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Bucky should have known that Natasha was up to something from the grin she gave him as she handed over the new client packet, but his eyes were immediately drawn to the endless list of health ailments listed on the questionnaire in tight chicken scratch, so much so that he put the thought of his mind.  He’d been asking for a challenging case for a while, hoping to get someone other than the usual beach-body resolutioner or lifting bro who’d hit a plateau, someone that he could actually make a meaningful impact on and use to talk about in his (hopefully) upcoming graduate school interviews – and as his eyes roamed over Steve Roger’s chart, Bucky knew he’d gotten exactly that.

“Is this for real?” he asked skeptically, glancing up at Natasha again with a frown after reading the date of the client’s third open heart surgery.  It was just the icing on the chronic disease cake that was filled out in front of him, including anemia (treated), arrhythmia (managed), asthma (controlled), hypoglycemia, peptic ulcer disease (controlled), scoliosis (corrected)…

“Completely for real,” Natasha responded seriously, cutting off Bucky’s train of thought, “and his cardiologist’s clearance is attached.  I figured he’d be perfect for you, if you’re still up to the challenge?”

Bucky pursed his lips as he looked down at the chart one final time, before nodding decisively and moving towards the computer.  “Of course I am – thanks, Nat.”  He said as an afterthought, before booting up the old machine and logging into his old undergraduate portal, determined to read up on anything he could find about cardiac rehab in his spare time so as to figure out an appropriate plan for his new client.  By the time their first session came up a couple of days later, Bucky was stoked, feeling incredibly proud of the plan that he’d drawn up and excited to start putting it into action.

And then Steve Rogers walked through the door of The Red Room, and it all went to hell.

After one look at his skinny, sickly new client, Bucky knew that Natasha had been exactly right – Steve Rogers was perfect for Bucky.  The first thing that struck Bucky was his clothes; his sneakers didn’t have so much as a scuff on them, and his white cotton t-shirt looked like it was fresh out of the package as well.  A half-sleeve of tattoos that looked like they were done in watercolors peaked out from under his left sleeve, and dishwater blonde hair flopped into his bright blue eyes in a trendy undercut that somehow worked for him.  He was tiny – Bucky doubted he stood taller than five foot three and was certain he wouldn’t weigh more than one hundred and ten pounds, but despite his small frame nothing about him seemed feminine.  He stood there looking at the group of trainers, chin high as he stuck out like a sore thumb, seemingly refusing to be intimidated by the fact that he’d obviously never stepped foot inside a gym in his life.

He was perfect in that he was exactly Bucky’s type… something that Natasha Romanoff knew all too well, damn her.

For a second, he considered handing his plan off to Sharon and begging her to switch clients, remembering all too well the voice of his junior adviser in his undergraduate exercise science program informing Bucky that she didn’t see him as a competitive DPT candidate, despite how high his grades were… right before giving him a borderline pass on his final practicum for unprofessionalism.  He still swore that he had only been trying to make the girl who’d been his standardized patient comfortable in her routine (he hadn’t even been attracted to her, for Christ’s sake), but the words friendly not flirty would forever have him waking up in a cold sweat.  Two years later, the fear that his personality would preclude him from ever achieving his dream job still kept him from even applying to graduate schools, as sticking to personal training and ‘building his resume’ was at least less painful than being turned down.

And then the guy – Steve – actually made eye-contact with him, and all plans of ditching the assignment fly out the window.  Because maybe that was the point; maybe Natasha wasn’t sabotaging him (there was no real reason for Bucky to expect as much – she could be cold and difficult to read but she’d never been anything but supportive of Bucky moving on in his career, to the point that she bothered him about his grad school applications on a weekly basis of late)… maybe she’d set this up as his ultimate challenge.  Steve Rogers was the perfect storm of chronic health problems and Bucky’s personal sexual kryptonite; if he could come up with a successful exercise program for this guy, Bucky could literally do anything.

Shaking his momentary crisis off, Bucky put on his most professional smile and jogged towards the guy, extending his hand as he stopped in front of him.  “Hey, you’re Steve, right?”

