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You're So Smart, How Could You Not Know?

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87. SAUBB untitled - Imgur

Excerpt from Prologue of Reaching for Nuadha: A Biomechanical Breakthrough in the New Era of Stark Tech , James B. Barnes, 2017

 

At the trial, the eyewitness took the stand, obviously still shaken from what she had seen that fateful day. I hadn’t fully grasped how close death had been to me until I listened to her testimony. I began to picture the grisly tableau that was laid out on that Brooklyn street corner:

 

My body, limp in the street, one foot at a very wrong angle, one arm pinned beneath the taxi’s front tire. In my right hand, an opened paper bag, perfectly ripe plums rolling away from me toward the bystanders.

 

All I’d wanted that day was some fresh produce to take along on my walk, but I never made it to Prospect Park. I’d barely made it a block away from my apartment and the farmers’ market when the accident happened. I awoke in the hospital later that day, but I barely remember that, let alone the three days following. Following the driver’s trial, I interviewed eyewitnesses and my sister to piece together what happened.

 

We’ve all heard it a million times: one moment can change your entire life. This book isn’t an account of that moment. I’ll discuss it, but this is a book about the change. About the wonders of technology and modern medicine. This book is about the life, anew.

 

***

 

A sign in the school colors of crimson and white sits on an easel outside the Commons Room, reading “Welcome Faculty!” with the Shield College logo. As Bucky comes down the hall, he pushes his glasses up his nose and takes a deep breath to steady his nerves. A woman with strawberry blonde hair pauses next to the display and slides the sign back and forth, assessing whether it is centered correctly. She’s frowning, hands on her hips, mumbling something incoherent.

 

“Sorry?” Bucky asks as he shuffles up behind her.

 

“Oh! No, no. Goodness, I need to stop thinking aloud. It has nothing to do with you. I just think the font is off. Or unbalanced. Does this look right to you?” The woman shifts her weight from side to side.

 

Bucky laughs softly, smiling his most disarming smile. “I’m no design expert, I’m afraid. I’m just looking for the reception in the Commons Room, and from the looks of it,” he points to the card, “this must be the place.”

 

The woman studies his face, then looks him up and down. “Yes! Yes, of course.” She extends her right hand to shake his. “I’m the assistant to the provost, Pepper Potts. You look familiar.”

 

Bucky likes her solid handshake. “James Barnes. I think you were in my classroom demonstration.”

 

“Scientific journalism and technical writing! Now I remember,” Pepper smiles proudly. “I knew very little about the subject but you made it so accessible. You are going to provide new depth to our English and Writing department. I’m happy to see you again.”

 

Bucky feels a slight blush crawling up his neck. It’s been too long since he’s had friendly colleagues and new people to meet face-to-face. The realization of having to meet and recall new faces causes his mouth to dry. He hopes this reception has refreshments at the beginning of the event because he needs a bottle of water. He feels a tingle in his left hand--Bucky chalks that up to nerves as well, even though there are literally no nerves in his prosthetic. He silently reminds himself to shake hands on the right as much as possible.

 

--

 

Bucky claims a chair and sets his bag in it, then travels to the snack table. He picks up a bottled water, which he slips into the pocket of his leather jacket, and then selects an oatmeal raisin cookie as a snack. He assesses the room as he moves to find a seat. As he people-watches to pass the time, he notices a tall, thinner man with short dark hair and gray sideburns who is animatedly conversing with a round-faced, smiling Asian man. The tall man’s hands move fluidly through the air, and Bucky has to wonder what he teaches with such confidence and flair. Theater? Dance?

 

“Mind if I join you?” a confident, deep voice asks from behind Bucky’s shoulder.

 

“Sure,” he agrees, gesturing at the empty seats around him at the circular table.

 

A broad-shouldered, smiling black man in a polo shirt with an embroidered Shield College logo sits down on Bucky’s left side. He exudes friendly warmth.  “Sam Wilson, engineering department.” He reaches out with his right hand, much to Bucky’s relief. “You a new kid?”

 

Bucky smiles and shakes Sam’s hand. “James Barnes. I’m the assistant professor in technical and scientific writing. At least I think that’s my title? I’ve been a journalist, but I’ve got a broad skill set.” Somewhere under the shoulder of his leather jacket, Bucky’s left arm clicks gently, cycling a nervous motion.

 

“Yes!” Sam flashes a bright grin and pumps his fist victoriously. “I heard we were getting somebody for that. I gotta get the kids on board with their tech documentation this year. Maybe you can help out.”

 

“I’m here to do my best,” Bucky replies. “They aren’t letting me teach the science stuff right off the bat, but at least I’m here.”

 

“More time for planning,” Sam nods. “I’ve only been working here about two years, but yeah, year one semester one was leading a lot of basics. They’re good kids here. I think you’re gonna like it.”

 

Sam’s enthusiasm is contagious, and Bucky is happy to meet someone who seems close to his own age. His past experience with university positions included other young adjuncts who only taught maybe once a week. It’s been hard to make connections in academia. As Bucky contemplates his past, he realizes that in journalism, he never had that many friends either.  If Sam is this kind all the time, Bucky’s already one-up on any previous friend-making work he’s ever done.

 

As Bucky and Sam nibble on cookies and make small talk, another man comes to sit across from them at their table. He’s about their age as well, dressed in khakis and a tucked-in Shield College t-shirt, a white logo on deep red. He’s a little underdressed compared to Sam’s polo shirt-khakis-loafers outfit and Bucky’s hipster look. Bucky adjusts his glasses and leans closer to Sam. “You know that guy?” He points, keeping his hand where only Sam can see.

 

“Think his name is Doctor Rogers?” Sam guesses. “He’s some dude from the art department. I’m surprised he’s not covered in paint. That’s how he usually shows up to faculty luncheons.”

 

“So he’s a mess?” Bucky raises an eyebrow. Doctor Rogers, if that’s him, seems to be staring a hundred yards away.

 

“Who knows?” Sam shrugs. “I’m not much of the pretentious artsy type. Maybe that’s normal.” He giggles and his face lights up, mischievous. Bucky is struck by Sam’s impeccable cheekbones, thinking, wow, that’s a handsome face. Sam makes a point of looking Bucky up and down deliberately. “Hm. Leather jacket, black rimmed glasses, combat boots--you look like you might be a little pretentious too, James Barnes. Does he look normal to you?”

 

Bucky hears a faint metallic ping in his left forearm, but he recognizes Sam’s gentle teasing as a ribbing between friends. He huffs out a laugh at Sam. “I couldn’t tell you. Pretty sure we’re not shopping at the same stores, though.”

 

Dr. Rogers pulls out his phone, appearing to scroll through something. Then, the big blonde goes back to staring blankly into the distance. He sneezes. Bucky and Sam say “bless you” in chorus, but Dr. Rogers doesn’t turn or say thank you.

 

Someone calls the meeting to attention. Sam pulls a tablet from his messenger bag and starts tapping out some notes. Bucky looks across the table one more time, but Dr. Rogers has already started scribbling in a notebook and doesn’t look up at all.

 

The meeting seems like standard orientation business--where to find resources on campus, where each building is located, what times courses are taking place. It’s all important information to know, but very dry. Bucky is happy he snagged that cookie. Then there are acknowledgements of some of the incumbent faculty’s achievements over the summer: fellowships granted, research conducted, even babies born. The room coos over presentation slides with bundles of joy and applauds a few awards given.

 

“And of course, we’d like to extend a special, brand new congratulations today, to Dr. Steven Grant Rogers!” the Provost, Peggy Carter, announces to more applause in the room. “Dr. Rogers, of the fine arts department, is the youngest professor to be granted tenure here at Shield College. He has brought such energy and renewed enthusiasm into the arts here, and we are so glad have him aboard. We cannot wait to see what he does next, and where the department will go with him as such an integral component.”

 

The blonde across the table flashes a megawatt smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. His teeth are perfect and bright white. He stands and extends a polite wave to the room.

 

That’s him all right, Sam mouths to Bucky after gingerly toeing his ankle to get his attention. Bucky can’t believe his eyes. He knows better than to judge anyone on outward appearances, but he surveys Dr. Rogers’ broad shoulders and gun-show-worthy biceps. Nothing about him screams artist. Dr. Rogers is built like a jock--maybe he coaches lacrosse when he’s not teaching? Maybe he’s a body-builder on the weekends.

 

There are only a couple of feet between Dr. Rogers, Bucky, and Sam, yet Rogers hasn’t looked at either of them once. He’s spent this meeting watching the Provost, looking into the abyss of his coffee cup, or focused down where he seems to be sketching in his notebook. When the Provost acknowledges each new faculty member by name, and has them stand up, Rogers barely acknowledges any activity beyond himself.



“We have Dr. James Barnes joining the English department this semester, helping to develop our writing program so it can grow in terms of scientific and technical writing. We’re thrilled to have him, and we hope he brings some of his award-winning journalistic knowledge to the table for our students and school as well. Welcome, James!”

 

Bucky stands at his seat for a few seconds, just so the room can get a look. When the applause breaks out, Sam gives Bucky a thumbs up and a warm smile, while Dr. Steven Grant Rogers nods without looking at Bucky, or anyone else, in particular.

 

As the presentation ends, everyone in the room is encouraged to mingle and meet their colleagues. Bucky wastes no time in turning to Sam. “What do you think the deal is with that big lunk?”

 

“Doctor Art Jock?” Sam responds in a whisper. “I still bet he’s pretentious as hell, but that body? My god, maybe I need to make friends so I can get his workout routine.”



“Never would have guessed by looking that he makes art. Looks like he should be pushing protein shakes on Instagram.” Bucky makes Sam chuckle by lifting his empty water bottle like it’s a heavy weight.

 

“Do you even lift, Doc?” Sam snarks. Both men watch Dr. Rogers as he rises, disregarding them entirely. Rogers turns and talks to several people who come over to greet him. Sam whispers to  Bucky again. “So, wait, this art jock will talk to every gray-haired prof in here but ignores these two perfectly nice, attractive young dudes at his own table? We deserve a nod at least.”

 

Bucky’s breath hitches for a second. He did think Sam was kind of cute, but did he just acknowledge his attractiveness in return? Easy, Barnes. Do not start crushing on colleagues on your first day. Even if their forearms are nice and would probably look incredible if he was--Bucky, no! Be cool, he thinks. “C’mon, Sam. We should at least play nice and try to introduce ourselves.”

 

“Do we have to?” Sam rolls his eyes. “Y’know, pretty sure I met him once, and it was enough. Or not even memorable enough to be enough. You do what you want.”

 

Bucky stuffs his hands into his pockets and walks around the table. Dr. Steven Grant Rogers finally deigns to look down at the face of Dr. James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky smiles professionally and says, “Wow, youngest to ever get tenure? You can’t be much older than me. That’s impressive, man. I’m James; it’s nice to meet you.”

 

Dr. Rogers nods in acknowledgement and extends his left hand to Bucky. Oh god, really? Of course he had to, this jerk. Bucky extends his prosthetic arm, mirroring Dr. Rogers’ gesture, though really, Rogers could have put down his cup of coffee to shake Bucky’s right hand instead.

 

“Thanks,” says Dr. Rogers, who doesn’t move right away. He shakes Bucky’s hand, but it feels forced, unnatural. Bucky’s wrist plates clink together. Dr. Rogers doesn’t exactly recoil, but the way he withdraws his own hand is awkward. He looks from Bucky’s hand up to his face. “Wow,” Dr. Rogers nods. “That is some prosthetic.”

 

Bucky lets some other faculty member steal Dr. Rogers’ attention after that and quickly gathers his things. His eyes dart around the room after Sam, who had wisely wandered away from Rogers. He spies him talking to the man Bucky spotted earlier, the one with the elegant hand gestures and salt-and-pepper hair.

 

“Hey, James!” Sam waves Bucky over. Bucky is relieved to make his escape, and Sam is once again pleasant to look at and talk to. “This is my friend Dr. Stephen Strange. He teaches pre-med biology. Stephen, tell James here what you just told me.”

 

Stephen’s gray hair creeps up from his sideburns toward his temples, where it darkens to a sophisticated black. Stephen’s mouth draws up into a droll but pleased expression. “A pleasure meeting you, Dr. Barnes--welcome, welcome. I see you’ve met our mysterious meatball colleague over there. First of all, he uses the inferior spelling of our shared name. Secondly, how old do you think he is?”

 

“Uh,” Bucky stumbles, glancing back over his shoulder. “40? 41?”

 

“Thirty. Six.” Dr. Strange sharply enunciates every syllable.

 

“What? No way!” Bucky runs both of his hands back through his hair. “I thought he looked young, but a year younger than me?”

 

“And two years younger than me,” Sam interjects. He smiles that cute smile again, showing his dimples. “I’m also not at liberty to say how much younger than Dr. Strange here.”

 

Stephen rolls his eyes. Then, a giggle starts building in Bucky’s throat. He can’t help it, it turns into a soft laugh. “What’s so funny, Young James ?” asks Stephen.

 

“Your name...is Doctor Strange. Like, a Bond villain? Or a superhero? What’s your secret power?”

 

“I rather like to imagine that it’s dashing the hopes and dreams of my students. Pre-med kids don’t last long when they realize they can’t stomach seeing a cadaver for the first time.” He smirks, then his eyebrows lift as he calls out, “Wong! What’s my superpower?”

 

The round-faced Asian man Dr. Strange was speaking with earlier has returned to the table, carrying a plate piled high with baby carrots, celery sticks, and cheese cubes. “I like to think it’s gossiping,” answers Wong.

 

“You know me well,” chuckles Stephen. “That’s why you’re the best lab manager I’ve ever had.”

 

Wong simply smirks and pops a cheese cube into his mouth as Stephen steals a celery stick. Bucky shakes hands with some people, says good-bye to Sam, Stephen, and Wong, and makes his way back to his new apartment. He’s still got unpacking to do.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky slaps his alarm clock one last time to shut it off and drags himself into an upright position. "Day one, let's do this." As he stands and stretches, he can smell coffee already brewing in the apartment. He'd set the automatic timer before bed. He thinks about how the coffee commercials when he was a kid made morning coffee seem like the best thing known to man--maybe they weren't wrong.

 

He quickly steams his button-down shirt and continues to dress--black fitted trousers, black lace-up boots. He wipes the lenses of his glasses. He scans every divot in his left arm for crumbs, lint, whatever. This newest model manages to keep clean without anything getting caught in the ridges. Bucky is grateful for the modern marvel that Tony Stark built just for him. He flexes each mechanical finger several times, making sure the knuckles aren't gummed up with anything either.

 

He shakes out his steamed shirt, buttoning it and tucking it in. He decides against a tie because of the shirt's bold floral pattern. He wants to wear his leather jacket with it, but the early September temperatures are rather warm, and he’ll be sweating enough with nervousness. He checks his bag to make sure he's packed everything he needs for the day. "Oh! Water bottle." As he moves back into the kitchen to search the cupboards, his phone buzzes. He pulls it from his pocket.

 

Becca: Good luck today! Big Man on Campus! I demand a full report later

 

Bucky: Sure thing, Ma Barnes.

 

Becca: I'm just doing my job, Buckbuck

 

Bucky: Love you. She'd be proud of your nagging, you know.

 

Becca: *tongue-sticking-out emoji* I learned from her!

 

Bucky stashes his empty aluminum water bottle in his bag, then fills his travel mug with coffee. He looks around his apartment one last time to make sure he's not forgetting anything, then heads to his car. He breathes deeply, in then out, in then out. It's a ten-minute drive to campus.

 

He feels like he's been waiting for this for a lifetime. The Honda Fit's engine turns over, and so does Bucky's stomach. He blasts the playlist he's made for today. "Let's do this. We've got this," he says aloud, to himself, to the Honda, to his Ma’s ghost, to the world.



Bucky pulls into the staff parking lot, feeling relieved no one was at the gate to berate him on his lack of a staff parking permit. Included on his Day One agenda: I.D. cards and parking paperwork at the campus security office. As he turns the car off, he feels the first pangs of excitement, rather than anxiety, taking over. He does a double-check of the front seat to make sure he has everything, then gets out of the car. Bucky pulls his bag from the backseat and is greeted by a familiar voice.

 

"Yo! Happy first day, Barnes!"

 

Bucky grins, and it feels almost too big for this time of the morning. "Hey Sam!" A car lock beeps a few parking spots away, and Sam's coming toward him, dragging a small suitcase on wheels. Bucky looks down at the bag and back up to Sam's face. "You moving in? Which dorm?"

 

Sam laughs, raising a shiny red travel mug to his lips. "Not exactly, but I've got more stuff than usual today." Sam adjusts the strap of the backpack he's wearing. He nods toward the suitcase. "New speaker for my office stereo. Some pictures to put up. Extra shoes for the gym. Some other junk, I don't remember what. Riley was reading that Japanese book about tidying up and flat-out told me some of my stuff wasn't 'sparking any joy' for him."

 

Bucky raises a questioning eyebrow. "Sounds kind of picky for a roommate," he guesses. "Or maybe it’s like the month I spent living with my little sister." Sam barks out a laugh at that.

 

"What?" Bucky asks.

 

"I'm afraid I'm stuck with him, but he's neither roommate nor sibling. Me and Riley have been married for a year and a half."

 

"Oh, shit, I didn’t realize--" Bucky feels like an ass. "I, um....congratulations!" His face feels hot. I'm an idiot , he thinks. Typical. I’m so blindsided by a nice-looking fella, I didn’t even check to see if he was wearing a ring.

 

Sam stops walking and turns to face Bucky. “Hold on. Are you blushing ? You’re blushing!” When Bucky looks at the ground instead of answering, Sam starts to laugh loudly. “Do you have a lil crush,” his voice raises to a squeaky falsetto, “on me? Lil ol’ me? Yes!” He raises his arms in victory. “Sam Wilson’s still got it, baby!” He flexes an arm, showing off some nice muscle definition. Then, he makes a kissy face. “Mornin’, James. How you doin’?”

 

“Oh my god,” Bucky says again, flustered. “Sam, look, I…” Realizing there is nothing wrong with finding an attractive man attractive, he decides to forgo the apology. He sighs deeply, audibly. “Call me Bucky.”

 

“What?”

 

“My good friends and my sister call me Bucky. My folks started it because my middle name is Buchanan, and we had, like, four other kids named James in my neighborhood when I was little.” Bucky erratically at his blushing face. “I’ve just embarrassed myself sufficiently in front of you, and since you’re not running away, we’ve gotta be good friends now. So call me Bucky.” He squares his shoulders with something meant to be casual confidence.

 

Sam nods. “Bucky,” he says. “Buck-ay. Buckaroo Bonzai.”

 

“Ohhh,” Bucky nods at Sam. “Good reference, nerd .”

 

“Never saw it,” Sam retorts. “But yeah, I’ll accept that I’m a nerd. Pretty sure I’m better than you at physics equations.”

 

“Likely,” Bucky responds, falling into step with his friend as they walk. “But could you beat Tony Stark in an engineering contest?” Sam just rolls his eyes. “ What ? I know him. I could make it happen.”

 

“If I already beat him in the good looks department, then I’m the winner.” Sam preens, then slows down, pointing. “My office is over that way. Humanities building is down the hill. My first class is at 9am.”

 

“8:30 for me,” Bucky groans. “Sophomore composition. These kids better be worth it. I don’t plan to keep them for the full two hours today. I’ve got errands to run. We’ll cover the syllabus, then I have stuff to do. Do you know how to get to Campus Security?”

 

“According to the students, you have to get caught day-drinking from an open container.”

 

Sam ,” Bucky scowls.

 

Sam just laughs then clears his throat. “Seriously, though. You want company? Did anybody show you around yet?”

 

Bucky shrugs. “I got the tour on orientation day, but I could use a more personal perspective from somebody who knows the shortcuts and good places to eat.”

 

“I got you, Bucky,” Sam grins, charming. “Meet me at 11 by your building. I’ll give you the Samuel-Wilson-trademark tour.”

 

“Sounds good!” Bucky smiles back, easy. He starts to walk toward the Humanities building. “Catch you later on, pal!”

 

***

 

The classroom is nice enough. Not too big, with one window looking outside directly at a tree. Bucky thinks it’s not sunny enough for his liking, but at least his room has a window. A year ago at a different college, he’d had an adjunct professor position with three classes in a basement classroom. He’ll take neutral beige walls and one window over windowless, painted cinderblocks any day.

 

He pulls a wrinkly sticky note from his pants pocket. Bucky knows better than to walk around with passwords on his person, but he doesn’t think anyone would fault an inexperienced professor on day one of the semester. He sets up his laptop and logs on to the college network. A window pops up with a cheery chime behind it: “Welcome Dr. Barnes!”

 

“Thanks,” he mumbles to the empty room. Voices in the hallway increase in volume. Two students walk in moments later. He hands them each a name card and a marker. “Welcome!” he says, stuffing his left hand into his pocket. “Name and preferred pronoun on the card, please.” The students share a look with each other and sit down together.

 

The first student prints her name out quickly on the card: Doreen, she/her. Doreen elbows her friend to show how she’s folded the name card so it stands up on the table in front of her. “Ingenuity,” she whispers.

 

“Is it?” asks the friend, who has written Gwen, she/her on her card, but is accenting the corners of her tag with geometric stripes and flowers.

 

“I thought you didn’t know what to do.”

 

“I’m just making mine look nice, Doreen.” Gwen sticks her tongue out.

 

“Ugh, you’re right. Mine is really boring.” She steals the marker back from Gwen and doodles what Bucky presumes is a squirrel with sticks for legs on the bottom corner of the card. She extends her arm toward Bucky. “Dr. Barnes?”

 

“Yes,” he responds. “Oh, thanks for handing that back.” The two girls seem pleasant enough, so he tries for a little light humor. “They’re still rationing my office supplies since I’m new. They’ll start docking my pay if I have more than 3 Sharpies in my office at any given time.” Gwen and Doreen both smile. Then they both start looking at their phones. Kids these days.

 

“And yet they keep increasing our tuition,” Gwen says dryly, a beat or two later than Bucky expected for a comeback. Doreen quietly snorts. Other students are taking their time finding seats as Bucky periodically announces to everyone to pick up a name card. It’s four minutes until 9am.

 

There’s a sound of a can being popped open. Bucky looks up from his laptop to see Peter, he/him, taking several gulps of an energy drink.

 

Doreen sniffs the air and turns around to look at the guy. “Pete, what are you drinking? Smells like my roommate’s cotton candy body spray.”

 

“Krushr,” says Peter, pointing to the can’s neon label. “It was new at the coffee cart.” He shrugs at Doreen.

 

“I literally think they re-bottled Kamala’s body spray and strained out the glitter.” She grabs the can from Peter and peers down into the opening. “Wait, is there glitter in here?” Doreen turns to the front suddenly. “Hey, Dr. B--Can I call you Dr. B?”

 

“Sure, Doreen.” Bucky smiles gently.

 

“Anyway. Dr. B, does this product seem suspect to you?” She holds the can away from her body as if the scent offends her.

 

“Smells like a Disney princess,” Gwen interjects, rubbing her nose.

 

Bucky shrugs. “I try not to drink stuff like that. They’re all suspect to me. I stick to coffee.”

 

Doreen puts the can back onto the table in front of Peter with a metallic clonk . “Dude, you got it at the coffee cart? Where you’re supposed to order coffee ?”

 

Peter sighs, put-upon. “Okay, fine. Wade dared me to drink it. And gave it to me for free.”

 

“Figures,” Gwen mutters.

 

Bucky just shakes his head. Kids these days, still the same ol’ kids of always. He checks the time: 9:01am. He stands up. “Good morning, everyone! I’m Dr. Barnes, this is English 125, and if you haven’t already, please fill out your name cards.”

 

The class buzzes for a moment while students scramble to write name cards and pass copies of the syllabus around the room. Bucky takes a deep breath and begins his first class in earnest. The kids are friendly, attentive, and come from all over. Gwen and Peter are from New York, just like Bucky. Doreen is from New Jersey, but she says not to hold it against her. He even has a student from Wakanda. Bucky decides he’s more excited for the semester than the kids.

 

***

 

After class and some organizing in his new office, Bucky meets Sam outside the Humanities building at eleven o’clock, just as they’d planned. They engage in some small talk about the day’s first class, then get down to business.

 

“How long do we have?” Bucky asks. “I have to go to campus security for a parking permit at some point. And I want to see this gym you were hinting at on orientation day.”

