Bucky was late.
Steve looked at the clock and chewed on the inside of his cheek. They had dinner reservations across town and he was nowhere to be seen. Steve paced back and forth, alternating between tugging on the hem of his dark blue tweed suit jacket that Natasha had assured him on numerous occasions ‘brought out the blue in his eyes’ and rubbing his thumbs across the roses inked across the sides of his hands.
Maybe he’d had second thoughts about their date and didn’t know how to tell him. Maybe the thought of dating Captain America was too weird. Maybe he thought it was weird to date a guy now covered in 18 months worth of his tattoos.
Casting a nervous glance out of the wide window towards the New York skyline, Steve continued to pace.
As a kid, Steve had been obsessed with tattoos, but the life he led then didn’t quite match up with the type of guy that inked their art across their skin. Whenever he saw the sailors with their arms full of pictures, his eyes would bug out and his ma would scold him for staring, but he did it anyway. Now, however, you didn’t have to be a sailor or a criminal and Steve was finally able to indulge his long-held obsession.
On the nights he couldn’t sleep, Steve trawled the internet. He lost hours down Wikipedia rabbit holes -who knew that the average colour of the universe was, in fact, beige-, Reddit threads -yes, DeezNuts696969, you are the asshole-, and endless hours of cat videos on YouTube because dammit, sometimes he needed to watch something cute and mindless.
It was on one of these nights, somewhere between 3am and sun coming up on yet another day, that Steve found Bucky Barnes. Or rather, he found his Instagram showing off his speciality in traditional tattoos. It was everything Steve was looking for in an artist. His work jumped out at him, hooked him, drew him into an endless scroll. The lines were sharp, the colours blocked and smooth, the detail extraordinary.
He had to have it all.
Before he could talk himself out of it, he marched himself down to Bucky’s shop the following day and asked him to tattoo his mother’s birthday in roman numerals on the back of his neck. So full of blinkered zeal and determination, Steve didn’t notice just how beautiful his artist was with his clear grey eyes and soft, brown hair that he kept tied back with an elastic at the nape of his neck. That came later. But from the moment the needles hit his skin, Steve truly came alive for the first time since waking up in this new, confusing world. It was a special kind of gift he hadn’t been expecting. Everything slanted into sharp focus, colours brightened, and his heart thrummed, rabbit-quick in his chest.
“You’ll want to keep it clean and moisturised,” Bucky told him, handing over the cream with a frown. “I don’t know how your skin will take the ink given your uh-” he broke off and waved a heavily tattooed hand at the great expanse of Steve’s chest. “ -situation . So, keep me updated.”
And Steve did. The serum had always healed him quickly and two days later his new ink had a light layer of silver skin over it. By the third, it was healed completely
“Well, shit,” breathed Bucky, tracing a thumb across the back of his neck with a touch so gentle it sent a delicious shiver right down Steve’s spine, all buttery and warm. “Wish I healed that quick.”
He sounded so wistful, Steve had to laugh.
“No, you don’t.” He paused, letting an easy grin crawl across his face. “So, when can I come back in?”
After the first, many followed. Steve found his way back to Bucky's shop as often as he could between missions. They filled his arms first, starting where the tattoos could be easily hidden with long-sleeved shirts and sweaters. There were roses, and crying eyes, and tattooed boxers with curly moustaches. There were daggers piercing hearts, and spider’s webs across both elbows. A red-eyed snake twisted up his left bicep and an eagle took flight from his right shoulder. None of them had any real meaning to him. They were beautiful. It was art. And that was enough.
Back in the Before Times, Steve had preferred pencils and chalk and charcoal, anything he could use on paper. Even now, it was the same. But for Bucky, Steve’s skin was the perfect canvas on which to work his artistic magic. Steve loved to watch him work, the quiet intensity that consumed him as he worked thick, precise lines into his skin and layered colour into whatever piece they had concocted together. His eyebrows pinched together, his tongue would stick out, and he’d run the ball of his tongue piercing across his teeth until it clattered. Steve could watch him all day.
