In less than fifteen minutes, thousands of visitors had already read his latest column and a slew of comments followed. Bucky Barnes took a sip of his latte, foam art recklessly smearing over his top lip. The top comment: “I gotta find this coffee shop you go to, honey!!” He smirked, hearing it very clearly in his head. The readership of Barista Boyfriend was so cute. He tapped in a response idly; nothing could compel his calm to rush it. The comment appeared under his very basic, perfectly anonymous pseudonym, next to an icon of a coffee mug.
Leave your house, walk three blocks east. The first Starbucks you see. He has an opening shift. Go get ‘em.
Two hearts popped up instantly and he closed out the page, triumphant. Bucky didn’t know much at all about cultivating traffic these days, but he liked being liked. Who doesn’t? Without feedback, he was just pining to the void about a cute coffee shop employee, and why do that when people on the internet could relate? Actual Barista Boyfriend’s voice drifted over his shoulder, calling out orders to his team. Bucky could hear the smile in his voice over the Van Morrison of the coffee shop. It wasn’t a Starbucks at all (and he loved that it wasn’t a Starbucks.) Bucky loved everything about the place. He loved getting weird breakfast sandwiches named after authors. He loved the smooshy couches and mismatched furniture like an offbeat resale shop. He loved that the wifi password switched between “asecret” and “thereisntone” because the only thing the manager loved more than a good Who’s on First joke was pissed off hipster dads with no sense of humor. What more could you ask?
Every Monday morning he sat down in an avocado green love seat at The Birdhouse Cafe and Bakery and began a new Barista Boyfriend. The place was quiet right before the lunch rush but it was especially satisfying to watch BB in his element as customers streamed in, like front row tickets to the Nutcracker. The role of Barista Boyfriend was played unwittingly by Steven Rogers (some-time lovable asshole, most-time sunbeam, unabashed lover of The Eagles, candied ginger, and binge-watcher of The West Wing, not that Bucky hoarded these facts like a greedy dragon or anything,) and in Bucky’s eyes it was the performance of a lifetime. He just wrote what he saw. Little nuances caught his attention: the way the young man comically hung his head when his boss made a shitty pun, how he would genuinely think about a drink suggestion when customers asked what he liked best, how he called business-types out for being on their phones, and God forbid they cut in line or he would hang them out to dry. Painting the picture for Bucky's audience was so easy with a subject so vibrant. People loved this game, the If You Had to Choose game, falling in love on trains and in bookshops and in bars with strangers, imagining meet-cutes. He was capitalizing on a trend, he realized, but Barista Boyfriend sold himself: a single-serving romance novel starring You. For a living, Bucky read and edited the ugliest men’s interest editorials. Currently in his work inbox were two separate pieces on phone app hookups, as if that wasn’t already on the way out of the trend zone (God willing, he thought.) Surely Bucky was allowed a little sweet, harmless fun totally separate from the tits, ass, and grime one day a week. Reading these comments tomorrow morning around his first coffee break would keep him going as he had to slog through some insufferable baby’s whiny take on women not shaving their legs in the wintertime, or similar.
But he didn’t have to think about that. That Monday morning, he had devoured not one, but two stupidly perfect pastries, and inspiration struck, as it always did.
Barista Boyfriend has a secret. As you brush a light dusting of snow from your pea coat after an extra shift and late-night subway ride home, you recognize a heavenly smell from the kitchen and a sweet baritone absentmindedly humming along with Ella Fitzgerald. You try not to break the lovely scene with a single sound but your boots are heavy, and of course, he’s been waiting up for you.
“Oh, sweetheart,” he commiserates without having to hear a single detail; it’s been a long day and he reads you cover to cover faster than a Nancy Drew paperback. But vanilla and cinnamon overwhelm you and the chill in your cheeks is nothing to ruin the anticipation of whatever’s in the oven that might, dare to dream, be even sweeter than your suddenly domestic darling.
“Did you--- bake something?” you ask. He smirks.
