welcome book lover, you are among friends
“Hey Darcy,” Steve says, leaning over as soon as Darcy’s free, “how do I attach a gift card to a transaction? I thought it would be here but…” He points at the relevant – or not, as the case may be – button and shrugs.
“Oh, yeah,” Darcy replies with a laugh, “gift cards are the worst.”
The Art House, where Steve worked up until last Friday, had two ancient cash registers and a book database last updated sometime in the 80s. They didn’t have electronic gift cards; they had stamp cards. In contrast, the gift card system Darcy walks him through for Ex Libris – after a quick apology to the waiting customer – seems unnecessarily complicated. But then Ex Libris is fast becoming a chain bookstore (the horror!) and probably needs something a little fancier.
It could do with being less fancy though. Steve frowns at the screen and goes through all of the steps again, just to make sure he understands them all.
“Yup,” Darcy says, clapping her hands together, “you got it.”
How Steve ended up working as a bookseller at an Ex Libris shop after basically managing The Art House all by himself for nearly seven years is not a particularly interesting story. Jasper Sitwell, The Art House’s owner and manager (in name only), sold the shop to Alexander Pierce of Hydra Books for a pittance and without telling any of his employees. Steve had known Jasper was a dick, but he’d been a manageable dick and, with the help of photography specialist Melinda, Steve had run a good little independent art bookshop. Unfortunately Alexander Pierce had been magnitudes worse than Sitwell, and Melinda and Steve had ended up having a race as to who could leave the place first.
Steve’d won. He’d gloat, but he feels sorry for Melinda still being stuck there.
“Sorry about that,” he says to the old lady he’s serving, once he’s attached her gift card to the sale. “New system.”
She nods and makes a sound of sympathy, and Steve smiles as he passes over her receipt. He’d forgotten how much he actually enjoys the customer facing aspects of bookselling; managing The Art House’s, well, everything never did leave much time to just chat to people. And, while Steve is always happy to talk about art to people who really care about it, he likes that he now gets to meet little old ladies who just want some really fucked up crime thrillers. They’re fantastic.
It’s surprisingly busy, considering it’s a Tuesday morning. Steve feels like he’s been serving nonstop for about fifteen minutes. Every time either he or Darcy try to leave to do some shelving, another customer approaches the registers. And then Darcy gets asked about kids’ picture books and leaves him as the only one on the register just as a group of teenagers turn up, all wanting at least one graphic novel each. Steve ends up so in the zone it takes him a moment to realise that the person who’s now serving alongside him is not in fact Darcy returned from the depths of the children’s section, but someone new entirely.
Steve’s paying too much attention to his customers to notice anything about them apart from that they’re male, have a pleasant voice, and, wow, really nice hands.
When the last customer has been dealt with, Steve turns to his new companion with, “Hi. I’m Steve, I’m new,” and finds a guy about his own height, with a kind smile and his long hair in a messy bun.
“Hi,” the guy says. “I’m James and I’m old.”
Steve laughs even as the name registers.
“Oh, hey. James from Goods In?”
Steve’s not really surprised that he hasn’t met James yet. Booksellers don’t often have reason to go into the backroom where deliveries are processed.
“That’s me,” James says with a smile. “Brought you the day’s customer orders.” He pats a pile of books stacked up by the phone. “And now I’m going to escape back into my cave.”
“Surely I’m not that bad,” Steve says with mock offence.
“Based on three seconds conversation, I’d say no. But these guys?” He jerks his thumb over at the customers milling around in Fiction and gives an exaggerated shudder.
Steve laughs again and James salutes in response, loping off through the shop and disappearing through the staff door.
Huh. James from Goods In. Now the only person Steve has left to meet is the elusive Grant-who-is-an-asshole-and-we’re-glad-he’s-on-holiday.
Steve knocks on the open door of Goods In. He could just walk in, but Steve is well aware that Goods In is the domain of whoever’s running it. Plus he doesn’t want to startle the guy into dropping something. Book boxes are heavy. Steve knows this from experience.
“Oh, hey.” James turns from what he’s doing to smile distractedly at Steve. “What’s up?”
Steve hands him a paperback. “You might want to send that back to the publisher.”
James takes the book and flicks through it. “Ah, yeah, okay.”
The book’s been bound upside down. James flicks through it a couple more times and then shrugs, sorting it away into the shelves above his desk like his system isn’t utterly incomprehensible.
“Might improve it, reading it backwards,” James mutters, and for some reason Steve feels prompted to respond. He hardly ever gets to talk to James. It seems silly to pass up the opportunity.
“You’ve read it?” Steve glances at the spine – The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Steve’s never heard of it, but it came up as sci-fi/fantasy so that’s not that surprising.
“Clint had to physically restrain me from setting it on fire.”
Steve can’t tell if James is being sarcastic or not.
“I am absolutely not kidding. Ask Clint.”
Steve opens his mouth to say something, but nothing presents itself so he shuts it again.
“I’ll do that,” he manages, after staring at James for a moment while James stares impassively back.
Clint is organising Poetry. If the first thing Steve had learnt about Clint was that he likes poetry a ridiculous amount, he’d never have believed that Clint can also burp the alphabet. Steve had found these facts out the other way around though, so the fact that Clint likes poetry kind of weirds him out.
