“Hey. We’re closin’ up.”
Bucky tried to say it as nicely as he could. He'd cleared out the rest of the shop, which was a hard enough task by itself, considering he had three floors and almost seventy-thousand square feet to cover. He'd locked the back doors and pulled the curtains closed, then hit the lights in every section but the front of the store. And now, he was faced with his least favorite task: kicking out the last customer.
“Shit,” the man said, looking up in surprise. “I'm sorry. I didn't realize what time it was.”
Bucky knew most of the people who lingered after closing on a first name basis. This man, Bucky had never met. He had an impeccable beard and a sharp jawline that Bucky would've remembered. The man’s whole look, from the hair to the suit to the expensive Italian shoes, screamed upper-class Manhattan. So what was he doing in an independent bookshop in Brooklyn?
“Sorry,” the man said again, slipping a bookmark between the pages and standing up. “I’ll get out of your hair and-”
“Hang on.” Bucky cast a curious glance down, but he couldn't see the book’s binding well enough to make out the title. “What’re you readin’?”
“Huh? Oh. It’s uh. War and Peace. Ambitious, I know.” The man smiled, and that was a good look if Bucky had ever seen one. “You’re the owner, right? Mr. Barnes?”
“Bucky,” he said, holding out his hand.
“Tony. Nice to meet you.”
Tony shook hands like a businessman, but his palm was calloused like he was - what? A woodworker? Or maybe a mechanic? Curiouser and curiouser, Bucky thought.
“I hope you don’t mind my askin’, but what’s a guy like you doin’ in a place like this?”
Tony snorted. “How much time do you have?”
Bucky knew it was meant to be a rhetorical question, but damn if his curiosity didn’t always get the better of him. “I got all night.”
“What?” Tony blinked a few times, then frowned. “But you’re closing.”
Bucky shrugged easily. “Doesn’t mean I have to kick you out when I lock up. Besides, I haven’t turned off the espresso maker yet.”
Tony looked skeptical. “Are you really offering me coffee at ten o’clock?”
“Yeah. Guess I am.” Bucky smiled, not missing the way Tony’s eyes lit up. “If it makes a difference, I got decaf.”
“And now they’re asking me to design weapons,” Tony said, spinning the espresso cup over and over as he spoke. “Even though I’ve made it perfectly clear that I’m not interested in the weapons industry at all, and they just - they keep offering me more money.”
Tony shook his head. It sounded like such a first world problem when he said it out loud, and it really was, just like everything else Tony had to deal with. As the CEO of Stark Industries, his life was almost exclusively made up of first world problems. Still, that didn’t make the pressure from the board any less intimidating. Since when had it become so difficult for Tony to say no? And since when had Tony given up his ‘I’m Tony Stark and I do what I want’ attitude in favor of making decisions just to pacify his stockholders?
“I honestly didn’t know how to get them off my back,” Tony continued, “so I figured I’d just hide.”
Bucky looked at him curiously. “In a bookshop?”
Tony nodded, letting his hands rest on the cool granite of the espresso bar. “Yep. In a bookshop.”
“They think I bleed technology. My going to a place like this wouldn’t even occur to them. Plus, this is the City of Books, right? Even if they came looking for me, I could lose them easy.”
Bucky smiled, and Tony’s heart did some kind of somersault, which wasn’t unreasonable given how attractive Bucky was. For the way he looked, Bucky could’ve been a model. Tony could imagine that face on billboards or in commercials; there was serious money to be made on handsomeness like that. So how on earth had Bucky ended up as the owner of a bookshop, in Brooklyn of all places?
“I named it the City of Books because I wanted people to feel like they could get lost in the store the same way they get lost in the stories,” Bucky said. “Books have always been my favorite way to escape. Wanted to give that gift to as many people as I could.”
There was Tony's answer: Bucky loved books. He clearly wasn’t just an avid reader. He was one of those people who bought into the power a story had to transport a person somewhere else. Even if being a small business owner was undoubtedly less lucrative than any theoretical modeling career, Bucky had created his own reality, opened his own shop centered around the thing he loved.
Tony wished for that kind of courage. He had taken over Howard’s role for no other reason than it was expected, and hadn't given it a second thought since. Did Tony love being CEO of Stark Industries? No. He loved tech, loved making things and building things and solving problems. But Tony didn’t do any of that any more. Tony attended meetings and made decisions and put on a pretty face for the cameras.
