As soon as he entered the bar, Bucky asked himself what he was doing there. The place wasn't packed, which was a relief, but there was still a bit of a crowd. The walls were painted in a dark color impossible to recognize under the dim lighting of the room. A couple of couches were standing in one corner, some fairy lights hanging above them. There were two small tables with a few chairs in the same corner. None of this was what bothered Bucky.
The speakers were turned up at full volume and blasting some 00's Britney Spears song. And most people at the bar seemed to be ordering cocktails, either already drunk or desperately trying to get there.
Bucky would happily have joined the last group if he hadn't gotten sober because of his meds. Steve turned towards him as the small group they formed with Natasha and Sam approached the bar. He didn't seem a lot more at ease than Bucky, and smiled apologetically. “I know the music is a bit...”
Steve huffed out a laugh. “That's one way to put it, yeah.”
“Don't worry about it, I'll be fine.” He forced his face into a relaxed smile, and Steve seemed content enough to leave it at that.
If Bucky survived the night, he was going to make it clear to Natasha that she owed him big time. He knew that her girlfriend was on the committee that was organizing the party, and that she had dragged them here to be good friends and show support, but still. He walked up to the bar and greeted Jessica, who was already handing Nat a beer and Sam a pink cocktail.
“Hey! Bucky, Steve! It's so nice to see you here! Can I get you guys anything?”
“Just a coke, thanks,” Bucky said.
“Same for me,” added Steve.
Jess immediately bent down to retrieve their drinks in a small fridge, and pocketed their change. She excused herself to attend another client, assuring them she would be back in a sec. Sam and Natasha were greeting a few people they already knew, so Bucky turned back to Steve. He tilted his head to indicate Steve's bottle. “You can drink alcohol, you know. I won't mind.”
Steve shrugged. “Maybe later, but I'm not really in the mood for it anyway.”
“Though maybe don't drink as much as these two,” Bucky said, gesturing at two guys who were sloppily grinding into each other, trying to follow the rhythm of the music, although obviously not trying hard. “or I might just have to put the video on YouTube.” Steve punched him in the arm, but hit his prosthesis. He probably hurt himself more than Bucky.
Natasha and Sam turned back towards them just in time for Jess to come back to their group. “Busy night?” Sam asked her, as another bartender maneuvered around her to get to the beer pumps.
Jess shrugged. “Starting to get busier. But my first shift is almost ending, and I won't have anything to do until closing time after that.”
“Well, except for keeping me entertained, of course,” Natasha said. The two women shared a knowing smile at that, before Jess turned around to pour a glass of beer for someone.
The whole group settled into easy conversation, and Bucky slowly learned to tune out the loud music, focusing on his friends' words instead. A few minutes before Jess finished her shifts, they moved to a table that had freed up, tired of being jostled by people trying to get to the bar. Next to their table was the corner with the couches, on which a mismatched group was sitting, all nursing drinks and talking somewhat passionately. Bucky tuned them out too.
He focused on his breathing. The darkness and warmth of the place were unsettling, making his stomach twist slightly. He let the conversation happen around him instead of participating in it. Steve shot him a worried glance at one point, but Bucky just smiled, relaxed. He offered to get his friends' some drinks, and Sam stood up with him to help.
Both of them cringed as one of the people dancing nearly elbowed Sam in the sternum. He was still rolling his eyes when they reached the bar and placed their order. “Someone oughta teach these people how to dance.”
Bucky raised an eyebrow with a smirk. “Are you offering your services?”
Sam eyed him up and down, a considering expression on his face. Bucky opened his arms and twirled.
“Okay Barnes, you're on. Let's take these drinks back home and we'll see what you've got in you.”
Bucky laughed openly. They dropped off the tray of drinks, and he only had the time to take one sip of his coke before Sam pulled him by the elbow and dragged him away, a mischievous smile on his lips. Once on the dancefloor – which consisted of a few square meters without any tables on which people were more trying not to accidentally punch each other than actually dancing – Bucky had to admit that the music at least had enough of a rhythm to be danced to. He also found out it was less tiring to listen to when you didn't have to make the effort of understanding a conversation at the same time.
