When you’re nine years old and a meter tall, preparing to jump off the ten meter platform feel more like preparing to jump to your death.
Steve’s stomach lurches when he peers over the edge. From this height, the pool looks like a tiny quilt patch, though not nearly as soft and welcoming. He retreats immediately, heart thumping in his head and his knobbly knees knocking together. His chest feels tight and he leans against the railing, sweaty hands curled tight around cool metal. This field trip is turning out a lot less fun than his mom promised it would be.
“You gonna jump or what?” Gilmore yells from below.
“Hurry up already! You’ve been up there for fifteen minutes,” says another one of his classmates.
“I have not!” Steve shouts back. “I’ll jump when I’m ready!”
Peggy calls, hands cupped around her mouth, “You can do it, Steve!”
This is stupid. He’s stupid. He shouldn’t have said he jumped off the ten meter tower all the time, shouldn’t have bragged about doing somersaults on the way down just to impress his classmates and Peggy. Gilmore had looked impressed for all but a second, brown eyes widening before narrowing into the cruel look Steve was more familiar with.
“Liar. You’re too scared to even jump off the swings,” Gilmore said.
“I wasn’t scared. I just didn’t want to.” Steve fisted his hands at his side and tipped his head up in challenge. He hoped that Gilmore would take his word for it.
“Prove it, then.”
Steve swears, using all the curse words he knows in all the combinations he can think of. His ma doesn’t like him swearing—says their effects become weaker when you use them too much, and kids shouldn’t know them anyway—but he thinks swears were made for situations like this, He can’t back out now. It’d only give his classmates more reason to bully him. Skinny, sickly, scared Stevie.
He gathers up the wisps of his courage, pinches his nose between his fingers and squeezes his eyes shut, tears of humiliation and fear slipping past. He takes a running jump, feet on solid ground one moment, then nothing beneath his feet the next. His stomach shoots up into his throat and his legs flail and his arms flap wildly, like he’s trying to catch himself.
It’s over before he can form a complete thought. His back smashes into the pool. His nostrils flood with water and his ears pop.
The next day, he wakes with mottled purple blooms across the entirety of his back and down his thighs. He can’t sit comfortably for a week and goes to sleep on his stomach. It makes breathing even more difficult than it usually is. Everything hurts. His mother fusses and calls Gilmore’s mother to tell her that her son is a bully, that she better put her son in line before Sarah Rogers does it for her.
He jumped, but Gilmore calls him skinny, sickly, scared Stevie , anyway, who screamed the entire way down and who needs his mommy to stand up for him, since he’s too weak to do it himself. The other boys join in the name-calling, shove him around a bit more during gym class and on the playground. Peggy takes him by the hand and drags him over to the far edge of the field, where she sits him down and offers him her cookie. He hardly notices any of it, because the entire time—
Steve’s thinking about how it felt to fly.
2013, FINA World Championships
Bucky drags himself out of the pool, dread sinking heavy in his stomach when he meets his coach’s thunderous face.
“What was that?” Pierce asks, words clipped and furious.
Bucky clenches his jaw. His event is three days away, and he’s exhausted from all the training leading up to it. He knows if he tells his coach this, he’s just going to be told to suck it up. Everyone here is tired, their excitement and love for the sport just barely enough win over the fatigue of six hour training days.
“I asked you a question.” Pierce repeats himself, “What. Was. That?”
“I don’t know,” Bucky says through his teeth. “I was distracted.”
“Distracted?” Pierce looks around him, eyes lingering on the empty bleachers. There are a handful of US divers present. Some observe from the pool deck, others bob in the water curiously, watching the tension escalate between an athlete and his coach. “By what? Are you going to be distracted when this place is full of spectators? Professional athletes don’t get distracted .”
“I’m sorry.” When his apology comes off as irritated, he adds, “Sir.”
“You two looked like pinwheels from the side,” Pierce continues, voice progressively getting louder. “Do you two even want to be here? Because you’re wasting everyone’s goddamn time and I’m sure China would love to use the pool if you don’t.”
Bucky doesn’t say anything. Beside him, Brock exhales loudly through his nose.
“James, I don’t know what the hell has been wrong with you lately. You’re making stupid mistakes. I’ve been working with you for a year now and I know you’re better than this. So why the hell do I have to keep telling you that your spins are too slow?” Pierce puts the flats of his hands together and pantomimes the take-off for a forward 4 ½ somersault. “Throw narrow. Get your knees right up into your ears when you tuck. These are basics . You should know all of this already.”
Bucky knows this and he hates himself for still not getting it. His coach has been hounding his ass after every dive, using a condescending tone like he’s talking to an exceptionally slow child, and with Brock huffing those sharp, angry sighs, he can’t focus.
“Do it again. We’re not leaving until you get this right, James.”
Brock rubs his face with his hands and groans. “For fuck’s sake, James. Will you quit messing up?”
“How the fuck am I supposed to concentrate with you yapping in my ear?” Bucky snarls.
“Don’t blame me for your lack of diving skills,” Brock sneers.
Pierce cuts them off sharply, “Look, both of you have talent—” Brock scoffs at this, but their coach speaks right over him, “—but you two need to check your attitudes at the door and quit fighting every time one of you make a mistake. I don’t need any talk about who’s fault it was. It’s a waste of time. As far as I care, if one of you screw up, both of you screw up.”
It’s another half-hour before Pierce is satisfied enough with their performance to let them leave. Brock throws his hands up in exasperation and growls, “Fucking finally!” He nearly knocks Bucky over as he shoulders past.
Heaving a sigh, Bucky crouches down by the pool and splashes water on his cheeks. He’s been messing up a lot lately, ever since he came back after taking some time off after his rotator cuff surgery. Pierce tells him that he’s subconsciously trying to protect his old injury. That was months ago though, and he can’t keep blaming his performance on the stiffness in his shoulder or his lack of practise. Sports commentators call him “a raw but unhoned talent”. He knows they mean he’s an amateur, and he can’t help the niggling in his chest that worries he’s going to prove them right.
* * *
Sometimes diving doesn’t feel like flying. It just feels like falling: rushed, graceless, and terrifying.
For the first time in years, Bucky is struck by nausea when he steps onto the three meter springboard for his event. The shallow bounce of it makes him want to throw up. His stomach rolls with dread at the sight of still waters before him. His head spins and his breath comes in quick, aborted gasps that Brock probably doesn’t even hear, so deeply-rooted in his own concentration. He tries to get back into the right headspace, but it keeps slipping away from him.
He could blame it on Pierce threatening to cut him from the team if he doesn’t bring home a medal today. Or Brock’s good-intentioned “Just concentrate, James,” as they made their way up the tower. But really, he has no one to blame but himself. He’s a professional athlete and yet he still lacks the mental fortitude to block out extraneous thoughts.
His knees buckle as the springboard rises to meet him. Panic stretches out a one second plummet into something that feels like years. It’s all the time in the world for him to think, horrified, ‘Shit, I don’t have enough height.’ All the time in the world, and it’s still not enough to fix the miscalculation in his takeoff.
He’s able to complete three and a half somersaults before he punches through the surface back first, water closing around him in a roar. Suspended near the bottom of the pool, he exhales a muted ‘fuck’ in a flurry of bubbles. He’s practised each component of his dive for hours, micromanaging every single movement down to the curl of his toes. Ten years of the same motions, over and over again, and he still fails a forward four somersault like a goddamn amateur.
‘Just let me die here,’ he thinks, chest starting to burn from lack of oxygen. He doesn’t want to see the zeros on the scoreboard, doesn’t want to see the ugly scowl on Pierce and Brock’s face. As shitty as he felt with Brock yelling at him to “Quit fucking up!” during practise, nothing could have prepared him for the way he feels now. This is career-suicide, and he brought his partner and his coach and his country down alongside him.
He floats to the surface and treads to the side of the pool. His elbows nearly buckle under his weight as he pulls himself out. Pierce looks absolutely murderous, face a blotchy red and jaw set tight. Bucky turns away immediately, hurrying after Brock. The cameras are intent on getting a shot of his welling eyes and he hides his face in his towel under the pretense of drying his face.
“Sorry,” he mutters. Brock grunts in reply. For once, he wishes his partner would say something to him, tell him that he doesn’t belong here, that he only made it this far because his father was friends with Pierce. He deserves whatever Brock wants to say to him right now.
It’s early afternoon by the time medals are awarded. His return flight back home isn’t for another three days. He should be out sightseeing with his family, who took time off work and scraped for money they didn't have to see him compete live. Instead, he returns to his hotel room, calls Clint, and cries.
* * *
Bucky holes himself up in his shared hotel room with Brock. He ignores the calls and texts from his parents and turns his phone off. Thankfully, Brock hasn’t stepped foot into their room even once, and Bucky has all the privacy he wants to alternate between moping and napping. He wakes up the following afternoon groggy and with a growling stomach. After splashing some water over his face and pulling a baseball cap over his head, he slides into hotel-issued slippers and heads to the restaurant on the main floor.
Bucky hesitates when he sees Brock and three other US divers occupying a booth near the back of the restaurant. They’ve been doing a fantastic job of avoiding each other for the past day and a half, and he wants to keep it that way. Before he can slip away, the hostess greets him. Blindsided, he stammers a request for a table for one.
He tugs his cap lower over his eyes and curls his shoulder inwards as the hostess brings him closer and closer towards Brock. To his relief, she seats him two booths down from his partner.
He already knows he’s going to be in for a miserable dinner when he hears Brock complaining, “My partner’s a fucking deadweight. I already knew my synchro event was going to be a throwaway from the beginning.”
Another voice, Bucky recognises it as Jack, says, “He only made it this far because his dad’s friends with Pierce.”
Bucky sinks into the cushions, presses himself against the corner of the booth like it’d physically shield him from the words. The shame and humiliation set in again, weighing down heavy in his stomach and catching in his throat.
He should just get up and leave, but he’s feeling light-headed from hunger and he knows that he’ll be hurrying back without food to hide in his hotel room and as soon as he steps out of the restaurant. He opens up his menu and tries to focus on the words written there, but even over the clinking of utensils and boisterous conversations, Brock’s voice is loud and distinct.
“I should have focused more on my individual dive. I had a better chance of winning a medal there, but fucking Pierce kept making me train with James.” A glass is slammed down on the table. “I was this close to getting a bronze. I could have gotten it if I had just spent more time training by myself.”
Then there’s an unfamiliar voice—deep and warning, bordering on anger. He thinks for a split second that this man is just going to agree with Brock. Instead, the man says, “You shouldn’t talk about your synchro partner like that. It’s not his fault you didn’t win a medal in your individual event.”
Bucky only realises now that his shoulders had hunched up to his ears, and he makes a conscious effort to loosen them, to hear a little better.
“Yeah, but it’s sure as fuck because of him we placed last,” Brock spits. “And actually, it kind of is his fault I didn’t do better. I wasted so much time practising with him when I could have been working on my own dives.”
“You knew what you were signing up for when you agreed to do synchro,” the man shoots back, voice getting louder. “If you can’t handle working with another person or the extra training, you should’ve said no.”
And Bucky, damn him, feels his heart clench affectionately at the way this complete stranger defends him. How it’s not a half-assed, simpering, “Brock, oh my god, you jackass,” followed by agreeing laughter. It’s full-on indignation, geared up for a fight.
“I can handle working with another person as long as they’re competent. James dives like a fucking five year old.”
“Look, anyone who’s made it this far obviously deserves to be here—”
“Jesus, Rogers! Did you even see James dive? He fucked up one of the easiest dives on the list. Pierce is fucking furious, said that James isn’t worth the effort anymore.”
Bucky’s gut spasms in fear. What does Pierce mean, he isn’t worth the effort anymore? Pierce can’t just let him go like that, right? Not when he had won so many medals just a year and a half back. A tiny part of him whispers he should have seen this coming, when his coach had started demanding results and he had consistently failed to meet expectations.
“It’s not like he did it on purpose. People make mistakes. He’s not the first person to have a failed a dive, and he’s not going to be the last. If you don’t want to be responsible for another person’s mistakes, then maybe you’re the one that should be cut.”
“Hey Rogers, maybe you should shut the fuck up now,” Brock says. “You talk like you know a damn thing about diving but you don’t even have a medal to your name.”
Rogers scoffs. “You’re a dick, Brock. Honestly, I don’t know how James put up with you for a year. I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to.” Bucky hears the angry clanking of utensils. Then Rogers says, “Thanks for inviting me, but I’m not interested in hanging around a circle-jerk. Eat my leftovers if you want.”
“Fuck you too!” Brock yells after him.
Bucky stiffens as he hears loud stomps approaching him. He peers over his menu and finds himself looking up at a tall blond man with tense shoulders and a stubborn set to his jaw. The man, Rogers, slows as he nears Bucky’s table. Bucky doesn’t give a damn how cliche it sounds, but the din of the restaurant goes muted as their eyes lock, and he’s looking into eyes so blue he can see their colour from meters away. They widen slightly in recognition.
Embarrassed, Bucky quickly turns away and focusses on his menu with a single-minded determination. He can feel a hot flush starting to crawl up his neck. From the corner of his eyes, he sees Rogers take half a step towards him. There’s a pause, and then the blond strides away.
Bucky remembers how to breathe again. He’s not sure if he’s relieved or disappointed.
* * *
On the last morning of his stay, Bucky goes to the aquatics center. At 5 AM in the morning, the facility is empty and quiet save for the single lifeguard dozing off in his chair and the gentle sloshing of water. He closes his eyes and inhales deeply, letting the scent of chlorine fill him.
He bounds across the platform arms gathering momentum with each loping stride. Inches from the edge, he springs off, tucking his knee into his ribs for a reverse four somersault. It’s dizzying and exhilarating and completely subconscious, his body acting on muscle memory alone. He stretches out into a tight line, punching through the surface a beat later.
He revisits all the dives he missed during his event. He nails the back four somersault he failed, slipping through the water as easily as a knife cut into softened butter. It comes as a relief, knowing that he’s good—or at least, he has the capacity to be good—at what he does. That he hasn’t been wasting thousands of hours of his life. He wishes Pierce and Brock were here to see him like this, composed and in absolute control of his body.
“Hey, that was an amazing dive. Hardly any splash,” someone says as he pulls himself out of the water.
Bucky wipes the water from his face and looks up to find Rogers, who’s wearing a shy smile on his face. The other man’s torso is bare, and the elastic of his tracksuit bottoms hug tight to his waist. Bucky narrows his eyes suspiciously, wondering if he’s being patronised right now. “Thanks,” he grunts finally, when Rogers continues to look at him sincerely.
The blond brightens up considerably. “I’m Steve Rogers by the way.” Steve extends his hand. “You’re James, right?”
Bucky grips Steve’s hand in a firm shake. “Yeah, that’s me.” He supposes he should thank Steve for standing up for him the other night, and he adds. “Call me Bucky. All my friends do, and any man who defends my honour is a friend of mine. You didn’t have to do that, but I appreciate it.”
“Yeah, I did,” Steve says. “Brock was being a huge asshole.”
Bucky shrugs. “He does have a point though.”
Steve makes a confused sound. “What are you talking about?”
Bucky gives Steve a disbelieving look. “Come on, Steve, are you really going to make me say it?” When Steve just blinks, Bucky sighs and says, “My stupid dive, obviously.” Steve is precious if he honestly hadn’t thought in that cool detached way of an observer than Bucky’s dive was awful. “I almost flattened the entire goddamn venue with that wave I created with my entry. You’re thinking it. I’m thinking it. Can we both just acknowledge the elephant in the room?”
Steve swallows a noise that sounds suspiciously like a laugh. He coughs to clear his throat, eyes crinkling with amusement in the corners. “Okay,” he acquiesces. “But I’m only saying this because you insisted… Your dive was pretty bad.”
A grin tugs at the corner of Bucky’s lips. “Great. Now that we’ve established that, let’s never talk about it again. You’re a cool guy, Steve. But if you ever bring that dive up in front of me, our friendship will be over before it starts.”
They shake on it, and Bucky asks, “So, what are you doing here?”
“My event’s tomorrow. I’m nervous and can’t sleep,” Steve says. “I thought I’d get in a bit of practise. How about you?”
Bucky walks over the railing where he had hung his towel. He ruffles it through his hair, before throwing it around his shoulders. His first instinct is to say “Just felt like diving.” Steve is asking out of politeness; there’s no way he could actually care, right? No stranger wants to hear the real, long-winded answer. Yet there’s something about Steve that makes him want to blurt out all the self-doubt he’s been going insane with lately. He can’t bring himself to speak about it, so he’s been internalising it, stuffing it away into a corner of his mind where he could hopefully forget about it. He doesn’t want to see the concern and pity on his parents’ face. He sure as hell can’t confide in Brock or Pierce. Clint’s probably had enough of his whining.
Steve on the other hand, is unbiased and can judge him only based on his athletic ability, not who he is as a person. If Bucky makes a complete fool of himself, and Steve decides part way through that he can’t deal with Bucky’s shit, they won’t ever have to speak again.
With that in mind, he says, “Just trying to prove to myself that I’m not a failure, I guess.”
Steve’s face falls and Bucky feels a pang of guilt. The blond already has enough things on his mind without worrying about Bucky, too. It’d be unfair for him to unload all his insecurities on a man whose name he learned only a minute ago.
