisexual. And so is Bucky. But they’re not, like, bisexual for each other.
Bucky is, however, extremely bisexual for Steve.
So what’s a guy who’s head over heels in love with his best friend to do?
Bucky tips back his head and laughs.
So here’s the thing.
Bucky Barnes met Steve Rogers about four years ago, one day, when, as freshly hired faculty at SHIELD University, they had stumbled into each other in the faculty lounge awaiting new staff orientation.
Or rather, it was 8 am and Bucky hadn’t had a single drop of coffee and he had been shuffling around, like some kind of grunting zombie in a tweed blazer, and as these things go, he had rammed into the back of someone whose back wasn’t quite as solid as a brick wall, but was a good approximation of one.
“Shit,” he had muttered in a panic, flapping his arms in apology, like some kind of deranged penguin.
“Whoa there,” the person, a blond with a voice so deep it made its home at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, said, reaching out to clasp Bucky by the shoulder before he could fall back into a table of complimentary bagels.
The blond had looked at him with concern and Bucky made the mistake of looking into blue eyes and now Bucky was at the bottom of the fucking Mariana Trench too, his throat all dried up, and fucking doves flapping above his head or something.
Bucky looked into the eyes of the man he was absolutely certain he was going to marry and mumbled something like “Bumbleblergh?”
The blond blinked at him in confusion and Bucky considered the merits of actually moving to the ocean, just all of the whole ocean, and then the blond smiled and that was a fucking mistake too.
Anyway, seventeen flips of his stomach and half a dozen more flapping doves later, Bucky managed a somewhat coherent, “Sorry. I—coffee. None so far. Need. Help. Words? Bucky.”
Confusion was good on the blond. Like. Really good. It made his eyebrows furrow and the lines at the corners of his mouth dip a little and his eyes soften and—okay, anyway, the blond’s expression cleared up and he grinned.
“Strangely enough, I understood every word of that,” he said. He held up an extra large traveling mug that had remained unharmed in the collision of bodies. “This is my second. One mug ago my name would have been Bumbleblergh too.”
Bucky had groaned and the blond had laughed. Legitimately laughed. But in a sexy kind way.
“Steve Rogers, new associate professor. Anthropology,” the blond said and extended a hand.
“Bucky Barnes,” Bucky exhaled. He took Steve’s hand and shook it. “New associate professor. History. American, mostly.”
“Nice to meet you, Bucky Barnes,” Steve had said, smiling broadly, gripping Bucky’s hand like it was God-given duty to do so. “Should we get you some coffee?”
And Bucky knew then, in that instant, that Anthropology was his favorite subject in the entire whole wide world.
Each school on campus has a faculty lounge for staff to loiter and relax in between classes.
It is a known fact at SHIELD that although the Business School is by far the most well-funded school on campus and despite the fact that the Journalism School is one of the top programs in the whole country, it's, strangely, the School of Arts and Sciences that has the most enviable faculty lounge. It's perhaps not the greatest achievement SHIELD can boast, but it is a coup for the Arts and Sciences faculty, many of whom are underpaid and most of whom are woefully sleep-deprived.
Thanks to a rather absurd endowment given to the school by some batty, old benefactor from the 80s, the A&S faculty lounge has the things most of the much beleaguered campus professors crave after a particularly brutal day of teaching freshmen or fighting to stay afloat long enough to get tenure: practically brand new, leather couches, a fully-stocked kitchen, wall-to-wall televisions, long tables to work at, a private library, a pool table, and, definitely most importantly, a coffee bar.
Bucky utilizes the coffee bar nearly every day he has classes and nearly three times a day on days when it's just him, his research, and the unmitigated disaster of the book he's supposed to be writing. Today, his laptop and four books on the American Revolution lay to the side, forgotten, because he has in front of him a freshly brewed mug of coffee and a passionfruit glazed donut from his favorite local donut shop, courtesy of his dumbass best friend, who is sitting across the table from him, with his own cup of coffee, and a jelly-filled donut, which, to be clear, Bucky hates, but, to be clear, Bucky will probably steal anyway.
"So I guess we gotta set some ground rules," Steve says. He has his glasses pushed up into his hair and a dark blue argyle sweater vest on over a plain white button up, which he has rolled up at the elbows because he, as he likes to put it, "runs hot."
Bucky stares at Steve, obviously not because he is so unreasonably attracted to half-bared arm at one in the afternoon on a Tuesday, but because his best friend has absolutely, in the great scheme of dumbassery he's committed, suggested the biggest scheme of dumbassery of all. Bucky's not entirely sure what it says about him that he had agreed so easily, but his brain is only half-functional anyway, staring as he is at Steve's forearms.
"Ground rules," Bucky says, as though Steve is crazy which, to be sure, he definitely is. "To us fake dating. In order to scam the university to fund your research project."
"First of all, it's not a scam, it's a legitimate fellowship for a legitimate project," Steve says lightly, drinking his coffee. "Also, I am bisexual."
"Yeah, I know, you show me all of your Tinder matches every week," Bucky grumbles. He picks up his own mug and tries not to glare at Steve over the sound of his own, very dramatically breaking heart.
"Just because Coulson has some of the, uh, facts mistaken doesn't mean the heart of it isn't real and I have the bisexual flag to prove it," Steve says waspishly.
Bucky can tell he's getting hot and bothered, so he flaps his hand in Steve's face.
"Take the win and move on, Rogers," he says. "The rules?"
"Oh right," Steve says. Now he puts his coffee down and breaks off a corner of his donut. "Ground Rules for Fake Dating Your Best Friend."
Now, listen. Bucky knows a bad idea when he sees one. He's read romance novels. He's watched every 90s romantic comedy Hollywood, and sometimes Bollywood, has to offer. The fact is not that Bucky doesn't know this is a stupid idea, the fact is that what Bucky wants, above all, except, maybe, for the completion of his unmitigated disaster of a manuscript, is for Steve to be happy. And Steve's been trying to secure funding for his research for ages. If Bucky can pretend to date Steve for a little while until his big dinner or whatever, well it's the least he can do for someone who's rubbed his back on nights he's been too drunk, covered his classes at practically no notice, and nursed his heart back to health on more than one occasion.
It's definitely a bad idea, but it's a bad idea with good intentions and isn't that just karmically very fine?
Bucky can't see his face, but he can almost certainly see Sam's ears perking up from the couch.
"If you think I can't hear what you dumbasses are talking about over there, you're wrong," Sam says, raising his voice.
Bucky and Steve pause to give one another looks and decide what to do about their Sam Wilson situation.
Their Sam Wilson situation being that Steve is physically unable to keep anything a secret from Sam Wilson and so Sam Wilson, for his part, being Sam Wilson, had heard what the two of them were planning and, probably rightfully, read them the riot act and a half. Bucky had maintained that he was just trying to help a pal and Sam Wilson had hit him upside his head for the effort. Rude.
"Anyway," Steve says loudly, electing for the much-preferred and time-honored tradition of just ignoring the Sam Wilson Situation, "It's just until the Chancellor’s dinner. We show up to a couple of events together, just like we would normally. But I guess we...pretend to be together? On campus, maybe some faculty activities, pancake night, things like that? We're usually together anyway, so it probably won't be as big a deal as all that."
"That's half the problem," Bucky says, waving his coffee cup around a little bit. Now, he knows the next thing he's going to say is absolutely ill-advised, but he's also aware that there's no two ways around it for their little endeavor. "We're usually together anyway. So how do we sell that we're a fake—or, I guess, a real couple?"
There's the slightest of pauses and the volume to one of the televisions dips as the program switches to a commercial.
"Do not say what I think you're going to say," Sam offers his unsolicited opinion.
"Well, I guess, Buck" Steve says carefully, after taking a long and deliberate sip of his coffee. "We gotta act like a couple."
Bucky swallows and tries not to cough into his coffee.
"So like. Flirting," Bucky clarifies. "Handholding. General touching. That kind of thing."
"Yeah," Steve says. "And."
"Do not say it," Sam says, raising his voice.
"Kissing," Steve finishes his own thought and Bucky only barely manages not to self immolate on the spot at the very fucking thought.
"He said it," Sam mutters from the couch, rubbing his forehead with a deep sigh. "He really fucking said it."
Sam Knows, is the thing. Bucky supposes most people Know because he's not exactly subtle about how big his eye gets whenever Steve wears anything tighter than a trash bag, which is approximately seven days a week. Most people other than Steve anyway, which Bucky supposes is just as well. His reputation and dignity are perpetually held together by the very thinnest of threads.
Anyway, point being that once Steve had told Sam about The Plan, Sam had chewed Steve out for being a dumbass, and then he had called Bucky and chewed him out for being a masochist with zero sense of emotional self preservation. Bucky had yelled "I know how to handle myself Sam, I'm a big boy!" into the receiver, but in retrospect, given how he cannot stop staring at Steve's arm hair, Sam might not have been completely out of line about the whole thing.
"I dunno Rogers," Bucky says, managing his easy, signature smirk. It's more muscle memory than anything else. He leans back in his chair, as though casual, and ignores the rapid beating of his heart against his ribcage. "Got a list of references a mile long and every one of them say once you go Barnes, you can't go back."
Steve looks at him with, unfortunately, an amount of amusement and affection that Bucky's poor heart isn't quite equipped enough to handle.
"Technically I think I've already gone Barnes once," he says with a smile. "So we'll have to take our chances."
Which is completely unfair, because Bucky saves that memory for some of his more pathetic nights—just him and his cat, Gollum, a bottle of wine, You've Got Mail on Netflix, and the memory of him and Steve sharing a playful, casual kiss under a mistletoe at the faculty Christmas party.
Come to think of it, he's pretty sure Coulson had been there. Maybe this whole affair was less mysterious than previously surmised.
"Promise you won't fall in love with me," Bucky says with a flourish, overdramatic, quoting every bad rom com he's ever seen.
On the couch, he can almost hear Sam roll his eyes.
"I'll try not to," Steve says dryly, with a smile. "So that's okay with you?"
Bucky snorts and slumps. He tears his donut in half and starts chewing on it.
"Yeah, I'll kiss you, Rogers, twist my arm why don't you?" he says. "Okay, some public displays of affection, acting like we're in a couple, I kiss you, you hold my hand, a couple of ass grabs, yadda yadda yadda. What else?"
That makes something serious flicker across Steve's face. He drums his fingers on the table and looks up at Bucky through eyelashes so long their shadows have their own zip code.
"You're doing me a favor, Buck," Steve says. "A huge one. If you want out, just tell me. Seriously. If it's making you uncomfortable or you find someone you'd rather be spending your time with or anyone gives you a hard time—seriously. Anything at all. You tell me and we stop."
"I'm not a child, Steve," Bucky frowns. "I can handle a little fake dating."
"I'm serious, Bucky," Steve says, and he sounds it. "Nothing is worth making you feel uncomfortable. Not even this."
Steve is such a good, genuine guy, it's almost unfair. Bucky is definitely head over heels in crush with him, but Steve’s also legitimately his best friend. He knows, for certain, that what Steve says, he means. There isn't a lying bone in his body and that, at the heart of it, is why Bucky loves him so much.
"I know, Steve," he says. "And I appreciate it. It won't happen, but if it does, I promise I'll tell you.'"
Steve stares at him for another few seconds, before letting out a sigh. His broad shoulders slump a little and he smiles at Bucky, picks up his coffee again to drain it.
"It'll be easy," Steve says, exhaling in relief. "And once it's over, I'll owe you. Like, big time. Need me to proctor your final? I got it. Don't want to run the Spring Faculty 5K? No problem."
"Want to grade the stack of essays I got left?" Bucky asks, bearing his teeth only slightly menacingly.
Steve sets his coffee mug down and runs his tongue over his lips. Bucky watches with not-so-exaggerated interest.
"I can find someone else to do it," Steve says. He jerks his head back at Sam. "Sam's not doing anything. He just finished teaching the sophomores how to fingerpaint."
"Hey, fuck you, Rogers!" Sam says loudly from the couch, raising his middle finger for Steve and Bucky to ignore. Sam is in the Teacher's College, teaching Education majors how to properly paint with four year olds or something.
Bucky snorts. He finishes his donut, licks his fingers, and then, without a single hesitation, reaches across the table to take half of Steve's.
"Hey!" Steve protests. "I was gonna eat that."
"You're too slow and I need sustenance," Bucky says. "On account of I gotta be dating your stubborn ass real soon."
Steve watches Bucky eat his jelly-filled donut semi-mournfully.
"You don't even like jelly-filled donuts," he says.
"Yeah, so don't bring me any next time," Bucky says, finishing and licking his fingertips in satisfaction.
“Didn’t bring you any this time,” Steve mutters, giving him a disgruntled look. Then he sighs. "Okay, is anything off limits?"
"Yeah," Bucky says. "Don't tell my sister. She'll tell Ma, who will tell her book club, and before either of us know it, we'll have a fake marriage to go with our fake relationship and you know who doesn't have time for that in the year of Ariana Grande, 2019?"
"The guy with a half-finished manuscript in front of him?" Steve ventures.
Bucky does some dumb finger guns thing at Steve.
"Half is a really generous assessment of my progress, but thanks," he says, clicking his tongue to go with the dumb finger guns.
Steve snorts and then gets up, scoops his mug up, presumably for more coffee.
"More coffee?" he asks, already reaching for Bucky's empty mug.
"Thanks, sugar bear," Bucky says, giving Steve a shit-eating grin. "You really know how to treat a fella right."
Steve ends up giving Bucky a sunny, amused grin, which, of course, goes straight to that place in Bucky's chest where all of the Steve-related butterflies live, but before either of them can say anything else or like, continue staring at each other goofily, the door to the lounge opens.
"I don't care," a gravely, unimpressed voice floats over the sound of Sam's likely internal collapse.
"No, but, the secret was the yeast—" another voice comes from just behind, insistent and clearly enjoying himself.
The owner of the first voice, a terrifying looking redhead, all of five-foot-one inches of pure menace and intimidation, whirls on her heeled boots and jabs the owner of the second voice, an absolute disaster of a blond man with two hearing aids conspicuously ensconced in his ears, in the chest.
"Try to tell me about yeast one more time, Barton," Natasha Romanoff says. "One more time. I dare you."
Steve stops mid-way to the coffee bar and even Sam looks over from his program to watch their friends with an amused kind of interest.
"You asked how my day was!" Clint Barton says, flapping his arms around him.
"Your mistake was thinking I wanted an answer," Natasha glares at him.
