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Paint Brushes, Suspenders, and One (1) Frog

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“I wish I could hate him,” Natasha mutters looking dejectedly at the blackboard.

“I know, right,” Steve sighs and stops fiddling with his ear piercings. He looks at his notes — they are a jumble of half-written sentences interspersed with empty lines where he’d lost track of what the short greying professor was talking about. “But he’s just too cute.”

Natasha nods, looking at her miserable notes too, while Professor Banner continues to drone on about the methodology of watercolor painting. “I’ve never thought anyone could be this excited about the whys and hows of watercolor paper. He literally gave us a list of all the companies that produce it, plus a detailed breakdown of the pros and cons of each and every fucking type of paper. And he’s actually glowing. Look at him.”

Banner was indeed positively beaming. Steve felt his expression go sour. God, how he wished he could hate him. Instead, his heart went all soft and warm at the twinkle in Banner’s eyes.

Methodology and Techniques 2 was one of the absolute worst subjects at Marvel Art Academy, only beaten by Methodology and Techniques 1 — Banner’s subject for first-year students. It wasn’t that the lessons were useless; far from it. The professor had immense amounts of knowledge, and if anyone were able to follow and memorize all that he said, they’d probably nail half the other classes without trouble as well. The problem was that Banner had too much knowledge, and he wanted to share it all. His excitement and vivid explanations assured that most students were able to follow the first half hour of the class, but the excessive detail and the increasing speed with which Banner talked the more excited he became made it practically impossible to concentrate for longer.

Therefore, an hour into the day’s lesson, everyone is scrolling through their phones, gazing wistfully out of the windows, or doodling onto the edge of their notebook, looking thoroughly, helplessly, desperately bored. Well, everyone but the new guy.

Steve elbows Nat, nodding in the direction of the new student. The student body at Marvel Art Academy isn't huge, so any new addition sticks out like a sore thumb.

“Now him, I do hate,” Nat murmurs darkly. Steve doesn’t like saying he hates people, but he has to admit the new guy, James, is especially grating. It’s been seventy minutes since Banner started talking, and James is still taking notes.

“Worst thing that’s happened to us this school year,” Steve agrees, just as James raises his hand, shaking Banner out of his explanation about the fiber density in Arches aquarelle paper.

Steve doesn’t hear what the guy asks because Nat snorts none too silently. “We’re two weeks into the first semester and you’ve already decided he’s the worst thing that’s happened this year?”

“What can I say, we live in dire times.” Steve nods solemnly. When Nat snorts again, Banner’s eyes fly to them, effectively shutting them up. As soon as the professor’s eyes slide away, Nat mouths drama queen at Steve. They grin at each other but stay quiet for the rest of the lesson, hard as it is.

In his boredom-induced observations, Steve can’t help but notice that James continues taking notes with an almost manic diligence. When the lesson ends the guy strides his awfully confident stride (and isn’t that just annoying in the worst way — a confident overachiever) right to Banner’s desk. Steve brushes by close enough to hear James ask about the possibility of attending Banner’s Methodology and Techniques 1 as well, since he’s transferred universities and feels that they hadn’t covered the subject matter nearly as well as Banner does.

What a kiss-ass. And he’s a hipster on top of it. Steve throws a condescending look at his skinny blue trousers that end way too high above his ankles. Steve bets he makes fucking grass smoothies with little to no nutritional value and then lies about it being that shit that gives him the body he has. Because Steve has noticed his body. And his body looks good. Even if it is dressed in preppy skinny trousers and a trying-too-hard-to-be-casual white shirt.

There is no way around it. The new guy is a hipster, and an attractive hipster at that. Steve’s not blind. He’s also not straight.

At least the guy’s annoying enough that Steve knows he won’t develop another unrequited crush on a straight guy.

 

~

 

In the following week, Steve learns that James, whose last name is apparently Barnes, is not only a kiss-ass nerd, but also the most typical white-man art enthusiast imaginable. Steve prides himself on being an engaged artist. It’s all he wants to do in his life. Fight against injustice in the world by creating provocative, controversial pieces of art that challenge people to do better, that encourage people to fight oppressive governments, to rally together and fight for justice. In Steve’s opinion, art should challenge; it should expose the world’s misgivings and make the gears of change move.

This is exactly the reason why he hates the stuffy reputation of the art world and the people who perpetuate it. As he’s learned in the past week, James Barnes falls right into the art prick category. The guy knows everything about every Renaissance painting ever painted. He knows who painted them, when, where, for what occasion, and he even knows in which museum or in which private collection the pieces are stored.

In short, Steve hates that anyone would ever consider this as information worth retaining. Their Art History professor, Lachlan Laufeyson, on the other hand, gobbles up every piece of useless knowledge Barnes decides to share with the class. Yawn.

By the end of the week, Steve has practically convinced himself that Barnes is no more than a rich boy who bought his way into University. If Steve were honest with himself, he would admit that there’s a bit of jealousy involved. Barnes seems to have it all: intelligence, photographic-fucking memory, good looks, a great body, charm, and the most handsome fucking smile the world has ever seen. He also has great long hair, and, loath as Steve is to admit it, a great sense of style, even though it does scream I buy overpriced coffee because I pretend I can distinguish between freshly ground and unfreshly ground beans. On top of that, Barnes wore an actual fedora the other day. And worst of all? It looked good on him.

Instead of reviewing his own feelings of inadequacy, Steve decides Barnes is a fake. The kind of phoney artist wannabe that makes them all look bad. If Steve were willing to reflect upon his own thoughts, he’d realize he sounds an awful lot like Holden fucking Caulfield, who he’d hated from the first page of that damned book, but sometimes Steve prefers to stay in the dark when it comes to his own faults.

Unfortunately, the postulate that Barnes is A Fake only lasts until their Drawing II class where he sees Barnes’s art for the first time. It’s not anything like the art that Steve makes. It’s not provocative, it’s not controversial, but it still shakes him to his very core. The pencil sketch is simple: a park at night. Black and white. Nothing particularly grandiose about it, nothing extraordinary that Steve can point a finger at, nothing shockingly original. Nothing except that he can’t tear his eyes away from it.

The lamps bordering the park pathway actually glow. The benches on either side of the path look so real that they could have been a photo. Steve can feel the pebbles on the path through the thin soles of his Converse. There is so much life in that one simple drawing that Steve could almost convince himself the leaves on the trees are fluttering in the wind.

When Barnes sees him staring, he throws Steve a bashful smile, a slight nervous curl to the corner of his lips. He looks away and moves the drawing out of Steve’s sight.

 

~

 

On the second week of the term, the professor who’s supposed to teach painting finally shows up. She wasn’t there for the first week of the term for an undisclosed reason — Steve suspects vacation — but from the very day she set foot onto the campus rumors have followed her. Steve hasn’t seen her yet, but from what everyone is saying about her she must be halfway to a fully fledged zombie. At the very least she’s a demonic witch. She transferred to Marvel from DC University. Steve doesn’t know if it’s people at DC who are trying to scare them — they are a rival University after all — or if her brutal reputation simply precedes her, but he does know that he didn’t imagine her looking that...normal.

She is neither zombie nor witch-like when she walks into the studio for their first Painting II class. She’s young, barely in her thirties, and there’s an easy smile on her lips. Her curly short blond hair bobs when she strides confidently across the classroom, ripped jeans, casual white t-shirt tucked into the waistband, and a shirt wrapped around her waist. If Steve didn’t know every single person in the class, he would have mistaken her for a student.

She looks exactly like the most stereotypical art student, except that there is also a big ginger cat lying in her arms. When she reaches her desk, students peeking inquisitively from behind their canvases, she gently sets the cat down, pets it absentmindedly, and turns her sharp eyes on the class.

“Well, I’m delighted to see you all look appropriately frightened,” she says brightly, and Steve immediately realizes they’ve all been played. This woman started all those rumors herself. Well-played, professor, well-played.

“I’m Carol Danvers, and I’ll be teaching you how to paint. That’s basically all you need to know.” Danvers claps her hands, getting to the point immediately. “Today will be an easy day for you.” She smirks. Her eyes glint for a second as if amused by her own lie, but it’s gone in a second, and her face goes back to innocent and trustworthy. “No theory, no particular style you need to imitate in your paintings, no complex technique acquisition. All you have to do is paint Goose.”

She points at the cat on the table with both of her hands, palms open, as if demonstrating the brilliance of the animal. Goose continues licking her ass unbothered. Steve shoots a sceptical glance at Nat. She shrugs, unconcerned. Nat’s painting skills are insane, so of course she’s not worried. She could paint the cat with her eyes closed.

“The only thing that is required,” continues professor Danvers, “is that the painting be as realistic as you can possibly make it. No Picasso, no grainy impressionism today. Just a good old plain cat portrait.”

The students nod, but continue sitting still, the paint still capped, the brushes still sitting comfortably in their tins on the small desks in front of their canvases.

“Well?” Danvers says. “What are you waiting for? You have an hour.”

“An hour?” Steve whispers to Nat, thinking that maybe those rumors were right after all. The flurry with which the students move tells him he’s not the only one worried about the time limit.

