It’s not like Peter hasn’t had some truly toe-curling encounters with other superheroes in his short life that make him cringe to himself for days afterwards, but smacking straight into Bucky Barnes at the Avengers compound is probably the worst thing he’s done. Well, so far. He's not going to limit himself.
He’s so busy writing and rewriting a text to his lab partner - who’s definitely smarter than him, but seems to communicate only in binary code as some kind of dorky joke - that he doesn’t see him until he’s bounced off Bucky's muscular shoulder and stumbled backwards.
“Oh, it’s you,” is all Bucky says, easy as anything.
“Hi, uh, oh, hi -” Peter stutters, as Bucky sinks down onto one of the benches in the watery morning sunshine. He pushes himself to get out more than one syllable at a time: “Hi, Bucky, good to uh, see you.” Nearly.
Bucky watches him, his expression dark and secret - he doesn’t look unhappy to see him, which is a start.
“How you been?” Bucky asks. He’s twirling a packet of cigarettes - maroon with a golden picture of a leaf, all the writing is in Cyrillic letters - between his long fingers like it’s a fidget spinner. Peter wonders if he’s ever seen a fidget spinner.
“I’m - yeah, I’m pretty good, I guess, considering my mentor and father figure kinda - died. Also, I’m still coming to terms with the whole me dying and then being resurrected situation, and uh, and my roommate is always trying to teach me TikTok dances, so that’s a disaster.”
Bucky lets out a short, cynical ha. “Yeah, I’ve been there.”
“Oh wow, you learned a TikTok dance?”
“I dunno what the fuck that is,” Bucky thumbs open the top of the cigarette packet and lifts it to his mouth, pulls one out by catching it on his shiny bottom lip and then flipping it between his front teeth. He raises his eyebrows meaningfully. “The dying thing,” he says, sibilant around the filter of the cigarette.
From somewhere in the many pockets of his leather jacket, Bucky produces a little old-fashioned book of matches, pinched between his thumb and forefinger, and snaps one off. The phosphorus on the match head ignites with a hiss, and Bucky looks up at Peter through a golden spot of light as the flame kisses the tip of the cigarette and it flares to life. His cheeks hollow as he sucks, and his eyes don’t leave Peter’s.
“You’re still - Spiderman?”
“Uh, yeah, when they need me. But I’m also in my senior year at MIT -” Peter clears his throat, “I’m, uh - my major is robotics engineering, but I’ve actually kinda wandered into renewables -” and holy shit holy shit holy shit, it’s even boring to him, but his mouth is just careening off on its own track while he watches Bucky watch him unwaveringly and blow out a sheer blue stream of smoke from his pursed lips.
“- I figured that since I’m a trust fund asshole now I should at least use my incredibly expensive education for something, y’know, good, or at least not actively evil -” he trails off, and is immediately desperate to smash his head against the brick wall in the hope it’ll knock. Some. Sense. Into. Him. And stop him running his mouth like the galaxy’s most boring dating app profile at this smoking hot, century-old assassin who’s actually giving him his full attention, for some reason.
But far from laughing at him, Bucky’s eerily still, a sniper through and through, like he could sink into the bench and disappear - but his eyes are so steady, so bright, so clear, so electric. “Good,” he says, and then he blinks, and his eyelashes are thick and inky. “That’s good. You’re doing some good.”
“Wow, do you really think so?”
A hard-won little smile lifts the corner of Bucky’s mouth. “More than most of us.”
It feels like a big, shining victory. “Jeez, thanks. God, I mean, I - I try really hard, you know? I don’t wanna be a monk, but it doesn’t help when the benefactor for your entire life literally sacrificed himself to save the universe, right? Big shoes to fill. I’m not gonna go around complaining and getting bitter until I turn into some super villain, so yeah, wow, thanks -”
“Don’t hurt yourself,” Bucky says, a little smile creasing the corners of his eyes, and takes another drag from his cigarette. He holds it in, so when he speaks again his voice is clipped and tight. “I’m not exactly the barometer for morality.”
And Peter is such an asshole, he’s the actual, total worst - “I’m - oh, God, Bucky, I’m sorry, I didn’t -”
“It’s alright, don’t -” he raises a hand and waves it off, rolling his eyes. His broad shoulders lift and fall in a wistful sigh. “You know, I always dreamed about going to college when I was a kid - thought I’d be some kinda hotshot.”
And if that’s not bad enough, Peter feels himself perking up into the squeaky clean spokesperson and mascot for tertiary education who is just unstoppable, he cannot stop himself, and the words tumble out of his mouth before he can put the gate up to keep the stupidity in - story of his life - and he’s so embarrassingly enthusiastic: “You still could! It’s - these days, you can go whenever you want, honestly, there’s all kinds of tests and resits and entry pathways -”
Bucky stares at him.
Face burning, Peter snorts. “Sorry - optimist,” he jokes. Would Bucky just put him out of his misery if he asked?
“Useful,” Bucky says, kind of like he’s teasing, but he couldn’t possibly be teasing, could he?
“Okay, fine. You know those things’ll kill ya?” Peter asks, nodding to the packet of smokes.
Bucky, to both his immense relief and creeping dread, laughs at him, low and husky. “I’m counting on it.”
“And people say I’ve got a death wish.”
Bucky looks him up and down, and that’s - Jesus, wow, he’s just assessing, kinda clinically, but Peter feels his pulse zoom downwards, thudding in his pelvis. “You’re telling me you don’t? What are you, a hundred and fifty pounds?”
“One, uh, seventy,” he lies, like he can’t remember the last time he weighed himself, because jacked dudes don’t care about that kinda thing, right? He’s 158, but he had a big lunch.
“Uh huh, sure,” Bucky narrows his eyes. Then, he grins, wide and bright and sudden, and Peter has to remind his knees to keep him upright. “Jesus Christ, you remind me of someone I used to know.”
“Oh really? Who?” Just his luck, his voice is squeaky, the lower registers having apparently flown away at Bucky’s smile.
“Doesn’t matter,” Bucky says, gruff, but he’s still smiling to himself, “He’s not - around any more, but we had some good times back in the day.”
“I bet you have some good times now, though, huh?” Peter imagines Bucky at a nightclub in that outfit, with that face, and that body - he’s definitely the kind of guy who wouldn’t end up in a line, except for the line of girls waiting to talk to him.
“It’s not that easy to find a good time when all your friends are dead, or as good as dead,” the words scrape out of him and his gaze goes distant and unfocused - he’s staring off into the overgrown yard like he’s a million miles away.
“I could show you a good time,” Peter offers, and he’s not gonna puke, he’s absolutely not, he’s going to breathe and ignore his heart pounding in his throat, “If you want.”
Very slowly, Bucky raises his eyes to Peter’s - but the path there is a lazy, interested appraisal from his feet to his collarbones that leaves a tingling trail of heat behind. He cocks his head at Peter. “Are you even old enough to drink?”
“Yes.” As of last week. “I’ll even buy you one.”
“Careful,” Bucky warns him, and his face isn’t smiling but his eyes sure as hell are, “I might take you up on that.”
“I’m counting on it.”