“So you're saying this stuff really speaks to you,” Tony said.
“Yeah. Guess so.”
“That’s… That’s sort of incredible.” Tony turned his head to look at the rows of books behind them, marveling again at just how big the shop was. “You can tell, you know. The care you put into this place. It shows.”
Bucky looked - flattered? That was probably the best word for it. His eyes were bright with sincerity when he said, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Tony swallowed. It felt like Bucky was looking into him, and Tony wasn’t prepared for that kind of scrutiny, not when he wasn’t sure there was really anything special under the surface. Still, Tony found himself hard pressed to look away. He smiled past the lump in his throat. “Anyway. Sorry to just lay everything on you like that. You handed me an espresso and I just started going on.”
“It ain’t a problem. I like listenin’.”
“You have no idea how much I appreciate that.” No one ever asked Tony how he was doing; no one ever cared about Tony unless they wanted something. His work was an endless parade of polite people asking for favors. “Anyway. I'm sorry I've kept you so late.”
Bucky shrugged. “Ain’t quite midnight yet.”
“Oh shit." Midnight. Tony had contracts to sign and send off, and he had a slew of meetings in the morning that would require him to be at least halfway coherent. He fished his phone out of his pocket, scrolling quickly through his alerts.
“Yep, okay, it’s really late and I’ve missed-” Tony barked a laugh- “five calls from my assistant. So if I’m dead tomorrow, at least you know why.” Tony slipped the phone back into his pocket, already regretting having to leave.
“Um. It was really nice talking to you. Maybe...” Tony trailed off, hesitating like an idiot. “Maybe we could do it again sometime?”
“Whenever you want,” Bucky said, and Tony got the feeling that he meant it.
“Okay. Great.” Tony hopped down off the barstool and flashed a smile, walking backwards toward the door. “Well then. I guess I'll see you around.”
Bucky nodded once, a bemused look on his face. “Guess you will.”
“Are you the one who writes the recommendations?”
Bucky looked up from his purchase orders just long enough to give Tony a once-over. “Some of the other staff write ’em, but yeah, it’s mostly me.”
“Any chance you’d be interested in a different perspective?” Tony asked.
“Not sure what you mean.”
“I mean that I make great recommendations, too.”
Bucky opened his mouth to reply, then closed it, leaning forward and crossing his arms over the counter. “You don’t even work here.”
“So what? You don’t have room for a guest recommender?” Tony raised his eyebrows in a way that said, ‘How could you possibly turn me down? I'm obviously amazing.’ Really, the man was too expressive for his own good.
“Come on,” Tony tried again. “If you hate them, you can always throw them out.”
Bucky pursed his lips. Was he about to say yes because it wasn’t actually a terrible idea? Or because of the way Tony was smiling at him?
Maybe a little of both, Bucky thought.
“Fine. You bring me your recommendations, and I’ll consider ’em.”
Tony looked so stupidly pleased that Bucky had to laugh. Would it always be so easy to make Tony happy? Bucky had to hope so.
“Great.” Tony tucked his notebook under one arm, sliding his pencil behind his ear. “I’ll be in touch.”
Bucky nodded. “’Course you will.”
Tony was only in the shop every damn day, or close to it. In the last three weeks, Bucky had probably seen more of Tony than his own employees.
Tony disappeared around the corner, headed toward the young adult fiction, and Bucky smiled to himself. He didn't mind seeing Tony so often. In fact, if he was honest, he had started looking forward to it.
CEO of Stark industries. You sure know how to pick ’em, Barnes.
Putting that thought carefully aside, Bucky turned around to resume his work.
“So. What’s wrong?”
Tony glanced up from his book, surprised. “Huh?”
“You’re readin’ Tolstoy.” Bucky lowered himself into the chair opposite Tony, resting his arms on the table. “That means you’re upset about somethin’.”
“I’m - how did you know that?”
“I’ve seen you read Tolstoy three times. The first night you came in here. The anniversary of when your parents died. And now today.”
It was eerie, how Bucky could read Tony like he was nothing more than words on a page.
“Maybe I just like Anna Karenina,” Tony said softly.
Tony sighed, turning the book over and setting it down still open on the table. “Okay. You’re right. I’m upset about something. Happy?”
Bucky paused, studying him. “Why would I be happy that you’re upset?”
“Rhetorical question,” Tony muttered, as if he needed to defend himself for asking it in the first place.