“It’s a cat, Steve,” Nat tells him, rolling her eyes. And yes, it might be a cat, but his canvas is big and painting takes time.

It turns out that time itself is the least of their problems, the biggest problem being the subject of their paintings herself. A cat that does not bloody stay still. A cat that not only jumps off the table as soon as Steve’s paint brush makes contact with the canvas, but also strolls casually behind the desk disappearing from view. The students collectively pause, some with their first lines already drawn. They look at the professor, back at their canvases, then back at the professor, expecting her to tell them how to proceed. Danvers doesn’t see it since she’s too busy bending down under her desk to pet Goose, who must be twining between her legs. The bravest of the students, among them Natasha, continue painting the cat from memory. Others wait for her to appear again, brushes raised.

It takes a few minutes of petting, but Goose does eventually walk from behind the desk and casually starts to explore the classroom. It’s pretty obvious ten minutes in that no one knows what the fuck they’re doing. Some people are winging it, some people have resorted to sketching with their pencils, some people keep desperately hoping the cat will settle after it’s done exploring.

Steve, like a few of his peers, has resorted to panicked pencil sketching, Thor, their Australian classmate, followed Natasha’s example and started winging it, albeit much less successfully. The new guy, Barnes, has not yet decided on the fake it till you make it approach, and sits on his stool, mouth open, staring at the first lines on his canvas in what could only be described as full-blown panic. He cranes his neck to look at the cat, frowns, presses his brush onto the canvas then withdraws it again, uncertain about how to proceed. He throws around an anxious look, meeting Tina’s equally anxious eyes, and they laugh at each other awkwardly. Tina at least has picked up on the idea of a sketch and is furiously trying to make the cat on her canvas look like Goose and not like Garfield.

Half an hour passes and everyone has somehow caught onto the fact that this battle will have no winners when things go further south. Goose, having thoroughly explored the classroom — incidentally giving Steve’s neck a cramp from craning his head after her — decides that it would be really fun to bother humans instead. She jumps onto Thor’s lap, nuzzling his forearm before she starts kneading at his jeans with such intent that Thor’s eyes well up with tears.

“Ahhh, good kitty, yessss,” his words turn into a hiss when Goose’s claws penetrate the fabric at his inner thigh. “N-ahhhh, don’t — don’t do that kitty,” he croons, scratching the cat behind her ears — a grave mistake on his part, as that only makes Goose claw at Thor’s legs more furiously. When her claws sink deep into his thigh, Thor lets out a high-pitched shriek. This, at least, is effective at getting rid of the ball of fur massacring his legs as Goose throws him a dirty look and jumps off his lap.

Her next target is Barnes, who has begun sweating profusely, while he tries to paint the cat’s features. Goose jumps onto his knees, then onto the small table in front of him, dipping its front two paws into red paint accidentally. She sniffs the canvas from all sides then stands up on her back legs, and leans onto the painting with her dirty front paws. Barnes gives a small, defeated “noooo” and buries his head into his hands as Goose continues to paw at the canvas, smattering it with red paw prints.

Steve can’t help but laugh. He feels vindicated, Barnes’s panic telling him he’d been right about his skills all along. If he were actually a good artist, he wouldn’t be this desperate. Though admittedly, Goose did contribute a lot to destroying her own portrait. Steve isn’t the only one who’s finding this funny. Professor Danvers has her phone out and is taking pictures across the classroom while chuckling to herself. Maybe she really is a mean hag.

Steve’s shining moment of quiet glee doesn’t last long. Mere moments later, Goose is advancing on him.

“No, no.” He tries to cover his knees with his hands to prevent her from jumping on his lap. “Shhh,” he says quietly, trying to shoo her away without angering the professor. Goose pays him no mind and skips the comfort of his lap, going directly for the table. Steve doesn’t know what to do. How mad would Danvers be if he picked the cat up and put it back on the ground? Is he even allowed to touch the cat? What if he surreptitiously swept it off the desk with his elbow? While he’s thinking of the possible strategy, Goose, as if she knew what was on his mind, lifts one paw and threateningly inches it closer and closer to the glass of water on the edge of the table.

“No.” Steve glares at her. She moves her paw closer to the glass, pawing at it softly. “Don’t you da —”

Crash.

“Really? Really!?” Steve gestures at the mess beside the table, incredulous. The entire class erupts into laughter, Natasha laughing the hardest out of all of them, followed by Carol Danvers herself. Goose gives him a final unimpressed look and jumps from his table onto Nat’s, effectively shutting her up.

Steve goes to get paper towels and, when he’s almost mopped up the colored water from the floor, Danvers announces that the time is up. The whole class groans, looking dejectedly at their paintings.

“That’s it for today. I hope you’ve all enjoyed your time with Goose — I know, I know, she’s delightful — and I hope you’ve all learned your lesson. We meet again on Friday when we’ll be learning how to work on landscapes. Thank you for today, it was highly amusing. Anyone have any questions?”

Maria Hill, one of the bravest, most no-nonsense people Steve has ever met, looks up from her tragically distorted painting. “What exactly was the lesson today?” Steve can practically feel the interjection of ‘fucking’ that she’s undoubtedly inserting into that question in her mind. What was the fucking lesson, indeed.

“Why,” Danvers turns to her a cheeky grin on her face, “the lesson was don’t paint asshole cats.”

 

~

 

Steve goes to the campus pool in the evenings. Swimming helps his bent back. Scoliosis is a bitch, and he doesn’t need to have his back hurting along with all his other defects. He’s feeling especially bitter this evening, because the neck cramp he got because of that stupid cat hasn’t receded yet, so he’s been writing unofficial complaints to the universe for forming his body so tragically. He usually tries to stay positive about it, but he thinks he’s allowed to indulge in some self-pity once in a while. A bent back, partial deafness, asthma, and an all-around physical weakness might not be the worst the universe can dish at you, but it’s also not the easiest.

It’s already dark outside. He’s going to have to hurry to get something to eat before bed. He starts walking toward the parked bikes when he sees someone dressed in black, a hood pulled over his head and giant pliers in his hands, working on a cable lock of a pink bike with a fluffy basket in front. Not only is it pink, there are also puffy feathers glued to the basket. He doesn’t think that’s very practical for the rainy days, but who is he to judge.

He quietly walks closer. The guy doesn’t notice him. Steve slowly pulls the phone out of his pocket, taps the screen a couple times, and shuffles with his feet to finally get the man’s attention. When the man still doesn’t give any indication that he heard him, Steve speaks up.

“What’re you doing?” He tries to keep his voice level, but his eyes narrow of their own accord. It doesn’t take a genius to see what he’s doing.

The man jumps and turns. He has a handsome but rugged face, all edges. He tries for a nonchalant smile. It’s sharp too. “Ehh, I actually lost my key. I know how this looks —” He scratches his head as if embarrassed. Oh, he’s good. “— but it’s my bike. I just have no way of unlocking it.”

Steve’s eyebrows fly up and he gives the guy his most unimpressed look. “Really? You have a bike that looks like something from Legally Blonde?”

“Uhh, sure.”

“You don’t even know what that is, do you? Legally Blonde? Elle Woods? Literally invented the meaning of pink?” Steve knows he’s being a little shit, begging to be punched, but he can’t help it. He hates bullies and petty thieves. If they’d at least steal from the rich, Steve could get behind that.

The guy is obviously annoyed at Steve’s words. He turns to Steve fully and takes a step forward. “Listen, dude, I don’t really give a fuck about who or what that is.” He puffs his chest out, spreading his shoulders further in an attempt to intimidate Steve into leaving. Too bad for him that Steve’s never backed out of a fight, no matter how low his chances of winning are.

Steve smiles sweetly, feigning innocence. “Oh, Legally Blonde? It’s a movie! A great one! You should totally watch it, you’ll love it, what with the whole pink theme you have going there.” The thing is, Steve fucking loves pink, but he bets this guy doesn’t, and it feels good to turn it against him. Steve loves it when he sees men’s toxic masculinity crumble before his eyes. The guy’s stance becomes even more aggressive.

“Why don’t you shove over and mind your own business, and let me take my bi — Hey!” He pauses, finally noticing the phone in Steve’s hand. “Are you fucking filming me? Oh, you little bitch, you fucked up now.”

The guy moves from behind the bike fast, advancing towards Steve. He’s big. He also looks like he’s used to using fists.

“I wouldn’t do that,” Steve warns him, stopping the guy in his tracks. “It’s a live stream, Brock Rumlow. Oh, yeah, someone already recognized you. Smile for my followers!”

“You fucking son of a bitch!” Rumlow looks ready to lunge at Steve despite the fact he’s being filmed — obviously the guy’s not the smartest sort — when a voice comes from behind Steve.

“Is there a problem?” It’s male, familiar even. When Steve turns his head, the sight of James Barnes confirms his suspicions. It’s a voice he’s been hearing a lot in classrooms recently. A voice that knows more about the Sistine Chapel than Michelangelo himself ever did.

“No,” both Steve and Rumlow answer at the same time, then look at each other with disgust. Barnes frowns.