Introductions were awkward, in part because of Natasha’s insistence on calling him James and in part because Bucky was struggling so hard to maintain his chill around Steve that he barely remembered how to interact like a normal human being.  But then Steve had pointed out why he was there – not because he had some aesthetic in mind or a marginally-realistic strength gaining goal, but because he just wanted to go about his day without his body getting in the way.  Hearing as much set off something new in Bucky, a drive to work every bit as hard as Steve looked like he was willing to, to help him as much as possible in the short time that they had to work together.  He nodded shortly, silently pumping himself up and swearing to do his best by this guy, before smiling sincerely at him and offering him a hand off of the bench, excited to see exactly where Steve was for a baseline.

The answer was… pretty brutal, actually.  They’d started with arms, where Bucky’d had to set Steve up with a curling bar after the Olympic bars had been too heavy.  He’d walked him painstakingly through each exercise, correcting his form, modifying his initial plans to make up for Steve’s lack of muscle strength and concerns about his chest and back.  Thankfully, Steve was at least a good listener – he took Bucky’s corrections in stride, grimacing with effort through each repetition but never getting frustrated or giving up. 

For as trying as it all was, Bucky couldn’t help but wish all of his clients came to the gym with the same attitude.

He’d had Steve wrap up by walking on the treadmill at a steep incline, knowing that the number of free weight exercises they’d done for the day had probably been taxing enough on his body and not wanting to over-do his cardio so soon after.  Bucky split the upper and lower body weight training exercises into two separate workouts, leaving a couple of rest days between, and added a light cardio interval in at the end, then printed out and handed the plan over to Steve as he dismounted the treadmill, heavily flushed and panting. 

Steve’s posture changed completely as he flipped through the sheets, scowling heavily and setting his jaw before outright glaring at the paper.  “There aren’t any weights on most of these, and the treadmill is at the same level you had me today…” he muttered, his voice sounding betrayed.

“I wanna start you on higher reps with lower weights,” Bucky explained, treading lightly as he pointed out his concerns. “It’ll help your muscles start building up endurance, plus it’s easier on your heart then trying to strain through heavier things.”

He was ready to launch into an explanation of the difference between low-intensity aerobic resistance exercises and high-intensity anaerobic lifting, but the unimpressed look Steve gave him had the words dying in Bucky’s throat.  “Er… we’ll work you up next week, I promise,” he said instead, figuring that as long as he worked as hard during his individual workouts as he had with an instructor Steve should be able to add a couple of pounds resistance to his routines.  Hopefully.  “Just trust me here, alright?  It’s gonna be enough of a shock to your system easing into getting active, you getting injured will only make it worse.”  Steve looked outright pissed at Bucky for pointing that concern out, so he rambled on ahead to try to redeem himself.  “And if it’s not hard enough for you, grab me on Wednesday or Thursday and we can reconfigure the plan, alright?”

“Yeah, sure,” Steve muttered, folding the paper up with disdain and turning away from Bucky on his heel.  “I guess I’ll see you around.”

Bucky’s heart dropped as he watched Steve march away proudly, hating the fact that he’d reacted so badly to Bucky’s ideas.  What if he went to Natasha to complain that Bucky had disrespected him?  What if he asked for a new trainer?  “Have a good one,” he called out to Steve’s retreating back, hoping he’d at least get another chance to work with the guy before he was totally written off. 

To his great relief, Steve showed up for his workouts as scheduled, starting around the same time that Wednesday afternoon.  Bucky kept his distance, not wanting to come on too strong, and watched from the sides of the weight room as Steve methodically put himself through each round of exercises that Bucky had set out for him, staying to the instructed weights and staring hard into the mirrors around him, somehow maintaining proper form through each of the exercises despite how much of a strain it was on his obviously frail body.

By the end of Steve’s first week at The Red Room, Bucky was completely doomed. 

It was bad enough that Bucky found him as physically attractive as he did, but the more that he watched Steve work himself in the gym, the more that Bucky admired him.  It was clear to see that he was sore during his workouts, and that he regularly pushed himself to his limits, but Steve kept to the training plans to a tee.  Even on days when he seemed wary of the other gym-goers around him, Steve didn’t push himself too hard or give up on a workout.  Bucky thanked god regularly that he came in during the afternoon – not only because it allowed him to keep an eye on his favorite client (although that was definitely a plus), but also because it meant that he avoided Brock’s morning crossfit classes, who surely would have started their usual macho bullshit and made sticking to his routine even harder.