 

“I’m free until 1400,” Sam says, then corrects himself. “Two. Two o’clock. Riley talks in military time all summer then I have to re-adjust. When’s your next class?”

 

Bucky grins. “Tomorrow.”

 

“Cool, cool.” Sam stands with his hands on his hips. “Then let’s commence this tour.” He points toward the coffee truck about 50 feet from where they stand. “The most underrated stop on the Samuel Wilson-slash-Shield College Tour for Newbies is the first. Wade’s.” They walk to the truck.

 

The generator for the vehicle hums quietly as a tall, slim man artfully stacks a pile of muffins on the small counter. He’s dressed in a black t-shirt, red joggers, and an apron that reads I Don’t Give a Frappe with a picture of a frozen coffee drink on it. His gaze settles on Sam and a crooked grin blooms across his face. The man starts to wave over-exhuberantly, like a small child would. “Welcome back, brother! God damn , it’s good to see you!”

 

Sam brings Bucky right to the front of the cart. The man in the apron gasps and squeals like a teenage girl who’s just spotted her favorite boy band member. He drops the bag of ice he was about to dump into a cooler. “You’re Doctor Barnes!” He bounces and claps his hands. “I’m Wade Wilson. Hug?” He opens his arms wide, and Bucky notices the webs of scarring running up both of the strange man’s forearms, as well as a couple of gnarly streaks across his face. “C’mon, bring it in.”

 

Bucky looks at Sam, then Wade, then back to Sam, then Wade again. Why does Sam think this looney tune is so important? What is he supposed to do with this incredibly excited stranger?

 

“Oh!” Wade suddenly quips. “How rude of me. You’re looking at me like I’m a stalker. Only a little bit. Your book was incredible; I keep a copy back by the English muffins--” he jabs his thumb in the direction of the truck’s rear. “I’m just a hugger, but if you’d prefer a handshake? I’m really working on this consent thing; not everyone likes hugs.”

 

Bucky reaches out tentatively with his right hand and shakes Wade’s.

 

Wade smiles, satisfied, and jumps through the front door of the truck. “What’ll it be, Wilson?” he calls out.

 

“Two coffees,” Sam orders.

 

“Oh not you,” Wade cracks back. “I was asking myself out loud whether I should make chocolate chunk or peanut butter cookies.”

 

Sam rolls his eyes and whispers to Bucky, “He thinks he’s clever with the Wilson jokes.”

 

“No relation!” yells Wade from somewhere unseen in the food truck. A hand bangs a small whiteboard down onto the counter from behind, and Wade stands up. “Anything else, gents? I’ve got fresh cinnamon coffee cake today.”

 

“So Wade makes the best baked goods on campus,” Sam explains to Bucky. “Everything he makes is pretty damn great, actually. But if you eat here every day,” Sam takes two coffees from Wade and gives one to Bucky. Wade mouths along with what Sam says next--”you’ll get fat.”

 

Taking that as some kind of cue, Wade leans on his elbows, resting his chin on his hands. “Samuel Wilson, do not speak ill of my use of real butter and cream. I will dock your Funky Friday playlist privileges.” His head snaps toward Bucky. “I have good tunes, but I let Sam curate the 4 o’clock to 5 o’clock playlist on Fridays because his tastes?” He kisses the ends of his fingertips. “Speaking of…” Wade trails off, disappearing again.

 

Bucky leans toward Sam. “Does he live in there? Where does he disappear to?”

 

Sam laughs heartily. “Beats me. I just let Wade do his thing. You’ll figure it out. He’s amazing. Also, this is the best hub for campus gossip. Everybody talks to Wade.” A clattering of pots and pans rings out from inside the truck. Sam winks at Bucky, then moves from a whisper to a yell, “Yo, watch this: Wilson! What’s hot right now?”

 

Wade pops up from behind the counter again, like he’s some kind of Muppet. He swipes through his phone, taps the screen decisively, and speakers on the truck begin to thump with 1990’s hip-hop. “Lemme tell you, girlfriends,” he drawls out, pointing at Bucky while looking at Sam, “word around the cart is that Provost Carter and Doctor Rogers tried to have a summer fling.” Wade whistles out a bomb-drop sound effect with the resulting explosion. “Epic. Fail.”

 

“Rogers?” Bucky looks at his new friends. “Sam, does he mean that jerk from orientation?”

 

“Ostentatious? All-American beefy boy?” Wade questions. “Penchant for booty shorts?”

 

“Booty...what?” Bucky cocks his head, looking like a confused puppy.

 

“Sounds like the dude to me,” Sam surmises. “Way full of himself. Probably orders decaf with skim milk.”

 

“Look fellas,” Wade sighs, “I only know what I hear. But I do hear a lot. And I hear that Rogers orders matcha lattes every Thursday afternoon from Wade Wilson.” He lays a hand over his heart to indicate himself, then smoothly raises his hand up to point at the sky with his index finger. “ However , I have to do prep for lunch, so if you don’t mind, I’ve gotta do some actual work.” There’s a pause and two paper bags are plopped on top of the counter. “These are for you. Made ‘em for myself but changed my mind.

 

“Thanks! Good to meet you,” Bucky says, picking up the bags. “See you later, I’m sure. Let’s go, Sam.” They walk off to find a cafe table outside of the student center where they can hang out for a while. Bucky peeks into his bag and smiles, handing the other bag to Sam.

 

He snaps a picture of the sandwich the Wade gifted to him and opens a text to Becca.

 

Bucky: First meal on the first day of the first non-adjunct professor job!

 

Becca: Pastrami on marbled rye?

 

Bucky: Patty melt on marbled rye. Good pastrami isn’t everywhere upstate like it is in Brooklyn.

 

Becca: Well, tell me about your day so far!!!

 

Bucky: Had one class, good kids. Grabbed coffee with Sam.

 

Becca: Who’s Sam? Are they single? Hot? Looking for a gal who’s the spitting image of her handsome brother? *heart eyes emoji*

 

Bucky: omg Bug really

Bucky: I’ve been here a grand total of 16 hours

 

Becca: You’ve got the Barnes charm, it’s natural to us

 

Bucky: Trust me, Bug, you’ll be the first one to know if I spot somebody worth talking to

 

Becca: BUT WHO’S SAMMMM

 

Bucky: ttyl sis *heart emoji*

 

Becca: Buckyyyyyyyy
Becca: jAMES BUCHANAN BARNES

Becca: you’re the worst brother ever *kiss emoji*

 

“So,” Sam starts, “you’re single.” He takes a sip of his coffee.

 

“Are you psychic and talking to my sister right now?” Bucky raises an eyebrow.

 

“We didn’t talk more about your relationship status earlier today. When you learned about Riley, that is.” Sam leans both of his elbows onto the table. “We already established you liked looking at me.” He waggles his eyebrows and pastes on a goofy grin.

 

“Sam,” Bucky sighs.

 

“You’re allowed to look, buddy. Look all you want.” Sam rests his chin on his hand as though he’s posing for a GQ photoshoot. “I’m probably the best looking in the engineering department. And besides, it’s not easy looking this good.” Bucky smiles and goes back to eating his sandwich. The two sit in companionable silence, and then Sam says, “Oh yeah, I was going to show you where the gym is.”

 

“Sweet,” Bucky replies. “And I have to go to campus security too, plus you owe me more of this tour. We’ll take off again after I finish this sandwich? I was starving and didn’t even know.”


“Wade’s like a meal psychic,” Sam pulls his sandwich from his paper bag and laughs. “PB and J! He gets me.”

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Chapter 2, Reaching for Nuadha: A Biomechanical Breakthrough in the New Era of Stark Tech , James B. Barnes, 2017.

 

The first real memory I have following the accident is my younger sister, Becca, sitting at my bedside, face streaked with tears, smiling through them. She held my right hand, gently stroking my fingers, careful to avoid the I.V. line rooted there. I mentioned it was awkward for her to sit on my left side and hold my right hand, even if it was resting comfortably on my stomach.

 

My sister began to cry again, the smile disappearing. “Bucky, oh honey,” she sniffled out, sounding so much like my late mother it nearly made my heart stop. Her next move was also pure Winnie Barnes, and that’s when I nearly lost it. Becca cupped my cheek so gently, turning my face to focus on her, just like Ma always had when I was little and hurting, threatening to hyperventilate rather than cry. My mother always reminded me I was a strong boy, and brave, but strong and brave boys could cry just like anyone else.

 

“It’s gone,” is all Becca was able to say to me, casting a quick glance at my left shoulder before turning away to find the box of tissues, hiding her crumpling composure.

 

At this, I finally looked down at my left side, focused enough to realize that the intense ache I felt from my elbow to my hand was a fantasy. The sleeve of my hospital gown sat over my bandaged shoulder, my new stump, with nothing below the sleeve but empty air. A ghost story.

 

***

 

August 1, 2018

 

Dear Doctor Barnes,

 

Based on your meritorious work in service to technical journalism and your highly successful interview with sample lesson, I would like to offer you the position of Assistant Professor of English at Shield College, beginning in the fall semester of 2018……

 

All of our faculty and staff at Shield College are looking forward to having you with us on campus, and I’m certain our students will have much to learn from you.

 

Sincerely,

Provost Margaret Carter

 

***

 

Dear Mr. Barnes,

 

My mom told me all about your book and your robot arm. I saw you on the Today Show and I thought it was cool how your arm is like a robot that can help you do things. I was born with only part of an arm, so I hope one day I can have one just like yours. Maybe even a better one than yours, and when I meet you we can play catch.

 

Your fan,

Caleb S., age 6




Dear “Doctor” Barnes,

 

All due respect, sir, but how can you say this is a science book? There’s so much navel-gazing about your own life, nowhere near enough scientific or engineering data to go around calling yourself an esteemed scientific journalist. I’m sure you’d say something about trade secrets, NDAs, blah blah. I’m glad you got your technological “miracle”, but don’t go calling this Buzzfeed-bullshit-in-a-book a “story” with scientific, journalistic integrity. Next thing you know, you’ll follow Neil DeGrasse Tyson around and spend ¾ of your book talking about how looking at the constellations changed your life. I didn’t hate your book--but stop calling all this millennial memoir tear-jerking an important scientific story.

 

Sincerely,

Dr. Darren M.




Dear James,

 

I hope it’s okay I called you by your first name. I know nobody sends snail mail anymore. But real talk--whose dick do I have to suck to get myself some of those fancy Stark medical miracles? I realize they’re not FDA cleared, and dude, I am beyond happy for you--I loved your book and recc’d it to all my friends--but some days I can’t take these fucking phantom pains and knowing you’re out there, almost good as new while I suffer with no health insurance? What’s a person like me to do? Is it even realistic to make people hopeful like that? I hope you don’t take this the wrong way. Your words were a great comfort and very necessary. I’m just sick and tired of waiting is all. If I ever meet you, I’ll totes high-five you.

 

Cheers,

Frankie Q.

 

***

 

To: Shield College Faculty
Re: Join Your Colleagues for a Paint Nite!

Please join us after hours for a BYOB paint-and-sip night with your fellow faculty! Enjoy some relaxing down time as Dr. Steven Rogers leads us through a painting exercise guaranteed to bring out the artist in YOU! The event is free but registration is limited, so please RSVP by contacting Dr. Rogers directly, steven.rogers@shield.edu


Best regards,

 

Dr. Bruce Banner
Faculty Cultural Committee



Bucky stares at his open email. He drums his fingers on the desk and shakes his head. During physical therapy to get acclimated to his arm, he’d enjoyed painting. It had always relaxed him. He never felt any pressure to be good at it, like he did with writing. He found it hard to write for himself once he’d started the editorial process for turning his doctoral dissertation into a book that was both personal and based in technological reporting. Science had long been one of Bucky’s fascinations, but he loved words and stories too much to consider it as a career. If he could help get other people excited about writing, as well as more scientific pursuits, he always thought he could be doing a great service to the world.

 

Painting was simple, in its way. Dip the brush, create shapes, blend colors, see what kind of story it made on its own.

 

Bucky clicks his tongue, just to make a sound in his quiet office. He itches to create something visual. He rolls his eyes because scratching that itch will involve spending a couple of hours under the tutelage of Dr. Steven Rogers.

 

But he needs more balance. Something outside of grading papers, keeping office hours, drinking way too much coffee.

 

He needs to go work off some steam, that’s what he needs. Bucky sends a text to Sam and grabs his gym bag.



“Buck!” Sam high-fives Bucky as he walks into the modest locker room of the fitness center. “Good to see you, man. But since you’re two minutes late I get first dibs on the rowing machine.”

 

“I’m more of an elliptical guy anyway,” Bucky replies, pulling out his water bottle to fill it at the cooler. He stuffs his duffel bag into the locker next to Sam’s. Sam is already stretching his arms. God, that Riley is a lucky guy if this is what he gets to come home to every night. Bucky tries not to gawk at his handsome friend.

 

“I don’t know, brother,” Sam laughs, heading toward the workout room door, Bucky close on his heels. “I bet you need a strong back to balance out that robot arm you got. You need some pointers, you just let me know.”

 

Bucky expects there is some kind of smartass remark coming his way, but he wants to hear it. “And what kind of pointers do you have, exactly?”

 

And there it is, a big shit-eating grin. Sam points with his index finger and then flexes his biceps. “Well, it’s that way to the weight benches.” He waggles his eyebrows then points with his other index finger, flexing that arm. “And it’s this way to the gun show, Barnes. Pow pow!” He pulls some 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger poses on the way into the gym itself.

 

Bucky laughs at the stupidity and claps his friend on the back. “With jokes that bad, how can I even complain about having to work out?” Sam grins back, making his way to the rowing machine. Bucky makes a beeline for the elliptical. He feels a little extra warmth beneath his skin when he realizes he’s right behind Sam and can see every muscle in his lithe shoulders working as he glides along.

 

The workout room door opens again, and as Bucky quickens his pace along with his playlist, he notices who strolls in. Dr. Steven Grant Rogers, in the flesh. Bucky does not make eye contact. He briefly considers changing his ‘dance-pop-hiphop aerobic’ mix to his ‘death metal I hate the world’ mix, but that feels wrong.

 

Bucky doesn’t hate the world. He’s not even sure he hates Dr. Rogers--it’s more that he can’t stand the smarter-and-better-than-thou vibes he radiates everywhere he goes. The attitude on the man. Steve has perfect posture and teeth so straight that maybe his father had been a dentist. Haughty is the word that comes to mind.

 

Sam stops rowing and gets up from the machine. He stretches casually, turning at the waist. Steve crosses between them to a treadmill. Sam rolls his eyes at Bucky and quickly jerks a thumb toward the blonde when he’s out of their sight line. He then says, a little too loudly, making a show of himself, “Gotta get to that quad machine, Barnes. It’s leg day!” Sam boosts his fists triumphantly, like Rocky Balboa on the museum steps, and hustles to the other end of the workout room where all the weight equipment is waiting.

 

Bucky sighs and turns the volume up on his phone, setting a timer for 15 minutes on the elliptical, after which he plans a 10 minute full-out jog on the treadmill, followed by at least 20 minutes on his arms and shoulders. As he tries to focus on the movements in his knees (which have been a little stiff this week from sitting in a lot of meetings), he finds himself distracted, again, by Steve.

 

Steve jogs on a treadmill right in Bucky’s line of sight, just ahead and to the right. He wants to ignore it, desperately willing his brain to listen to his music or focus on the TV overhead, which is playing some kind of shitty reality show.

Steve’s jog isn’t like anything Bucky has seen in the gym--he literally bounces, as though the treadmill beneath his feet is part trampoline. He mentally tallies bouncy running styles to illustrate to Sam: Baryshnikov, Tigger, Pepe le Pew. When he notices Steve’s feet leaving the surface of the treadmill, he snaps a discreet pic with his phone. To better prove his point to Sam. And maybe tease his endlessly thirsty sister. Right.

 

Frustratingly, Steve is built like a brick shithouse. He’s wearing one of the tightest workout shirts Bucky has ever seen, the kind of thing pro-athletes and models in men’s fitness magazines would wear. Sweat forms a perfect V shape between Steve’s shoulder blades. This serves as an arrow to point Bucky’s eyes down to Steve’s ass, perfectly rounded beneath the low rise of his somewhat fitted sweatpants. Bucky’s timer beeps to let him know it’s time to change equipment. He huffs as he hops down, begrudgingly crossing to the row of treadmills.

 

Of the unoccupied treadmills, of course the only one that isn’t out of order is beside Dr. Rogers, who doesn’t even glance sideways. His eyes are focused somewhere in the distance, watching out the rain-soaked window with a hundred-yard-stare. Bucky smirks quickly in relief, setting his pace, but his eyes flick to the right.

 

There is paint splatter in a rainbow of colors dotting Steve’s left forearm. Above that, the short sleeve of Steve’s workout top hugs every bulge of muscle like a second skin. Bucky focuses on his breathing and the motion of his sprinting, pushing down the spark of desire that curls in his gut.

 

Goddamn, Dr. Rogers has pecs like a fucking Greek sculpture. Hard nipples. It’s almost obscene. I wonder what he looks like if he takes off that top. If I look lower, I wonder if--

 

“Yo, Barnes!” Sam calls out, thankfully derailing Bucky’s train of thought. “Come spot me, I think I need more weight. Gotta build up these tree trunks!” He slaps his thighs.

 

Bucky thinks he hears Steve’s stifled laughter as he gratefully hops off the treadmill and walks toward his friend. “Do you say that to all the girls?” he responds to Sam, immediately hoping Steve pays no mind to his kind of awkward attempts at humor.

 

Becca: Buck-buck!!

Becca: What or who the hell was that?

 

Bucky: THAT, dear sister, is what I had to look at in the gym

 

Becca: *praise hands emoji* - *peach emoji*

Becca: You are doing the Lord’s work by sending this

 

Bucky: But it belongs to that douchebag I told you about from orientation day

 

Becca: The one with the pretty eyes?

 

Bucky: I told you that was his only good feature.

 

Becca: Sounds like he’s got two good features now

 

Bucky: He was practically sashaying on the treadmill today like he wants everybody’s attention

Bucky: Like he fucking deserves it

 

Becca: Sounds like you gave him what he wanted, dumbass--oh! Wait lemme spare you a text!

Becca: omg Bug shut up he’s not gorgeous and I don’t date co-workers except for my ex from that coffeeshop junior year of undergrad

Becca: WHO WAS ALWAYS A SLEAZEBAG, OH WISE AND ALL-KNOWING BUG YOU TOLD ME SO

Becca: Don’t ignore me big brother! Send more butts!

Becca: And don’t send me your own butt because I know you would, you dillweed

 

Bucky: Gotta go teach, call me later?

 

Becca: k but if I see your butt I’m telling all of Twitter



***

 

The following day, Bucky plops down onto a bench not far from the Humanities building, a nice little spot in a shaded courtyard with a good view of the campus around him. He finds it peaceful, with the breeze blowing gently and birds chirping. I should bring the class out here if it’s nice tomorrow, he thinks.

 

Bucky starts to get lost in thought about how this kind of warmth only happens as summer fades, and soon enough fall will arrive. He’s about to pull out a notebook and jot down some plans for an upcoming lesson when he’s interrupted by a fat, chittering squirrel zooming across the courtyard in front of him. A few seconds later, a dog sporting a purple collar and matching leash comes galloping after the squirrel.

 

The dog stops at the base of the nearby maple tree, barking with its front paws up on the trunk. Bucky figures the dog got away from its owner due to the leash trailing behind. He gets up for a closer look. “Hey girl,” Bucky calls softly. The dog keeps looking up after the squirrel. Bucky realizes the dog may not be a girl and shakes his head.

 

Jeez, Barnes, get that gender bias out of your head. Purple is just a color. Doesn’t mean that’s a girl dog . He decides to try a more confident approach, and calls out more loudly. “Hey boy! C’mere, buddy! Who’s a good boy?”

 

And it works. The dog trots right up to Bucky calmly, sits down, and starts wagging his tail. Bucky sees a tag on the dog’s collar: Lucky. “Hey there, Lucky,” he coos to the pup. “You get lost? Did that mean ol’ squirrel trick you?” He pets Lucky’s head and gently takes the leash in hand. Lucky’s ears perk up. He tries to take off in a run again, but Bucky is holding the leash in his left hand, so his entire arm braces as Lucky gets nowhere.

 

A trim blonde man wearing his sunglasses on top of his head jogs toward them both. “Lucky!” he calls out. “There you are!” Lucky wags his tail and wiggles his whole body, his tongue hanging out. Bucky notices the happy pup only has one eye. He pats Lucky’s head as his caretaker approaches. He waves at Bucky, panting out. “Oh my god, thank you, dude.”

 

“No problem,” says Bucky. “I think he and I were distracted by the same squirrel.” He laughs gently, then asks, “Are you his...Dad? Human...person?”

 

“Oh! Sorry, yeah. I’m Clint. Clint Barton.” Lucky barks and strains against his leash. He seems to be looking at someone or some other squirrel in the distance.

 

“James Barnes,” Bucky shakes Clint’s hand. “He’s a gorgeous dog. It’s really cool to see. I haven’t seen other pets around campus.”

 

Professor Bucky

 

“Well, students can’t keep animals. Plus I get special treatment,” Clint smiles, pointing to his purple t-shirt which almost matches Lucky’s collar and leash. The white printing on the front reads Barton Animal Rescue . Clint rubs his face, minding a brightly colored bandage on his cheek. He looks Bucky up and down. “You’re new here?”

 

Bucky nods in acknowledgement as Clint continues, “The rescue’s got a special agreement with the school--I bring therapy dogs twice a week for stressed students. Every day during finals week, too. The shelter is about a block east of the edge of campus. I come here to recruit interns and volunteers, too. You like animals, James?”

 

Bucky can’t stop smiling as Lucky leans against his leg. He scritches the dog vigorously between the ears. “I like this one,” he laughs.

 

“He’s taken,” Clint beams. “Lucky is my special buddy. But we’ve got more dogs at the shelter. And cats. Are you allergic to any animals? I’ve got a litter of kittens incoming, just sayin’.” Lucky looks in the same direction he was looking a moment ago and makes a half-barking, half-snuffling noise.

 

“He okay? Another squirrel?”

 

“Way cuter than a squirrel,” Clint smirks. He’s looking toward what Lucky is looking at now--a shapely redheaded woman. He gives her a big wave. She smiles. “That’s my girlfriend, Natasha. She works here, in the Humanities building. Have you met?”

 

Bucky squints and then recognizes her as the program coordinator who brought him a key to his office on his first day, thinking How is it possible that this many attractive people work here?

 

Lucky’s excited wiggling gets out of control, and when Clint tries to readjust his grip on the leash, Lucky makes a break for it. At least he’s running straight for Natasha, who kneels down with her arms open, waiting for the big happy puppy. “I’ll introduce you sometime,” says Clint, hastily bending to tie his shoelace, “but I gotta go before Lucky licks all the makeup off Natasha’s face. She gets cranky if she gets drooled on too much. See you around, pal!” Clint makes a mad dash after his dog and his girlfriend.

 

***



Excerpt from Chapter 4 of Reaching for Nuadha: A Biomechanical Breakthrough in the New Era of Stark Tech , James B. Barnes, 2017.

 

I’ve been asked what it’s like to meet and work with a man like Tony Stark. My first answer to those individuals is that “a man like Tony Stark” is the wrong thing to say, because there is no man like Tony Stark. Ad nauseum, the media refers to this cultural giant in his own pompous words:

 

Genius / Billionaire / Playboy / Philanthropist

 

But the thing about Tony Stark is that he is incredibly relatable, once you really get to know him. He was a little hard to pin down at first. My initial gut reaction to being around him was that we would never form what felt like a human relationship. Our first meeting started approximately 20 minutes later than we’d originally scheduled because, as Stark explained to me, he needed “to hire an actual flesh-and-blood personal assistant. My best A.I. can only remind me to eat so many times before I completely ignore it.” He then declared [at me, more than to me] that he hoped I liked tuna salad and tossed a wrapped sandwich in my direction.

 

What the hell was I, a one-armed, traumatized charity case, supposed to say to one of the richest men in the world when he literally tossed a meager snack at me? “Look,” Stark said, walking up next to me, touching my shoulder without permission, making me flinch, “We got a lot of work to do, Mr. Barnes. You better eat that sandwich because we’re going to be using up a lot of energy. You take your coffee black, or…?” Next thing I knew, a little robot drove toward me from around a corner bearing a paper cup of some of the best coffee I’d tasted in months.