“This dude was trying to steal a bike,” Steve tells him, just when Rumlow, figuring out he better not try his chances with the two of them, swivels on his heel, and starts running.

“Hey!” Steve shouts after him. “ Hey, you dickhead, come back! You limp cowardly nutsack! Hope someone shits on your bed now that the whole campus knows what a dick you are!”

Steve feels like he should run after him, tackle him, call the police, but he knows he wouldn’t even make it to the corner of the building. Rumlow is fast, and Steve’s asthma can’t handle sprinting. Not to mention Rumlow would probably keep on running with Steve on his back if Steve jumped him. Now that would be a sight. Steve holding onto him like a koala while that dickhead tried to throw him off.

Steve stops shouting and notices Barnes’s eyes are on him. He’s unsuccessfully trying to fight down a smile.

“What’s with the phone?” Barnes asks.

“Oh, oh man.” The phone in Steve’s hand is still filming. He turns it off, feeling the blush of embarrassment on his cheeks. He hopes it’s too dark to see. He makes a face. “Was a live Insta stream.”

Barnes laughs. It comes out of his mouth a lot easier than Steve would have expected. He thought Barnes was too stuck up to laugh. The guy knew in which fucking hallway in the Louvre the portrait of Louis XIV was, for fuck’s sake.

He definitely had the air of a man who’s too cool to laugh. Or at least someone who only chortles and chuckles along unfunny jokes when important people make them. But his eyes crinkle easily and his laughter comes from deep in his belly, making him look a lot more carefree than the stupid suspenders he’s wearing suggest. If Steve’s not completely mistaken there are tiny white moustaches etched onto them. Really, is that not the prissiest of details?

“You’ll be a hero by tomorrow. Limp cowardly nutsack. Nice. Real catchy,” Barnes tells him, his awfully red lips curling at one end. “God, I hope you have a lot of followers and he comes home to a pile of shit on his bed.”

Steve does actually have a fair number of followers. Being vocal on social media does that to you, even if half the people are trolls. He brushes his hair out of his eyes, suddenly awkward. “Wish I could have just punched him.”

Barnes looks at him warily, running his eyes down Steve’s slender form. “Maybe better not.” Steve squirms in his spot and almost bites out an angry ‘I’m stronger than I look’, but gives in because James is right, he couldn’t have taken Rumlow.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. He would have crushed me,” he admits, annoyed. “Believe me, I’ve actually learned that lesson already.” Steve hadn’t really, not according to his mom. He still got into fights every now and then, even if he was smarter about it these days than in his childhood. All the same, he would have punched Rumlow if there’d been no other way.

“Which bike was he trying to steal?” Barnes asks when it’s obvious Steve has run out of words and silence starts to stretch between them.

“The pink one.” Steve points to it.

“The pink —” Barnes turns to look at the row of bikes. “Oi! That’s my bike!” He steps closer to inspect the cable lock. “Aww, man. I’m gonna have to buy a new one.”

“You’re shitting me, right?” It’s too late for Steve to be amused by another idiot. When Barnes looks at him askance, Steve waves at the feathers on the basket. “This? This Elle Woods bike is yours?” After a beat, he adds, “Please tell me you know who Elle Woods is.”

“Are you gender-coding my bike, Rogers?” Barnes shoots back. Of course, Barnes listened to Steve’s recent rant about gender expectations in Art and Society. “And of course I know who Elle Woods is. Absolute legend.”

For a moment Steve is too shaken to even respond. Not only does Barnes know Steve’s name, he also thinks Elle Woods is a legend. He might have misjudged the guy. “No, of course not. Sorry. I just...you don’t really seem like the type.”

Steve cringes as soon as he says it. What is that supposed to say. You’re not flamboyant enough? You look too straight? You’re too masculine? Steve was supposed to be fighting against assumptions like these, and now he’s the one making them. He needs to do better.

“Don’t seem like the type to have a pink bike?” Barnes asks, and Steve knows he’s intentionally rubbing it in. He must know how seriously Steve takes these issues.

“Isn’t it a bit small for you?” Steve deflects because he has neither the time nor the will for introspection.

“Well, what do you know? Maybe I like riding small —” Barnes starts, a cocky smirk on his lips, then quite visibly snaps his mouth shut. “Wow. Okay. Uhh. That is probably TMI. Sorry, my mouth sometimes just runs all by itself.”

What exactly was Barnes implying though? Was he really just a guy without a filter and this was a dirty joke, or did that mean that Barnes wasn’t quite as straight as Steve had initially thought?

Barnes pushes a strand of hair out of his eyes. His bun is messy. Steve guesses he was probably at the gym. There’s no denying that the man is attractive. Very much so, in fact. His mouth is big and curvy, his eyes bright blue, not unlike Steve’s but not completely the same either. A bit more pale, a bit colder, like the winter sky on a crisp cloudless morning before the sun comes out. Wow, no need to pull a Shakespeare, Rogers, Steve berates himself.

He realizes he should probably say something, but Barnes opens his mouth a fraction of a second before him. “So, umm, the bike is actually my sister’s. Becca’s. Mine broke down and I needed to have it repaired. She’s in high school, but she doesn’t really need a bike. So I borrowed hers. My mom and sisters don’t live too far away.” He shrugs, taking out the key for the lock, waving it in Steve’s direction to prove he’s not lying. The key is pink and glittery too, so Steve supposes it must belong to the bike.

“Well,” Steve says, suddenly acutely aware of the rough canvas strap of the backpack he’s clutching, “have a safe ride home.”

“Thanks.” James shoots him an easy smile and starts unlocking the damaged cable. “Oh,” he remembers when Steve turns to walk away, “thanks for saving my bike, Steve.”

“No problem, James,” Steve replies, after a pause. They’re using each other’s names and isn’t this just a little bit weird. James, upon hearing his name, looks less than delighted. He grimaces, expression souring as his body goes stiff.

“One request. Could you not call me James. Call me Bucky instead?” James-who-doesn’t-want-to-be-James asks, his mouth in a twist.

“Bucky?” It’s not like Steve himself had never thought about getting a cooler nickname — his name is Steve after all, only grandpas are called Steve nowadays — but he’d never been quite as desperate to name himself something like Bucky.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s a stupid nickname but everyone calls me that.” Bucky shrugs. He sighs as if about to admit another embarrassing thing. “It comes from my middle name. It’s Buchanan.”

Wow, okay, that is embarrassing.

“What’s wrong with James?” Steve decides to ask instead.

“My dad used to call me that.” Bucky shifts on his feet, looking away.

“Probably ‘cause it’s your name.”

Bucky pauses, then laughs, shaking his head a bit when a strand of hair falls in his eyes. “Yeah, you know what, it might have been because of that. I haven’t thought about that before. Makes sense once you think about it, though.” His voice is sarcastic but teasing.

“I missed some social cues, didn’t I?” Steve sighs. He’s always had trouble with reading body language. He thought he’d gotten good at it, but it was always hard with new people. He probably made Bucky uncomfortable almost interrogating him about his name. That was probably why he was shifting on his feet not meeting Steve’s eyes.

Bucky’s expression softens, “Yeah, you did. It’s okay.” He unlocks the cable and folds it, backing the bike out of the bike parking spot. When he notices Steve still staring at him in bewilderment, he waves his hand. “Honestly, it’s nothing major. My dad was just a giant prick. And he was called James too. So I’d rather not be associated with the name.”

“Sorry.” Steve doesn’t know whether he’s apologizing for practically forcing Bucky to reveal this with his poor social skills or if he’s expressing his condolences over a shitty father. He never had one, so he supposed his was shitty too for leaving his mom when she was pregnant, but at least his didn’t stick around long enough for Steve to find out exactly how shitty he was.

“No use in others being sorry over him when he’s not sorry himself,” Bucky shrugs. There’s tension in his shoulders when he sits astride the pink bike. He visibly shakes it off after placing the duffle bag into the front basket. It sticks out on one side. Turning to Steve, he suddenly looks uncertain. “Do you — god this will sound pathetic, but what the hell — do you wanna meet for lunch sometimes? I don’t have any friends here and, well, everyone knows each other and hangs out in their own groups. It’s fine if you don’t want to, though, I get it, I don’t want to force you to take pity lunches with me, it’s just — yeah, well, I think you’re cool and I wanted to talk to you before, but that redhead is scary and —”

“Sure,” Steve cuts him off, figuring it wouldn’t be rude when Bucky seems to be working himself into an increasingly awkward blabber. Steve adjusts his strap, thinking about how wild it is that this guy thinks he’s cool. He’s probably only saying it because he doesn’t have anyone to hang out with and probably didn’t mean it that he’d wanted to talk to Steve before, but Steve would be lying if he said he wasn’t intrigued by the guy. Maybe, possibly, slightly attracted to him. Slightly.

“Cool. Nice.” The breath leaves Bucky in a rush. Steve was right to stop his babbling; Barnes — Bucky — would have run out of air otherwise. He smiles and Steve notices, for the first time, the pronounced dimple in his chin. Cute.

When he cycles away, he turns to flash Steve another cheeky smile. The bike wobbles slightly as Bucky loses his balance. If Steve’s stomach churns with something else than just laughter, he ignores it, and starts the easy walk to the dorm.