“Hey, don’t say that about yourself...”
Bucky takes a deep breath. “Can I tell you something?” he asks, because he really can’t help himself, and he just wants to talk to someone.
“Yeah, of course. You can tell me anything.”
“Diving started out as a hobby, you know? But now it’s not just something I do let off a little energy anymore. It’s a part of my identity. I don’t know who I’d be without my diving.” Steve nods his understanding. Most professional athletes feel the same way.
Bucky continues, “But sometimes, I wonder if diving as a hobby is all I’m cut out for. What’s the point of all this is if I’m not even good, right? I can’t make a living out of this. I’m fucking twenty and I’m no where close to finishing my bachelor’s degree. I’ve been wasting all my time training instead.” He sits down at the edge of the pool, kicking his legs at the water. Steve joins him at his side. The blond’s a furnace against his cooling skin.
“Diving isn’t even fun anymore. Not the way it used to be. It feels like I’m just doing this because this is the only thing I know how to do.” Bucky leans back on his hands and looks up at the high, curved ceiling. “Sometimes I actually dread practise. Brock and I can’t fucking stand each other, but for some reason, our coach thought we’d be good partners.”
“Must be the talent.”
Bucky snorts. “Talent. Yeah, something like that.” He doesn’t mean to sound as bitter as he does, but then he thinks, what the hell, Steve probably already thinks he’s a whiny child. “I love synchro. I just hate doing it with Brock. I don’t have anything else to compare to, but I’m pretty sure my partnership with Brock isn’t like most people's’. Brock’s—” He stops himself, turning to Steve to flash a weak grin. “I can’t say anything bad about my partner or the Big Man up there might strike me down.”
Steve chuckles. “I’m sure the ‘Big Man’ can make a few concessions. I promise not to tell.”
“I’ll hold you to it, Rogers.” Steve crosses his heart. “Brock drives me up the fucking wall. He dives like it’s a solo act. The first time we worked together, he took an extra breath before take-off and I was already halfway to the water by then. Coach thought I was a dumbass.” Bucky trails off.
“But you adapted, right?” Steve prompts. “You wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
“Yeah, we managed to make things work. Training is always so damn frustrating through. We fight all the time. I’m not trying to say it’s all Brock’s fault, because it isn’t. He’s a good diver. Way more experienced than I am. But I can’t shut up around him. He just makes me so mad, saying shit like I’m only here because I have connections, or that I’m holding him back. Even if he’s right, no one wants to hear that sort of stuff.”
Steve frowns deeply. “That’s awful, Buck. He has no right to treat you like that. It’s totally disrespectful. He’s lucky that you’re his partner and not me. I’d probably have sent him to the hospital by now.”
“It was a pretty close thing. It’s hard to be on the same wavelength as a person you hate. You just end up thinking about how much you want to shove the bastard beside you off the platform when you’re supposed to be concentrating.”
Steve bursts out laughing, throwing his head back and exposing the long column of his throat. The sound of it booms and echoes in the empty pool and Bucky’s own lips twitch upwards. He waits until Steve’s laugh peters off before apologising,
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to unload all of that crap on you. I don’t usually complain this much, I swear” Bucky rubs the back of his neck. “I’m just frustrated, you know? My entire family was here and I wanted to show them that they didn’t make a mistake by supporting me. My baby sister, she really looks up to me. And I screwed up. I just—shit.” Bucky buries his face into his palms and exhales noisily. “Sorry,” he says again. He fists at his eyes, refuses to cry in front of a person he’s only just met.
“Hey… It’s going to be okay.” Steve places a light, tentative hand from his shoulder. When Bucky doesn’t move away, Steve gives him a reassuring squeeze. ”You can recover from this. I’ve seen you dive before, and I just saw you dive right now. You’re good. I mean, yeah, you placed last. But you also placed last in the world championships. Most divers don’t even make it this far.”
Bucky manages a wobbly smile. In return, Steve beams at him, a megawatt of a grin that makes Bucky feel a little bit lighter.
* * *
Bucky watches the men’s individual ten meter platform event the next day. Steve is there. Bucky almost doesn’t recognise him. The blond lacks the warmth and softness of that morning when Bucky confided in him. Instead, he holds his posture ramrod straight, thick thighs brushing together with every confident stride. His chin is tipped up in challenge, the angles of his face hard as though cut from marble. He looks like a man who knows with a certainty he will be taking home a medal. It’s only now that Bucky realises how attractive Steve is, built like a Greek god, golden and a solid wall of muscle squeezed into tiny speedos. Want curls in Bucky’s stomach, immediate and unexpected. He wants this man—wants that same faith in his abilities for himself.
Watching Steve dive is like watching a knife drop. His form is tight and powerful, an exercise in laser-like precision. Bucky’s breath sticks in his throat when the blond finishes his forward 2 ½ somersaults and 3 twists with an entry so clean it’s as though the water had swallowed him. It’s enough to secure the silver medal, six points shy of China’s first place finish.
Afterwards, Bucky lingers for a full three hours for a chance to talk to Steve. It’s worth it when the blond looks up and catches sight of Bucky over the shoulder of the diver he was talking to. If Bucky thought Steve couldn’t look any happier than when he learned he won he won silver, he’s proved wrong now. The blond’s entire face lights up and he waves and calls, “Bucky!” before he pushes his way through the crowd. Bucky laughs, wiggling his fingers in greeting.
“Hi Steve,” Bucky says. He jams his hands into the pockets of his sweats, feeling ridiculously nervous now that he has all of Steve’s attention and the full force of his grin on him. “Congratulations on your win. You were amazing.”
Steve chuckles, rubbing the back of his neck bashfully. “Thanks. I tried.”
Despite the ease of their interactions, they leave Barcelona without exchanging contact information. Bucky thinks a lot about it later, when he’s on the plane headed back to New York. Wonders what it’d be like to dive with someone like Steve, who understands synchro partnerships better than Brock. Wonders about the kind of friendship that could form between them, and if it would lead to something more. Those long lashes and sinfully soft lips are a crime, and it’s scary how easily he’s able to imagine the way those lashes would flutter as he leans in to take those lips in his own. And if his daydreams turn into something fantastical, if he starts imagining him and Steve as gold medal favourites and winners in the Pan Am Games, in the World Championships, in the Olympics , no one has to know.
The plane shudders bodily as it passes through turbulence and Bucky is jolted out of his thoughts.
That got a little out of control there.
Oh well. Some things weren’t meant to be.
* * *
It takes Bucky three weeks for the humiliation of Barcelona to fade and for him to step back into the diving facility where he trains. He does, however, go right at dawn to avoid seeing the usual 9 AM regulars that have been following his progress since he was a kid.
Of course the first thing he sees is a familiar bob of blond hair.
“Shit,” Bucky curses, wheeling around to crouch behind a blue spotting block. He peeks past the corner of the block, hoping that he had mistaken someone else for Steve. Except those broad shoulders and chest are one in a million. The blond’s stacked with muscle, probably closer to two hundred pounds where most divers are compact and beneath 150, but he takes off like he’s weightless.
Even when Steve’s just jumping from a one meter springboard into the foam pit, the motion is clean and practised. Bucky can’t help but stare, subconsciously inching out from behind his cover.
“So what are we doing back here?”
“Jesus!” Bucky gasps, a little too loud in the morning quiet. He whips his head around and comes face-to-face with Clint who bursts out laughing at his reaction. “Oh my god, shut up,” Bucky hisses, clapping his hand over Clint’s mouth. Not that it does a damn thing to muffle his friend’s cackling.
Clint licks a wide stripe over his palm.
“ Ugh ,” Bucky says with disgust, pulling away and wiping his hand on Clint’s shirt. “You’re a nasty piece of work, Barton. Remind me again why I hang out with you.”
“Aw, fuck off, Bucky. I know you love me.”
Bucky rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I wonder about that sometimes.”
Clint just grins in return. “So who’s the hot blond we’re checking out? And I’m not referring to myself.”
“No one. We’re not checking anyone out,” Bucky says quickly.
“Okay, I don’t believe that. But okay.”
“I’m serious, Clint. Don’t be stupid,” Bucky warns. He knows that Clint won’t lay off him without more detail, so he adds, “He’s just someone I met while I was in Barcelona. He won silver in the ten meter individual. I talked to him for like, two minutes to congratulate him.” He doesn’t mention the part where he ranted and cried in front of this man.
“Are you sure he’s just an acquaintance? Because he’s coming this way and he looks like someone just told him he won the lottery.”
Bucky shoots up to standing, head spinning as blood rushes to his head. He stumbles into the block before righting himself. He flushes when he hears a wet ‘pfft’ coming from Clint.
“Hey, Bucky!” Steve calls, raising a hand in greeting. “I thought I heard your voice over here. It’s been a while.”
“Oh, Steve. Hi. I didn’t expect to see you here,” Bucky breathes, unable to meet the brightness of Steve’s grin for more than a second at a time. There’s no way this man doesn’t know how his smile affects people. He does not let his eyes trail down to Steve’s chest, knowing that Clint would notice and tease him about it. “This is my buddy Clint.”
“Hey man,” Clint says, reaching out to shake Steve’s hand. “I watched you dive on YouTube. Congrats on the medal, by the way.”
Steve laughs bashfully, turning a light pink as he thanks Clint. Bucky has no doubt that the blond received countless amounts of praise over the past few weeks, and yet he’s still endearingly shy about it.
“Anyway, I’m gonna go stretch and let you two catch up. Nice meeting you, Steve.” Clint claps Bucky on the shoulder and saunters off, looking over his shoulder to throw an obnoxious, exaggerated wink at Bucky.
“ Fuck you ,” Bucky mouths, before turning his attention back to the blond.
“How’ve you been?” Steve asks. His voice is quiet and gentle, genuinely concerned, and Bucky doesn’t get defensive the way he usually does when he’s asked that question.
Bucky shrugs. “I’ve been alright. This is my first time diving in about a month. I, uh, hit a rough patch after Barcelona and didn’t really feel like training.” Pierce had let him go, sat him down in an empty locker room and told him that he couldn’t help Bucky become a better diver right now. Lacking tenacity, Pierce had told him, though Bucky knew Pierce wanted to say he was lacking the skill. Though, he had also said, if Bucky ever found himself wanting to try again— really wanting it—then maybe they could work something out. Then, Pierce clapped him on the back and wished him good luck.
It felt like a goddamn breakup. Bucky almost cried right in the middle of it, too.
“I’m ready to try again now, though,” Bucky says loudly to pull himself out of his thoughts.
“That’s fantastic, Bucky,” Steve says. “I’ve already said this a hundred times, but it probably wouldn’t hurt for you to hear it again. You’re talented. Really ,” he stresses, when Bucky wrinkles his nose. “So I’m glad to hear that you’re going to keep on diving. It would’ve been a shame if you stopped.”
“Thanks. I needed to hear that,” Bucky sighs as he runs a hand through his hair. “You probably think I’m using you for free therapy and an ego boost. I’m not, I swear.”
Steve chuckles. “I hadn’t thought that until you brought it up. Anyway, I have to run. Got class,” he says. “But… maybe you can make it up to me with lunch? My treat.”
Bucky’s eyes widen and he glances up to see Steve looking at him hopefully. If he didn’t know better, he would think Steve was trying to ask him out on a date. But he does know better, and he knows that he always reads too far into words and actions. Friends can take each other out for lunch. When he realises he’s been quiet for a few seconds, he says, dry-mouthed, “I don’t think that’s how favours work, Steve.”
Steve’s smile falters a little. “Is that a no?”
“No! I mean, yes.”
“‘Yes’, that’s a no?” Steve clarifies.
Bucky huffs. “You asked a poorly worded question. I meant yes, I want to have lunch with you.”
“Great! How’s this Saturday, say 12?”
“Ok, that works for me.”
Steve hands him his phone and Bucky taps his number into it.
“I’ll drop you a text so you can have my number too,” Steve promises. “See you this weekend, then?”
“Yeah, see you,” Bucky echoes.
Clint’s back at his side as soon as Steve leaves. “I saw you two exchange numbers. Congratulations, when is the wedding?”
Bucky shoves Clint away by the shoulder, stalking off to do his warmups.
* * *
It’s half past eleven when Bucky arrives at a local burger joint. Beer and burgers! Steve had demanded over text. Chicken, broccoli and brown rice have been my life for the past three months.
He had arrived an entire half hour early, and he putters along the front of the diner to kill some time, not wanting to come off as too eager. After less than a minute of wandering aimlessly, he thinks ‘fuck it.’ It’s blazing hot and he’s starting to sweat at the pits. And there is no way he’s going to show up to a lunch (not) date with a hot guy, all sweaty and gross. It’s a better alternative for Steve to think that he had nothing better to do with his time than show up thirty minutes early. He checks his reflection in the window and straightens out his t-shirt one last time before entering.
To his surprise, he finds Steve’s hunched over a sketchbook near the back. A look of stern concentration is etched into his face, lips turned slightly downwards and forehead creased. Bucky stops in front of the table and clears his throat. Steve jerks and looks up, a blinding smile stretching across his face.
Steve flips his sketchbook closed with a flick of his wrists and slides it into his backpack. “Hey, Bucky! You’re early.”
“So are you.” Bucky slides into the chair across from Steve, trying not to hope too much that perhaps, Steve was excited to see him too.
“Someone had to come in and hold down a table before the lunch crowd.” Steve says sheepishly, “I forgot to make a reservation.”
“Well, in that case, thank you for offering yourself up as tribute. You should have texted me. I would’ve come early. It’s not like I was doing anything.”
Steve shrugs. “S’all right. I didn’t want to bother you. I was able to get some sketching done, anyways.”
“You draw? For fun or…?”
Steve nods. “Yeah, I’m majoring in fine arts at NYU—”
Bucky perks right up, because he goes to NYU. He has a feeling that he’s going to start seeing Steve everywhere now. Not that he’s complaining.
“—I do a bit of freelance work here and there, if I can find it. Mostly it’s just making posters and stuff for school events. I teach a few drawing classes for kids at a nearby studio. It’s not much, but it’s something.”
“That’s really great, Steve,” Bucky says.
“Thanks. It’s not much, but it’s something,” Steve says, even though to Bucky, it sounds like the blond has his life together, or at least knows what he’s after.
“I go to NYU too. So maybe… we could hang out? If you’re not sick of me by the end of today.”
“Yeah, I’d love that. Anyway, what do you do when you’re not diving?”
The waitress stops by to take their order and Bucky orders the most expensive burger on the menu. Like Steve, he’s also been strict with his diet leading up to his event, and the thought of an angus beef burger with a runny egg and crispy fried onions on top has him salivating.
Bucky tells Steve that he works a few shifts at the Y, lifeguarding and teaching swim lessons once a week. He shyly admits that he’s majoring in history and minoring in Russian. He knows what people say about students like him: wasting his and his parent’s money, working towards some dead end degree just so he can work odd jobs completely unrelated to his field of study. He’s had a few relatives say to him with a raised brow, “So what are you going to do with your degree? Open up a history store?”
But Steve bobs his head enthusiastically. It must be fate—not that Bucky really believes in it—or something, that Steve is a huge WWII buff.
He learns that Steve is a budding chef, who never quite made it out of the budding phase. Steve says with a look of consternation he doesn’t understand why the dishes he makes doesn’t taste nearly as good at the recipe author promised, even though he followed instructions to a T.
Steve is an animated talker, all raised brows and expressive gesturing. Bucky really can’t help his constant smile, or the way his eyes involuntary flicker down to Steve’s pinks lips.
They talk about books and movies Bucky gasps like he’s personally offended when Steve reveals he hasn’t watched a single Toy Story movie. “Steve, you uncultured swine! Okay, next time we hang out, we know what we’re doing.” When he brains catches up to what he just said, he backtracks, “Er, that is. Only if you want to. I’m not gonna make you. I mean, you’ve gone twenty years without watching the best Disney and Pixar movie, and you seem like an OK guy for the most part.”
Steve laughs. “Sounds like a plan to me.”
The lapse into a comfortable silence to eat their food, broken only by, “Holy shit, this is the best damn thing I’ve ever tasted,” and its variations.
After only smears of sauce remain on their plates, they sip at their beers.
“What got you into synchro?” Steve asks.
Bucky swirls his glass, the liquid sloshing up to the rim, before answering, “I grew up watching Olympic diving events. Every single diver there is amazing, but the synchro pairs? They’re so in synch it’s like watching a mirrored dive. I liked the relationships partners had, how they just knew each other. I wanted that for myself.” Bucky has a lot of opinions on this, ones that he’s never had the opportunity to share before. But Steve’s listening to him so sincerely and Bucky’s so enamoured by all the attention he’s receiving that he starts to blab a little.
“My coach thinks you can throw anyone together as long as they have the talent. But synchro is more than that, you know? When you’re up there, you have to trust that your partner is going to nail the dive and you can’t let them down. Then you forget about all of that and focus on yourself. You take off alone, but you hit the water a team. You own each other’s mistakes When you win, you win together too.” He finishes lamely. “It’s… a lot of trust and selflessness. I don’t really know how to explain it.” He’s embarrassed by his words after, and takes a gigantic gulp of his beer and downs half the pint to avoid looking at Steve.