“Who did your tattoos?” Steve asked one afternoon as Bucky inked the Liberty Bell with its huge crack across the back of his hand. He needed the distraction, something to take his mind off the feeling of the needles scraping against bone and tendon.
Bucky’s tattoos were all hyper-realistic, usually in black and grey but with a few splashes of strategic bright colour. His left arm, in particular, was spectacular and Steve wished he could get a closer look at it. Starting from the back of his hand and ending halfway up his neck, a hyper-realistic bionic arm peeped out from beneath slashed and torn skin. Levers and pistons and cogs were mapped out in excruciating detail, and Steve had wanted nothing more than to trace his fingers across it the moment he had met him.
“There’s this guy up in Portland does the most incredible realism work,” he said, voice soft and full of awe. He paused and let the tattoo machine hover a few inches above Steve’s swollen hand. “I was on the waiting list for, like, a year and half. Totally worth it .”
And he extended his left arm out slightly, twisting it this way and that so that Steve could get a better look. Their eyes met. Bucky’s were wide, star bright and pale. Heat pooled low in Steve’s belly and he couldn’t school his features into anything other than eager fascination. Bucky didn’t seem to mind. His mouth curled up at the corners, soft and more than a little shy.
That, Steve realised was the true beginning of it all. He found reasons to see Bucky, and he suspected that Bucky found reasons to see him too. It didn’t take much for them to start seeing one another outside of the parlour.
“You’re a walking portfolio. Please say you’ll consider it,” Bucky implored.
They had just finished a long session on the beginnings of a back piece. It was more neotraditional than straight traditional but when Bucky had shown him the sketch of a Valkyerie on a winged Pegasus he’d done, well, Steve hadn’t been able to say no. They’d been quietly packing up their things when Bucky had blurted out that he’d like him to pose for some professional shots - to showcase his work, of course.
As he buttoned up his shirt, he caught Bucky’s eyes skating across the exposed skin of his chest.
“I’ll consider it,” he said, shifting from foot to foot and avoiding his gaze. “Only because you asked so nicely,” he added in an undertone which made Bucky duck his head and rub the back of his neck.
All it took was one Fox News segment on "Captain America's Degenerate Art" and 35 minutes of them debating how the number of tattoos inked across his skin correlated directly with his morality for him to agree. And if that meant he spent half a day stripped to the waist while Bucky directed a photographer to capture every single shred of ink covered skin? Then so be it.
“I thought you said, you were a natural at this? Wait till everyone finds out that America’s sweetheart is a filthy liar.”
“Ach, cah’maan, you can flex better than that, Rogers.”
“I said blue steel, not whatever murky sludge this is, Chrissake. Have you not seen Zoolander yet? Put that on your list, sweetheart.”
From the moment Steve peeled off his shirt to stand under the bright studio lights till the photographer started packing up for the day, Bucky kept up this stream of lighthearted abuse. Heckling from the sidelines, he stood leaning against the far wall, arms folded across his not inexpensive chest and grinning one very shit-eating grin from ear to ear. He kept it up until Steve was laughing, holding it back with one hand clamped to his mouth, shoulders shaking.
It continued like this for weeks afterwards. They were all long looks and fingers brushed against the inside of wrists, dancing around whatever it was that grew between them. Steve enjoyed this pre-something. It was different. It was new. It filled him with butterflies and left him chasing his thoughts because whenever Bucky smiled he had an awful habit of forgetting what it was he was about to say.
Their pre-something built and built and built until it started to resemble a precarious something . Steve might have let everything pass by him unsaid, but he’d already lived a life like that and he didn’t plan on letting this one do the same.
And that was how Steve Rogers found himself pacing back and forth his apartment in the Avengers’ Tower, waiting to go on his first very first date with Bucky Barnes.
“Captain Rogers, there’s a James Barnes here to see you, Sir,” trilled the cool voice of JARVIS, pulling him from his reverie.
Minutes later, Bucky all but staggered through the door, a weary look tripping him. There were bags under his eyes, bruised purple and he was pale, all the colour sucked from his cheeks. He greeted him with a hug and a sigh that turned into a yawn.