Bucky kept his word after their first week together, and increased the weights on Steve’s exercises for his second week, although he didn’t change the cardio routines at the end.  While Steve’s heart rate stayed within normal ranges according to the treadmill’s monitors, Bucky didn’t feel comfortable with pushing him just yet, especially considering how winded he always became by the end of their workouts together.

Steve didn’t come out and voice his dissension, but the otherwise easy communication between the both of them was strained when they came to the end of their fourth session together.  After going through the usual warm-up, Steve pushed the speed on the treadmill up to Bucky’s recommendations for him; and then programmed the machine to run another mile per hour faster.  Bucky tried his best to keep his face neutral, deciding he’d leave the speed decision to Steve’s discretion, but when his eyes bugged and his lungs started wheezing loudly enough that Bucky could hear it over the drone of the treadmill he took matters into his own hands.

“Here, hop off the track to the side while I dial it down,” Bucky said carefully, doing his best to keep his panic at bay as Steve hopped to the side as instructed, still gasping for breath.  “Good… breath in deep through your nose, then out through your mouth…”

 “I know how to breathe through an attack, Bucky, I’ve had asthma my whole life,” Steve chastised him, still frowning heavily but thankfully sounding considerably better.  Bucky asked about an inhaler, wondering if he needed to run to the locker room to fetch it for him, but Steve turned the offer down immediately.  He racked his brain to remember how they were supposed to judge the severity of an induced bronchospasm – considering Steve’s coloring was already improving and he could speak in full sentences, Bucky let the point drop.

“You regretting drawing the short stick, yet?” Steve asked bitterly, stepping onto the belt again as his breathing finally returned to normal.

“What?”  Bucky asked stupidly, looking away from his clipboard with a frown.  He’d been so busy coming down from the panic of hearing Steve’s labored breathing and then trying to figure out where in the workout his exacerbation had come from that he’d totally lost track of the conversation.

“I mean, getting stuck with a mess like me…” Steve muttered, suddenly unable to look Bucky in the eye as he gestured vaguely around the gym. “When you could have had one of the easier jobs.” 

Bucky actually gaped at him for a second, feeling heat rise in his cheeks as his subconscious reminded him how utterly wrong Steve was in that assumption.  If the guy had any idea what he actually thought of him on a daily basis – “No,” he said quietly, glancing back down at his clipboard for a moment to gather himself.  He could have gushed all day about why Steve was honestly a dream to work with, but he somehow doubted that he’d remain professional if he let himself get started.  “I mean… yeah, having the clients who make the biggest gains and set gym records and whatnot looks good on the leader board, but ah –” oh hell, Bucky thought, he could admit he had his own goals here.  Saying as much might make him look like less of a creep, anyway.  He looked back up at Steve, setting his shoulders slightly before continuing, “I’m actually trying to go back to school, get degree in physical therapy and really get to help people, so the more clients I can get who are really working through something to try to turn their health around, the better.”

For a long moment Steve simply stared at him, his feet rhythmically pounding against the belt of the treadmill as he continued walking in place.  Bucky wasn’t entirely sure how he should take the surprise that he saw there – surely Steve didn’t think that he just wanted to be a personal trainer for the rest of his life?  And why should it be so shocking to think that Bucky actually wanted to better himself and do something good for other people?

“That’s great, Bucky,” Steve finally responded quietly, his cheeks flushed with something other than exertion as he looked down at the control panel in front of him and started ramping the speed up again.  “You’ll… I think you’ll be really good at that.”

His last three appointments of the day were all horrific wrecks, but Bucky was still floating on cloud nine when he left that night.

Two weeks later, Bucky couldn’t help letting his eyes wander towards the corner of the floor where Steve was working on power cleans – it was a habit that was getting progressively harder for him to break, although thankfully his other clients weren’t doing any worse for it.  If anything, he was getting better at multi-tasking.  At least, that’s what Bucky told himself.