“That sounds amazing, Buck,” Steve says, voice gone soft.
Bucky glances up to find that Steve had an elbow propped on the table, chin cradled in him. The floor of Bucky’s stomach drops away from him when he meets Steve’s gaze, fixated and full of intent.
Bucky looks away first. “Yeah, it’s pretty amazing,” he says finally.
“I want to give synchronised diving a try,” Steve announces. “I was sort of hoping you’d get me started.”
Bucky blinks owlishly. “What?”
“Do you want to dive with me?” Steve rephrases.
“Are you sure you’re asking the right person?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Bucky shrugs. “There are a lot of people out there better than me.”
Steve frowns. “Don’t discredit yourself like that. You just had an off day. You said it’d help if I worked with someone I didn’t hate. And I don’t hate you, so…”
“Lucky me,” Bucky says wryly.
Steve gives him a small smile. “But in all seriousness, Buck. Dive with me?”
“Wow,” Bucky breathes, heart stumbling in his chest. Holy shit, he thinks, Steve likes him enough to spend more time with him. Synchronised diving has always been an intimate experience for him. To have the opportunity to share this with Steve be dropped right into his lap? Bucky is all over that. He just has to let Steve know, because he’s been silent for a few seconds now, gaping stupidly. “Yes! Yeah, of course, Steve. I’d love to.”
* * *
After their lunch, Steve walks him all the way back to his apartment. It’s an hour’s walk in the opposite direction from where the blond lives, but the weather is gorgeous and Steve is being his kind and slightly awkward self. He’s got a pure and clean, if not a little outdated and cringy, sense of humour that Bucky can’t help but find endearing.
Bucky tries not to let his disappointment show when they finally arrive at his apartment. The blond shoves his hands into the pockets of his shorts, thanking Bucky once again for agreeing to get him started in synchro. He’s acting like Bucky just did him a huge favour, even though Bucky thinks it’s the other way around.
Their goodbye consists of a lot of shuffling at the door, but no actual leaving.
“I had fun today. We should do food again,” Steve says. “I am always ready and willing to eat.”
“Yeah, absolutely. I know a place. Have you been to Lee Yuen’s?”
“I sure do,” Steve says with a grin. “I can’t believe I’ve never seen you there. I’m there almost every day when I’m not in season."
They shoot off some of their favourite restaurants—”Jesus, Steve, you haven’t lived until you’ve had mac n’ cheese at Milne’s. It’s two days’ worth of calories in a single bowl, but god , it’s so worth it”—and that has Steve launching into a story about the time he projectile vomited all over the person in front of him on Coney Island’s Cyclone.
“I couldn’t even walk in a straight line once I got off,” Steve says. “I didn’t stand a chance against that guy and his buddies. I’m pretty sure I punched myself in the face trying to knock him one.”
“You couldn’t handle a rollercoaster and you somehow thought diving would be a good idea after that,” Bucky says amusedly.
“Well, I’m here now, aren’t I?” Steve leans against the doorframe and Bucky’s stomach actually explodes into butterflies. Maybe things are progressing too fast, but Bucky can’t deny the connection between them. That thought is tinged with wariness. He’s been on this Earth long enough to know that life loves to prove people wrong just when they think things are starting to look up again. He’s waiting for life to throw him that curveball, say with a cackle, “Surprise, motherfucker! You didn’t think I’d let you off this easily, right?”
But maybe there’s no catch. Steve’s smiling at him, body language casual and relaxed. Maybe Steve feels that connection too, plain and simple.
“We should hang out again. On campus or something,” Bucky says, and Steve’s already nodding. He has to bite back the grin tugging at his lips, his chest swelling embarrassingly. The quick agreement gives him that extra push to suggest, “Or maybe right now? You can come up if you don’t have anything planned.”
Steve’s phone rings then, a jaunty default tone. “One sec,” the blond says to him, then turns slightly to raise his phone to his ear. “Hey Peggy,” he says. There’s a soft fondness in Steve’s voice that has Bucky’s toes squeezing in his shoes even as an edge of panic tampers his mood. With a little huff, Steve says, “Jeez, and you call me the dramatic one.” Pause. “Yeah, I missed you too. I’ll see you in a bit.” He hangs up and gives Bucky an apologetic smile. “Thanks Buck, but I gotta run.”
“Girlfriend?” Bucky asks. He has to know, just to get it out of the way so he can start moving on if he needs to.
Steve turns a deep red at the question, the colour creeping up his neck and over his cheeks to his hairline. Bucky already knows the answer, and he’s never felt himself deflate so fast
“Um, no. Not a girlfriend.”
Somehow, Bucky manages to keep the smile plastered on his face. “But maybe someday, right?”
Steve shrugs and rubs the back of his neck.
“Well, don’t let me keep you, then.”
“See you around, Bucky!”
Bucky watches Steve’s back retreat. Then, he closes his door and thunks his forehead against it. “Fuck,” he whispers.
* * *
Bucky does not make a habit of getting up before noon on weekends.Yet when Steve texts him a day later asking if he’s available to train at 6 AM, he finds himself agreeing without a second thought.
Clint is shoving his head into his lifeguard t-shirt when Bucky arrives in the changing room, duffel bag of belongings slung across his chest.
“Morning,” Bucky grunts. He lets his bag slide from his shoulder onto the bench and pulls his shirt overhead.
Clint squints at him suspiciously. “Why are you here so early?”
Bucky bats his lashes exaggeratedly at his friend. “I came to see you.”
“Yeah right, Barnes. Even an earthquake couldn’t get you out of bed this early. What’s the real reason?”
Steve chooses that exact moment to enter the changing room and call out, ”Morning Buck!”
Something that can only be described as a Cheshire cat’s grin stretches across Clint’s face and Bucky’s cheeks go warm.
“Oh. I see. You—”
Alarmed, Bucky whispers frantically, “Clint, kindly shut the fuck up .” He shoots the approaching blond a sidelong glance.
Clint raises his hands in acquiescence and takes a step back, but Bucky can tell by the smirk on his friend’s face that this isn’t going to be the last of the teasing.
* * *
Their partnership is rough around the edges, only five months old and a second priority to their individual training. They don’t have a coach. Sometimes they spend the entire hour splashing each other with water or sitting at the edge of the pool and talking.
When he trains with Steve, there are no expectations. Bucky can’t remember the last time he’s had this much fun diving. In between competitions, the looming threat of being kicked off the team, and the heavy feeling in his stomach that he wasn’t good enough, diving became less a passion and more an obligation, something he dragged himself out of bed every morning to do because he’s been doing it for years.
He remembers the exhilaration now. Steve pushes him to be a better diver, confident in Bucky’s ability to execute a dive even when Bucky himself isn’t sure he can. The faith Steve places in him is overwhelming at first, when he isn’t sure he can deliver. There are times when he can’t. Steve just claps him on the back and says, “Let’s try again. We’ll get it this time.” And God, does Bucky respond well to loving encouragement. He soaks it right up.
He likes that he’s a pillar of support, too. Steve gets frustrated easily when he can’t meet the standards he set for himself; most are a scant millimeter out of reach. Those times, he’ll brush his fingers against Steve’s hand in a small gesture of support, and Steve will give him a tired smile, but it’s a smile all the same.
It’s so different from when he used to dive with Brock. With Brock, conversation was confined to the platform. But Steve—he can tell Steve anything. Sometimes Bucky spitefully wanted to see Brock fail a dive, just so he wouldn’t be the one getting it wrong all the time. He always wants Steve to succeed, even where he fails and it makes him feel small. He doesn’t feel annoyed when Steve misses a dive that he doesn’t.
Everything is just so easy between them. They squeeze each other’s shoulder. He asks Steve if he’s ready. Steve says yes. Bucky counts: three, two, one. They dive, two halves of a larger whole.
Then Steve says something that shakes their communication rituals: “‘Til the end of the line.” Bucky gapes the first time he hears it, forgets entirely what dive they were about to do. It sounds more like a marriage vow than anything. Steve turns a fire engine red but his voice is unwavering through explanation:
“Means that even when we think we have nothing else to give and standing on the platform makes us want to throw up, we’re going to keep going. Eyes on the prize. We don’t argue about whose fault it is. It doesn’t matter if one of us belly-flopped. Your mistakes are my mistakes. My successes are yours. We win together, and we lose together. We make a good team. And I know— I know —we can be even better. I want us to be in this for the long run.” Steve inhales deeply, then exhales through pursed lips. “I’m asking you to be my synchro partner. For real. In competition.”
If that isn’t a lifelong promise, Bucky doesn’t know what is. Bucky’s heart swells like a balloon. Heat blooms inside him, a shy curl of pleasure and excitement from the knowledge that he wasn’t the only one. Steve wanted this just as badly.
Steve looks increasingly crestfallen and embarrassed the longer Bucky stares at him in silence. He reminds Bucky of a puppy whose affections were rejected.
Bucky rushes to respond, “Jesus Christ, Steve. With the way you were talking, I thought you were trying to propose to me.” He grins. “Of course I’ll dive with you, you punk. You’re fucking amazing. It’d be a goddamn honour to.”
It starts as a widening of eyes and a slackened jaw. Then, a brilliant smile breaks across Steve’s face, eyes scrunching into sunny crescents and laughter lines deepening in the corners. Bucky stops breathing for a second.
Bucky makes fun of Steve about it later, after the roar of emotions that accompanied their new partnership settles into a constant buzz. He asks Steve if he had prepared a speech and practised it in front of the mirror. Steve chuckles and admits quietly, “Yeah… I may or may not have written a few drafts. Forgot most of the words when I actually asked you, but I think I got my point across.”
* * *
Bucky is vibrating with nerves from the moment he wakes up. Today is the day he and Steve are going to perform their routine in front of Steve’s coach, Fury, in hopes that he’ll take them on. People are seldom given second chances, and he doesn’t want to—can’t—screw this up. He’s built his entire life around his sport, and this time, he just might be able to dive with someone compatible to him.
But he’s still smarting from Barcelona, and can’t help but focus on everything that could go wrong. He and Steve walk to the aquatics center and Bucky unknowingly drags his feet the entire way, shoulders hunched inwards and head bowed. He can do this, he tells himself. He’s not going to screw up, even though his brain is convinced that somehow, he’s going to misjudge the distance between himself and the platform and end up scalping himself. It’s a ridiculous thought. He knows it, and yet…
“You feeling alright?”
Bucky jolts. “Oh,” he says, dazed. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay. Just nervous.”
“You got this, Buck. If you dive anything like when it’s just you and me, Fury will be falling over himself to coach you.” Steve smiles. “Not that he’ll make any indication of it, of course.”
Bucky thinks of a man with a single, stern eye and perpetual frown, so tall even he has to tip his head up. Fury’s a legend amongst American divers, winning Olympic gold and silver and several world championships in his two decade-long career as a competitive diver. To think that someone so renowned would give him the time of day has him feeling out of breath.
By the time Fury arrives, right at the arranged 9:30 AM, Steve and Bucky have finished warming up
“Fury, this is Bucky. I’ve told you about him,” Steve says.
Fury wears an eyepatch, but Bucky has a feeling he sees more with one eye than most people do with two. He finds himself wilting under the single eyed stare, but forces himself to smile as he shakes Fury’s hand. His hands are by no means small, but they’re dwarfed in the other man’s grasp. “Good to meet you, sir.”
“James Barnes,” Fury says, and Bucky jolts. He fails to hide his pleasure at being recognised, and as though Fury knows this, he flattens Bucky’s ego with his next words. “I watched you dive in Barcelona.”
Bucky swallows. “I’ve been practising since then.”
“So I’ve been told. Alright, let’s see what you two have got. Whenever you’re ready.”
Steve gives his shoulder a reassuring squeeze and then turns to head up to the ten meter platform. Bucky follows.
Bucky takes a running start, arms swinging to gather momentum, Steve matching his easy loping stride for stride. He launches himself off the platform, pulling his knees into his chest for a forward four somersault. Tight, unrushed rotations, just like they had practised. Water rushes towards him and he uncurls, lengthening out and punching into water as soon as he closes his eyes.
That felt good, the kind of dive with scores that would have had Brock telling him to keep it up. Bucky doesn’t let himself get cocky though. The dive is the easiest one on their list.
Fury doesn’t acknowledge them as they step out of the water and Bucky doesn’t think about what it might mean. He completes the rest of his dives in a trance, unaware of the shouts of other athletes and coaches in the adjacent pool, his vision tunneled so that it doesn’t even pick up on Steve’s take-off an arm’s span away from him. He dives like clockwork, hitting his cues and trusting that his body knows what to do as it falls.
After their tenth and final dive, Bucky pulls himself out of the water, a floaty feeling in his chest. His head still spins from all those somersaults and twists performed in quick succession. But beyond that, he’s proud. He knows when he misses a dive, and he hadn’t today. Maybe his hips weren’t in perfect alignment with the rest of his body in the back 2 ½ somersaults 2 ½ twists, but hopefully his other dives made up for that.
He feels a little less confident when Fury gives him a painfully neutral look. Not disappointed, but not impressed either. He looks to Steve uncertainly and the blond gives him a small smile.
“So?” Steve prompts.
“You two have potential,” Fury says.
Bucky’s brain translate this as: Which means you suck now.
The silence drags and Bucky swears Fury wants to see him squirm in anticipation. His confidence is withering away with each second. Just before he bursts out with, “Are you gonna coach us or what?”, Fury says, “I have a few things I can teach you two.”
Bucky exhales loudly and turns to Steve, finding the blond already looking at him with a huge grin.
Just as they’re about to leave, Fury calls Bucky over. Steve hesitates, but Bucky tells Steve to go ahead and that he’ll join him in just a bit.
When Steve is no longer is sight, Fury turns to him and says, “Barnes, I agreed to coach you because Steve vouched for you and because you showed a lot of potential today. But from what I’ve seen, you’re also one hell of an inconsistent diver. I don’t want any half-assed efforts from you. You’re either all in, or you’re out.”
“I’ll do my best and then some, sir,” Bucky promises.
Fury nods. “Good. That’s all I need from you.”
* * *
By the time Bucky has finished his plyometrics and barbell complexes for the day, he doesn’t feel like he has legs anymore. He wobbles over to the leg press and collapses onto it, setting the weight to ten pounds. He still has some ab work left to do, but he needs a break or he might lie down for a sit-up and never make it back up again.
Steve’s still going hard at it, though, having arrived just as Bucky was nearing the end of his workout. The blond had crammed physio, a dentist’s appointment, and a date with Peggy (“Not a date!” Steve insists, red-faced, when Bucky teases him about it) earlier in the morning.”
The leg press machine is the best seat in the house and Bucky gets to admire Steve’s national treasure of an ass as the man warms up for squats, increasing weight in increments of 45 pound plates.
Steve draws his weightlifting belt around his torso, further cinching in a tiny waist. “Gonna go for a PR in squats. Give me a spot, Buck?”
Bucky drags his eyes away from Steve’s bottom and says with some reluctance, “Yeah, sure.” He’s feeling hot under the collar and he’s worried that today might be the day he accidentally pops a boner watching Steve workout. He’s surprised it hasn’t happened already.
Steve stands before the squat rack, gripping the bar with both hands. Bucky gulps when he gets a gorgeous view of lats tightening in a smooth roll as the blond slides under the bar and unracks the weight.
Bucky steps in, arms curling beneath Steve’s armpits, and Jesus Christ, he’s a mere inch from getting a handful of those pecs. They stand close enough that dipping his head forward would have his nose buried in between sweaty shoulder blades. It could be their proximity, or it could be the smell of Steve’s sweat, mingling with the faint scent of the blond’s Irish Spring cologne. Whatever the reason, arousal stirs in his gut, warm and low.
Steve squats, his back a tense line, and Bucky mirrors him in a shallower motion. He should be paying attention, but he can’t help it when his eyes slip to trail down the blond’s back and linger on pert buttocks.
“That was easy,” Bucky murmurs when Steve stands, red-faced from exertion. “Can you do one more, Stevie?”
Bucky’s cock jolts when Steve manages a breathy, “Yeah,” and sinks down.
Steve struggles with the concentric portion of the lift, face screwed up in effort. His furrowed brows and tightly pressed lips could easily be mistaken for pleasure.
“Up, up, up,” Bucky encourages when the blond stalls.
With one last grunt—and isn’t that a sound to preserve in his memory—Steve straightens and reracks his weight. Breathing hard and grinning, the blond turns to Bucky and clasps his hand to draw him in for a hug. Bucky pats him on the back, careful to angle his lower body away.
“You make 365 pounds look easy,” Bucky says. He pulls away from Steve slowly, so that his hand runs down the blond’s spine and lingers at the small of his back before dropping away. “If you ever decide to retire from diving, you could always do powerlifting.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Steve teases.
“No way, I’d be a damn fool to give you up.”
Bucky finishes off his workout with hanging leg raises and afterwards doesn’t move from his supine position on the mats until Steve bodily hauls him up. They head over to the locker room, legs unsteady and shoulders bumping every second step.
Steve sits down on the bench and kicks off his shoes. “Can you help me get my sleeves off?”
