Bucky was, honest to God, going to die. He was just going to spontaneously combust right there in the museum cafeteria and drift into a thousand pieces of ash. The ash would probably stick to the coffee stains he’d left on the man’s shirt, and make the man’s too-tight T-shirt even more thoroughly ruined.
Of course Bucky’s day would go like this; on his first day off after spring semester, first of many since he was on sabbatical till January, he woke up early to find that his cat Eustace had vomited all over his softest slippers. Then, upon making his morning coffee, he had found his milk to be spoiled to the point of chunkiness, so coffee at home was out the window. While getting dressed, he had realized that his favorite Star Trek shirt had a hole in it, and now, after arriving at the history museum right as it opened for a well-deserved break after his grueling semester of teaching under-motivated, over-medicated college students, he had taken a face-plant and dumped his freshly-purchased iced coffee all over a random stranger. He would not only have to buy a new coffee, but also a new shirt for the victim of his clumsiness, probably. Honestly, fuck his life.
“I am so, so, so sorry,” Bucky mumbled, picking himself up from where he’s sprawled on the tile floor, still clutching the now-empty plastic cup of his drink/weapon, and hurriedly adjusting his glasses from how they’ve fallen askew. “I’ll buy you a new shirt, sir,” Bucky offered lamely, angling his head up to make eye contact with the poor, obnoxiously tall guy. It was then that Bucky felt all his blood drain out of his body and drip onto the floor next to the remnants of his drink as recognition ran through him like a tremor.
“Oh, shit,” Bucky mumbled under his breath. He wanted to say something more along the lines of “double shit, triple shit, quadruple fucking shit sundae with shit cherries,” but somehow managed to refrain.
Bucky’s life was absolutely, one hundred percent, completely and totally ruined.
Because, standing right in front of Bucky, his obnoxiously tight shirt stained with coffee, his mouth twisted into a polite frown, was Steve Rogers, in all his golden-haired, azure-eyed glory. As in the famous actor Steve Rogers. As in Bucky’s celebrity crush Steve Rogers. As in the Steve Rogers whose GQ photoshoot Bucky had jerked off to just last week. Holy shit.
Bucky tried to will his wide eyes back to normal, his gaping mouth shut, but it was to no avail. Because Steve Rogers was making eye contact with him. A mere mortal. Bucky felt like that part in The Phantom Menace where child Anakin is immediately in love with Padme despite being a literal child (and a little shit to boot), and managed to come off as creepy even though he was only, like, eleven. He was probably about to make a fool out of himself like Anakin, too.
As if in response to that thought, Bucky’s hand flew down practically of its own accord and patted his phone in his front left pocket, definitely about to whip it out and beg Steve Rogers for a selfie. But asking for a selfie would be entirely inappropriate, especially considering the fact that Bucky was probably about to have to shell out who knows how much to replace Steve Rogers’s almost-definitely-designer shirt. Bucky hastily yanked his hand away from his pocket as if he’d been burned, and instead gritted his teeth, ready to be yelled at by the hottest man in this century.
Steve Rogers, however, just shrugged. “Don’t worry about it,” he said coolly. “I needed an excuse to go shopping, anyway.”
Bucky almost didn’t hear Steve Rogers for the blood rushing in his ears. Holy shit. Holy shit! Steve Rogers was being cool about this! Bucky’s heart was pounding deafeningly loudly and he swallowed, practically choking at how dry his mouth was.
“I-I can still buy you a new shirt at the gift shop or something.” Bucky’s voice sounded so high in his ears that it was almost comical. He cleared his throat, probably too loudly and too long, but there was no other way he’d be able to actually talk to Steve Rogers without sounding like a prepubescent groupie. “Just so you don’t need to walk around in a wet shirt all day, at least,” Bucky added. “I mean, what if it molds?” Bucky cringed at himself internally; he was talking to the man he had fantasized about sexually for who knows how long about mold, which was almost certainly the least sexy topic of all time.
Steve Rogers huffed out a laugh. “That mold is concerning,” he teased.
Bucky’s cheeks heated up, but Bucky managed to maintain what he hoped was an easy-going smile. It probably looked more like a grimace, but Bucky was too nervous to put in the effort to fix it.
“You’re all good, man. Don’t worry about it,” Steve Rogers finally said, after it had probably become clear to him that Bucky was nearly, if not fully, catatonic. “I was just heading out anyway.” With that, Steve Rogers turned and walked calmly toward the exit.