So Sam pulled him by the hand and started moving his body to the rhythm. The song playing was coming to an end, and he danced in a mostly restrained way throughout. Then a new tune started, something that Bucky could vaguely recognized as salsa-inspired in a way that wasn't very clear through the layers of autotune. Sam grabbed him by both hands, easily sliding his fingers between the clutch of Bucky's prosthesis, and started leading the dance, surprising Bucky as he started to make him twirl under his arms, even though they were pretty much the same height and Bucky was wider than him. Bucky lead for the next dance, and they had fun with it, quickly attracting the gaze of onlookers. Although their choreography was much less suggestive than the grinding of some other couples, they did make a striking pair. Bucky forgot to be self-conscious. It was like they were dancing a private joke and others couldn't help but want in on it.
They stopped after two and a half dance, the warmth of the room getting to them as they started to feel the thirst that had made them get drinks in the first place.
As they made their way back, Bucky caught the gaze of one of the guys sitting in the group next to theirs. The man grinned at him, apparently unashamed that he had been caught staring. Bucky looked away, not sure how he felt about the attention.
Steve of course welcomed them back with a bright smile, and Bucky felt slightly embarrassed about it as he sat down next to his friend. He felt like his mama had just pinched his cheek to tell him how proud of him he was. And sure, Bucky was proud of himself too, but that wasn't the point.
He raised his coke to Sam and downed half of it as Steve went back to the conversation he'd been having with Jess and Nat.
And Bucky went back to his prior state of calm.
He was only half-heartedly participating in the conversation when he heard the talk in the sofas behind him getting louder.
“Are you seriously gonna start with the gate-keeping bullshit now?” A male voice, tone slightly exasperated. “In front of me, while we're supposed to be out for a good time?”
There was a quick and sharp response followed by cold laughter, and Bucky wasn't able to catch the next few sentences.
“Don't even try to drag me into this conversation, Loki, because I won't be on your side.” It was a higher-pitched voice this time. “Like, I'm bi and nonbinary. I know how this crap goes, I've been on the other side of it. You might think you're oh-so-original by being bigoted and hiding it under a thin layer of queer theory, but this shit's been done and re-done before. It's always the same arguments and it boils down to the fact that you'd rather be an asshole and exclude people from a safe space that they need, before you confront the fact that people can face different types of oppression than you and still be part of a community that's always been more defined by the fact it welcomed people that didn't belong anywhere else than by the list of identities it included.” She stopped after that, probably getting her breathing back after what had been a pretty long tirade.
“You talk about oppression, and oppression is exactly what the queer community” Bucky could almost imagined who he assumed was a man making air quotes around the two words. “was based on. But by ignoring the historical ideals that brought people together in the first place and insinuating that 'everyone belongs', you're just opening the gate for every single made-up identity to claim space by pretending they're oppressed because someone was mean to them once. I mean, let's be serious, I've never heard of one asexual person dying during the AIDS crisis.”
Bucky involuntarily rolled his eyes, which got him a few looks from his friends around him. Which he should actually be listening to. He tried to re-engage in the conversation going on in front of him, but the back of his mind was always drifting back to what he could hear behind him.
“Did you die in the AIDS crisis, Loki?” It was the first man's voice again. “'Cause if I had known, I would have sent your brother some flowers.”
“Don't drag him into this, Clint. And you know exactly what I mean. What example do you have of the oppression you think you face?”
“Dude, I'm not even asexual, get your facts fucking right. But like, on the top of my head? Corrective rape is a thing that still happens. So are assholes like you that try to police how others identify. The fact that asexuality is listed in the DSM if you don't self-identify is also a pretty big thing.”
“You call that a big thing? People want to have sexual desire.”