 

Stark stuck me with a look and a nod, and I knew we were about to get down to the nuts and bolts of what was to come. He barely spoke to me in the hours of that initial meeting, beyond pulling up a number of schematics and asking, “What do you like about this one?” Then he assured me he was having our conversation recorded by JARVIS--his personal A.I., a much beefier, but no less British, version of the JARVIS that lives in your standard Stark phone. I spoke aloud, at length, about what I wanted my new arm to do, how it should look, how much and how little I’d like it to affect my daily life.

 

Sometimes, talking to Tony Stark was merely an exercise in talking to his energy. He worked quickly; he buzzed around his lab like a starving hummingbird. One moment, he was hovering over my shoulder, taking scans and measurements, but a blink later, he was offering me a San Pellegrino while queueing up another classic rock playlist and inquiring about my own tastes in music. Before I could even breathe out that I generally prefer proto-punk and indie rock, Stark presented me with another device which he elaborately wrapped around my right arm.

 

“It’s going to help map the neural pathways between arms and brain,” he told me. Then, smirking, Stark said, “Thank god you were never a lefty.”

 

When I answered, “Only in my political leanings,” Tony Stark’s face lit with pure joy.

 

“Ah, so then you’re no stranger to my family legacy.” His voice took a serious turn. “You’ve heard it from the media, I’m sure, but I want you to hear it from me: I am not my father.”

 

Around five years ago, Tony Stark got to see first-hand the damage that Stark Industries lent to the world with the advanced military weaponry created by his father. Every government in the world owns some amount of dangerous technology pioneered or overseen in the Stark Industries’ research labs. When Stark’s best friend and college fraternity brother James Rhodes lost the use of his legs following a combat incident in the Middle East, he could no longer stand idly at the top of his company while others were being horribly wounded or dying under his own name. Tony Stark launched a world tour for himself, visiting combat veterans, wounded children, entire bombed cities. There, in the ruins of his family legacy, he made the speech that went viral in minutes: “From this day forward, Stark Industries will no longer be associated with destruction, violence, and ruin. From this day forward, Stark Industries will seek to heal, rebuild, and push humanity to be its best through technology.”

 

“Tony,” I said to him as he searched my face for something--Fright? Disdain?--, “I applied to be in this study because I want to help you help other people. I know who you are because I’ve followed your career. I chronicled your work with Rhodes for The Atlantic.”

 

Tony smiled again. He clapped me on the back with one hand. “So you wanna meet Rhodey? He’s coming by next week. You should be here.”   

 

***

 

Bucky settles on a bench in the courtyard with his favorite notebook, the one bound in burgundy faux leather with a black star emblemized on the front and pats his jacket pocket to make sure he has his good pens. He’s grateful for another day of excellent weather and is excited to get started with the class. The students gather around him, some on the adjacent bench, others stretching out on the grass or sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk.

“Every one of us has a story,” he begins, looking around at the class. “Every life, if you think about it, has a narrative. But every narrative isn’t a traditional one. Not all of our stories are linear. As you go through life, you’ll find most of our stories don’t follow a distinct path. And that’s what we’re concentrating on today. Your first essay, as you well know, is a personal one. I want you to write about something that has led you to where you are now, but you should focus on the unusual ways you’ve gotten here.” Bucky opens his own notebook as if to signal to the class. “And it’s so lovely out today, you get the whole period to work here in the fresh air. I always think a little sunshine and a good breeze get the words flowing.” He pulls out his favorite pen, then gestures to the students around him. “Get comfortable and get writing.”

 

The students visibly relax, some of them lie down, some whisper to their friends. Most of them, per Bucky’s advice in the syllabus, are writing on actual paper rather than tablets or laptops. Pens and pencils start going like mad. There’s a crinkling of plastic, and Peter is pulling a pack of cookies from his bag.

“I brought snacks if anybody wants some,” he declares. A few of his classmates hop up for sustenance.

 

Bucky exhales with relief. These kids are so good, he thinks. They really want to be here, and they’re really interested in this work. He only feels a tiny twinge of guilt that the first thing he’s writing in his own notebook is a to-do list for the rest of the week: find dry cleaner, check post office box, farmers’ market? Bucky’s concentration is broken when he sees a bouncing body out of the corner of his eyes.

 

It’s Steve Rogers, again. He’s out for a jog around this particular courtyard, and he’s got that unmistakable spring in his step that he had on the treadmill at the gym. He’s also got that impossibly tight variety of workout top on, hugging all of his muscles, his strong shoulders, every swell of his six-pack. Is an eight-pack a thing? How many muscles could one guy pack in an abdomen anyway? Bucky’s mind wanders.

 

As he passes the first row of hedges, the next part of Rogers’ outfit is what distracts Bucky the most. Shorts. Very short shorts. They leave nothing to the imagination. Rogers’ ass is a perfect bubble, a strong curve jutting below his lower back. His thighs are thick, solid, and the lines of his legs are gorgeous. He bounces along the outside edge of the courtyard, pulling one muscle-corded forearm across his brow to wipe the sweat that is surely collecting there.

 

“Uh, hello? Doctor Barnes?”

 

“Gwen!” Bucky sort of squeaks, surprising himself. “I mean, yes Gwen?”

 

Gwen starts to giggle. She smacks Doreen, who’s sitting beside her, on the arm. Doreen cranes her neck and sees Doctor Rogers jogging away. Doreen laughs loudly.

 

“Do you have a question, Gwen?” Bucky tries again, sounding slightly more authoritative.

 

The blonde girl smiles, pushing some stray hairs behind her ear. “I was just hoping you could look at this paragraph and tell me if I’m on the right track.” She scoots forward on her patch of grass and hands Bucky her notebook. Gwen tucks her hands back into the pockets of her pink and black jacket while she waits.

 

Bucky reads her introduction, tapping one foot on the ground. He hopes the gesture distracts Gwen and Doreen from the fact that he was just staring at the good-looking man jogging in the vicinity. Her work looks good so far, so he calls Gwen to sit with him on the bench where he can give her some pointers without broadcasting them to her classmates. She happily returns to her spot on the grass where she spreads out next to Doreen again.

 

The next fifteen minutes pass quickly and in relative silence. Bucky finishes his farmers’ market shopping list and answers more student questions. He makes a few notes for an essay idea that’s brewing, one he can share with his class eventually-- now that I’m here, what does that mean exactly? He puts his notebook down and stretches his arms, putting each elbow above his head and pulling down, just like he’d learned in physical therapy.

 

Just as Bucky looks around the courtyard again, taking in the sunshine and the leaves blowing gently, he spies a familiar blonde-haired man, bouncing around the corner. He takes a deep breath, blowing it out audibly. Doctor Rogers’ gray shirt is sweat-soaked, forming a near-perfect triangle between his perfect pecs. His tiny shorts are dark blue with red and white accents. Bucky bites his bottom lip and sighs.

 

“You okay, Doctor Barnes?” Gwen’s voice cuts through the static in Bucky’s mind.

 

“I’m fine,” Bucky answers very quickly. “Shouldn’t you be working?”

 

Doreen taps Gwen’s thigh then points across the courtyard. Gwen looks up to see what she’s on about. The two girls exchange a look and start to giggle. Suddenly, Doreen raises her hand high in the air and yells out, “Hey, Doctor Rogers!” with a huge grin. Doctor Rogers smiles in their direction and waves back quickly. She scoots closer to Bucky’s bench with Gwen. Steve’s eyes have returned to the path in front of him as he jogs off into the distance. Doreen looks up at Bucky and wiggles her eyebrows.

 

“Doreen, Gwen, don’t even start.” Bucky sits on his hands. “It’s none of your business if--”

“It’s okay, Doctor B. We know,” Doreen explains. “Doctor Rogers is out here at least twice a week through the end of November.”

“Then he’ll be out again on the first freakishly warm day we get in January or February,” Gwen continues.

 

“We saw you looking, Doctor B,” Doreen grins. “It’s no biggie. We’ve all done it.”

 

Gwen chimes back in. “Where does he get those running shorts, a time portal to the 1980s? I’ve seen enough John Hughes movies to know some of them are probably authentic.”

 

Peter appears with his snacks, offering the open package to the two girls and Bucky. “You talking about Doctor Rogers? Dude is jacked.” Peter regards his own relatively skinny body. “What do you think his secret is?”

 

Bucky immediately reaches for a cookie. “I see him at the gym a lot,” he says to Peter then shoves the entire cookie into his mouth. He grabs a second one before anyone else can.

 

Gwen glances sideways at Bucky, then raises an eyebrow at Doreen. “Why’d you wave at him?”

 

Doreen’s mouth arches into a half-smirk like she knows a secret. Her eyes light on Bucky for a fraction of a second. “I’m taking his drawing class for my minor this semester. He’s notorious for picking apart everyone’s work, so I take any opportunity I can to make a good impression.”

 

***

 

To: Shield College Faculty

Re: Last Chance for Faculty Painting Class

 

Hi Faculty!

 

Just a reminder to register for Faculty Paint-and-Sip by 5pm today, if you are planning to attend next Thursday! We need an accurate head count so Dr. Rogers can purchase materials for all attendees.

 

Thanks,

Dr. Bruce Banner



“Well,” Bucky says aloud to his empty office, “how bad could it be?” He fills out the attached registration sheet and emails it back.

Chapter Text

Professor Steve

Bucky rubs his palms together, a nervous movement, before opening the door to the studio. He recognizes some of the faces from faculty meetings and the coffee line at Wade’s, so he puts on his best charming smile. Thanks to an office appointment with Doreen and Gwen to discuss edits to their latest papers, Bucky sits own for the class later than he’d anticipated. The easels are arranged in a U-shape, and the only available seats are at each end. This means sitting next to the instructor. Just peachy.

 

And speak of the devil, the door swings open, and Dr. Steven Grant Rogers saunters in. Bounces , thinks Bucky. Those hips can’t be loose enough to saunter. The guy runs like the world is his trampoline, all up-and-down, but he walks like he’s got a stick up his ass. He cringes briefly; he’s got to get a grip on his imagination because now he’s thinking of the delicate jiggle of Steve’s backside as he ran past the class last week.

 

Steve is dressed better than Bucky expected, in khakis and a checked button-down shirt. His hair is neatly combed and parted, blonde and shiny. Like spun gold , Bucky thinks, then shakes the thought away, but finds himself looking toward that stupid face. His stupid perfect face with that idiotically strong jaw.

 

“Hi everyone.” Steve grins to the whole class, who greets him warmly in return. Bucky doesn’t say anything aloud, but nods and smiles amicably. “Thanks for coming today. HR likes to put on these events so we can get to know each other, have a little fun outside of the usual--” he gestures with his hand to suggest various other activities that must have taken place in the past. “It’s good to see familiar faces,” he continues, then looks right at Bucky, “along with some new ones.”  Bucky isn’t blushing, he swears.

 

Steve actually does a good job of leading the class into the painting exercise. Despite his hesitation over the haughty presence of Dr. Steven Grant Rogers, Bucky is managing to enjoy himself. He always did like watching Bob Ross, and this uses a similar technique. He learns a brush stroke that enables him to paint happy little trees. Even his left arm is cooperative, and he attempts to paint a few finer details of a cloud with it, just to prove that he can. It doesn’t look half bad, but he’s still glad it’s a small cloud.

 

Steve doesn’t look as much like a brick shithouse when he’s working like this, his head tipped to the side, tongue just barely sticking out of the corner of his mouth in concentration. He’s got one hip popped out as he studies his canvas, one arm crossed over his waist, holding his opposite elbow. His arm is bent in mid-air, his hand wavering a paintbrush up and down as he thinks.

 

Bucky almost rolls his eyes at how serious Steve looks. This is a faculty/staff painting class for fun, for fucks’ sake, but he’s waiting for Steve to lean over and critique his methods. And Bucky remembers what Doreen said in class the other week, that Doctor Rogers has a very discerning eye for artwork. Considering Bucky hasn’t painted a day in his life since grade school, he thinks he’s doing pretty well for himself and oh god, Steve is looking right at him.

 

Bucky doesn’t want any kind of snide comments from Professor Artsypants, so he does the next thing that comes to mind. “You, uh--can I interest you in a beer, Steve?” He juts out his chin at the communal six-pack on the table in front of them, still holding four beers.

 

Steve’s eyes dart back to his own canvas, as if he wasn’t studying Bucky’s work at all. “Oh, no thanks, James.” He whooshes his paintbrush in a jar of water, which quickly turns from clear to a cloudy green-gray. “I don’t usually drink while I’m working.”

 

“Isn’t this supposed to be a paint-and-sip night?” Bucky asks, looking around the room while two administrative assistants laugh and pour each other glasses of pink wine.

 

“It loosens people up when they’re nervous,” says Steve. “Painting is my second favorite art form after sketching. I can do this all day, no intervention of substances required.”

 

Bucky simply makes an affirmative noise and returns to his canvas. He supposes Steve’s logic makes sense, but on the other hand, he instructs art for a living and set this activity up to include drinking when it wasn’t necessary. He ignores some clicks of protest as the arm voices its opinion, but the word “hypocrite” swims into his brain regardless.

 

Steve stands up and starts circling the room to check out everyone’s work. Bucky keeps painting and finishes a beer, thankful that he’s last on the rounds. When Steve finally closes in, he bends toward Bucky’s shoulder and-- he smells good. Freshly showered with something he can’t place, warm and sunny just like his hair color STOP IT, BUCKY, STOP IT RIGHT NOW --he says, “That’s really nice, James. I love your use of color for the sunset. That shade of blue, just that stripe there above the reddish pink, is very realistic.”

 

Something blooms with Bucky’s pulse, and he sits up a little straighter. “I...was...it was...thanks. Steve.” Steve actually winks at Bucky, then launches into a lecture on proper star placement in the twilight skies everyone has been creating.

 

As Bucky admires his completed painting at the end of the night, he stretches, pulling his right arm using his left. As he cocks his head side-to-side, he steals a glance at the version of the painting Steve has been making alongside everyone else. His blending of the colors of the sunset is nothing short of exquisite. Of course, it puts the efforts of most of the room to shame. Bucky is surprised that Steve bothered to compliment his work at all.

 

Everyone is cleaning up, thanking Steve for running the class. “My pleasure,” he offers. Bucky is slow to pick up his things. He is examining the fine channels of vibranium in his hand to see if he needs a scrub brush to clear them of any remaining paint. Steve passes behind him. “So, Dr. Barnes, what do you plan to do with your artwork?”

 

Bucky smirks, amazed Steve is trying his conversational skills. “My new office is pretty drab,” he replies. “It’ll brighten the place up a little bit.”

 

There’s no response. Steve hovers over the sink, rinsing out a cup full of paintbrushes, humming with only a hint of a tune. Whatever, thinks Bucky. He was just being polite. Bucky grits his teeth when he realizes he’s been watching Steve’s forearms working over the sink, the long sleeves of his shirt rolled to his elbows. He quickly makes a move to pick up his messenger bag and put on his jacket. Suddenly, apropos of nothing, Steve blurts out, “I picked up your book at the library. Wanted to see what people were fussing about. Can I, uh, would it be okay if I emailed you to let you know what I think?”

 

A ripple of tiny vibrations shoots up Bucky’s arm, and he makes a fist, which he quickly shoves into his jacket pocket. He inhales deeply, and on the exhale he manages, “If you have questions, I can offer clarifications, Dr. Rogers, but your general opinions aren’t needed.” He presses his mouth into a line, eyebrows furrowing. “Or welcomed. But I do thank you for the class today. Take care.”

He sees Steve look up from what he was doing, open-mouthed, as if to offer some kind of additional commentary, but Bucky is already hustling out the door, painting carefully held in his offending hand.

 

***

 

“He did not ,” Sam says, eyes wide, slamming his can of Diet Coke down onto the table.

 

“He did, pal. He did,” Bucky replies, shaking his head and taking a bite of his pastrami on rye. “And the worst part is I was just starting to think maybe I’d misread him.”

 

Sam crunches a potato chip and starts talking with his mouth half-full. “If anybody has a right to be commenting on someone else’s writing, it’s you. That’s your whole job. But where does he get off thinking he can just call you up, all ‘hey I don’t think I like the way you wrote your book’. That is just,” Sam drops his voice so the students lingering nearby won’t hear him, “fucking rude.”

“He doesn’t have my number, Sam. No way in hell he’s getting it now.”

Email . Whatever. Didn’t his mom teach him any manners? ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’?” Sam shakes his head and continues eating.

 

Bucky picks at his bag of baby carrots. He’s just not that hungry anymore, but he hopes that Sam doesn’t notice he’s absentmindedly playing with his food instead of making conversation. Surprisingly, he feels disappointment at Steve’s behavior. Steve is so pleasant to look at, Bucky realizes he’s holding out hope that he’s misunderstood the art professor this entire time. That maybe something good will still come out of this dumb obsession.

 

“You okay, Buckaroo? You’re quiet today.” Sam’s expression is full of concern.

 

“I’m fine, just--”

 

Wade bounds up to the table where the two men sit, his scarred face in a manic grin. “Barnes! I heard something; I need you to verify. Pronto. Petey’s working the grill today, and I’m not sure I trust him to not cook his hand.”

 

“Parker?” Sam snorts.

“Yeah, he needed a few extra bucks and doesn’t qualify for work-study, so he’s working for me now. Great kid.” Wade leans conspiratorially down to Bucky’s level. “Barnes. Rumor mill is going crazy today, they’re saying you stayed late with Dr. Rogers in the art department. Do you confirm or deny?”

Bucky glares daggers at Wade.

 

“Come on, Barnes, I wanted the scoop from the source, not from what Carol and Maria thought they saw last night.” Wade flutters his eyelashes. “Pretty pleeeease?”

 

“Fine,” Bucky sighs in exasperation. “One, Parker needs a little more discipline, so I’m glad you gave him a job. Two, I went to the faculty painting class. I made a nice painting of a sunset. I happened to be the last to leave the class, but I wasn’t there for Rogers, nor was I there to be with Rogers.” He holds up his left hand and wiggles his fingers. “Takes me a little longer to get paint off my hands, you know?”

 

Wade eyes Bucky and Sam suspiciously, but his body language relaxes. “All right, good enough. If there’s more, I want to hear it, but I better go make sure Petey hasn’t hurt himself. I left the spatula and the cleaver awfully close together in the back.” He all but runs away.

 

Bucky just shakes his head and chomps on some carrots. Sam scrolls through something on his phone. “Oh it’s that time of year,” he says, as though Bucky has any inkling what he’s talking about. When he gets no response, he clarifies, “Do you know about Thanksgiving dinner?”

“People cook turkeys, eat pies, get together with their families. I don’t have a lot of family left, but I’m not stupid, Sam.”

 

Sam rolls his eyes. "Seriously, what crawled up your butt today, Barnes? You're crankier than usual. Lemme finish?"

 

"Sorry," Bucky huffs.

 

"Thanksgiving at Shield College is a tradition. They do the cafeteria up nice with candles and flowers, serve up a big traditional feast. The students love it. And us? Well, as an act of goodwill, we, the esteemed faculty and staff, volunteer to serve them. You wait tables, pour water. You really get to know the kids who go here. Since it's not a big school, it really drives the message that we're family."

 

"Sounds neat."

 

"Plus we get all the last dibs on the pie. Pumpkin, cherry, blueberry, coconut cream. Wade makes pies; we eat pies." Sam grins big, showing the gap in his front teeth. "Volunteer with me? I need a partner in crime to sneak a plate of leftovers out for Riley."

 

Bucky smiles, genuine. "Yeah, Sam. I'll do it." Really, despite the irritating actions of one dumb jerk in the art department, one who happens to be easy on the eyes but a real idiot, he loves his job. "It sounds real cheesy, but my students do make this job worth it. Let's do it together."

 

"That's the spirit, Bucky," Sam says, typing out something onto his phone. "I added you to the spreadsheet. You don't have any food allergies, do you?"

 

"I might be slightly allergic to NOT having Wade's baked goods." Bucky laughs, and Sam gently punches him in the bicep.

 

 

--

 

Bucky: So I guess I’m doing a Thanksgiving thing before actual Thanksgiving?

Bucky: Volunteered to serve dinner to the students.

 

Becca: Oooh, is Sam going to be there?

 

Bucky: He convinced me. Why are you so interested? He’s married.

 

Becca: I can still look. *tongue sticking out emoji*

Becca: Is that hot jerk going to be there?

 

Bucky: How the hell should I know?

 

Becca: You seem to know a lot about his whereabouts.

 

Bucky: Because he’s kinda making my life hell, Bug.

 

Becca: Yeah, those tight shorts really put a damper on your career from what you told me *tongue-sticking-out emoji*

Becca: Does blonde hottie even like men? Is he interested in short, adorable brunette women, do you think?

 

Bucky: Your thirst is shameless. Stop it.

 

Becca: Let me thirst on your behalf, Bigs!

Becca: I am trying to do you a favor!

 

Bucky: Did I tell you about what happened at that painting class?

 

Becca: Did you ever think maybe he’s just dense? Not good with people?

Becca: You text me like every time you see him.

Becca: You do.

Becca: What did they call it in that Bridget Jones book? ‘Mention-itis’?

 

Bucky: Nobody here understands me like you

Bucky: Especially if I’m annoyed

Bucky: So why would I tell anyone but you?

 

Becca: You have a chronic condition, Bear.

 

Bucky: Yeah, it’s called generalized anxiety disorder

Bucky: And no fucking arm

Bucky: And I talk about Steve because he’s probably ableist AF

 

Becca: I was trying to say it’s a crush

Becca: That’s your chronic condition.

Becca: You don’t know him enough to judge

Becca: You need to get laid, bigs



Bucky: Bug, if you’ve been talking to Sam on Facebook behind my back…
Bucky: So help me, Rebecca Anne Barnes I will *fire emoji* *angry face emoji*
Bucky: BUG I CAN PLAY THIS GAME TOO

Bucky: Beccaaaaaaaaaaa

Chapter Text

“Aw, what?!” Bucky exclaims, grabbing the Thanksgiving dining assignments sheet from Wade’s greasy hand.

 

“Read it and weep, buster,” Wade shrugs. “You wanna make that latte a double?”



“Yes. God.” Bucky’s arm ripples from finger to bicep. How did this happen? “With whipped cream. Shit.”

 

“Why the long face, Jimmy Barnes?” asks Sam, wandering up to the cart where Bucky is slumped against the drink cooler.

 

“Have you seen these assignments for Thursday night?”

 

“Yeah, bro. You and me, remember?” Sam shrugs.

 

Bucky dramatically throws his head back and holds the list out at arm’s length. It’s too early, and he’s severely undercaffeinated for this. “Look at it.”

 

“I’ve seen it, dude! What’s your problem? You, me, Provost Carter, all on the 6pm shift, tables 4 thru 6.”



Grumpily, Bucky gets up into his friend’s face. He points just below their names where the list says Floaters, All Shifts , and the last name on the list of three people is S. Rogers .

 

Wade emerges from the cart with a gigantic iced coffee beverage topped with whipped cream and a cherry. Bucky shoves the list against Sam’s chest and makes grabby hands for his drink. “You know, Barnes, I think you’re overreacting,” Wade observes. Sam cackles.

 

Bucky makes a defeated grunt and sips his too-sweet, stressful-morning concoction. “Yeah. Sure. We’ll see. I’ll catch you guys later. I have classes to teach.” Bucky storms off toward his office, muttering under his breath.

 

***

 

He tries to laugh when it starts at three in the morning. He always tries to make light of it, because what else can he do? Bucky sits up in bed, rubbing slow, firm circles against his left shoulder. “Wonder what the weather is doing?” he mumbles aloud to the darkness in his bedroom. He pulls his phone from the bedside table to check the current forecast--no changes in barometric pressure to blame this on. There is a sharp pang of pain down by his elbow, and he sucks a breath in through his clenched teeth.

 

Bucky drags himself out of his nest of blankets into the bathroom, where he swallows three ibuprofen with two cups of water. The pain zaps up into his shoulder from somewhere lower in his arm, somewhere that no longer has nerves to cause pain. He taps out the pattern Tony taught him in the lab on the seventh plate up from the wrist--”JBB” in Morse code. The plates shift up from fingertips to shoulder. There is a quiet hiss as the locks to the arm’s anchor open. He pulls the entire arm away from his shoulder then carries it back to the bedroom, where he places it unceremoniously, yet still carefully, onto his blue wingback chair.

