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Steve balances his travel coffee mug, his laptop, and his phone in one hand while holding his umbrella with the other as he shuffles through the crowd to make his way into the Psychology building located at 6 Washington place.  He catches the door as the person in front of him lets it swing, and then he pauses to hold it for a crowd of girls in colorful rain boots and backpacks. They giggle at his politeness, and he finally ducks inside after them and shakes his umbrella onto the soaked patch of carpet in the entryway. 

Apart from the pack mentality, he doesn’t really mind being surrounded by freshmen; after all, it’s a 100-level psychology course, and most people take care of their gen eds during their first year instead of pacing them out to take the maximum amount of art classes.

Steve’s a junior, and it’s high time that he finally steps into the psych building and learns the basic ropes about head-shrinking.

He makes his way to the classroom number listed on his online schedule, and when he enters the slanted lecture room, he notices that most of the other students have taken their seats as far from the front as they can manage.  Huffing a laugh at their attempts to shield themselves from direct participation, he travels to the front of the room and takes his pick of the second row seats. He finds a left-handed desk he likes and sets his laptop up to take notes, then he takes his ratty, half.com textbook out of his bag and rests it on his lap. 

Only then does he allow himself the first sip of coffee, and it’s as perfect as 7:55 AM gets. 

More students shuffle in and take their places at the back of the room, only a few brave souls venturing into the first five rows. That’s pretty par for the course, and Steve is happy enough to stretch out.  He contemplates putting his feet on the seat directly in front of him, but then a guy with artfully messy brown hair enters from the side door and sits directly in front of Steve. 

Mourning the loss of his footstool, Steve takes another sip of coffee and surreptitiously checks out the jaw line on the guy in front of him.  It’s an excellent jaw line, and because they’re sitting slightly to the left of center, Steve suspects that he’ll get to see it in profile throughout class. It’s a good thought.

Then he notices that Jaw Line, in addition to having a matching set of killer cheek bones, has the same old edition, tattered textbook that he has. 

“Oh, hey, you have the 4th edition, too,” Steve says.  He’s never been afraid to start a random conversation with a stranger.  Jaw Line whips his head around, looking startled.  “The course website said the 6th edition, but who’s going to pay 180 bucks for that?” 

Well, the students behind him probably did just that.

“Yeah,” Jaw Line says after a pause. He looks confused, like he doesn’t understand Steve’s point.  Steve notices that Jaw Line looks much older than the usual 100-level student, probably older than Steve himself.  He decides that Jaw Line is another gen ed slacker like he is.

“You think that will be a problem? I looked online, and most of the readings look the same.  But the page numbers will obviously be different.  I’m not worried; just nice to see someone else say Fuck the System.”

“Uh, yeah,” the guy says, and then he turns back to his desk and pulls out a yellow legal pad from his bag. 

“I’m Steve,” Steve pushes on, just to see if Jaw Line will say something else.  “I’m a junior, art major.  What major are you?”

“Art?” Jaw Line mumbles while digging through his bag. He finally pulls out a pen, and then he turns back to Steve, looking pointedly at Steve’s gym-toned arms. “N-not exercise science?”

Steve laughs, choosing to take it as a friendly jibe instead of something snide.  He prefers to look on the bright side of things if at all possible, and he can’t wait for this class to tell him what that says about his relationship with his mother.

“Art.  You?”

“Psych,” the guy says, which doesn’t make a lot of sense as to why he looks like a senior in a 100-level psych class. But maybe Steve is misjudging his age, or maybe Jaw Line is so brilliant that he skipped right to 400-level classes and is only now mopping up the graduation requirements.

“You got a name, so I can stop referring to you as Jaw Line in my head?” Steve asks, the flirt in him kicking in with the caffeine. Jaw Line’s eyes widen, but Steve isn’t worried about offending.  Psych majors by definition have to be pretty open-minded, or at least he thinks. 

“Bucky,” the guy says eventually, and then Bucky turns back to the front of the room as the professor enters from the same side door. 

The professor, Dr. Coulson according to the online scheduler, slaps a stack of thick syllabi onto the table at the front of the room and cheerfully orders all of the students to come and grab one. Steve notices that Bucky doesn’t get up; instead, he grips his pen tightly and looks straight ahead, and Steve frowns a little as he grabs two syllabi and offers one to Bucky. Bucky looks startled again, and this really isn’t good for Steve’s chances.

He settles back into his chair, ready to hear the semester overview, and thinks that Bucky is smoking hot but hardly a people-person.

 

After a long day of classes and studio time, Steve makes his way back to the apartment he shares with Sam, Natasha, and Clint. He makes himself some chicken for dinner, chats with Natasha about her political science classes, and then all four roommates head to the gym.  Steve spots for Sam while he bench presses, and he conversationally drifts through his day while Sam grunts and heaves the weight over his chest.   

“Probably the only upperclassman in my Psych-101 course,” Steve mentions several minutes in. 

“That’s what you get,” Sam insists on an exhale.

“There was a ridiculously hot guy who sat in front of me, though.  Made it very worth it,” Steve says. 

“Eye candy improves even the most boring classes,” Sam agrees with a drop of sweat rolling down his temple. 

“Pretty sure he either doesn’t like guys, or he’s antisocial, or both,” Steve sighs.  “My lot in life.” 

“Poor Steve,” Sam says sarcastically. Steve helps him guide the weight back to its resting place.  He doesn’t think anything more about Bucky’s attractive bone structure or his smoky blue eyes for the rest of the night, because there are plenty of other things to quietly admire in a college gym. 

 

The next morning, Steve doesn’t have class until noon, so he decides to get his non-art assignments out of the way. He opens up the psych syllabus and sees that he has to read the intro chapter and email a minimum-200 word summary to the TA by the next class. 