“Oh my god, Kate, can I punch him?” The man didn't wait for a reply and went on. “They want that because every-fucking-body tells them that's what they should want. Just as there are lots of closeted gay people who want to be straight. I can't fucking deal with the fact you actually believe in what you're saying right now. I'm walking out on this. I'll be outside; once you get the fucking stick out of your ass, you can come find me, if getting it out doesn't do too much damage to your pride. Since you've obviously got more of it than brains.”
“Yeah, right, you just go and pretend that the fact you don't want sex somehow makes you a special snowflake and your life’s the hardest thing on earth.”
“I've told you I'm not fucking asexual, Loki. I'm on the aromantic spectrum. Not the same thing. Also, I don't want your pity. You probably couldn't give it anyway since you're busy pouring it all over yourself. Grow up.”
The man stood up and walked out. Bucky couldn't help but turn and follow him with his gaze. He noticed it was the same blond guy that had been looking at him while he danced with Sam.
“Hey, Buck, you okay?” Steve asked next to him, a note of concern in his voice though he was trying to be casual about it.
“Me? Yeah. 'm fine. I'm just gonna go for a smoke if that's okay? It's a bit stuffy in here, I need to get some air.”
“Sure, yeah. Uh, see you.”
Bucky didn't reply, simply grabbing his jacket and walking out. He was following his impulse more than his reason, but hey. His therapist always told him he should try to take small steps out of his comfort zone from time to time. This was something he could do, right? Spend the evening at a gay bar and talk to strangers. Totally a good idea.
The fresh air hit him in the face in an almost painful way. He shivered as he slipped into his jacket, looking around for a few seconds before he noticed the blond man leaning against the wall on the other side of the street. He took a cigarette from his pocket and approached the stranger in his best nonchalant attitude. “Do you have a light?”
It was a cheap line, but it was the only way he could think of to approach the man without seeming like a creeper. Of course, if he didn't have a lighter on him, Bucky would be very embarrassed, either standing around with his unlit cigarette or having to use his own lighter and be found out a liar.
It didn't come to that as the blond pulled out a plain purple lighter from his khaki jacket. “Here you go.”
Bucky lit his smoke and took a short drag, immediately relaxing as he exhaled. The effect was probably more psychological than anything at this point, but he didn't care about that as long as it actually worked.
“So... The guy you were with sounded like kind of a douche,” Bucky stated.
The blond laughed, startled, then nodded enthusiastically. His nose was slightly crooked, and Bucky noticed a faint scar on his neck on which the streetlights reflected. “A bit of a douche.” He repeated, looking up at the sky. “I guess you could say that. He just... He has his moments. He can be pretty decent sometimes, but others he'll just start this kind of crap and it's... annoying, I guess. I mean, I'm not really close to him, so whatever. We just keep on running into each other.”
“Still. I mean, I don't want to sound like I was spying on your conversation -”
“Though you kind of were?”
Bucky shrugged. Belatedly, he thought of offering a cigarette to the other man, but he refused. “You were speaking pretty loudly, to be honest. What I meant to say is... He didn't sound like he was trying not to hurt you, you know. He seemed to be enjoying pissing you off. So you don't have to make excuses for him.”
“Am I making excuses?” He thought about it for a second, and Bucky let him. He could hear the music from the bar, though only faintly, as well as a couple of people talking across the road. “Maybe I am. I guess it's just that what he was saying wasn't anything new. It's actually getting to be pretty old stuff. And like... If you keep on staying angry at those things, you won't ever be able to let go. And it'll just ruin your life. Loki's bigotry isn't worth ruining my life over.”
“I guess, yeah.”
Bucky wanted to ask more questions. To ask how come the blond had to deal with those kinds of comment enough for him to build a protective layer against them. He wanted to know where Loki's discourse was coming from, or even what the subject of it actually was. He knew about asexuality, and it wasn't too difficult to infer from that what “aromantic” meant. But he was curious about how this stranger identified, in a way that wasn't exactly polite.