Steve snorts and Bucky grins and all around, the tension is significantly less than what Natasha would likely prefer for it to be. The thing is, Natasha Romanoff is all acerbic commentary and devastating glares, but they've all known her for four years too and most manners of performative intimidation are no match for one too many faculty parties with endless supplies of booze. Also, they're all friends now, so everyone in present company knows all of the events that led up to her dating Clint Barton and also how she looks at him when she thinks no one is watching.
"My culinary students thought it was cool," Clint mumbles glumly and Natasha, who is averse to most forms of PDA, sighs at the drooping of her dumbass, disaster of a boyfriend and relents to reaching up to run her fingers through his hair.
"Come on," she says. "Wilson tells me Barnes and Rogers are doing something stupid again."
"Hey!" Steve protests, almost immediately, at the same time, Bucky barks out, "Wilson!"
Sam tilts his head back with an innocent look on his face that all of zero people are buying.
Natasha comes over, Clint at her heels, and what she does is pluck the freshly filled coffee cup out of Steve's hands with a "Thanks," and then plops herself gracefully down on a seat across from Bucky.
"So," she says, staring at Bucky over his stack of untouched books. "What stupid thing are you involved in that I'm going to have to bail you out of this time?"
To which Bucky looks at Natasha and then looks at his manuscript and then looks at Sam and then looks back at Steve and when literally zero (0) things or persons come to his rescue, he sighs and runs a hand through his semi-unruly curls.
"Well," Bucky says, in a much beleaguered tone. "Funny story. Steve and I had a whole talk and turns out, we're dating now. Surprise."
To which Bucky can feel Natasha's stare sinking daggers into his skull. Idiot, she's saying in her head, in the six different languages she knows. Absolute, bumbling, shit-for-brains idiot.
Bucky gives Natasha a weak smile and Natasha nearly breaks the coffee mug under the sheer weight of her disdain. Clint, from somewhere behind him, probably near the half-eaten package of Chips Ahoy Sam’s left, goes, "Great, Bucky hasn't gotten laid in at least two months."
Bucky buries his face in his hands and lets out a groan and somewhere to his right, Steve lets out a peal of laughter that goes straight to Bucky's butterflies and that's when Bucky Barnes decides that in his next life, he's going to come back as a cat.
So, if Bucky is going to fake date Steve for the advancement of Steve’s career, he’s going to do it right. After an absolute, probably well-deserved haranguing by Natasha, Bucky licks his wounds, grades half a dozen poorly written essays, goes down four Wikipedia rabbit holes, and then finally, deciding he needs to at least pretend to get his life into some semblance of order, creates a list of How To Make Sure Everyone Knows You’re Fake Dating Your Best Friend (and Hottest Professor on Campus)* (*edition by one, James Buchanan Barnes).
He spends a good half an hour outlining The Plan in his bullet journal and when he’s done with it, it’s about 10 pm and he decides if he doesn’t leave his office soon, he’s going to end up sleeping on his couch and he Just Can’t Do That Again.
So he carefully closes his bullet journal, nods to himself in satisfaction, resolutely ignores the nervous, wiggly motions in his stomach, and unlocks his phone.
He goes to his Favorites and finds “IDIOT #1” with a heart next to it and presses call.
“Hey,” Steve answers on the first ring. “I was just gonna call you. Saw the light’s on in your office. You still here?”
“First of all, stop stalking me,” Bucky says, getting up from his desk and stretching. A wave of veritable exhaustion hits him. “Second of all, yeah. Wanna get dinner?”
He knows Steve’s on campus, because Steve is an incorrigible workaholic who is frequently on campus, when he’s not ruining Bucky’s life by sleeping his way through every eligible man and woman who swipes right on him on Tinder.
“Yeah, could eat,” Steve says, after a moment.
“You forgot again, huh?” Bucky says, voice flat.
“I didn’t forget,” Steve says immediately, which is how Bucky knows he’s lying.
“You forgot again, huh?” Bucky repeats, voice a little sharper this time.
Bucky can almost see the big lug slump in his leather office chair.
“Maybe,” Steve relents.
“You’re a pain in my ass, Rogers,” Bucky swears. “Okay, turn off your computer, get your coat on, and meet me at the car. We’re getting pizza.”
It’s both a great idea because pizza is fast, but also a trap, because Steve loves pizza.
“I love pizza!” Steve says, voice visibly brightening.
“I know, you dumbshit,” Bucky says, fondly. “Ten minutes. Be there or you’re getting pineapple again.”
Bucky turns the phone off immediately, unwilling to go through yet another pineapple vs. no pineapple pizza debate.
He turns off his own laptop, shrugs on his leather jacket, which, to be clear, is not warm enough for late February, but which makes him look like a total badass, and slings his brown, leather messenger bag over his shoulder.
He turns the lights off to his office and walks through the mostly dark History building to go meet his best friend and fake boyfriend for a late dinner.
Bucky doesn’t tell Steve what he’s going to do, so imagine Steve’s surprise when, halfway through his lecture on Culture as Praxis, the door at the back of the room opens and his absurdly handsome best friend appears, looking absurdly good in his absurdly hot looking leather jacket.
Bucky stands at the back of the room, arms crossed at his chest, hip jutted out just so, leaning against the wall, and Steve’s too much of a professional to be flustered, but he’s distracted enough that he asks the same question twice and only just manages not to color when the entire class chuckles at him. He barely has a control on his class after Bucky comes in anyway. Bucky doesn’t say anything himself, but Steve can see the heads turning in his direction, the eyes flickering back, the little ripple of whispers and giggles that start at the corners and make their way to the center of the room.
Steve is not unaware of the reputation Bucky has on campus. He’s young enough that at least half a dozen students had mistaken him for a grad student his first week on the job and that was enough to learn both that both the girls and the boys on campus had noticed the gorgeous young history professor with the head of loose curls and a leather jacket that fit his shoulders just so.
Anyway, it’s just Steve’s luck that he and Bucky had hit it off so spectacularly well, so spectacularly fast that Steve barely had time to be jealous of Bucky’s Casanova reputation. Not that Steve sought to inspire legions of devoted 20-something followers, but Bucky had immediately been so funny and charming and intelligent that Steve couldn’t even manage the thought that this was someone he should probably be wary of or at least feel exhausted by.
Well, now there he is, standing with his arms crossed, watching Steve stumble his basic anthropology lesson.
“All right,” Steve says finally, five minutes before he usually dismisses his class. “Don’t forget to participate in the class discussion on Blackboard this week. Remember, it’s five points per topic. Read the next section in the text, it’s all in your syllabus. I’ll see you guys on Monday.”
The class erupts into chatter and not a few whispers. If Bucky notices all of the attention he’s getting, he doesn’t say anything. Instead, he sticks his hands in his jacket pockets and saunters down the aisle toward the front of the room.
“Hey,” Steve says, starting to shut down the laptop and not blush at the same time.
“Hey,” Bucky says with one of his usual, charming grins. “Busy?”
“I was in the middle of something,” Steve says. “Class, actually. You were there. You know. For half of it.”
“Is that what that was?” Bucky asks with a smirk. “Seen you more confident picking a stranger up at the bar.”
“Shut up!” Steve shushes Bucky, or at least tries to. This only seems to make his traitorous best friend grin even more. “You knew exactly what you were doing, asshole.”
“Maybe,” Bucky says, lips quirked up at the corner.
Steve rolls his eyes, closes his laptop, and slides it into his messenger bag.
“What are you doing here anyway?” he asks. “Other than harassment. I should report you to HR.”
“And tell them what?” Bucky asks, quirking an eyebrow. “That your boyfriend came to pay you a visit?”
Steve looks up to say something in reply, and blanches.
Behind Bucky, eyes wide and not a little bug-eyed, are three of his best students.
Peter Parker, Kamala Khan, and America Chavez have their coats and backpacks on and all three of them wear an absolutely identical expression of pure surprise across their faces.
“Boyfriend?” Kamala whispers and Steve almost splutters in embarrassment when Bucky, piece of shit that he is, grins and turns to them.
“Shh,” he says, lifting a finger to his mouth. “Don’t tell anyone.”
Which, of course, is exactly what he should say if he wants everyone on campus to know by the end of the day.
“Holy shit,” Steve sees America mouth, elbowing Kamala. Next to them, Peter looks like he’s already composed a three series Twitter story in his mind.
“Just thought I’d walk you back to my office, sweetheart,” Bucky says, easy as anything. “You promised you’d come by after class, remember?”
Now, Steve knows that this was all his idea and, frankly, all and entirely to his benefit, but that doesn’t stop him from nearly squirming on the spot. He’s pretty sure he’s turned at least seven shades of red in the past twenty seconds alone. He feels hot under his cable-knit sweater.
Bucky looks like he’s about to burst into laughter.
“Right,” Steve manages to wheeze out. “I did. Say that. I remember.”
“I’ll give you a minute to pack,” Bucky says and then he does the damnest, most dastardly thing Steve can think of. He wraps a hand in Steve’s aforementioned sweater, tugs him forward, and then, when Steve’s skin is about to burn off his body, presses a kiss to his cheek. “Be waiting outside.”
Bucky lets go of Steve, gives the trio a wink and a grin, and then saunters back up the aisle of stairs toward the exit.
It takes Steve, Peter, Kamala, and America a full thirty seconds of staring at Bucky’s retreating ass to process what had just happened.
Then, even though Steve isn’t equipped to handle a single word that isn’t verbalized keysmash at the moment, his three best students turn back to him, eyes wide, expressions like sharks in blood-spilled waters, and explode into a hundred excited, disbelieving, absolutely thrilled questions.
Steve is going to kill his fake boyfriend.
Bucky’s waiting outside the classroom, just like he said he would, leaning against the wall, texting someone with an expression of pure cool on his face. A single curl is flopped down the center of his forehead. His hair is short on the sides and fluffy on top. Steve can see a floral-print button up peeking out from under his leather jacket. All in all, it doesn’t surprise Steve that people ask Bucky multiple times a week if he’s a student and why Bucky is constantly getting invited to Frat parties he’d never be caught dead at.
Steve shoulders his messenger bag, shoos Peter, Kamala, and America away, and bumps shoulders with Bucky.
“Hey, jackass,” he says.
Bucky sends off a last text and pockets his phone with a grin.
“Hey, lover,” Bucky says, with a smirk. “Get rid of the cavalry?”
“Peter told me he could have us trending locally on Twitter by the end of the day,” Steve says.
“What’s our ship name?” Bucky asks brightly.
“Stucky,” Steve says, wrinkling his face. “They said Bodgers sounded like a bar with $2 wing nights.”
“I love chicken wings,” Bucky sighs happily. When he sees the expression on Steve’s face, he laughs.
“There’s no going back from this,” Steve says carefully. “Everyone’s gonna know by tomorrow.”
“That’s only if it’s a slow news day,” Bucky says and shifts himself off the wall. “And you’re welcome. In for a penny, in for a pound.”
“What does that even mean?” Steve wonders out loud.
“I teach history, not idioms,” Bucky shrugs. “Walk me to my office?”
“Yeah, I think my left my scarf there the other day,” Steve says.
They start to cut away from the General Education building, side by side. The path isn’t milling with students, as brisk a February day as it is. Everyone is out in their puffy jackets and boots, backpacks slung over their backs, that look of slight consternation every undergrad carries with them in between classes or on the precipice of an exam they know they haven’t studied enough for.
The sidewalk winds past the Chemistry building and the School of Journalism, but they cut across the brick pathway in between the university library and the campus Career Center. The spires of the Memorial Union stare ahead at them and it’s only as they reach it that Steve feels something against his hand.
It’s Bucky’s hand.
Steve looks at him and Bucky’s fingers find their way into his own.
“Come on, Stevie,” Bucky teases, with a smile. “Pretend we’re drunk in broad daylight.”
Steve has to stop the smile that threatens to spread across his face. Steve is a known mess of a drunk. He doesn’t get sloppy, like Clint does, but he does get—ah—affectionate. He’s handsy past his third or fourth drink and if someone throws in a shot or two in the middle, it’s all hands on, well, someone. Usually Bucky. He’ll rest his chin on Bucky’s shoulders or wrap his arms around him from the back. Once, he buried his face in Bucky’s chest because he was so overcome with feeling and the giggles that he couldn’t stop.
Bucky is the best sport about this and very comfortable besides.
On more than one occasion, Steve has whined at Bucky to hold his hand on the way home from a bar, after. He likes holding onto Bucky when he’s drunk. He’s just so warm and solid; he brings Steve’s spinning head back down to earth.
“Ugh,” Steve complains, cheeks coloring, as though all of this is some kinda problem to him.
It’s not. Bucky’s going out of his way to sell this plot and Steve is only too happy to do this with the best friend he’s probably ever had.
He laces his fingers through Bucky’s own, noting how warm and solid it feels even when they’re not drunk, even in practically subarctic temperatures.
Bucky says something goofy and Steve laughs too hard and they hold hands all the way to the History department.
Everyone is staring at them in the meantime; this, neither of them miss.
“Okay, so,” Bucky says, shucking off his jacket and slinging it on the back of his chair. “I’ve been thinking.”
“Oh no, did it hurt?” Steve asks. He takes his coat off too, hangs it on a hook attached to Bucky’s wall.
“Yeah, you can take care of my medical bills, jackass,” Bucky rolls his eyes. He takes a dubious look at all of the work piled on his desk, makes a face like he’d rather die than address any of it, and then turns back around, promptly ignoring the whole stack. “Don’t take this the wrong way.”
“Okay,” Steve says, raising an eyebrow.
"You're shit at improv," Bucky says.
The space between Steve's eyebrows crease, confusion wrinkling across his features.
“Thanks…?” he says.
"No, dillweed. What I'm saying is that it's gonna be obvious as shit," Bucky says and takes a breath. "That we've never. You know. Kissed. Before."
“The mistletoe didn’t count,” Bucky says, sounding just a little strained. “That was—” He gestures vaguely at the air. “—Christmas.”
It takes Steve a moment to understand what Bucky's hinting at. It's not particularly subtle, as far as hints go, but even so, it takes Steve a beat too long and only after he's processed how suspiciously innocent Bucky looks.
When the realization dawns, it brings with it a familiar heat crawling up Steve's neck; a flush he can't quite control.
"You want to—" he stammers and Bucky tilts his head, innocent and completely devious.
"No one's gonna believe us if you kiss me like you’d kiss your dog on the mouth," Bucky says.
“I’m allergic to dogs,” Steve mutters, which, obviously, is besides the point.