He reads the chapter and types the summary, not really gleaning much besides the fact that there’s a lot of vocabulary to know in psych.  Where are the personality disorders he can diagnose his friends with?  Where are the signs of an impending mental breakdown that he needs to know for his senior art project in the fall? 

He decides to add his questions about the subject matter to his summary, just for fun, because it’s a TA grading his work. It’s probably for the best to find out right away if the TA is a hardass with an overblown view of self-importance, or if the TA is cool.  Steve’s never met a TA in the middle ground. 

He finds the TA’s email address listed as James.Barnes6@nyu.edu, and he emails over the summary with a brief introduction of himself like the assignment specified.  He’s just getting dressed and gathering his art supplies to head to his Still Life class when his computer dings, and he sees that he already has a response from James the TA.

Psychology is not a weapon with which we terrorize our friends, and the sign of an impending breakdown in an art major is becoming an art major in the first place. 10/10 – not because you were the first one to turn this in, Mr. hot-shot junior in a freshman class – because you demonstrated understanding of the incredibly simple intro material.

Steve grins and types a response right before he leaves.

I think my ego understood it but my id didn’t.  Also, in the pictures of the ink blots, I’m pretty sure I saw Dr. Coulson wearing a leotard.  How much conformity vs. deviance do I need to demonstrate to get an A?

It’s a long shot, but when he checks his email after Still Life, he has a response. 

You’re mixing psychology and sociology, and also, you suffer from a disorder wherein you think you’re funny but you’re not. 

Steve is still amused when he goes into the studio, though the brush strokes and the scratch of charcoal on paper smooth away his thoughts. 

He casts his mind for something to draw for his Life Drawing isolations project, and he finds himself absently sketching jaw line after jaw line. 

 

When psych meets for the second time that week, Steve is waiting for the sarcastic TA James Barnes to be introduced to the group, but Dr. Coulson gets right down to class.  Steve shrugs it off and takes notes on his laptop while, in front of him, Bucky barely writes anything down.  It’s strange, because Bucky looks really into the material, but he doesn’t feel the need to take notes 90% of the time.  That just goes to support Steve’s genius theory. 

Bucky chews his pen when he isn’t writing, and Steve quietly admires his oral fixation.  Bucky drops the pen halfway through class, and it rolls back to hit Steve’s shoe. Even though it’s kind of gross, Steve bends down to pick it up, teeth-marks and all. 

Bucky works his jaw nervously when Steve hands it back, seemingly uncomfortable with Steve’s help, so Steve shoots him a disarming smile.  He still isn’t sure what Bucky’s deal is, but he’s not going to be obnoxious if the guy doesn’t want to talk. 

After class, however, while Steve is packing up, Bucky turns around abruptly and blurts out, “thanks.”  Steve’s almost forgotten the pen incident, and he has to think for a few seconds before shrugging. 

“No problem.  Have a nice day,” he says before grabbing his laptop and heading out. He notices that Bucky doesn’t start to gather his things until almost everyone is out of the classroom, and then Steve is swallowed up in the throngs of students exiting the building and crowding the sidewalks. 

  

He looks forward to his next assignment – reading another chapter and an article, and sending his summary to James. Compared to his art classes, this class is an easy GPA-booster, even if he’s admittedly not fascinated by the material. It’s interesting, and he does all the readings, but it isn’t eating up too much of his studio time.

Unsure what exactly he’s supposed to be summarizing, he writes a paragraph about each of the readings and then adds in some connections between the two.  Then he looks for something to tease James with. 

So I’m thinking of undergoing electroshock therapy for my latent homosexuality. Thoughts/pros/cons? he adds to the bottom of his summary. 

Within the hour, he has a response. He immediately clicks on it while eating his breakfast. 

10/10 – why are you such an overachiever?  200 words, buddy, come on. 

I have nothing to say in regards to your asinine comment, except, is it really that latent?

Steve misses his mouth with his spoon and gets oatmeal on his cheek.  He stares at the message and then bursts out laughing, having to put the bowl down on his desk. Natasha comes to see why he’s being loud. 

“What the fuck are you doing?” she asks as she reads the email exchange over his shoulder. 

“I’m giving my TA a hard time, and he’s dishing it right back,” Steve says with a chuckle. 

“Hitting-on-each-other hard time, or bro-hard-time?” she asks with her patented eyebrow arch. 

“I have no idea,” Steve admits. “I don’t actually know who this guy is; I just know that I like him.” 

“James Barnes,” she observes. She grabs the laptop before he sees her arms move, and she opens his facebook page. 

“Don’t hack me,” he warns, hovering his fingers over her ticklish sides. 

“James Barnes,” she repeats.  She hits a few buttons and then puts the laptop back on his desk to reveal a James Barnes facebook profile with a picture of…

“Carl Jung.  Seriously?” Steve groans. “I had no idea he was such a nerd. Now I really have to give him a hard time.” 

Natasha clicks around the page, frustrated.

“No pictures of him available to the public. And his profile picture isn’t of him, unless this is a different James Barnes?”

“Psychology TA, Carl Jung obsession, makes sense,” Steve tells her.  He pulls the laptop closer and clicks through the information that he can see. “Says he lives in New York and attends NYU.”

“What are his likes?” Natasha asks.

“New York sports teams, New York restaurants, more nerdy psych stuff, oh,” Steve cuts himself off. 

“What?” Natasha demands, hipchecking him.

“He liked the NYU Undergraduate Art Showcase page,” Steve says contemplatively.  He clicks on the link to confirm that, yes, he’s still featured for his chalk series on war. 

“He’s stalking you,” Natasha immediately jumps to the negative conclusion.  “That’s the most recent thing he liked.”

“OR, someone’s crushing,” Steve counters her with optimism.   He goes back to his email and types a message back.