Bucky marveled at Steve Rogers’s perfect posture and incredibly broad shoulders before realizing he looked like a major creeper and if Steve Rogers turned around right now he’d see an absolute idiot gaping at him.
Bucky shook himself from his hot-guy induced reverie by hastily glancing down at his shoes and sighing. His Docs were covered in coffee. He hobbled over to the counter, trying to avoid slipping on his mess, and grabbed a wad of napkins to try and dry himself. At least the museum had just opened for the day, so there were very few people around to witness his idiocy. Bucky stopped cold at that; how could Steve Rogers “just be leaving” if the museum had only opened 15 minutes ago?
Steve Rogers probably got special early access, Bucky reasoned to himself. After all, being here just 15 minutes after opening had resulted in Steve Rogers receiving a ruined shirt and the ramblings of a nervous fanboy. Steve Rogers was simply too popular a celebrity to mingle with the commoners such as Bucky himself.
After ten minutes and wasting about a dozen innocent napkins in the fruitless attempt to dry his shoelaces and two dozen more to get the stickiness out of the tile, Bucky sidled up to the counter to order a replacement. There was no one else in line, thankfully, so Bucky didn’t have to look anyone in the eye except the barista, who at least had the grace to save his giggles until Bucky was walking away with coffee in hand.
Bucky sipped it silently as he slid onto the escalator toward his original plans for the day, the decidedly less sexy World War I exhibit. Bucky, despite being earning a PhD in history and teaching two classes each semester on World War I, could never get enough of it. Especially when the exhibit included real artillery shells, and an actual, signed letter from Germany to Russia from just before war was declared. Bucky just couldn’t help himself; he was a total dork for historical artifacts.
He spent a quiet morning in the exhibit, only interrupted by the docents greeting him because he was the only person in the exhibit and his intrusive thoughts about how much nicer and rounder Steve Rogers’s ass was in person compared to magazines. He perused the American Indian wing, did a quick walk-through of the Civil Rights exhibit, and headed home around two in the afternoon, just as the museum was beginning to fill with too many people for Bucky to feel comfortable with. He had never done well with crowds, and had done worse with them since his time in the army, nearly ten years ago, which had gifted him with a few mild to moderate anxieties.
Bucky shoved the heavy door of the exit open with his good shoulder, and sighed softly as a warm June breeze enveloped him. June was the best month; hot enough to wear shorts, but still cool enough that the hot garbage stink of piss and weed didn’t permeate the whole of Manhattan.
Bucky debated walking the fifteen blocks back to his studio apartment (he hated how small it was, but how was he supposed to afford something bigger in the city on professor’s salary?) in lieu of the grimy subway so he could enjoy the weather, but decided against it; his neighborhood wasn’t exactly safe in the best of times, and was especially not so now, with crime rates on the rise and all. He’d rather the thin skin over his knuckles crack from overusing his travel-sized hand sanitizer than deal with a mugging. Besides, his left shoulder, never great in the best of times, was tight and painful after his incident that morning, and he could do with having a minor break from walking.
Bucky descended into the subway, trying to avoid touching the banister. One time, right after being discharged, he had taken the subway to some bar or restaurant or something. He’d had to lean heavily on the banister because of how his ears and balance had been messed up from an IED, and had ran his hand through a sticky piss-scented puddle. How one even got piss there was beyond him. Luckily, his balance had recovered in the near-decade since his discharge and the countless VA-sponsored doctor’s appointments, so Bucky was able to climb onto the subway without touching anything too gross.
Steve Rogers probably had a private, chartered car to escort him from place to place. What Bucky wouldn’t give to date that man; not only was he the hottest man on the planet, but he also would come with so many rich-people benefits!
Bucky cracked a smile at his internal joke and wrapped a hand around the subway pole (the seats were worse than the poles; they probably had lice or something worse than a basic rhinovirus).
Bucky’s head was spinning too fast to even focus too hard on the germs that were probably crawling up his leather jacket right now; he still couldn’t believe he had spilled coffee all over Steve Rogers. That was literally so mortifying he couldn’t even process it. But Steve Rogers had been cool about it! Even nice about it! That, in and of itself, was absolutely bonkers. Steve Rogers was actually super chill and nice in real life as well as in his numerous magazine interviews and talk-show spots. Bucky could honestly swoon at how nice Steve Rogers was.