“Who do you think bakes all the pastries at the shop, doll? I wouldn’t leave your side at 4 AM on a Monday for just anything, you know..."
The blurbs began something like that, and always ended with some iteration of “doesn’t that sound nice?” which Bucky thought was brilliant, if he did say so himself, because 1) of course it sounded nice, but 2) nice also carried a funny little connotation of derision, like too good to be true.
And it totally was.
Barista Boyfriend was, simply put, a long series of second person fantasies wherein Bucky imagined Barista Boyfriend in different eras, occupations, and lifestyles. The most popular imagined him grinding his own coffee in a cabin up north: lumberjack BB. Bucky followed it with western campfire coffee in a copper pot: wrangler BB. At Halloween, tea with a brooding Heathcliff BB on a haunted moor. The all-consuming internet audience ate it up: 31 flavors of Barista Boyfriend. The editor of the website (saccharinely named bliss-missive.com,) loved the influx of traffic, and Bucky had a convenient excuse to sit in a smooshy couch and fantasize about the beautiful young man behind the counter. It was not without its perks. What better way to spend a Monday than watching a blonde Adonis dance to his silly playlists, sincerely wish every stranger a good morning, light up the entire goddamn room. Yes, it was fun, great fun, and certainly not the least bit heartbreaking. He didn’t feel the ache intensify as the weeks fell away, memorizing the designs on the boy’s tattooed sleeves, recognizing his voice above the din of dozens. The unreasonable dreamboat wasn’t growing on him; Steve was just a muse. Everyone loved the column. It definitely wasn’t killing Bucky very gently in 500 word increments. Not in the slightest. Above all else, Bucky knew where the careful line of reality was drawn. On one side, the writer: scowling and icy, long pirate hair tied in a knot, wrapped in layers of Brooks Brothers at all times of the year, world’s shittiest boyfriend. On the other side: a bright smiling farm-fed coffee dealer, blonde fade and blue eyes, neighborhood hero who probably made the thermostat of every room he entered stutter in sudden confusion. The stuff of daydreams separate from the one who sadly conjured them. A hard line. Oh, but a boy could dream. Besides: he was faithful to Brock, even if Brock wasn’t admitting the same.
Work emails pinged; the dream was fading. He sipped his coffee. His phone buzzed and he snapped the laptop shut.
BB bakery porn is excellent
Strong hands, flour prints. This is some SMUT, son
I can’t believe you get paid for this shit.
very little, don’t be bitter
y u mad
did you fall in love
eyyyy nailed it
If you nailed HIM maybe these wouldn’t read so desperately piney
Is bb there?
can he read over your shoulder?
FUCK HIM FUCK HIM FUCK HIM
this is not real
bb does not even know my name
“Jesus!” Bucky knocked his drink flat on the table, swooping up his laptop case with reflexes he didn’t know he possessed. “Ah, son of a fuck---”
“Sorry, wow.” Barista Boyfriend in the goddamn flesh sopped up what he could with his bar rag. “That’s--- I’ll get you another one. Was it vanilla or cinnamon this morning?” he asked, picking up the capsized mug. Bucky wasn’t even processing how quickly this was happening.
“Alright, sit tight.” Steve chuckled and slipped back behind the counter. “I didn’t mean to scare the shit out of you, I just thought I see you often enough to finally say hi before you took off again. I’m sorry,” the young man was smiling crookedly, shaking his head. Warm, wet coffee seeping through corduroy and the sudden adrenaline slowed Bucky’s senses to a halt. Steve looked up at him. “Not a great ice breaker, huh?”
“I--- don’t apologize, that’s on me. It’s literally on me, I guess--- not your fault though, business stuff. I was zoned out, don’t worry about it.” Words tumbled out as he tried to shake the mental fog. Bucky wadded up his napkins and grabbed his laptop bag, following the barista to the counter and taking a bar seat. “You’re Steve?” He furrowed his brow and feigned uncertainty. Give me my fucking Oscar, he thought. I’d like to thank absolutely no one, and definitely not Natasha Romanov. Steve smiled.