 

~

 

The Art History professor, Lachlan Laufeyson, or Loki as they’ve taken to calling him outside the classroom, explainins, with as much stoic enthusiasm as stoicism allows, the details about the Whistlejacket painting by George Stubbs. It’s a painting of a single horse on a plain background, which Steve immediately wrote off as unimpressive until the professor told them it was life-size. The painting was as big as an actual horse. Literally horse-sized. As impressive as that indeed is, they’ve been dissecting the painting of a single horse for an hour, and, frankly, Steve is get —.

“Has anyone ever noticed he’s a little bit too into horses?” a voice on his left interrupts his musings.

“Once again,” Nat pipes up from Steve’s right, leaning over onto his side of the table, to better talk to the guy on Steve’s left, “what are you even doing here, Clint?”

“What, I can’t come to lectures now?” Clint sounds offended.

“You study Physics!” Nat would have probably stabbed Clint with her pen if Steve weren’t sitting between them.

“Seriously, Clint,” Steve adopts the role of the adult separating two bickering children in a candy aisle, “why are you here?”

Clint turns to him grimacing. “I’m trying to woo Nat.”

“I don’t want to be wooed,” Nat replies in an almost singsong voice. She’s been trying to rebuff Clint’s offers of a date since last year.

“How about one date? Just one small date. You can even set a time limit.” Clint suggests. His posture is relaxed, but Steve’s known for some time now he’s absolutely head over heels for Nat. If he wasn’t also their good friend, he’d have told him to fuck off long ago. As it is, Clint only gets this desperate about once a month. This is the first time this month, so Steve’s willing to let it slide.

“Clint, we’ve talked about this a hundred times. When a woman says no, it’s no. When anyone says no, it’s no.” Or maybe Steve isn’t willing to let it slide.

“God, we have talked about this a hundred times. Sorry, Nat. I’m so annoying.” Clint offers a sincere apologetic smile. Nat rolls her eyes.

“You know what would help even more than an apology?” Steve quips smartly. “If you didn’t badger her about going on a date with you.”

If Steve’s completely honest, he doesn’t really know what is going on here. He feels like Clint isn’t quite so dense as to not get what a ‘no’ means, but Nat still hasn’t killed him, which she would have if it were anyone else. So maybe they really do like each other and this is some incredibly weird mating ritual?

“You know I don’t do dates.” Nat tells her notebook, eyes on her notes. She skips half a page, about to start writing again, concentrating back on Loki.

“What about a date that gives you every opportunity to kill me if I step out of line?” Clint’s tone is hopeful. Steve looks between them, noticing that this proposition actually piqued Natasha’s attention. What kind of people does he hang out with? Why are they so weird? And creepy.

“I’ll — hmm — I know!” Clint tries to keep it to a whisper, but it comes out much too loudly. “What if I take you axe throwing?” Nat’s pen pauses on the paper. She turns slowly.

“Keep going,” she says, eyebrow raised.

“Axe throwing, then, uh, then a kickboxing lesson, then a horror movie — you’re gonna have to hold my hand though, I’m scared shitless of those — then, uhh, then —”

“Belgian waffles with fresh strawberries and Nutella. I’m gonna be hungry.”

Steve feels like the net on the ping-pong table, caught between two very aggressive players with massive amounts of unresolved sexual tension between them.

“Deal!” Clint is grinning so much Steve’s afraid he’s gonna kiss him since he’s closer. “Saturday, eleven am?”

 

“Don’t be too eager. I’ll let you know when I have time.” Nat tries to hide her smile, but she fails. There is genuine softness and affection in the dimple on her right cheek. It dawns on Steve that she’d been keen on Clint for some time now, but has been rather successfully hiding it. When did that happen? Steve scowls at her but can’t hold it for more than a few seconds — Clint is radiating too much joy.

Satisfied, Clint turns his goofy smile back towards the board. Loki had moved on from talking about the Whistlejacket painting onto the painting The Charging Chasseur. Clint’s smile wanes, his mouth acquiring a worried twist. He fixes his eyes on Steve and Nat again. “Okay, but seriously, don’t you think this dude is way too into horses?”

Steve sighs, defeated.

 

~

 

Another day, another Banner lesson. Steve has given up on concentrating even earlier than usual and is comfortably dozing off, his head propped up on his hand.

Nat groans beside Steve shaking him out of his nap. “What is up with that guy?” she asks, while Barnes successfully answers another of Banner’s questions. Nat puts on a manic grin. “Hi, I’m James, and I swallowed an encyclopedia.”

Steve laughs softly, but immediately feels guilty. The guy seemed...okay when he talked to him two days ago in front of the gym. He was kind. Even funny. Definitely not an asshole. Maybe a little bit of an asshole. Steve doesn’t forgive moustache-print suspenders very easily.

“He doesn’t like to be called James,” he tells Natasha, remembering Bucky’s sour expression when he called him that. “He goes by Bucky apparently.”

Nat gives him an uncertain look, unsure whether he’s joking or not. “Bucky,” she repeats.

“Yeah, weird, I know. All his friends call him that. It comes from his middle name — oh, you’re gonna love this — it comes from his middle name which is Buchanan.”

Nat snorts but covers it up with a very convincing cough when Banner’s eyes flit in their direction. She waits a few moments, then smirks. “Buchanan. God, he really is the worst example of the bourgeoisie. His family must be ‘old rich’ clinging to the illusion that they descended directly from the British royal line.”

“Actually, his fath —” Steve stops, unsure if the information about Bucky’s father, though it’s scanty at best, is something he can share or if it’s private. “Actually, he’s alright, Nat. Think we might have misjudged him.”

“And you would know that how?” Nat’s gaze turns sharp.

“Bumped into him on my way out of the pool two days ago. Umm,” Steve says, reluctant to bring it up because he didn’t want to remind her of her easy amusement on his account, “you know that Insta story of mine that you laughed about for the entire day, literally reciting my own words back at me? It was his bike, Bucky’s.”

“Ahhh,” Nat nods, a small smirk spreading across her face. “Still can’t believe you’re guilty of someone having their bed shat on.”

“You don’t know that,” Steve hisses for the umpteenth time. “Anyway,” he decides to move the conversation along, “he’s not that bad. Funny even. He asked if we could grab lunch together some day. He doesn’t know anyone in our year, you see.”

“Oh my god.” Nat’s eyes are sharp on his. She tilts her head and continues, accusation strong in her voice. “You like him.”

“What?” Steve doesn’t know where this is coming from. All he said was that the guy was alright. Fine, maybe he did think he was pretty cute when he wobbled away on the small pink bike, and maybe he did stare at the adorable cleft of his chin a bit too long, but Nat didn’t know that.

“You think he’s hot.” Nat stares at him as if he’s done something so extraordinary that he should be put in a circus.

“Nat,” Steve looks at her incredulously. “He is hot. That’s a fact. I’m not blind. But that doesn’t mean I like him.”

“First of all, you know I don’t know when someone is conventionally hot. I don’t feel instantly attracted to anyone no matter how fucking “””hot””” they may be. I’m all about the soul.”

“Cause you’re a Dementor,” Steve interrupts, cheerily obliterating her rant about her demisexuality. Even if she is right, dammit. He’d forgotten again. He really should be more mindful about it, especially since he expects it from other people. “Sorry,” he adds because he really is.

Natasha swats him on the arm and continues, “Second of all, you might not like like him, but you sure want to do some ungodly things to his dick.”

“Nat,” Steve hisses, grateful that they are sitting far away enough from the other students that they can’t be overheard. “Believe me or not, I haven’t actually thought about it,” Steve says. “Much.”

Nat gives him a knowing smile and makes a crude gesture with her hand. Steve punches her in the arm, but this only makes her move her loose fist to her mouth to make an even more obscene gesture. “Rogers, I’ve known you for long enough to know when you’re horny for some hipster dick.”

Steve buries his face into the crook of his elbow, valiantly trying to fight down a blush on his treacherous fair skin. “Do you have to talk like that?”

“Yup. Just admit it, Rogers. You fell for a hipster.”

“I can’t help it, Nat,” Steve mumbles into his arm. “You know I always fall for cocky people.”

“I know, I know.” Nat tapps him on his shoulder in consolation. “You’re weak for a sharp pretty mouth.”

When Steve only groans, Nat pats him again. “So, when’s your date?”

“I need you to stop this right now.” Steve finally looks up at her without removing his head from his forearm. “Or I’m not going to be able to look him in the eye when we grab lunch. The poor guy’s lonely, Nat.”

“So is your bed,” Natasha says with such a wicked turn of her mouth that Steve can’t stop himself from giving her a vicious pinch. She doesn’t even flinch, only stares at him hard, before winking slowly and suggestively. Steve kicks her under the table and they scuffle until they’re gasping from holding back their breathy laughter.

 

~

 

After Banner’s class, Steve catches up to Bucky and, as casually as he can, asks him if he wants to grab lunch together. He’s pleased to notice that he only gets a little hot in the neck when Natasha makes suggestive faces behind Barnes’s back. When Bucky turns, though, her face is as blank as if it’s never produced an expression in its whole existence.