Bucky was like a lovesick puppy for Steve Rogers. Bucky was a complete stranger to Steve Rogers, though. Oh, well. Bucky figured that since he’s been in a spell drier than the Sahara Desert, he was entitled to his little freak-out over his celebrity crush.
The train eventually ground to a halt, and Bucky practically leapt off, dumping hand sanitizer over his palms as he walked hurriedly across the street to his building.
That was one benefit of living in his shitty, dilapidated, asbestos-ridden building, Bucky thought to himself: easy subway access.
He shoved open the door to the stairs and was just starting to climb them up to his fourth-floor walk up when his phone began to ring. Bucky hummed his ringtone, the Imperial March, absentmindedly, and yanked the phone out of the pocket of his too-tight jeans.
He was met with a call from a Los Angeles phone number. Bucky’s eyes narrowed; he knew no one from LA, had no reason for anyone from LA to call him at all. It was probably just a prank call or a scam or something.
Nevertheless, Bucky leaned against the stairwell wall, ignoring the germs in favor of resting his wrenching shoulder against any available surface, and tapped “Accept Call.”
“Hello?” Bucky said, absentmindedly toying with the short hairs at the back of his neck that had escaped his bun with his right hand.
“Hi. Is this James Barnes?” The voice was a pleasant female one, warm and just a little bit husky.
“This is he,” Bucky replied, growing more confused. How’d some random person in LA know his number, let alone his full name?
“My name is Pepper Potts. I’m a senior associate at Stark Pictures,” the voice said calmly. This was even weirder; why was one of the biggest film corporations in the United States (if not the world) getting in touch with him -- a nerdy, clumsy WWI geek -- of all people?
“We’re currently developing a new movie, centered around World War I. It’s our understanding that you are one of the leading historians in this area, publishing three books on the subject and achieving full professor after just four years at Columbia University,” Potts continued. Bucky felt himself blush; having your accomplishments listed for you by a complete stranger was kind of nice -- in an embarrassing, stalker-y sort of way.
“We were wondering if you would be willing to consult with us on the film. It is our understanding that you will be on sabbatical for the coming semester. We would, of course, pay for a temporary move to the LA area until January so that you can easily commute to set.” Bucky was so momentarily distracted by the royal “we” that he almost didn’t catch the job offer.
“Excuse me?” Bucky said, practically choking on air.
“We’d match or exceed your current salary, of course,” Potts went on, as if Bucky hadn’t spoken.
“Wait, wait, Ms. Potts. Slow down. What’s happening?” Bucky was entirely shook with surprise. Most job offers he’d seen coming, because he had either applied to them or had been told by someone that they were recommending him. But this was completely unexpected.
Potts laughed on the other end. “Stark Pictures is producing a World War I era movie. We want to ensure the utmost accuracy, and you, Mr. Barnes, seem like exactly the man for the job. You’d get paid equal or more than your current salary, get put up in a nice apartment in LA for six months including grocery and utilities, mingle with some of Hollywood’s top people, and have a shining gold star for you to boast on your resume when people question you for being a full professor at an age when most of your peers haven’t even received their PhDs yet. So, can we expect you in LA next week for filming?”
Bucky had to bite back a giggle; this lady was awfully presumptuous. But she had an amazing point: Bucky might finally be able to get all his colleagues to stop doubting him and his research because of his age. The ones at Columbia didn’t mind his age too much, but at conferences he’d always felt weird, always felt awkward being at least ten years younger than his peers. This almost felt too good to be true.
“What does consulting even entail here?” Bucky challenged, trying to get Potts to slip up and tell him the catch in this whole scenario.
“It would mainly be basic fact-checking. You’d be watching filming, correcting costumes, makeup, storyboard, the actors, et cetera.”
This was insane. This was objectively ridiculous. Bucky was a random history professor still a little fucked up by his military service. He wasn’t some Hollywood bigshot. He was in no way qualified to effectively expedite a real, legit movie. “May I ask, Ms. Potts? Why me?”
“Well, Mr. Barnes, your resume speaks for itself; you’re one of the foremost authors and scholars on the topic, you ascended the ranks of academia in record time, and gained a PhD in less than four years. It certainly didn’t hurt that you’re an honorably discharged veteran -- this is a war movie, after all,” Potts explained.
