Steve fucking loves American Gladiators.
It’s not really a surprise, because he’s got the show to thank for his whole career in competitive wrestling, inspired by the original series he saw when he was a kid. It was cheesy and overdramatic, but Steve was a frail kid for whom the fitness and health of both the gladiators and the contestants was like a dream.
And seriously, fit people in spandex did wonders for figuring out his sexual orientation.
American Gladiators was the reason Steve coaxed his mom to let him try out the after school wrestling club, and the reason he now has a gold medal from the London Olympics hanging from his bookshelf.
So Steve has a lot of love for the show, and getting offered a chance to be in the last revival of it has been the damn highlight of his life after he quit his pro career and concentrated on coaching. He even loves wearing the ugly boob-windowed spandex suit and getting called Choker on national television. His mom would be mortified if she were still alive, and maybe secretly proud.
Steve has only one (1) problem with American Gladiators, and that problem is a nearly-six-foot-tall, tattooed dance instructor-slash-YouTube parkourer called James Barnes.
Barnes has the body of a long-distance runner and the smile of a movie star, and he looks unfairly good in blue spandex. As a contestant, he’s been practically obliterating everybody on his way through the show: he’s deceptively strong, freakishly fast, and slippery like a fish, so catching him with brute force is damn near impossible. Steve has faced him a couple of times throughout the season and been utterly stumped, because while Steve’s athletic and fairly acrobatic, it’s hard to block a guy who can parkour over his shoulder and pat him on the head as he goes.
Steve, unfortunately, also has a giant kink for competency, and James Barnes has tons of it packed under his tattoos. Steve’s an old romantic fool who doesn’t have any say on who his heart goes doki doki about, but honestly, he’d thought he’d gotten over his Pavlov reaction to people who get shit done when Peggy broke up with him.
It doesn’t really help that Barnes is also smart as a whip; Steve hasn’t gotten the chance to really interact with him outside of the filming, but he knows how to Google. Barnes works for a New York dance company specializing in teaching disadvantaged youth, he’s got a degree from NYU, and is openly gay and a very vocal advocate for human rights, and every single thing Steve learns about him just makes his awkward crush worse.
“As soon as he’s out of the show,” Steve whispers to himself one night when he finds himself watching Barnes’s parkour videos for the sixth time that week, his hand inching down towards his dick that is very, very interested in Barnes’s ass in Adidas sweats. “As soon as he’s out of the show, I’ll ask him out.”
His dick agrees with enthusiasm.
It’s not a surprise that Barnes ends up in the final, facing off Matt, a triathlon nut from Philadelphia. Matt is fast and has great endurance, and while he’s not as good with quick direction changes or overcoming obstacles as Barnes is, he’s been giving his all and has defeated a lot of great contestants to be in the final, so Steve respects him a lot.
Steve’s totally rooting for Barnes, though.
Matt is the first finalist to go through Gauntlet, and he slips past the first gladiator with surprising ease. But the second opponent has him quickly cornered, and his time is up before he can get past, getting bashed with the gladiator’s giant, foam-covered fists. When it’s Barnes’s turn, Steve finds himself getting weirdly anxious: he’s seen all the events many, many times in his life and always found them entertaining and exciting, but now he’s almost vibrating out of his chair in the back room.
In the pre-course interview Barnes’s smile is small and crooked and goes directly into the part of Steve’s heart that’s been mooning over him like a lovesick fifth grader.
“I have a good feeling about this,” Barnes says, and Steve catches himself just in time before he starts gnawing his fingernails. He sits on his hands just to be sure.
Steve should’ve known better than to be nervous. Barnes excels in Gauntlet, and even though he almost gets crushed under Titan’s bulk, he manages to slip away and get through the wall within the time limit. Steve sags a little with relief, and then promptly gets nervous again about Sideswipe, the next event. Thor keeps giving him funny looks from the chair next to him, but smiles knowingly when grinning Barnes is shown on the screen, and Steve’s chest does something complicated at the sight.
“He’s a good man,” Thor says. “And very funny, I’ve spoken to him a couple of times.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, clearing his throat. “I think he’s gonna win.”
Thor grins at him, getting up from his chair and reaching his arms up above his head, about to head to prepare for Pyramid. Steve definitely should get his warm-up done too; getting all warm and tingly about facing Barnes probably doesn’t count.
“I think he’s already won something, my friend, and that’s your heart,” Thor says, winks, and saunters off whistling. Steve doesn’t understand how the hell Thor can get away with all the cheesy yet absolutely genuine shit he comes up with.
Barnes nearly gets knocked down into the pool by a gladiator in Sideswipe, but does some very impressive acrobatics and manages to swing back up onto the course. He gets a bloody scrape on his thigh for it, but completes the course at a draw with Matt.
Steve’s glad he wasn’t watching it live, because he almost falls from his chair when he sees the replay after the warm-up for Pyramid. Thor nudges him and smirks knowingly, and Steve curses the day his face decided to start broadcasting every single of his emotions to the world.
Steve loves the Pyramid event. It’s a little brutal with all the falling down, but offers a good opportunity for contestants who have enough skill and wit, as opposed to the strength required in many other events. He’s on the same side of the pyramid as Barnes, with Thor and Matt around the corner, and Barnes is looking up at him from beneath his lashes, contemplating. Steve has to concentrate on looking at the direction of Barnes’s shoulder, so he doesn’t get distracted by all the beauty.