“Hi.” Bucky nods in acknowledgment. “You’re Natasha right? Bucky,” he introduces himself, reaching out to shake her hand. Natasha takes it. From the way her knuckles go white and from the way Bucky’s eyebrows knit together, she’s squeezing as tight as she can. She lets go, flashing him a big but unimpressed smile.

“Nice to meet you, Bucky.”

“Do you want to join us for lunch?” Bucky asks, tentative. People never know what to think when they meet Natasha. In fact, Steve’s known Nat since before university and he still doesn’t know what to think of her.

“I’ll sit this one out,” Nat says pleasantly. “Unlike some —” she throws a meaningful look at Steve, “— I’m not a fan of suspenders.”

“Sorry?” Bucky is even more confused than after Nat’s titan handshake. He recovers quickly, grins. “I’ll make sure not to wear them next time.”

“You’ve literally worn suspenders every single time I’ve seen you. Frankly, I’m becoming worried your fancy pants wouldn’t stay up if you took them off. Not that I want to know.”

Steve knows she’s mostly teasing, but he doesn’t think Bucky does because Nat’s face remains as serious as ever. The whole exchange is starting to look pretty passive-aggressive. Nat can be really tactless sometimes.

“Well, that’s enough of intimidating people for today, Nat.” Steve playfully pushes her away. Finally, she grins. “We’re going to the Shield cafe and you can take your miserable ass to Hydra and arm wrestle some of the thugs there.”

Natasha gives him the one-fingered salute and walks away. Ah, she’s so wonderfully weird. Steve loves her.

They make it to Shield without incident. Steve doesn’t even think about Nat’s suggestive jibes when he chats with Bucky. The easy flow of their conversation surprises him. They talk about their classes, about the workload ahead of them, and about their professors. When Bucky, like Barton the other day, tentatively suggests Loki’s relationship to horses is slightly out of the norm, Steve bursts out laughing and hurries to retell all the cringey moments that happened in Loki’s classroom in their first year.

They stumble into the cafe grinning and windswept. They both order a sandwich and coffee, but while Steve orders a normal latte, Bucky goes out of the way with the toppings and different syrupy shots. He smiles shyly, admitting he has an awful sweet tooth. Once they’ve gotten their lunch, they sit down by the window overlooking the grey street.

Because Steve can’t have a life without strife, he remembers Nat’s quips about his “date,” and his brain short-circuits. He goes from chatting carelessly to not knowing what to say. Awkward silence settles between them. Bucky is quiet, either because he too ran out of words or because he got distracted by the pedestrians on the sidewalk outside. Steve takes a bite of his sandwich to otherwise occupy his mouth, but this doesn’t help his situation in the least. When he’s not talking, he has too much time to think, and all he can think about is how damn good the faint stubble looks on Bucky’s chiseled jaw. Goddammit, Nat.

Bucky looks back at him, smiles, and digs at the whipped cream at the top of his drink, swirling the straw around to catch some of it. He slips it into his mouth, sucking on the straw. Wow. That, along with Nat’s dirty gestures fresh in Steve’s mind, really isn’t helping. He decides he better start talking soon.

“So,” he says around a bite of his sandwich in his haste to stop the undignified train of his thoughts. “Why are you such a nerd?”

Admittedly, Steve could have executed this one better, but what’s done is done. Luckily, Bucky laughs.

“You mean why do I know so much about classical art? Or how my crippling anxiety over failing a class means I take notes like a maniac even though my eyelids are dropping all along?” He flinches. “Wow, sorry, I just unloaded this on you.”

“Oh.” Steve is speechless. This sauntering, charming guy who throws around playful smiles as if he’s in a flirting competition is also an anxious mess? Steve cringes at his past self for being so quick to judge. “Sorry, I didn’t know.”

“It’s okay. You couldn’t know.” Bucky takes another sip of his coffee through the straw. “I guess I’ve just always felt like I didn’t belong in art school, you know? Always felt like I wasn’t good enough. I still feel that. You’re all better artists than I am. You all have a vision and I’m just here wanting to draw and paint pretty things.”

Steve ponders for a while. “I think I know what you mean, except that for me it’s the reverse. I have a ‘vision’ as you say, but I have difficulty conveying it. I know the message I want to send, but I don’t know how to find the most compelling way to do it. Because even if the message itself is important, it needs to be conveyed in a visually compelling way for it to make the most impact. And I tend to focus too much on the message itself and too little on the actual art.”

Steve takes another bite of his sandwich, swallows, and continues. “We’re not better than you, though. How’d you get that one into your head? I saw your sketch that first day in Drawing 1. I didn’t think it was possible to be so shaken by a quick drawing of a park.”

“Oh,” Bucky says, gingerly picking up his sandwich. “You liked it? Thanks. I — I enjoy drawing scenery. Also people. Everyday life, I guess.”

Steve realizes that when Bucky moved the drawing out of his line of sight that day, he probably thought Steve was judging his drawing.

“Listen,” Steve tells him, weighed down by his unerring honesty. “I have to say that my outlook on art is probably different than yours. You know I want to do engaged art and it’s because I think art is important when it comes to social movements and inciting social change. I’ve always thought that should be artists’ primary focus, but —”

“I get that. I get that and I even agree with it. You don’t know how long I’ve been trying to make myself be that kind of an artist,” Bucky interrupts. “But I had to admit to myself that I’m not. Not that I don’t care about social justice, I just can’t bring myself to pour those feelings into art. I know it sounds stupid and old-fashioned, but I want to bring some beauty to the world with my art. God, I sound like such a romanticist, but it’s true. I want people to look at my art and maybe forget about reality for a few seconds. I want them to fall into the scene I painted and imagine a hundred different lives they could live. I want to make people feel with my art.”

Bucky averts his eyes for a second, but then determinedly meets Steve’s again. There is defiant passion in them.

“That is pretty romantic,” Steve teases, a small smile playing at his lips.

“What can I say?” Bucky spreads his arms, sandwich in hand, recovering from his moment of uncertainty. “I am dreamy,” he says, some of the crumbs on his chin falling off as he speaks.

“That you are,” Steve mutters, then laughs because a piece of a boiled egg slips out of the sandwich in Bucky’s extended hand and flops to the ground. Bucky curses, pulling the sandwich closer, and picks the egg off the floor with a napkin.

“So dreamy,” Steve repeats sarcastically, deciding hitting a man when he’s down isn’t quite so bad in this situation. “Anyway, I agree with you. I think I sometimes get so wrapped up in my head about what art means to me that I forget it doesn’t mean the same to other people. Some people might see my political art and feel nothing, no incentive, no well-placed rage at society, but can see a pretty painting and it can change their life, make them want to become a better person. And every change starts there.”

“Yeah…” An appreciative smile spreads across Bucky’s face.. “Wow, you really put that nicely. Thanks.”

“I can be pretty…” Steve shrugs with one shoulder, not knowing how to formulate his thought. “I guess I can be pretty wrapped up in my head, in my idea of the world, which often makes me too judgmental. It’s good to be reminded to get my head out of my ass every so often. So thanks.”

“I really admire your pieces, by the way.” Bucky runs a hand through the strands that have escaped his bun. “Just because I’m a helpless romantic, it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a good angry and righteous piece of art.”

Steve kicks him under the table. It’s the first time he’s intentionally touched him. He hopes he’s not stepping over the line. Personal boundaries are a sensitive thing. He’s relieved when Bucky kicks back.

“Hey, I’m praising you here!” On top of the retaliatory kick, Bucky also throws a napkin at Steve. Steve’s glad to notice it’s not the one containing the piece of egg. “Honestly, that painting you did in Danvers’s class? It blew me away.”

“The cat?” Steve jumps in because he’s annoying and Bucky better accept it as soon as possible. “Personally, I thought it rather resembled those terrifying medieval paintings of cats with human faces, but —” Bucky kicks him again and Steve dissolves into laughter.

“No, not the cat, Jesus. That second painting of a protest...the faces, they were so real, I could feel their rage through the canvas.” Bucky smiles slightly, more to himself than at Steve. “It was perfect. The composition, the technique, everything. Though I have to admit, out of all of it, what struck me were the colors. The way they mashed together, the way they contrasted one another, the way they flowed. The colors were insane!”

Bucky stops, looking at Steve as if waiting for him to explain his special mixing technique, or reveal his strategic approach to combining colors or something. Steve shrugs. “Thanks, I’m colorblind.”

“You — what?” Bucky’s mouth slams shut.

“Uhh, yeah. Well, not completely, but I am. I have tritanopia — blue blindness. Which is highly ironic because what you call blue is my favorite color.” Steve fingers his eyebrow piercing absentmindedly. It’s always awkward explaining everything that is wrong with his body.

Bucky stays quiet for a while. When he speaks up it’s slow, thoughtful. “Maybe that’s why you mix colors so well. It gives you a unique way of seeing them. Maybe that’s your biggest asset.”

Steve doesn’t know what to say to that. He thinks about all the stressful moments when he was trying to decide if the color he was about to tip his brush into was green or blue or something in between. “I’ve never thought about it like that,” he admits.