He didn't ask.
Actually, the blond was the one who next asked a question. “What's your name, by the way? I saw you hanging out with one of the bartenders, so hopefully I can score a free drink if I make her think I'm your friend.”
Bucky let out a short laugh. “Yeah, no chance, not with Jess. She's treasurer for the youth group that's throwing this party, she won't be the one responsible for giving out free drinks and making them lose out on possible benefits.”
“Worth a try,” the stranger replied with a small smile, only lifting up one side of his mouth.
“Bucky. That's my name, if you still want to know. Or, well, my actual name's James, but most people call me Bucky.”
“And do you have a preference between the two?”
“Okay Bucky. I'm Clint.” He extended a hand to shake, and Bucky switched his cigarette to his left hand. He was wearing a glove over his prosthetic arm and hoped Clint's attention wouldn't get caught on it.
“Nice to meet you, Clint.”
“Likewise. Saw you dance with this guy a while before. You got some moves.”
Bucky shrugged again. “Yeah. I like dancing. Used to take lessons with one of my friends when we were in highschool.”
“Is he your boyfriend?”
“The guy you were dancing with.”
“Sam?” Bucky shook his head, smiling. “Nah. Just a friend. Actually a friend of a friend. Only really started to get close to him in like... the last two months or so?”
“Oh, you looked pretty close,” Clint said teasingly, lying back against the wall.
“Yeah, no, I don't see him like that. And I'm pretty sure he's into Steve. Short, skinny, blond? Often looks like a lost puppy?”
“I think I see who you mean, yeah.”
Bucky dropped his cigarette and put it out, putting both hands in his jeans pocket.
“Speaking of Steve, I should probably head back. He's a bit of a mother hen sometimes, I'd better not let him start worrying or he'll freak out and give me a stern look.”
“Is that such a terrifying prospect?”
“Oh yeah. Trust me, you haven't seen Steve's stern looks.”
Bucky took a step backwards, signaling that he was about to get out of the conversation, but actually uncertain of whether he wanted to leave.
He wanted to ask for Clint's number, maybe. The blond was pretty attractive, in a kind of toned-down way, and he had a sort of laid-back charm about him. But mostly Bucky was just... intrigued. He wasn't sure whether it was in a nice way or not, and that was why he hesitated to act on it. It was his first night out after his last relapse, and Bucky was conscious of the fact that he might just have taken an unhealthy fancy to the guy because he had starved himself of any human contact for weeks.
“Do you come here regularly?” Clint asked as he was taking a second step back. “I mean, I don't think I've seen you around, but maybe I just hadn't noticed you.” He sounded doubtful of the idea in a way that brought warmth to Bucky's cheeks.
“Not... exactly. I don't... I don't go out much, actually. Today was kind of a favor to my friends.”
“I guess you'd really better get back in, then.”
“Yeah, but, uh...” Bucky took a breath. “Could I give you my number? I don't... if that's... I mean I'm not looking for...” He shook his head.
Clint shrugged. “'I'm not looking for' either. But if you want to grab a coffee or something someday, I probably wouldn't say no. Especially if you pay for it. I'm kind of broke, to be honest.”
Bucky laughed. “Sure. Want me to dictate?”
Clint pulled out his phone, unlocked it, and handed it to him. “Just type it in.”
Bucky did that, then handed the phone back. Clint fiddled with it for a few seconds, then Bucky felt his own phone vibrate in his jeans pocket. And pulled it out to a new text that just said “hi :)”. He saved the number and gave Clint a smile and a wave as he turned back to the bar.
“Ok. See you around then?”
“Sure. Maybe you can teach me some of those dance moves someday.”
He stepped inside, the saturated atmosphere immediately weighing on him. Natasha and Jess were slow-dancing. They smiled at him as he crossed the dancefloor, settling back next to Steve and fiddling with the wrist joint of his prosthesis.