“Yessir,” he tapped his name tag. “Coffee spiller extraordinaire. You want another scone, too?”
“I probably shouldn’t.” Bucky frowned. Barista Boyfriend surely remembered he’d already had two. “I mean, yes, obviously, they’re stupid delicious, but they probably take years off my life.” Steve shrugged.
“Maybe, but they’re years off the back end.”
“Sure, and padding to my back end,” Bucky said, unable to stop his scowl. Steve eyed him challengingly.
“What kind of a monster doesn’t like big back ends? C’mon, have another one. I made this batch, I’m kind of proud.” Bucky blinked. Ass innuendo aside, this was too much to process. Steve baked the things? Did Bucky's column just predict the future?
“You? You’re the baker?” he asked. Steve nodded, sliding a new latte mug towards him very slowly, a scone sitting innocently beside in an obvious gesture.
“I am indeed a Renaissance man.” Steve smiled too warmly and held Bucky’s gaze too long. A customer approached the till and Steve snapped to, knocking on the counter before leaving him. “Enjoy, Buck.”
“Thanks!” Bucky responded just a moment too late. He felt like he couldn’t blink, couldn't breathe quite right. The fourth wall, or whatever literary barrier he'd constructed, came crashing down around his ears as Steve Rogers had said hello. He slid his phone from his pocket.
Nvm he does know my name
does he know you have a HUGE INTERNET BONER FOR HIM
what a breakthrough
I’ll see you at home later I’m getting on the train
I’m gonna have to pay in cash for the rest of my life
my last name’s on my credit card
he’ll google me
and know I write the thing
he doesn’t read it
he reads newspapers
he doesn’t read blogs
this never occurred to me?
no no no
Bucky panicked as he realized these things, texting faster than he thought himself capable. The music had switched to Billie Holiday and Steve was happily chatting with the girl who’d just gotten a huge black coffee to go; she looked like an art student. Considering it, Bucky might believe they went to school together and he filed away an idea for a future column. The cinnamon latte was overwhelming his senses; on high alert he felt like he could feel spices. Maybe he’d write that idea right now, Barista Boyfriend the struggling artist, just to keep his mind off of this weird development: Barista Boyfriend keeps dipping his paintbrush in his coffee by accident, Barista Boyfriend has hands dappled with color that touch your cheeks and neck like--- were he and Steve going to be friends?! Holy shit?? No. No, that couldn’t happen. He practically invented Steve anew each week for an entire internet audience, they couldn’t be friends. He felt like the whole cafe could see him panicking. Nat didn’t respond for another half-hour, probably in transit, and Bucky furiously tapped away at his laptop. The seat at the bar wasn’t nearly as comfortable as his smooshy sofa but the view was infinitely better... and they were friends now, so it would be rude not to. The third scone was even better than the first two. Did Barista Boyfriend--- Steve, did Steve give him that for free? For knocking over his coffee? That was the cutest meet-cute of them all! His pants were a fucking mess! He was reeling. He snapped his laptop shut and Steve looked over at him as he handed a medium drip to a hurried older man.
“Finished your scone?” he asked. Inhaled, Bucky thought. Stress-eating. Steve. Barista Boyfriend.
“Yeah, how much do I owe you?”
“Nothing, it was a bad one. Too much butter for normal backsides.” Steve winked. That asshole winked. “You taking off, Hamilton?”
“Hamilton?” Bucky repeated. He’d heard the album once or twice in Steve’s rotation. It was not a bad compliment. This guy was complimenting him. His character was flirting.
“Prolific writer, kind of a punk, just like you. You're like a machine over there, squinting and tapping. You writing the Great American Novel or what?” Blood rose to Bucky’s cheeks and somehow he felt like he wanted to fight this dude; the banter was making him light-headed. Was that normal attraction? Were they going to knock each other around and then kiss about it? He would write that later, he decided. No, he wouldn't. Jesus.