“Well, you should,” Bucky tells him.

Steve continues eating his sandwich, falling deep into thought. Bucky lets him process the idea. Steve has spent so long obsessing over choosing the right colors, reading labels on the paint, remembering exactly which order he put them in on his palette. To have someone say he didn’t need to paint the world like other people saw it, that he could paint it the way he saw it, makes something monumental shift inside of him.

In the end, what pulls him out of his thoughts is Bucky unbuttoning the cuffs on his shirt and rolling them back to expose his forearms. Steve shakes himself out of his stupor.

“You have a tattoo.”

“Yeah,” Bucky looks down at his left arm. “It goes up to my shoulder, actually.”

“I never noticed,” Steve admits. He’s looking at the lines on Bucky’s skin unabashedly. The tattoo looks a lot like a cybernetic metal arm would. The lines evoke the image of metal plates slotting easily and seamlessly into one another.

“You wouldn’t. I usually keep it covered.” Bucky shrugs.

“Why?” Steve doesn’t understand why anyone would keep such a gorgeous tattoo covered.

“Because people ask questions.” Bucky flashes him a cheeky grin.

“What kind of questions?”

“What it means. Why I had it done. Sometimes I get asked if my aspiration in life is to be a robot. All kinds of things,” he explains.

“And you don’t want to tell them. Why?” Steve knows it can be annoying if people prod at you over body art, but he feels like there’s more here. Bucky sighs, looking at his left arm. He flexes his hand, the tendons shifting on his wrist making it seem as if the metal arm moved. For a few seconds he looks deeply sad.

“This is the arm my father broke in one of his rages. I was fifteen. He was… well, abusive. He used to beat my mom. I always tried to get in between them but it’s not like hitting his child made him hesitate. One day, when his mood was especially bad, he broke my arm. It was the day my mom finally decided it was time to pack our bags and go.” He looks up from his tattoo, focusing his gaze onto the sidewalk outside. “It’s the first thing I did, when I turned eighteen, got this tattoo. I guess I wanted to feel invincible. Like no one could ever hurt me, if I had a metal arm. It was kind of silly, but I was young.”

Finally, he turns his eyes on Steve. “Now, it reminds me some things are worth fighting for, but at the same time, some things you’re better off walking away from. Sometimes that can be equally brave.” He cocks an eyebrow. “Besides, it’s kinda cool.”

Steve laughs unexpectedly. “It is kinda cool.” Unwilling to let Bucky’s confession slide, he sobers. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. And sorry if I made you reveal more than you wanted.”

“Nah,” Bucky shakes his head. “It’s fine. I don’t often share this information, but it’s nice to do it sometimes. Besides you’re…” he smiles, “pretty cool. I didn’t mind sharing it with you.”

A warm soft glow spreads inside Steve’s chest. He didn’t have many friends growing up, not any if he’s completely honest, and Bucky trusting him like this means a lot. They don’t know each other well. It’s only the second time they’ve really talked, and Steve can already feel that Bucky will be a big part of his life. It doesn’t quite feel like they’ve known each other forever, but it feels like they could have, if they’d met sooner. As if in another universe, they were two kids running around the streets causing trouble until they turned grey and old and switched the streets for a nursing home, staying troublemaker friends forever.

“Thanks,” Steve answers after a pause that goes on for a bit too long. “I’m glad you did.”

Steve doesn’t know what it is about Bucky that makes him so invested, but he is. He can’t hold himself back when his intuition is almost bullying him into trusting Bucky. Unwilling to dwell on it any longer, he changes the topic.

“Hey, you didn’t tell me why you know the exact location of every painting ever painted.” Steve reminds him. “Are you secretly an art dealer? Or an aspiring young art thief?”

Bucky chuckles. “No. My mom is an art historian. She’s been dragging me and my sister to all the galleries and art collections around the world ever since she became a single parent. I hated it for the first year, but then I started appreciating it. I’ve always been creative, but that really gave me the incentive to go study art, even though I also acquired a major inferiority complex by looking at all those famous paintings.”

“I can imagine.” Steve nods. “Though, between you and I, let’s admit that some of those famous paintings are absolute shit.”

This makes Bucky laugh again. He lifts his mostly empty coffee cup, and Steve raises his, clinking them together. A genuine smile spreads across Bucky’s face, crinkling his eyes. “I can drink to that.”

 

~

 

After that lunch, Bucky starts hanging out with Steve and Nat and occasionally with Clint and Thor as well. The first time Steve asks him to come sit with them, Bucky looks indecisive, his eyes flitting between the first row where he usually sits and Steve and Nat sitting at the back of the auditorium. Steve nudges Nat with his elbow, stands up, picks up his stuff and walks out of the row. Nat gives him a dirty look, but scrambles behind him yelling at Bucky that there’s no way in hell she’s sitting in the first row, so he better start compromising.

From that day on, they sit in the middle row, and loath as Steve is to admit, it turns out to be good for him. It might not have been the best idea to have sat in the back row being half-deaf and all.

It’s Thursday morning, which means another of Loki’s Art History lessons.They’re discussing the painting Parnassus by Mantegna. There are fourteen people and a tiny angel painted on a dynamic background and all they’ve been discussing for the past hour is the sole winged horse in the bottom right corner of the canvas.

“Ok, but is anyone going to explain the fucking horses or what?” Clint has joined them at the lecture again, thought Steve doesn’t know why as the Nat-wooing has been quite successful. Not that Nat tells him much besides “Clint’s annoying, but it’s going well.”

“I don’t think there is an explanation,” Bucky whispers, always careful not to disturb the class. “Unless you want to come to some truly dire conclusions.”

Steve nods. “The thing is, it’s not only horses...” he says, hoping his sideways glance conveys exactly how cringey the situation is. Clint’s eyebrows knit together. He doesn’t get it. Steve looks at him harder, feeling like the embodiment of the side eyes emoji. When Clint’s eyebrows only knit further, Steve grimaces. “Animals in general. But especially horses, snakes, and wolves.”

“Wow.” It’s Clint’s turn to adopt the side eyes emoji expression. “So….bestiality, huh?”

“As of yet, undecided,” Natasha pipes in. By way of explanation she adds, “Either bestiality or a furry. Remember that time we were talking about that Roman statue? The Capitoline Wolf?” Natasha looks like she’d swallowed a lemon, reminiscing about the bitter experience. Bucky, who sits between her and Steve, visibly shudders.

“It’s a statue of the twin founders of Rome,” Steve explains because there is no way Barton knows what the Capitoline Wolf is, “Romulus and Remus, sucking on a female wolf’s titties.”

“Oh.”

Bucky leans in towards Clint to whisper, “He kept staring at the picture on the Powerpoint. You should have seen him. His face got all….mushy. It was terrible.”

“Thing is,” Steve adds, “We don’t know if he wanted to suck on the wolf’s titties or be the wolf getting its titties sucked.”

“Eww!” Barton looks properly disgusted. Steve and Bucky nod solemnly in unison.

Natasha narrows her eyes at Steve. “Why do you keep saying titties? You like saying titties too much. Titties is such a weird word. Wow, actually, I take it back. It kinda feels good. Titties. Titties titties titties. Nice.” She smiles, as if extremely pleased with her discovery. Steve snorts.

“Who cares about tits,” Clint squeaks, “this dude is a furry.”

He twitches his head towards the front of the class. All their heads swivel in that direction. Loki is still excitedly lecturing about the winged horse. Like always, he’s wearing an expensive-looking black suit, his black hair tucked behind his ears. This, Steve thinks, is exactly what a furry would look like.

“I mean, not to typecast, but this is exactly what a furry would look like.” Bucky voices Steve’s thoughts and Steve has to fight down a mighty snort.

“How much do you bet he writes Ancient Rome fanfiction?” Steve asks with only a hint of hysterical laughter in his voice. “Imagine it. Hundreds of PWP one shots about the Capitoline Wolf. Furries of the Antique. The Romans and the Beasts. Ave Furrea.”

They all start laughing quietly, their shoulders shaking. Loki’s narrowed eyes turn on them, pinning them in place in the back row of the auditorium. His mouth opens, probably to say something scathing about their mere existence, but they are saved by the door slamming open. A flush-faced Thor barges in, apologies for his tardiness falling quickly from his lips. Beside his usual skater backpack, Thor is also carrying what looks like a small aquarium in his hands. Loki’s unimpressed eyes turn on him.

“Thor,” he says coldly.

“Hey, Professor Lok — Lochlan.” They’ve all gotten so used to calling Professor Lochlan Loki Steve keeps forgetting that’s not his real name. Thor apparently has the same problem.

“This class started forty-two whole minutes ago.” Loki looks tired of this conversation. There’s no fire in his voice. Like an old overly performed play, the script is always the same. Thor is late, Loki tells him exactly how late he is, and then Thor makes some sort of ridiculous excuse that is somehow also always true.

“Sorry, Professor,” Thor’s face crumbles. He’s genuinely sorry. Every single time. “They wanted to dissect this Indian purple frog in one of my Biology classes — you know Biology is my major — anyway, me and this exceptional example of Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis have struck up a rather pleasant companionship, so I had to save him. His name is Thanos.”