“Figured you oughta know by now that I care how you feel.” There was so much warmth in Bucky’s eyes, it almost made Tony want to cry. “D’you wanna talk about it?”
Tony tapped one finger on the table, trying to find the words. “You know why I haven’t been back here in two days? It’s because I haven’t left the office.”
“You ain’t left the office in two days?”
“I haven’t even slept.”
Bucky seemed to deflate a little. “That bad, huh?”
“I’m buried under a mountain of paperwork. And I can’t let anyone else sign anything for me, because I can’t bear the thought of something bad happening under my watch that I should’ve known about, but didn’t. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, it does.” Bucky rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You ever thought about quittin’?”
Tony lowered his head. “I can't just quit.”
“I…” Tony trailed off, staring down at the table. “I don't have anything else.”
“Far be it for me to argue with you,” Bucky said, leaning forward, “but I think you’re wrong.”
“Oh? How do you figure?”
“Well. You got friends, right? And you’re damn smart. You got three doctorates. You could do whatever you wanted. Research, tech design, underground bot fighting. Endless possibilities. Might even be able to do something you actually like.”
Tony snorted. Underground bot fighting. Now there was an idea.
“Wait. How did you know I have three doctorates?” Tony tried not to telegraph that little flutter of excitement in his chest. “Did you look me up?”
“Maybe.” Bucky clearly meant that as a yes, because he held Tony’s gaze, not even blinking. “Hang on. I’ll be right back.”
Bucky returned moments later with another book, setting it down in front of Tony.
Tony stared at the cover. “You want me to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?”
“You read Tolstoy when you’re upset, yeah? Well, I read Carroll when I need a change of perspective. Figured it’d be worth a shot for you.”
Tony pulled the book toward him. It was a newer version, but according to the cover, it had the original artwork throughout. That was interesting. Tony hadn’t seen the artwork before. He ran his fingers over the edges, surprised at the softness of the paper.
“Thank you,” Tony said.
“You’re welcome,” Bucky replied. “Come grab an espresso, if you want. On the house.”
Tony found himself stowing the book and standing up before he’d even had time to consider the offer. Who was he kidding? He wasn’t about to turn down free coffee. And he certainly wasn’t about to turn down Bucky’s company. No matter how much of that he got, somehow Tony always wanted more.
“Yeah,” Tony said, following Bucky toward the espresso bar. “Okay.”
“You put them up.”
Bucky hadn’t seen Tony coming - but then, it was sometimes hard to see Tony coming, considering he moved at the speed of light.
“What?” Bucky asked lamely, setting another stack of books down on the re-shelving rack.
“My recommendations,” Tony said, leaning against the end of the shelf and staring at Bucky with intense eyes. “You put them up. I just walked the whole store, and-” Tony paused, breathing out like he still couldn’t believe it. “You put them up. Every single one.”
Bucky offered a casual shrug, trying to hide his amusement. “They were good recommendations. Read a couple of ’em, too.”
Tony blinked. “Really?”
“What, you think I own this place and never read?”
“Okay, then. Which one was your favorite?”
Bucky glanced thoughtfully at the ground. “Afterland. I got a soft spot for poetry.”
“I knew there was a reason I liked you.” Tony flashed a grin that had no business being as dazzling as it was. “Who’s your favorite poet?”
“Wordsworth,” Bucky said without thinking.
Bucky moved another misplaced book over to the rack, reciting the first few lines of his favorite Wordsworth poem. “I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills / When all at once I saw a crowd, a host-”
“-of golden daffodils,” Tony said, picking up the verse halfway through. “Beside the lake, beneath the trees / Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
Bucky knew there was heat in his eyes that didn’t belong there, but he couldn’t help it. Every muscle in his body was screaming with approval and attraction. He’d never met anyone who could quote Wordsworth back to him. At least, not anyone he hadn’t gone to college with. As if Bucky hadn’t liked Tony enough already.
“Guess I’m not the only one who’s got it memorized,” Bucky said.
“Yeah. He’s - uh. He's one of my favorites, too.”
Tony was just barely smiling now, soft and tentative, and Bucky had to suppress the overwhelming urge to lean down and kiss him. It was almost as if Tony felt the impulse - he shifted just slightly forward, his face tilted up, his gaze locked with Bucky’s for too long before he finally blinked and looked away.
“I wanted to thank you for the other day,” Tony said quietly. “For talking to me when I was upset.”