 

From his bedside drawer he pulls out the soft cover for the sensor array that is just below the remaining flesh of his upper arm. It’s easier, tonight, to deal with missing the limb than trying to scratch an itch and soothe a pain that isn’t even really there. Before he slips the cover on all the way, Bucky gently rubs in some of the lotion that is supposed to be good for his scarring. Its smell is herbal, calming, lavender and chamomile. The itch there dissipates and he pulls the cover tightly over the stump.

 

It's a gift to be able to have this first-of-its-kind medical miracle attached to him every day. It's beautiful. The first day he appeared in public with it in place and functioning properly, Bucky felt like a superhero. When he appeared at an MIT discussion panel with James Rhodes and Tony Stark, the students were good humored about suggesting a name for their hero team. He and Rhodey once chatted about how it was a shame Christopher Reeves and Tony Stark were never able to meet-- “Superman” had been one of all of their favorite childhood movies.

 

But here, on some random night in the dark, Bucky cringes, because who would want to see him like this? A grown man, unable to remove the wince of severe phantom pain from his face, his eyes tearing up in the darkness as he feels sorry for himself?



Whose hero could he be in a state like this? Wouldn't this world just love to laugh at Tony Stark's technological wunderkind, not so fixed or perfect, hugging an extra pillow in his one good arm because he's not strong enough to withstand his own pain?

 

What would all of his book reviewers say if they saw him crying, shaking, clinging to that extra pillow in the darkness because sometimes he’s just so fucking tired of being alone? Bucky clenches his fist and uses it to harshly rub at his eyes.



Some role model he makes, loved or hated because of a breakthrough he’d luckily gained access to via a lottery system.



Via a strict set of criteria he and only a dozen or so other people in the whole country met, and Tony Stark chose him .

 

Via a prosthetic made of such rare and proprietary materials that the FDA won’t clear Stark Technologies for additional funding until the price of vibranium comes down.

 

Of such novel uses of neurological manipulation that Bucky may not have given his sister the full rundown of the risks he actually took on, just in case he was going to get worse or die during the process.

 

Bucky finally settles as the pain fizzles out. He thinks about the image his book projected. While there was nothing untrue about it, some readers and the media treated him as though he was the first man to step foot on the Moon. In reality, Bucky knew he was nothing of the sort; if anything, he was the dog who was launched into orbit in a space capsule, lucky enough to somehow return alive and whole.

 

***


Bucky is in the middle of ordering a hot pumpkin spice latte and a cinnamon roll from Wade's when he hears a familiar baritone chatting away from somewhere in the line behind him. Oh no, not again, he thinks. Since the paint night conversation, it seems like he runs into Steve everywhere.

 

The gym. The campus post office. Bucky's pretty sure he saw Steve rumbling out of the gas station parking lot on his motorcycle as he was turning in from the main road. If Steve wasn't such a self-righteous prick, maybe Bucky would welcome some simple conversation. He would certainly welcome an opportunity to look at that pretty face for more than a passing glance.

 

No! No thank you. I don't need some punkass in my life. I've had my share in the past. Bucky shakes his head to clear it. It’s bad enough he’s got to be working with him for what should be a very pleasant event. He begs the whole universe that the blue-eyed, idiot-brained Adonis doesn’t manage to ruin it.

 

Bucky steps to the side as he completes his order. He notices Wade is too focused on wrapping pies to make any kind of chit-chat. The surly-looking student worker with the buzzcut is running the register today, and she's not much for small talk or gossip. Bucky takes a quick glance down the line to see if there's anyone he recognizes. There are sleepy-looking students and Steve.

 

Bucky pulls his phone from his pocket. Maybe Sam or Becca sent something he can distract himself with. Nope. They've left him hanging.

 

"Hey! James!"

 

Oh, great. Here we go. "Steve." He curtly nods and pushes his glasses up his nose.

 

"I haven't talked to you in a while. How have your classes been?" Steve runs a hand through his blonde hair, which glimmers in the sunshine, like a goddamn shampoo commercial. "I, uh, I have a couple of your students in some of my courses. They all seem really excited about what they're learning. You know Doreen Green? She never seems to stop talking about you."



Bucky chuckles drily. "She's something else, isn't she? Good kid. Very motivated." This line of conversation is doable, he thinks. Much easier than any of the salacious thoughts he keeps violently batting away in his imagination, or the underhanded insults Steve makes so effortlessly.



"James. Fancy meeting you here," comes a deadpan voice from behind Bucky, startling him and making him jump. Steve laughs at this. Because of course he would.

 

"Natasha, hey," Bucky pants out. His arm makes a little whirring noise as he silently begs his frightened pulse to cool it. "I could have brought something back for you. You should've said something."



She has moved between Steve and him. She gets that cute little half-smile on her face that she seems to sport all the time. "You think I want to sit behind a desk in a musty academic building all day? A girl has to get out and live a little. Plus I was overdue to hang out with Steve here." Natasha pats Steve’s hand.

 

Bucky clamps his teeth together to keep from exclaiming anything embarrassing.

 

Luckily, Steve pipes right up. "Natasha and I have been friends for...how long now?"



"Too long," Natasha giggles, low. "But we met in a ceramics class years ago. Turns out you can be getting a doctorate in art, but you can still know jack-shit about throwing pottery."

 

"I paint. I draw. I teach sculpture, but it's not really my thing. Somebody else in the department shows people how to use the wheel." Steve and Natasha smile at each other. "I keep one lopsided vase in my office to remind myself to stay humble."



"It's his hands," Natasha says. "Too indelicate, I say." She holds her own hands up and wiggles her fingers. She has a black widow spider tattooed on her wrist. "I made him a nice serving bowl for Christmas last year, since Steve apparently can't make an evened-out edge to save his life." She tosses her red hair.

 

Steve looks down at his own hands, turning them over. "Hey, Tash, you know if you ever need a shovel or two,” he laughs.

 

Bucky forces a smile because dear god, Steve's hands just look so broad and strong. They are, as seems to be the usual, dotted with a variety of paint shades. Watercolors today, or maybe markers, Bucky notices. Mostly blues and red, but nothing opaque. There's something almost graceful about how Steve moves his hands, despite being--

 

Don't stand here gaping, Buck, say something.



"Huh, I had no idea you two knew each other." Real smooth. Ugh.

 

Natasha feigns shock. "God forbid anyone fraternize outside of department lines, James."

 

"That's not what I meant, I was--" Bucky's arm clicks audibly. Steve looks at him, and he feels heat creeping up his face.

 

Natasha pats Bucky's shoulder gently. "You should chat with me more often, then you'd learn my ways of sarcasm and good-natured ribbing."

 

"Heh, you sound like my buddy Sam," Bucky manages, pointedly not keeping his gaze on Steve, whose face softens into something that actually looks friendly.

"Wilson? From engineering? He's a charmer. Cute smile."

 

Steve speaks up. "Natasha knows pretty much everybody around campus. I don't know how she does it."

 

"I'm a super-spy," she grins, "but if I told you my secrets, I'd have to kill you."

 

"And here I thought you were just a mild-mannered department admin," Bucky replies.

 

"I'd kill you with a stapler. Or maybe a letter opener. Then bury your body under all the student files I have to purge after the accreditation auditors come through. You'll be missing for weeks, James. Weeks."

 

Steve chuckles at Natasha's faux threat and actually smiles. A full, gleeful thing that shows off his cheekbones, his white teeth, his jawline. Wade's student worker calls out Bucky's order number.

 

"Well, that's me," Bucky says, thankful for the out. "Gotta get back for office hours. See you guys later. Or, um, around. You know." He points at Natasha. "Come say hi sometime."



“Wait,” Steve says. “Um.” His cheeks get pink. “James?”



“Yeah?” he asks over his shoulder as he turns away.

 

“We’ve got a shift together tonight, at the Thanksgiving dinner? I don’t really know anyone we’re scheduled with. I was...well, I was kinda hoping you’d be interested in walking over from the Humanities building with me.”



“He gets shy,” Natasha nods vigorously.

 

“I...guess so? I have to go. I’ll email you when I get back to my office.” Bucky nearly drops his latte.



“Bye Barnes!” Natasha waves, maybe a little too excited.

 

"Nice to see you, James," Steve smiles. Really smiles. Like he meant it, thinks Bucky. Well isn't that something.

 

--



Bucky gently raps on the door to Steve’s office with his metal hand. The window in the door is almost entirely obscured by doodles, pictures, and quotations about art, all taped into place on the glass. Just enough light passes through to show that the overhead lights are on inside.

 

There is a bland sign posted to the left of the window listing “Doctor Steven G. Rogers - Office Hours”, which Bucky thinks is far too boring for an art instructor’s office door. He contemplates whether the sign was created by a hurried secretary, or if Doctor Rogers’ impatience led him to create something so dull compared to everything else displayed outside his office.

 

Bucky knocks again, listening to the slight ping his synthetic knuckles sound out in the empty hallway when they hit the wood. “Steve?”

 

“Office hours ended at 3pm today,” comes the muffled reply.

 

“It’s James Barnes,” Bucky responds, rolling his eyes without letting any sarcasm leak into his voice. “Are you ready to go?” He’s met with vocal silence and a ruffling sound like fabric being shaken out. “Did you get my email after I ran into you? I said I’d be here about now.” Bucky hears the rustle of a plastic bag, the sound of a zipper.

 

“Hey, uh, just a minute,” Steve finally speaks up, his voice rough like he’s been asleep. “Just changing.”

 

Must be nice to be tenured , Bucky thinks, shifting his weight from foot to foot as he waits. Permanent office, probably enough room in there to nap. Not having to worry that you’re getting too comfortable in the space you’ve been granted. He shoves his metal hand down into his pocket as the mechanism near his elbow whirrs along with the fidgety nerves in the rest of his body.

 

The latch pops open, and the door opens about an inch. It’s not really an invitation, but Bucky pushes on it anyway. “Hey,” he mutters, not bothering to look up.

 

“Sorry about that, James,” Steve apologizes hastily. Politely, like he’s speaking to a stranger. Not a friend. He is smoothing his shirt down at the sides, which does very little to get rid of the wrinkles there and around his midsection.

 

Rogers is supposed to be a brilliant artist, not a snappy dresser. It’s no fault of Bucky’s if this sloppy fellow gets gravy and cranberry sauce all over his wrinkled white dress shirt. Bucky, at least, had the sense to wear a patterned sweater which won’t show stains if they happen while serving. “So this is an annual tradition?” he asks to break the awkward silence as Steve digs through every drawer in his desk.

 

“It is,” he replies, slamming another metal drawer closed. “I’ve only been here a couple of years, but it’s been going on forever. Last year, President Coulson wore a hand-stitched apron, this quilted turkey in a Pilgrim hat. All the kids at my table had to get a selfie with him. And Wade makes infamously delicious pies. Feels a little more like a gathering of family and friends.” Steve sighs, a wistful-sounding thing.



Bucky wonders what Rogers’ relationship with his family is like--he knows so little of Steve in any context beyond the campus. Another drawer gets yanked open, and Steve continues under his breath, “Where the hell did it go? Think, Rogers, think.” He’s barely audible, but obviously getting more angry with himself as he mumbles. “Maybe if you wore it more than once a year, or organized your shit for once…”

 

He raises his voice, but in a pleasant way, more like talking to a friend than before, borderline warm. “Sorry, James. Don’t mind me. I talk to myself a lot.”

 

Bucky moves to sit on the dated-looking beige loveseat against the wall. There’s a dark blue ink stain on one armrest. One cushion holds a balled-up gray t-shirt, black sweatpants that are partially inside-out, a single sock, and paint-spattered cargo shorts. There is what appears to be a plastic dry-cleaning bag draped over the back, plus a hastily folded fleece blanket. Maybe he does nap in here , thinks Bucky, trying to imagine Steve’s massive body curled into the tiny couch, rolled up tight like a kitten.



That turns into a funny thought when Bucky notices a picture in a frame on a bookshelf: it’s Steve, Clint, Natasha, and Lucky, all in matching Barton Shelter purple t-shirts. Steve and Natasha each hold an armful of kittens.


“Yes!” Steve exclaims, startling Bucky. “There you are!”

 

Bucky looks up and over to Steve’s desk, where he’s holding a burgundy tie aloft, grinning triumphantly. Bucky is amazed it’s not wrinkled to match Steve’s shirt, but the shirt has been covered by a jacket. A jacket that perfectly matches his trousers. “I can’t fucking believe this,” says Bucky, appraising Steve’s outfit. “ That is an actual tweed suit with bonafide elbow patches.”

 

Steve does a little twirl, smirking as he goes. He pulls a pair of glasses from his interior jacket pocket and puts them on. “If you didn’t already own one, they force you to purchase one when you get tenure.”

 

Bucky giggles at this dorky idiot in front of him. “Do you even need glasses?” When Steve shrugs but doesn’t answer, Bucky’s restrained giggles become a full-on squawk. “You are a twisted man, Doctor Rogers.”

 

“Oh?” Steve raises an eyebrow and casually runs a hand through his blonde hair. “A grown man can’t wear glasses because they look good?”

 

“You’ve got an entire tweed outfit,” Bucky glances down and whistles, “with wingtips.” He steps closer, invading Steve’s personal space, “And costume spectacles to complete a look. I don’t think you’re a real professor at all. You’re just a walking fetish.”

 

“For whom, exactly?” Steve huffs, half in laughter. He drapes the tie around his neck, frowning. He crosses the ends over each other, inhales deeply, and blows his breath out between his lips. He wraps the ends of the tie around each other, frowns again, and lets them fall loose. “Ah, shit.” He worries at his flushed bottom lip with his teeth.

 

Bucky feels the space between Steve’s breaths, he’s so close. “Need some help?” he asks, taking the burgundy tie into his hands before Steve even has a chance to answer. He straightens the fabric, settling it below Steve’s shirt collar.


Bucky’s fingers brush the sides of his neck, and he hears what might have been a quiet, happy noise, low in Steve’s throat. God, Barnes, you need to get laid. Becca was right. Your imagination’s running away with you , Bucky thinks as he effortlessly guides Steve’s tie into a half-Windsor knot.

 

He smooths his hand down the tied tie, internalizing the rises and falls of Steve’s chest beneath the silk and cotton. “Look at you, Rogers. Giving off professor Indiana Jones vibes all over the place. You might find some girl in your class with writing on her eyelids, hoping to seduce you.” Bucky blinks extra slowly to demonstrate.

 

In the space of that slow blink, Steve moves close enough that Bucky can feel the heat radiating from his body--not touching, but neither man needs to stretch if he wants to close the gap. Bucky nervously crosses his arms over his chest.

 

Steve hums in approval of Bucky’s admiration. He speaks, and the timbre of his voice drops to something Bucky feels in his entire body. “Are you trying to say I’m fulfilling some schoolboy fantasy of yours, Mr. Barnes?” In the brief pause before uttering his name, Steve gently trails the pad of his index finger over the back of Bucky’s hand. The touch is gone just as suddenly as it began.

 

Bucky gulps back the loud sigh that threatens to escape from him at the contact. On the surface, at least, he gathers himself. “That’s Doctor Barnes to you.” He swallows back the fact that he’s allowing this to happen, that as much as he’s been trying to avoid it, he keeps getting pulled into Steve’s orbit.

 

“Oh, pardon me. Doctor .” Steve is so close now, so close. His Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows, then says, “It’s just that sweater you’re wearing is quite the distraction.”

“Are you trying to say it’s ugly? I didn’t wear it for you,” Bucky quips, unsure of where all of this is leading, heart knocking against his ribs.

 

“No, no, that’s not it at all.” Steve resumes being too close to Bucky for normal comfort. His gaze slowly wanders from Bucky’s eyes to his chest. “I was just trying to insinuate it leaves little to the imagination.”

Bucky feels his cheeks growing warm. He’s kind of wishing he hadn’t worn a sweater at all because it suddenly seems hotter in the office than it had been moments ago. Steve’s scrutinizing attention threatens to crack him wide open. And right now it’s all he wants.

 

Steve snickers. “But tell me, Doctor Barnes .” His cobalt blue eyes lock on Bucky’s. “Did you ever have a schoolboy fantasy? A beautiful, dark-eyed woman in a perfectly tailored suit rapping your knuckles with a ruler? Or are you more of a ‘handsome headmaster who talks down to you’ sort of boy?” He taps a finger to Bucky’s nose.

 

Condescending motherfucker, thinks Bucky, while a heated buzz creeps up his spine because of the touch. He’s not even entirely sure he and Steve can be friends, let alone lovers; regardless, his head is swimming with completely inappropriate thoughts right now.

 

Without warning, Steve backs away and clears his throat, turning bright red and hiding his face. “I’m sorry, James.” Bucky raises his eyebrows, unsure of what just happened. “I’m, uh, I’m not at my best today. I shouldn’t have said those things.”

 

Bucky tilts his head to the side, certain he looks like a confused puppy.

 

“The things that you’ve probably tallied up in your head just now. The inappropriate things. I say things when I’m anxious, I guess.” Steve wrings his big hands. “And for whatever reason, today those things are sexual harassment. I’m sorry, James, that was such poor taste. To think you were even interested, just...there’s no excuse.” He’s almost the color of a beet as he hides his face in his hands.

 

Bucky’s mouth feels dry. Whether Steve meant to come on to him so strongly or not--much to Bucky’s chagrin--he hadn’t minded at all.



But he also doesn’t want Steve to feel uncomfortable in this awkward moment. “Steve,” he says softly, trying to imbue his voice with some kind of friendly comfort, “it’s all right. I struggle with anxiety too. Got a bad habit of running my mouth at bad times--not just when I’m nervous.”



“A fellow prattler,” Steve responds thoughtfully, perking up.

 

“Yeah. Had a grad school professor tell me more than once where I could find the broadcast journalism department if I wanted to keep narrating my note-taking during lectures.”

 

Steve’s smile at that is gentle and warm, even as his eyes dart around the room, settling on the clock. “Shit, it’s almost 5:30. We better get to the cafeteria, Dr. Barnes.” The teasing tone has disappeared from his voice.

 

It’s strange how Bucky begins to hope for more flirting. A month ago, Steve was just some good-looking asshole unworthy of anything but a cursory glance and maybe a slap upside the head.



Bucky adjusts his glasses and tries to lighten the mood. “Better put those spectacles back on, Dr. Rogers. Wouldn’t want to disappoint your students by looking unofficial.”

 

Steve’s lips quirk up in micro-appreciation. “I bet they’re almost all too young to know Indiana Jones. Won’t be a single eyelid flirtation in the whole place.”

 

I wouldn’t be so sure of that, Bucky thinks while saying nothing aloud. As Steve gets a few steps ahead of him, he makes a mental note to tease him sometime about how that tweed suit does absolutely nothing for his figure, even if the trousers do manage to hug Steve in all the right places.



In the cafeteria, the setup is legitimately gorgeous. Bucky is impressed with the planning committee’s ability to transform the otherwise unremarkable eatery to a warm, inviting room. The tables have all been draped with burgundy tablecloths, sporting runners embroidered with leaves in the hues of autumn. He helps to place small centerpieces on the tables, the seasonal mums and other flowers smelling wonderful. Bucky uses his robotic index finger to delicately brush the petals of a deep red gerbera daisy, still amazed that he can feel some of the softness there, proud that his technique with fine motor skills is honed so as not to damage.

 

“Bucky!” Sam calls out, pushing a cart of plates and cutlery into the room. Of course, Sam is in that happy mood where he says the name like Buck-ay , and Bucky’s shoulders shake in a silent giggle. “Good to see you, man. You ready for turkey time?”

 

“Nope,” Bucky grins, popping the ‘p’. “But I’m definitely ready for Tofurkey time.”

 

“Since when have you been a vegetarian?”

 

“I’m not. I just like the word Tofurkey . Like, how is that even an acceptable thing to say? Don’t you think there’s some vegetarian out there who doesn’t want to eat it because it also has ‘fur’ in the middle of the word?”

 

Sam’s eyebrows shoot up, and his laugh echoes throughout the dining area. He attracts several stares. “What the hell, man? What goes on in that head of yours?”

 

Bucky places the last centerpiece. “Writers’ brain,” he responds drily. “I don’t think you’d know what to do with half the stuff I’ve got up here.” He taps his temple to indicate his brain.

 

“Do you even have anything up there?” Steve has appeared, hauling two crates of coffee mugs in his brawny, elbow-patched arms. Bucky pushes away the image of Steve’s flexing in the workout room, the defined rise of his biceps.

 

“No one soliciting your opinion,” Sam defends pointedly.

 

“He’s just joking around,” Bucky defends right back, quietly. Sam delivers a well-timed side-eye.

 

As Steve disappears into the kitchen, Sam grabs Bucky by the elbow. “What. Was. That?”

 

“Maybe Steve isn’t...so bad?”

 

Sam takes a deep breath and sighs, rubbing his eyes. “Look. Bucky.” Bucky braces for some kind of lecture, like a kid being told his opinions are misguided. “Man, I can’t tell you what to do. You wanna be friends with him, cool. I don’t even know the guy. But if you like him, go for it. Prove yourself wrong. Hell, prove m e wrong. If Rogers is a good guy, then he’s a good guy.”  

 

Bucky startles as Steve calls out, “James! Can I get a hand with these water glasses?”

 

He looks at Sam like he’s trying to get his blessing, and Sam shrugs, going back to sorting flatware. “Yeah, be right there!” calls Bucky. He shrugs back at Sam, and they share a smile.


--

“Doctor B!” Doreen waves wildly as Bucky approaches the table with a giant bowl of mashed potatoes. The lights in the cafeteria have been dimmed, and soft jazz plays in the background.



“Hey folks,” Bucky smiles at the whole table, which naturally includes Gwen and Peter, plus a few other faces he’s acquainted with. “I got mashed potatoes, not made with butter or cow’s milk so if you’re a vegan, they’re safe. You having fun so far?”



“I love this!” Peter responds, almost knocking over his drink as he reaches for the butter dish. “Love the apron, Dr. Barnes.”



“Wade brought an assortment this year,” Bucky blushes. His apron is carnation pink with a black print of a whisk that reads Whip It, Whip It Good . “Somebody take this bowl, and remember it’s polite to pass to the left. At least that’s what my mom always said at family dinners.” Gwen takes the bowl from Bucky and starts dishing potatoes onto her plate. “Okay, be right back.”

 

Bucky meanders back to the kitchen for his next shareable dish and passes Wade, who is tossing an apron at Natasha. Wade has gone with a tasteful joke of a red apron with a picture of pie and a caption of Pumpkin 3.14. Natasha waves at Bucky as she ties the frilly black-and-white checked apron at her waist. “I look like a housewife from 1950-something,” she complains, wrinkling her nose.

 

“It’s a good look!” Wade insists. “I wear it every third Tuesday of the month. I have to get back to my pies, so no time to argue.”

 

Bucky is presented with a tray of white meat turkey at the kitchen door, so he turns heel for his table one more time. This time when he arrives, Steve is standing there, wearing an apron that’s supposed to give him the illusion of having Superman’s body.



“And then Doreen says, ‘That’s why they call me Squirrel Girl!’” says Steve, and the table of kids erupts into laughter.

 

“Who wants turkey?” Bucky declares as the laughter dies down. He can feel Steve looking his way. Peter makes grabby hands as Bucky passes off the tray.



“Doctor B! Welcome back. Have you met Dr. Rogers?” Doreen asks, not at all innocent. Bucky gives her his best suspicious look. “He’s the best drawing teacher on the East Coast.” Steve’s cheeks turn subtly rosy, not that Bucky is looking. Nope. “And Doctor Barnes is a master of advanced composition.”



“Didn’t he write a book or something too?” asks Peter, mouth full of food.

 

“I’ve read it,” Steve smiles. “If you kids haven’t read it, you’re missing out. It was excellent.” Now it’s Bucky’s turn to blush, which he hopes no one can see.

 

“Yeah, because we have so much free time,” Gwen grumbles.

 

“Sounds like you guys have a lot you could talk about!” grins Doreen.

 

Bucky and Steve exchange a look. Steve tips his head toward the kitchen, and Bucky nods.

 

“Be right back,” Steve calls to the table. As he and Bucky walk back to the kitchen, he clears his throat. “So, that was true.”