Okay, fine, not that latent.  I’m not the one flirting with a student, though.  I have something called morals. 

The reply comes several minutes later. You audacity astounds me.  The ego is truly out of control. 

Steve types back.  So it’s a superego?

And, right on schedule.  That is not what that means!! Am I going to have to retroactively take points away from your first reading grade?

Steve breaks out his black paint and a thick brush, and he smudges a panting of a messy, but unmistakable, A.   He takes a picture and emails it to James as an attachment.  Look into the ink blot and find my true grade.

“This is interesting,” Natasha comments from the beanbag chair, watching the whole thing unfold. 

“What is?” Clint asks from the bedroom he shares with Natasha. 

“Steve is putting serious moves on his Intro Psych TA.”

“What’s he look like?” Clint calls back, clearly determined to do anything besides his marketing paper.  Steve’s grin dims a little at that as he thinks about the picture-less facebook profile. 

“No idea.  I’m flying blind,” he admits. 

“That’s why it’s interesting. You’re usually so devoted to your ‘type,’” Natasha says. 

“We’re just having fun,” Steve tells them. “I’m not actually looking to hook up with my TA.  That would be awkward and the stuff of bad pornos.” 

His computer pings.  Never write to me again. You mock my field.

From now on, I will send all summaries in the form of videos of me doing interpretive dance.

James doesn’t respond, and Steve contemplates doing a little interpretive dancing, but decides that sending videos of himself might be going too far. 

At least in week one. 

 

Psych class is always a nice little island of words and numbers away from the images of his normal classes. It’s nice to force his brain into another gear and give his visual senses a rests, even if the class is at eight in the morning on the other side of campus. 

Sometimes Steve gets to class first, and sometimes Bucky gets to class first, but they always pick the same seats. One time, Steve contemplates moving a few seats over for the footrest potential, but Bucky turns around and looks at him with those deep blue bedroom eyes, almost disappointed, and Steve pretends that he was just putting his bag down to adjust his laptop.

Bucky drops things a lot, at least once every class, and Steve always hands them back with a smile.  It occurs to him one day, when Bucky drops his wallet of all things, that maybe this is Bucky’s shy way of flirting with him.

He can’t deny that it makes him warm; Bucky is everything that Steve usually goes for, at least in terms of appearance. He’s handsome, like a black and white film star, with hair that always looks like Steve should run his fingers through it, and dusky lips that Bucky’s always biting, and solid shoulders that fill out his t-shirts whenever he takes his NYU hoodie off. He’s lean but fit, and he always smells like real cologne, not the Axe smell that hovers perpetually among college boys. 

Steve’s an artist, and he likes beauty in all forms – even if there’s not much of a personality under it, or at least not one that he’s seen.  He’d love to draw Bucky, and he’d love to draw him in Steve’s bed even more.  He’s spent at least a few lectures daydreaming about Bucky naked with pre-dawn light painting one side of his body in light peaches and soft blues, and bits of Bucky’s bone structure are forever anonymously preserved in Steve’s art portfolio. 

One day during week four, it’s too much. Bucky’s skin looks like fine clay against the red t-shirt he’s wearing, and Steve wants it under his fingers.

He taps Bucky on the shoulder after class, unsurprised when Bucky startles. 

“Hey, listen.  I apologize if I’ve misread the situation, but I find you really attractive. Would you want to go out some time?” Steve asks, going for broke.  Bucky doesn’t say anything, and Steve waits him out. 

“W-w-would I go out?” Bucky repeats back trippingly. It’s more words than Steve’s ever heard him string together, and it makes the stutter Steve had heard the first day even more apparent. 

“Yeah, to a restaurant, or maybe just coffee? Depends on your schedule,” Steve prompts. 

“May-maybe,” Bucky says, and then he uncharacteristically picks up his notepad and immediately leaves. 

“Okay, let me know!  Offer will be open through the semester!” Steve calls after him, feeling somehow like it’d been what he expected.  He can’t help but hope that Bucky takes him up on it, even if Steve thinks it’s just a pipe dream. 

  

During week six, the psych 101 students have to pick their final paper topics and submit a proposal to the TA. The topic has to be about a hot issue in Psychology, and Steve picks anxiety off the list because he lets the freshmen go in front of him and there isn’t much left. 

He looks up a few scholarly articles, writes up a quick proposal, and sends it to James. 

He expects to get back something sarcastic and affirmative, like usual, but apparently James feels like being helpful instead of an asshole today. 

Proposal looks good.  This is actually what I’m doing for my dissertation (well, in a very simplified manner) and I can point you towards some other resources if you want.  The articles you picked look good, though.  

Steve reads the message and appreciates it, though he misses the banter. 

Okay. I don’t want you to have to copy and paste a bunch of stuff – can I just come by the office hours you’re legally obligated to have?

James doesn’t get back to him for almost 24 hours, which is unlike him.  Steve always thinks of him as constantly in reach of his email, because he typically replies so quickly. 

Sure, the reply says when it comes, Friday afternoon at 5?  He names an out-of-the-way building where the TA offices must be, and Steve sends back a confirmation.

He’s a little excited, actually, to meet the acerbic and flirtatious James Barnes.  They’re close enough to make fun of each other already, and James clearly likes him better than the other students.  Steve’s overheard some of the freshmen talking about how the “TA is so harsh,” so he assumes that James respects him enough to joke around. James has never given him a bad grade, but then again, Steve has never wanted his friendship with the TA to win him any points, so he knows that he works harder than he needs to on the basic work. 

Before he heads over to the appointment, he thinks about the facebook profile.  You’re supposed to have a real picture of yourself; that’s just common internet manners. He’s beyond curious to know what James looks like.  How old is he? He’s obviously a grad student, but he could be just one year older than Steve or in his 40s.  Does he look as nerdy as he comes off on email?  Is he attractive?