Barnes and Matt start climbing the pyramid, fast and agile, and Thor and Steve try to do their best to keep them from reaching the top. Thor grabs Matt by the waist, barely dodging Steve, and squeezes, holding him easily, but Barnes fucking glides past Steve’s outstretched arms and to the upper level, aiming for the top.
Steve leaps after him, catching him by the waist, and there’s a brief grapple before Barnes turns around in Steve’s arms and somehow slithers free, scrambling away. Steve reaches to grab him again, but Barnes is a cunning motherfucker and hoists himself up to the next level at the same time, and Steve’s hand lands directly on his crotch. Steve doesn’t know if Barnes did it on purpose, but there Steve is, feeling up his Number 1 crush in front of live studio audience.
Barnes’s dick is hard under the padded spandex. The fucker is getting off on this.
Steve’s blood rushes down to his dick before he can say welp, and Barnes uses Steve’s momental freezing for his advantage and kicks him in the stomach. Steve falls like a sack of flour, taking Thor and Matt down with him to the lower levels, swearing as he goes.
Barnes scales the rest of the pyramid easily, slams his hand down onto the red button, and blows Steve a kiss as the siren goes off.
Steve is acutely, madly, one-hundred-percent surely in love.
There are more events to test the contestants after Pyramid, and Steve stops watching halfway through, right after the skin on Barnes’s cheekbone gets split, because he’s too nervous. He knows it’s just a game show and that the event will be halted if there are any serious injuries, but his stomach is doing somersaults because of his dumb crush, and it’s making him jittery. Matt gets a scrape on his arm and injures his wrist lightly, but soldiers on and wins one of the events, coming to draw with Barnes in another.
But Barnes wins. It’s not even a question once they get to the Eliminator, because Barnes has a 16-second head start, and he’s scaling the final hill on the track before Matt is even halfway. Steve watches him from the bench with the other gladiators, and when Barnes wins, Thor leans in and says into Steve’s ear, “I can get you his phone number.”
Steve swallows, staring at Barnes - his hair is wet from diving, clinging onto his forehead, and he’s sweaty and grinning as he shakes Matt’s hand - and then says, “Thanks, but I’m gonna ask for it myself first.”
Thor grins at him, clapping him on the back, and says, “Go get him, lion.”
Steve hasn’t the heart to tell him that that’s not how the saying goes.
Steve had been expecting a giant afterparty, but there isn’t one, not really. There is food and champagne and general good cheer, yes, but there are also scrapes to be cleaned and Matt’s injured wrist to wrap, and long lines to the showers. Unsurprisingly, everyone seems eager to get out of spandex and into regular clothes.
Barnes gets whisked away to do the paperwork for his winnings before he can attend the party, and Steve eats and queues to the showers in the meantime, vowing not to leave until he’s managed to talk to Barnes.
It’s easier than he expected; when he steps out of the changing room in his street clothes, he nearly bumps into Barnes, who’s leaning to the wall next to the door. Barnes has showered and changed too, his dark hair slightly damp, pushed back from his forehead in a mess of curls. There’s a bandage over the cut on his cheekbone, and in his white t-shirt and black skinny jeans he looks like a Hollywood heartthrob. Steve’s heart is definitely throbbing, and possibly something else is too.
“Hey,” Barnes says, turning his head to look up at Steve, smiling. He’s very close, his eyelashes are stupidly long and he smells amazing, and Steve can’t help but hope that Barnes is lounging near the locker room door because he’s been waiting for Steve.
“Hey,” he says, his heart doing backflips in his chest. He moves to stand in front of Barnes to keep from blocking the doorway. “James, right?”
“Please call me Bucky,” Barnes says, tilting his head back against the wall. His body language is open, pushing up from the wall towards Steve, and there’s something eager and a little flirty in his expression. Steve wants to put his hand onto his hip, slide his thumb under the t-shirt to touch his skin.
“I’m Steve,” Steve says instead, because that would be super creepy. “Rogers.”
“I know,” Bucky says, smiling a little wider. “I used to follow your career, I was really excited to hear that you were going to be in the show.”
“Oh,” Steve says, stupidly. “Thank you. And-- aw, shit, I’m doing this wrong - congratulations for winning!”
Bucky laughs. “Thanks,” he says. “I never expected to beat a bunch of tank-sized guys, but this was really fun.”
“But that’s the cool thing about the show, isn’t it?” Steve asks, stepping closer in his excitement to talk about American Gladiators. “It shows people that brute force or strength isn’t always the key.”
Bucky’s expression softens, and Steve realizes suddenly that they’re standing really close. “Yeah,” Bucky says. “Exactly. One can get surprisingly far with some agility and dirty tricks.”
“You’re certainly difficult to hold down,” Steve jokes, braving a flirty look from between his lashes.
Bucky’s mouth parts into a small, surprised ‘o’, and then curves up into a wicked smile as he says, “Oh, that depends on the situation.” He leans a little closer, his cheek brushing Steve’s, and says into his ear, “Trust me, Choker, in the right setting I’m very into being restrained.”
Steve swallows audibly, pretty sure that Bucky can hear how fast his heart is racing. He turns his head just slightly, nose pressing against Bucky’s unharmed cheekbone. Because the guy he’s been beating off to for weeks is practically propositioning to him, and he’s very much down for it. “How about I buy you a beer, and we can see what the setting is like later?”
There’s a pause, and then Bucky laughs breathily, casts a sly glance at Steve from the corner of his eye, and says, “I like the sound of that.”