 

“That Doreen has a squirrel obsession? Yeah, I think everyone knows that, Steve.”



Steve bumps into Bucky, knocking their arms together gently. “I meant about your book. I finished it. I really loved it.”

 

Bucky huffs and screws up his face. “Any questions about it?” he bites out.

 

“No, at least not that I can think of. You did an excellent job. I wasn’t kidding.” Steve’s voice is soft, full of wonder. He turns a deeper shade of pink, which Bucky notices spreads down to his tweed collar. “Your personal prose was beautiful. It made me want to paint.”

 

Bucky raises his eyebrows. His arm whirrs through a motion as his heart skips a beat.

 

“It made me hope I could get to know you better.” Steve worries his bottom lip with his teeth again, then laughs, nervous.

 

Wade loads Steve and Bucky up with trays of pie slices. They smell divine. It’s a decent distraction from Steve’s very earnest confessions. After a few beats, Bucky speaks up. “You know, Steve, I think you can.” Steve shows that ridiculous grin of his. “But first we need to serve this pie so we can eat leftovers.” He balances the tray on his vibranium arm and uses his right hand to lightly squeeze Steve’s shoulder. “C’mon, Superman. Move your muscles.” Steve laughs, a musical thing.

Chapter Text

Steve: You going to the Xmas party?

 

Bucky: I have a fancy suit which I only get to wear once in a blue moon

 

Bucky: So that’s a yes

 

Steve: I don’t

 

Bucky: Tweed?



Steve: That’s not for this kind of special occasion

 

Bucky: Oh right

 

Bucky: That’s for imposing over students, right

 

Bucky: Just so you know, elbow patches aren’t exactly formalwear either

 

Steve: Do my glasses make me look fancy?

 


Bucky: No, they make you look smarter. But not by much.

 

Steve: That’s because I was so smart to begin with

 

Steve: See you for coffee?

 

Bucky: 1pm at Wade’s, yep

 

In just about a week and a half, the semester will end, and Bucky’s first chapter of life at Shield College will come to a close. Unless he also attends the Shield College holiday party for faculty and staff. Bucky enjoys a good party--he likes looking his best, dancing, nice food, free drinks. He’s not sure that this is the kind of occasion that requires a date, but it’s starting to feel that way.

 

Sam knocks at his office door and walks in. “Bucky! I need your help.” He looks around frantically. “I need all the help I can get.”

 

“Uh-oh,” Bucky says, checking for another message from Steve. Nothing there.



“My whole relationship is at stake here! Don’t you uh-oh me.” Sam waits. Bucky doesn’t say anything, just tilts his head to one side. Sam throws his hands up. “It’s a fashion emergency, okay?” He whips his phone out of his pocket and points at the picture on the screen. “I wanna look nice for Riley. I took your advice to bring him to the holiday party, but now I don’t know which cufflinks I should pair with my suit!”

 

Bucky waves him over to his desk, an easy smile on his face. “Ooh, Sammy, these are both nice choices.”

 

Sam looks relieved. “So either one?” Bucky nods, and Sam says, “I’m going with the cheaper one, just so you know.”

 

“It’s not me you gotta look good for,” Bucky shrugs.

 

“You goin’ with Rogers?”

 

“No.”



“You want to go with Rogers.”

 

“It’s--”

 

“Complicated?” Sam shakes his head. “It’s not complicated, dude. You meet him for coffee twice a week. You keep on texting him. He sounds like a sure thing.”

 

“He’s...it’s...not what you think,” blushes Bucky.

 

“I don’t think anything about it, Buckaroo. I just think you should stop torturing yourself and go for it. I think your students are running a dating pool to see when you finally hook up.” Sam giggles.

 

“Ask him, James!” comes Natasha’s voice, passing by the door. Her heels click to a halt and reverse. She pokes her head around the doorframe. “If you wanna take Steve to prom, you’ve got to make the prom-posal.”


“Oh my god,” Bucky mutters. “You guys are the worst. Why do I bother making friends?”



Sam and Natasha high-five each other, and Natasha clicks away.

 

“He’s an independent, single man, and so am I,” Bucky speaks up, so Natasha can hear. “I’m going, regardless of him. And if he wants to show up, that’s on him too.”

 

***

 

Bucky: Last final graded

Bucky: Tomorrow we party!!

Steve: Yeah, I think I’m going to go
Steve: At least you’ll be there, I don’t really know a lot of people well

Bucky: Yeah, Natasha told me she and Clint have to bail
Bucky: Something about puppies on the way

Steve: *dog emoji* *smiley*

Bucky: You should come find me for sure. I’ll be the one in the black suit third-wheeling Sam and Riley. I’ll buy you a free drink.

Steve: How generous. TTYL James.

 

***

 

The hotel is a historic Victorian-era building with a somewhat modernized interior. Warm wood panels and burnished gold accents make the whole building glamourous, yet charming.

 

There’s a sign in the lobby pointing to the Stark Ballroom, with a second sign reading “Welcome Shield College Holiday Party” and a directional arrow. Bucky checks his coat with the attendant outside the ballroom doors and makes his way in. He shakes his head and smiles apologetically when the attendant asks if he’d like to leave his glove in his coat pocket with its mate. While his suit jacket hides most of his arm away, Bucky hadn’t been able to shake his nerves and decided to cover his hand for the night.



Footsteps tap quickly behind him and there is a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, brother!” Bucky spins around, and Sam is grinning. There is a slightly shorter man with a handsome face and a friendly, closed-mouth smile half a step behind. Bucky feels his anxiety begin to fade as he gives Sam a quick one-armed hug around the shoulders.

 

Bucky appraises Sam’s outfit, looking him up and down. He whistles. “You sure clean up nice. Is that a pocket square? My god, did you shine your shoes?”

 

“I might’ve taken a few of your suggestions to heart,” Sam puffs up his chest, wiggling his shoulders up and down. “Wanted to look good for my baby,” he says more quietly, reaching behind him for the handsome man’s hand. He twines their fingers together and gently pulls him forward. “Riley, this is Doctor James Buchanan Barnes. But you know him better as Bucky.”

 

Riley’s face lights up. His eyes are a golden brown, and his smile is positively disarming. “I’ve heard so much about you!” He reaches out and shakes Bucky’s hand. Riley turns to Sam, huffing out a giggle. “His grip is strong . How many more pull-ups can he do than you, babe?” Sam looks flustered, and Riley and Bucky laugh. “Anyway, I hear I have you to thank for all this.”

 

“Oh?” Bucky raises an eyebrow.

 

“Absolutely,” Riley replies. “Sammy didn’t even tell me about the party last year.” Sam looks sheepish and averts his eyes. “But this has been completely different. He said you gave him fashion tips, and he said we should rent nice suits. He never takes me to anything fancy, Bucky. This is like a dream.”

 

“I think my dream will be better with a drink in my hand. Let’s go get some cocktails before the line gets too long,” Sam suggests, looking positively shy under his partner’s praise.



“Yeah, come on, Sammy ,” Bucky sing-songs, sweetly. “That’s a great idea.”

 

Riley hooks his arm in Sam’s and winks at Bucky as the three of them move to the open bar in the corner. There is a shield-shaped ice sculpture on the table with an ‘SC’ carved into the front and a blue LED light underneath causing it to glow. Bucky looks around for Steve, but he’s nowhere to be found.



Sam and Riley are adorable together, leaning into each other. Riley’s suit is a deep charcoal where Sam’s is black, their ties a matching green. Sam sports a pocket square, and Riley wears a fresh floral boutonniere. Bucky orders an old-fashioned from the bartender and tries to tamp down the lonely feeling rising in his chest. Maybe he should have asked Steve to come as his date instead of just casually agreeing to meet here.

 

Bucky mixes and mingles. Nearly everyone he knows is around, dressed well, looking appropriately merry. He sets down his now-empty glass at a table, and as he turns to survey the room one more time, he sees him.

 

In the back of the ballroom, Steve is looking around. His hair is slicked back. His beard is gone. He’s outfitted himself in a blue velvet jacket that perfectly matches the color of his eyes, a black bowtie, and black trousers. Bucky can barely breathe looking at this stunning vision. Steve pulls at the cuff of his jacket, then his gaze meets Bucky’s. He smiles, and it lights up the whole damn room.

 

“Steve!” Bucky waves, hoping he doesn’t look like some smitten idiot.

 

“James, you made it!” Steve responds, as though he was the one who was intent on coming to the party all along.

 

Bucky can’t wipe the stupid happy look off his face. He hopes Steve finds it charming, not gawky. “Wow. You cleaned up nice.”

 

Steve preens, his hands set at his hips. “I figured I needed to go all out, or you’d try and kill me.”

 

“Nonsense,” Bucky responds. He can’t decide which he wants to do more: pet down Steve’s impeccably tailored velvet jacket or gently touch his hand to Steve’s newly smooth face. “You’d live, just not without harsh criticism.” He sees Steve glance at the black leather glove over his left hand.

 

“And you,” Steve exhales audibly. “Wow, you look spectacular, James. Black tie.”

 

“Skinny tie,” Bucky playfully corrects him. Steve steps closer. He smells awfully nice. “Can I get you one of those free drinks I promised you, Steve?”



“I thought you’d never ask.”



Bucky and Steve sit together, indulging in a few cocktails and some conversation. They discuss their shared love of bite-sized tacos. Bucky talks about his literary influences and his general disdain for Christmas music. Steve talks about art and helping students paint protest signs--he regularly chaperones group trips to marches in New York City.



The music picks up to remind everyone to celebrate good times, come on . “C’mon, James,” Steve motions to the dance floor. “Get out there and cut a rug!”

 

“I don’t know, Steve,” Bucky says. “Maybe I’ll wait for a better song.”

 

“What, afraid you’re gonna do a spin and knock somebody down with that robot arm?”

 

Bucky frowns but plays off the insensitivity. He rubs his hands together, pulling at the strap that secures the leather glove around his wrist. Does Steve even know about the extent of his prosthetic? He all but sang about the merits of his book a couple weeks back. Is it just too many drinks dropping his filter? Regardless, Steve probably has no idea about the dysmorphia that follows Bucky like a shadow. Time to divert Steve’s attention. “I don’t see you getting up to shake what your mama gave you, either.”

 

“You should be surprised I even considered it. I used to hate all kinds of dancing. Believe it or not, I was a skinny little twerp until I hit 17 or so. A real late bloomer,” Steve laughs.



“I can’t even picture you small or skinny,” Bucky squints as though he’s going to see it somehow.



“Maybe you can relate? There is nothing worse for a shy artsy kid than a school dance.” Steve polishes off the beer he’d been nursing.  “Even worse was a school dance where the shy artsy kid,” Steve claps his palm to his chest, “has to watch his crushes awkwardly booty-dancing together, knowing they have no interest in him whatsoever. Did I already mention my crushes were named Peggy and Timothy?”

 

Bucky raises his glass to clink it against Steve’s. “Well, shy, tiny Steven, I’ll do you one better--it was pretty goddamn terrible being the shy writer kid at the all-boys’ Catholic school, writing poems about how Jimmy Morita will never look at you that way because he’s the straightest boy you’ve ever met.”

 

Steve snorts but looks apologetic, with a softening demeanor. “Probably what you thought when you first saw me.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Straightest guy ever.”

 

Bucky nearly shoots whiskey and soda out of his nose, he laughs so hard. Then he stutters, trying to assemble his thoughts, “I, uh--I try not to--I don’t assume anything about anyone anymore. I see a good-looking guy, there’s as much a chance you’re-- he’s --into me as there isn’t. Unless I saw you--him-- them on Grindr.”

 

“Hey, I’ve met some straight guys on Grindr in my time.” Steve laughs loud and wild, an unfamiliar sound, but one Bucky thinks he’d like to hear again.

 

So you’re not better than me, Bucky thinks, but says, “Oh, haven’t we all.”



“James, James, James,” chides Steve, shaking his head, his cobalt-blue eyes twinkling.

 

“Bucky.”

 

Bucky? ” Steve sputters. “What is that? Assumed name? Witness protection?”

 

“It’s been a nickname since I was in college. I only use it with friends and family.”

 

Steve responds by locking his lips with an invisible key. “Your secret is safe with me, Doctor Bucky .”

 

“Ew. Stop that or I’m revoking privileges.” Bucky’s smile is genuine, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Can I get you another drink, Doctor Steven Grant Rogers ?” He runs the three names together as though they are a compound word and playfully touches Steve’s wrist.

 

“Absolutely. Surprise me.”

 

Bucky realizes he is actually having a blast. The drinks are just strong enough to keep him happy and loose. The food being served is excellent. He takes a selfie with Santa, whom he is positive is Wade wearing a convincingly fluffy fake beard. He types out a message to Becca reading Chappy Chaunukah!! along with the photo, a longstanding inside joke of theirs.

 

Steve is on the dance floor, bopping back and forth awkwardly with some other staffers from the art department. Sam and Riley are seated across the table from Bucky, making googly eyes at one another.Bucky’s phone buzzes.

 

Fleece Navidahd! reads the text response from Becca, along with a picture of a cat wearing a dreidel on its head. Then, Partying hardy?

 

Bucky: You know me. I’m an animal. Grr.

A pause while Bucky picks at his dessert, then:

Becca: Did Steve show up? He gonna sweep you off your feet? *eggplant emoji*

 

Bucky: Yes. And shut up, I don’t know. Look at this.

 

Becca: Wait, what? Is that HIM? He looks like a fucking Disney prince! Is that velvet?
Becca: So you’re gonna eggplant?!! Is he gonna carry you to his room?

Becca: WHAT IS HAPPENING YOU SLUT

 

Bucky: Drunk text you later, Bug. xo

 

Becca: I will give you a dollar on Sunday if you text me another picture of that jerk’s ass. Five dollars if it’s his pecs, shirtless. *muscle emoji* Be safe, Bear.

Bucky looks up from his phone, and Steve is approaching, filling his field of vision. That velvet jacket chisels his entire figure, and Bucky can’t look away. “Where did all of these secretaries learn to dance?” Steve asks. “I work out five days a week, and I can’t even keep up.” He extends a broad hand to Bucky. “You coming?”

 

He wonders if it’s the drinks, the fancy event lighting, or if Steve really is as radiant as a Christmas tree right now. He’s sat around long enough, and his veins are buzzing with the bass and the egg nog. Bucky relents, slipping his right palm over Steve’s and squeezing as he rises from his seat.

 

Bucky breathes easy because Steve’s dancing is just as awkward as his own. When Steve shakes his hips, it’s not much to look at, but his eyes meet Bucky’s before he does a silly twirl. Steve playfully crowds himself against Bucky, just a slight back and forth of their hips together, a wide hand, feather-light at Bucky’s waist, gently guiding the motion.

 

Bucky’s feeling brave, so he slips the leather glove off of his left hand and into his jacket pocket. The joy and the sweet mischief in Steve’s expression awakens every last butterfly in Bucky’s stomach. He catches a brief whiff of Steve’s cologne and silently curses his knees for feeling wobbly.

 

The DJ dedicates the next song to “anyone feeling the love this season”, and the music selection changes to a jazz standard with swelling strings. Sam pulls Riley to the dance floor. President Coulson is sheepishly offering his arm to Provost Carter, and she takes it.

 

“I guess, uh, should we--do you wanna, maybe--?” Bucky is very short on words, and he feels small as he needs to lift his glance a fraction to look into Steve’s eyes, asking. There is something titillating about feeling small under Steve’s gaze, but Bucky’s mind is too booze-addled to explore what that’s about.

 

Steve doesn’t say anything. One hand moves smoothly to Bucky’s lower back and pulls him close. He takes Bucky’s right hand, firm but still gentle. Bucky very tentatively rests his left hand just below Steve’s shoulder. It’s comfortable and thrilling all at once. They sway to the music, paying little attention to anyone around them.

 

“I’m sorry in advance,” Steve whispers, his voice low, “because there’s like an 80% chance I’m going to step on your toes more than once.”

 

Bucky presses closer to Steve. “That’s a risk I’m willing to take.” Bucky feels like he could live here, sweet music in the air, a strong, masculine hand pulling him ever closer. He dares to nuzzle his cheek into Steve’s shoulder for a brief moment. Bucky’s insides hum in shock and surprise as Steve gently inclines his head, likely catching a whiff of Bucky’s aftershave. His left hand, uncovered, has traveled to the base of Steve’s neck and senses a vibration--Steve making some kind of noise in the back of his throat.

 

Steve startles. “Oh shit, I didn’t--I’m--” He looks down at their shoes.

 

Bucky glances, the toe of his shined black oxford now sporting a slight indentation. “It’s just my shoe,” he comforts, squeezing gently at Steve’s shoulder to draw his attention back from the floor. “You didn’t hurt me. Think you missed my toes entirely.”

 

Steve smiles, relieved. Fond. It’s another look Bucky has never seen before. He doesn’t want Steve to stop looking at him like this. Over Steve’s shoulder, Bucky spies Riley and Sam locked in a kiss. He must look at them for a beat too long because Steve pulls away. “You want another drink, Bucky?”

 

Bucky nods, mourning the absence of his dance partner. He watches Steve walk away and feels a pang of disappointment mixed with a spark of lust. He takes in the breadth of Steve’s shoulders, the narrowness of his waist, the delicious curve of his backside. Bucky wants him to come back. Wants to look at him. Wants to take every stitch of that perfect suit off of him.

 

Breathe, Bucky. An hour and a half ago, you thought maybe he wouldn’t show. Now you’re imagining this is a sure thing? He rummages into his pocket and retrieves his glove, pulling it back onto his left hand. He tightens the strap and flexes his knuckles. The temperature sensors indicate his palm is still retaining some of the heat from touching Steve. Thanks, technology. What would happen if you got him alone, anyway?

 

Steve comes back with two highball glasses, each filled with ice, clear liquid, and limes. “Hope you like gin and tonic,” he says. “Apparently they’re out of egg nog.”

 

Bucky takes the glass from Steve and takes a long sip through the cocktail straw. Gin isn’t his favorite, but he needs something right now. Whether the drinks are taking the edge off or putting it back on, he can’t decide. He looks closely at Steve’s face and begins to giggle. “Rogers, you’re bright red!”

 

Steve waves a dismissive hand. “It’s warm in here. And I’ve been drinking the night away! Dancing. Shit, I meant dancing .” Then, without warning, his hand slips around Bucky’s waist again. He leans in close and rasps softly, “And I keep running into this real handsome guy who’s been lurking around the campus for a while now. Maybe you know him?”

 

Bucky giggles. Real mature, Barnes, he thinks. Then he giggles more when he realizes this schtick is actually working as he begins to pet Steve’s velvet jacket.

 

“Around six feet tall, glasses, skinny ties? Questionable sweaters? He’s a good-looking hipster. He’s probably too cool for me.” Steve’s hand drops away.



Bucky almost whimpers. Luckily, there’s a diversion nearby. A crowd is gathering near a lit tree off to the side of room, not far from the exit and the coat check. They are clapping, whistling, cheering. He starts to walk toward the commotion, but gently tugs at Steve’s sleeve. Steve follows him.

 

“Woooo!” cheers a small cluster of women.

 

“What’s happening here?” Steve asks, polishing off the last of his drink.

 

“Wade brought mistletoe,” giggles the woman Bucky recognizes as Ms. Page from the public affairs office. He’d had a brief meeting with her upon starting at Shield College to go over protocol for working with the press, if necessary. He’d told her he was tired of being called on as an “experimental prosthetics expert”, so she’d been keeping his schedule clear.

 

There is a circle of giddy, tipsy higher education professionals cheering each other on. Sam, jacket tossed over one shoulder, dramatically dips Riley and lays one on him to the delight of the crowd. Sam bashfully hides his face as Riley looks very pleased with himself. He grabs a handful of Sam’s toned buttocks in front of all of his colleagues, and a shout goes up from the onlookers. Wade, holding the mistletoe aloft on a giant plastic candy cane, squeals aloud. He’s removed the beard but still sports the Santa suit and big belly.

 

“Step right up,” Wade calls out. “All you need is a consenting partner and some seasonal bravado! Don’t have a consenting partner? I’m available!” The crowd chuckles. “What? I am! Ladies, gents, everybody in-between or neither, I got ya!” He makes exaggerated kissy lips.

 

“Huzzah!” cheers Coach Odinson, stepping forward. While Bucky has never had the chance to talk to Coach Odinson, he admires his physical prowess and the monthly self-defense workshops he runs for women on campus. “I accept your delightful offer, Wade Wilson!” The coach plants a loud, cartoonish kiss straight on Wade’s mouth. “Most excellent!” he declares, raising his half-empty glass in a room-wide toast.

 

Bucky looks around the room to see several guests clearing out, which seems like a good idea, now that all of his colleagues and peers are getting silly. Steve’s gentle laughter distracts him, though. He has a beautiful smile, which Bucky realizes he’s rarely seen--not this real, genuine one anyway.

 

Steve can’t seem to control his amusement as Wade attempts to seriously flirt with Coach Odinson. “Careful, Wade, you might be out of your league,” he calls in their direction.

 

“Doctor Rogers!” Wade exclaims. Bucky has learned over the past few months that nothing escapes his hearing. Wade advances on Steve, dangling the mistletoe dramatically over his blonde head. “We all saw you out there with Doctor Barnes tonight. Whaddaya say, Steve-o?” Steve’s face turns tomato red. “Come on, Barnes. Give this party a good send-off, either with or without this fella here.”

 

As much as Bucky would love to kiss Steve, doing it as entertainment seems cheap and wrong. He’s still shocked by the heat he feels for this gorgeous man. He’s still trying to process why he liked dancing with Steve so much. Weren’t they almost enemies once?


Before Bucky knows it, he’s spun sideways by big hands. Out of the corner of his eye, he spots Riley shrugging into a peacoat, Sam at his side. Sam’s expression is pure mischief as he calls out, “Ooooh, watch out, Bucky!”

 

The big hands leave Bucky’s shoulders. One of them, a little calloused, ever-so-gently cups his jaw. Soft lips press to his cheek, lingering. Bucky’s eyebrows raise sky-high as his face flushes.

 

“Happy holidays, Bucky,” Steve whispers, his breath hot on Bucky’s ear. He swallows hard as Steve walks away with a bounce in his step, raising a hand to wave at the onlookers. Bucky is frozen, speechless, watching Steve go.



Steve’s mouth had just been on him. His breathy goodbye raised goosebumps on Bucky’s neck. Sparks fire in Bucky’s belly. The fingers of his flesh-and-blood hand twitch. The servos in his prosthetic whirr and recalibrate.

 

Bucky’s self-consciousness melts away. His head is swimming, from booze or lust or both, and he takes off running toward the coat check. He collects his jacket and keys, charging toward the hotel entry, hoping he can catch Steve before he’s gone. He jogs to the lobby and freezes in place. Steve is just standing, waiting at the counter with the concierge.

 

“Hey Steve,” Bucky calls out. Shit. Now what do I do? He silently curses his lack of a plan. It’s not like him to jump into things without thinking them through. He grunts at the seemingly non-stop motion of the plates in his arm.  

 

“Hey yourself,” Steve runs a hand through his hair, which has a few mussed pieces after dancing some of the night away. He bites his bottom lip, looking lost in thought. He doesn’t meet Bucky’s gaze, and he taps his fingers arrhythmically on the concierge desk. “I’m, uh, I can’t drive home like this. Gonna get a room.”

 

Maybe I misread things, Bucky thinks. I’ve never been good at making drunk, horny decisions. “Sounds good, Steve. Safety first.” And that’s all I have to say about it? Ugh, you’re an idiot, Barnes.

 

Bucky turns heel to walk away, but he’s interrupted before he opens his mouth to tell Steve goodnight.



“James,” Steve says, reaching out and gently brushing Bucky’s arm. “I mean, Bucky?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Come upstairs with me?” Steve raises his room key to shoulder height and shakes it in the air, some kind of offering. He’s close to tomato red again. The more Bucky thinks about it, the more indecent his thoughts become. Just how far down Steve’s neck does that blush go? And is Steve really giving him the chance to find out? Steve scrubs at the back of his neck with his free hand and looks down at the floor. “If-I-if you want, it just seemed like--”

 

“Yes.” Bucky’s heart rate doubles. He glares down at his left side, silently begging every servo, wire, and gear to shut the fuck up. “I’d like that, Steve.”