Bucky was reeling. This was creepy; how did these people know so much about him?! Bucky lifted his glasses onto his forehead and pinched the bridge of his nose. “How did you get all this info on me?” Bucky demanded less politely than he’d like, anxiety leaching into his tone.
“We’re a top film corporation, Mr. Barnes. We have our methods. Don’t worry; I assure you, everything we found was absolutely sterling.”
Bucky sighed, curiosity slowly taking over his paranoia.
“Okay, Ms. Potts. C-can you give me some details on the film itself?” Bucky stammered, trying to level with the overly-polished woman on the other end on the line.
“Of course, Mr. Barnes. It begins during July 1914 and follows a young German couple through the war, all the way through to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, focusing on their views on the Allies’ blaming of Germany for the war. There’s mumblings of it being Oscar bait among some of our staff. We’d love to nab at least a few Academy Awards, and you’d be integral in allowing that to happen by ensuring the utmost accuracy.”
There was that phrase again; utmost accuracy. Either this lady was seriously dedicated to her craft, or she was an intensely creepy WWI-obsessed sociopath who wanted something from him. Bucky sighed and tried to ignore his paranoid mind.
“Who’s attached to the project?” he eventually asked, in lieu of “get the fuck off the line, you creepy stalker lady,” which was the phrase he desperately wanted to say.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you until you’ve signed your contract, plus a few NDAs,” Potts sighed, sounding truly sorry about it.
Bucky pinched the bridge of his nose. This was too much, too fast. It was his first day of summer break. He was planning on day drinking and watching Netflix, not making a decision on a potentially life-altering career opportunity. He didn’t know if he could just up and leave for LA. He didn’t even know what role he’d be serving, other than the overly ambiguous “fact-checking.” Bucky had no idea whether Columbia would even be okay with him dropping the research he was supposed to be completing during his sabbatical in favor of whisking himself off to LA to “consult.”
Bucky sighed and ran his tongue along his chapped lips, his mind racing as he tried to make a decision.
“Can I get back to you? There’s a lot of factors here,” Bucky finally offered lamely, utterly unable to decide that quickly.
“Of course, Mr. Barnes. We do need to hear from you by the end of the week, though.”
“That’s fine.” It was only Tuesday. Bucky had three whole days to think about it and try to get his affairs in order. It should be fine.
“Great. I’ll have my assistant send you an NDA. Once you sign it, I can send you some storyboard, script snippets, costume design, and, of course, a filming schedule to help you make your decision,” Potts said, a hint of motherliness sneaking into her tone.
“Sounds great, Ms. Potts.” Bucky tried not to sound overwhelmed. He didn’t think he succeeded.
“Of course, Mr. Barnes. Have a great day.” She ended the call before Bucky could even move his phone from his ear.
Holy shit! Bucky might get one of the biggest opportunities of his whole career! As soon as he finished climbing the unfinished cement stairs to his apartment and opened the door, his phone pinged again. An email from Pepper Potts -- the subject read simply “NDA.”
Bucky flopped down on his shitty stained couch and pulled up the email, opening the attached PDF. He scanned the contract, eyes glazing over at all the legal-ese, before hurriedly pasting his e-signature onto the document and sending it back.
It didn’t matter too much that Bucky didn’t read the whole contents of the NDA, he reasoned. After all, this was just to get extra info to help him make his decision; it wasn’t like it bound him one way or the other.
Bucky flicked on the TV, looking for something mindless on Netflix, when his phone pinged again. Another email from Potts: this one with the subject “Movie Preview.”
Whoever the fuck this Pepper Potts lady was, she sure was efficient.
Bucky scanned through the storyboard, his Netflix forgotten. It looked good. Full color splashes of a random couple in front of war propaganda, the August Days riots almost perfectly captured. He noted a few inaccuracies in the timing of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Burgfrieden speech; the storyboard had it taking place in the day when it had actually occurred in the evening.
If this is what the job was, Bucky was into it. Simple fact corrections and getting to hang out in LA instead of his shitty apartment in the midst of the summer piss-stink sounded practically like a dream. Bucky pushed his glasses up and rubbed his eyes, letting his phone drop down into his lap. This was crazy. This was absolutely batshit.
As if spilling coffee on Steve Rogers hadn’t been enough excitement for the day.