This time it was Bucky who smiled. Tony really didn’t need to thank him for that. “Wasn’t a problem.”
“No, but you didn’t have to do it, either.” Tony reached down and pulled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland out of his messenger bag, holding it out to Bucky.
Bucky shook his head. “It’s yours. You paid for it.”
“And I’m giving it to you. It’s not a return; it’s a gift. You said you liked it, right?”
“Then I’m guessing it won’t be long before you want to read it again.”
“Guess you’re right.” Bucky couldn’t refuse, not when just accepting the damn thing would make Tony unreasonably happy in that way that made Bucky’s stomach do flips. He reached out and took the book, setting it down on the shelf in front of him.
“I always get something different from a book each time I read it,” Tony said, looking as unreasonably happy as Bucky had predicted. “Maybe you will too.”
Bucky left the book untouched until later that evening. After closing the shop, he carried it upstairs with him to his apartment, wondering at how he couldn’t manage to set it down for more than a few seconds at a time. Bucky had other books on his reading list, but somehow this one was taking precedence, demanding to be read.
That’s because Tony Stark gave it to you.
Bucky sighed. That might not have been totally inaccurate. He lowered himself down into his armchair, setting his cup of tea down on the side table and opening the book to the first page.
Damn him. Tony had written notes. There were little scribbled pencil marks in the margins of almost every page, notes about plot, about language, about symbolism. Bucky scanned through a few of them, forced to turn the book sideways at times to interpret the tight cursive letters.
Bucky closed the book over his finger, sitting up straighter. He couldn’t deny it anymore. He liked Tony. A lot. Every little thing Tony did, Bucky became more and more infatuated. He wondered if it might be time to do something about it.
Tony was the billionaire owner of one of the biggest tech companies in the world. He probably had better than Bucky lined up outside his door day and night. Bucky couldn’t compete with Wall Street. Bucky was just a small-business-owner in Brooklyn.
Bucky opened the book again. Lost cause or not, Bucky was too far down the rabbit hole to climb back up. The only thing he could do was keep on falling.
Bucky knew Tony's voice by now, but he’d never heard it carrying across the store at quite that volume.
“Comic books,” Bucky called back, hoping the few patrons left after eight p.m. wouldn’t mind the noise.
It only took Tony thirty seconds to find him.
“Hi,” Tony said, coming to a quick halt in front of Bucky, looking like he'd jogged all the way from the door.
Bucky had never seen Tony in anything other than a suit. But here Tony was, in jeans and a leather jacket, his eyes bright, his hair hanging in his face. All Bucky could do was stare.
“Hi,” came Bucky’s uncreative reply. “You - you look good.”
“Thanks. You look good too.” Tony pulled a piece of paper out of his bag and handed it over.
“It’s my resume.”
“For you. For the store. I want to work here.”
Bucky narrowed his eyes. “You already got a job.”
“No I don’t.” Tony grinned lopsidedly. “I quit. Signed my position over to Pepper. I’m officially separated from Stark Industries.”
Bucky didn’t know what to say. It was hard enough just to keep his jaw from hitting the floor. He’d asked if Tony had ever thought about quitting; he’d never imagined Tony would actually do it.
“Crazy? Irresponsible? The smartest thing I've ever done?”
Tony had taken the words right out of Bucky’s mouth.
“Yeah,” Bucky said, smiling at Tony's contagious excitement. “Congratulations.”
“So? Aren’t you going to look over my resume?”
Bucky cast a cursory glance down, skimming through what he was sure must’ve been eight-point font in order to fit all that text on the page. “Seems like you might be overqualified.”
Tony laughed, and Bucky let it linger in the air before passing the paper back. “I can’t hire you, Tony.”
Tony frowned. “Why not?”
“Because,” Bucky said, steeling himself. “I want to date you.”
Tony’s lips parted, mouth falling open in surprise. “You - you want to date me?”
“I really do. If you’re interested.”
Tony’s surprised look was quickly replaced with enthusiasm. He nodded, his head moving too fast, like maybe Bucky might take it back if Tony waited too long to answer. “Yes. Absolutely. Definitely interested.”
Bucky breathed out his relief, a nervous, hopeful feeling rising in his chest. “Alright then. How’s later tonight sound?”
Tony nodded again. “Great. Yeah, tonight’s perfect. I’ll - I’ll come find you at closing?”
“Lookin’ forward to it.”