“Who, me? No, I’m the one writin' scathing Yelp reviews to ruin your business.”
“Well then I’m not sorry I ruined your pants, ya jerk.” Steve folded his arms.
“My pants will get over it.”
“Will you put me in it?” Bucky’s throat tightened just a little and Steve obliviously wiped the counter where the scone plate had been. “Your book.” His book. Of course. A thing he would write, because he was a writer, and wrote things, and wasn't suddenly totally aware that his dick wanted to join the conversation but was trapped in a wet, dismal corduroy prison.
"My book? Keep giving me free scones and I might have to," he managed somewhat smoothly in recovery. Steve considered it.
“Deal. And,” the barista admitted, “for the record, I am sorry about your pants.”
“Shit happens. Someday they’ll forgive you.” Bucky smiled, but winced as he turned to go. It sounded so dumb as he heard himself say it. Smooth as silk, Fonz, he muttered as he pushed out the door without looking back. The words echoed in his head. Shakespeare made dick jokes, he thought forgivingly. You can overuse the pants situation. Writer’s license.
Bucky unlocked his bike and checked his phone. Nat was home and got his text barrage.
I’ll get a bottle of wine to calm your ass down
Put a straw in it, I’m going to get hammered!!!
HE KNOWS MY NAME
HE BROKE THE FOURTH WALL, MY OWN CHARACTER TALKED TO ME
I EITHER HAVE TO DIE OR MARRY HIM
Bucky slumped into the coffee shop the next morning like he had seen, fought, and exorcised an army of ghosts. After a long night of drinking and catching up with Nat, staying in the apartment for breakfast as he usually did on very early Tuesday mornings was out of the question. He would end up crawling into bed and he’d never get through all the copy he had been assigned. He could go straight into the office, but couldn’t stomach the idea. He took his hangover and his work to the coffee shop, not altogether unaware that he would get another day to deal with real life Barista Friend (he’d amended the title in his head; if he had to interact with his own character they would at least be congenial.) Maybe he would just expand his Independent Writing hours, make it two days a week. Steve had picked up on this schedule change and seemed pleasantly surprised to see him, not that Bucky needed his delusions stoked. They were growing like weeds, and Steve greeted him with a smile as he filled the bakery case.
“Two days in a row? Is it my birthday?”
“Is it? I didn’t get you a gift,” Bucky croaked. Steve crossed his arms over his chest, apron puckering over a soft grey shirt. Very soft, Bucky thought it seemed. He tossed that thought immediately in the mindtrash. Fuck.
“That’s fine, you can write me one someday.”
“You don’t even know what I write," Bucky pointed out, his bag sliding from his shoulder though he didn't possess the willpower to re-position. His body was still getting over the coup d'etat of waking up.
“I have good intuition.”
“How about limerick. There once was a boy named Steve---” Bucky scrubbed his hands over his face, the light still burning his eyes, “---whose cafe I can’t seem to leave, he gives me free shit, while my lazy ass sits, hungover like you won’t believe.”
“Bravo! I knew you were talented.” The blonde beamed. A woman came in behind Bucky and approached the till. “Sam?” Steve’s manager slipped behind him on the way to the sink and clapped him on the back, a sort of I-Got-This gesture. Steve turned back to Bucky. “Sit down, I’ll bring you something. Jesus, man, hungover like this on a Tuesday!” Steve’s laugh resonated like a church bell as he set to work, Sam hovering at the steamer. Bucky didn’t want to move; his stomach was a warzone and his head a very consistent nagging throb. But Steve was alive and awake and making him something special. Bucky couldn’t have written a dialogue like that if he tried. He fell into his favorite couch and recounted the evening as best he could. Nat had two generous bottles of shitty red wine waiting for them, the kind that cost seven dollars with a twist off cap but still hit you in the face like a disappointed Italian grandma and taste like communion. He remembered a vivid image of Natasha smiling too sadly over her glass, glass number five? It might have been five. Neither of them had trouble holding their liquor when they went toe-to-toe over something hard and clear, but wine was more fun in spite of feeling so much worse on the recovering end. Bucky in his pajama pants cross-legged at the coffee table rested his head on the cool glass. It was fun until it wasn’t, when things got too real.