“Here’s hoping he’s foxy,” Clint raises his coffee mug to Steve, echoing his thoughts. 

“Not even on my mind,” Steve says coolly. No one believes him.

He gets lost in what he thinks is the right building, and then he can’t find the TA offices when he finally locates it. He stumbles onto the grad student floor, and several pairs of eyes glare at him from the desks where they’re lined up like factory workers.  Steve tries to walk quietly around without having any clue where to start looking for James. He could be any of the twenty or so men in the room, and Steve tries to crane his neck and make it obvious that he’s looking for someone to help James find him.

He has no luck.  Steve sits down on an old sofa and emails James from his phone, Hey, I’m here, and I have no idea where your area is/where you are.  Help??

After five minutes, he sighs and approaches one of the kinder-looking grad students. 

“Hey, I’m so sorry, do you know where James Barnes’s desk is?” 

“I’m English Lit,” she says. 

“Right, so no?” Steve has to ask. She looks at him, annoyed, but then a guy sitting two desks down turns to look at Steve. 

“James’s desk is over there, the one with the Star Trek poster.”  He points, and Steve grins.  That’s a fantastic piece of information for his arsenal. 

But the desk is empty. 

“Uh, but he’s not there,” Steve tells the grad student who helped him. 

“Clearly not,” the guy says, raising his eyebrows like Steve’s too dense to be allowed into college at all. Steve gives him a half wave of thanks and sits back on the couch, keeping his eye on James’s desk.

After another twenty minutes with no James and no email, he accepts that James isn’t coming.  He’s honestly annoyed, because he took an hour out of his studio time for this, but he heads out trying to give James the benefit of the doubt. Something probably came up, as it does for everyone, and it was just a walk and some waiting. 

James responds to him the next day. Sorry, couldn’t make it.  Here’s a zip file of some articles that might help you.

Steve clicks on the file, and it is helpful, but something about the excuse rings false to him.  Whenever he has to cancel plans with someone, especially without telling them first, he’s always super apologetic, and he usually says why.

He wonders if he’s reading too much into James blowing him off, and then he sees the date that the zip file was created.

It was created three days ago, right around the time that Steve was making the appointment with James in the first place. James had already created this file when he offered Steve a time and place to meet. 

Steve realizes unhappily that James probably never intended to keep their appointment, and he doesn’t like the way it feels to be purposefully ignored, especially by a guy he talks to several times a week. 

“Was he hot?” Natasha asks, breaking Steve out of his thoughts. 

“I’m going to guess no,” Steve says. It’s out of character for him to assume the worst in people, but he’s working on a theory.  “He didn’t show, and that’s a thing, right? You’re flirting with someone online and they refuse to meet you in person because they’re not really that attractive? 

“Did you get Catfished?” she asks, her eyes wide.

“Well, I knew he wasn’t actually Carl Jung like in his facebook picture, so no,” Steve says with an eye roll. But even though James never actually lied to him, it does feel like he’s been led on. 

When he submits his outline for the paper, James makes him laugh again, and he’s even more helpful with suggestions. James emails over another document full of just notes for his dissertation, purely to be helpful.

TAs aren’t supposed to be so helpful, which is how Steve knows that James is trying to apologize and get back into his good graces.

And it eventually works.  Steve can’t be mad for long; if James is embarrassed by the way he looks for whatever reason, but he wants to keep what they have going, Steve’s okay with that.  The only other guy he’s interested in at the moment barely talks to him, so Steve is willing to have a flirtation purely of the mind without involving any of his other body parts. 

  

During week ten, Steve reads the comments on his draft from James during a particularly dry part of the lecture. He covers his mouth with his fingers so Dr. Colson won’t see him on the verge of laughing at James’s paper comments.

Dear god, are you trying to write a big 5-paragraph essay?  You talk about like four things in this one paragraph. What the fuck are you doing, Steve? You have the writing skills of a middle schooler.

Steve opens his email and quietly types to James. Hang out with a lot of middle schoolers?

He sends the email off into the campus cloud, wondering where James will be when it reaches him.  James is more than likely at his cramped desk in the depressing TA room, but maybe he’s somewhere else right now.  At any rate, Steve doesn’t get a response during class. 

He does, however, get a surprise from his other interest.  Bucky turns around when Dr. Coulson wraps up, and he studies Steve intently.

“Hey gorgeous,” Steve flirts, hoping it isn’t too much. Bucky blushes, which just makes his eyelashes look that much darker. 

“You like coffee, r-right?” he asks.

“Absolutely,” Steve tells him. It’s not odd that Bucky knows that; Steve tends to make happy sounds while he drinks his morning brew.

“W-want to g-get some coffee?” Bucky asks. Steve lights up.

 “So much.  Right now, or later?” 

 “I have a f-f-ew hours,” Bucky tells him. Steve beams and stands up excitedly.

“Me too.  Let’s go.” 

They head to one of the coffee shops that caters to students with small tables and plenty of power strips.  Steve insists on buying Bucky a coffee, and they both have relatively simple tastes.  They sit near the window, and Bucky’s hands fidget against the cardboard cup. He starts pulling at the sleeve and making tiny rips along the edge. 

“You want to make this a study date? Just hang out?” Steve asks him. Bucky looks visibly relieved. Only slightly disappointed, Steve takes his sketchbook out of his bag.  “I have a hundred partial still-lifes due next week.  That’s crazy, right?  I’ve been needing to just sit and work.” 

Bucky pulls out a thick folder and takes out a three-column article printed in the tiniest font Steve has ever seen. He takes a highlighter and a pen – both chewed - and sets them next to the article. 

“Can I draw your little work area?” Steve asks. Bucky looks puzzled, but he nods.

“So, I, uh, need to be st-still?” he asks.