“Jeez, Rogers, so demanding today. I did all the grocery shopping and cooking and I even did your laundry,” Bucky complains, but he’s already crouching down at Steve’s feet. “Next thing I know, you’ll be asking me to hold your dick while you take a piss.”
Steve’s already flushed from exertion, but he turns an impossibly darker shade of red at those words. “Bucky!”
Bucky laughs. He folds the material down and then pulls it down a muscled calf. Even the sight of Steve’s ankle , the sharp protrusion of bone, is enough to get him going. He eases Steve’s foot from the sleeve, eyes riveted to the gentle arch of feet in contrast to popping tendons as the blond wiggles his toes. Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with him? Next thing he knows, he’ll be drooling over Steve’s knees.
“You don’t have to treat me so gentle, Buck. Just yank them off.”
“And fall flat on my ass? No thanks,” he shoots back, though he takes off the last sleeve with less care.
Steve thanks him and opens his locker, rooting through his bag for a towel and his 4-in-1 (face, body, shampoo and conditioner) soap. Without a single glance at Bucky, he peels his shirt off and Bucky has to swallow down the tiny whimper that rises in his throat.
He turns away from Steve when the blond begins to pull his shorts down, less for Steve’s modesty and more for his own sake. Plastic curtains chafe against each other and metal rings clink behind him as Steve steps into a shower stall. Only when the shower turns on, does Bucky undress. By some miracle, he’s not rock hard. Maybe some day he’ll even build up an immunity to Steve’s charms.
Soaps in hand and towel thrown over his shoulder, Bucky takes the only other shower stall, the one beside Steve. He tips his face into the spray of water and sighs. It turns out that when you spend the majority of your waking hours in the presence of someone you really, really, like, it’s not easy to get over them. But he’d be damned if he got hard with Steve less than a foot away from him.
Even though Steve is naked. His tousled hair must be wet and plastered to his forehead by now. Bucky thinks of rivulets running down Steve’s torso, following the tapered vee of his abs, sliding lower and lower to catch in curls of dark blond hair.
Bucky’s cock gives an interested twitch and he scrubs his face, trying to get the image out of his head.
And then he hears Steve make a soft sound. His ears perk up and he freezes. He doesn’t even breathe.
There it is again: a tiny intake of breath, just barely audible over running water. He must be imagining it. Even if he wasn’t, there’s no way that sound is what he thinks it is. First of all, this is Steve , too good and pure to jerk himself off with someone else around. Oh, but wouldn’t that be the sexiest thing? Steve, a dirty freak beneath his golden boy persona; the kind of man who kisses you achingly sweet and calls you babydoll, then turns around and fucks you six ways to Sunday—Bucky cuts himself off before the thought develops. The blond’s just working out the soreness in his muscles. Bucky’s brain is just doing a damn good job of distorting it into something else.
He tells himself this, and yet he doesn’t continue on with his shower. Instead, he edges closer to the dividing wall.
A shuddering sigh, a sharp hitch of breath that’s quickly smothered. The sound of it, the cause of it, is unmistakable. Bucky’s brain shorts out as all the blood rushes to his cock.
Steve is fucking pumping one out beside him.
As though Bucky’s realisation is permission, Steve moans, poorly muffled. Does Steve have any idea how loud he is? Because Jesus Christ, if this is Steve trying to be quiet, he must be one hell of a screamer in bed.
Bucky’s cock hangs heavy between his legs and he thinks, fuck it. Biting down on his lower lip, he slides a palm down his stomach to grip his dick. He doesn’t even care if Steve is really just giving himself one hell of a massage. It sounds like jacking off to him, and that’s good enough to get him hot.
He imagines joining Steve in his stall, crowding the other man against the wall before sinking down to his knees to curl his fingers around the blond’s cock. Steve’s eyes would widen in surprise, a beautiful strangled sound—halfway between lust and shock—escaping his lips. He’d try to ask Bucky what the hell he was doing, words cutting off in a choked moan when Bucky takes the entirety of his length into his mouth.
He would be so good for Steve, moaning his pleasure and sucking enthusiastically; he’d jerk himself off, so Steve could see how much Bucky wanted this, how crazy the taste of Steve on his tongue made him. He imagines Steve giving in, the way the blond’s hand would go from keeping Bucky away to pulling him closer, keeping Bucky in place. Steve would thread his fingers into Bucky’s hair, keeping him in place while Steve fucked his face.
Bucky’s careful to keep his own breathing quiet, doesn’t dare make a sound even though his eyes are squeezed shut from the knowledge that Steve stroking his own cock just on the other side of the wall.
Steve begins to breathe harder, faster. He must be close. Bucky fucks into his fist, hand squeezing down tight when Steve gasps sharply. A whimper slips from him and Bucky shoves a knuckle into his mouth and bites down. He speeds up, twisting his wrist at the upstroke, wanting to come at the same time as his partner. Steve groans then, long, languid and loud . Bucky comes, teeth sinking into the first knuckle, hips stuttering as he shoots over his fist and stomach; silent, toes curled into wet tiles.
Bucky breathes again, head reeling. What the hell just happened? Does it mean something when a guy masturbates this close to you? Did Steve just have one hell of a (not) date with Peggy? He washes the traces of his release from the walls, wondering how he’s supposed to go out there and look Steve in the eye.
He rushes through the remainder of his shower so it doesn’t seem like he was doing anything suspicious. He wraps a towel around his waist and steps out at the exact same time as the blond. And Steve, that bastard, looks over to smile at him like nothing is wrong (Bucky refuses to consider that idea that Steve knows exactly what just happened between them); like Bucky isn’t one beat away from having a heart attack.
“You okay there, Buck?” Steve asks.
“Yeah,” Bucky says, nodding several times in succession. “Yeah, you know, I’m just. Phew.”
Steve raises a brow at him, and Bucky closes his eyes in mortification.
* * *
Bucky is slowly but surely moving into Steve’s apartment. He first notices it when he rolls off the couch and drags his feet to the bathroom where his toothbrush occupies a spot beside Steve’s in a porcelain holder. In the mornings, before his first cup of coffee, he navigates Steve’s kitchen with his eyes half-closed as easily as he moves in his own. His textbooks come next, filling up the spaces in his partner’s bookshelves. It’s followed by his laundry sneaking its way into Steve’s wardrobe. Jesus Christ, he realises with a shock, he’s going to smell like Steve’s detergent. (He does not , he will maintain for as long as he lives, lift up his shirt to breathe in Steve’s scent on him).
He hadn’t meant for it to happen. It was just more convenient. Steve’s apartment is a ten minute walk from the aquatics centre, and after a long day of training, he really doesn’t want to make the twenty minute train ride back home. It doesn’t hurt that he wakes up to Steve tunelessly singing Mariah Carey; it beats the blaring of his alarm clock any day.
They’re watching a spy comedy and Bucky’s wheezing with laughter, shoulders shaking and cheeks aching from the force of his grin. He turns to Steve, expecting to catch the tail-end of the blond’s laugh. Instead, he finds Steve smiling at him, eyes warm and fond. His own smile falters. Before it turns into an odd staring competition, he whacks Steve on the shoulder and says, “Come on, that was fucking hilarious.”
And that’s when Steve says to him, “You should move in with me.”
So Bucky does. Steve moves all his belongings into the room his mom occupied before she passed, and Bucky takes over Steve old room, hanging up his Star Wars posters and the childish drawings Becca gifted him. They do their grocery shopping together and brush their teeth together after breakfast. He gets to see his shoes beside Steve’s, and their jackets hanging up side by side in the closet.
He also gets to witness Steve mooning over Peggy.
* * *
Bucky hears Steve laughing through the door before he’s even in the apartment. He shifts all his grocery bags into one hand and shoves his key into the doorknob.
Steve’s on the couch chatting animatedly to someone on Skype. Peggy, no doubt. The blond throws his head back and laughs, exposing the column of his throat. Unnoticed, Bucky pads over to the kitchen and puts the groceries in the fridge. He thinks about sneaking back out again, so he won’t have to hear Steve’s belly-aching laughter caused by someone else that isn’t him. He closes the fridge and thunks his head against it; he can’t possibly be that pathetic.
“Buck, get over here!” Steve calls. “I have someone I want you to meet.”
Bucky takes a deep breath and forces a smile onto his face before stepping into the living room. Steve beckons him over. As soon as Bucky sits down, Steve winds an arm around him and reels him into his side so they’re both visible on webcam.
The woman Steve is talking to is gorgeous, with fiery red curls and a fierce set to her jaws. She gives him a brilliant, straight-teethed smile as he settles into Steve’s side, and he’s honestly winded by it.
Steve says, “Buck, this is my best friend Peggy.” His hand tightens on Bucky’s bicep. “Peggy, this is Buck, my synchro partner. He’s amazing, Pegs. The best damn diver you’ve ever seen.”
Bucky laughs and bats his lashes, giving Steve his best coy look. “I’m only as good as my partner,” he says, and Steve rolls his eyes. He turns back to Peggy. “What’s a beautiful woman like you doing hanging out with someone like Steve?”
From beside him, Steve snorts and mutters, “Bucky, you dog.”
“Somebody has to keep him in line,” Peggy says with a smile.
“How did you two meet?” Bucky asks.
A grin creeps over Peggy’s face, and Steve warns, “Peggy, no.”
“We met back in elementary school, but didn’t start talking until a field trip to the swimming pool…”
Steve’s giving Peggy his saddest eyes and Peggy barrels on, completely unaffected. Bucky’s a little envious; it’s been over a year since they’ve met, and he still hasn’t built up an immunity towards that look.
“Steve and his big mouth bragged that he dove off the ten meter platform on a daily basis. He claimed that he could do somersaults and swan dives off it. The class bully overheard and demanded he prove it. I’ve never seen anyone turn a sheet white so fast.“ Peggy shakes her head in amusement.
Beside him, Steve groans and hides his face in his hands. “Peggy, I was nine. You can’t make fun of me for things I did as a child,” he says indignantly. “I was trying to impress you.”
Peggy continues, “Steve was up there for thirty minutes, trying to gather up the courage to jump. When he finally did, he screamed the entire way down.” She sighs. “Everyone expected you to back out, you know? You would’ve been made fun of, of course, but things like that are forgotten quickly enough. But you didn’t. You were always so stubborn and dramatic,” she says, giving Steve a fond look that Steve returns in kind.
Bucky coos through the ugly feeling in his chest. “Well, did it work, Peggy? Were you appropriately impressed by Steve’s bravery?”
“I was,” Peggy says with a nod. “I’m glad to finally be able to put a face to your name, Bucky. Steve won’t shut up about you. He’s very happy to be working with you.”
“Is that right? What has he said about me?”
Peggy opens her mouth to speak, but Steve speaks over her in a rush. Bucky doesn’t even have the time to think about what Steve is trying to hide, because the blond blurts out, “Only that I’m going to take you to the Olympics.”
It takes a few seconds for the words to sink into his brain.
Bucky’s eyes widen and he turns to face Steve.
Steve flushes red and ducks away from his gaze. “I-I mean, I really feel like we can do it.”
Bucky has an Olympic dream, same as any other competitive athlete. It’s a dream that seemed a lot less attainable as he grew up and realised the limits of his body. Hearing that from Steve, words rushed but full of conviction, has a warmth expanding in his chest. It’s not something Steve would say on a whim, which means Steve had thought about this. Had stood beside Bucky on the platform, and at a point between takeoff and entry, thought that Bucky was someone he could face the Olympics with.
He thinks Bucky is good enough for that.
Bucky makes a tiny noise of disbelief and comes within an inch of grabbing Steve’s face and kissing him stupid.
“I’m serious,” Steve says, eyes fixed on him. “Don’t you think we’re good enough?”
“I-I don’t know. Yes? I think you are, at least.”
Steve frowns at him. “You’re good enough, Buck, and you’ve gotten even better since we started training together. I know we’re never going to be as good as we want to be, but that’s what makes us athletes. We always have to keep pushing, because otherwise we become stagnant. And I know that with more practise, you and I could be real good. I’m not just saying this because you’re my synchro partner.”
By the end of his speech, Steve’s a bright red all the way up to his hairline and Bucky doesn’t think he’s far off, if the heat burning his cheeks is anything to judge by. Bucky looks away first. “Ugh,” he says. “You’re making me blush, Steve, getting all sappy on me like that.”
Steve huffs in laughter and glances at him from beneath his lashes, gorgeous and coy, that adorable blush still staining his cheeks.
Peggy coughs lightly and both he and Steve snap their attention back to her. “Anyways, I have to run, boys,” she says. There’s a wistful quality to her smile that Bucky doesn’t know how to place. “It was nice to meet you, Bucky. Take care, Steve. I’ll message you later today.”
* * *
Most mornings, Steve wakes up before him to get coffee going.
Bucky rubs the sleep from his eyes and shuffles over to the kitchen, where Steve is already clanging about. Steve hasn’t noticed him yet, back turned to Bucky. Bucky leans against the open doorway, hands stuffed into the pockets of his sweats, and watches the blond work.
The sight of a sleep-rumpled and gorgeous blond in the kitchen is one he could get used to. Steve has a ridiculous bedhead, tufts of blond hair sticking up every which way. He’s wearing pajama bottoms and a threadbare shirt that’s nearly translucent in the morning light. Bucky follows the muscled lines of Steve’s forearms; the blond’s hand is comically large in contrast to the bowl he’s holding. Steve hums as he beats eggs, and Bucky’s stomach clenches with want.
Steve helicopters over the bacon and scrambled eggs in the pan, stirring them carefully. PopTarts spring from the toaster and Steve breathes out a surprised, “Oh, gosh,” and Bucky has to muffle a laugh with the back of his hand. Steve turns around, a sheepish smile on his face at having been caught.
“Morning, Buck. You’re up early.”
“You’re making such a ruckus in here I couldn’t sleep.” Steve apologises but Bucky waves him off. He pushes himself off the wall and pads over. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Making you breakfast.” Bucky raises a brow at the open containers of PopTarts on the counter and the plate of scrambled eggs so overcooked they’re brown and rubbery. Steve amends, “I’m trying to, at least.”
Bucky laughs again. Steve couldn’t be any more endearing if he tried. “Sit down. I’ll do the rest.”
“Nope, not happening. You always cook for me.”
Bucky smirks. “There’s a reason for that, pal.”
“Oh, just sit down. I’m not gonna poison you. Leave breakfast to me.” Steve places his hands on Bucky’s shoulders and pushes him into a chair. It’s another fifteen minutes before breakfast is ready, and Bucky pours each of them coffee during that time.
“Carbs,” Steve announces, setting down a plate of PopTarts, oatmeal, and berries before Bucky. “Protein and fats.” Leathery scrambled eggs, extra lean breakfast sausages, and extra crispy—burnt, the less smitten part of Bucky observes—bacon. Steve pokes his head into the fridge and comes out with a carton of egg whites, which he also sets on the table. “Here, more protein.”
Bucky blinks. “Uh… You want me to make an omelette or something?”
Steve looks at him, confused. “No. Just drink it from the carton,” he says, mimicking drinking motions.
“Steve! That’s gross.”
“They’re pasteurized,” Steve defends. “It says so on the carton.”
Bucky rolls his eyes and makes his way over to the stove, shaking the carton as goes. “I don’t care. I’m not drinking slime.” He turns on the heat. “You can start without me.”
Steve joins him at the stove instead, placing spinach, cheese, and milk on the counter.
It’s odd, how easily they fit together in the cramped kitchen, like they’ve known each other for years. Bucky dances around Steve as he makes a spinach and cheese omelette, taking half-turns to avoid smacking into the other man. He doesn’t have to look, just knows that Steve is there, that he better take a step to the left because the blond’s going to accidentally knock the salt from his hands with an elbow.
“Steve, really, get out of the kitchen if you’re just gonna get in the way,” Bucky huffs, lips twitching upwards.
“I’m helping,” Steve says, dutifully, but unnecessarily hovering over the eggs.
“The eggs will cook even if you’re not looking.”
He bumps his hip against Steve, and he’s nudged right back, their hips knocking together like the spheres of a Newton’s cradle. Then Steve shoves him with enough force to make him stumble. Bucky yelps. Before he sprawls flat on his ass, Steve’s arm shoots out to catch him around the waist, fingers tightening into his side. He’s part way to fallen, back bowed over Steve’s arm. Somehow, his hands had ended up fisted into Steve’s shirt. His damsel-in-distress position would be funny if Steve weren’t looking at him with so much concern, if their points of contact weren’t alight with fire.
Bucky just barely stops himself from licking his lips in time. That would’ve been a dead giveaway.
“You okay there?” Steve asks.
Bucky swallows and wills his fluttering heart to calm. He finds his footing and wiggles out of Steve’s arm, doesn’t let this become a moment. He tugs at his collar to straighten it out. “Yeah, I’m good.” More gruffly, “Now outta the way before the eggs burn.”
Like he was saying: they have an awareness of each other. It’ll make them good synchro partners.
* * *
Bucky celebrates his 22nd birthday with Clint, Steve, and two of Steve’s friends, Sam and Natasha, who are just as unfairly hot as Steve. At least Peggy isn’t there, off somewhere in South Africa as an assistant to a foreign delegate. For a brief moment, he wonders how he’s supposed to have a chance with Steve when these are the kind of people the blond associates with.