He pushes his face against the portable tank, as if nuzzling the slimy purple blob inside. To the auditorium’s delight, Thanos the Frog jumps against the glass as if trying to fight Thor’s bearded face. Loki visibly recoils. Steve supposes no one can be into all animals.

“Yes,” Loki says slowly as if weighing his options. “I’d like to point out that...pets,” he hesitates on the word, “aren’t allowed in my classroom.”

Steve thinks that’s rather bold of him, seeing how he’s possibly a furry. If anyone, it’s furries who don’t get a say about pets.

“He’s not a pet,” Thor says equally as slowly. “Thanos is a friend.”

The way the slimy frog is basically clawing at the glass to fight Thor suggests the friendship is one-sided. Loki sighs and nods dejectedly towards the front row indicating to Thor to take a seat. He’s giving up without even having put up much of a fight. Unlike Thanos The Frog who’s now resorted to battling a leaf of lettuce.

Steve is pleased to notice the battle continues for the remainder of the lesson and even more pleased to see that the lettuce is winning.

 

~

 

A few days later, when Steve, Clint, Nat, and Bucky are leaving the Shield cafe, they run into Thor.

“Hey, Thor!” Steve greets him cheerily.

“How’s the frog?” asks Nat, grinning at the memory.

“Thanos?” An even bigger grin spreads across Thor’s face, his eyes going slightly misty. “He’s doing fine. I bought him a bigger tank. Also threw in a couple of snails, thought they’d keep him company, so he wouldn’t be so lonely, you know. He killed them all, miserable son of a bitch.”

He says it with such fondness that Steve fears more unsuspecting snails will soon meet the same destiny. Next to him, Bucky barely contains his laughter, if the trembling of his shoulders is anything to go by. Steve has to admit the entire situation is hilarious, especially because Thanos would quite obviously rather be dissected alive than be kept as Thor’s pet.

“That’s great,” Steve says, trying and failing to sound sincere.

“Thanks, mate,” he says, clapping Steve on the shoulder.

Thor says mate a lot, because he’s from Australia. Or at least he told everyone he’s from Australia, but Steve thinks that maybe, just maybe, he’s pushing the accent a bit. He doesn’t know why he would fake it, but knowing Thor, he’s exactly the kind of guy who would fake it.

“Love your new jacket, by the way,” Thor says, pointing at Steve’s jacket.

“Thanks,” Steve says with a small grateful smile. He doesn’t get complimented that often. Natasha’s not the type to dish out praises and Clint, chaotic as always, only compliments him on the strangest things. Like ‘I like your ears, Rogers, really nice shape’. More than making him feel good, these compliments weird him out. Bucky, on the other hand, is quite good with compliments, but his compliments make Steve’s neck go all hot and his stomach churn, and he’d rather not inspect that too closely.

“It was on sale at T.J.Maxx , if you want to go check it out. I didn’t really need a new jacket, but I had to have it. Blue’s my favorite color.”

All eyes turn on him, then quickly shift away. Bucky makes a quiet ‘yikes’ face, but before Steve can process his reaction Thor’s giant hand falls on his shoulder again.

“Mate,” he says matter-of-fact, “I hate to break it to you, but this isn’t blue.”

Steve groans. “I fucked up the color again, didn’t I?. What color is it then?”

“Purple. A very nice purple, but purple nonetheless.” Thor claps his shoulder again.

“Well, it looks blue to me, so I guess it doesn’t matter.” Steve shrugs. And that’s what’s important isn’t it? It looks blue to Steve and Steve likes blue. It’s not his problem they see it differently.

“It’s kind of a blueish purple, though.” Clint is squinting at the jacket, looking at it from different angles.

“Of course you’d say that, you’re impaired too.” Thor shakes his head seemingly unnerved that anyone could see any blue in the purple. Maybe he’s gotten attached to the color since he adopted the purple murder frog.

“I’m hard of hearing.” Clint points to his hearing aid, which almost perfectly matches Steve’s. “Not color-blind.”

“Oh.” There is earnest confusion in Thor’s furled eyebrows. “Hmm,” he mumbles under his breath, before glancing into the coffee shop. “Anyway, gotta dash to get some caffeine into my system before Danvers’s class.”

Thor sweeps into the coffee shop like a mix between a prince and a Neanderthal, elegant in his upper body and an absolute dinosaur in his feet.

“Is he —” Clint shakes his head. “Is he a bit dumb?”

“Yeah, I don’t know.” Steve shrugs. Thor often doesn’t get the simplest things about...well, life. Sometimes it feels like he’s from another planet, not Australia. Though from what Steve’s heard about Australia it might as well be in another galaxy. “He’s actually pretty smart. But also really dumb sometimes.”

“Aren’t we all, aren’t we all,” Bucky says ever so wisely. Steve bumps into him with his shoulder and they start walking back to their painting atelier.

“We should go to the cinema today,” Nat suggests. “I don’t even know what’s playing, I just feel like going to the cinema.”

“No can do,” Bucky says, casually throwing a hand over Steve’s shoulder. “I’m taking Steve to the gym today. He keeps going to the pool but never goes to the gym. We’re gonna change that today.”

Steve tries to grimace. He’s no fan of the gym, but he can’t muster up a bitter expression; he feels too cozy and warm with Bucky’s arm around him.

“You can join us, if you want?” Bucky offers.

“No, thank you.” Unlike Steve, Nat manages a proper grimace. “But you two go and enjoy rubbing your sweaty bodies on the sweaty leather of the machine seats.”

“Well...I’ll definitely enjoy watching,” says Bucky, snapping his mouth shut quickly, his arm around Steve’s shoulder flinching. Steve looks up at him curiously, but Bucky’s not meeting his eyes.

Natasha tilts her head a dirty smile playing at her lips. “You definitely won’t be the only one.”

Steve glares at her and pushes her into Clint’s side mercilessly. Bucky’s arm leaves his shoulders, but not before his fingers gently graze the nape of Steve’s neck. This small, mostly meaningless exchange, transforms Steve’s nervousness at the prospect of his first gym visit into a nervousness of a whole different sort. He’s painfully aware that neither he nor Bucky denied what Nat was implying.

His belly flutters all through the portrait lesson, where his fingers, as if on their own accord, start painting the face that’s guilty of making his stomach churn. Luckily, Bucky doesn’t see it, sitting too far away from him. Nat notices though. She reaches over and squeezes Steve’s knee, leaning in close.

“Go for it, Steve,” she tells him. “He likes you too. It’s painfully obvious.”

“I don’t know, Nat,” Steve sighs, looking at the gorgeous face on his canvas, feeling undeserving of it.

“Trust me, Steve.” She squeezes his knee again when he nods.

After a pause, she continues, frowning at the canvas. “Also, you forgot to paint the suspenders."

Steve turns back to the painting. Oh, fuck. He really did forget the suspenders. He'll have to do add them in later, this just won't do.

"And you’re making him way more handsome than he really is," Nat tells him before swiveling back to her painting.

Steve politely disagrees. Not even the best artist in the world could do justice to Bucky’s mouth.

 

~

 

Steve’s nerves turn out to be for nothing. The gym is as eventful as you could expect it to be for a weak asthmatic. Bucky guides him through the exercises almost clinically, grinning at how much Steve sweats. When Steve does some sort of leg exercises (no weights, his legs wouldn’t be able to handle it), and starts wheezing, his asthma making a sudden appearance, Bucky guides him through it, rubbing his back gently, and fanning Steve’s face. That is the only time he touches Steve if you don’t count the strictly necessary touches when he corrects Steve’s form.

To Steve’s dismay, Bucky is even hotter in gym clothes than he is in his regular ones, and Steve has a hard time tearing his eyes away from Bucky’s tattooed left arm. The muscles under the tattoo ripple, enthralling Steve every single time Bucky tries a new exercise.

Steve becomes certain that Natasha was wrong and Bucky isn’t interested at all. There is only one small moment that gets his hopes up: when Steve is doing (or trying to do) pull-ups, he sees Bucky staring transfixed at his exposed hip bones. Instead of helping Steve, like he had with every other exercise, he stands rooted to the spot, unblinking. When Steve kicks helplessly, unable to lift himself more than a few inches, Bucky shakes himself out of his stupor. He licks his lips nervously, avoiding Steve’s gaze.

Steve feels awkward. He isn’t really comfortable with anyone staring at his body. There is nothing impressive to stare at, after all, and he can only dream that Bucky’s thoughts were positive.

No, Steve is not doing this here. He’s self-conscious enough as it is. He doesn’t need to overthink it as well.

Instead of on his own thoughts, he focuses on Bucky’s gym stories. Steve didn’t know the gym was such an eventful place, but apparently this is where everything happens in greater intensity than anywhere else. There’s been drama with stalkers, the changing room has seen a couple of fights, and highly unconventional flirting techniques are used here on the daily (among them Clark who keeps asking “You want a banana? I have it in my locker.” with a suggestive waggle of his eyebrows). Besides the funny (and worrying, let’s be honest) stories, Bucky also shares the dirty details about the students that go there, having frequented the gym for long enough to know most of them (and most of their sins).