“Nah,” Steve tells him.  “I can work around your hands.”  Steve starts to draw the ridiculous article and the pen, highlighter, and coffee cup next to it.  He takes extra time to shade the bite marks on the writing utensils and the rips on the coffee sleeve, and he finishes while Bucky is still engrossed in the article.

“Can I draw you?” he asks next, fully aware that Bucky isn’t still life, but enamored with the idea of finally getting to draw him from something other than memory. 

“Sure,” Bucky says, not looking exited about it. But Steve really wants to, so he compromises and just sketches Bucky in quick, free strokes. 

Bucky leaves about an hour later, stuttering his way through a goodbye while Steve smiles warmly at him.  He drops the smile when Bucky leaves, and he sighs and rubs his eyes.  As much as he still wants to pursue something with Bucky, it was a bland date, and he didn’t have much fun. 

His mood perks right up when he checks his email before his next class, and he sees that James wrote back to him.

For your information, I’m down with the middle schoolers.  My stepsister is in 7th grade, and she hates everything but still thinks I’m cool. 

Steve writes back.  How sad for her. She’s in for a rude awakening.

 

That night, Steve is lying in bed with Sam snoring on the other side of the room, and he’s checking social media before he goes to bed.  He sees a new email from James pop up, and he abandons Instagram immediately.  

I bet your siblings don’t text you every night to let you know which boy said ‘hi’ to them.

I don’t have any siblings, Steve writes back.  And if I did, I would give the best crush advice. 

Grown-ups don’t call them crushes, Steve, James says.  Because James is replying in real time, it’s easier to open a chat window.   

I do, Steve types. 

Do you write about them in your secret diary? James chides. 

All the time. ‘Dear diary, today my TA told me I have the writing skills of a middle schooler.  My plan to convince him to sleep with me in exchange for an A is going as planned! He thinks I’m a moron and I need the help.  

James doesn’t respond right away, and Steve worries about overdoing it.  Then, You are a moron, but I guess all you need to do to get into the art program is draw some pretty fruit. 

Art program at fucking NYU, Steve types back.  Hence, the dumb is just an act.

I guess if you can use the word ‘hence’ in conversation, you’re not totally ignorant, James allows.  But your writing is still atrocious. 

It was a draft!! Steve types back immediately.  I’m not particularly gifted at writing, but I’m not terrible either!  Respect the draft.

And here I thought you were trying to get some extra credit, James types.

Always up for some extra credit :-P Steve responds.  And then he feels compelled to add, PS if anyone from the university is monitoring this now or in the future, we’re totally joking. 

Yes, no sexual favors have taken place or will take place, James says.

You never know what the future holds, Steve tells him. 

Shut up, James says. 

Surely a graduate TA can come up with a snappier response than ‘shut up,’ Steve says.

I’m going to bed and cannot be expected to be on my A game at this late hour, James says.

Sweet dreams and think of me, Steve advises. 

Can’t not, James writes back.  Steve raises an eyebrow and grins at the computer, though no one can see him.

Did you want that interpretive dance video to give you something to think about? Steve asks boldly. 

No one would ever want that, James says.  Then he logs off. 

Steve goes out into the living room and makes Clint record him dancing majestically to Enya while wearing boxer shorts.

“This is a very weird courting thing, Steven,” is the only comment that Clint has to make.  

 

Week twelve is when the class gets their term papers back with the opportunity to rewrite parts of them before the end. Steve gets an A- and decides that he’s fine with it, though he suspects that the grade was so high because the TA looked at his draft several times and actually gave helpful advice mixed in with the snark.

Dr. Coulson says they can leave early if they don’t have any questions about their papers, and Steve catches Bucky’s eye.

“Any desire to take a walk with me?” he asks. With the unexpected free time, he has every intention of walking around to see the flowers that are starting to bloom with the coming of spring.  Their campus doesn’t have a lot of grass like some colleges do, but it makes up for it in small gardens and well-manicured trees placed strategically where people need to see something lovely. 

“Sure,” Bucky says noncommittally. He follows Steve from the lecture room, and they turn down Washington, walking slowly and enjoying the beautiful day.

Or at least Steve is.  He swivels his head all around, looking at not only the plants but the people and the buildings too, taking in the things he’s seen dozens of times before in a new light.  He occasionally stops to take pictures, and he’d like to draw a tree with a couple sitting under it, but Bucky doesn’t look like the scenery would hold his attention for very long.

“You like the outdoors?” Steve asks. He puts away the phone to spend more time with Bucky and loosely rests a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, leaving it there when Bucky doesn’t react. 

“Not really,” Bucky says with a shrug.

And it’s strange because Steve suddenly remembers having a similar conversation with James a few nights ago. Steve had raved about the advent of spring and the colors it would bring, and James had told him that he personally liked the inside, central air, and computer screens. 

It was funny when James didn’t like the outdoors. It’s pretty disappointing when Bucky doesn’t.   

Steve pushes on, talking randomly about the architecture of the buildings and the landscaping of the small gardens, and Bucky listens attentively, but he doesn’t contribute.  It’s just because of his stutter, Steve tells himself. Bucky doesn’t talk much because he’s self-conscious about his stutter, and that combined with natural shyness…

Well, Steve is happy to talk for them both. The day is beautiful, and Bucky is beautiful.  His white t-shirt glows and seems to make everything about him brighter and more eye-catching. Plenty of men and women run their gazes over him appreciatively as he keeps his eyes down or dutifully directs them wherever Steve points.

Steve lopes in the direction of his apartment. “You want to come up to my place for a bit?” he asks, as casually as he can manage.  His hand moves from Bucky’s shoulder to his neck, communicating Steve’s intent.

“I have a m-meeting,” Bucky tells him. He sounds apologetic, and Steve turns to face him directly.  People stream around them on the sidewalk where they’ve stopped, and Bucky suddenly seems to notice everyone around him. 