Steve looked to be completely focused on his form in the mirror in front of him, as well he should be – Bucky quickly studied the weights on the bar and did the mental math; he was working with at least five pounds heavier than his previous best.  He found himself holding his breath as Steve shrugged the weight up into second position, before grinning madly as he made the catch; Bucky barely restrained himself from yelling out in celebration as well as he saw the grin on Steve’s face, and didn’t bother hiding his own joy as they beamed across the gym at each other like idiots.

After a beat, Steve turned back to the bar and squatted down into starting position again, while Bucky shook off the overwhelming swell of pride, turning his full attention back to the squats his current client was doing, frowning as his form went completely to hell.

“Hold on,” Bucky sighed, stepping into the cage and helping him rack the bar before shaking his head.  “Take the tens off and try it again – you keep dipping your right shoulder when you start to push up, you’re going to end up putting your back out.”

The guy scowled but thankfully did as Bucky told him, and within the next fifteen minutes had the tens back on the bar and his technique down, so ultimately Bucky chalked the day up as a win.

“Have you submitted your PTCAS yet?”  Natasha asked casually a few days later as she filled in reps on the client worksheet she was working on.

“Uh – no,” Bucky answered truthfully, staring intently at the screen of the office workstation, even though he had already found the instructions on free-weight flies that he needed.  He’d had every intention of turning his primary application in over the weekend; his advisers had sent in their letters of recommendation, his supervisor at Kravis Children’s Hospital had confirmed his volunteering hours, and he’d re-written his personal statements and required essays nine times already… he just couldn’t bring himself to hit the submit button, yet.

“Hasn’t it been open for a month and a half?”  Nat asked.

Bucky simply hummed an affirmative, scrolling idly through yoga poses, knowing full-well that Natasha absolutely knew when the DPT application season had opened – she’d been bothering him about it for the past three months, much the same as she had the year prior before realizing that he was too big a coward to actually go through the process.

“And isn’t it better if you get it in early?  To have a better chance at actually getting interviews?”

“Yeah, Nat,” he sighed, clicking out of the web browser and stooping so that he could retrieve the packet he’d already printed out of the printer.  “Yeah, it is… I’m getting there.”

He’d immediately made his way towards the incline benches, thankful to see that his client had arrived early to give him an excuse to escape Natasha’s continued needling.  As he crossed the main floor of the gym, he caught sight of Steve on one of the treadmills, pushing the speed up to a determined jog and keeping pace with it, his brow furrowed and his sweaty hair flopping on his forehead as he gutted out what looked like yet another personal best.

Bucky wished he had half of his guts.

“Alright, let’s try mixing things up a little before cardio,” Bucky said a week later, smiling as he finished writing in another personal best on Steve’s box squats and Steve re-racked the weights.  “I want you to do ten push-ups on your knees, then try five regular.  We’ll have you take a break in between then have you repeat both a couple of times.”

Steve gave him a determined nod before dropping to the mat, knocking the modified push-ups out with ease then transitioning into the regular position. Bucky kneeled down next to him – the first time he’d had Steve try push-ups had been a mess, and he’d only switched over to the modified version begrudgingly after they’d both had to admit that he didn’t have the upper body strength to do them properly.  That had been three weeks ago, though, and given his incredible progress in everything else, Bucky couldn’t help but feel hopeful.

“Good, keep your butt down –” he coached gently, watching as Steve painstakingly lowered himself towards the floor.  He didn’t go quite as far as Bucky would have probably pushed his other clients, and his arms were shaking considerably by the time the five count came around, but against all odds Steve pushed through it, finally coming back into start position before dropping his knees heavily back to the mat and pushing himself up so that he was kneeling as well.

The grin on his face took Bucky’s breath away.  “I don’t think I’ve been able to do more than one push-up in my life, before today,” he said proudly, still beaming. 