It seems like a questionable idea, frankly, but Steve has to admit that Bucky’s not wrong. Steve's never been known to lie well or think particularly fluently on his feet. It's one thing to touch Bucky while drunk and it's undeniable that he's always felt some measure of comfort around him. The two of them aren't exactly touch-shy. But that's different than, well, purposeful touching, as it were. Brushing Bucky's shoulder or leaning into his warmth is a completely different category from cupping his jaw, leaning in and—
Well, never say that Steve Rogers isn't willing to put in the work to achieve his far-fetched dreams.
"Okay," Steve says. He doesn't clear his throat, but he straightens, his heart beating a little faster. "This isn't weird for you?"
Bucky gives him a Look, like of course this is weird for me, you jackass, you asked me to fake date you, but that ship is well and fully sailed, so Bucky just pushes himself off his desk and comes to sit on the couch next to Steve.
"It's just practice, right?" Bucky asks. "To make sure Coulson believes you. So that we can get you that research grant."
Steve watches Bucky closely, unable to keep himself from tracing his friend's face with his eyes. Bucky is unusually, exceptionally handsome. It's not as though this has escaped Steve, in their four years of friendship. He has all that hair, the thick waves and loose curls, the fluff on top and the fuzz along the sides. His eyes, that kind of slate blue that could be the bottom of a cool lake or the reflection of a mild, winter sky, the slight slope of his nose, the full lips Steve's not only unconsciously traced in his mind, but has had pressed against his own, at least once before. Bucky is undeniably beautiful and Steve can't deny that a part of him isn't mad about it.
"Yeah," he says, finally. "Okay. Practice. We're in education. We know how important practice is."
That makes Bucky laugh, which means his eyes crinkle at the corner and his mouth quirks up at the edges. He looks soft and, well, kissable.
Steve is all six foot something of zero impulse control whatsoever, so he does what any idiot would do in a stupid situation of his own making and thrusts his face onto Bucky's face. It's exactly zero warning and zero finesse and Bucky's eyes widen a little before their mouths smash together.
It's. Not the best.
But it also breaks the tension, both of their noses knocking into each other with a thonk, their teeth clattering together, and then Steve starts laughing and so Bucky starts laughing and then they're laughing into each other, the ludicrousness of their situation not lost on either of them.
"You punk," Bucky wheezes out and then grasps Steve by the back of the neck and says, "Come here. Let me show you how to kiss a man."
Which is such a stupid thing to say because Steve is 35 years old and has slept with plenty of men, but Bucky seems to be in an instructive mood anyway. He spreads his fingers at the back of Steve's neck, pulls him close, and slots their mouths together. Heat rushes to Steve’s face, but before he can think about it too hard, Bucky presses their mouths together more firmly, kissing Steve with deliberation, as though he really is teaching him how the whole thing is done.
Well Steve's not about to let Bucky get the upper hand here, because he has kissed a guy or two in his day, and anyway, he’s a competitive little shit, so he shifts closer, moves one leg up onto the couch, one arm laid across the back of the sofa, and his other hand pressed to Bucky's shoulder.
Bucky tilts his head up and Steve takes the angle to pry Bucky's mouth open, kissing him slowly, at first, and then with a little more vigor. Their tongues slide together and Bucky makes a squeaking kind of noise that makes Steve grin. His heart is beating rapidly in his chest, his skin warm, but he doesn't move back. Bucky curls his fingers into the neck of Steve’s shirt and the brush of his fingertip against Steve’s collarbone and the press of Bucky's mouth against his, soft and firm, makes him lose his train of thought for a moment.
Bucky tastes like spearmint gum and coffee and his skin is smooth under Steve's palm. His body, pressed against Steve's, is soft and comfortable, but hard too, somewhere underneath layers of sweater, because he's a history nerd, but takes care to go to the gym.
They don’t thonk noses again.
Bucky moves back against the couch and Steve moves with him, head a little fuzzy, kissing him deeply. Then, unthinkingly, he moves a hand into his hair.
It’s at that—Steve’s nails scraping against his scalp—that Bucky finally gasps, with some effort, and breaks the kiss.
They stare at one another wildly for a minute, hearts beating fast, faces flushed, a little too caught up in the heat of the moment.
It takes another moment for Steve to clear his throat.
"Well, I think. That will be fine," he says. His voice has gone all hoarse.
"Yeah," Bucky says, equally raspy. "Yes. I think. Probably we can convince Coulson."
Steve stares at Bucky, a little bug-eyed, and Bucky stares at Steve, a little bug-eyed, and then they move apart quickly, with a little cough and a lot of straightening motions.
"Well," Steve says. "I should prepare for class."
"Yeah," Bucky says. He is smoothing over his hair. His mouth, unfortunately, is very red and very obviously kissed. It makes Steve feel a little weird, but only because, like, it seems a waste to leave them like that when they could be even more thoroughly kissed. In his opinion.
"I should work on my manuscript," Bucky says, flapping his hand at his desk. "And the, you know. Grading. Lots of grading."
"Essays," Steve agrees. He scrambles up to his feet, but gracefully, kind of. "Very important. Our job."
“Yes,” Bucky says, a little too quickly. “I’m a professor.”
Steve grabs his coat and puts it on. He's fumbling with his zipper when Bucky appears in front of him.
"Hey," he says and Steve looks up, coloring. Bucky looks at him like he's going to say something, then sighs. "Here. Your scarf, remember?"
Steve sees his favorite black and green plaid scarf in Bucky's hand. Bucky doesn't hesitate to reach up and wrap it around his neck.
"Thanks," Steve says. He tries to not stare at Bucky's mouth and, once more, fails. Then, with a sigh himself, his heart rate finally coming down a little, he reaches forward and tucks one of Bucky's loose curls behind his ear. "Save me a seat at the faculty meeting?"
"Don't be twenty minute late this time," Bucky says with a scowl.
"I did that once," Steve complains. "And you made me sit next to Stark."
"Yeah, that’s what we adults call consequences, Rogers," Bucky says. "Now get your fake boyfriend ass out of my office, I have office hours starting soon and you look like you've let me do unspeakable things to you on my couch."
Before Steve can protest or even turn his usual shade of beet red, Bucky has his hands on Steve's shoulder and is shoving him out the door.
There had been nothing unspeakable about it, Steve thinks to himself huffily as he makes his way out of the History building.
Just one friend helping another friend out, is all. Pals being really good pals. Anyone would do it, obviously.
The School of Arts and Sciences has a monthly faculty meeting. Most of the professors, assistant professors, and associate professors cram into the faculty lounge, finding seats where they can, or milling about the kitchen, where the school will have provided free pizza (what, you think students are the only ones susceptible to free pizza?), someone will have brought two trays of cookies, someone else will have brought a slightly lukewarm tray of vegetables and dips, and someone else—usually Tony—who, to be clear, is not a member of the School of Arts and Sciences—will have brought some assortment of foreign snacks that no one can identify and certainly no one can pronounce. Once, Steve had tried something that was both gummy and runny and that he’s fairly certain he had had an allergic reaction to. Anyway, he had stopped trying Tony’s snacks after that.
He arrives at the faculty lounge not twenty minutes late, but nearly ten minutes early, which is not only a monumental success, but one which earns him an extra slice of pepperoni pizza.
He’s finished teaching another class, which means that his brain has now reached the consistency of that gummy-runny candy and his thought process has all of the coherency of Clint on his third day of not sleeping. That is to say, Thor is definitely trying to tell him something funny that happened to one of his Hotel and Hospitality Management students and Steve is nodding wildly while processing zero (0) words and cramming half a slice of pizza into his mouth.
“Mmmrf,” is the word he gives to the other big blond, who is jovial even on the best of days, except for when he’s gotten into another fight with Loki, the Norse History and Mythology professor, or when he hasn’t been to the gym in like, six hours.
Thor says something else cheerfully and Steve swallows and is about to say something extremely enlightened, probably, when out of nowhere, he feels someone slap his ass.
“What the—” Steve nearly jumps, his pizza and plate nearly spilling out of his hands.
“Hey fella,” Bucky says with what can only be called a smarmy grin.
“Buck,” Steve chokes out, cheeks burning.
Bucky looks delighted by this development, just outright gleeful. Steve doesn’t even realize Bucky’s hand is still on his ass until he gives it another squeeze and then Steve is absolutely turning the color of a cherry tomato and what do you know, suddenly all the chatter around them slowly dries up.
“Steve?” Thor blinks at him and then at Bucky, looking confused and uncertain.
The quiet rippling through the room is so acute that it’s the surest sign that everyone will be talking about this the second the faculty meeting is over. Maybe before it’s over. Steve thinks he can already see Scott Lang texting someone furiously.
“Is this an HR situation?” a voice so loud it could only be Tony Stark’s says. “Is this one of those things? Did we get trained for this? Quick, I think we have to tackle Barnes to the ground.”
“That’s not what the HR training was, Stark,” Natasha’s calm and gravelly voice cuts through the silence, a welcome respite from all of the stares.
“I don’t think I’m allowed to slap someone’s ass!” Tony protests. He’s hovering over one of the couches, a look of indignation on his face. His salt and pepper hair is sticking up every which way, adding a little something extra to his outrage. Why is he here and not in the Engineering building again? “Right? That’s what they said? No ass slapping?”
“No one wants you to slap their ass and if you try, Stark, I’ll have you arrested,” Natasha says, calmly.
“So why is he allowed to?” Tony asks, jerking his head at Bucky.
“He had chalk dust on his ass,” Bucky says lightly, with a shrug. “Just a bro helping a bro get chalk dust off his ass.”
“Can he say ass that many times?” Tony asks immediately, turning to Natasha with something like unearned triumph in his eyes. “Is that an HR violation?”
“Can we stop talking about my ass?” Steve says, flushed and embarrassed. The entire faculty lounge is staring at him and he’s all hot around the collar, unused to being the center of so much attention and certainly not for this reason.
“Sure,” Bucky says. “It’s mine anyway and I have jealousy issues.”
Now that ripples through the faculty lounge, almost visibly. Steve can see the moment when it registers with everyone who doesn’t already know. For his part, Sam just rolls his eyes. Clint grins and gives them a thumbs up. Natasha smacks Tony over the head because Tony opens his mouth, eyes wide, some probably wildly inappropriate question already worked halfway between his overactive synapses and his mouth hole.
Steve’s brain, for its part, starts to short-circuit somewhere in between the attention and the lingering feeling of Bucky’s hand on his ass—at least until he catches Bucky’s expression, one eyebrow raised, challenging Steve to finally pull his weight. It’s that—the promise of a challenge—more than anything that reminds Steve what’s at stake here.
“Yeah,” he says, with a smile. “Guess it is.”
The chatter breaks across the faculty lounge and Tony is mid-shout about something when the door opens and Coulson finally comes in. The conspicuous whispering stops abruptly and Coulson blinks, looking around.
“Was it something I said?”
“Something we saw, more like,” Tony mutters and Natasha pinches his side. He yelps and rubs at the sore spot furiously.
“Well it’s good that all of you are here,” Coulson says, closing the door behind him.
“It’s a faculty meeting, sir,” Clint pipes up. He has half a donut stuffed in his mouth and crumbs down his t-shirt. It’s maybe forty degrees outside and Clint Barton is in a t-shirt. “We’re required to be here. By like, law.”
“Yes, thank you, Clint,” Coulson says, nodding to him and Clint beams and stuffs the rest of the donut in his mouth. Natasha sighs and passes him a napkin.
Coulson walks across the lounge to the front of the room, standing in front of the now-blank television screens.
“I won’t keep you long,” he says. “Some of the announcements are the same as usual. If you haven’t switched over to a new insurance policy but would like to, speak to HR, they have the new information for that. Deadline is end of the month, no exceptions. You should have received all of that information in your emails, but some of you still need to check your spam folders until the new email server reboots. Remember the Spring Potluck next month—we don’t want a repeat of last year.”
The year before, there had been some kind of date miscommunication and everyone had thought the potluck was on a different day, resulting in mass confusion and an awkward potluck the day of featuring Scott’s watery chicken tortilla soup and nothing else. It had been. Not great.
“As a reminder, the Arts and Science faculty lounge should only be for Arts and Science faculty or their guests,” Coulson says and at this, everyone in the room turns to stare at Tony.
“What?” he blinks, pointing at himself, exaggeratedly slowly. “Me?
“And finally, we have the student pancake night coming up at the end of the month,” Coulson says, checking his list on the phone and ignoring Tony altogether. “Remember, this is for a good cause and you won’t get paid overtime for it, but all volunteers will get a gold sticker in the shape of a star.”
This isn’t much of an incentive, as far as incentives go, except for Clint, who lights up like a fire truck.
“Any volunteers?” Coulson smiles blandly and looks around the room.
There are a couple of whispers and people who are nodding, but it’s Steve who sees the opportunity and takes it.
“We’ll do it,” Steve says, raising a hand, like an absolute nerd. “Bucky and me. We’ll work Pancake Night.”
Coulson turns to look at him, head tilted just slightly, a smile on his face.
“Together,” Steve says, clearing his throat. Just to clarify.
Next to him, Bucky is definitely keeping it together, but like, barely.
“Mr. Rogers and Mr. Barnes,” Coulson says, his smile growing warmer. He makes a note in his phone. “Volunteering together. Got it. Thank you, both.”
Coulson probably holds Steve’s eyes for a second longer than necessary, but then someone else volunteers and he switches his attention back to them.
Steve lets out a nervous breath, tension draining out of his shoulders. Next to him, Bucky lets out a quiet laugh and then, without warning, squeezes Steve’s ass again.
“That’ll do, pig,” Bucky whispers into Steve’s ear. “That’ll do.”
Pancake Night is a SHIELD University Spring tradition. Once a year, usually in March, while the weather is still cold and gloomy outside and students are mostly hibernating in their sweatpants and sweatshirts, with dark circles under their eyes and coffee stains down their fronts, the faculty hosts a Student Pancake Night, mostly for morale-boosting purposes. It usually coincides with midterms, which means the campus is even more frazzled than usual, a high energy tension that seeps into the skin of faculty members as well, despite the fact that professors don’t have to take midterms. They have to design them, though. And prepare their classes for them. And grade them. And answer 300 of the same questions about them, repeatedly.
Bucky hates midterms.
As it turns out, the students aren’t the only ones with dark circles and coffee stains.
“You have something,” Steve says and Bucky looks at him blearily. He has a venti Americano in one hand and 30 printed pages of his manuscript in his other.
“What?” he barks.
“On you—” Steve says and then sighs. “C’mere.”
Bucky frowns, but shuffles forward. Steve lifts a hand to his face and Bucky’s treacherous heart lurches at the touch, a second before he realizes this has all been a horrible idea. Steve’s thumb brushes muffin crumbs off of Bucky’s face and the smile he gives him is so fucking charming that Bucky wishes to evaporate on the spot.