“Can I kiss you, then?” Steve asks lowly. Bucky looks embarrassed, but he nods more eagerly than Steve was expecting.  Steve leans in and down a few inches and presses his lips against Bucky’s.

They’re fantastic lips – soft, tinted coral, and shaped like a perfect cupid’s bow.  Bucky kisses him back and then pulls away, squeezing his hand lightly before he goes.

It’s something; it’s him making a move. Steve’s heard pounds with the surety that Bucky is slowly, shyly opening up to him. 

Maybe, if the stars align, he’ll be in Steve’s bed by the end of the semester. 

Still buzzing from the kiss, Steve gets back to his apartment and opens his laptop to find an email from James.

I’m not helping you with your final exam, you freeloader.  That’s all you.  

Steve starts to compose a teasing, suggestive message back, and then he stops.  

…What exactly is he doing here?

 

“I need advice,” he tells Sam at the gym that night. They’re taking turns holding each other’s feet while the other one does sit-ups, and Steve has holding duty.

“Do what makes you happy,” Sam tells him, grimacing.

“Don’t try to change people,” Clint notes from a few feet over where he and Natasha are doing the same thing.

“All calories can be worked off,” Natasha adds.

“Thanks, guys, but I meant advice specific to my situation,” Steve tells them.  “So I’m still talking to two different guys, and it’s not causal anymore with either of them. I feel weird; I don’t want to be one of those guys,” Steve explains. 

“Then why are you talking to two different guys with intent?” Sam asks, tisking under his breath.   

“I didn’t really have intent at first! I didn’t really think anything would happen with either of them. But now I’m talking to James every day, multiple times, about nonacademic things, and I love talking to him; but I also kissed Bucky today, and I think that could maybe go somewhere.”

“But you’ve never actually met James,” Natasha says. “In fact, you tried to and he didn’t meet you.  You don’t owe him anything.”

“It’s not that I owe something,” Steve tries to navigate the bad feeling he’s had in his gut since trying to email James. He and Sam switch places, and Steve crosses his hands behind his head but doesn’t start his sit-ups. “I just realized today that I’m in skeevy territory, and I don’t like it.” 

“So lose one and pursue the other,” Sam says. “My advice still applies. Do what makes you happy; pick the one you want more.” 

“But I would need to actually see James, which he doesn’t seem to want.  Or I would need to find some common ground with Bucky beyond how goddamn fine he’d look in my sheets.” 

“Then my advice still applies,” Clint says. “Don’t try to change people. Would you rather have a relationship based almost solely on chemistry with the TA, or a relationship based almost solely on looks with the dull one?” 

“Maybe Bucky would open up more if he felt more comfortable around me,” Steve muses.  “Or…maybe James will be okay with meeting me soon.” 

“You’re not listening to either Clint or Sam,” Natasha scolds, “So we’re going to go with my advice.  All calories can be worked off.  Let’s work out, and then let’s hit the diner.”

It doesn’t exactly solve the guy situation, but it’s still good advice. 

 

During week thirteen Steve makes a decision. He’s thought about it, he’s weighed his options, and he’s determined to be a better person than someone who kisses a guy and then goes behind his back to email another guy. With intent, as Sam says.  Because Steve doesn’t know when he started having real intentions, but he certainly isn’t intention-less with either of them. 

He wants to kiss Bucky again and find out if Bucky makes any noises when they kiss away from a loud sidewalk, but he also wants to curl up on his bed with his laptop and grin for an hour as he argues with James about everything.

So he follows his Mama’s advice, and he pictures how things would feel if he gave up one thing, then the other.

He comes into class halfway through week thirteen and sits in the fifth row all the way off to one side. 

Bucky doesn’t notice him at first, but then Steve’s absence behind him registers.  He turns around, searching the room until he finds Steve, and then Bucky stares at him. 

‘Sorry,’ Steve mouths.  Then he opens his laptop and gets ready to take notes from the new vantage point.  Bucky continues to stare at him and then visibly wilts.  He turns back to the front of the class, shoulders hunched. 

Steve feels awful, and he’ll think of some way to make it up to Bucky. 

 

That night, he’s talking to James and twisting around the week’s reading until James starts typing in all caps and telling him that he doesn’t deserve to study psychology, and then Steve’s fingers move over the keyboard before he thinks about it. 

I want to meet up with you in person, he types and sends before he can take it back.

It’s weird. I’m your TA, James types back.

Only for a few more weeks, and you said the exam will be multiple choice anyway. You’re basically done grading my stuff.

Maybe after finals.  I’m really busy right now, and you’d be busy too if you had a real major, James says.

Coffee takes twenty minutes.  I just want to see the person I’ve spent the last 13 weeks being abused by, Steve pushes. 

All joking aside, I can’t.  Maybe at some point, but there’s too much going on now.

I don’t give a fuck what you look like, if that's the issue.  I want to meet you – I like you.  All joking aside, Steve types over the course of three messages. 

James logs off, and Steve scowls at the computer.

  

The next week is mostly radio silence from James; he returns Steve’s summary with minimal comments, and the only way Steve can engage him is to ask questions about material on the final exam or to blatantly screw up psychology, and even that doesn’t get much more than a correction.

 

Week fifteen, the final week of classes, dawns with cold shoulders from both of the guys that Steve liked at the beginning of the semester.  Bucky doesn’t look at him when Steve raises his hand in class, and James doesn’t respond to him.

All in all, it’s a failure for his romantic life.

He arrives at the last class before the final and flips open the syllabus.  Apparently today will be questions and answers with the TA, and Steve remembered to write out his five questions, but he doesn’t remember Dr. Coulson saying that he wouldn’t personally be there. 

Wait, he realizes…the TA.