There is Matt who wears the same socks for a week, for a week Steve. And believe me when I tell you, they smell like it too. There is Needle Butt Dane who claims he doesn’t do steroids, but they don’t call him Needle Butt Dane for nothing; he does indeed take steroids — straight into his butt. Then there is Jenna who only comes to the gym to take selfies and Chad — of course there is a Chad — who has not yet heard of either a deodorant or a shower.

In short, Nat’s “Go for it,” while strong in Steve’s determined head at the beginning of the session, wanes to only a faint echo. Towards the end of their evening, Bucky becomes more and more absent. In the changing room, he’s already so distant and withdrawn that he doesn’t understand what Steve is saying even though he’s looking directly at him. No hand waving, no interesting stories, no fun facts about koalas can capture Bucky’s attention any more.

When they head home it’s already eleven. Steve pulls his jacket tightly around himself, the evening chill making his overheated body shiver. Bucky walks beside him, pushing his pink bike along. He’s quiet, in thought. Steve desperately wants to say something, but he doesn’t know what. Bucky hasn’t been listening for the past half an hour anyway.

Without warning Bucky stops. It takes Steve a few paces to register it. When he does he turns, frowning.

“Is everything okay?” Steve walks back to where Bucky is standing clutching the handlebar in a tight grip.

“I’ve been trying to think of a way to say it for the past hour, and I’m not coming up with anything smart, so here goes.” Bucky takes a deep breath and finally meets Steve’s eyes. “I’ve wanted to kiss you for a long time.”

Steve’s brain slows, making him feel like his synapses have turned to maple syrup, lazy and heavy. “Oh.” Here is exactly the situation he had hoped for, and he doesn’t know what to say. “You have?”

“Yeah.” Bucky runs a hand through his hair quickly, shakily. “Actually, that first time we talked in front of the gym, I wanted to ask you on a date, but I chickened out. And now we’re friends and I like being friends with you, but I thought I should let you know. Just...just in case.”

Just in case? Just in case what? Steve’s brain is no more than a mostly empty bottle of syrup, his thoughts dripping slowly and languidly into the pool that is his head.

“Just in case…?” Steve asks right when it clicks. “Oh, oh my god, you mean just in case I want it too? Yes. Yes, I want to kiss you too! Sorry, I should have said that sooner.”

It finally clicks in Steve’s head. Bucky’s absentmindedness, his detachment, the way he’s currently fiddling with a particularly large feather on the bike basket; he was nervous. Warmth pools in Steve’s belly as the flutter of excitement unfurls in his chest.

“You do?” Bucky sounds hopeful. “I mean I was hoping — I thought you might, but then I wasn’t sure, and —”

“Yeah. I was hoping too. And then I wasn’t sure.” Steve knows somewhere in the back of his mind that this is possibly the most awkward conversation he’s ever been part of, but he would never trade it for smooth words and confident flirting. It feels so tangibly real, blundering through it like they are.

“I’m glad.” Bucky’s smile, which was a bit tighter before, a bit more guarded, spreads across his face. “I’m glad we’re on the same page.”

 Steve breaths a laugh. He feels so stupid but so light at the same time. “So are we gonna kiss now or…”

“Yes, now, yes.” Bucky swallows visibly to collect his words. “I mean, I think it would be nice to kiss right now.”

“I agree.” Steve nods.

“You’re too far away, though.” Bucky reminds him, motioning at the space between them.

“Right, right.” Steve steps forward almost tripping in his haste. It’s like his IQ has dropped to zero, but strangely he doesn’t mind.

“Careful,” Bucky steadies him with one hand, the other holding the bike upright between them. The bike is in the way, but there’s no time to think about that right now, because Bucky’s right there, very, very close, his hand warm on Steve’s upper arm.

Bucky’s mouth is just as inviting as ever, red and curved, and smiling. To say Steve isn’t used to people looking at him like that would be an understatement of the century. Bucky’s eyes are intense in the dark, deep and fond. That one rebellious strand of hair has escaped his bun again. Steve wants to reach up to tuck it behind his ear but he’s too transfixed staring at Bucky’s handsome face.

“Should we,” Bucky breathes and they must be close because Steve feels it on his face.

“Yeah, I think we shoul —” he doesn’t finish the sentence. They’ve started moving towards each other and their lips meet, soft and careful. Steve hears Bucky take a shaky breath through his nose. They move their lips, but the angle isn’t right, so they turn their heads to adjust it, but they turn their heads in the same direction, their noses and foreheads bumping. They break the kiss, laughing.

“So that didn’t go too well,” Steve says, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Yeah, we blundered this one up, didn’t we?” Bucky tucks the strand of hair behind his ear. Steve feels angry at himself for not doing it when he had the chance. But there will be more chances; Bucky keeps his bun messy enough that Steve will be able to go around tucking Bucky’s hair behind his ears all day long.

“I’m usually good at this kissing thing,” Bucky tells him, moving the hand from Steve’s arm to cup his chin. He gently slides his thumb over Steve’s mouth piercing. The warmth in Steve’s belly drips further down, stirring hot in his groin.

“Well,” Steve’s voice comes out lower and huskier than before, “guess we’re just gonna have to try again.”

He smiles wickedly, jostling Bucky’s thumb on his lower lip. He slides his hands up Bucky’s chest in a feat of boldness, hooks his hands in the suspenders and pulls Bucky in. He goes willingly and their mouths crash together more forcefully than before, but Steve revels in it, swallowing down Bucky’s surprised gasp. Bucky’s fingers wrap around Steve’s neck, brushing the small hairs at his nape. A shiver runs down Steve’s spine. He tightens his hold on the suspenders and deepens the kiss.

Bucky’s mouth is as sweet and pliant and responsive as he’s imagined, the stubble on his chin scratching Steve’s skin in the most exciting way.. Bucky was right, he is good at this kissing thing. When they break apart, their mouths are red and wet, and most importantly, smiling.

“That —” Bucky’s adam’s apple bobs. “Who said third time’s the charm when it’s obviously the second?”

Steve laughs, perhaps even giggles, but he doesn’t have it in him to stop himself, he feels so light and so silly and so stupidly in love. It might be soon to call it that, but his chest is made of air bubbles and Bucky’s eyes are gleaming at him, so that’s what he’s going to call it because it’s the only emotion that can capture how wonderful he feels.

Instead of replying, he tugs on the suspenders again, pulling Bucky in for another kiss. It turns out that the third time’s just as charming as the second time was. More importantly, Steve realizes he’s done suspenders a lot of wrong in the past month, having judged them so harshly. It only takes three kisses for them to become Steve’s favorite fashion accessory.

 

~

 

Two months later

Steve doodles into his notebook, tired and groggy, leaning his head onto his hand. His eyelids are so heavy he can barely keep them open. Who thought it was a good idea to have a seven a.m. class? He’s shading the monkey’s face when Nat strides in, as alert as ever, her hair bouncing perfectly, not a strand out of place. She stops before the table, frowning.

“Of all the people you could have picked, Rogers…” She tsks unimpressed.

“How has his outfit attacked you today?” Steve asks without looking up. He continues drawing the monkey on a unicycle.

“Suspenders. And a man bun!” Nat throws her hands up as if that’s not exactly what Bucky wore since the year started.

“I’m literally right here,” Bucky mumbles, stirring at Steve’s side. He’d been sleeping with his head on the table. Bucky has an even worse relationship with mornings than Steve does. “Like right here, twenty inches away from Steve.”

“Don’t think for one moment I didn’t intend for you to hear it,” Nat throws him a cheeky smile. She and Bucky are always playing some sort of game that Steve hasn’t figured out yet and probably never will. “Also,” Nat continues, “I know you men are generous with your inches, but there’s not even space for a draft between you two.”

Steve looks to his side where Bucky is admittedly pressed tight against him. He gets very clingy when he’s sleepy. Steve always claims it’s annoying, but he secretly finds it adorable.

Bucky glares at Natasha. It’s ruined by the fact that there is an imprint of the shirt sleeve he’d been sleeping on across his right cheek. “What exactly is wrong with my outfit today?”

“For one,” Nat smiles savagely, all teeth, “you’re the one wearing it.”

“Ouch.” Bucky puts his palm over his heart.

“I still don’t know why you two do this every day,” Steve says, desperate to understand. “He’s literally worn suspenders and a man bun from day one, which you make a point of reminding him of every occasion you have.”

“Steve,” Nat says seriously, slipping into the seat next to him. She lays her hand on his shoulder and looks deep into his eyes, expression solemn. “Suspenders and man buns should be mocked every day.”

Bucky reaches behind Steve’s back to punch her in the shoulder. All it does is make her laugh.

Steve’s eyes flick at Bucky, at his loose bun, at his red suspenders. He lets his eyes slide up and down every inch of Bucky's body not hidden by the desk. “I don’t know, Nat." He turns to look at her, one eyebrow cocked suggestively. "I’ve tested the suspenders thoroughly and I have to say they’re in my top five Things I Like to Tug.”

Bucky kicks him under the table while Nat makes gagging noises. Steve laughs. He doesn’t know what game these two are playing, but he thinks he’s just won it.