Sam tells him embarrassing stories about Steve as a kid and makes Bucky laugh so hard that he curls up like a pillbug and clutches his stomach. From the corner of his eyes, he notices Steve shaking his head and smiling.
He’s pretty sure that in a few short hours, Clint has developed a huge crush on Natasha. He presses his shoulder against hers as they play Mario Party and laughs embarrassingly loud at her dry jokes. Bucky tucks that new found information away and vows to conspire with Steve to set them up, see how Clint likes it when he’s on the receiving end of bad matchmaking.
They play Cards Against Humanity, their high school-aged humour revealing itself in the form of dick jokes. They eat a lot of pizza and chips but they drink diet Coke. ‘I’m disappointed in you,’ a voice in his head says, as Bucky crams a handful of barbecue chips into his mouth. The voice sounds suspiciously like Fury. Bucky gets up and makes a tiny bowl of salad for himself and Steve.
Later, Bucky’s whisked away into the kitchen. Steve sets his hands on his shoulders and pushes him down to sitting in front of his cake. Bucky wrings his hands and smiles awkwardly while the others stand and sing him Happy Birthday, their voices surprisingly harmonious. Once the song is over, Bucky claps and laughs. Just as he’s about to say, “Wow, you guys are good,” Steve shoves Bucky’s face into the cake.
Bucky can only gape stupidly at the mould of his face indented into the cake, his own face covered with icing. He expected that from Clint, but from Steve?
Bucky hates that he can’t even be mad at his partner, not when Steve himself looks shocked. His ears are pink and cheeks red, like he’s simultaneously pleased and frightened at how Bucky will react. Bucky worries that one day, Steve will find out that it takes a lot for Bucky to get mad at him, and he’ll use it to his advantage.
Clint lets out a wet pfft noise. “Oh my god, I didn’t actually think he’d do it.” Then he shouts, “Lick it off, Steve!” and Sam and Natasha cackle in agreement, chanting, “Lick it off, lick it off!”
“You guys are disgusting,” Bucky says, wiping the icing from his eyes with a napkin. He glares at Steve, though the effect of it must be diminished by the fact that he has whip cream in his hair and eyebrows and up his nose. “I trusted you. I thought we were partners.”
Steve gives him an innocent little shrug.
* * *
Bucky orders a black coffee and a breakfast bagel from a local cafe and slides into the seat opposite to Clint. They grunt sleepily at each other as a substitute for good morning. Bucky reminds himself to buy a half-dozen sun dried tomato bagels for Steve before he leaves. He’ll have to stop by the grocery store for some garlic and herb spread, too. Steve loves bagels, would eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if their meal plan allowed it.
Steve has an endearing habit of asking, “Hey Buck, did you bring me food?” whenever Bucky comes home from an outing. He always beams as bright as the sun whenever Bucky says yes, so Bucky does his best to bring home a treat, without making it seem too obvious that he’s harbouring a huge crush.
“Huh, so that’s what you look like when you’re in love.”
Bucky chokes on his bagel, spraying crumbs everywhere. Clint wrinkles his nose as Bucky hacks away, pounding his chest with a fist to dislodge a stubborn piece. Afterwards, he glares at Clint through watery eyes and says with a shot voice, “What the fuck, Clint? I’m not.”
Clint grins widely. “Dude, I’m partially deaf, not blind,” he reminds Bucky, tapping his hearing aids. “I saw the way you looked at him on your birthday.”
“It’s not like that. He’s just my partner,” Bucky insists. He gulps down some water and then bites into his bagel, chewing violently. He likes Steve. He’s even willing to admit he has a crush on the blond, but he’s not in love with him.
Though if he gave himself enough time—if he let himself—he could probably get there.
He tries not to think about that, though.
“Do you wanna fuck him?”
‘Yes,’ he thinks, ears burning. But it’s not like you have to love someone in order to fuck them. He wants to tell Clint this, but the words won’t form themselves. Clint must notice the tips of his ears colouring, because the blond waggles his brows obnoxiously and goes, “ Oooooh! ”
“For god’s sake, Barton! I’m not having this conversation with you.”
“Fine,” Clint relents and changes subject. “How’s training going for you?”
“Really good.” He tells Clint that he’s finally able to nail his twisters eight times out of ten and that Fury actually smiled at his improvement. They’re on track to compete in the world championships this summer. Bucky’s a bit wary to mention Steve, worried that Clint will pick up a trail and turn the conversation back to his relationship with the man. He only realises now much he talks about his partner when tries to catch and stop himself before he does it.
“I’m really happy for you,” Clint says, and Bucky tries to come up with a sarcastic retort, but Clint looks and sounds uncharacteristically serious. “I know you were miserable the two years you spent diving with Brock and after Barcelona… I was really worried about you. We all were. You weren’t in a good place and I was frustrated that I couldn’t do anything.” Clint huffs out a breath. “But Steve was able to make you excited about diving again.
“You probably think I’m just trying to set you up with people like I always do,” Clint says. “Which I am, don’t get me wrong. It’s just—I don’t know about you, but it’s actually so hard to find someone you like. And Steve makes you so happy. It wouldn’t be bad, would it?”
Bucky fumbles with his napkin, tearing strips off the edge and rolling them into balls. Finally, he says shyly, “Steve said he was going to take me to the Olympics.”
“I don’t want to ruin what we have.”
Clint rolls his eyes. “Come on, Buck, Steve looks at you like the sun shines out of your ass. You’re not going to ruin anything.”
Bucky scowls. “What I have right now with Steve is really good. I might never find another partner like him again. I don’t want to risk it by getting my feelings involved, okay? It’ll just complicate things if we’re in a relationship.” He takes another bite of his bagel and shrugs, thinks about the late nights Steve has because he was staying up hours past his bedtime to talk to Peggy. He remembers their quiet laughter, audible through the walls of their apartment, even when he pulled the covers over his head. He adds, “Besides, I think he has someone else.”
“I bet that’s the real reason you’re not making a move.”
Bucky chuffs out a laugh and scrubs his face. “Okay fine, but you’d get cold feet if you met her, too. She’s Steve’s best friend and she’s gorgeous like you wouldn’t believe. Fuck, they’re both so far out of my league we’re not even playing the same game.”
Clint smirks, lopsided and mischievous. “So? Fight her and win. You’re hot, Bucky. She might be his best friend, but you’re his synchro partner. That’s a whole ‘nother level. You guys probably share dreams or some shit.”
Jesus, if Steve knew the kind of dreams Bucky was having about him…
2015, FINA World Championships
They check-in into the hotel three days before their event. Their room is simply furnished, with two twin-sized beds and a nightstand beside each. A small wardrobe is pressed against the left wall. The window overlooks the city of Kazan, with its brightly coloured roofs, squat buildings and paved streets.
Bucky sets up his toiletries in the bathroom. He roots through his suitcase to pull on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt. Then he crawls into bed, letting out an absolutely pornographic moan and as his tight muscles finally uncoil after a fifteen hour flight.
He turns his head to the side to watch Steve sort through his belongings through bleary eyes. Steve hums quietly as he works, fresh-faced and radiating excitement. The blond had conked out for a good eight hours, his head heavy on Bucky’s shoulder, snuffling into the blanket he rented. He’s the only person Bucky knows that can actually sleep on a flight.
Bucky can’t pinpoint the moment he fell asleep. One second, he was watching the flex and roll of Steve’s back muscles as the blond unpacked. The next second, Steve’s shaking him awake at 3 PM the following day and complaining that he’s hungry.
With a grunt, Bucky rolls out of bed and lets Steve pull him along in search of food.
* * *
The elevator doors slide open and Bucky steps out, freezing mid-motion when he sees Brock coming towards them. His former partner hasn’t noticed them yet, head bowed over his cellphone. He wheels around and tries to nudge Steve back into the elevator. “Hey Steve, I left my wallet in our room. Let’s go back and get it?” He’s not running away. He just doesn’t want any bad vibes before his event.
“Don’t worry about it. I brought mine.”
Bucky pulls his cap lower over his eyes. “Come on, it’ll only take a second.”
“Hey, James!” Brock calls.
“Ah, fuck.” Bucky takes a deep and turns around, smile plastered to his face. “Brock. Hi.”
Brock claps a hand over his shoulder. “I’m surprised to see you here.” He’s still an assholel Brock should know everyone on the team. Bucky’s glad to know some things never change.
If he’s honest, Bucky’s surprised to be here too, but hearing it from Brock has him bristling. He gives his former partner a tight smile. He’s not going to be the guy that talks shit only to flop all his dives. Not that he has any intention of flopping.
“You here to watch or compete?”
“Compete,” Bucky grits out.
Brock turns to Steve. He holds out his hand and Steve takes it. “Hey, Rogers. Nice dive last year. Planning to take home another medal this time?”
“Yeah, in the ten meter synchro,” Steve says, face hardened, no smile. “Buck’s my partner.”
Bucky sinks a little into himself. He’s here to win just like any other athlete, but the faith Steve has in him and the verbalization of it in front of someone who’s never thought much of his abilities… It’s enough to make anyone feel pressured.
Brock raised a brow. “Well. I don’t envy you right now.”
Bucky wants to say something, blurt out that he earned his right to be here just like any other athlete. Instead, clenches his jaw so tight that he can hear his teeth grinding in his ears. But his diving self-esteem isn’t the greatest right now, no matter what Steve and Fury says. He can’t help but think they’re more like proud parents, unable to see the flaws in their children. Even though he knows from firsthand experience that Fury is the furthest thing from that.
“You got something to say, just say it,” Steve says.
“Come on Steve, let’s go,” Bucky says quietly, wrapping a hand around the blond’s elbow. Steve doesn’t budge.
“I’m just saying James isn’t the easiest person to work with. He gets pretty angry and defensive when you try to give him pointers.” Brock says. “You probably know what I’m talking about. Does he still miss his easy—”
Steve cuts him off coldly, “You best watch how you speak about my partner. Synchro partnerships aren’t a one-way street. Maybe instead of insulting Bucky, you should take a look at your own shortcomings.”
Brock raises both hands in acquiescence. “Whoa, chill out man. Don’t need to get so angry.” He’s smirking, one side of his lips twisted up. He knows exactly what effect his words have. “We’re all on the same team here, so good luck to you.” He turns and walks away from them, throwing over his shoulder, “You’ll need it.”
Steve steps towards him with a snarl and Bucky reels him back with an arm around his waist.
“Just drop it, Steve!” he says. “Not worth the fight.”
Steve huffs, glaring darkly at Brock’s receding back. He looks furious enough to deck Brock even though they’d get kicked out. Only when Steve relaxes, does Bucky loosen his hold.
“I can’t believe that asshole was your partner. Why didn’t you say anything?”
Bucky shrugs. “Didn’t want to be eating my words later.” When Steve gives him a pained look, he amends, “You know, just in case. Don’t worry Steve, I’m not gonna let you down.”
“I wasn’t worried about that. I know you won’t.” Steve drapes an arm around his shoulders. “Don’t let him get to you, Buck. He’s just trying to mess with your head. You’re an amazing diver, and Brock’s head is just too far up his own ass to see it.”
* * *
Nobody so much as glances at Steve and Bucky. They're an unproven team made up of a rookie and a veteran whose golden days are long over. Whereas some partners have been diving with each other for a decade, Steve and Bucky only started working together two years ago. China’s the only competition here, and everyone's looking to dethrone the kings.
The Chinese duo share the same brain. It just exists in two separate bodies. That’s the only explanation Bucky can come up with for their flawless coordination, their ability to elevate a simple back dive in pike to an entirely new level. If Bucky didn’t know better, he would be convinced that the Chinese government programmed robots in their state-of-the-art facilities for the sole purpose of diving.
Bucky steps onto the pool deck. He concentrates on the cool smoothness of the tiles beneath his feet, the roughness of the stairs against his soles, and Steve radiating heat at his side.
He hears Steve say, “Ready,” like they’re underwater, muted and distorted. He springs off, entirely focussed on his own dive, trusting Steve to deliver.
* * *
They duck their heads under the shower after their fourth dive. Bucky sighs as the hot water soothes his muscles. Steve wipes the water from his face and gives him a small smile, shakes his limbs out to loosen his nerves. The blond’s chest rises and falls, strong and steady as he inhales deeply to settle his breathing.
They’re quiet as they wait for their next dive, but Bucky has a pretty good idea of what’s going through Steve’s head. The thought had flashed through his mind when he saw their score.
He tries not to let it get to his head, knows that rankings can do a complete reversal with a single dive.
But they might actually win this.
* * *
The Chinese pair dip their heads to accept their gold medal without so much as a smile. This is just another Sunday morning practise dive to them. Zheng and Lau had maintained their lead throughout the entire competition, finishing thirty points ahead of the silver medalists—them. Jesus Christ, they won silver . Bucky turns to inform Steve of this, just in case he hasn’t quite processed it yet either.
Steve looks at him, so, so soft and fond and delighted, eyes bright and grin even brighter. The colour is high on his cheeks and his hair’s still sticking up from when he had ruffled a towel through it. Bucky’s heart trembles in his chest and he knows from here on out, he wants to be the one to put that look on Steve’s face.
“Nice job, Buck.”
“You weren’t so bad yourself.”
Bucky feels like an oversized puppy next to the gold medalists. A little stupid, too. He’s smiling so hard his cheeks hurt from the force of it and he keeps bumping up against Steve to assure himself that this is real; that Steve is beside him and they’re on the podium.
* * *
As soon as they’re back in New York, he and Steve meet up with Natasha, Sam, and Clint for celebratory drinks at their local social house.
The ceiling lights hang low, soft and dark and intimate; the tables are lacquered cherry wood and the faux-leather seats are mahogany to match. Steve’s in a happy mood, pulling out a chair for him and then taking a seat at his side.
Steve buys the first round of drinks, tips his glass towards Bucky. “You were amazing yesterday, Buck. There isn’t anyone out there I would rather dive with.”
“Right back at you, pal,” Bucky says, clinking his glass against Steve’s.
Bucky thinks it’s impossible for the day to get any better. He hasn’t stopped grinning since this morning and Steve looks absolutely adorable, cheeks flushed pink and restless with excitement. He keeps nudging Bucky in the side, setting a hand on his knee, draping an arm around his shoulders. Bucky loves all the attention he’s getting from Steve, all the attention they’re getting as a unit.
While neither of them say it, Bucky’s sure the exact same thing has crossed Steve’s mind: if they keep this up, they could qualify for the Olympics.
“Be right back,” Bucky says. He heads over to the bar with the intent of buying one of those local pale ales that Steve is so fond of. On his way there, he makes eye contact with a muscled brunet, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties. The man sits with a group of his friends, but smiles at him invitingly. Bucky nods at him, but walks right by.
Bucky rocks back and forth on his heels as he waits for his drinks, urges his heart to still.
He’s been thinking a lot about his feelings for Steve lately, the easy trust and affection between them. It’s enough that he thinks he’ll go insane if he doesn’t do anything about it. Bucky has been friends with Steve long enough to know (hope?) that even if he doesn’t return Bucky’s feelings, he won’t let it get in the way of their goals. With encouragement from Clint in the form of texts that read ‘WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO TELL HIM???’, he’s been working up the courage to confess.
Today is as good as any day, and as of last night, Steve’s Facebook status still reads Single.
The bartender hands him the drinks. Bucky’s palms are sweating and he’s worried the glasses will slip from his hands.
This would be so much easier if Steve realised Bucky liked him. He hasn’t exactly been subtle, brushing their fingers together when they walked; pressing his face against Steve’s neck to muffle his laughter; napping on his shoulder during bus commutes. He can’t get much more obvious than that.
Unless Steve does know, and isn’t doing anything about it because he doesn’t feel the same.
Fuck, he’s going to talk himself out of this if he stands here any longer. He takes a sip of the beer in his hand, and then downs a bigger gulp.
Bucky takes a deep breath and turns around, just as the front door opens. The grin slides off his face when he recognises Peggy.
She’s even more stunning in person. Her lips are red and the matching dress clings to every inch of her curves. Her eyes settle on Steve, who has yet to notice her, even though the rest of the bar and their friends certainly have. Her hips sway with every confident placement of heeled shoes as she makes her way over to the blond. Bucky thinks hazily this is a woman who knows what she wants and goes for it.
If Bucky weren’t already conflicted about meeting Peggy, this moment would have done it for him.
Once Steve notices her, his entire demeanour lights up: he sits up taller and he pulls his shoulders back. A wide grin breaks across his face. The blond slides out of his seat, striding towards Peggy with his arms outstretched. They met halfway, catching each other in a hug. The hug looks like one more suited to lovers, the entire lengths of their bodies meshing together, her soft feminine curves filling in his hard masculine lines, and Bucky feels the floor of his stomach drop away.
Steve guides Peggy to their table with a hand on the small of his back. Peggy takes the seat beside Steve. His seat.
Bucky drags his eyes away from the sight, a sour taste in his mouth. He stares at the drinks in his hands, a little lost. Friends reuniting after a year apart. That’s all it took to sap the courage from him.
Someone plucks a beer right out of his hand, jolting Bucky out of his self-pity. He peers up to find Natasha.
“Thanks for the drink, James. You shouldn’t have.” She smirks at him, expression softening when Bucky just looks at her blankly. She hooks an arm through his and tugs him off to the side. “Do you have any idea how obvious you are? You look gutted.”