He often wishes to evaporate on the spot, but then, he is often wearing coffee stains with muffin crumb accessories and Steve’s in his white t-shirt with the soft, dark green sweater with the cowl neck that Bucky had unfortunately helped him pick out from Express the last time they went to the mall together.
Bucky’s in a sweater too that he’s almost certain Becca had sent him over Christmas just to get him to stop wearing the same three sweaters. He used to be more stylish, once, before he had decided to ruin his life by joining the Ivory Tower. He misses his youth.
“Are you spiraling in your head again?” Steve asks, with that same, soft smile.
“What?” Bucky barks again, squinting at his best friend.
“You always get this look on your face when you’re internally spiraling,” Steve grins. “Kinda like you’re half here and half in Wonderland. It’s a little cross-eyed and then you scrunch your nose and—”
Is Bucky Barnes going to die of being a loser in front of his crush and the probable love of his life?
It’s more likely than you think!
“Listen,” Bucky says, opening his mouth to say something devastatingly scathing and intelligent. What happens instead is a yawn that takes over his face.
That makes Steve frown a little and he puts a large hand on Bucky’s elbow and guides him toward the Memorial Union. It’s almost 10:00 pm, which is when their shift starts. They’re taking over from Thor and Loki. Bucky had suggested taking an earlier shift, but Steve had insisted that a later shift would be more fun. College students are so fun when it’s late at night and they’re stressed and depressed and going cross-eyed from trying to memorize information they should have been memorizing all semester and not just the last two days! So here they are, starting a three hour pancake-making shift from 10:00 pm to 1:00 am, when Bucky could be sleeping or at least binging more of the Great British Bake Off. Anyway, Steve is an idiot and Bucky is never listening to him again.
“Have you not been sleeping again, Buck?” Steve asks.
“You’re not the boss of me, Rogers,” Bucky says, grouchily. A few students come down the steps of the building and the two of them go up instead. There’s still plenty of activity on campus, which means Bucky and Steve will definitely be serving pancakes the entire time instead of serving pancakes some of the time and flirting shamelessly the rest, which is kind of how this evening was playing out in Bucky’s mind.
It had all worked to Steve’s advantage, anyway. After the faculty meeting, Coulson had taken him aside and told him how pleased he was that he and Bucky were taking initiative to be out and proud about their relationship and what a role model he thought they were to the diverse and LGBTQ+ students on campus.
“Yeah, a model scammer,” Bucky had muttered at Steve over drinks that night at their favorite bar.
“I’m a bisexual,” Steve had repeated again and, of course, some guy had happened to walk by just at that moment and eyed Steve with interest and Bucky hadn’t tripped the dude on purpose he swears, probably.
Anyway, now everyone on campus, student, teacher, and Dean, seem to know that Steve and Bucky are a couple. It’s not too bad, especially because it gives Bucky a reason to embarrass Steve and also take selfish advantage of touching him and teasing him in some kind of sequence. Bucky knows this is all going to blow up in his face in some spectacular fashion at some point, but for now he’s really enjoying holding Steve’s hand in public and ruffling his hair and fixing his ties or his sweater neck and kissing his sometimes scruffy cheek in front of other people, just to watch that sweet pink spill across his features.
“You’re the biggest moron I’ve ever met,” Natasha has already told him, at least three times.
“I don’t want to hear about it and I don’t want to see it,” Sam had said, to both of them, and Bucky had kissed Steve smack on the lips in retaliation.
That had been only the second time they’d kissed other than the very practice kiss on Bucky’s office couch.
“The line’s out the door,” Steve says with a low whistle as they shuffle past a sleep-deprived and hungry horde of college students.
They’re almost to the door when a familiar voice calls to the two of them.
“Professor Rogers!” Kamala Khan says. “Professor Barnes!”
There they are again, Steve’s favorite trio of troublemakers. Bucky’s kind of worried that Kamala, Peter, and America are lowkey obsessed with him and Steve, but it’s been kind of fun seeing his ratings go up on RateMyProfessor.com, even if it has nothing to do with how he’s teaching sophomore history.
“Are you going to be serving pancakes?” Peter asks with a bright smile.
“No,” America says, rolling her eyes. “They’re here on a Friday night to stand in line with a bunch of twenty year olds because they have nothing better to do.”
“Please excuse America, she’s only being a bitch because she is a bitch,” Peter says with a smile and America hits him upside the head. “Okay, we’re all going a little crazy. Midterms, etcetera. Are you here together?
“Yeah,” Steve says, giving all three of them an amused smile. “Thought we’d spend some quality time with our favorite students and half the campus.”
“And with each other?” Kamala asks slyly.
Bucky takes this one, giving her a huge wink and managing to slip his hand into Steve’s. He’s surprised and pleased to find that Steve reciprocates immediately, letting his fingers curl around Bucky’s. It’s been a month or so now and some of Steve’s immediate inclinations to be stiff and uncomfortable are leaving him. The other day, he had leaned in and kissed Bucky’s jaw in front of some donors at a faculty fundraiser and Bucky’s heart had nearly beat out of his goddamned chest. Now, when Bucky tries to hold Steve’s hand for show, Steve is almost always ready for it. Steve’s done it too, once or twice, just reached over and taken Bucky’s hand like it’s his to take.
The whole thing is making Bucky feel a little fuzzy everywhere.
“Oh,” Kamala sighs happily.
“We’ll see you guys inside,” Steve says with a smile and Bucky waves at them as Steve pulls him through the crowd and into the activity room.
Thor and Loki are set up at one long table and Tony and Pepper are set up at the other. All four of them look exhausted, but in better spirits than Bucky had expected. They have an ungodly amount of batter on them. There’s a thick streak in Loki’s dark hair, pulled back, and Thor has flour all over his face. Both of them look like they’re ready to collapse on their feet, but they’re not bickering for maybe the first time Bucky’s ever seen.
“Ah, Steve and Bucky,” Thor says gratefully as they approach the two of them. “Thank goodness. I cannot feel my hands any longer.”
“I think I hate pancakes now,” Loki says. This is definitely a lie because Bucky has seen Loki personally put away three stacks of chocolate chip pancakes on a Saturday morning when he wasn’t suffering from a hangover.
“Busy?” Steve asks as they switch out.
Steve takes Thor’s apron and Bucky takes Loki’s. They’re warm and covered in flour, but Bucky supposes he should be resigned to smelling like Sunday brunch for the next week anyway.
“Remember,” Loki says, leaning in. Bucky gives him a questioning look and the other professor gestures vaguely at him, giving him crazy eyes in return. “Don’t let them sense weakness. They will attack and you will die.”
Bucky is fairly certain his friend has lost what’s left of his mind.
“Come on, Loki,” Thor says cheerfully, one hand on his shoulder. “Let us get you home.”
“I need a drink,” Loki mutters. “Or ten. The horrors I’ve seen this night…”
“You are being dramatic,” Thor says as he leads Loki away. “That knife barely grazed you. And it was plastic.”
Steve gives Bucky a look and Bucky gives him a look in return and they both have to keep themselves from laughing.
“Ready, partner?” Steve asks, fastening his apron properly and clapping Bucky on the shoulder.
“If they get angry, I’m sacrificing you,” Bucky says with a beatific smile and takes his spot next to the griddles. Steve can take care of mixing and ladling, Bucky will flip and hand out.
“I’m pretty sure you taste better,” Steve says into Bucky’s ear and if Bucky’s limbs flail out, nearly hitting a freshman in the face with the spatula, well, then, it was clearly not his fault.
The thing is.
Here’s the thing.
Steve’s definitely not the longest friendship in Bucky’s life, not even close. But raging, horrible, awful crush aside, he and Steve had gotten on so famously well, almost from the moment they had met, that their four years have felt like four lifetimes, at least. This means that Bucky—well, he knows that he and Steve are cute. He knows that he and Steve don’t act like normal friends and certainly not normal professors who had met as colleagues and work as colleagues and just, you know, happen to sleep on each other’s office couches once every other week. Like colleagues do.
Once Bucky’s energy kicks in and the students start talking to them, he has a lot of fun with the whole affair. It’s hard not to—any time he spends with Steve ends up being a lot of fun.
Steve tries to mix the batter, sometimes to great effect, sometimes to disastrous results, and Bucky absolutely takes the opportunity to backseat cook. He’s watched so many episodes of The Great British Bake Off and most shows on the Food Network that he feels he’s prepared for this most of his life. He criticizes Steve’s technique. He yells at him about proper measurements. He definitely nags him about the sugar to flour ratio and he doesn’t miss the opportunity to tease him about the weirdass way he stirs things. (“You’re supposed to go in a circular motion. Are you trying to fluff that thing?)
To anyone else this would definitely be annoying at best and aggravatingly unbearable at worst.
To Steve, it’s just more opportunity to be a punkass bitch in return.
He does everything the opposite of how Bucky tells him to do it. He fluffs even more. He adds more sugar. He ladles pancakes that are too big and some pancakes that are too small and when Bucky yells at him some more, he just picks up the whole ladle and smears it across Bucky’s nose.
“Hey!” Bucky shouts and everyone in line giggles. He turns to the line of traitorous students and gives them all the stink eye.
Steve, for his part, smiles wider and wider, like he’s getting some kind of enjoyment out of this or his energy is recharging just by virtue of being a punkass bitch to Bucky.
It’s all very horrible, except Bucky laughs harder than he has in months and also, for the first time in months, he doesn’t think about anything—not the essays on his desk, not the class he has to prepare for on Monday, and not his manuscript.
He smashes a pancake into Steve’s hair and Steve gets flour on Bucky and eventually they serve a lot of pancakes to the students in their line, but mostly they’re laughing and joking with the students, leaning more and more heavily into one another until finally, the Terrible Trio appear in front of them.
“Come on, Professor Rogers,” Peter is needling. “Just one picture for Twitter? Please?”
“I don’t know,” Steve says dubiously, but Bucky is nearly delirious on pancake batter at this point.
“C’mon Stevie,” he says, hand at Steve’s wrist, chin bumping Steve’s shoulder. “Just one picture?”
“Listen to Professor Barnes,” Kamala says. “He’s very smart and very well rated on RateMyProfessor.com.”
“Hey, thanks, Kamala!” Bucky beams and Kamala beams back.
“Fine,” Steve finally says gruffly, capitulating as though it’s some greatly terrible task for him.
“Okay,” America says, because she’s the one with the best camera on her phone or whatever. “On three—”
Bucky leans into Steve and Steve wraps an arm around Bucky’s back.
Steve’s arm is so warm around him and Bucky is so giddy from how ridiculous this night has been that he must have the goofiest expression on his face.
Steve has flour in his goddamned fucking hair, the goddamned fucking loser.
“Cheese,” Bucky says, following instructions, just as Steve kisses him on the nose.
The picture, as it turns out, is absolutely stupidly ridiculous and not just a little cute.
They both have batter and flour all over them, Steve’s predominantly in his hair, Bucky’s streaked across his face and his poor apron. Steve is kissing Bucky’s nose and Bucky’s entire face is scrunched up in a laugh—his nose, his eyes, his mouth, all of it.
Apparently it goes viral on Twitter.
“This is the most sickeningly cute scam I’ve ever had the misfortune of seeing,” Sam says with disgust the next time the group goes out to drinks.
“Sure, scam,” Clint says cheerfully into his beer.
Bucky leans into Steve at the bar because it’s easy and comfortable to. Steve has an arm slung across Bucky’s shoulder and Bucky keeps stealing sips of Steve’s drink.
Maybe he’s a little tipsy, but Natasha keeps giving them One Of Her Looks.
“Coulson’s really happy about it,” Steve says happily. “He came up to me the next day and said they’ve Never gotten such positive feedback about Pancake night before. They want me and Bucky to volunteer again for the next morale...boosting activity.”
“What’s that, a kissing booth?” Natasha mutters under her breath.
Bucky doesn’t care about all that, really. What he cares about is that Steve is happy and that he had a great time—one of the best times, really.
Also, he has a new phone background now.
He had almost made it his lock screen before deciding Steve sees that too much.
Better to keep secret. Better to keep it safe.
The thing, Bucky thinks, too late for it to really matter, is that fake dating your best friend when you’re in love with him involves doing a lot of things you wouldn’t normally do if you were in your right state of mind.
For example: willingly attending a sportsball game.
“Why are we doing this again?” Bucky asks with a sigh.
It’s an almost warm April day and he’s in a light, long-sleeved shirt, with his glasses pushed up the bridge of his nose, and his leather jacket thrown on top. His hair is growing out a little bit and he can’t stop playing with it, pushing his fingers up into the curls and messing it up or pulling on one and stretching it when he gets bored.
Steve watches him every time, which Bucky knows is because he’s doing it right in front of him, but it still gives him a bit of a thrill, to think Steve might be watching him.
Bucky sighs and lets go of his curl and gets out of Steve’s car.
“School spirit is very important, Buck,” Steve says, seriously. He’s in jeans and a thin sweater with a turtleneck that bunches at his throat. Much to Bucky’s horror, Steve has been in the process of letting his facial hair grow out and it makes him look even more like a fuckable professor than before and hell if Bucky hasn’t gone to bed thinking about that some nights—
He sighs again, but internally this time. They have another month until the dinner and everything is going well—more than well. Sometimes, when he and Steve are out on a fake date night or they’re in the faculty lounge and Bucky’s sitting on the couch and Steve slips in next to him, thighs and shoulders pressing against him, or when he wakes up on Steve’s couch, in Steve’s office, and Steve’s just sitting at his desk, grading papers, it all just feels so right.
Bucky’s in entirely over his head and it’s not Steve’s fault that he’s falling more in love with him, not really, but it’s those moments of normalcy that really get him. The fact that they could be in a real relationship and it would feel just as normal as them being in a fake relationship. None of it feels wrong.
These days, when Steve presses a kiss to his cheek or Bucky buries his face into the space between Steve’s shoulder blades in his back, he can almost imagine Steve’s heart is beating just as rapidly as his is.
Bucky knows it isn’t, but.
God, it’s getting worse.
He’s so fucking stupid.
“It’s important that students see us not only as professors, but as integral parts of the school psyche, you know?” Steve asks.
They’re waiting in the lobby for Sam, Natasha, and Clint. There are students milling all around them in school paraphernalia, all rambunctious, infectious energy and school spirit. The SHIELD crest—the black bird on white—is displayed everywhere and Bucky even almost feels it, or would if he had any room in his chest to feel anything other than the crushing weight of pining.
“No Steve, I don’t know,” Bucky says grumpily.