Between the flush in his cheeks, the accomplished smile, and the fact that his eyes somehow became even bluer when they were shining with happiness, Bucky couldn’t have looked away from Steve if he’d wanted to.  Instead, he stayed exactly where he was, grinning like an idiot all the while.  He was so far gone on this brave, hard-working, incredible punk that it wasn’t funny anymore… and they only had one session left together.  Bucky chewed his lip as the reality of it hit him, trying his best not to let his face fall under the weight of regret.  Finally, he licked his lips and responded; realizing that they’d spent way too long smiling at one another for it to not seem awkward.  “That was awesome, Steve – think you can do it again?”

His only reaction was to laugh and to get into position again – as if it had ever really been in question.

That night, Bucky resolved himself to finally manning up and facing down some of his challenges.  After one final read-through, he gave in and hit submit on his PTCAS application, putting himself into the primary application pool with a nervous sigh.  He’d still have to gut his way through secondary applications and, with luck, actual interviews – but he’d finally made the first step.

His task for the next day proved to be even more frightening, and Bucky didn’t get the nerve to go about it until the last gym patron had gone for the night and it was just the late trainers left, rushing to finish their paperwork for the day.  He waited until the door had closed behind Brock, grateful that Natasha had been just as swamped with clients as he had been, before turning to her nervously.  “Er… Nat?  Do you have a second?”

“Ask him out.”  She responded flippantly, her pen flying across her clipboard as she ticked off performance evaluations.

Bucky boggled at her, unable to comprehend how she could possibly have known what he was going to ask.  “What?” He asked stupidly.

“This is about the Rogers guy, you’re worried about being friends with him.”

“Well, yeah – friends, Natasha,” Bucky scoffed.  “I just… I know the handbook says we shouldn’t fraternize with paying clients, but is there anything about gym members we aren’t training?”

Natasha rolled her eyes and set her pen down.  “James – firstly, don’t insult my intelligence; I know you’re crazy about him, everyone who’s seen you look at him knows as much.  Secondly, who cares?  You’ve already put your applications in, right?  You’ll only have a few months left here, anyway…”

“Assuming I get in.”

Her lips quirked into a small smile.  “Oh, you’ll get in, trust me.  And in more ways than one, I’m willing to bet – quit being an idiot and ask him out.”

Bucky’s face flushed furiously as he put together her meaning, and he filed the last of his paperwork as fast as he could.  “That was terrible, Nat; you’re the worst.”

Steve’s final session fell on a Friday, and was painfully bittersweet.  On one hand, it was incredible to put him through the full circuit again, marking down his final numbers.  His weight gain had been awesome enough, actually watching him put the new muscle mass to work had Bucky smiling like an idiot, on-lookers be damned.  They wrapped up with Steve’s best treadmill work-out by far, with him jogging three-quarters of a mile between intervals, and not once looking intimidated by the sprinters on the machines around him.  Bucky was so proud by the time that he hit the cool-down button that he found his throat tightening up with it, and turned his full attention to completing the assessment forms on his clipboard before he embarrassed himself.

As the treadmill finally slowed to a stop and Steve came around to stand next to him, Bucky realized he couldn’t hide from the inevitable any longer.  “All-star, man,” He said with a grin, hoping that if he was enthusiastic enough he’d be able to hide all of the other ridiculous emotions he was feeling.  “I’ll need the computer to crunch it for sure, but I’m willing to bet you’re one of the best improvements we’ve had in months.  Keep it up and you’ll be on the leader board in no time.”

Steve laughed the comment off, taking a sip from his water bottle and pushing his sweaty hair back off of his forehead, and Bucky knew this was it… he had to either decide to be a coward and let this guy go, or take a chance and test to see if Steve was half as interested in Bucky as he was in him.  He took a deep breath before extending his hand, his brain trying to work out a compromise as he finally forced himself to start talking again.  “Well, it’s been a pleasure, for real.” Bucky said sincerely, before losing all control over his mouth.  “If you, uh – if you ever want me to look over your form or talk about changing up routines or… y’know, whatever, just grab me, alright?  As long as I’m not with a client.  I mean, I won’t charge you or anything, just – it can really help to have an outside eye every once in a while, and I’m always here anyway… so, yeah.  I’m just saying I’m here for you, if you need a hand, or just want someone to hang out with and bounce ideas off of.  Or for motivation or whatever, not that you really seem to need it, but… if things become stale or something…”

“Yeah, man,” Steve said quietly, finally taking pity on Bucky and interrupting his rant.  “Yeah, I’ll definitely be workout buddies when you’re free – on one condition.”  Bucky felt his stomach drop, wondering what the hell kind of condition Steve could have.  Sure, we can hang out if you’ll quit being so high-strung and weird

Steve’s lips quirked into a small smile as he finished, “I know you said you won’t charge me for formal sessions, but you’ve gotta let me get you dinner to pay you back.”