Bucky looks down at his sneakers and shrugs. Since Natasha’s already figured out, there’s no harm in him asking, “You think Steve knows I like him?”
“Steve? Probably not. He’s an idiot.” Natasha sighs and nods over to where Steve and Peggy are sitting. “There’s a lot of love between them, but not the kind of love you think.”
Bucky finds that kind of hard to believe.
“You think too much,” Natasha says firmly. She sets a hand on his shoulder and nudges him towards their table.
The problem is, as much as Bucky tries, Peggy is a hard woman to hate. He had let Brock wear him down to the point his backbone was as firm as a noodle, and he hates himself for it. But Peggy is everything he wants to be: confident and whip-smart, doesn’t take shit from anyone. She tells them how a month earlier, a coworker had slapped her ass and squeezed it, trying to pass it off as a gesture for a job well done. She punched him in the face and got away with it without a single reprimand. Even got secretive low-fives beneath desks from her coworkers and boss.
Sam whistles and says, “Wow, you are one hell of a woman,” as Clint laughs his ass off and wheezes, “No way! I don’t believe you.” Even Natasha seems impressed, lips lifted in a smirk and a neatly groomed eyebrow raised. Steve looks at Peggy in awe and Bucky doesn’t blame him, even though his gut clenches.
She tells them that she had stopped by to see Maria just a few days earlier, and that leads into conversation about how their mutual friends are doing. It’s familiar and easy conversation, littered with inside jokes and borderline rude remarks that only close friends can make. Even Clint manages to wedge himself into the group. Bucky just listens quietly, feeling like he’s hovering awkwardly at the edge of a crowd, peering in.
He sips at his beer and wonders how much longer he has to stay here until he can make an excuse to leave. He surveys the room and finds the brunet from earlier at him staring at him. The man immediately averts his eyes, but a second later, he’s looking back up again and wearing a cheeky grin.
Bucky smiles back, uncertain. He thinks maybe he should just say fuck it to the conversation he’s not really a part of and try his luck elsewhere. He’s willing to bet that as soon as he’s alone, that man’s going to come introduce himself.
It’s decided: he needs to get laid tonight. All this sexual tension has been building up inside him ever since he met Steve, and he hasn’t had an outlet other than his hand. Things had just kept popping up: that new dive they wanted to perfect, hours of training that left him drained.
“I’m gonna go to the bar for a bit,” Bucky says quietly.
Clint turns to him, brows furrowed with concern. “I’ll come.”
“No, don’t,” Bucky says. When Clint gives him a questioning look, he adds, “This guy’s been checking me out for the past hour and I’m going to try my luck. I can’t flirt with you there.”
“What? Why the hell not?”
“You know the answer to that question, you asshole. You’re just going to make gagging faces at me the whole time.”
“Aw, hey, fuck you,” Clint says good-naturedly. “I’m the best wingman a person could ever have.”
“You keep telling yourself that.” Before Clint can retort, Bucky stands up and tells the group that he’ll be back in a bit. He doesn’t add that if he plays his cards right, he won’t be back at all.
He’s only halfway to the bar when someone grips him by the shoulder and wheels him around. He comes face to face with Clint. “Come on, man, you’re not really doing this, are you?”
“Jesus, Clint. You’ve been trying to set me up for ages and now that I’m going to talk to someone, you’re telling me not to?” Bucky shakes off Clint’s grip and smoothes out his shirt. “Make up your damn mind.”
Clint continues to frown at him. “Yeah, but this is different.” He runs his fingers through his hair and sighs. “Look, you can do whatever you want. But this kind of feels like you want to sleep with this person because you want to make Steve jealous, or whatever. Not because you’re actually attracted to him…”
Bucky feels himself heat up with shame at being read so easily. “Actually, he’s pretty hot, so you can shove that thought right up your ass.” It’s a mean thing to say and Clint doesn’t deserve it, but he’s frustrated and he feels ignored when today is supposed to be about him. And fine—he’s jealous too. There, he admitted it. “So can you let this drop before he thinks you’re my boyfriend or something? Go talk to Natasha or something.”
Clint steps back grudgingly, but the last look he gives Bucky makes it clear that they will be talking about this tomorrow.
Bucky exhales loudly, reminds himself that he’s trying to look sexy, not dejected.
He turns to make eye contact with the man, bites his lips and smiles. A tiny shiver of excitement runs down his spine when the man smiles back. It feels good to be wanted. He nods towards the bar and saunters over without glancing back to make sure he’s being followed. If he sways his hips a little more… That’s because he does.
Just to make himself feel even worse, he takes a seat around the bend of the bar where he has full view of Steve and Peggy. Neither of them seem to notice his absence, too caught up laughing at each other’s stories. They sit with the lengths of their arms pressed together, ducking their heads together as they whisper into each other’s ears.
The bartender comes up to him, polishing a tall glass with cloth. Bucky absentmindedly orders a shot of tequila. The liquid burns down his throat and tears spring to his eyes. He’s bad with alcohol, unaccustomed to the burn and taste of it. But right now, he just wants something to take the edge off the hurt he feels.
He imagines striding up to their table, throwing his leg across Steve’s lap in a straddle and kissing the man right in front of everyone; show Peggy that while she may be Steve’s best friend, he is Steve’s synchro partner, and he knows and understands the blond in a way she doesn’t. Maybe with a few more shots, he could work himself up to that point. It’s an indulgent, exciting thought, and one that he would never carry out.
The man slides into the seat beside him, breaking him out of his thoughts. “Hey. I’m Brandon.”
“James.” He lowers his lashes and gives the man a once-over to make his intentions obvious. A few shots might not be enough to give him the courage to make a move on Steve, but it’s certainly enough for him to hit on a stranger.
The man smirks at him. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“A Long Island iced tea would be nice,” Bucky says, and the man repeats the order to the bartender.
His drink is set before him and Bucky takes a sip from it.
They make a bit of small talk. His words become slurred as the alcohol kicks in and Brandon never lets his glass rest empty.
Bucky tells the man that he’s a pro diver. With a shiver of excitement, he adds that he and his synchro partner took silver in the diving world championships. Brandon doesn’t fuck around, says Bucky must have a tight, sexy body beneath all his clothes. He tells Bucky he’s here on a business trip, and that he’s staying at a luxury hotel in a royal suite. Bucky in turn, says that he’s only ever stayed in rooms with twin-sized beds and cheap wooden furniture. Brandon sets a hand on Bucky’s thigh and boldly says that he’d love to show Bucky his room; it’s too big for just one.
His brain is fuzzy. A part of him that sounds suspiciously like Clint asks if he’s really doing this, if this is the level he’s sunk to. He doesn’t do casual sex. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have the time to, in between training and school and work. Or perhaps because no one’s been able to capture him the way Steve has. He thinks about getting up and leaving. As he thinks that, his eyes flit over to his partner, but Steve is no longer there.
Bucky returns his attention to Brandon and gives the man a weak smile. Stalling for time, he raises his glass to his lips. Before he can take a sip, a hand shoots out to close around his wrist. Bucky jumps in surprise, his drink sloshing over the rim.
“Hey,” he starts, turning in his seat. “What the hell…” He damn near swallows his tongue when he finds Steve standing there, expression thunderous. His brows are drawn into a furious vee, lips a stern line and jaw muscles jumping. The look sends a jolt right to Bucky’s cock and he presses his legs together with a whimper.
Brandon’s hand slides off Bucky’s thigh. “Hey man, who the fuck are you?”
“I saw you put something in his drink.”
“The fuck are you talking about?” Brandon stands, stepping into Steve and tipping his chin up in challenge. “You better mind your own—”
“You don’t want to finish that sentence, pal,” Steve says. He crowds Brandon against the counter, giant and looming with flexed muscles. Now is not the fucking time, but Bucky can’t help but imagine himself in Brandon’s exact position, Steve caging him in. “I know what I saw.”
Brandon swallows, uncertainty flickering through his eyes when he takes a look at Steve’s arms. Once he’s in the grip of the blond’s corded forearms, he won’t be getting out of it.
The bartender comes up to them and reaches over the counter to pull Steve and Brandon apart. “Hey! What’s going on here? No fighting in the house or I’ll call the cops.”
Brandon tries to use the momentary distraction to slip away, but Steve shoves him against the bar and twists him into an armlock.
“He spiked my friend’s drink,” Steve says, teeth bared, not giving a single inch when Brandon cries out in pain.
“Whoa, hey, I understand you’re angry, and you have every right to be, but let security handle this, ok? Unless you fancy the idea of spending the night in a jail cell.” the bartender says. “I’ll call the police.”
* * *
Steve follows the man’s exit with narrowed eyes, and only when Brandon is out of sight, does he turn to Bucky.
Steve’s eyes soften into concern. “You okay there, Buck?”
Bucky licks his lips, still dazed by what had just happened. Oh God, Steve was fucking hot when he was angry. He shifts on his stool and discretely adjusts his pants. He nods. “Yeah, ’m okay…” he mumbles. His tongue is thick in his mouth. “You didn’t have to do that, y’know. I could’ve handled it.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “No offense, but I kinda doubt that, Buck.”
“‘M not your lady. I can take care of myself.”
“I know you’re not, but someone just tried to drug you. Can’t a guy look after his pal?” Steve claps him on the back. “Let’s go.”
“Don’t wanna,” Bucky whines, clutching the bar counter. He knows he’s being immature and stupid. He had wanted to leave just moments earlier, but now that Steve is giving him attention again, he wants to act a bit spoiled. “I was boutta get some, Stevie. You ruined it.”
Steve gives their friends an apologetic smile. “I’m going to take Bucky home.” Steve slips a hand under his elbow and pulls him up.
Bucky slides off the stool and stumbles into Steve’s side. The blond catches him around the waist. “‘S fine, Stevie,” he slurs. “I can get home by myself. You just stay with Peggy.”
“Nope. I’m taking you home.”
Bucky laughs, low and flirty. He places a hand on Steve’s chest and looks up at the blond from beneath his lashes. “Yeah? And then what? You gonna fuck me, Stevie?”
Steve’s pupils explode. Bucky blinks, unsure of what he had just seen. He cocks his head, trying to get a closer look, but Steve avoids his eyes.
“Jesus Christ, Buck. You’re smashed. Talking crazy.”
Yeah. Crazy. What was he doing, putting moves on his diving partner anyway? He was probably seeing things he wanted to. Beer goggles or some shit.
Steve throws Bucky’s arm over his shoulders and fastens one of his own around Bucky’s waist. Bucky may or may not have put an unnecessary amount of weight on Steve as the blond hauled him outside.
* * *
Bucky awakes with a cottonmouth and a pounding headache. He groans and rolls over, pressing his face into his pillow. The bed dips and he cracks an eye open.
“That’s what you get for drinking too much,” Steve says. “Here, have some water.”
It takes far too much effort for Bucky to sit up and take the offered cup. Last night comes back to him in flashes. A growing sense of horror creeps up on him, along with nausea. He’s pretty sure he asked Steve to fuck him at some point, though judging by the lack of soreness and the fact that it’s Steve , he’s certain nothing happened. Hopefully his drunken words weren’t taken seriously.
Steve’s not treating or looking at him any differently, and Bucky is disappointed by that. He just needs a sign, a blush or a shy look, to invite him to try again.
“I let you sleep in long enough,” Steve says. He takes the glass back from Bucky. “Let’s go train.”
Bucky groans, flopping back onto the mattress. He pulls his blankets over his head. “Noooo, don’t make me. I’ll get sick.”
“You should’ve known better than to drink your calories in the first place,” Steve scolds.
“Aw, fuck off, Steve.”
Steve chuckles. “Come on. It’s just pilates today. It’ll make you feel better.”
Bucky ignores him. He turns to face the wall and tries to go back to sleep. Steve makes himself at home on Bucky’s bed, poking at his side.
“I’ll take you out for lunch after,” Steve bribes. “Anything you want. I won’t even tell Fury.”
Bucky growls low in his throat and glares. After minutes of being harassed, he snaps, “Fine!” He flings his sheets away from him and sits up. His head protests at the sudden movement. “If I throw up, I’m aiming right for your shirt.”
Steve just laughs again. Bucky feels like shit. It’s unfair that the blond is this energetic and happy in the morning. Steve’s eyes are bright and alert; his smile is big and he’s handsome and—
Bucky just really wants him.
* * *
A week later, and Bucky still gets a little thrill every time he sees the silver medal he won with Steve.
A week later, and Peggy is still around, having taken some time off after a six month work trip. She drops by their apartment every day, usually to have dinner with them. Bucky hates it, and he hates that he hates it. Peggy is Steve’s best friend. She’s an amazing woman and she deserves a vacation. He just wishes she could be amazing and take a vacation somewhere else.
Bucky’s curled up in the corner of the couch, catching up on some reading. Steve had gone out to buy groceries for tonight’s dinner a half hour ago. Peggy’s been craving Steve’s spaghetti, apparently. They were going to make a meal together. Be domestic, and all that shit.
So Bucky’s a bit salty. Sue him.
The doorbell rings and Bucky tamps down the panic that rises in his chest. Nobody rings the doorbell to their own home, so it can only be Peggy. He glances at the clock. It’s a quarter to five, and Peggy wasn’t supposed to be here until six. That means he’s going to have to spend fifteen minutes alone in her presence, and it’s going to be awkward as hell because he’s managed to make an ass out of himself every time they’ve interacted.
Bucky swings the door open. “Hey Peggy. Steve just went out to buy groceries, but he’ll be back in a few minutes. Come on in,” he says, stepping aside for her.
She tells him it’s no problem, and then attempts to make small talk with him, asking him how his day was (Bucky didn’t get out of bed until an hour ago, so that’s a good day in his books), what he’s reading (his mid-20th century history text for class). It’s every bit as awkward as he imagined it would be and he sits there on the sofa wringing his hands. Peggy doesn’t seem to mind though, reclining in the armchair and picking up the book of sudoku puzzles Steve had been working through.
When the silence becomes too much for him, Bucky asks, “Do you mind that I’m here?”
Peggy raises a brow at him. “I’m sorry?”
“I mean, I know you and Steve have a lot of catching up to do, and I kind of feel like I’m getting in the way of that,” Bucky fumbles. “So if you want me to make myself scarce, so you guys can…” he makes a vague hand gesture and flushes, wondering what exactly he was trying to insinuate.
Peggy’s lips twitch in amusement. She dismisses his offer. “That won’t be necessary. Both Steve and I appreciate your company, and we talk plenty.”
Great, now he really feels like a grade-A asshole. Peggy is just so damn nice .
“Um, okay,” Bucky says. “But if you… you know. Need me to scram or anything, I can. It’s no big deal.”
“Bucky, really, we love having you here.”
And that’s the thing: Bucky isn’t sure that’s true. If Steve liked Peggy, wouldn’t he want to spend time alone with her?
Before he can stop himself, he blurts out, “Steve likes you, you know.”
Peggy smiles at him, a secretive curl of the lips like she knows something he doesn’t. “That’s funny, because I was just about to say the same thing to you.”
Bucky stares. Then, the implications of Peggy’s words sink in and his eyes round. She’s teasing him, has to be. She knows that he’s jealous of her and she’s making fun of him, trying to get his hopes up. “You’ve got it all wrong,” he stammers eventually. “Steve’s my friend and partner.”
Peggy laughs delightedly at that, eyes bright. “That’s what Steve said about you.” She sets the book of sudoku back on the coffee table and pauses as though mulling over her next words. Just when Bucky thinks this thread of conversation is over, she looks up at him and says, “I’m only telling you this because Steve won’t make a move until he’s 100% sure you like him, and he won’t be 100% sure until you tell him that to his face.” She hums thoughtfully. “Even then, he still might not believe you.”
Bucky snorts. “What part of him does he think people won’t like?”
“You’ve seen pictures of him from when he was younger, right?”
Bucky thinks about the 90 pound scrap that he could lift overhead; a nose and smile too big for his sharp face, and he mumbles, “Yeah, he was hot.”
Peggy hasn’t stopped smiling, coy and approving. “He thinks people still see him as the kid he was back in high school, or that people only notice him now because he’s filled out.”
“That’s stupid,” Bucky protests. If he knew Steve back then, he would’ve asked Steve to prom in a heartbeat. Or maybe not quite a heartbeat. After all, it took him the better part of two years to work up the courage to tell Steve he liked him, and then he had backed out at the last moment. “Steve is… Steve’s—he’s amazing,” he finishes lamely.
“So you’ll do something, right?” Peggy asks.
That night, Bucky lies on his back with his arms and legs wrapped around a pillow, like a giant bug. He thinks about Peggy’s words, and the nervous and suspicious look Steve shot her way when he entered the room and Bucky and Peggy quieted. Bucky grins widely and hides his face in his pillow.
* * *
Now that Peggy has told him how Steve feels, Bucky notices a shift in the way Steve looks at him. Sometimes he’ll catch Steve peering at him over his sketchbook as he attempts to sketch Bucky in a way he probably thinks is discreet, but is actually very obvious. Whenever their eyes meet, Steve ducks, nose so close to his sketchbook it brushes across the page. Other times, Steve’s checking him out, his eyes lowered—like they were on his ass or lingering on his abs and god, isn’t that a thought?—only to snap up and look a little guilty.