“Are you hungry?” Steve asks, raising an eyebrow. “You sound hangry.”
“No,” Bucky says, even more grouchily than before. And then, with a deep sigh, nods. “I could go for a hot dog.”
“Let me buy you a hot dog, you gremlin,” Steve says affectionately. Bucky grumbles some more, but his spirits lift a little as Steve chuckles and leans in to press a kiss to his temple.
Steve takes his hand and leads him away from the front doors toward the absurd lines at the concessions.
The hot dog does help, unfortunately, which internally only makes Bucky grumpier because how dare Steve know him that well?
Anyway, he’s two hot dogs and a slurpee in when the rest of the peanut gallery show up.
“You have slurpee on your shirt,” Sam points out and Bucky flips him off for the effort.
“Come on,” Natasha says, leading the group of them toward their section. “I know not a single one of you know a single rule of a single sport, but I do and I’m not interested in missing the start because you think slurpees are an interesting topic of conversation.”
“Okay, but how do they get that blue?” Clint asks, trailing after Natasha like a persistent puppy. Natasha tries to smack him across the head, but Clint catches her hand instead and she allows him to lace their fingers together.
“I have got to get new friends,” Sam sighs and moves after them.
Bucky looks at Steve and Steve quirks a little smile at him.
He offers his hand and Bucky, heart definitely skipping, takes it.
Basketball is definitely a sport, Bucky thinks.
Of this he is almost certain.
There’s men with orange balls and they run around and sometimes throw the orange balls and sometimes people cheer and sometimes people groan and Natasha is definitely rattling off some commentary in like, Russian, but more important and interesting to Bucky is the assortment of food laid out on Steve’s lap.
There’s popcorn and candy and chili dogs and crinkle fries with disgusting, processed cheese melted all over it, and some nachos with a little tub of that same disgusting, processed cheese congealing at room temperature.
Everyone screams around them and he leans in closer to Steve, stealing food from him.
They’re pressed shoulder-to-shoulder, but they kind of have to be, don’t they?
Bucky is really enjoying this sportsball thing.
Steve had tried to pay attention to the first quarter or whatever, but now he and Bucky are trying to shout at each other over the noise of the crowd, discussing Bucky’s manuscript and his progress on it, but also the newest superhero movie.
“You’re full of shit!” Bucky yells at Steve. “I saw you cry when he picked up the cat!”
“He’s a flerken, you monster,” Steve shouts back.
“You’re a flerken,” Bucky shouts, intelligibly and it’s so dumb that Steve looks at him and his face crinkles as he collapses into laughter.
“God, do you use that language on your Ma?” he asks, laughing and Bucky pokes his side.
“Don’t you take my Ma’s name in vain!” he says, leaning close and yelling at Steve.
“I didn’t say your Ma’s name, you ass!” Steve says, leaning in closer. “But—Winifred. Winifred. Winifred.”
“You’re a child!” Bucky shouts.
“You’re a flerken,” Steve shoots back and Bucky can’t help it, he absolutely cracks up.
He collapses into giggles, his face buried in Steve’s shoulder and Steve’s also shaking with laughter, his hair, growing longer, tickling the top of Bucky’s forehead.
“Idiots,” Bucky hears someone over Steve’s shoulder, but he also hears, “God, they’re so cute.”
And Bucky doesn’t have to know who said it or the context to know it’s about them. And is that true? Could they be cute? Even fake dating, just as best friends? Is that what he and Steve are?
He pulls back and Steve’s face is flushed pink, his eyes sparkling, his hair floppy and loose.
God, Bucky thinks, his own face probably just as happy and carefree. I love him. God help me, I love him so fucking much.
He reaches forward and pushes his hand into Steve’s hair, his heart beating rapidly. Steve’s smile widens. He tilts his head into Bucky’s touch and Bucky—he feels out of it, he feels it vibrating through his skin, how much he likes Steve. How much he wants him. How much he wants to—
Suddenly, all around them, there’s cheering.
“Did someone score?” Bucky asks stupidly and behind them, somewhere, he hears someone shouting Kiss him! Kiss him!
“I think we’re on the kiss cam,” Steve says, flushing furiously, and turning from Bucky toward the center of the arena.
He’s not wrong.
There, on the enormous jumbotron, are Steve and Bucky, their faces in a bright pink heart that keeps lighting up.
“Fuck!” Bucky laughs.
Kiss him the crowd chants. Kiss him!
“Kiss me, Buck,” Steve says, pink, deliriously happy, smile spread from ear to ear. “Kiss me, you fool.”
Well, Bucky’s hand is still in Steve’s hair, so he cups the side of Steve’s head, slides his hand down to Steve’s neck and pulls him forward.
He kisses Steve Rogers in public, on the jumbotron, for God and all the fucking world to see.
It’s a good fucking kiss, lips and tongue and teeth, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t think that Steve Rogers kisses him back too.
Bucky’s heart is beating out of his chest by the time the basketball game gets out. SHIELD wins by a landslide of a margin and Sam and Natasha and Clint are teasing them mercilessly, but Bucky is nearly plastered to Steve’s side, happiness thrumming across his skin.
His whole entire chest stutters as Steve slips his hand into Bucky’s back pocket as they walk.
Bucky feels Steve’s hand on his ass and tries not to die on the spot.
He allows it.
It’s all going according to plan. It’s not that Steve had doubted their ability to pull off this grand fake dating scheme—after all it was him and it was Bucky and if anyone could work together to convince the Dean of a school that there was romance happening, it was the two of them.
But that was kind of the problem, Steve was quickly finding.
Everything—this whole thing—has been so easy to fake, it’s giving Steve some kind of crisis. Steve and Bucky have been friends for four years now and in that time, Steve has known a few things: 1) that Bucky Barnes is almost devastatingly beautiful, 2) that Bucky Barnes is stupidly funny and even more stupidly intelligent, 3) that Steve has connected with him better than almost anyone in his life, and 4) that Bucky Barnes is very very bi and very very focused on dating as much as he can.
It’s not as though Steve hasn’t dated around too. Bucky had helped him figure out Tinder just a few months after meeting, had even helped him set up his profile so that he could present the best Steve Rogers to both men and women. Steve’s been pretty successful all things considered, and no little part of that is due to Bucky. Bucky’s a great wingman. He helps Steve swipe through all of the garbage on the dating apps and if they’re at a bar, he’ll talk Steve up, oversell him to such an extent that Steve spends most of any night he’s talking to someone in crisis because he can’t possibly live up to what Bucky’s described him to be.
So Bucky’s always been this kind of unattainable possibility and that’s been fine for Steve because he loves Bucky more than almost anyone and it isn’t worth his life to lose his best friend over something like—well—
“You have a crush on him,” Sam says, unimpressed. He’s sitting in the chair in Steve’s office, coffee in his hand, listening to Steve’s internal crisis and borderline meltdown.
“I don’t know,” Steve says, running a hand over his face. He’s still not used to the beard, but he thinks he likes it. Bucky certainly had had a reaction that had, unexpectedly, sent a thrill running through Steve’s stomach. Bucky had stared at him and then, unthinkingly, run his fingers through Steve’s beard. It had been the single hottest thing Steve had experienced in like a year, at least, probably more, and Steve had really just kept replaying that moment on loop in his head as he continued growing out and grooming his beard. That’s normal friend behavior, right?
“Your face says otherwise,” Sam says, sipping on his coffee.
“Fuck,” Steve mutters and scrubs at his face some more. “I don’t know. It’s fake, you know? We agreed to it. He promised not to fall in love with me. I mean—not that he would. Why would he? I mean, look at him. And we’re just friends, Sam. He’s just being a good best friend, trying to help me with this funding and—”
“Stop,” Sam says, holding up a hand. “Please. I beg you. I can’t listen to this anymore.”
“It’s just a phase, right?” Steve asks, looking up from his hand mournfully. “I’m just confused because we’re always together and he’s always touching me and sometimes he looks at me like—well, I know it’s fake. But it feels real. I mean my brain knows, but my feelings, tell that to them.”
“Jesus Christ,” Sam says. “My fucking god.”
“This isn’t helpful, Wilson,” Steve glowers.
“You don’t need helpful, you need a life coach,” Sam says. He straightens in his chair and puts his coffee mug on his table. “Listen, man, I love you. You know that right?”
Steve makes a face.
“Whatever,” Sam says. “Anyway, I’m no shrink and I’m definitely not a life coach, but even I can see you have a problem here.”
“Problem?” Steve asks, trying not to sweat. “What problem?”
“It’s a Bucky Barnes problem,” Sam points out. “Like okay, sure, maybe your brain is confused because of all of the closeness, but you two have always been close. Like. You’ve always been nauseating, you’re just being over the top sickening now. It’s giving me an ulcer, maybe it’s giving you feelings. You ever feel like this before?”
“No,” Steve says, groaning. And it’s true. He’s never felt like this before—not around Bucky and not around anyone else.
He likes it too much—being around Bucky, touching him, laughing into him. Pretending to fake date him. It’s more than just a secret between the two of them, binding them and their time together. It’s more like, everything they do together, Steve would do with Bucky anyway and now he just wants to do it with Bucky more. Does that make sense? He misses Bucky, even when he’s with him.
Sometimes, he just wants to drag his thumb across Bucky’s lower lip and lean in and—
Steve groans again.
“Talk to him,” Sam advises. He gets up because Sam Wilson has actual things to do that don’t involve hand-holding his good friend through a personal crisis completely of his own making. “You’re both in this together, Rogers. It takes two to fake date. There’s principles and shit.”
“What principles?” Steve asks blearily. “What shit?”
“Man, I don’t know,” Sam gripes. “I teach teaching, not fake dating. That’s your own dumb ass’s curriculum.”
Steve sighs and Sam finishes his coffee and tips it into Steve’s trash can.
“I’m serious though, Steve,” Sam says, by the doorway. “Talk to him. He’s your best friend, he deserves to know if there’s something more you want there.”
Is there something more he wants here?
Steve doesn’t know.
And, frankly, he’s a little scared to find out.
“Anyway,” Bucky says, from Steve’s couch. “Did you see Stark’s face?”
Bucky’s cackling. No, he’s crowing.
The inter-departmental trivia night had gone off spectacularly well for the two of them. That is, they had formed a team with Thor and Sam and Maria Hill and they had, strangely, cobbled together a surprising amount of randomass knowledge between the five of them.
It had really boiled Tony Stark’s blood, because he had really thought he put together the best team available to trivia and mankind. That is, a team with himself on it.
It had been pretty thrilling, actually. Steve’s competitive spirit had gotten the better of him and he had gotten into some kind of an unintentional, but probably intentional, shittalking war with Tony and the only real option remaining to him and Bucky had been to win.
He didn’t think they would pull it off. Nobody did.
But then, randomly, Thor had pulled some random fact about Norse mythology out of his ass and they had eked out a win, much to the horror and fury of Tony.
Steve had spun Bucky around in his wild celebration and then, in a moment of pure impulse and lack of thinking, had just kissed him, smack on the lips, in front of the whole faculty.
Coulson, who had been administering the trivia night, had watched the whole affair, but not in a creepy way.
The thing is, Steve hadn’t even done it for Coulson. He had forgotten he was there at all.
He had just been so happy and Bucky have been so triumphant and he had been there, in his glasses, and soft sweater, and his hair was flopping again and god, Steve had just wanted to pick him up and kiss him, feel Bucky’s arms around his shoulder.
It had felt good to do it, just in the moment, nothing on his mind but how much he wanted to kiss his best friend.
Well that’s what he had done then and now he’s pretty fucked, because Bucky’s laying on the couch in his office and it’s office hours, so students can definitely walk in, but Steve is half listening to Bucky and half wondering what Bucky’s sweater would look like raked halfway up his body. Bucky is always warm to touch and Steve can always feel the hard-earned muscles under the softness of his clothes and he just wonders, you know? What that would feel like under his fingertips. What Bucky’s chest would feel like under his palm. How salty is his skin? Steve bets he would look so good with his sweater off, his hair messed up by Steve’s hand, the top button of his jeans flicked open and—
Jesus fucking Christ Steve cannot afford to give himself a hard on in his office during office hours with his best friend laying on his couch. Also one inspired by his best friend.
“Are you listening to me, you nerd?” Bucky asks. He turns his head lazily and even that movement is so effortlessly charismatic that Steve finds himself helplessly charmed.
“Yeah, you’re talking about the Twitter again,” Steve says. “That’s the one with the pictures, right?”
“You literally took a coding boot camp last year,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes. “I was there with you. You made me go on a weekend.”
“Yes, the coding,” Steve nods. “For the Twitter.”
“I hate you,” Bucky declares, but he’s smiling.
He stretches his arms above his head and his sweater rides up a little, a thin stretch of bare skin appearing at his stomach.
Steve needs to just cancel office hours and go take a cold shower at the gym, maybe.
“So how’s it going?” Bucky asks, changing topics. “With Coulson. He buying it?”
“What?” Steve asks, finally actually distracted. He leans back in his chair, runs a hand through his hair. His desk has his laptop on it, the printed out syllabus for his Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class, a half-written research grant proposal marked up in red ink, and a few books on evolutionary anthropology, the evolution of kinship groups, and Marxism. “Yeah. We’re killing it, actually.”
“Yeah?” Bucky asks, sounding eager now. He’s grinning. “He say something?”
This makes Steve smile, a little to himself.
“He said I should expect an official email sometime this week.”
“Holy shit!” Bucky says and sits up. “Steve! That’s fucking—we’re gonna it. You’re going to do it, you’re going to get your research funding and then you’re gonna go to Peru and then you’re gonna forget all about little old me.”
“I could never,” Steve replies automatically. That feels a little too on-the-nose as far as honesty and realness goes so he laughs. “Who else am I gonna complain to about all of the hot Peruvians I got no chance with?”
Bucky doesn’t laugh or even answer immediately. When Steve looks at him, there’s a smile on his face, but it’s just a little strange. Steve’s not sure why.
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Well it’s gonna be great and you deserve it more than anyone I know. Just one dinner to go, right? How hard can it be?”
Steve swallows, watches Bucky stand up and gather his things. He has to go teach and Steve wishes, irrationally, that he could go with him. He doesn’t want to be Bucky’s student per se, he just wants—
He doesn’t know.
Steve doesn’t know what he wants, but he knows that it isn’t Bucky walking out of his office, like he is now.
“Right,” Steve laughs to himself, after Bucky leaves. He buries his face in his hands, his heart beating somewhere near his throat, his stomach sinking. “How hard can it be?”