Tony turned away, and Bucky allowed himself a small huff of disbelief. Had it really been that easy? Bucky replayed Tony’s emphatic yes in his mind, wondering if it meant that Tony had fallen down the rabbit hole right along with him.
“Hang on,” Tony said, approaching Bucky again. “Just one more thing.”
Bucky raised his eyebrows in question. “Yeah?”
Bucky should’ve expected it, but somehow, he was caught completely by surprise when Tony lifted up on tiptoes to plant a kiss squarely on Bucky’s mouth. Bucky made a noise, the sound muffled by Tony’s lips, and then Bucky gave in entirely, melting into Tony like they’d always belonged together. His hands fit perfectly on Tony’s waist, resting under the jacket just above Tony’s hips, and even when Tony broke the kiss, Bucky held on, reveling in the feeling of soft fabric and Tony under his palms.
“Sorry, just - sorry.” Tony drew back, clearing his throat. “Got, um. Carried away.”
Bucky was still trying to catch his breath. “I ain't complainin’.”
“No,” Bucky replied, almost relieved when Tony rose up to kiss him again.
Bucky didn’t care that he was on the clock, or that he and Tony were making out between the shelves like teenagers. It was the most right Bucky had felt in so long, he couldn’t be bothered to care about anything except Tony, Tony’s hands on his shoulders and in his hair, Tony’s lips moving against his, Tony’s tongue sliding into his mouth.
It was a long time before Bucky finally had the good sense to pull away. Kissing was one thing, but the way Bucky had Tony pressed back against the shelf, they were headed toward something else, and they hadn’t even been on a date yet, not to mention that they were still in a bookshop, even if it was close to closing and nearly deserted.
Bucky made a small noise of displeasure as he stepped back, giving Tony space to breathe. “I oughta get back to work.”
“Right! Right. Work. You're working. Got it.” Tony bit his lip, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I'll just - I'll just go read something.”
Bucky nodded, kissing Tony one more time - because who was he kidding, now that he knew what it felt like, no amount would ever be enough - before releasing his grip on Tony’s waist.
Tony smiled, winked, then backed up a few paces, turning back the way he had come.
“Hang on,” Bucky said.
Tony looked back over his shoulder. “Yeah?”
“What're you readin’?”
Tony crossed his arms thoughtfully. “I don't know. I’m thinking Sense and Sensibility. Or maybe Pride and Prejudice? Definitely something romantic and stupid.”
“I can’t accept this,” Tony said when Bucky finally stepped into the bedroom.
Bucky had given him a key. A key to the apartment. A key to the store. And even though Tony had made a significant investment in the bookshop and had also become curator of the Rare Books Room (which couldn’t have been more perfect, because Tony loved hunting for rare books as much as he loved showing them to other people), having a key was a lot of responsibility.
“Sure you can,” Bucky replied, tugging off his scarf and tossing it on top of the dresser.
Tony turned the key over again before putting it down on the nightstand, scooting further under the covers. “You think I’m a lot more trustworthy than I actually am.”
“That ain’t true.”
They’d had this talk before. Bucky was going to say that Tony didn’t think enough of himself, and Tony was going to insist that he really wasn’t as good a person as Bucky thought, and then-
“’Sides. I’ve trusted you with more important things.”
Tony looked up, knowing that Bucky’s stupid, fond, lovesick look was mirrored in his own face. “That’s not a fair comparison.”
“You don’t think so?”
Really, it was a perfect comparison. The shop was Bucky’s heart, or at least, a big part of it. And if Tony could take care of Bucky’s heart, he could certainly take care of the stupid building. It wasn’t too much responsibility. Tony was just being difficult. Thankfully, Bucky seemed to find that particular character trait endearing.
“No. I don’t,” Tony said, refusing to concede. He lifted his book from his lap, pretending to be engrossed in the story until Bucky called his bluff.
“Tell me somethin’.” Bucky’s eyes grew dark with distraction, and he took the book out of Tony's hands, setting it down on the nightstand before crawling onto the bed, settling himself between Tony’s legs. “D’you ever stop arguin’?”
“No, I don't.”
Bucky leaned forward to drop a long, deep kiss on Tony’s mouth. Tony melted into it, sinking back into the pillows. What reason would he have to stop being difficult when Bucky rewarded him like this?
“You gonna argue with that, too?” Bucky asked in a low voice.
“Yeah. Yeah, I am.” Tony licked his lips, looking breathlessly into Bucky’s eyes. “That wasn't nearly long enough.”