Just like that, all of the noise in the gym faded away, drowned out by the rush of blood in Bucky’s ears as he actually processed Steve’s words.  Because Steve didn’t just want to continue training with Bucky, he was definitely asking him out.  Sure, something as simple as dinner could just be the guy trying to be friendly, and yes, Bucky had intended to try doing the same once he worked the courage up… but the idea that Steve, who was still standing in front of him and smiling shyly, could possibly be attracted to Bucky was so good that it completely blew his mind.

Suddenly, Bucky came back to himself – noticing how nervous Steve looked and realizing that he had yet to respond.  He couldn’t stop himself from smiling, but in his embarrassment over the entire ordeal Bucky dropped his eyes to his sneakers before answering, “I’m alright with that.” He licked his lips briefly, remembering that Steve had actually been the one to ask him out, and that he technically wasn’t his trainer anymore, and grinned wider at the implications. “Actually, I’m fine with getting dinner anytime that you want to, it doesn’t just have to be after training sessions.”

Steve’s answering smile was like sunshine, so bright and happy that Bucky never wanted to look away from it.  “Alright,” he said thickly, before clearing his throat and continuing, “alright… awesome.  Well, uh, I’ll see you soon, then?”

“Hold on,” Bucky responded, suddenly remembering that he actually did have some game, when he was brave enough to use it.  He reached out and took Steve’s wrist gently, giving him plenty of time to pull away in the event that he thought it was weird, but when he made no move to resist Bucky clicked his pen back on and gently wrote his phone number on the inside of Steve’s wrist.  “Let me know ASAP, alright?”  He asked, giving the delicate bones of Steve’s wrist a gentle squeeze and then letting go, before he did something even more reckless.

Steve said something in response, but it was totally lost to Bucky as they continued standing there, a foot apart and smiling like morons as they stared into each other’s eyes.  Bucky had no idea how long it lasted, but was pulled back to reality by Natasha’s voice shouting his name from the opposite side of the gym.

He looked over his shoulder quickly, stomach dropping when he saw the redhead standing next to an unfamiliar, petite woman – clearly Bucky’s next client, who he should have started with at least ten minutes prior.  As if he wasn’t going to get enough hell for the hand-holding.  “Er, sorry, I’ve gotta go…” Bucky said, turning back to Steve one last time with an apologetic wince.  While part of him definitely wanted to tell Nat where to shove it and head off to dinner now, he knew he had to keep up his good working relationship with the gym at least through the end of application season.  Besides… if he got kicked out of The Red Room, who would be Steve’s workout partner?  “Just – text me,” he added briefly, before jogging across the floor to the member’s services desk, carefully reminding himself to put the celebrating off until he was done for the day.

Ultimately, Bucky had thrown himself totally into the rest of his clients, spending any free-time between pushing himself as hard as he could on whichever machine was open at the time.  He knew he couldn’t let his mind start to wander to Steve and what had happened at the end of his session, or he’d be totally worthless.  Finally, the last of the patrons had left and Bucky could file his progress charts, almost tripping over himself as he waved haphazardly to the training staff that was left and made his way out into the night, opening his phone immediately.  His heart started racing when he noticed the missed text alert, and he stopped in the middle of the sidewalk as he unlocked the phone to read it.

Text From: New Contact    Received  6:48PM

hey, this is Steve – just wanted to say thx for all ur help and make sure u have my # too :)

After keeping a lid on it all evening, Bucky finally lost his cool, grinning like a mad man and fist-pumping despite the glares he got from other pedestrians in response.  He read it one more time, drumming his finger against his lip as he smiled down at the stupid smile emoji, before tapping the response bar and trying to decide how best to ask if Steve had plans for the weekend.