But this is what Bucky loves even more than all of that: when they watch replays of their dives and Steve turns to him, awe and adoration deep in every line of his face, like Bucky is the best damn thing to have ever happened to him.
* * *
Bucky’s left shoulder and bicep has been acting up lately. Too much intense training, too often. But Bucky has had a taste of their first win together, and he doesn’t want to take time off to rest.
The Olympics are a real possibility now and Steve’s been launching himself headfirst into training every morning. Bucky isn’t going to be the one to hold him back. So he takes ibuprofen tablets with his breakfast, makes sure that Steve doesn’t notice and tapes up his arm. He foam rolls and rubs Icy Hot into his skin. He grits his teeth through the pain and hopes that it’ll pass.
Bucky gives his bicep an absentminded rub. When he catches Fury narrowing his eyes at the action, he drops his hand immediately and stands taller. He’s not feeling in peak condition today, even though he had nine hours of sleep last night and hit all his macros. His body feels stiff and heavy, and just climbing the tower has him winded.
They’re almost at the end of their training for the day though, and Bucky figures he may as well see it through the end. He trudges up the stairs, lagging a little behind Steve so the blond doesn’t see how much he leans against the railing for support.
“You seem distracted today. Everything okay?” Steve asks.
Pain will do that to you, Bucky thinks, though he’s not stupid enough to say it outloud. Or maybe he is being stupid; it depends on which part of him is being asked. Every athlete knows that you can’t forge ahead through the pain. That same athlete is willing to go through a little bit—sometimes a lot—of pain for the win. When he realises that Steve is still waiting for an answering, he says, “Just hungry as usual. My metabolism’s going crazy with all this additional training.”
Steve buys it, and Bucky feels only a little bit guilty.
When Bucky hits the water, it feels like knives piercing sharp and deep into his shoulder. Water floods his mouth and nostrils as he gasps out in pain. He breaks the surface of the water with a punched-out inhale and coughs that splinter in his throat.
Steve cuts through the water towards him. “Bucky! You okay?”
Bucky tries to wheeze out a ‘yes’, but that just sets off another round of coughing. Steve curses, taking him by the elbow and guiding him to the edge of the pool. The blond rubs a hot palm into his back. It’s another minute before Bucky’s able to catch his breath again and he’s crying by the end of it. With a weak little huff, he flops onto the pool deck, eyes closed and one cheek pressed to the rough texture of non-slip tiles. His legs are still submerged in the water.
“Jesus, Buck. What the hell happened?”
He wants to say it was just a tiny mistake that set him off. He wants to say that he just needs a second to catch his breath and he can keep training again. As though Fury knows what’s going to come out of his mouth, his coach answers for him: “Shoulder.”
“What? What’s wrong with his shoulder?” Steve asks.
Bucky scowls, though the effect of it is diminished by the fact that he can’t even lift his head. “I’m fine. I just… landed weird and tweaked it a little.” The explanation sounds feeble even to him, though that just may be his shot voice. “I just need a bit of rest and I can go again.”
“You were diving like this ,” Fury says, holding out his arms at nearly a 90 degree angle from the floor. “You couldn’t get your shoulder in line with your hips at all.”
“I think you’re exaggerating with that one, coach,” Bucky says. To prove his point, he pushes away from the ledge and rotates his left arm in a sweeping circle. His bicep tendon flares with pain and he hisses.
“That’s enough for today.” Fury gestures with his chin at Bucky’s shoulder. “Get that wrapped up.”
“What? No! I’m fine! It’s not really that big a deal,” Bucky protests. He can’t accept a setback in training so close to Olympic qualifiers. He’s not going to hold Steve back. “I’m fine,” he says again.
“And I’m telling you you’re not,” Fury shoots back. More gently, he says, “I appreciate your dedication, Barnes, but taking it easy for a week out of choice is better than taking months off out of necessity.”
Bucky groans and rubs his face with his hands. He knows Fury is right. It’s just frustrating when he has a goal and a deadline and he can’t perform. “Fine,” he bites out.
Fury nods. “Good. I’ll set up an appointment with your physio so we can get your arm checked out. Let’s hope it’s just a product of too much intensity.”
* * *
Bucky hates this. Now that he’s not training, he realises how much free time he actually has, and he doesn’t know what to do with all that time except mope. He’s not even allowed to work on his cardio, his physio having recommended a complete week to two weeks off. Unused energy buzzes and itches under his skin and Bucky thinks he might tear his hair out if he has to endure another day of this.
He watches piteously from his spot on the couch as Steve laces up his runners. Steve’s taking a deload week as well, so Bucky won’t nag and moan about being left behind, but he’s still doing some light cardio and bodyweight exercises.
“Don’t give me that look, Buck,” Steve complains. “It’s just a 20 minute run.”
“I don’t know what look you’re talking about,” Bucky says, giving Steve his saddest eyes.
Steve huffs out a little laugh. “You’re being a child. I’ll be back in 20, okay? Then we can have breakfast.” Steve opens the door and is one step out when he turns over his shoulder and says, “And no exercising while I’m gone!”
* * *
The next morning, Bucky wakes Steve up by jumping into his bed and draping himself all over the blond. “Steve, wake up! Let’s go train. I feel a lot better today.” It’s not a complete lie; it’s amazing, what two days off can do for healing.
Steve groans and burrows further into his blankets. “Physio said at least a week off,” Steve grumbles, voice sleep roughened. Bucky feels that first spark of arousal flicker in his abdomen as he imagines waking up to that voice in his ear. It takes him a moment to remember why he’s in Steve’s room in the first place.
Bucky shrugs. “Well, physio didn’t think I’d get better so soon.”
Steve ignores him.
“Steve, you lazy bastard, get up,” Bucky huffs, pulling the covers off the blond.
Steve groans and curls up at the sudden coolness. He reaches blindly for his blanket. “Give that here, Buck.”
“No- pe , not until you say yes to training. I don’t even care when we do it. Afternoon, night, whenever, as long as it’s today.”
Heaving a sigh, Steve sits up. He fists the sleep from his eyes and gives Bucky a stern look. “I said no, Buck. I’m not budging on this.”
“Jesus Steve, do you want to go to the Olympics or not? We can’t be sitting on our asses when—”
“I don’t care about any of that, okay? So just drop it!” Steve snaps. When Bucky recoils with wide eyes, Steve runs a hand through his hair and huffs. “Obviously I want to go to the Olympics. But if we can’t make it for next year, we’ll always have another chance. It’s not worth risking your health in the long run. I’m not going to let you do that.”
Steve’s cheeks pinken, but he maintains a focussed eye contact with Bucky. “I’m just happy to be diving with you, and I want to keep diving with you,” he says firmly. “You’re not allowed to get sidelined. No way in hell am I going to search for a new partner now that I know what it’s like to dive with you.”
Bucky’s anger fizzles out immediately and he swallows hard, throat tight. It’s the most stupid and rash thing Steve’s ever said—synchro partnerships change all the time, countries swapping out individuals in a pair for new talent—and Bucky loves him for it.
“I’m with you ‘til the end of the line, remember?” Steve says softly, clapping Bucky on the shoulder and pressing his thumb into the groove of Bucky’s collarbone. “We’re nowhere near endgame. Don’t drain yourself now when there’s still so much for us to achieve.”
“I just don’t want to hold you back,” Bucky says, voice small.
“You’ve been diving your whole life. You’re not suddenly going to lose everything just because you missed a week or two of training.”
Steve lies back down and draws his blankets to his chin. He wiggles like a worm to make some space and pats the vacated area beside him. When Bucky just blinks at him, unsure of how to interpret the gesture—he doesn’t want to assume—he opens one eye and squints at Bucky. “Get over here,” Steve demands. “I don’t know about you, but I’m going to use this opportunity to catch up on some sleep.”
Bucky obliges hesitantly, lifting the blanket and sliding beneath it. As soon as he’s settled, Steve throws an arm and thick thigh over him and reels him in. Bucky’s breath hitches a little. In the quiet of the morning, there’s no way Steve missed it. Normal friends don’t do stuff like this, right? His heart is pounding so loudly that he can’t even hear the ticking of the clock over it. Steve, oblivious to the rising panic in his chest, makes a content snuffling noise, rubbing his nose against Bucky’s shoulder.
Bucky squeezes his eyes shut, because holy fuck, Steve is not allowed to do that to him. He’s not allowed to be clingy and adorable and give Bucky ideas without following up. There’s no way he can sleep when Steve is this close to him, cuddling against his side like Bucky’s an human-sized teddy bear.
“Relax, Buck,” Steve mumbles. “Not gonna eat you in your sleep.”
Bucky wonders miserably how the hell he’s supposed to relax in a position like this. His body is doing the opposite of relaxing.
Minutes pass. Steve’s breathing settles, inhales and exhales going soft and deep. Bucky stares up at the stucco patterns in the ceiling, hyper aware of every inch where he and Steve touch. He breathes in Steve’s scent and sinks into his warmth; pretends that he and Steve went to bed like this and scares himself with how easy it is to imagine every morning being like this. Eventually, he falls asleep too.
* * *
They barely qualify for the Olympics.
But they do.
2016, Olympic Games
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
“I can’t believe we’re actually here,” Bucky murmurs, staring out at the chlorine-blue waters of Maria Lenk Aquatics Center. Today, the venue is empty aside from the US diving team and the swim team practising in the adjacent pool. A week from now, all the seats will be filled. His friends and family will be there, waving the American flag and a banner with his name and Steve’s on it. He curls his toes hard into the edge of the ten meter platform to assure himself that this is real.
“I told you I’d bring you to the Olympics, didn’t I?” Steve steps into place at his right. The blond’s a warm, solid presence at his side, has been for the past three years.
Bucky turns his head slightly towards Steve and finds the blond looking right back at him, a confident quirk of a smile on those plush lips. A rush of affection surges through Bucky and he grins back at his partner. “Yeah, you did. But come on, you didn’t actually expect me to believe you, right?”
Steve laughs, a low and warm sound rumbling in his chest that has Bucky’s smile widening even further. “You should know by now that I’m a man of my words, Buck.”
Bucky doesn’t reply, just turns so that his back is to the water and his heels hang over the edge of the platform. He spreads his arms and takes a deep breath, notices Steve do the same in the corner of his eyes. It’s crazy, but he’s never felt so confident, so at home, as he does now with Steve at his side. It scares him how much he trusts his partner and how deep the connection between them runs. Something clicks inside him, slides and locks into place after years of denial. He realises now that trying to move past his feelings for Steve is like trying to stop a force of nature.
He wants this man. Wants so badly to give him a medal, even more than he wants a medal for himself.
In the moments before take-off, he thinks about what it’d be like to confess his feelings before they spring off. The way Steve’s head would snap to him and how Bucky would see wide cornflower blue eyes for all but a second before he launches himself into the air. How his words would shake the blond’s concentration so forcefully that Steve would bellyflop a back dive in pike. And maybe, if Bucky hasn’t been reading all the signs wrong this entire time, Steve will grab him by the shoulders when they break the surface and surge forward for a kiss, desperate and unrestrained.
Bucky bites down on his lips, giddy from the thought of it. He asks, “Ready?” and Steve says, “Yeah.”
As caught up in his daydreams as he is, it’s unsurprisingly one of his worst entries. As soon as he pulls himself out of the pool, Fury confronts him with a single-eyed glare.
“What the hell was that, Barnes? We’re not here to play around.”
Bucky tries to look solemn, but he’s barely able to stifle a grin. When Steve warns under his breath, “Bucky, don’t be silly,” Bucky can’t help the tiny, aborted chuckle that escapes him. It doesn’t go unnoticed by Fury.
After a five minute lecture on how privileged he is to be here, how he sure as hell can’t slack off now that he’s made it to the pinnacle of athletic competitions, he and Steve make their way up the tower.
“What’s with you today?” Steve asks. He doesn’t sound angry, the way Brock would have. Just part confused, and part amused.
“I’m just…” Bucky licks his lips, wonders how he can phrase his words without making them sound like he’s stupid in love. “Really happy to be here and diving with you. It wouldn’t be the same if I made it to the Olympics with Brock or anyone else. There’s no one else I’d rather have as my partner.”
Steve actually stumbles a step and Bucky’s heart follows right behind at how adorable this man is.
“Oh please, Steve. You’re not really surprised by what I just said, right?” Bucky teases.
The blond finds his words again, turns to Bucky with a sheepish smile and says, “I’m glad I’m here with you too.”
* * *
“We have Steve Rogers and James Barnes for the United States making their debut at the Olympics. What I love about this pair is the amazing chemistry they share both on the diving board and outside the pool. Steve Rogers is known for his gravity-defying take-offs and took silver in men’s ten meter platform in the World Championships in Barcelona. James Barnes made a huge comeback from his lacklustre performance in the 2013 World Championships to take the silver medal in both men’s three meter springboard and ten meter synchro with Rogers at the 2015 World Championships...”
* * *
They dive second to last out of eight teams.
Round one starts with a voluntary dive: a back dive in pike position. With a difficulty of 2.0, it’s one of the first dives Bucky learned to do. This dive doesn’t require any less concentration than his harder ones. Technique is even more important when the score multiplier is low. He knows this from experience; straight tens across the board has managed to elude him even after years of competition.
Steve reaches over to grip his shoulder. On any other day, Bucky would shiver at the way Steve’s fingers caress the back of his neck. But today, he barely registers the blond’s silent gesture of solidarity. Steve’s hand slides down his back and their knuckles connect in a fist bump.
“Yeah,” Steve says.
Bucky counts down. On three, he launches himself backwards into the air, legs tight, toes pointed. He makes his three points of contact: fingertips to toes, then to knees, and then to thighs. The water rushes up to meet him and he stretches out, the flats of his hands coming together a split second before he cuts into the surface. As easy and natural as breathing. He allows himself a smile when he sees their score of 56.40.
* * *
“Last dive,” Steve says.
“Yeah. Jesus Christ, yeah,” Bucky breathes. They’re going into their sixth round and only now does it hit Bucky that he’s actually here. This isn’t a dream. “Jesus Christ, Stevie,” he says again. “We’re in the fucking Olympics.”
Steve laughs and nudges him with his shoulder. “Very observant. What else have you noticed?”
“We’re competing for the gold medal against China.” Bucky’s legs wobble and he catches his balance against the wall just as Steve’s hand shoots out to grab his elbow. “Oh my god, it’s fucking China. Have you seen them dive?”
“This might come as a shock to you Buck, but I in fact, have seen them dive.”
“I can’t believe we’re in the same stadium as them,” Bucky says. “They’re so good, Stevie. It’s like they’re playing a totally different game.+.” His chest squeezes in fright. He’s a sham. He doesn’t belong here. Somehow he’s managed to fool everyone and Steve that he’s good enough to represent the United States, but he knows he isn’t. Brock knows it too.
Steve grips him by the shoulder. “Buck, look at me.”
Bucky swallows hard and keeps his eyes on his toes. He knows he can’t let his concentration slip. If Brock were here, he’d say something like, “Get your fucking head together, James.” He’s trying; he swears he is. But the harder Bucky tries to get back into that headspace, the more it eludes him.
“I know what you’re thinking right now, and I’m telling you you’re wrong,” Steve says, giving him a little shake. “You’ve practised ten thousand hours for less than a ten second dive. If there’s anyone that can do this, it’s you. You deserve to be here and everyone, America and the whole world, knows it. That’s why you were chosen over hundreds of other athletes. You trust me, right Buck?”
“So trust me when I say this. You’re goddamned perfect.” Bucky screws up his face at that and Steve says sternly. “I’m serious. Your form is as close to perfection as a person can get.”
Steve’s grip tightens on his shoulders and Bucky tries to focus on it. He inhales deeply and holds his breath before releasing.
“Can you look at me, Buck?”
Bucky looks into Steve’s eyes and he sees the oceans: the flecks of green in the crashing waves, the white of water droplets arcing into the sky, a blue so expansive and vivid he thinks he might drown there. It’s the same blue he looks down upon when he’s ten meters in the air and about to perform the most important dive of his life. The vertigo of it makes him sway.
Steve leans into him, and for a split second, Bucky thinks the blond is going to kiss him. Instead, Steve sets his forehead against his and closes his eyes. He can feel Steve exhales against his upper lip and the warmth of the blond’s radiating off him.
“Hey Steve?” Bucky says quietly.
“You’re good too.” His words sound lame after Steve’s heartfelt reassurance and ‘good’ is a gross under exaggeration, but he’s always been garbage at articulating himself. How is he supposed to encapsulate Steve in spoken language alone? The blond’s a pillar of strength and support; he’s hardwork and perseverance personified. He’s simultaneously Bucky’s best friend and greatest rival.
Steve chuckles. “Thanks, Buck. I’m glad to know I haven’t wasted all my life training.”
“I’m serious. Your Ma… She would’ve been real proud of you.”
Steve pauses for a beat and then says quietly, “I know.”
They must have stood with mere inches separating them for longer than they thought, because it’s their turn to dive again.
The climb up the stairs is like scaling Everest, fear and doubt weighing him down like cement shoes. How is he ever going to make it up there? Does it really have it in himself, when so many athletes before him have failed? But as he keeps moving up, Steve at his side, his body falls into a rhythm.