Steve’s head snaps up, and he scans the front of the lecture room, nostrils flaring.  James is supposed to be here today, in person, helping the students out. He’s never come to a single class before (or has he?) but this is part of his job as a TA, and Steve’s going to finally see him and confront him in person about why he’s been so moody the past week.

The students gather and voice their excitement about the semester ending as well as their apprehension for finals. They buzz around Steve, but he’s anxiously checking the side door where Dr. Coulson enters from, waiting for James to walk through the door. 

No one comes, and Steve jiggles his knee against the underside of his squeaky desk, desperate to know who James is.

At 8:01, Bucky stands up from the front row and walks to the podium. 

Steve wonders what Bucky thinks he’s doing as Bucky pushes a few buttons and then taps the microphone that Dr. Coulson never uses.

“Uh, h-hi.  I’m James Barnes,” he stammers.  Steve starts, confused, and looks at the door and then back to Bucky. “I grade your shit. I have t-to do th-this as a TA, but clearly, I s-suck at it, so put your questions in the box with your n-name on them, and I’ll em-mail you all p-personally.” 

No one says anything, and a few of the freshmen giggle. Bucky produces a box from under the podium and walks around quietly collecting the questions. He moves to Steve almost last, and Steve stares at him. 

“What the fuck,” Steve asks quietly enough that Bucky is the only one who will hear him.  Steve absently drops his questions in the box, and Bucky walks away, head down.

Steve goes into his bag for his sketchbook and rips off a corner from a piece of paper. 

Question – So you’re both the shy kid in my class I asked out and the TA I’ve been hitting on for months?  Okay, here’s my question –???  

He folds the paper and follows Bucky to the front of the room to drop it in the box.  Only later, he realizes that he didn’t put his name on it, but he figures it’s kind of a given whom it’s from. 

 

Finals are hell; that’s not new. Steve spends most of his days in the studio, and he only checks his email once a day.

He’s mad now that he’s had time to process. He’s so mad, because he felt like the bad guy for being interested in two people, and it turns out that it was one person playing with Steve like…like…

Like a fucking psychological experiment.

“Pretty sure you have to get approval for human subjects testing,” he mumbles as he squints and touches up the brushwork on, hopefully, the last painting of fruit he’ll ever create.  Dr. Hill looks at him like he’s lost his mind, and she tells him that he’s making the apples look angry. 

Steve leaves the studio around seven that night, planning to eat and work out for a few hours and then go back to the studio at midnight.  He reaches the street that his apartment’s on, and he cringes, as usual, thinking about the time he kissed Jameshere and invited him upstairs only a few weeks ago.

Then he realizes that it’s not just his extremely visual imagination taunting him, but James is actually leaning up against the building.  He looks listless, and Steve wonders how long he’s been there, but then he sees Steve and startles. 

It’s just like all those times that Bucky would seem shocked to have Steve’s attention on him during class, and it just adds to Steve’s confusion. 

“So, Bucky’s obviously a fake name, which makes sense just thinking about it.  ‘Bucky.’ Okay, I’m not trying to be a dick, but I’m busy.  What do you want?” Steve asks in a subdued voice as they approach each other. 

“L-l-look,” James says.  He seems to be even more nervous than normal. “I d-don’t make g-good first impressions. P-people always hit on m-me and get b-bored in a week.  I’m b-better behind a keyboard.”

Steve sighs.  He gets it, and he gets James’s early motivations not to reveal himself as the awkward guy at the front of the class.

It makes perfect sense; the TA is usually in the front of the class.  Taking occasional notes on what the class covers, but not the actual content. Because TAs know the content already.

Maybe getting into NYU was a fluke, Steve thinks unhappily. Bucky’s identity seems terribly transparent when he reflects on it.  Steve feels humiliated because he didn’t put the pieces together, and he feels so vulnerable like anyone could pull the wool over his eyes. 

He’s mad because James acted like his friend and then duped him.   He wonders if it was purely intellectual curiosity or if James had enjoyed the game.

“B-bucky is a nickname. My f-family calls me Bucky.”

“James, it doesn’t matter,” Steve says. He moves to walk past James so he can get to his front door. 

“Why’d you stop s-sitting behind m-me?” James asks.

“Because I felt shifty for talking to two guys. Thanks,” Steve says sarcastically. He makes to move again, and James rests a hand lightly against his chest. 

“I’m s-sorry,” he says.  Steve doesn’t want to look at him, but something about his voice draws Steve in.  He sounds honest, yes, but he also sounds scared.  Steve isn’t expecting that.

“I sh-shoud have s-said something. But I didn’t, and then I j-just wanted to keep you from being m-mad at me.” 

Steve nearly brushes him off and goes inside, because he’s never done confrontation well.  He’ll tell James through gritted teeth that he’s forgiven and then move along, and the semester is about to end, anyway. 

But James looks so uncomfortable standing on the sidewalk with people milling around them, raising his voice enough to be heard over the traffic and the city noises, and Steve suddenly feels for him. He can’t imagine what it’s like to go through the cycle of pulling people in because of your looks, only for them to back out when they don’t like what they find under the pretty cheekbones. He wonders how many times it’s happened to James. 

He thinks he did the same thing to James.

Against his instincts to turn and walk away, Steve reaches for James’s wrist.  James’s eyes widen, and Steve pulls him a few inches closer. 

“Was it.  Was it funny for you?” Steve pulls his warring thoughts into words.

“No,” James insists immediately. He flips his hand over and wraps his fingers around Steve’s wrist in a parody of handholding. Steve stares at the movement. “No, just…a-amazed at the beginning, and th-then guilty as hell.”

“Uh-huh,” Steve grunts in some mix of acknowledgement and agreement.  He raises his eyes from their hands to meet James’s nervous, hopeful gaze.  The anxiety brushes up against something tender informed by Steve’s foray into James’s research, but the hope crashes against something that’s still angry. 