How hard can it be to fake date your best friend through the most important dinner of your career so far and then, after, tell him that maybe you don’t want it to be fake dating after all?
Easy as Introduction to Steve Rogers is the World’s Biggest Dumbass. Prerequisites not required.
Steve gets the email at the end of the week.
Dear Mr. Rogers,
The Chancellor would like to formally invite you to a dinner honoring SHIELD’s commitment to diversity and academic rigor and excellence. The dinner will be held on Friday, May 10, 2019, at the University Club.
Please respond with your reservation for yourself and up to one guest by close of business.
Dean of the School of Arts and Science
Steve shows Bucky the email almost as soon as it appears in his inbox. It isn’t hard. Bucky’s over at Steve’s apartment, sitting on his couch and eating his third slice of pizza while in the middle of their Criminal Minds marathon.
Bucky licks his greasy fingers, considers the little tummy of cheese and carbs protruding from under his soft t-shirt, and wonders if maybe he would have more of a chance with Steve if he was a little bit less like a 35 year old academic burnout and more like the guy he used to be in his 20s, all perfectly coiffed hair and an uncanny ability to sweep any man or woman off their feet through a smile alone.
As it is, he thinks he has pizza sauce on his face and the last thing he swept off its feet was his cat and that’s only because he was sweeping the floor and Gollum was resolutely not moving, demon cat that he is.
Anyway, Bucky wipes his hands on a napkin and then shoves himself to a sitting position.
“Fuck yes!” he says, mustering the enthusiasm only because Steve’s looking at his phone like it’s just asked him to marry it. “Okay, we’re in the endgame, pal. All we have to do is not fuck up one night. We can do that, easy.”
“Yeah,” Steve breathes. “Yeah, one night. That’ll be fine.”
“Hey,” Bucky says, because Steve sounds a little nervous. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime. I’m not gonna let you down.”
Steve looks up at that, expression surprised.
“Let me down?” he says, softly, in that voice that always finds a way to wind itself around Bucky. “You’ve done more for me than—God, than I could have asked of anyone. Whether this works or not, I owe you my life, at the very least.”
“Careful what you offer, Rogers,” Bucky says, easily. He picks a piece of pepperoni off a cold slice of pizza in the box. “Did you learn nothing from Rumpelstiltskin?”
“You want my name or my first born?” Steve asks, clearly amused despite himself.
“It’s the least you can do,” Bucky says and pats his soft, pizza belly. It’s very attractive, he’s almost certain. “I have to go out and buy a suit and everything.”
“What? Oh, you don’t have to do that,” Steve says quickly. “I mean, you have a blazer right? Or one of your tweed jackets, those look good on you. Seriously, Buck, just slacks and a nice button up, you don’t gotta—”
“Nah,” Bucky says and shifts his body on the couch again so that his back is to the couch arm and his socked feet are digging into Steve’s thigh. “We started something, now we gotta finish it. I’m gonna look good for my best guy.”
It’ll be their last date, anyway, Bucky thinks, trying not to feel too morose during a particularly gruesome episode of Criminal Minds and mostly failing.
He had known going in that this whole experiment had an expiration date.
He just hadn’t expected it to come so soon.
He keeps his promise, anyway. Bucky buys a new suit, a nice one, deep blue, that’s tailored to fit him like a glove. He’s never not gonna need a suit, he justifies to himself. It definitely has nothing to do with how it brings out the color of his eyes or how nice it looks against a pure white shirt. He absolutely had not looked in the mirror at Brooks Brothers, turned his head left and right, and decided on the suit that made him look like someone smooth enough to make his best friend fall for him.
Bucky picks Steve up from his apartment, texting him that he’s waiting downstairs. He gets into a text argument with Sam about the decisions he is making in his life and he’s so engrossed in telling Sam he is definitely, absolutely, almost certainly wrong because Bucky Barnes is obviously, very clearly very good at being an adult who makes good decisions for himself, physically and emotionally, that he misses Steve coming out altogether.
It’s only when Steve taps a finger against the passenger window that Bucky looks up. He unlocks the door and Steve gets in.
“Wow,” Steve says and Bucky tries not to feel too embarrassed about that.
“Yeah?” he asks, looking down at himself self-consciously. “Not too much? The guy at the store said it fit okay.”
“Are you kidding? That looks—” Steve actually looks like he’s at a loss for words, for once, and it makes Bucky feel weird in a pleased way. Steve’s expression softens into a lingering smile that’s so fond Bucky could almost pretend it’s enamoured. “You look great, Buck. If I get the fellowship, it’s because no one’s gonna want to let someone like you down.”
Bucky laughs at that and puts the car into reverse.
“Well if that’s the only way I can help you, then I’m happy to do it,” he says. His eyes linger on Steve—in a dark navy suit, an almost lilac-colored button up, a dark blue and grey striped tie with white accents, and contacts in, so his bright blue eyes are fully on display—and his stomach flips. It isn’t a new sensation for him at all, but it is a slightly sadder one than usual.
It’s one of the last times Bucky can openly look at Steve with no consequences, so he tries to do just that. He takes all of Steve in and when Steve gives him a grin, Bucky leans forward impulsively, presses a kiss to his lips.
“Oh,” Steve says, eyes widening in surprise.
“One for good luck,” Bucky explains, swallowing his feelings as best as he can.
Steve looks at him, expression inscrutable, and leans forward too. He kisses Bucky and it sweeps through him, just warms him head to toe.
“Better make it one more then,” Steve murmurs, before moving back to his side.
Bucky can’t even laugh at that. He can barely muster the heart to smile. He doesn’t know how he’s going to transition back to just being Steve’s best bud after this, but he guesses he can do it. He steels himself, takes a breath and turns his eyes back to the road.
No, he has to do it. He doesn’t really have much of a choice.
The night is a nightmare.
Okay, actually it’s more or less fine. The University Club is one of the most elite dining halls on campus, open only to the Chancellor, the Deans of schools, and a handful of the wealthiest and most self-important SHIELD alumni. Bucky himself has never had the opportunity to step foot inside and the experience doesn’t disappoint. The room they’re in is called the Red Room and it earns its name from the lush, red curtains of velvet that line the towering windows, floor to ceiling. They’re sashed in the middle with thick ropes that are gold in color. The walls are lined with paintings of old university presidents and chancellors, dead, famous alumnae, and some drawings from the 1800s of famous things that happened on the SHIELD campus. There’s a long, mahogany dining table in the middle of the room, laden with candles and gold-rimmed plates, glasses, and utensils. The entire room feels lush—there’s no other word for it.
Bucky is very very glad that he bought a new suit for the occasion. He doesn’t think the University Club would have deemed appropriate the fraying suit he had bought six years ago and last worn to his baby sister’s wedding five years prior.
“Jesus,” Steve mutters into Bucky’s ear and Bucky agrees, although he also half thinks the University Club would turn Jesus himself away at the doors.
Steve seems nervous; he’s fidgeting more than usual and his eyes keep darting around the room. It’s so unlike him and it bothers Bucky so much, that he can’t help but press a hand comfortingly to Steve’s lower back. That seems to help Steve relax a little, because he leans into Bucky’s touch.
“It’s gonna be okay,” Bucky murmurs and presses a kiss to the back of Steve’s jaw. “You’re gonna be great, Stevie.”
Steve takes a shuddering breath and nods. He offers Bucky a hand and Bucky, after a moment of internally sighing, takes it.
Steve leads him to the first wealthy alumni he sees and they start talking.
They work their way around the room like this, Bucky’s fingers laces through Steve’s own and that’s the part that’s the nightmare, not everything else—the dawning feeling that Bucky’s never going to get this again, but he’s already so used to it that he’s unwilling to let it go.
He’s unwilling to let Steve go, not when he knows what it’s like to have him. Even if it’s all been fake.
They approach a circle of alumni and former university and board officials, including a regal-looking woman dressed in deep purple and gold, by the name of Ramonda, who, Steve whispers to Bucky, was the former president of the university system.
“Professor Rogers,” Ramonda says, extending a hand for Steve to shake. “I have heard a lot about you.”
“Oh,” Steve says, looking both pleased and embarrassed. “Only good things, I hope?”
“More or less,” Ramonda smiles at him. Bucky has to admit it’s an intimidating one—not unkind, but piercing. She is a woman who knows power and who would wield it wisely, but without compunction. She is a woman whose respect you earn. She turns to him and Bucky introduces himself, shakes her hand. “History? I was a history professor myself.”
“Oh,” Bucky says, surprised. “Really?”
“I was with the African Studies department,” Ramonda says with a smile. “Years ago. But I taught history and culture within.”
“That’s amazing,” Bucky smiles. There’s nothing he loves more than meeting other people who love history. “You’ve written a few books, right? Anything I would have read?”
“Perhaps. I’ll send you a list,” Ramonda says with a gracious smile and what Bucky is sure is a wink. “What about you? Have you published yet?”
“I’m…” Bucky starts and suddenly becoming overwhelmed, stops.
“He’s writing a manuscript right now,” Steve says with a proud smile. This time, it’s his hand against Bucky’s back. Bucky leans into him and Steve doesn’t even think, just kisses his temple. “He never takes a day off, even when I beg. I’ve never seen someone more devoted to their subject matter.”
“Ah,” Ramonda says, watching them both. “That means something, in our field. Devotion. And do you share this same trait, Professor Rogers?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, not hesitating to jump in where defending Steve is concerned. “Never met someone so passionate about cultural anthropology. I barely know what that means, if I’m going to be honest, but Steve does. He’s going to change the entire field, I just know it.”
Steve actually looks—well, overwhelmed by that. Ramonda smiles and nods at them both before excusing herself to talk to someone else. Before they can move on to someone else, though, Steve grabs Bucky by the elbow.
“Buck,” he says and Bucky can tell his voice is thicker than it has any right to be.
Bucky doesn’t like that. He doesn’t know why, but there’s something there—something here, that makes him balk against this moment; against whatever Steve has to tell him. It’s not panic, exactly. It’s the sense that they’ve run out of time; that they’re running out of time.
But no, Bucky thinks, a little wildly.
They still have a dinner left. He still has one more dinner left with him.
“Hey, there’s Coulson and the Chancellor,” Bucky says quickly, instead. “Let’s go talk to them. Get this wrapped up.”
“Bucky, please,” Steve says, but Bucky pulls his hand out of Steve’s grasp, his heart teetering on the edge of something, and walks toward the Powers That Be.
Steve doesn’t try to stop him. Well, he doesn’t have a choice, anyway.
Coulson sees the two of them and breaks into a smile. Then he turns and there is Nicholas J. Fury himself, Chancellor of SHIELD University.
Later, Bucky supposes he’ll realize it all went rather well.
Coulson had been delighted to introduce Steve and Bucky to Fury as SHIELD’s only openly gay couple and had lauded their work besides. Steve, of course, is never not fascinating and compelling to listen to when he talks about his work and even Bucky manages to not stumble over his words as he explains his research and his half-written manuscript to the Dean and the Chancellor. For their parts, both Coulson and Fury seem impressed enough by Steve and Bucky and even though it half-kills Bucky to do so, he finds himself leaning against Steve the entire time. Steve wraps an arm around him easily, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
At some point, Fury asks them about diversity and something about the representation of LGTBQ+ students on campus and Steve gets really into his own feelings about it all and starts talking about proper allyship and intersectionality and safe spaces for students to explore their personal and professional selves and what it means for their growth, not only as academics, but as people, and listen, Nick Fury has a single eye and is almost impossible to read, but Bucky can see it, the moment Steve says something and it clicks with him.
The fellowship is as good as his.
Bucky’s happy for him, he really is.
But Coulson and Fury ask for everyone to sit for dinner and Steve turns to look at him, squeezing Bucky’s hand, and Bucky kind of feels like dramatically falling apart on the spot.
A simple five course meal stands between him and the end of—this.
“Sit next to me?” Steve asks and Bucky, because he’s stupid, barrels forward and kisses him really quickly, just once—just the one more time.
“Okay,” Bucky says, stupidly, breaking his own damned heart once more. Steve looks at him all confused, but Bucky’s a masochistic moron, so he just smiles. “After you.”
It’s all happening rather fast and rather well, which is exactly how Steve had planned for it to go.
Dean Coulson is sitting across from them and Chancellor Fury is somewhere to his left, not right next to him, but a seat down so Steve can engage in conversation with him and Fury’s guest of honor, a prestigious alumna named Carol Danvers. The conversation is actually pretty interesting and Steve even gets to talk about the theory he’s working on for an article he’s co-writing with Peggy Carter, but his attention is only half there, at best. Next to him, Bucky’s a little quiet. Oh sure, he turns to smile and talk to the person next to him and when Coulson asks him about his work, he has something perfunctory to say, which on anyone else would be terse and which on Bucky is almost charismatic.
It’s the almost part that Steve notices.
He doesn’t have to be fake dating him to know something is wrong. In between the soup course and the main course, Steve turns back to him and squeezes Bucky’s thigh.
Maybe it’s all in his mind, but Bucky seems to cringe away from the touch.
“Hey,” Steve says, with a frown. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says with a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Never better. How’s it going over there?”
“Fine,” Steve says distractedly. He leans in, as though inspecting something on Bucky’s place. “We don’t have to stay here that long, Buck. We can just grab a drink after dinner and then go. We’ve both had long days, they’ll understand.”
“What? Steve, no, I’m fine,” Bucky says and this time leans toward Steve, squeezes Steve’s wrist. “This is your night. I’m not gonna bail. Gotta put on a good performance and get Fury to sign that check.”
As though to prove his point, Bucky leans forward, presses a kiss to Steve’s mouth. This, too, is a little perfunctory, just distant enough for Steve to want to close the distance again and make it better.
“Not to be creepy about it, but you two are sweet,” a voice comes from over Steve’s shoulder. It’s Carol Danvers, smiling over a glass of red wine. “I’m glad SHIELD is becoming a place where people can love who they love openly.”
Steve looks at her, a little embarrassed and a lot surprised. He sees the ring on Carol’s left hand and she smiles, wiggles the finger for him.
“My wife and I were wondering if this was the right move for me,” Carol admits. “I’m becoming more and more convinced.”
“You’re interviewing here?” Steve asks.
“In a manner of speaking,” Carol smiles. “Nick and I are old friends. It’s a formality at this point, but I was wondering if the campus had changed since I was a student. I’m glad it has. How long have you and Professor Barnes been together?”
Steve feels Bucky’s chin on his shoulder, his hand slipping into Steve’s. He’s warm pressed against Steve’s back, his voice in Steve’s ear. Steve feels warm all over.
“A year or so,” Bucky lies easily. “But we’ve known each other for years.”