 

Steve thanks the concierge, casts a leading glance at Bucky, and begins a stride toward the elevator. Bucky hustles to keep up. They stand dangerously close to each other, not touching, as the door dings and slides open. They each breathe out a laugh, both of them starting to walk in at the same time.

 

Bucky leans against the back wall of the elevator, wiggling his toes in his shoes. Steve steps next to him and clears his throat. They don’t look at each other. Bucky grips the support bar under his right hand, attempting to ground himself in the moment. His palm is sweaty, and he swipes it against the waist of his jacket. They wait as the elevator dings its arrival to the fourth floor. Bucky swears there is electricity crackling between their bodies as they both fidget, barely an inch apart.

 

The doors open smoothly into the green-wallpapered hallway, looking out onto a table with a vase of fake flowers perched at its center. Steve reaches over and takes Bucky’s hand, entwining their fingers. He urges Bucky forward, a shy pull of his arm. Bucky lets Steve lead the way, a pleasant warmth creeping up the back of his neck.



He withholds a giggle as he watches Steve determinedly looking at room numbers, moving along. Does he bounce all the time when he walks, or just when he’s focused on a goal?



A little tingle branches out at the base of his spine:



Oh my god. I’m the goal.

 

Steve comes to all but a screeching halt and swipes his keycard in the lock without dropping Bucky’s hand. The tiny light in the lock turns from red to green with a quick beep. Bucky intends to say something to the effect of “here we are” as Steve pushes the door open, but he only manages to breathe out a “hh” when Steve yanks Bucky inside, throws the Do Not Disturb sign onto the doorknob, and locks the door in an impressive single motion.

 

Broad, firm hands make contact with Bucky’s chest and shove him against the closed door. He barely has the space to huff out another breath before Steve’s lips crash into his own. A helpless, high-pitched whine forms in Bucky’s throat as Steve’s hands move up from his pecs, one hand carding harshly through his hair, the other firmly cradling the back of his neck. Steve’s lips are soft and plush, adding something tender to the force of his kiss. Bucky brings his hands up to find purchase on Steve’s back, making sure to minimize the space between them. They’ve been far apart long enough.

 

Judging by the low growl he makes, Steve is delighted when Bucky deepens the kiss. Steve tastes like gin and heat. He grinds his hips against Bucky’s, a jolt of lust shared as their hardening cocks press against each other. Bucky lets his head fall back as Steve moves to nibble his ear. “Steve,” he pants desperately, finally taking the opportunity to let his hands wander Steve’s body.

 

They spend a few more breathless moments pressed together against the door, until Steve pulls back, panting. His bow tie is lopsided, and his golden hair is sticking up in a few places. His cheeks are flushed, and his lips are even more flushed thanks to all the kissing. “So we’re, um,” Steve gulps, “this is okay, right? We’re doing this?”

 

Bucky simply nods at Steve and steps out between him and the door. He thinks things he dare not say out loud. Not in the moment, anyway.



God, how long has it been since anyone touched me with this much hunger?



Instead, he smirks, reaching for the knot of Steve’s tie. “We,” Bucky purrs, dragging him forward into the room, “are completely overdressed for this occasion.” He locks eyes with Steve, undoing the tie while still pulling him forward, stealing another kiss.

 

In the space of a breath, two suit jackets, one black wool and one blue velvet, are tossed over the chair next to the TV. Steve noses at Bucky’s neck, inhaling slowly before alternating tender kisses and sharp little bites from collar to jaw. Bucky works quickly with fumbling fingers to pull his own tie off so Steve can have more skin to explore with his mouth. Steve’s hands, which are completely steady, work at unbuttoning Bucky’s shirt from neck to navel. He reaches inside the open fabric, petting at the smooth skin of Bucky’s right side.

 

Bucky bites his bottom lip, trying to center his blooming pleasure. At least Steve is touching where there are no scars, for starters. And Steve’s kisses are deliciously passionate, and Steve smells like sex incarnate, like there are no other choices Bucky could ever want in this moment. He caresses his hands down Steve’s back, right side relishing the feeling of sweat and sharply shifting muscles, left side registering more simple things: body heat, muscle tension, movement .

 

And finally, finally , Bucky takes a moment to claim what he’s been wondering about for months--he allows his hands to traverse over the curve of Steve’s unbelievable ass. He squeezes, kneads, and smiles despite himself. He groans, delighted.

 

Steve laughs, low and sultry, his hands pausing on Bucky’s lower back. He pulls him closer, wiggling his hips side-to-side. “Found something you like, Buck?”

 

Bucky grins at Steve, fighting through the wobble in his legs and the interested twitch of his cock at Steve saying his name like that. His fingers skate over the round firmness of Steve’s ass. He grips a cheek in each hand and squeezes. “Sure have. ‘S been interesting me since the middle of September.”

 

“That so?” Steve raises a bemused-looking eyebrow.

 

“Very distracting,” Bucky purrs, dipping his fingertips just under Steve’s belt, then pausing to remove his leather glove once more. He realises he needs to flex up on his tiptoes to properly put his mouth to Steve’s neck. He plants a lingering kiss there and whispers playfully, “D’you know how difficult you are to work with?” Bucky nips at Steve’s collarbone. Steve gasps and makes a questioning noise.



“Those little shorts, running by me every day?” Bucky sucks a faint mark into Steve’s neck as he works to unbutton Steve’s shirt completely. “Every time I saw you somewhere, just looking so recklessly handsome? Or, oh yes, that night in your tweed suit,” Bucky reaches up and shucks Steve’s shirt from his broad shoulders, leaving it hanging at his elbows. “I thought maybe you wanted to bend me over your desk, and I realized how much I wanted it? Steve, you do things to me.”

 

“Not yet I haven’t,” Steve responds, both a dry-humored barb and a tantalizing promise.


Bucky finds he has no choice but to laugh. The attraction has been mutual. The tension has been so thick all night, he'd need a chainsaw to break it now. The tension, if all goes well, is going to spill all over this hotel room. He thinks that might've made a good joke to say out loud, but all of Bucky's focus is on Steve--his mouth, his eyes, the warmth of his body, his roaming hands.

 

Steve breaks a string of kisses to pull his own shirt the rest of the way out of his pants. He tosses it on the floor. Then, in an adorably awkward little dance, he lets go of Bucky and toes off his shoes. He blushes a deeper shade of pink, which now runs from his cheeks to his neck.

 

Bucky moves to take his shirt off too, to give Steve a better view, then stops. There are so many scars on his torso. His left arm is a lot to take in for some people when they're sober, and here he and Steve are, somewhat drunk on booze and completely out of it with lust. This isn't the time, he thinks, even though his arm is pleasantly quiet. But it also isn't the time to end this. Oh god, now what? You can figure this out. You're a goddamn doctor.

 

Steve moves his shoes off to the side, away from the edge of the bed. His hands come up to cup Bucky's face again, and Bucky melts into the touch. He cants his hips forward into Steve's. Steve lets out a little gasp in between kisses. "So pretty, Buck. Been wondering what you felt like...all close like this. What that body of yours can do. You wanna show me?"



His hand trails down the center of Bucky's chest all the way to his zipper. Bucky realizes this is maybe the opportunity he was looking for. An almost-distraction. He manages to pant out, "I can show you," while he starts undoing his belt for Steve. His shirt hangs open, but not too loose, as Steve nips at his collarbone. "You wanna show me too, Stevie?" Bucky launches a more aggressive distraction and squeezes at Steve's cock, hard and warm beneath his trousers.

 

Steve moans his appreciation for the touch and possibly also the new nickname as Bucky practically fucks his tongue into Steve's mouth. Steve undoes his belt and his trousers fall away to the floor, pooling at his ankles. He giggles.

 

Bucky looks down in appraisal and is more than pleased:



Steve's statuesque thighs, covered in goosebumps.



Steve's dick, straining and leaving a wet spot on those soft, red-and-blue striped boxer briefs.



Steve's socks, argyle, much nicer than expected.

 

Bucky shucks his own pants and lets Steve take a peek. He'd chosen these underwear especially for tonight, just in case--black briefs stretchy enough to hug everywhere that counts--smooth, inviting. His socks are argyle as well, but it's his turn to be silly and awkward, so he pushes Steve back gently then reaches down and removes his socks, hopping from one foot to the other. Steve giggles again, so refreshing, so very drunk as he falls dramatically backward onto the bed with a whump .

 

This is the chance Bucky knows he needed, so he quickly flips the lights off and crawls onto the bed. He slides head-first toward Steve's erection, kissing Steve's very solid thigh and working north. He uses both hands to pull down Steve's underwear. He traces the fingertips of his right hand over Steve's exposed dick, barely stroking. Steve takes a shuddering breath, and his shovel of a hand strokes so gently over Bucky's hair. "Off," he begs, "take them all the way off."

 

Bucky smirks, "No reason to argue with that," as he pulls the boxer briefs down to Steve's ankles, where Steve kicks them away. Bucky can feel himself blushing as he takes in the entire length of Steve, standing away from his chiseled abs.



"Do you want to--" Steve starts, reaching for Bucky's open shirt.



"Uh-uh," Bucky snaps back, playing it off. "I want you to lay back and enjoy, Stevie. Let me do the work. You went to a lot of trouble to dress up for me, huh? I wanna make this good for you. Understand?" Steve makes an affirmative noise that is half-groan as Bucky reaches up to toy with Steve's nipple. Bucky's arm clicks twice, but Steve doesn't notice.



"Understood," Steve says, swallowing audibly. "Oh my god, Buck, pinch them harder. Please . Feels so good, baby."



Bucky does as he's told. He shuffles quickly onto his knees and straddles Steve's hips, sinking down in a pressing tease. He tweaks both of Steve's nipples, absorbing the delicious sounds Steve makes as they pebble beneath his fingers. Bucky carefully trails his metal hand down Steve’s arm, registering heat and pulse.


Steve startles and blinks, caught a little off-guard as Bucky’s hand tightens around his wrist and yanks his hand upward. Steve definitely gets the message--he hums low in his throat when Bucky squeaks at a sudden pinch to the nipple. .

 

Bucky rolls his hips, teasing Steve's exposed cock, throbbing with the need to do... something. Anything that feels this good. Anything that will keep Steve's wandering touch and curious tongue from getting too close to what Bucky doesn't want him to see. He arches into Steve's touch again then slides his body down, down, down until he can lick along Steve's length.


Steve cries out, and Bucky uses his flesh-and-blood hand to hold the base as he kitten-licks his way up to the tip.

 

Steve's fingers curl into the fluffy white hotel duvet. Bucky opens his mouth to slide over the top and down Steve's cock in earnest, trying to swallow him down farther with each bob of his head. He's never been great at deep-throating, but Bucky has learned some tricks of the tongue to keep it interesting. Steve pants out an escalating series of ah's that tell Bucky he's doing just fine.

 

Bucky pulls off with a soft pop, letting the clean, slightly salty taste of Steve linger before he breathes out, "Steve, you taste so good."

 

"Show me," Steve responds, breathless, and hauls Bucky up for a sloppy kiss. Their teeth clack, and they both cringe. "Sorry," Steve whispers, then crashes his mouth into Bucky's again, softer, so he can taste himself there. They kiss, getting into a back-and-forth rhythm, and Bucky's hips stutter forward and back. He can't decide if he should fuck Steve or ask to be fucked by Steve, but he wants anything, everything.

 

Steve's hands, as graceful as they are large, trace teasing circles and lines over all the skin on Bucky he can get to. He starts to list to the left, telegraphing with his somewhat inebriated touch that he wants to take Bucky's shirt all the way off again.

 

Bucky realizes he needs to act now, before the moment gets messed up. Half the synapses in Bucky's brain are yelling "WHO GIVES A SHIT; HE LIKES THIS!" Steve's touch feels so incredible, every nerve ending is lighting up like a nighttime photo of the Earth from space.

 

Bucky moans, manages to capture Steve's roaming hands in his own, and asks, breathlessly, "Condoms?"



"You didn't bring any?" Steve stops moving.



Bucky is sure he's blinking like some incredulous cartoon character. "I have a couple in my wallet but I don't know if they're, um, big enough? For you?"

 

“Heh, that’s sweet, Buck, but I’m sure they’ll be fine.” Steve’s coloring, even in the dimmed hotel room light, suggests a blush that runs from the bridge of his nose down through his chest hair. “They said at the desk that there’s,” he points to the bathroom, “you know. If we needed anything.”

 

Bucky practically leaps off the bed, shucking his pants and briefs all the way off as he moves. The drawer under the sink holds toiletries, individually wrapped toothbrushes, and packets of lube. He hastily rips one open and starts to work on himself. He grabs the rest and returns to the bed.



Bucky leans as far forward as he can, kissing Steve hungrily, whining with need as his own finger circles his slicked entrance. Bucky nips along Steve’s jaw and nibbles his ear. They whimper at the same time. “You gonna stretch me open, Stevie? Fill me real good?” Bucky pants as he easily slips a finger into himself. His eyes roll back in his head.

 

“Yes,” Steve sounds so sincere, like a promise. “Yeah, Bucky, I wanna feel you, c’mon Buck.”



“Kiss me?” Bucky whimpers, and Steve obliges. Then he adds, “I can’t wait anymore. I’m willing to risk it if you are. Without,” and instead of finishing his thought, he slides his slick hand up Steve’s cock.



“Just-- please ,” Steve begs, arching his back, his breath coming in harsh pants. Bucky kneels up then settles himself over Steve, who helps align himself as Bucky slides down.

 

Bucky sucks in a sharp breath--the stretch is so much. Steve isn’t the biggest he’s ever been with, but he’s far above average. And it’s been such a long time. The drag of Steve inside him is intense, and probably could have benefitted from more slick, but there was only so much to work with.

 

Steve’s eyes clench shut, then open again, more slowly. He stares up like he can see the stars and bites that pouty bottom lip of his. “Fuck,” he whispers. “ Fuck . Oh my god.” His hands grip Bucky’s thighs.

 

Bucky hasn’t had anyone inside him like this since before the arm came along. His body drives itself, up and down on Steve’s cock, an instrument of want. Of need. His breaths come shallow, fast and feverish. He realizes he’s lost in it because he doesn’t know how long he’s been repeating Steve’s name with every stroke of his hips.

 

Steve’s noises are quiet, almost sweet little whines as his back arches slightly off the mattress. Suddenly his muscles are clenching and one last, “Bucky!” escapes that pretty mouth. His pelvis stutters up into Bucky as he rides out his orgasm.

 

Bucky takes himself in hand and throws his head back, relishing the liquid heat of Steve inside him. A few tight, quick strokes to his own cock and he spills over Steve’s abs, just a quick spurt. Steve glides his fingers down and sweeps through the mess, bringing it to his own lips. “Baby,” is all Steve manages to pant out.

 

Bucky slides off of him carefully, disappointed in the emptiness left behind. Before Steve can pull him down for an embrace, he pulls his shirt around himself tighter. He’s shivering, but not for the reason he claims. “Cold,” he mutters, still catching his breath, slotting himself beside Steve’s solid warmth.



“I’ve got you,” Steve coos. He pets over Bucky’s hair and places a kiss to his temple. “It’s okay, I’ll warm you up.” He kisses the crown of Bucky’s head. In what seems like mere moments after, Steve is snoring gently.



Bucky still can’t bring himself to take the shirt off to get comfortable, but he also doesn’t scramble to get out of bed for a glass of water and a guilt-trip in the bathroom mirror. He allows himself to listen, to breathe, to just exist.



Sated, for now.



Happy with whatever this is. Maybe he can figure that out in the morning.

 

At 8am, Steve’s alarm chimes on his phone. He grumbles into his pillow and slaps at the screen where it sits on the bedside table. Bucky is startled by Steve’s remaining presence. He tries not to move a muscle. Steve’s breath relaxes into sleepiness again, and Bucky finally takes his chances with moving. He nabs his glasses and squints into the sliver of sunlight peeking between the cracked blackout curtains. Of course, it falls directly over Steve’s sleeping frame, draped in a sheet, the light an amber stripe over his face.

 

Bucky sighs, content to look at this gentle giant, this soft man in bed next to him. The room is still heady with the clinging scent of sex and sweat. Between the alcohol and the sexual activity, Bucky’s muscles are stiff and achy. He surveys the room, attempting to locate all of his discarded clothes. He needs to move. He should probably get out of here.

 

He looks at Steve again. The big blonde looks peaceful and childlike as he snoozes, his pink mouth a soft line, all creases of worry relaxed away from his brows.

 

Bucky’s arm panels shift. And shift. And whirr. He takes a deep breath, then buttons his shirt. He needs to go. He needs to get home. He shivers, this time because he realizes the room is pretty cold without Steve mashed up against him. Where are his boxers? Whose sock landed on top of the desk?



His shirt is all wrinkles. It’d be incriminating to completely reassemble his outfit from last night. He leaves his rumpled shirt untucked and pulls on his pants, scooping up his tie, jacket, and glove.

 

Buck needs to go. Before Steve is fully conscious. He can’t stay and do this, not yet.

 

But he can’t just walk out. There’s something building that he doesn’t want to dismantle, but he has to be cautious. Bucky scrambles to find a pad of paper and a pen. The desk drawer in the room, thankfully, is not squeaky. He writes:

Steve - thank you for a wonderful evening. Text me later? Sorry to run off before you were awake. Lmk if I should send a buck (ha) or two your way to cover the room.

Talk to you soon, Bucky

 

He tucks it next to Steve’s phone. He strokes Steve’s hair, which is silky-soft. “You’re gorgeous. See you later, Stevie,” Bucky whispers, leaning down to kiss Steve’s cheek. Steve hums a little sleepy noise but doesn’t move.

 

--

 

Bucky: Not that it’s any of your business, Becca, but
Bucky: *eggplant emoji* *eggplant emoji* *eggplant emoji*

Becca: I’m proud of you, you dirty dog

Becca: But don’t text me before 11am on a Saturday ever again
Becca: Call me when your hangover wears off?

 

--

 

Steve: ow my head
Steve: I’m never letting you convince me to dress up ever again

 

Bucky: That was all you pal
Bucky: You could’ve stayed home

 

Steve: No way. And you don’t owe me anything.

 

Bucky: Are you sure? Was everything…?



Steve: It was. I wish you would’ve stayed. It was cold when I woke up.


Bucky: I’m sorry
Bucky: I was...not my best. Reckless.



Steve: When can I see you again, Buck?

Chapter Text

“Becca had to go and get sick,” Bucky thinks aloud to himself as he googles NYE broadcasts , looking for the Times Square coverage with the least-irritating celebrity hosts. His phone buzzes.

 

Becca: I miss youuuuu

 

Bucky : I know, squirt. Miss you too. You still projectile vomiting?

 

Becca: Don’t wanna talk about it. Where’s Steve again?

 

Bucky: Dunno

 

Becca: You’re an idiot

Becca: You could be at a party with him right now

 

Bucky: Don’t wanna bother him

 

Becca: You want him to bother you tho *wink emoji*

 

Bucky: BUG, I swear…

 

Becca: *angelface emoji*

 

Bucky: Do other people have sisters who are heavily invested in their siblings’ sex lives?

 

Becca: Buck-buck

Becca: Come on

Becca: You deserve all the happiness in the world

Becca: You’re a lover not a fighter...ok maybe both

Becca: I love you, bigs. *rainbow of heart emojis*

 

Bucky feels a tightness in his chest, like Becca’s words are giving his heart a hug. With their parents gone, what did he ever do to actually deserve a little sister like this? He never thinks he’d call Becca a best friend, but honestly, she’s closer to him than most people in his life. The phone rings, the ringtone for a video chat; it’s Becca. He hits the green icon, and her chubby cheeks pop onto the screen. “You don’t look green, Becks.”

 

“I feel like I’ve been run over by three trucks.” She cringes, touching her face. “Oh god, sorry.”



“Wasn’t hit by a truck,” Bucky giggles. “What do you want?”

 

“Call him,” she draws out the m for a full five seconds. “If you think he’s brooding alone somewhere, call him! You can at least pretend you’re together at midnight.”

 

“I guess I could.” Bucky scrubs his metal hand against the back of his neck. “I don’t know, bug. The holiday party was...well...we were both drunk. It wasn’t a disaster, and we both had fun, but like, it’s not like we exchanged gifts.”

 

“So what? You said you’ve been texting ever since break started.”

 

“And that’s all--texting. He went on some trip for Christmas, Grand Canyon or someplace awesome like that, so he hasn’t been around.”



“Well has he sent you pictures? What does he say when he texts you?” Becca bounces with anticipation.



“If you’re asking to see dick pics--” Bucky smirks.



“No! What the hell is wrong with you, Bucky? Gross!” She pulls her hair back into a ponytail. “I just wanna know, does he say he misses you? You getting pictures of sunsets saying I wish you were here ?”



“Bug, that’s not really any of your--” Bucky pauses and sighs. “I don’t know what we are yet, okay? I’m nervous. Nobody’s seen me naked except for you and doctors in I don’t know how long.”



Becca’s eyes widen, and she shakes her head, incredulous. “BUCKY! I thought you guys fucked.” Bucky averts his eyes from the camera, pressing his mouth into a flat line. “You left your shirt on, didn’t you?”

 

Bucky looks back and forth, avoiding looking at where Becca’s face glares up from the small screen. “Turned the lights out,” he mutters.

 

“What am I supposed to do with you?” Becca shakes her head feebly.

 

“You sound like Ma, if Ma was overly invested in my sex life.” He huffs out a laugh.

 

“Ew, gross,” says Becca. “Oh no, bigs, I gotta go visit the porcelain throne. Put on CNN for the ball-drop; at least you and Andy and Anderson can be sad, snarky gays together.” Bucky rolls his eyes. “CALL STEVE!” Becca yells out as the camera view blurs and cuts off.

 

He’s got a bowl of popcorn, a tumbler of bourbon on the rocks, and a buzz coming on. Bucky started drinking in the kitchen, preparing a few snacks and working up the gumption to call Steve. He admires the spread he’s put together on the coffee table: popcorn with seasonings, grapes with cheese, a few wedges of pita with hummus spread on them, topped with cucumber slices. He picks up the TV remote and tunes in to CNN, muting the broadcast. Anderson Cooper looks about as tipsy as Bucky feels. Maybe Becca isn’t wrong about that snarky kindred spirit thing.

 

He takes a deep breath and picks up his phone. Bucky sips his drink, for courage . He pulls up his last text from Steve, which arrived earlier today, a picture of a stack of pancakes and some small talk about brunch food. Bucky takes one more sip of bourbon, wipes his mouth, and taps the little phone icon next to Steve’s name.

 

It rings twice. “Hey! I was just thinking about you.”

 

Bucky gulps. He doesn’t know why he didn’t expect Steve to sound excited, let alone thinking of him. “Hey Steve. Happy almost new year.” Casual, he thinks. This is good. If he knew I was giddy, he’d probably think I’m nuts.

 

“Did you go to your sister’s?”

 

“Plans ruined by that stomach thing that’s going around.” Bucky shakes his head, as if Steve could see him.

 

“It’s like 15 degrees in Times Square,” Steve points out. “You’re probably better off at home.”

 

“It’s been tradition for four years now,” Bucky replies. “After Ma died, we had a bunch of big adventures. Spread her ashes around different places. We saved the last for New Year’s Eve. Took Ma to Coney Island beach in the morning, then we spent the day together, then we decided to do something we’d never done--Times Square at midnight. Becca said Ma would’ve been proud of us, getting on so well. Moving on with grace.” Bucky’s throat tightens. He hasn’t thought about that night in ages.

 

Steve makes an agreeable noise, indicating he’s listening. Probably nodding on his own side of the phone. Bucky can’t hold it in anymore and sniffles outright. “You alright, pal?” Steve asks.

 

“I haven’t thought about it in a long time,” Bucky’s voice lowers to a near-whisper. “You ever watched somebody die of cancer, Steve?”

 

“No.” There is a thoughtful-sounding silence, then, “But my mom went real sudden. Aneurysm, they said. I had just started art school.”

 

“I’m sorry.” Bucky inhales and exhales, slow and measured. He thinks he can hear Steve doing the same. “My ma went slow. It was torture for me and Becca, but Winnie was always stubborn as a damn mule. She held on as long as she could.” He sniffs, wiping at his eyes. “But that New Year’s, it was me and Becca, watching the ball drop, holding each other while everyone was blowing noisemakers and singing Auld Lang Syne. It was gonna be our first year without any parents, and we couldn’t decide if we were more than ready, or like, utterly terrified.”