“How are things with Brock,” she asked, untying her red bun and settling in to the couch. Brock displayed all the qualities that Natasha would easily assign a barely acceptable human: he cat-called, he disrespected customer service, and he downed energy drinks named after snakes. She was rarely subtle about her distaste. Bucky shrugged.
“The fucking doesn’t sound low-key, but okay, sure,” Natasha said with a pointed sip of wine. Bucky ducked the idea.
“I thought we had a no kink-shaming rule. No discussion of kinks at the dinner table.”
“Okay but if your kink is dudes who don’t care about you---”
“We’re not talking about Brock tonight," Bucky cut her off. And… she must have dropped it, because there was a general fog where this memory ought to be, because instead he told Natasha all about Barista Boyfriend, how he spoke to him, how sweet he was, and how anxious Bucky had suddenly become.
“You flirted back,” she pointed out. Bucky hesitated, running a hand through his hair.
“No, I mean. I did, a little. But he’s my character, Nat. Like how could I not?” His tone was fond if slurred. Nat wrinkled her nose.
“Yeah. I feel like--- like he’s my child. My precious, handsome, stubborn asshole child.”
“I’m gonna have to no-kinks-at-the-dinner-table that one, James.”
“Nat,” he laughed. “No, I dunno. Why even worry about it, right. Fantasy Man is a Fantasy.”
“You seem plenty worried about it. That’s why we’re having this wine,” she reminded him.
“Right, sure. But. Anyway, he’s probably straight, or has a perfect boyfriend that deserves him. Like Tom Hardy.”
“Hard pass,” Nat said. Bucky couldn’t even fathom.
“God, how can you live with how wrong you are?” He snorted. Natasha shook her head.
“You’re drunk and you have a crush. Like, school-boy, blinding, deafening crush.”
“No, I’m gonna be honest, James. You’re a smooth operator: Mr. Dancefloor, Mr. One-night Stand. You write Choose Your Own Pornventures for fun. And I think you don’t want to put him in the Pieces of Ass category, and you should probably think why. For real. Like maybe about how he deserves Tom Hardy but you deserve Brock Rumlow.”
“Oh fuck off, this is all easy to say that when you have Clint, you have your--- your soulmate or---” Bucky’d slurred. He’d also shouted a bunch of other things that he now didn’t remember, and when he woke up unceremoniously at 5 on the couch there was a whiskey glass next to him (which, Jesus, that couldn’t have been a worse idea following that much wine,) and he’d at some point in the evening changed his profile picture to a screencap of Ron Swanson saying “your house isn’t haunted, you’re just lonely.” Nat was long gone, her morning routine apparently undisturbed by residual alcohol effects. He probably needed to apologize to her.
I said something mean, didn’t I
I have the worst hangover on planet asshole if that helps
He noticed, then, that Nat wasn’t the most recent message he’d sent. Last night, he’d sent several incoherent texts to Brock. He shouldn’t have. God, he shouldn’t have. God, no. Steve set a mug of green tea and a plate of plain toast on the low table in front of Bucky’s couch and sat down opposite him.
“You gonna be okay? Jokes aside?” he asked. Bucky let his head fall into his hands.
“My roommate and I accidentally drank a lot of wine, not that you needed to know that.” He heard a buzz on his phone and made no move to check it; could be either of them. Steve pressed.
“Does that happen a lot?”
“Yes and no.” The slumping writer sighed and reached for the warm mug, unable to drink it just yet. “We needed to get a few things out in the open. So we fought it through and went to bed.”
“That’s usually a good thing. Unless you got personal,” Steve offered. Bucky registered that this was a real conversation they were having and was just too exhausted to back out of it.