“Yeah? How did you meet?” Carol asks and tucks strands of blonde behind her ear.
“You know the first day orientation for new hires? I saw him in front of the bagels and thought shit, this guy’s too hot for his own good. Gotta marry him before someone else does,” Bucky says with a laugh.
That makes Steve—god, he doesn’t know. His stomach twists. Is it a joke? Is it just Bucky being Bucky? He wishes he could turn, ask Bucky if he really means it. Even though he knows he doesn’t. That would be ridiculous, after all. To meet someone in the faculty lounge and just know that was it. Right?
Instead, he laughs too.
“He was really grumpy and in need of coffee,” Steve says. He remembers that day, almost etched perfectly into his memory. “Ran into me, literally. And when I looked at him—that scowl on his face, in his dumb argyle sweater in the middle of August, well I knew.”
“Knew what?” Bucky asks, stilling against him.
“I had to have him in my life,” Steve says softly. “Grumpy face and all.”
It was the truth, is the thing.
“I love that,” Carol says. She puts her wine glass down. “Maria and I grew up together, so it wasn’t hard and fast like that. We just leaned on each other until one day we knew it was more than just leaning. She’s at home with our daughter right now, getting ready for the big move.”
That surprises him.
“Wait,” Steve says. “So you’ve decided?”
Carol smiles again and picks up her glass of wine.
“I like what I see, Professor Rogers,” she says. “And I’m a very decisive person.”
Behind her, Nick Fury turns, an interested look on his face. He raises a single eyebrow at Steve and gives him a smile that hides nothing.
It’s halfway through dessert that Fury comes over to him.
“You did good, Rogers,” he says, offering a hand and clapping one to Steve’s shoulder. “I like what I see and what I hear.”
“Sir?” Steve asks, a little slack-jawed, heart picking up.
“I’m not in a habit of second guessing my gut,” Chancellor Fury says, a small smile on his lips. “Think you’ll make a great diversity fellow. We got a good cohort this time—T’Challa, Wanda Maximoff, Okoye. You’ll make a fine edition. Looking forward to what you find in Peru.”
Steve can hardly believe himself. He trips over his words thanking Fury, relief and excitement crashing into him hard.
“Thank you,” he says, almost fervently, shaking Fury hand a little too vigorously. “Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down. Thank you.”
“I’ll have Coulson gave you the details.” And then, with his one good eye, Chancellor Fury winks at Steve and leaves.
“Bucky,” Steve says, turning. He feels a little dazed and a lot giddy. “Holy shit—Bucky. Did you hear? We did it. Buck—we—”
“That’s great, Steve,” Bucky says. He offers a hug and Steve takes it, buries his face into Bucky’s shoulder with a delighted, happy smile. “I’m so proud of you, bud.”
“Steve, sorry to interrupt, but can I talk to you for a minute?” Coulson’s voice comes over Bucky’s shoulder.
Bucky lets Steve go.
“Go,” Bucky says with a slightly strained smile. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Buck?” Steve says. “Promise?”
“Yeah, Steve,” Bucky says, softly. “Where am I gonna go?”
Something about that doesn’t sit comfortably with Steve, but Coulson is waiting, so he shakes off the feeling. He gives Bucky’s hand a squeeze, gives him a grateful smile.
“I’ll be right back,” Steve says and turns to follow Coulson.
He should have trusted his gut, as it turns out.
Because when Steve gets back to their spot, Bucky’s gone; nowhere to be found.
It’s not Steve’s fault, okay?
Bucky knows this. He’s a grownass adult who agreed to fake date the person he was in love with and the deadline was always there, but like, on the horizon? It had been so far away, it had almost been fake. Like their relationship.
He has a minor panic attack. He looks around the room, at all of the university dignitaries, at everyone here for Steve, and it just sort of dawns on him, right? That he’s here for Steve too, for a very specific purpose and now that purpose is at an end, so Steve now has this room of people and he doesn’t need Bucky.
All Steve had needed were those magic words: congratulations, you got the fellowship. That’s what this had all been about, right?
And it’s not Steve’s fault that Bucky has been so gone on him he’s basically existed in another dimension since the day they met. How is Steve supposed to know that the dozens of men and women he’s been with since have never blond enough or broad enough or had eyes blue enough or a smile that Bucky could feel rumble even under his skin? Bucky’s gotten too used to being around Steve all the time these past few months, too used to feeling his hands on him, too used to feeling the heat of their bodies pressed against each other. It’s become normal to him, almost addictive—to hold his hand in public, to just take Steve out and let people believe that this is what they are—that they’re together, like that.
It’s been a long time since Bucky’s been able to wear his heart on his sleeves like that and in this moment, in this room of strangers, it all comes crashing into him, like four months too late, but whatever.
You idiot, Natasha had said to him in private. Why would you do this to your own heart?
He can feel his breath coming up short.
What are you going to do? he remembers Sam asking. When it’s all over and all you can remember is what it was like to be with him? You’re playing a dangerous game, Barnes. Come on.
Bucky hadn’t listened to them, of course. He had thought it would be fine—what’s a few months of pretend, after years of pining? Just a little fun, practically harmless.
Shows how much he knows.
He doesn’t want to lose Steve, but he doesn’t want to just be his friend either; not anymore.
He doesn’t want to have to shove his heart back into his chest again, or to hear about all of the hot Peruvians Steve’s going to be sleeping with over the summer. He doesn’t want Steve within his reach and not be able to touch him.
He can’t do this.
And when Bucky can’t do something, what he does is—well, he runs.
Okay, he doesn’t really run, because he’s not that dramatic. But he does look around the room a little wildly and, seeing Steve nowhere in sight, he leaves. He just goes.
Steve won’t miss him, anyway.
“Sam,” Steve says breathlessly into the phone. “Sam, I can’t find him. I tried calling him a dozen times, but he’s not picking up his phone.”
“Steve, calm down,” Sam says, trying to calm him down.
Steve is fine at first. He’s puzzled, but he thinks that maybe Bucky went to the bathroom. He waits for him. Five minutes pass, then ten.
Steve starts to get worried.
He looks around the University Club. He asks everyone.
No one’s seen Bucky.
That’s when it hits Steve—all at once, just like that.
“He’s pissed at me,” Steve says. He’s outside the University Club now, looking out at the campus under the moonlight. “I shouldn’t have asked him to do this. I know he did all of this for me and he was too nice to say he didn’t want to and now he’s pissed and I don’t know where he is. Sam. I don’t want him to be mad at me.”
Steve kinda feels like he’s fraying at the edges. A half an hour ago he had been delighted—ecstatic even. He had gotten the thing that he had wanted and he had done it with his best friend at his side. It was the best of all of his worlds. Maybe it was his own fault for being so stupid he hadn’t realized what this looked like for Bucky. Of course he was pissed at Steve. He hadn’t wanted to do this in the first place; he’d just gone along with it because he was too kind and much too good of a friend to let Steve down. Steve would be pissed at Steve.
“Hey, hey,” Sam says. “Calm down. Did he say he was pissed at you?”
“No,” Steve says, worriedly. He runs a hand through his hair and looks down the moonlit path. Think, Rogers. Where would Bucky go?
He starts walking toward the History building.
“Then why do you think he’s mad?” Sam asks carefully.
“Why else would he have left?” Steve says. “Why wouldn’t he pick up his phone? He knows—God, he knows what this meant to me. He wouldn’t just leave.”
He turns down the sidewalk before it hits the street and starts jogging, sped up by a sense of urgency.
“Did he act like he wasn’t happy for you?” Sam asks. His voice is a little sharp. “Was he actually mad? Or did he look something else?”
“No?” Steve says, jogging, distracted. “I don’t—I don’t know. He seemed okay. He seemed fine, but then I came back and he was gone.”
Sam exhales over the line.
“Rogers, you absolute ass,” Sam says and Steve slows, frowning.
He’s too panicked, too borderline distraught to understand.
“What?” he asks.
“Pay attention,” Sam says. “Barnes is always paying attention to you. He doesn’t even have to ask, he just knows. You gonna return that same courtesy?”
“Sam, I don’t understand—” Steve starts, but then he stops to think.
Maybe Sam is right. Bucky is always there for him—always has been. He knows when Steve is feeling stressed or when he’s feeling overwhelmed; he knows when Steve is under the weather, when he’s delighted about something or when he just needs to sit on Bucky’s couch and just vent. Bucky’s attuned to Steve in a way that no one else is—that no one else can come close to.
And Steve—he knows Bucky better than anyone else.
So what is it that’s bothering him, really?
“He told me he wasn’t going anywhere,” Steve says slowly. “But he...looked at me funny. It didn’t seem like he was telling the truth. But I believed him.”
“Why?” Sam asks.
“I don’t know,” Steve says immediately, but no that’s not right either. Think, Rogers.
He thinks back to all of these past months—Bucky at his side, touching him easily, kissing him when others were around and sometimes when they weren’t. Bucky on his couch, head turned. Bucky tugging on Steve’s sweater, lacing their hands together in the cold, even when it wasn’t quite so cold anymore. Once, Steve had asked if Bucky was still swiping on the apps, but Bucky had laughed, but he hadn’t really answered. Bucky, on his couch, wearing one of Steve’s old sweatshirts, his feet pressed against Steve’s thighs. He’s always been so comfortable around Steve. He’s never hesitated—not once.
Bucky, his head on Steve’s shoulder, arm around him, telling Carol Danvers, gotta marry him before someone else does.
Has Bucky ever smiled like that at anyone else? Steve has all of Bucky’s smiles catalogued and he thinks there’s one he never sees anywhere else, with anyone else. It lights up his entire face, crinkles the corners of his eyes. It makes him look softer than he usually does, a hand in his hair, something warm about his mouth.
“Jesus Christ,” Steve says, slowly.
How stupid has he been?
“I’m sorry, what was that?” Sam asks. “Is that a light bulb that just went on above your stupidass, thick skull?”
“Sam,” Steve says. “I think—”
“Uh huh?” Sam drawls.
“Do you think—” Steve starts and stops. He shakes his head, then he claps a hand over his dumb, scruffy face. “Have I been actually dating Bucky this entire time?”
“Holy shit. It’s about goddamned time!” Sam nearly shouts in the phone. “I cannot believe someone this smart can be that stupid. Yeah, Rogers. You and Barnes have been real dating, this whole fucking time. Fun fact—everyone knew it but you. And Barnes, I guess, because he’s the same dumbass brand of stupid. So now he probably thinks you want to end things with him because your dumb ass thought you were fake dating and now you’re both spiralling separately when you could be spiralling together.”
“Honestly Sam, I don’t feel very supported right now,” Steve says, but his words are hollow at best.
There’s a lot whirling through his mind right now, everything catching up to him and slotting into the right places all at once. It all kinda looks like this: Bucky Barnes! His Bucky Barnes! There’s a reason Steve’s been unable to get Bucky out of his head since basically the moment he met him, with his lips perpetually smirked into a scowl, and his eyes the exact shade of the winter sky, and hair so fluffy that Steve has definitely run his hand through it at least once or twice under the guise of fixing it from the wind or something. Steve has dated all of these people for the past four years and there’s always been something just a little off about each one, even when they were perfectly nice and perfectly attractive and perfectly fine on paper.
Turns out, the thing that was off about them was just that they weren’t him. They weren’t Bucky.
Steve is genuinely the stupidest person he knows.
“Sam,” Steve says. “I know this is gonna come as a huge shock to you. But I think…I like him. I think I’m falling for him. I think I want to date him, but like, for real.”
“Your problem, Rogers,” Sam says, but he sounds half-exasperated and half-amused now. “Is that you think too much. Also that you’re on the phone gabbering to me when you should be finding Barnes and like, smashing your faces together or whatever. Don’t tell him I said that. And don’t do it in front of me.”
“Honestly, least supportive person I’ve ever met,” Steve says. He turns directions halfway down the path to the History building.
“Get the fuck off my dick and go find the one you want,” Sam says. “Ok, bye.”
He hangs up on Steve before Steve can say anything else.
Steve puts the phone in his pocket and runs.
Okay, he doesn’t run, because he’s not completely overdramatic and also it’s a Friday night and he’s still on campus, so there are students wandering about everywhere.
He’s halfway to Bucky’s office, chewing on his nails like a crazy person, when he hears a friendly voice call out to him.
“Hi, Professor Rogers!” the voice says as Steve stares down a fork in the sidewalk in panic.
“Hi Peter,” Steve says, distractedly.
“How’s it going?” Peter asks.
“Oh, you know,” Steve says.
“You seem upset,” Peter remarks. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, probably,” Steve says. Okay, the right path. That seems symbolic. Steve starts to shuffle toward that side. “Listen Peter, I’m in a rush, so sorry, but—”
“If you’re looking for Professor Barnes, he’s on the quad,” Peter says, helpfully. “He kinda looked like he was in the middle of a life crisis, so I didn’t tell him what I wanted to tell him, which is that his shoes are untied and if he falls into the grass he’s gonna mess up the real nice suit he’s in.”
“Not now, Peter, I’m b—” Steve starts and then he stops. He whirls on Peter Parker. “Quad? He’s on the quad?”
“Yeah!” Peter’s face lights up. He points toward the quad helpfully, as though Steve doesn’t know which way it is.
“Hey, thanks,” Steve says. Then pauses. “Good job on your essay the other day, by the way. Your analysis was real good.”
“Hey thanks!” Peter says brightly. “Thanks for letting me take your picture with Professor Barnes that one time. It went viral and I gained like, a thousand followers on Twitter.”
Steve doesn’t have time to parse what that could mean for any of them. He gives Peter another harried thanks and then sets off the right path—symbolism!—toward the quad.
He hopes Bucky’s still there.
He hopes he’s not too late.
Bucky probably shouldn’t be wallowing outside, in public, in his new and very expensive Brooks Brothers suit. He looks too good and the suit is too nice for him to be scuffing it this way, sitting on one of the enormous pillars in the middle of the quad, staring up at the moon mournfully.
He knows he looks ridiculous and out of place, sticking out like a sore thumb while there are like, freshmen and sophomores playing frisbee twenty feet away from him. It’s a lovely May night, which is really why it’s so fucked up that Bucky Barnes’s life is falling to pieces.
He has his knees pulled up and he’s gazing at the moon as though Mother Moon herself will come down from the heavens and help put back the broken pieces of his stupid, treacherous heart. Maybe she’ll take him by the shoulders, shake him, and say you are too old to be this devastated at the consequences of your own actions.
It’s weird that Mother Moon sounds a lot like Natasha and/or Becca Barnes, but Bucky doesn’t have the wherewithal to contemplate the voices that belong to his internal thoughts.