 

There is silence on the line. Before Bucky can actively fret about it, Steve clears his throat loudly and breathes. “Buck,” he says, tender. Soft.

 

“Sorry to get all maudlin on you,” Bucky forces himself to perk up. “Been drinking alone.”

 

“Same,” Steve exclaims, probably relieved. “Cosmos.”

 

“Really, Rogers?”

 

“Don’t judge. I had a mix and some decent vodka.”

 

They slip into easier small talk, warm with booze and laughter. Bucky teases Steve for pairing Doritos with his cosmopolitans. Steve giggles that he can’t really cook to save his life, and he burned the microwave popcorn. They both tune in to CNN, mute the TV, and drunkenly ad-lib the dialogue for everyone on screen. At five minutes to midnight, Bucky realizes they’ve been sitting on the phone in amicable silence, listening to each other breathing.

 

“Steve?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Bucky bites his bottom lip, drums his fingers on top of his thighs. This space is too empty. Too lonely. He should be leaning drunkenly into Steve’s warm, hard muscles. He laughs, self-conscious. “Whatcha thinking about? It’s awful quiet.”

 

There’s a small noise on Steve’s end. Not a sigh, not quite a breath, maybe the almost wet noise of tongue over lips, too close to the phone. Steve’s voice is different than earlier. Gravelly. This side of breathy. “You. Thinkin’ about you. Wish we weren’t on opposite sides of town.”

 

Oh. Oh. Every vibranium finger twitches up then down. Bucky’s breathing hitches.

 

There’s a warm hum. “Coulda been with you,” Steve slurs, likely too many pink drinks for this pretty boy. “Just the two of us, even with the TV on. Coulda been touching you,” he swallows audibly, “whatever way you like.”

 

Bucky’s not sure he’s had phone sex since his own sophomore year of undergrad, but it’s not exactly something one forgets. He chuckles at Steve. “Yeah, I wish I had somebody to kiss at midnight.”



“Me too, Buck.” Steve makes a little breathless noise, then groans. “God. Wanna have my hands on you, wanna…”

 

“Yeah,” he exhales, a shudder forcing its way up his spine. He lets his mind wander freely, leans back against the couch cushions, thinks about Steve holding him down, his blue eyes a late-night ocean worth diving into, currents be damned. He reaches his hand up under his shirt to thumb at his nipples, a heated memory of Steve’s fingers weeks ago.

 

“Buck-- ohh --are you--?” Steve’s words and breaths are coming in little pants, likely he’s turned speakerphone on to free both his hands.

 

“Yes,” Bucky whispers. “Yes. Steve, oh god, I miss you.”

 

“James,” Steve calls out, a whimper, then a growl. “Shit, baby, I wish your mouth was on me.”

 

Bucky casually slides his hand under the waistband of his joggers. He’s not usually this hard this fast, at least not on his own. He shifts his hips to pull down his pants and boxer briefs. He purrs into the phone as he palms his cock. He drifts into fantasy as he begins to stroke himself.  “Mmm, you taste so good, Stevie. Wanna--wanna swallow you down until you forget your damn name.”

 

Steve moans in earnest, then a near-whisper, “Call me Stevie again.” The sound travels from Bucky’s ear straight into his dick, which beads with more pre-come in response. There’s a soft, rhythmic noise Bucky can hear, quickening in pace.

 

“Unh, Stevie. Yeah, like that, need you inside me.” Wait, need? Well that just slipped out, didn’t it? Bucky thinks hazily, but hastily forgets his concern. He matches his own strokes to what he can hear in the background of Steve’s call. His back arches away from the couch cushions.

 

Steve isn’t talking so much as babbling semi-audibly now, repeated curses and stunted gasps, and “Oh god, Buck, you’re so hot and tight and I...fuckfuckfuckfuck.” Bucky answers him with a series of whimpers and cries, his muscles clenching as he tips over the edge of his orgasm. As he falls, he hears Steve. “Holy shit Buck, I’m coming. Coming. I’m--”

 

Bucky’s hand and abs are splattered nicely. On the speakerphone, Steve is panting loudly, whining out shortened noises as he catches his breath. Bucky steals a glance at the TV. It’s 12:02am. “Hey,” he manages, swimming back into reality, “Steve, it’s after midnight. Happy new year.”

 

Drowsily, Steve laughs. “Happy new year, Bucky.”

 

“It wasn’t a midnight kiss. Sorry.” Bucky smiles because he’s not sorry at all. Maybe a little disappointed that he did all the work himself, but not sorry.

 

“I’m not complaining, pal.” Steve laughs gently. In the brief quiet that follows, Bucky imagines inhaling the scent of Steve’s skin, Steve’s fingers combing gently through his hair. “Got any resolutions?”

 

Bucky inhales, then exhales, and says something he hadn’t expected to say out loud. “To see you as soon as possible.” He closes his eyes and waits for a response. A response doesn’t come. Before Bucky’s brain can lie to him with some tall tale about Steve running away, he hears soft, evenly-timed snores. He breaks out in a goofy grin and has to squeeze the throw pillow next to him.



“Stevie? Steve. Steven ? Hey, Rogers.” The snoring continues. Bucky’s fondness sits deep in his belly then spreads joy into his limbs. His heartbeat feels unsteady, but not in a bad way. He traces a finger along the side of his phone, as if by magic that would telegraph across town. “G’night, sweetheart.”

 

Bucky taps “end” on the call and immediately opens a text to Steve. “Good night, Stevie. Happy New Year.” He considers some kind of heart or kiss emoji, but thinks better of himself. They’ll see each other again in less than a week, when the spring semester begins.

Chapter Text

Bucky: You don’t think it’s dumb, do you?

Steve: Of course not. It’s sexy.

Bucky: You’re not going to back out?

Steve: You’re sure the offices will be empty except for you?

Bucky: Yes. I told Natasha I wanted solitude to work on a project, so she checked calendars.

Steve: I’ll be over then. *blushing emoji*

 



He walks into Bucky’s office, peeks back out of the door into the hallway, closes the door again and turns the lock. It’s confusing at first, because it’s 5:45pm and everyone else has gone home. Why is Steve so concerned about anyone out there?

 

“What are you…” Bucky trails off as he sees what Steve is wearing. It’s a little stupid from the waist down, as it’s a pair of Steve’s splattered cargo shorts and Chuck Taylors. But from the waist up? He’s got the damned elbow-patch jacket on. He’s brushed his hair back, neat and tidy. He’s wearing his glasses. Bucky sees the way Steve is looking at him and swallows hard.

 

“Mister Barnes,” Steve purrs. “I’ve been looking for you.” He pointedly pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, his gaze landing pointedly on Bucky’s face. Steve is hunting for something. He stalks casually to the window and closes the blind. “You didn’t come see me for office hours.”

 

“Doctor Rogers,” Bucky bites out. “I, um, you see--” Damn it, Rogers, I didn’t expect you’d want to play here. Say something interesting, something good. Just play along, you know how to do this. “No, I didn’t. Sir.” Bucky fidgets in his chair, putting on a show of nerves which also serves to distract him from his hardening cock.

 

“And why, pray tell,” Steve leans against Bucky’s desk, eyeing the ruler which is set out on one side, “didn’t you come in to see me? We need to talk about your last paper. You know this.”

 

“I’m sorry, Doctor Rogers,” Bucky drops his eyes to the ground, fluttering his eyelashes innocently.

 

Steve picks up the ruler from the desk, gently testing the weight of it against one of his palms. His hands, Bucky notices, are clean and entirely free of ink or paint. He must have been planning this all afternoon, at least. Steve rounds the desk and takes Bucky’s chin between thumb and pointer finger, raising his face upward. “Mister Barnes, you’re such a bright young man with so many fresh opinions.”

 

“I like to think so, Doctor Rogers,” Bucky grins.



Steve adds his other fingers to his grip, squeezes Bucky’s jaw, and tips his head back with a snap. “Ah, ah, Mister Barnes. That’s what we really need to talk about. Your attitude. I understand,” and Steve yanks Bucky’s face to the side, closing in to talk low and direct, “how it must feel to be the star student, but you’re letting it go too far. I’ve come to teach you some humility.”

 

Bucky almost cringes. The teasing does hit a little close to home, but Steve is living for this, judging by the smirk on his face, like he’s going to eat Bucky alive. Besides, smartass schoolboys are the ones who get punished in all the fantasy scenarios, right? It’s probably nothing personal.

 

“Mister Barnes, please stand up for me.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Bucky obliges.

 

“Come around the desk here,” Steve gestures with the ruler, and oh, Bucky knows exactly where this is going, but yes okay oh my god yes .

 

He rounds the desk obediently. “What now, Doctor Rogers?” He eyes the pair of chairs he has in the corner. “Should we sit down and discuss my improvement strategy?”



Steve huffs out a breath that is surely him disguising a laugh, but he speaks up with a commanding tone to his voice that Bucky’s only heard once before. “No. You’re going to learn a different kind of a lesson. Place your hands here,” he taps the desk with the ruler, “and here,” he taps again, “and bend over a bit, please.”


“Well, since you said please ,” Bucky scoffs, happily playing the little shit he knows he can be. Steve grabs his wrist and yanks it at an angle behind his back. “Hey!”

“Mister Barnes,” Steve spits out, convincingly mean. “You’ll put your hands where I say, or this is going to be even worse for you, understand? I know you have a problem with authority, and the only way you’re going to respect it is to have it wielded over you.”

 

“Otherwise, I’m just going to write a philosophy paper about it that gets published and turns the world of naughty college students upside down?” Bucky wisecracks, but Steve pushes Bucky’s head down onto the desktop, firmly but without violent force.

 

“Head down. Hands where I say. Pants down. Mouth closed .” Steve yanks Bucky’s trousers and underwear down to his thighs. He then bends his entire body over Bucky’s and whispers, a masculine rasp, “And don’t you dare make a fucking sound.” Bucky feels Steve, hard inside his cargo shorts as he presses his hips down. Bucky’s body heaves with his breathing, weighed down by Steve’s bulk.

 

Bucky’s heart is pounding from the excitement. Steve was right all along--Bucky really did have a bit of a student/teacher kink. He weighs the possibility that this is hot because this fantasy features Steve as his co-star. His overthinking the situation comes to a screeching halt as Steve gropes one of his cheeks.

 

“Mmm,” Steve sighs, kneading the flesh there with his calloused thumb, stroking gently to make goosebumps raise all over Bucky’s skin. “So sad I have to hurt this gorgeous bottom, but I don’t know how else you’re going to learn.” The end of the ruler brushes skin, teasing.

 

Bucky’s dick twitches against the side of the desk where his pants have been pulled down. Steve whips the ruler against Bucky’s ass, where it lands with a thwack. He follows it with a firm caress of his hand and another sound like he’s pleased with the results. The sting blooms into something intoxicating to Bucky’s more base desires. A squeaky whine vibrates his vocal cords, only half-voluntary. Then he manages to speak. “I’m sorry, sir.”

 

“I’m glad you’re starting to reconsider your smart-mouthed actions, Mister Barnes.” Steve teases lightly with the end of the ruler again, just light scratches until the feeling disappears, then he brings the ruler down two times, once on each cheek. Bucky’s whole body twitches and his chest heaves with his breath. “Yes, that’s good. Being quiet, just like I asked. You might have it in you to be a good student.”

 

Bucky pants out, reality blurring slightly at the edges. He catches a thought just before it goes out of focus, that this is happening here, now, in the empty suite of offices. “Well, I’m a very good student, Doctor Rogers.”

 

Steve brings the ruler down again, striking both cheeks at once with a quick snap. “You have yet to prove it. Are you going to show me you can be obedient? How about you count for me? But you need to keep it to a whisper, I don’t want the other professors to hear.” Bucky whimpers at that. Silence has never been his forte.

 

“We’ll start with five.” Steve delivers on his promise of being a demanding instructor, rapidly administering five smacks with the ruler, each one ratcheting up Bucky’s pain response. Bucky grits his teeth and manages to breathe out the number for each impact. He is no longer in his sparsely-decorated little closet of a space, and Steve isn’t only half-dressed for this occasion. Bucky’s imagination transplants him into a large, formal office with dark cherry furnishings, where Doctor Rogers’ desk and book collection are just as large and impressive as the man himself. Classical. Restrained.

 

Bucky gulps, willing his mouth to work through his ecstatic brain fog. “Thank you, Doctor Rogers,” he manages to exhale. “May I say you are unrelenting in your pursuit of excellence?”

 

“Thank you, Barnes, but flattery gets you nowhere. And I told you to shut up. Five more,” Steve states, then delivers a series of blows working from the top curve of Bucky’s ass to the line where it ends and his thighs begin, each strike stinging more than the last. Bucky counts, obedient, but his cock aches and his entire body shudders from not being able to make noises.

 

It’s quiet, save for the steady sound of Steve tap-tap-tapping the ruler against his palm and his soft footfalls pacing the carpet. Bucky’s anticipation and want is a heady mix, and he breathes hard. “I’ve decided you’re not done until I say you’re done. Say ‘mercy’ if you absolutely can’t take anymore. But no more counting, you talk enough as it is. It’s nice not having to put up with your babbling.”

 

Steve returns to his task, setting a steady pace. The slap of the ruler against Bucky’s ass feels and sounds sharp. He feels the heady rush that comes with his masochistic tendencies, so glad the department is empty, allowing his personal fantasies. Steve is murmuring, quiet and indistinctly, what sounds like praise and satisfaction with Bucky’s performance. Taking it so well...good boy...mmm just look at you. Atop the desk, his hands ball into fists, clutching at nothing as the sting continues to radiate in his skin. He blinks and realizes his eyes are watering, not quite yet tears, but close. His legs shake, heat and desperate want blooming between them.

 

Steve places the ruler back onto the desk where Bucky can see. He pets Bucky’s hair and makes a soothing noise. “You see? You can be a good boy for me, listening to the rules, doing just as I asked.”

 

He’s gone pliant under Steve’s hands. There’s nothing he won’t do for him now. “Of course, D-D-Doctor Rogers. Anything you want. I wanna learn. Want you to t-teach me. I’ll be so good.”

 

Steve hums approval and bends to cover Bucky’s body again, this time his broad palms slide to Bucky’s hips. He presses kisses to the back of his neck, and when he bites, Bucky moans softly. Steve is running his hands all over Bucky, just the way he likes. When he nibbles on Bucky’s ear, he whispers, “God, Buck, you look so hot like this.”

 

“Thanks, teach.” Bucky exhales, half-laugh, half-sigh.

 

“You’re gonna have some nice looking marks there too. Real straight lines. Very symmetrical, if I do say so myself.” Steve roughly rubs his palms over Bucky’s stinging behind. “Oh! Hold still.” The shutter-click of Steve’s phone goes off a few times.

 

Bucky rolls his eyes, about to make a smart remark about Steve’s goddamn artistic bent , but Steve then is hoisting Bucky up by his chest, turning him so he’s propped face-up. Steve strips off the tweed jacket and lunges forward, covering Bucky’s body with his, pressing their mouths together for a desperate kiss.

 

“Can’t believe we’re doing this here,” Steve says, rutting his clothed hips forward against Bucky’s bare cock.

 

Bucky surges up and captures Steve’s lips with his own, nibbling and teasing. “If I recall, you thought this up first, Doctor Rogers .” Steve’s fingers come up to tangle in Bucky’s hair, tugging just enough to be distracting.

 

“Doesn’t matter who thought it up first. We’re both here now.” Steve reaches a hand between them and strokes Bucky’s dick. Bucky curses under his breath, and Steve kisses him on the cheek. “Stay quiet and lean back for me, Buck.” He obliges and arches back against the desk, hips thrust out. Steve perks up and looks around, as if making sure the coast is clear in this locked-up room. Then, he sinks to his knees, and Bucky feels Steve’s tongue, hot, circling the head of his cock.

 

“Shit,” Bucky exhales, drawing the word out five times longer than one syllable should take. He reaches out with his flesh-and-blood hand, brushing back Steve’s silky blonde hair. Steve hums his approval as his mouth slips further down Bucky’s shaft. His hips arc forward, chasing Steve’s heat.

 

Steve bobs his head a few times and inhales sharply before taking Bucky in completely, his nose coming to nestle in Bucky’s neatly trimmed hair. He’s somehow still moving his tongue lightly while swallowing around him, his long, strong fingers digging hard into the outside of Bucky’s thighs.

 

“Oh god damn , Steve, that’s so good,” Bucky pants out, his eyes squeezed tightly closed. All he sees are colors, and all he feels is Steve. “Just like that.”

 

Steve gags and pulls off with a wet pop, and he clears his throat. When Bucky looks at him, Steve’s chest is heaving, and he’s slowly wiping a line of drool at the corner of his mouth. He laps at the tip of Bucky’s cock again, like he can’t help himself. “Sorry,” Steve whispers. “You taste so good, but I’m not...I’ve never been great at deep-throating. But I wanted to, to--”

 

“Keep going,” Bucky urges sharply. “Don’t apologize. Don’t care what you do, just don’t stop.”

 

Steve sighs with what Bucky assumes is relief, and he wraps his hand at the base of Bucky’s dick, pumping in short strokes as he laps at the head with his tongue. Steve gives his balls a squeeze and moves his other hand on Bucky’s shaft in the most mind-blowing way. A tense heat builds quickly in Bucky’s groin. “That’s it,” Steve purrs, “you like that, baby?”

 

Bucky, having trouble forming actual words, exhales a series of short, needy ah ’s and nods feebly. His arms and elbows are shuddering from holding up his weight, so he lies back completely. He whines when Steve’s hands and tongue disappear.

 

“Easy now, baby. Almost there,” Steve husks. He holds out his hand, flat, to Bucky’s face. “Lick,” he instructs. Bucky laps at Steve’s palm; he’s an eager puppy giving sloppy kisses. Steve moves his spit-slicked hand back to Bucky’s shaft and works him hard until Bucky’s on the knife-edge of his orgasm.

 

“Steve, don’t stop don’t stop, m’gonna,” Bucky pleads. In the space of a breath, he’s coming, and Steve briskly moves down to catch most of it in his mouth. Bucky’s body trembles, and Steve swallows around his spurting dick until it’s stopped. Steve pulls back and gently, carefully licks Bucky clean.

 

Bucky pulls in one last gasp as Steve surges up from his knees, practically fucking his tongue into Bucky’s mouth. He tastes himself on Steve and contemplates if he could go another round. Bucky sits up on his desk, wincing at the soreness of his bottom. He wraps his legs around Steve’s hips, knotting his fingers together behind Steve’s neck. He feels Steve’s hard cock through his shorts.

Bucky’s forearms itch slightly from pressing against tweed-covered shoulders, and he scrunches his face.

 

“What’s the matter?”

 

“Itchy,” Bucky answers, moving his arms back and forth against the jacket.

 

Steve kisses Bucky’s cheek fondly. “You want it off, you’re gonna have to come home with me.”

 

“You didn’t tell me there was going to be a catch.”

 

Steve takes off his fake glasses and nuzzles Bucky’s neck. His re-grown beard creates a pleasant tickle and burn. “Not a catch, Barnes. I just want to continue somewhere more comfortable. Want you to take as much time as you want.” Steve’s breath ghosts over Bucky’s ear, raising goosebumps in its wake. “I want to touch you, Buck. All your skin on mine. Please come back to my place?”

 

“Okay,” Bucky agrees, hoping Steve’s hearing doesn’t register the quiet whirring of his left arm as he forces it into a more relaxed state. His pulse is high, and though getting off had contributed to that, it’s his nerves. He wants this. He’s wanted this since the holiday party, to be alone with Steve again.

 

But Steve hasn’t seen him completely naked while he’s been sober, hasn’t seen him with all the lights on. Bucky knows, if this is something he wants to keep doing, Steve is going to have to see him. He’s going to get a closer look, see all of Bucky’s scars.

 

Steve shrugs out of his tweed jacket, draping it over his arm. “You’re really fine with this? Right now?” His hair is more mussed than before, his cheeks a healthy, glowy pink. There are a few streaks of white along the edges of his navy blue t-shirt, probably plaster or gesso from the studio. He laughs somewhat nervously, “Should we get dinner first or something?”

 

“I could eat,” Bucky replies too quickly, hoping Steve is oblivious to his growing anxiety. He looks around the room, appraising the damage. Just a messy, sweat-smeared desk and a slightly displaced chair. “I’ll clean up in here, you go get your stuff. Meet back here?”

 

Steve’s eyes twinkle when he smiles. “Cool. Food, then...yeah. Okay.” He squeezes Bucky’s right arm. “I’ll be back in a flash.”

 

***

 

Bucky offers to drive to dinner and back to Steve’s, and Steve gratefully accepts. Bucky hopes one day he’ll get a ride on the back of his motorcycle, but a spontaneous date on a rainy night is not an ideal time for that to happen. For dinner, they go to a bistro around the corner from Steve’s building. The place isn’t too fancy, but has an upscale ambience that means students [with potentially prying eyes] only go there for very special occasions or events on Shield College’s dime.

 

Bucky sips at his Old-Fashioned, the bourbon pleasantly warming his throat. Steve frowns at the food menu, tapping his fingers against his pint glass of beer. “What are you getting? There’s too many choices.”

 

“Burger,” replies Bucky, “they put blue cheese on it, and they’ve got this house-made aioli that’s to die for.”

 

“If that’s what you like,” Steve keeps frowning. “I hate blue cheese. But I can’t decide between the crab cake sandwich or the roast beef au jus .” When the server comes to their table, they order another round of drinks, and Steve finally picks the crab cake option.

 

After some companionable silence, Bucky looks Steve in the eye. “So what else don’t you like? Besides blue cheese and social injustices.”

 

Steve lets out a half-chuckle and covers Bucky’s hand with his own. “I guess there’s a lot we don’t know about each other,” he squeezes gently, “yet.” His tongue peeks out of the corner of his mouth. “I don’t like lima beans. I don’t like bratwurst, but I like hot dogs. I don’t like people who put clothes on their dogs.”

Bucky giggles. “Do you make exceptions for cold weather?”

 

“Oh absolutely,” grins Steve. “But only those jackets they make for dogs, not like, a jacket that belongs on a child, except on a dog. I also make exceptions for Halloween. And Comic-Con.”

 

“Got any pets?” asks Bucky.

 

“Nope,” Steve answers. “But sometimes I go to the Barton shelter to walk dogs or feed kittens if Tasha asks for my help.” He peers up at Bucky from under his long eyelashes.

 

“What’s that look mean?” Bucky leans in closer.



“It’s artsy and sappy; you’re probably not going to like it.”

 

“Try me?”

 

“The way the light and shadow in here are playing off your face,” Steve starts, sheepishly, “God damn , you’re handsome.”

 

Bucky’s heart starts thundering in his chest. He and Steve are both a little tipsy, but the way Steve is looking at his face is so sincere. His face feels warm. He takes the moment and goes for Steve’s hand, lacing their fingers together.

 

“I mean it.” Steve is blushing like a schoolkid. “I’ve dated a lot of people, and honestly? You’ve got to be the best-looking.”

 

Bucky squeezes Steve’s hand lightly and hopes he doesn’t come off as callous when he replies, “It’s all about aesthetics with you artists, isn’t it?” Steve snorts in response, and Bucky displays his best cheesy grin as the server brings dinner to the table. “So, you’ve dated a lot of people?”

 

Steve takes a very large gulp of his ice water, and his eyes widen.

 

Bucky breathes out a soft laugh. “It doesn’t matter, Steve. I’m just joking around with you. I was pretty slutty before,” Bucky nods slowly at his prosthetic arm, “--before the accident. Then my biggest relationship was with working, on a lot of different stuff.” He pushes up his glasses and goes for a bite of his hamburger.

 

Steve snatches the pickle spear from Bucky’s plate, biting into it without so much as an apology. He puts it back next to Bucky’s fries. “Fine. You got me, Barnes. I haven’t dated a lot of people. But you’re still easily the best-looking.”

 

Bucky isn’t even a little mad that he can’t hide the dumbstruck expression on his own face.

 

--

 

They park beside Steve’s apartment, which is a third-floor walk-up inside a well-maintained Victorian house. Steve carefully unlocks the door into the long hall of the entryway. As the door clicks closed behind them, Bucky gently rubs at the small of Steve’s back as Steve checks his mailbox. With one hand full of envelopes, Steve turns into Bucky’s embrace and softly kisses him on the lips. Bucky hums happily.