“Ouch. I’m sorry.” Here, Bucky had to smile, because his auto-response to that would typically be ‘it’s not your fault.’ And not that Barista Boyfriend started the fight, but he kind of did.
“Nah, she and I have been through a lot together, it will be fine," he said instead. "I’ll tell her she was right, because she always is, and it’ll be fine.”
“Sam’s like that,” the blonde said, gesturing over his shoulder at the young man running the counter presently. “Awesome roommate. But very level-headed until he’s not, and usually because I left shit in the sink.”
“Like a barbarian,” Bucky finished. He shook his head, breathing the steam from the mug and going soft focus in the jasmine. Steve laughed and it was like a goddamn angel choir. Bucky, wake up. Wake up, Bucky.
“You too? Jesus, I’m only human! I wash dishes all day, can’t a guy catch a break?”
“Not on a busy Tuesday mornings, I’m sure,” Bucky hinted and Steve shot up from the couch, as if suddenly he realized he was on the clock. Big dope. “Thank you for the toast, though. How much do I owe you?”
“I can put it on your Tragic Writer tab.”
“Please let me pay you," Bucky croaked, "I’m gonna be here doing work for a bit, I’ll go crazy if you let me have this shit for free. Makes me uncomfortable.”
“As you wish,” Steve shrugged. “$6.12 if you’re feeling right and just.” Bucky took a ten out of his wallet and slid it across the table, mumbling something about making up the difference. “Woah. Keep tipping like that and you can stay forever.”
“Is that a promise?” Bucky glanced up in time to see Steve blush as he took the bill. He smoothed his apron unnecessarily.
“Well, yeah. Umm. If you need anything? I’ll be back there, like always.” He retreated past Bucky to the counter, busying himself with a new customer and keeping his head down, smiling all the while. Bucky felt a pit in his stomach wholly unrelated to the the night’s alcohol. The beautiful barista might actually like him. The blonde beach volleyball-looking hunk of golden retriever that he objectified on a weekly basis for capital gain might be a human with feelings that reached further than his dick, unlike Bucky. The kind, toast-making, worry-knitting (was he singing along to Carole King right now?) Barista Boyfriend who cared, considered, and remembered, unlike Bucky. Bucky was going to be sick.
I also regret the wine.
You’re in bad shape, Barnes.
In a couple of ways.
Bucky groaned and let his head fall back onto the couch. He was glad business started to pick up, because he was at least sixty percent certain Steve would not look up and check on him for a while, and see him in this state of emotional undress. Steve Rogers wasn’t for him. James Barnes, infamous at the editors’ round table for remarks like “you can say tits exactly once per cover; there is a tits allowance and you have to be wise about it,” and “always go dick over penis,” found himself incapable of entertaining anything but a saccharine daydream of a real relationship. He’d gone so far to the right he popped out on the left.
He’d been Dark Side for too long. It wasn’t a fair match.
The match he dreamed about, the match he was so head-over-heels about that he wrote self-insert romance porn, couldn’t possibly make the leap into reality. It was a non-starter. It would hurt everyone. It would hurt him. His poor, pure, Barista Boyfriend. He had to be better about these interactions; he was going to corrupt him. His most beautiful thing.
When Steve came to unnecessarily take away the toast plate and refill his mug with hot water, Bucky didn’t even look up from his computer. It took some doing. He typed faster than ever before. His morning edits were more cutthroat, economical. He felt mean. Scott from marketing emailed him, “jesus christ, the last time I felt this emasculated first thing on a Tuesday morning was high school phys ed.” He said Bucky was really “in the zone.” Bucky agreed. His head was pounding and his heart was full of dirt. And when he finished his workload, he didn’t see why he couldn’t finish up those little plot starters for his other column before heading to the office, being time-efficient and all that.
Wouldn’t that be nice? he finished once again. And as his eyes flitted towards the counter and met Steve’s for a broken moment, he very nearly let himself think, yes.
God, but it couldn't. It can't.