He pulls his wrist away and then claps Bucky on the shoulder.  “Enjoy your break,” he says tonelessly. He walks inside and refuses to look behind him to see James’s reaction. 

In the apartment upstairs, Steve’s roommates are sitting too stiffly for them to have been doing anything other than huddling at the window moments ago.  

“So, Bucky and James are the same person,” Steve tells them after he takes a breath and leans against the door to close it. He feels tired even though he caffeinated before his studio visit.  

“Oh,” Natasha says, like the pieces immediately fly into place for her.  For Sam and Clint, like it had for Steve, it takes a little longer.

“Wait, what?  Your TA and a kid in your class?” Sam asks. 

“Wait, how?  You’ve talked to them both a bunch of times.” Clint asks.

“Same guy, just lying to me online about office hours and meeting me in person,” Steve says wryly.  He rubs his eyes with his fingers, seeing the pressured bursts of light behind his eyelids. 

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Natasha says as she comes towards him.  She hovers outside of touching range and cocks her head sympathetically until he opens his arms and lets her slide in. 

“But doesn’t this eliminate the issues of choosing-” Clint starts, confused, before Sam and Natasha tell him to shut up in unison. 

And Steve really wishes it were that easy.

The problem is that he trusts neither one of them now.

“I am going to find a boy back home, and I will have a fantastically hot summer with him,” Steve announces, determination blotting out any other emotion. 

Natasha nods furiously and glares at Sam and Clint until they affirm Steve’s statement.  He pretends that his friends are more convincing than they are.

 

Steve sleeps until noon and eschews any form of creative expression his first few days home. 

He norms his sleep hours to those of an adult and leisurely picks up a pencil to sketch during the second half of the week.   

At the advent of his second week of summer, he gets a job, relearns his role around his parents, and sits on the patio all afternoon sketching lines and swirls that turn into jaws and blue eyes. 

“He’s a looker,” Steve’s mother comments as she joins him with a romance novel.   Steve sighs and abandons the divot on a chin that he keeps intending not to be James’s.

After several minutes, he starts again on a blank part of his sketchpad.  He deliberately draws a lighthouse like the one he remembers from an old family vacation.

“Do you think lying at the start of a relationship can ever turn into anything good?” he asks his mother in all her harlequin book wisdom. 

“I guess it all depends what you see as the start,” she says.  “Maybe if it’s when you’re just getting to know them, things can turn around.  But once you put your cards down and say ‘I’m in,’ then it’s not going to fly.”  She turns the page in her novel.  “Were the cards in hand or down, sweetheart?” 

“Think they were still up,” Steve says as he cuts the beam of his lighthouse through an abandoned side profile of James.

“Then that’s where they still are,” she tells him calmly.  “And luckily for Mr. Hot Lips, you’ve always been a forgiving boy.”  Steve’s eyes flick to the sketch of James’s mouth in the corner of his pad.

Steve isn’t as forgiving as his mother thinks he is, but he does have a greater appreciation for James’s situation after a week of near-constantly thinking about it (in spite of his firm decision not to think about it). 

What he keeps spinning out on is the fact that it’s hard.  It would be hard to rebuild his trust; it would be hard to integrate the two different men in his head; it would be hard to have a relationship with someone complicated enough to want and to perpetuate a separate identity. 

And by hard, he means nearly impossible and inevitably painful. 

Steve draws a wave overtaking his lighthouse.   It’s time to find the distraction he promised his roommates. 

 

Three weeks into his summer vacation, Steve sits atop the lifeguard platform at the local pool and idly taps at his phone, listening with one ear for splashing or drowning. 

He flicks through his Grindr app, absently noticing sculpted abdominals and plump lips, and he passes guy after guy while the sun beats down on him and makes him slick with sweat. 

Unimpressed, he closes the app and goes into his contacts.  He passes over the guys that he sometimes hooks up with at home ranging from his open-minded friends to his lingering exes, and once again, nothing pulls at him.

Sighing, he puts his phone back in the cup holder and scans the pool for a babysitter or a young father.  The sights are there, but he’s not motivated to tip a smile towards any of them. 

He realizes, or more accurately, admits, that he already knows what he’s looking for. 

Picking up the phone again, he opens his email and finds the recipient he wants.  He ponders, types, and then hits send. 

So I’m thinking of changing my major to exercise science. 

He jiggles his leg until his phone chimes with a response. He holds the phone close to his face to avoid the sun’s glare. 

Because gym teachers notoriously make so much more than art teachers?

One corner of his mouth lifts in a grin, and he bumps the phone against his sunscreen-covered nose.  Of all the emotions he’d expected to feel, relief hadn’t been the biggest, yet here it is. 

You’re still not forgiven for it, he writes back now that the ice of three weeks is broken. 

How do I go about doing that?  All of my ideas are horrible, and please believe that I’ve been brainstorming, James replies immediately. 

Steve ponders it while eyeing a group of children in the deep end, eventually deciding that they can swim well enough for him to allow it.  It gives him an idea.

Go out of your comfort zone for me, he writes back with his phone number. Then he hastily adds, Not, like, forever.  Not even for a while.  Just for a minute.

His phone rings, and he hits the Accept button with an excited twist in his stomach. 

“H-hi,” James’s voice comes softly from the phone’s speaker. 

“Hi,” Steve says back.  He waits for James.

“I’m not w-witty like th-this,” James warns after several tense seconds of silence. 

“That presumes you’re ever witty,” Steve jokes, deadpan.  He freezes as he wonders how it comes across. 

Then he hears James burst out laughing through the speaker, and he realizes that he’s never actually heard James laugh before. It’s new and it’s scary, because he’s doing this, isn’t he?   And it’s also possibly perfect.