He’s nursing a broken heart. He stares at his hands. He misses Steve.
He knows he just saw him and Steve is, logically, within walking distance, and he knows that he literally just left him, but he still misses him. Feelings? Are stupid. Bucky Barnes? Is even stupider.
He thinks he can even hear Steve’s big, dumb, deep voice calling his name.
“Bucky!” Steve calls. “Buck!”
Steve’s ghost voice is really loud in Bucky’s head. Could he be a little quieter?
Some 35 year olds are tryna wallow dramatically in peace.
Then, it turns out, his inner dramatic monologue must actually materialize what he wants into existence, because now there’s Steve, gold hair glinting in the moonlight, tie askew, panting, and struggling to run up the slight slope of the hill in his nice suit and his nice shoes, like a total fucking lunatic.
“Steve?” Bucky says and his heart, traitor that it is, lurches. “Steve, what the fuck? You have asthma, you idiot. Do you have your inhaler? I swear to fuck, you absolute moron.”
Bucky rummages through his suit and finds his pocket.
He pulls Steve’s inhaler out and hops off the pillar to help him find his center of gravity.
“Thanks,” Steve says, gulping for air and reaching for it. He takes it and sprays the medicine into his mouth, gasping like a fish outta water.
“Are you insane?” Bucky stares at him.
“Wait—” Steve says. He’s panting, trying to catch his breath, and Bucky glares at him and rubs his back soothingly until he can hear the air go in and out of his lungs easier. “Wait. Do you just carry my inhaler around with you everywhere?”
“Name me a single time you had your inhaler on you when you needed it, Rogers,” Bucky says, heatedly. “One time.”
“So you just keep it on you?” Steve stares at him, eyes wide, a little crazy, to be honest. “You think to yourself, Steve’s probably going to do something stupid and have an asthma attack so I gotta carry around an inhaler so he doesn’t die because I know if I leave it up to him, he will?”
“Yeah?” Bucky says, impatiently. “Yeah, my best friend is a fucking moron, what am I supposed to do about it?”
That makes something soften in Steve’s face—just melt away altogether.
“What?” Bucky asks, suddenly uncomfortable. “What’d I say?”
“I am a fucking moron,” Steve says. “Just. The biggest one. I’m an idiot and no one told me.”
“What are you talking about?” Bucky frowns. “I tell you three times a day. Your name in my phone is literally IDIOT, with a heart next to it.”
“I didn’t know,” Steve says. “I’m sorry.”
“That your name is idiot in my phone?” Bucky asks.
He—there’s something about this moment he’s missing. Maybe it’s because he’s half out of his mind under the weight of his broken heart. Maybe it’s because he missed Steve so much, in the like half an hour they were apart, and now that Steve’s here, his shirt all rumpled from running, his hair all mussed from the wind, all Bucky wants to do is pull him close and bury his face in Steve’s ample chest.
Bucky has a lot of thoughts and feelings and honestly, six days out of seven, he feels like that conspiracy theory meme from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Yeah, he’s that person.
“Bucky,” Steve says. He takes a step closer.
Bucky watches him, his frown deepening. Something’s happening here, but his brain is like, too stupid to understand what it is.
He watches Steve take another step. And then another.
He watches Steve approach him, the three inches he has on Bucky this much more apparent this close to him.
Buck can feel his warmth now, the heat just rolling off his body. His heart is beating fast, his head a little dizzy.
He wants Steve, so, so much.
He can never have him again.
Oh, his hand is now on Steve’s chest, what?
Steve smiles at him—this, heartbreaking, fuzzy, stupidly beaming smile that makes Bucky go weak at the knees.
Is he going to swoon here, out where God and all of the students on campus can see?
Bucky doesn’t know what’s going on. His internal monologue has kinda lost the plot.
“So I have a question for you,” Steve says. His hand is on Bucky’s face—wait. His hand is on Bucky’s face?
Bucky looks up at Steve. Moonlight is framing him from behind, his hair glowing. Bucky’s mesmerized.
“Uh, sure,” he says dumbly. “Yeah, cool.”
Steve chuckles and Bucky feels it rumble under his palm.
“Say, there’s this guy. And like, you’ve known him for a long time, right? Years, in fact. You met him ages ago, maybe at work. You don’t work together, not directly. But you’re colleagues. You met him because he literally ran into you and the thing is—”
“Yeah?” Bucky can barely breathe. His heart is beating so fast it’s gonna beat right out of his goddamned chest.
“—he’s grumpy and he’s funny and he’s so fucking beautiful. And hot, that too. And the thing is, you meet him and you become friends and then you become best friends. You can’t get him out of your head. You try, you really do. Maybe you don’t realize, at first, that what you’re doing is comparing every person you date and meet to him, but—”
“But?” Bucky’s face is burning. He’s going to faint, probably.
“—but, you realize it, eventually. Because one day, this weird happenstance of a day, your boss tells you that he thinks the two of you are dating, and if you are, there’s this huge promotion on the line for you. Kinda. Something that you want, real bad.” Steve is looking into Bucky’s eyes, like he can’t look away.
Bucky curls his fingers into Steve’s shirt, rumpling it even more.
“That’s so weird,” Bucky hears himself say. “That would never happen in real life.”
“Definitely not,” Steve smiles. “But it does. And then, say, you could set your boss straight, tell him no that’s my best friend you’re talking about, we’re not dating. But instead—you don’t. Instead.”
“Instead, you ask your best friend if he’ll fake date you. For the promotion, of course,” Steve’s smile widens.
“Of course,” Bucky says. “That’s logical.”
“Right, logical,” Steve laughs.
“So what happens?” Bucky asks.
Steve’s hand curls more firmly around Bucky’s jaw.
“What happens is that you and your best friend fake date, for months. And then sometime along the way, you realize you’re falling for him. Not fake-falling. Real falling. And it feels so natural that you don’t even realize it’s happening until it does. Everyone else seems to know. Everyone else seems to be waiting, like it’s—inevitable, or something.” Steve takes a breath, his thumb on Bucky’s cheek.
“Steve,” Bucky murmurs. He feels light, like air. He feels like someone could just breathe on him and he’d blow away.
“Maybe it was inevitable, Buck,” Steve says quietly. “I’m sorry it took me this long to realize it. I’m so stupid. You know that, right? I’m real stupid.”
“You’re not stupid,” Bucky says, automatically. Then, “Okay, you’re pretty stupid.”
Steve chuckles and Bucky feels that too.
“You been waiting for me a while?” Steve asks.
“God,” Bucky breathes out and with it goes—everything. Years of it. Whole years of aching, just wasting away for this person in front of him. “So fucking long.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve says again. “It took me a while. I’m real fucking slow. But I got here in the end and—if you’ll give me a chance. I’ll make it up to you. I’ll make all that time up to you.”
“Okay,” Bucky says. “How.”
This is how:
Steve leans forward, hand sliding into Bucky’s hair, breath ghosting over Bucky’s mouth, and finally, finally, kisses him.
It’s about sixteen different shades of cliche, but Bucky doesn’t even care.
He leans up, wraps his arms around Steve’s shoulders, and Steve, laughing, presses him back into the pillar, and then, unheeding of how rumpled their very nice, very expensive suits are getting, hearts thumping fast, Steve kisses him some more. It’s open-mouthed—a little frantic, a little sloppy, a little heated, but a lot happy, and eager, under the moonlight, in the middle of the quad.
Later—like, at least a day later—they’ll learn that there were students everywhere and that they go viral not once or twice, but at least three times and from three different angles.
It would be creepy, if they cared.
They don’t though.
Instead, they make out on the grass, like a couple of lovestruck college students, overdue for their cliche, rom com ending.
Bucky sends the text to a group of assorted individuals, all irritating:
IT IS MY PLEASURE TO ANNOUNCE THAT STEVE ROGERS AND I ARE NOW OFFICIALLY DATING. WE WILL NOT BE TAKING QUESTIONS AT THIS TIME. WE WILL BE MAKING OUT A LOT, INSTEAD.
THANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT.
He turns his phone off immediately after and then, as promised, they continue making out.
“Steve, I’m serious,” Bucky says, voice muffled.
His voice is muffled because, currently, his door is closed and Steve is trying to give him beard burn on his whole face.
“What? Didn’t hear you,” Steve says.
He kisses Bucky’s mouth again, leaving it bright red and sore to the touch. He makes his way down Bucky’s jaw, his beard scraping against Bucky’s already pretty tender skin. He stops at Bucky’s pulse point and nips there and Bucky tries his hardest not to arch into him or make a sound and fails resoundingly at both.
Steve’s hand is definitely up under his t-shirt, his other hand creeping down to Bucky’s fly.
“These are my office hours,” Bucky hisses, as though he’s not holding onto Steve’s broad shoulders for his dear life.
They’re on the couch in Bucky’s office, again.
That couch has recently gotten some mileage, he has to say, and now when students come in to talk to him, Bucky has them sit on the chair across from his desk, instead.
Some memories, you can’t unmake.
“Yeah they are,” Steve grins and starts kissing down Bucky’s throat.
“I’m serious, pal!” Bucky groans. His hands are flailing, scrabbling for purchase. Everything in him is also flailing, scrabbling for purchase.
It’s not fair to him or to society that Steve makes his body react in this way.
In the almost month that they’ve been real-dating, Steve has really done some shit and Bucky’s really learned a lot about how his body will react to said shit. Seems as though there is nothing Steve can’t do that won’t turn Bucky on, but that is a different story.
“I need to be writing my manuscript,” Bucky whines. The whine may or may not be related to the hickey Steve is sucking into his clavicle.
What the fuck! Rogers!
“You have all summer to write it,” Steve says between pulls of his teeth. “You’ve been doing so good. And now—”
“Now what?” Bucky says.
Steve moves up and finds Bucky’s mouth again.
Bucky, brain hazy, pants tight, every part of him like, dying to have Steve everywhere, just resigns himself to the fact that this is his life now.
He’s real-dating his best friend and he guesses what that means is that sometimes he has to cancel office hours because best friend-slash-boyfriend is gonna try to get into his pants and Bucky is way too weak to say no to that.
Bucky drags Steve in by the shirt and loses time and all of his senses to the feeling of his mouth on his mouth.
Anyway, after, when they’re straightening their clothes and Bucky is trying to rake his fingers through his hair to bring it back into some semblance of decency, or to, at a minimum, not make it completely obvious that he’s been debauched in his own office, he grumbles.
“Always trying to get into my pants when I’m supposed to be on a deadline.”
“Fun fact, a quickie is really great for those brain juices,” Steve says, with a grin.
“Never use the words quickie and juices in the same sentence again,” Bucky says, wrinkling his nose.
Steve laughs and leans over, kisses him on the mouth once more, before standing up.
“Gotta pack tonight, flight leaves at six in the morning.”
Bucky sighs, trying not to feel forlorn about all of it.
He’s had nearly a month of blissful, almost disgusting happiness dating Steve. They’ve gotten made fun of, like a lot, and Sam and Natasha basically yelled at them some more, but faculty meetings tend to be a lot more fun when Bucky gets to use Steve as his own personal couch and, well, Steve’s not wrong. Getting laid regularly has done wonders for Bucky’s academic output. Hilariously. Ironically. Whatever, haha.
Anyway, he’s gotten spoiled, because Steve’s leaving for Peru for the summer and Bucky already feels clingy and nearly disconsolate at the thought of not having him with him. What is he going to do about his manuscript? The academic output! This is what matters!
“See you tonight?” Steve asks as Bucky stands and tries to latch himself onto him. Steve chuckles and presses a kiss to Bucky’s head.
“Yeah, fine,” Bucky grumbles. “Pizza?”
“Tons of it,” Steve says.
Bucky sighs and Steve lets him hold him like that for a few minutes, until Bucky’s almost ready to let go.
“Hey,” Steve says.
“Yeah?” Bucky grumbles, face buried in his best-friend-slash-boyfriend’s chest.
“I love you,” Steve says.
Unfortunately for Bucky, that seems to cause him a full-bodied physical reaction as well. He gets all like, warm and fluttery and dizzy everywhere.
“I love you too, dillweed,” Bucky says.
Steve chuckles and finally extracts himself from Bucky.
“Don’t forget to bring the beer,” Steve says. “Sam will kill you if you forget again.”
“Whatever, Wilson can suck my dick,” Bucky complains.
“Nope,” Steve says. “That’s not gonna work for me.”
Bucky rolls his eyes, then pulls Steve back in for one last kiss before he goes.
What can he say? He’s overdramatic and needy, but he’s earned this. He pined for four years.
“Manuscript,” Steve says. “Deadlines. Now.”
Bucky grumbles some more and sadly watches Steve leave, although he does stop to admire the view as he does.
The accursed manuscript, he thinks. The American Revolution gave the whole country freedom and independence and all that, but like, at what cost?
The cost of Bucky’s sanity, obviously.
Bucky sighs and collapses back onto his seat.
He’s rearranging his papers and books when he sees an envelope in the middle of his nest of things. Frowning, Bucky reaches for it.
BUCK, it says in big, familiar, block letters.
Bucky gives it a confused look and then turns it over, sliding open the envelope with his thumb.
What slides out first is a sheet of folded notebook paper.
Bucky opens it and recognizes the script, of course. That punk.
I know you’re going through some kind of internal overdramatic breakdown. I know this because I know you, because you’re my best friend and we’re real-dating and also I happen to love you.
So I was thinking. Why be overdramatic in this country, when you could be overdramatic in another?
Fun fact about Peru—they have wifi there, so you can bring your laptop and I’ll even pitch in $50 if you want to add another suitcase and fill it with your dumb nerd books.
See you tonight! And also in Peru!
P.S. DON’T FORGET THE BEER
Bucky inhales sharply, then, brain a little woozy, slides out what’s left in the envelope.
It’s a ticket to Peru, leaving at six am, the next morning.
“That little shit,” Bucky exhales, then, sliding a hand over his face, starts laughing.
Here how Bucky Barnes’s life is rescued from going to shit.
His best friend and boyfriend and not-so-secret love of his life leaves an envelope for him, asking, “Bucky, I need you to go to Peru with me.”
And well, Bucky Barnes is nothing, if not an idiot, and a particular special brand of idiot when it comes to Steve Rogers, so he definitely says yes, and he definitely has to get his life together and pack for a whole summer in another country in the span of like, seven hours.
But it’s worth it and when he sees Steve again, at his apartment, that smug look on his face like the bastard really Did Something, well, Bucky makes sure he knows that it’s worth it.
Anyway, he definitely forgets the beer, but that, is a different story.