 

“C’mon, it’s this way,” Steve says, starting up the carpeted stairs.

 

Bucky reaches up and grabs a handful of Steve’s ass. Steve barks out a surprised sound, and Bucky is pleased. “What? It’s right there,” he giggles. “Just wiggling that thing around right in front of my eyes. You’ve got some balls, Steve.”

 

“I do. You’ll see them real soon,” Steve laughs back. “That’s a promise.”

 

Bucky’s heart reminds him that this is a big deal. This is seeing Steve’s personal space up close. This is probably going to result in literal naked vulnerability. A phantom pain shoots through his left arm. He lightly clenches and unclenches his hand, sensing the faint mechanical purr under his shoulder. Steve unlocks the antique-looking white door at the very top of the stairs and walks in. Bucky follows, closing it behind him, chasing the scent of Steve’s subtle, woodsy cologne into the apartment.

 

The apartment itself is cozy--small with warm hardwood floors, light beige walls, dark wood trim around the doorways to the kitchen and the main room, a narrow, seemingly awkward hallway connecting the two.

 

“It’s not very fancy, but it’s home,” Steve says, lifting an armful of clothes and towels off the end of his bed, which is stationed against the wall of the main room. Unceremoniously, he drops them into a laundry basket that is perched on the single upholstered chair in the room. It sits next to an enormous street-facing window, which Bucky recognizes as the front of the building. Some diaphanous paneled curtains cover about three-quarters of the window’s height, enough for privacy, but also allowing light in. At this hour, it’s just the orange-y glow of the street lamp.

 

The bed takes up most of the main room. Bucky takes in what little else there is to see. Steve has a small flat-screen TV on top of a bookshelf. Two shelves are crammed with DVDs, two others crammed with books. There’s a closed easel leaning up against the far wall, next to the bathroom door, a few canvases turned around, propped against the same wall. The walls are the same light beige as by the kitchen. The rug under his feet is a light gray. For an artist, there’s not a lot of color in this place, Bucky thinks.

 

Steve digs in a drawer in his bedside table. “A-ha!” he declares, victoriously holding up a pack of matches. He proceeds to the bookshelf where he lights a couple of small jarred candles. “Lavender,” he mutters, absently. “The good kind. And sandalwood.”

 

Bucky gently teases Steve. “You trying to cover some kind of stink in here?”

 

Steve’s shoulders hunch slightly as he sighs, “I know. It’s not much. It’s a little musty most of the time. It’s cold. But it’s fine, for me. The kitchen is actually pretty great.” He’s looking a little embarrassed, rubbing at his cheeks.

 

Bucky puts his messenger bag down next to the chair, careful not to knock over a pile of books on the floor by its leg. The stuffing is coming out of part of the armrest, but Bucky’s heart clenches. Dr. Steven Grant Rogers is no paragon, and here he is, trusting Bucky enough to let him see this tiny inner sanctum where his life happens away from the campus.

 

He closes the gap between them, taking the near-single step to the bookshelf. “Steve,” whispers Bucky, wishing for some grand words to say to take away Steve’s doubt. He stands silent, sliding his hands up to Steve’s shoulders. Bucky can’t help the intrusive thought that takes over, so he breaks out in a big grin. “I didn’t come here for the decor,” he quips.

 

Steve captures Bucky’s face in his hands and kisses him ferociously. A small noise bubbles up from Bucky’s throat as his knees wobble. Bucky’s hands slip from Steve’s collarbone and around, drifting lower. They stand for a time, kissing, hands exploring, until Steve pulls back and tugs Bucky toward the bed. They topple sideways onto the mattress, their bodies tangling together.

 

Steve’s kiss feels hot and needy; Bucky thinks he must be desperate to get what he didn’t get earlier in the office. It feels good to be under his wide, flat palms again, and Steve is still surprisingly graceful for the bulk he appears to carry. Bucky’s hands roam over Steve’s back and sides, feeling the rise and fall of each muscle, each hasty breath.

 

“Mmm, Buck,” sighs Steve, mouthing at his neck. “Been thinking about this all day. Actually, been thinking about this since the holidays. Wanted to see you so badly.”

 

“Well, here I am,” Bucky jokes, knowing full well what Steve actually means. He thinks he’s ready.

 

“Been wanting to see all of you,” Steve whispers, his fingers gentle on Bucky’s cheekbones, petting the scruff that Bucky’s been cultivating for the new semester. “We should’ve spent New Year’s together.”

 

Bucky hums in agreement, fondly remembering how they made do. “We did the best we could.”

 

Steve laces his fingers together behind Bucky’s neck. “I suppose, but I should’ve kissed you at midnight for all the world to see. Should’ve spent the night making sure the year really started right. I dreamt I poured champagne on you and licked it off.” As if to demonstrate, Steve sucks a mark into Bucky’s clavicle.

 

Bucky’s mind starts to fuzz out, his growing pleasure blanking out the rest of the world. Just him and Steve in this mid-sized bed, soft light, the scent of candles. Between kisses, they pull at each other’s clothing. Before Bucky can even consider his anxiety, his shirt is peeled off and tossed aside as he does the same to Steve.

 

The arm makes a small sound, almost a purr. Steve’s hands stop moving on Bucky’s skin. “Sit up for me, Buck.”

 

Bucky stills. He’s sure every inch of him has just broken out in nervous goosebumps. He’s exposed. Shy, even. He presses his mouth together in a hard line and swallows around the lump in his throat.



Steve gasps, his eyes roaming all over Bucky’s torso.

 

“It’s...it’s a lot. I know. You don’t have to--” Bucky starts but doesn’t finish.

Steve’s eyes are wider than Bucky has ever seen them, pupils dilated a bit too much for the dimness of the room. He’s holding his hand out gingerly, biting at his lip. “My god,” he whispers.



“I didn’t want you to be turned off,” Bucky mutters. “I can...we could turn the lights out again, if you’d like. I’ll get up and--”



“Can I--” It’s Steve’s turn to sound stunted and shaky, apparently. “James,” he breathes, his fingertips reaching closer to Bucky’s left side, “may I touch you?”

 

Bucky freezes. The scars branch out from his shoulder like a map to nowhere. The slightly-off-looking patch of skin that was grafted from his side has left a pink Rorschach test behind, not to mention all the smaller scars from various tests and procedures after the accident. He supposes he should let Steve get it over with, get through the freakshow before the good parts can happen in this story.



The arm clicks, loudly this time. Great, the machine has awakened. But what is he going to lose if Steve touches, just this once? If Steve likes the sex as much as Bucky does, he can just ignore all the deformities, right? Bucky’s dick looks perfectly fine.

 

Or maybe Steve has a kink for metal that will work greatly to Bucky’s advantage, so this won’t have to be the last time they see each other like this? He sighs, preparing for disappointment. “Okay.”



“Okay what?”



“You can touch whatever you want, Steve.” He still doesn’t meet Steve’s eyes. He keeps a steely watch on the artist’s outstretched hand.

 

So gently, Steve’s fingers brush the seam where metal covers flesh. He strokes back and forth, following the line, his face open with what looks like wonder. No shock. No disgust. His cobalt blue eyes flash downward toward Bucky’s elbow and wrist, but then back to his shoulder. All the while, his hand is gentle. “James,” he whispers, “you’re so--it’s--”

 

Bucky grits his teeth. Ice floods his veins and his breath comes a little too quickly. “I can take it off if you want some alone time with it, Steve,” he spits out. “Could make a loose fist for you and lock it, just wash it when you’re done. Thin line between inspiration porn and real porn, right?”

 

Steve grabs both of Bucky’s shoulders and holds him at arm’s length. His expression has turned deadly serious, and he locks eyes with Bucky. “Don’t,” he chokes back. “Bucky, why would you even think that’s--”



“Everybody gawks,” he replies, his voice tightening, his volume deliberately quiet. “People want me to be their future. Want me to show off. People get their hopes up because of me. I’m just a lucky sonofabitch who met some really fucking narrow criteria and gets to have an easier life. I’m a writer; I’m not some role model. And I’m not some sexy robot to fulfill your fantasies.” His eyes begin to sting as he punches his hand into the mattress. He blinks, and blinks, and begs himself to not let the tears fall.

 

It’s almost painful to look at Steve’s heartbroken expression, so Bucky closes his eyes. Steve brings one hand to the back of Bucky’s neck and pulls him closer, touching their foreheads together. “Hey,” he exhales. “Hey now.” He is so gentle and sweet that Bucky almost shudders in pain. Steve’s thumb comes up to gently stroke Bucky’s cheek. “I just wanted to see you, sweetheart. Every gorgeous inch of you.”

 

Bucky feels a blush creeping up his face as he turns into Steve’s palm, even though he feels more like turning away. Steve is being so genuine, so kind.

 

“If you really don’t want to, Buck, I understand. I don’t want to push you to do something you’re not comfortable with.” Steve pulls back, running a cautious hand through his own hair. “I--I mean, we --we could still turn the lights out, if you want to.” There’s still a twinkle in Steve’s eyes, something sweet and hopeful.

 

Bucky studies Steve’s face: his strong jaw, his soft beard grown back in since the holidays, his nose that almost disqualifies him from looking like a fitness magazine model, his cute pink cheeks. Bucky knows him now, knows there is nothing there with intent to hurt or belittle him.

 

And he wants him. Wants this...intimacy. If Bucky wants to be real, honest and raw, he has to let this happen. He breathes in and out, in and out. He reaches for Steve. Steve inhales, audibly, slowly, as Bucky looks him in the eye.



He caresses an index finger over the little crease marring the space between Steve’s eyebrows. “Leave the lights on,” Bucky whispers, quiet and serious. “I’m nervous, but I want this.”

 

Steve’s smile blooms slow, like a sunrise. He presses his palm to Bucky’s cheek, then leans in and kisses him--no tongue, but something passionate, soft, consuming. Bucky’s toes curl, and a helpless little whine squeaks out of him.

 

He almost wants to open his eyes, to see Steve’s long eyelashes resting atop his cheeks, to witness the kind of face Dr. Steven Grant Rogers would make when kissing passionately.

 

Then Steve tentatively bites Bucky’s bottom lip, and he’s brought back more fully into the moment, not being able to give a fuck about what anything looks like. He just wants to feel this. To be here.  

 

When Bucky groans and presses himself bodily against Steve, trying to eliminate any space between them, Steve bites harder, then slides his tongue into Bucky’s mouth. Steve’s hands slide down his flanks, barely brushing under Bucky’s waistband. It’s so different this time. There’s electricity everywhere Steve touches. Sure, there’s still heat and fire, but it’s a slower build happening than what they’ve done before.

 

Bucky struggles to keep his eyes open, but this time around, it’s because he’s focused on the feeling, the warmth spreading with every heartbeat. Steve works down his neck, alternating open-mouthed kisses and bites that Bucky hopes will leave a mark or two. He wants to feel this tomorrow. He can’t keep quiet anymore. “Stevie,” he pants out, but loses whatever it was he thought he was going to say after, instead exhaling a series of muttered curses.

 

Steve hums an agreeable noise and keeps kissing his way around Bucky’s body. He nips at his clavicle, pressing his tongue into the divot of Bucky’s right shoulder. Steve rises up to ear-level, pinching a lobe between his front teeth. “Buck,” he whispers, nearly too quiet, “sweetheart, you’re so hot. So sexy. Look so good like this.” His hands start to roam again, this time going for Bucky’s fly, opening his trousers and shucking them off.

 

Bucky blushes furiously under Steve’s lengthy, silent appraisal of his mostly naked form. From the bulge he sees in Steve’s pants, clearly he likes what’s laid out before him. Bucky is naked-- feels truly naked --for the first time in his recent memory. And he’s surprised that it’s feeling good. So, so good .

 

“What was that, Buck?” Steve lifts his head from Bucky’s chest, dragging his tongue away from a nipple.

 

“S’good,” Bucky elaborates.

 

“Mm. It is.” Steve sucks Bucky’s right nipple back into his mouth.



“Oh, ffffuck,” Bucky says, not even a bit angry that his doctorate-level vocabulary has been temporarily obliterated. Before he can groan out anything else, he’s surprised: as Steve kisses his way to the left, he also takes Bucky’s left hand and interlocks their fingers. The arm makes a little purring hum but stays still, calm.

 

Steve caresses the outside of the vibranium thumb with the pad of his own thumb. While the touch registers as a temperature and barely a pressure, it’s nothing like what Bucky can feel in his flesh-and-blood hand. Still, somehow, it’s okay. Maybe even nice.



Yeah, nice, Bucky thinks, until the slow working of Steve’s deft artist’s fingers are tracing their way up each carved line and joint of the arm. And when Steve’s lips join his hands? He thinks, This is unbelievably good. Did he practice or something? This is unlike anything I’ve ever felt.



And Steve looks so reverent. Every vibranium plate gets a kiss from his soft, careful mouth. His lips look even more pink next to the dark gray metal. Goosebumps rise on Bucky’s skin; he shudders in the best way. “Steve,” he breathes, “it’s so...you’re so…”



“Shhh,” Steve says, a gentle breeze over Bucky’s ear that glides south, pressing open-mouthed kisses to the seam of metal and flesh. Bucky’s head lolls back, a string of mumbled, heated curses leaving his mouth. Steve traces his thumb over Bucky’s bottom lip until Bucky nods his head down and sucks on it, swirling his tongue eagerly. Steve moans softly, a catch of breath and a deep hum. “Not yet, baby,” he whispers. “Not done with you yet. Lie down and roll over for me?”

 

Bucky complies immediately. He thinks about how Steve’s giant paws are actually quite graceful, with clever fingers that seem to find every sensitive spot on his body. He’s massaging down Bucky’s spine, pausing somewhere in the middle to trace the rivulets of scar tissue that surround a patch of skin that was grafted elsewhere. Steve presses his knuckles deep into muscle, and Bucky groans loudly against his own forearms where he’s resting his head.

 

“You’re tense, Buck,” Steve observes.

 

Bucky giggles. “Well, yeah.” I’m letting the most gorgeous man I’ve ever seen see me entirely naked for the first time. I honestly don’t even know what move I’m supposed to be making right now.

 

“Just let me do the work,” Steve responds, the hint of a wink in his tone. Bucky lifts his head to look back at Steve, then gives a little mocking salute. Steve snorts and then straddles the backs of Bucky’s thighs and sits. He wiggles his hips then rocks forward, just so, before pressing his hands into Bucky’s shoulder blades. “I wanna make you feel good, Buck. Would you like that? Really --” he rocks forward again, nudging his crotch against Bucky’s still-sensitive ass as his fingers massage deeply into the muscle of his lower back--”really, good.”

 

“Stevie?”



“Yeah?”



“Take off your pants? Please?”

 

“Oh. Yeah. That belt buckle isn’t exactly--” Steve chuckles, maybe self-conscious.



“--doing anything comfortable, yeah.” Bucky smiles over his shoulder, also hoping to catch a glimpse of Steve stripping while he lies still like a good boy. Like a good boy. It’s strange to Bucky, but a welcome feeling, to allow himself to not be in control here either. He wants to feel , to take in , to let Steve --”Oh god, Steve .”



Steve is straddling Bucky again, this time pressing his hard cock against Bucky’s ass. He leans back slightly, the big tease, but then Steve bends forward and licks a hot stripe up Bucky’s spine to his neck, where he ducks his head to the side and kisses Bucky on the cheek. Then Steve does a reverse move and works his way back down Bucky’s spine with a series of kisses, nibbles, and kitten licks.

 

They both breathe hard, inhales and exhales becoming increasingly ragged. Bucky sucks in a gasp as Steve’s hands knead at his reddened cheeks, spreading them open. Steve hums an approving sort of sound, and one finger presses to that sweet spot just behind Bucky’s balls. He lets out a strangled whimper as he hears a quiet, but wet, pop from Steve’s direction. What must be a spit-slicked finger teases at Bucky’s hole.

 

James ,” Steve purrs, his hands turning all their attention to Bucky’s ass and hips. “Oh, look at this. Look. At. This.” The finger at his hole rubs softly, back and forth. Bucky’s toes curl.



“Stevie,  please,” Bucky shudders, not even sure what he’s begging for at this point. Any of it? All of it?

 

The bedside drawer rumbles open, and Steve is rummaging for something. Next, the sound of foil in hand, then the pop of a plastic cap. A finger returns to Bucky’s hole, highly slicked this time, and he grinds his hips against the sheets.

 

Steve rubs gentle, slippery circles around Bucky’s hole. “Relax, baby. Breathe. Good, sweetheart, just like that.” Steve pushes in, just a small stretch, and Bucky’s cock jumps in approval. He rolls his hips back, reflexively, trying to take more, and Steve slides in a little deeper. “You look so sexy like this, Buck.” Steve’s hips thrust forward, too. The sound of the lube being popped open again, and soon a second finger joins the first. “That feel good?”



“Mmhmm,” Bucky manages after Steve’s fingers nudge his prostate. They do it again. Twice. Three times. Bucky is making noises he doesn’t remember making before in his life. His cock is aching for friction, but he’s not giving in yet. Everything else is too bright, too amazing. The slide and drag of Steve’s hand is too good to stop. “Ah!” he cries out, more breath than sound.

 

Steve rumbles out a noise from low in his throat, rocks his hips again, and slowly pulls out his fingers. He wipes his hands somewhere on the sheets, then Bucky hears the foil noise again, the unmistakable sound of a condom ripping open, the lube cap. “Sorry, baby, this is going to be a little cold,” says Steve as a few drops of slick hit Bucky’s hole.

 

“It’s okay,” he slurs in response. He readies his breathing for a moment that doesn’t happen immediately.

 

Steve stills himself, stands up, then sits at the edge of the mattress, a hand petting Bucky’s hair. “Will you get on your back for me? Wanna see your pretty face when I’m inside you.”

 

And that. Well, that almost sounds too sappy, too romantic. But it also sounds like the best idea Bucky’s heard all day, so he nods and rolls over. He reaches with both hands to cup Steve’s jaw as Steve bends over him. Steve pushes Bucky’s legs apart, moving his knees toward his chest.

 

As Steve begins his careful push into Bucky’s hole, Bucky reflexively closes his eyes and covers his face. He cries out when Steve is buried to the hilt.

 

“Buck,” Steve whispers, “hey, don’t hide from me.” He moves his hands off Bucky’s hips to gently grab at his wrists. He holds them together in one hand and brings them to his lips, kissing every finger as he fucks deep into Bucky. Both men shudder and sigh.

 

Steve is thorough. His hands and mouth still touch and explore as he moves in and out, saying sweet nothings that keep Bucky blushing, so much praise of which he can’t be remotely worthy. “ James , you’re so good. Look so amazing, I can’t believe I get to have you like this.”

 

Bucky feels himself getting closer to the edge, but he’s not ready yet. He’s got to break out of his own head. He turns his face toward the pillow, chest heaving. He can’t look Steve in the eye right now. “Unh, oh god, Stevie. You feel amazing. Just...just take what you need. Please. I want--I--”

 

Steve tsks and strong arms encircle Bucky’s shoulders and torso. “C’mere,” Steve purrs, pulling Bucky upright so he’s straddling Steve’s lap. He guides Bucky’s legs to wrap around Steve’s hips. Bucky clings to Steve’s body as Steve fucks him languidly. “Buck,” he says, a hand petting through his hair, pressing their foreheads together. “Open your eyes, baby. Look at me? Please?”

 

Bucky groans as Steve begins to fuck him faster, harder. Hesitantly, he opens his eyes. Steve is looking back at him, eyes dark with desire. Bucky breathes deeper, willing himself to accept the attention. The unrelenting worship that Steve is giving him. He holds on to Steve’s big, strong body for dear life, and feels tears welling up in his eyes. Heat is growing and spreading all over.

 

Steve crushes Bucky against his chest with one arm, his opposite hand gripping Bucky’s hip. “Buck,” he’s muttering. “Ah, Buck, ah, ah, unh--”



“You getting close, Stevie?”

 

“Yes,” comes out of Steve in a desperate voice.

 

Bucky grabs on for dear life as Steve’s incredible cock hits the right spot over and over. “Me too, sweetheart, come on.”

 

Steve’s series of noises rumble through Bucky as he all but squeezes the air out of him. Bucky tilts his hips with every thrust, and he’s nearly seeing stars. “Steve, gonna...gonna…” Bucky comes, untouched, with Steve hot on his heels.

 

They collapse together onto the mattress, tangling up in each other. Steve’s hands haven’t stopped exploring Bucky’s skin. He gasps, so sensitive, as Steve’s fingers brush over his nipples, his abs, the tip of his softening cock. Bucky covers his face one more time.

 

“Bucky, what is it?” Steve asks, all concern. “Did I...did I do something wrong?”



Bucky begins to sob, burying his face in Steve’s neck.

 

“Oh, baby. Are you all right? Did I hurt you?”



Bucky shakes his head vigorously and manages to pull himself together for a sentence. “You didn’t need to do that.”



“Make my best guy feel incredible?”

 

Bucky blushes at that, then wipes at his eyes. “Steve.”

 

“You’re gorgeous. I mean that,” Steve says, turning Bucky’s face to look him in the eye again. Bucky squirms but doesn’t hide. “I’ve been dying to make you feel as beautiful as I think you are.” Steve turns a deep shade of pink, which goes from forehead to pecs. He bites his lip and takes a deep breath. “Bucky. I really like you. At first I thought maybe you were some hotshot hipster who’d never give me a chance. Didn’t think it was worth trying. You’d just see some awkward blonde guy with a lot of muscles, not worth knowing beyond that.”



“Stevie, what are you talking about?” Bucky puts his hand over Steve’s heart.

 

“I never know what to say when I meet someone attractive, not at first. And ever since all this,” Steve gestures to his entire body, “I get a lot of attention from people who generally don’t want to get to know me beyond, well--” Steve leans up on his elbow as Bucky untangles himself to listen. “See that picture over there?”



There’s a small, oval frame with a school picture of a little slip of a blonde kid on the wall. He’s got a huge grin and a dimple. He’s wearing a brightly-striped polo shirt, and his shoulders are slight. “Is that you?” Bucky smiles. “You were adorable!”

 

“I’m sixteen in that picture.”

 

Bucky blinks. “You look like an eleven-year-old.”

 

Steve deflates and smiles ruefully. “I was a runt. An only kid. My mom raised me alone. My dad died around the time I was born. I was little, teased, lonely. A late bloomer, therefore an overachiever. I got big in college, which is also where I threw myself into my art.” Bucky reaches for Steve’s hand and squeezes it. Steve continues, “Even now, I bristle because people see me as some kind of muscle man. Like I’m imposing, or threatening, or even worse, dumb.”

 

And Bucky gets it, all at once. He chuckles dryly. “I’m...guilty. Of misreading you for a long while.” He extends the vibranium arm, and it clicks a few times, as if to say hello. “Ever since I got this, I’ve felt like less of a person. Not because I think missing my arm makes me less of a person, but because other people try to see me as a wunderkind since I got this thing.” He wiggles his fingers, and Steve laces his own in with the metal.



“I wrote the book thinking it would be the opposite--people would see I’m just a guy who got lucky, would see that progress is out there but it’s going to take time, might see that my journey was good for me , but this arm doesn’t define me.”

 

Steve smiles gently. “Just like Tony Stark’s past and his father’s legacy don’t define his company the way it is now. Just like the work that’s happening in biomechanics now might mean better prosthetics than yours in the future.”



Bucky laughs. “You certainly got the right takeaways from my book. A-plus, Dr. Rogers. You move to the head of the class.”

 

Steve wraps Bucky in a big bear hug, and they both giggle. Steve looks at the clock. “Oh no, it’s so late. I’ve gotta open the studio at 7:30.” He looks at Bucky, then the clock, then Bucky again. “Would you stay here? With me? Tonight? I know you don’t live far if you need to change clothes or something or you don’t wanna be seen driving me in or--”



Bucky quiets him with a soft kiss and a boop on the nose. “I will make Wade’s entire year if I drop by for coffee wearing yesterday’s mussed-up shirt with you in tow.” Another kiss. “I’d love to stay, Stevie.”

 

Bucky lets Steve wrap around him and cling. As Steve kisses the back of Bucky’s neck, they fall into a sweet, warm silence that carries Bucky into sleep. An hour later, the mattress shifts as Steve gets up and returns with soft blankets. He wraps Bucky gently, kissing the top of his head as they snuggle together. “See you in the morning, baby.”