He takes his place at the edge of the platform, on the balls of his feet and arms spread. His spine trembles with excitement. He’s never felt so alive and real and present in the moment. He feels like he belongs here, with Steve at his side and the water down below and all the air in between. His eyelids fall to half-mast and the sounds around him go muted. Blood pounds in his head but his mind is shockingly clear.
“Ready?” he asks.
“Three. Two. One.”
All the coiled energy in his body releases and he springs off, back arching into the air. His mind goes blank as his body takes over the moving meditation: back 2 ½ somersault, 2 ½ twists, a transition to pike with his legs straight and toes pointed, forehead to knees. It’s ten thousand hours of training condensed into a one and a half second dive. He extends the length of his body and plunges into water, the impact pushing out the last of his breath.
He experiences that split second disorientation as the water roars around him and he rights himself. Then, his head breaks the surface and he swims over to the poolside. He pushes the hair back from his eyes and hauls himself out of the water, Steve close behind.
That felt good. Really good. Maybe even good enough to win gold. Bucky pushes the thought away before it can develop. China still hasn’t gone yet, and he wouldn’t be surprised if they pulled off the perfect dive.
Steve steps into him for a hug. “That’s it. We’ve done as much as we could.”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, nosing against the blond’s throat. He breathes in Steve’s scent, chlorine and Irish Spring and comfort. “All up to the judges now.”
They make their way to the showers and rinse off before easing into the hot tubs. Bucky presses up close against Steve’s side. Steve’s a rock beside him, so tense that his shoulders nearly touch his ears. Without thinking, Bucky reaches for the blond’s hand beneath the water and grasps it tight. Steve gives him a tight-lipped smile and squeezes his hand.
“Do we want to torture ourselves by watching China?” Steve asks.
When the stadium erupts into applause, Bucky thinks he might actually die and he sinks deeper into the water.
When the Chinese pair comes over, Steve steps out of the tub, Bucky following. They shake hands and Bucky stammers a congratulations in Mandarin. Someone offers him a towel and he takes it, rubbing his face and drying off his hair before throwing it around himself.
He wants the gold so bad. He’s at the point where he doesn’t even care if he wins in an underhanded way. Maybe one of the female judges will think he’s cute and give him an extra half-point; he’ll take whatever he can get.
The few minutes it takes to tally up scores drags like an hour.
“The suspense is killing me,” Bucky mutters.
“It can’t be much longer.”
“I don’t think I can look,” he moans.
Bucky tucks himself into Steve and buries his face into the blond’s neck. He feels Steve’s large hand come around to cup his waist, thumb rubbing circles over his hips. His heart hammers against his ribs, like it’s made it a personal mission to break all of them.
And then Steve exhales a gasp as though all the air has been punched out of him. “Oh.” The hand on his hips tightens enough to leave bruises, and God, if that doesn’t get him hot... “Oh my goodness, Bucky. Buck, look.”
Bucky pulls away from Steve and looks up.
Barnes/S. Rogers 496.31
Yin/L. Yuen 495.11
Muniz/A. Hernandez 463.52
He can’t remember his own damn name right now. He doesn’t even know what words are. For a moment that could either be seconds or seasons, he stares dumbly at the scoreboard. And then in the same rush the thunderous applause fills the stadium, his brain remembers how to read again and a grin breaks across his face.
With a shriek, Bucky throws his arms around Steve. The towel falls from his shoulders. He climbs the blond like a tree, his legs coming up to wrap around that tapered waist. Steve barks a laugh into his ear, stumbling under his weight. The blond slides his forearm beneath Bucky’s bum, hitching the brunet up higher, his other arm going across Bucky’s back.
He’s falling from that ten meter height all over again. His stomach swoops and his heart slingshots up into his throat. Oh God, he didn’t think it was humanly possible to feel this much exhilaration, to feel this alive . His entire body surges with energy.
“Oh my god, Stevie ,” Bucky sobs.
“We did it, Buck. We did it.”
Maybe it’s because they’re pressed all the way together from their cheeks down to their groins, pecs and abs rubbing together. Or maybe it’s because he and Steve just won fucking gold . But his cock starts to fill in those tiny little speedos and he doesn’t even give a damn. If weightlifters can wet themselves, then he’s allowed to pop a boner.
He clings to Steve and doesn’t ever want to let go. He wants to hold onto this moment for as long as he can.
“Come on, Buck,” Steve says, patting him on the ass.
Bucky slides down Steve’s torso, shivering as his arousal moves over the blond’s clothed cock. His toes find the ground again and he finally looks at Steve. His hands are still on Steve’s arms, fingers digging into the muscle. Bucky’s smiling so hard his cheeks hurt from the force of it. Steve returns his grin in kind: a beautiful flush high on his cheeks, blond hair darkened and plastered to his forehead by water. Bucky’s emotions may be a mess right now—he doesn’t know whether to scream or sob or laugh—but he knows that he’s never wanted anyone as much as he wants Steve.
And judging by the way Steve looks at him with parted lips, pupils blown until only a thin ring of blue remains, and the way those gorgeous eyes keep flickering down to Bucky’s lips, and then even lower to rest on his straining erection… Bucky’s willing to bet Steve wants him too.
Steve clears his throat and turns away. “We should probably go see Fury.” He picks up the fallen towel and casts it over Bucky’s shoulder. It doesn’t escape Bucky’s notice that Steve shields his lower body from the cameras the entire time.
Bucky tugs one end of the towel over his boner, thankful for the compression material holding him in even though it makes walking a little painful. They walk over to where Fury waits. If Bucky weren’t already crying, this is where he would have started, because Fury is actually smiling at them, single eye crinkled.
“I’m proud of you boys,” Fury says, hugging each of them in turn and clapping their backs. “You two were amazing out there. Perfection if I’ve ever seen it.”
“All thanks to your guidance, Sir,” Steve says modestly.
Fury smiles at him. “I wasn’t the one out there today. This is your moment. Don’t let me take it away from you.”
Even over the excited audience and the noise of reporters and shuttering cameras, Bucky hears Becca screeching. He turns around and finds her bounding down the stairs and flying over slippery tiles to get to his side. He barely has enough time to shout, “Hey! Careful!”, before she’s launching into his belly headfirst.
The medal ceremony passes by in a detached sort of way, like it’s not really him experiencing it, not really him bowing his head to accept his medal. But the golden disc rests heavy on his chest. He’s wearing Team USA’s uniform and Steve’s holding his hand. In the crowd, Clint is shaking his handmade ‘BUCKY BARNES IS MY BRO’ poster.
The podium is only about a foot high off the ground, but Bucky feels like he’s standing on a precipice overlooking the world.
* * *
They run hand-in-hand through the halls of their hotel and take the stairs two steps at a time, as excited as a newlywed couple heading to their honeymoon suite. They’re laughing and breathless, medals swinging at their necks.
Steve comes to an abrupt stop at their door and Bucky crashes into him.
“Fucking made history today, Stevie!” Bucky says, throwing himself over Steve’s back like a blanket. He hasn’t been able to keep his hands off Steve, an arm around the blond’s waist even as he shook hands with the IOC and his fellow competitors.
“We sure did, Buck.” Steve fumbles for his keycard and taps it against the sensor. The lock clicks open and they squeeze inside, Bucky still attached to Steve.
He reluctantly pulls away from Steve and kicks off his shoes. “When are we meeting the crew for drinks?”
“In about an hour,” Steve replies. “You can nap if you need to.”
As if Bucky could calm himself down enough to even close his eyes for a few seconds.
Steve slides out of his Team USA jacket and tosses it over the back of a chair. Bucky does the same, hanging his up on the coat rack. He peels his shirt off. Now that their event is over, Bucky finally gives himself permission to watch Steve undress.
He swallows loudly when Steve grasps the hem of his shirt and pulls it overhead, the flex and roll of back muscles catching the soft orange light of their room. He follows the movement of Steve’s spine all the way down to his low back, eyes lingering on the dimples impressioned there. Steve’s waist is absolutely tiny in contrast to the spread of his shoulders and Bucky so badly wants to kiss every inch of exposed skin.
It’s been three years of training together and spending nearly every waking moment in each other’s presence. Three years of squashing down his feelings for Steve without success. Moments charged full with energy where he felt like if he leaned in just a millimeter, Steve would lean in to take his lips
Steve crouches down, back to Bucky, rummaging through his suitcase. “Hey, where did you put those bran cookies? I’m hungry.”
“Steve,” Bucky says, padding up behind the blond. All the nervousness he’s experienced in the last twenty-four hours can’t possibly be good for his heart.
When Bucky doesn’t respond, Steve stands up and turns around, brows raised in question.
Before Steve can speak, Bucky takes the blond’s face between his hands and surges forward to kiss the man. He whimpers when their lips collide—Steve making a surprised noise of his own—and he goddamn melts against the blond’s chest. He’s wanted this for so long. Steve’s lips are impossibly soft under his. Just when he thinks it can’t get any better than this, Steve starts to kiss back, gently moving his mouth over Bucky’s.
Hands grip Bucky’s hips and pull him in tight so that the entire lengths of their bodies press together. He coaxes Steve’s lips open with his tongue and Steve lets him in with a gasp. They lick into each other’s mouths, shy and tentative. They know each other in so many ways, but this is a side they’ve never explored. It’s new and exhilarating, tinged with an increasing desperation as they familiarise themselves and chase after something they’ve denied each other for years. Bucky moans when Steve’s heated palms travel up his back to thread into his hair.
Steve shifts and Bucky realises with a white-hot flash that the blond is hard . Groaning, he kisses Steve with a renewed fervour, smacking lips, pulling away for a split second before diving back in to catch the blond’s lower lip between his teeth. He’s achingly hard in his pants; it’d probably only take a few good ruts to send him on his way.
Bucky whines when Steve pulls away to rest their foreheads together. They’re panting lightly, hot exhales mingling in the space between their lips.Their pelvises are still aligned and Bucky can’t help the shallow roll of his hips and the gasp that escapes him.
“Buck…” Steve breathes. He untangles his fingers from Bucky’s hair and smooths his thumb over the angle of Bucky’s jaw.
“Are you just doing this because we took gold today?”
“God, no. I would have done this if we won silver, too,” Bucky jokes.
Steve snorts. “You know that’s not what I mean.” Steve licks his lips and Bucky has to resist the urge to lean back in. The blond continues, “I just… don’t want this to be something we do in the heat of the moment. I really like you, Buck.”
It’s a simple confession, one that he’s anticipated. Yet hearing Steve say it aloud makes his knees go weak and he braces his hands on the blond’s shoulders. “Steve, Steve, Stevie ,” Bucky murmurs. “God, I thought made it so fuckin’ obvious I wanted you all this time. This isn’t some Olympic-thing. I’ve wanted you ever since we did our first dive together.”
Steve hums, wrapping his arms around Bucky’s waist and burying his head into the crook of Bucky’s neck. “Should’ve said something.”
“I didn’t want to ruin anything between us. You’re the best diving partner I’ve ever had.”
Steve muffles a laugh into his shoulder. “Not like Brock was any sort of competition.”
Bucky huffs. “Things just kept coming up, you know? I didn’t want to break our concentration while we were working towards something more important than my feelings.”
“Your feelings are important,” Steve says.
Bucky rolls his eyes fondly. “Yeah, yeah, you great big lug—” The last word cuts off in a shuddering moan when Steve begins to suck kisses into his collarbone, moving up the column of his throat. With a sigh, he tips his head back to expose more of his neck for Steve to mark. He runs his fingers through blond strands, gently guiding Steve up so their lips can meet again in a wet slide.
Steve walks him backwards to bed. When the edge of the mattress hits the back of his knees, Bucky topples onto his back, pulling Steve down with him. The blond’s forearms come down on either side of his head. Mouths still connected, he pushes his body up into Steve’s solid weight, moaning at the delicious drag of friction on their cocks. Their abs and chest rub together; he can feel the hard pebbles of Steve’s nipples peaking against his own pecs.
Bucky runs his hands all over Steve, down ridges of muscle and the dip of his low back, up the swell of the blond’s ass. Steve groans into his mouth when Bucky gives those tight cheeks a squeeze, tugging down just as he thrusts his hips up. Even between the layers of their pants and boxers, he can feel the heat of Steve’s arousal, heavy and urgent.
Steve lowers his head to mouth along Bucky’s jaw, grinding slowly on him in a maddening way. Bucky gasps Steve’s name, fingers digging into the blond’s ass. His hips stutter as Steve rolls his body down over and over again. It’s a low and dirty undulation that teases continuous moans out of him. He can hardly catch his breath, but it’s not nearly enough. He holds Steve in place by the ass and cants up desperately, eyes squeezed shut, skin burning where Steve sucks kisses into it. If he hadn’t wanted this for so long, Bucky would laugh at the way they rut against each other like horny teenagers. Their clothes are still on and Bucky has never been so hard in his life.
He’s embarrassingly close, frantically chants Steve’s name in warning because he can’t form any other words. Their lips meet again in an uncoordinated mess and they breathe against each other more than anything. With one last powerful thrust, Steve groans loudly into his mouth, stilling above him. It’s that beautiful noise, the way Steve’s fingers tighten in his hair as he shakes through orgasm that has Bucky pulsing hot into his pants. His underwear grows hot and wet, hips twitching weakly upwards in an echo of his forceful rutting just seconds earlier.
His head reels. He can feel himself smiling through his haze of pleasure. Steve’s a deadweight blanketing him, panting into his ear. He reaches up to run his hand through Steve’s sweaty hair, plays with the soft hairs at his neck.
They lie there in the post-sex glow, limbs heavy, nuzzling into each other. Once in awhile, their lips will find each other’s in sweet, open-mouthed kisses.
Bucky groans his displeasure when Steve rolls off him and to sit on the edge of the bed.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asks. “Get back here. I’m not done with you yet.”
“We should get cleaned up,” Steve says, not at all sounding like he wants to get cleaned up.
Bucky stretches his arms over head and arches his back slightly, accentuating the length and leanness of his torso. His lips twitch upwards when Steve gives him a once-over, appreciative and molasses-slow.
Steve swallows and says roughly, “Everyone’s waiting for us.”
“So text them. Tell them we’ll be late.” Bucky’s voice drops a pitch.
He’s starting to get hard again under Steve’s intense gaze. His raises his hips a little—Steve’s eyes immediately drop to the tiny motion—and slips his thumbs into the waistband of his track bottoms. With a wiggle of his hips, he pushes his pants down his hips, gasping when the elastic catches on his hard cock. It’s reddened and slicked wet from pre-come and his earlier release. Steve can’t take his eyes off it, and Bucky knows he’s won the blond over.
* * *
Steve lies on his chest, a heavy thigh thrown over Bucky’s waist. For someone who had suggested they leave just moments earlier, he’s doing a good job of keeping Bucky locked in place. Both his phone and Steve’s are going crazy with messages, but Bucky can’t bring himself to root through their clothes to silence them.
Bucky shivers as Steve traces shapes into his sweat-cooled back with the tip of his finger.
“We should probably get going,” Bucky says.
Steve makes a grumbling noise in the back of his throat and buries his face into the crook of Bucky’s shoulder. It’s such a comfortable, familiar gesture that Bucky’s heart aches with it and he can’t help but drop a kiss onto the blond’s head.
“Steve,” he says, when Steve doesn’t seem like he’s going to respond any time soon. “Let’s go.”
Like a complete child, Steve whines the entire time Bucky pries off his octopus limbs, but somehow they make it into the shower, and to the restaurant where they’re meeting their family and friends.
* * *
They take part in athlete interviews that run hours long, and the only thing that gets Bucky through those days is Steve holding his hand beneath the table. Christine Everheart asks them about how they got started in diving, how Steve coped with the death of his mother just as he entered the competitive world.
She asks Bucky about his past partnership with Brock, and he says with more grace than he expected of himself, “I learned a lot from him and Pierce, and I’m a better athlete because of them. But we operated on completely different wavelengths. Our coach told us we could’ve been the best in the world if we were better friends, but we never quite made it past that bottleneck. I think parting ways was the best decision for both of us.”
Life after the Olympics comes up, something Bucky has been ignoring for the most part. Rio had played out like a dream. After devoting so much of his time, so much of himself ... After all the attention and exhilaration, he doesn’t know how he’s going to cope returning to the doldrums of his usual life: to his shifts at the Y, his classes in history and Russian. What is he supposed to do with the extra 30 hours in his week now that he’s not in season?
Bucky wants to lock Steve and himself into their hotel room and never resurface. He doesn’t want to go back to the world he’s put on hold, one where he’s still a 23 year old university student with no employable skills, half a degree that might not get him anywhere, and a lot of debt to show for it. He shoves those thoughts into a corner of his mind. He’s not going to let them ruin his mood, not now. He’ll take it one step at a time, knowing that if he thinks too far into the future, he’s going overwhelm himself. Plus he has Steve now, in all the ways that he wants him.
After the Olympic games, they tell athletes, “Find your next passion.” Watching Steve laugh at a self-deprecating joke he just made; the bashful little smile the blond sends his way when he feels Bucky’s eyes on him… Bucky thinks he’s found his.