“Sorry m’late,” he slurred. His eyes looked a little glazed and Steve suspected that if he wasn’t holding him by the shoulders then he’d be swaying something terrible.
“What’s wrong?” Concern coloured his voice to a pitched up husk. His heart trilled.
“Been sleepin’ like shit, long day, shitty customers” Bucky mumbled, stifling another yawn. He wrinkled his nose, took a breath, and offered a contrite smile. “I’m sorry, I’m cocking this up. You’ve made plans - put in all this effort -”
Steve clasped Bucky’s neck, letting his thumbs rest over his pulse points, over the little bolts inked there.
“Consider them cancelled,” he said, letting his hands drift down to Bucky’s shoulders and giving them a gentle squeeze. “Let’s order in pizza and watch a movie. You’re dead on your feet.”
Bucky closed his eyes and relaxed underneath his fingers.
“You’re a gift to this world, Steve Rogers.”
Steve chuckled and stooped to place a swift kiss at the corner of his mouth. He smelt like the outside and antiseptic spray.
“I have my moments.”
First dates were not something Steve Rogers had a lot of experience with. They were a near foreign concept but even with his limited pool of resources, he figured it out. He ordered too many pizzas and far too many sides for just two people, pulled up the box office app on his TV, and told Bucky to choose something because he didn’t trust himself to choose anything good. They settled on his too big sofa with too much food and lights on low.
“Damn, you got game, Rogers,” Bucky said with a laugh when Steve dug out some candles to place between the mozzarella sticks and the wine.
“This is a date, isn’t it? Dinner dates require candles.”
And Bucky had nothing smart to say back to that. The flush creeping up his cheeks said enough for the both of them. They ate until their stomachs hurt - talked a little too, about this thing and that thing or something or another. The actual content didn’t matter because Steve was happy to finally be here with Bucky. The food had rallied him and he managed ten full minutes of sparkling conversation before his eyelids began drooping again.
The film was a non-starter. Steve didn’t even know what it was that they were watching, not when Bucky was pressed, warm and soft into his side. There were kisses too. So many kisses. They were lazy, languid, and oh so warm. They traded them back and forth, tongues licking into mouths and teeth grazing at bottom lips. Steve cupped Bucky’s cheek, held him close and sank into his open, easy warmth. He lay draped across his chest, the movie forgotten, and Steve could trail his fingertips across the beautiful whorls of ink that patterned his skin. It elicited a sleepy shudder and Steve could feel his dopey smile against his mouth.
Part of Steve couldn’t believe that this was so easy, that they could fit together so well like this. A big ball of feeling swelt right under his breast bone, hot and sweet, and seeped through his body, warming him from the inside out. He wanted to bottle this feeling, save it, hoard it, never let it go.
Bucky dozed on his chest, the day finally catching up with him as the forgotten film played its end credits. Steve held him close with one arm and let the fingers of his free hand card through his hair. He didn’t know when the last time he’d been this comfortable was. Bucky snuffled and burrowed closer.
Settling back with an indulgent smile, Steve switched the channel to something bland and inoffensive - some late night show with a host that shouted too much - content to let Bucky sleep for a little longer. He watched for a while but it didn’t take long until his own eyes started to feel heavy, hung with lead weights. He tried to fight it, clinging to consciousness, but it was in vain.
He woke, hours later to a darkened apartment. Bucky’s face was pressed into the side of his neck. Somewhat dazed, Steve groped for his phone and winced as the brightness blinded his sleep drunk eyes. Bucky stirred, groaning. Quickly, Steve turned the brightness down on his screen and typed as fast as his fingers let him. Not quick enough that Bucky hadn’t noticed.
“Who’re you texting? It’s like, two a.m?” he asked, bleary, turning to face him and squinting at the low light from Steve’s screen.
“Just JARVIS,” Steve whispered, hoping not to wake him too much further. “Giving him our breakfast order.”
“Oh?” Bucky sat up a little. “You want me to stay for breakfast?”
“Yeah, Buck.” Steve smiled down at him and knows he can’t hide the love in it. “I want you to stay forever.”