“Did James once try to set The Magicians by Lev Grossman on fire?” Steve asks as soon as he’s close enough.
“Oh, yeah,” Clint replies, as if this is a perfectly ordinary question. “I opened the door and the first words outta his mouth were ‘Natalia has matches, right?’” Clint shakes his head. “Book burning is a capital offence in our house. I have been banished to the sofa for less.”
“Natalia is… your partner?” Clint flirts so easily with everyone Steve had figured he was single.
“Natasha. And no, I’m hers.” Clint grins up at him. “She’s the main buyer for Ex Libris. You’ll meet her eventually.”
Clint likes poetry and Clint can burp the alphabet and apparently Clint has a girlfriend. Steve wonders which she learnt about first; his poetry obsession or his ‘party trick’.
“But yeah, he did. Nat read it after listening to him rant about it for half an hour. Three days later and I’m shooed out of the room because Nat needs to bitch at him for two fucking hours about how terrible it was.”
Steve wants to ask ‘So why do we sell it?’ but this is a book shop, it’s what they do. The number of times he’s had to shelve new copies of Fifty Shades of Grey still makes him sad.
“Surely it can’t be that bad,” he says instead and Clint shrugs.
“Nat said ‘weird fox rape’ and I backed out of the room quickly. But apparently they’re in the minority. It’s a TV show now.”
Steve’s not really sure what to say to that, but he’s saved from having to think of something by a woman asking about the new Terry Hayes. Steve leaves Clint to his poetry.
Steve spends an inordinate amount of time over the next week worrying over the fact that he and James are into such different books. Steve likes history and biography and popular science – the stuff he can understand anyway – and when he delves into fiction it’s always classics: Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen, Brontë. Steve’s read Frankenstein and Dracula and they were fine, but he tried Dune and hated it. All the classic sci-fi he’s tried has had uncomfortable shades of Empire and fantasy… well, who the fuck cares about dwarves and dragons and shit? But still, the fact that he can’t talk to James about books distresses him more than it should.
So Steve tries The Magicians, after finding a damaged copy in the staffroom, and James is right; it’s fucking awful. But at least now he has something to talk to James about that isn’t directly about the running of the shop. Well, that and this:
“Can you – can you repeat that, please?” Steve says, completely at a loss, his fingers poised over the keyboard.
“It’s something like higgleby eleby,” the customer says in frustration, but Steve is none the wiser.
“Higgleby eleby?” he echoes.
“Yes,” the customer replies, like Steve is an idiot. “It’s new.”
“What is it about?” Steve tries.
“I don’t know, it just sounded interesting. It had a good write up in the paper.”
Steve despairs over customers, he really does.
It might have been their Book of the Week or something and he can find the title that way.
“Oh, I can’t remember. I just picked it up on the Metro.”
Steve wants to bang his head against the computer screen. “Would you recognise the cover?”
“Yes,” the customer replies and Steve’s getting really tired of his demeaning tone; he’s not the one asking for a book he knows nothing about, not even the title.
Steve tries ‘higgleby eleby’. He tries various spellings. He gets the customer to spell it for him and revises it to ‘higgleby egelby’. He searches the Book of the Week of all the major newspapers he can think of.
“Could it be Hillbilly Elegy?” he asks after a couple of minutes.
“No,” the customer says shortly, “I’d remember that.”
“Spoiler alert,” Steve says to James, ten minutes later in Goods In where Steve’s gone to pick up some notebooks for Bruce. “It was Hillbilly Elegy.”
“Oh my god.”
Steve always thought the phrase ‘lights up’ was a literary device. He knows what authors mean by it, of course, but it’s a metaphor, not an actual expression. People don’t actually do it.
James’ whole face lights up.
“And it was right behind me in New Titles.”
James laughs; he gets crow’s feet when he laughs. Steve wants to touch them.
“That’s gonna be my next tattoo,” James says with a grin. “Higgleby Egelby, right across the chest.”
Never in a million years did Steve think James was the kind of person to have tattoos. He looks like a slouchy hipster nerd; all sloppy buns and oversized sweaters and skinny jeans.
Actually, yes, he’s exactly the sort of person to have tattoos. Shit. Steve is an idiot.
“Well, it’s about the slow ostracism of poor white America,” Steve replies, hoping the fact that he’s just been knocked for six doesn’t come out in his voice. “Maybe not the best thing to get a tattoo about.”
James laughs again. The man is a menace.
“No,” James says, teasing, “Hillbilly Elegy is about that. Higgleby Egelby is about the stupidity of book buyers. Now here.” He passes Steve the stack of Bruce’s notebooks. “Go do some work.”
“Morning briefing today, folks!” Maria says, sticking her head into the staff room. “Downstairs in five.”
Maria manages two stores because one of the other store managers they hired turned out to be terrible – sorry, didn’t pass probation. As a result, Steve is actually much more used to working with Clint, their Assistant Manager, than her. She’s fun, though she comes off as a hard-ass at first. Apparently Clint, Maria, James, and Clint’s partner Natasha were all part of the original store team, among others. It’s nice to know that people like working at Ex Libris enough to stick it out for a good long while.
“Okay,” Maria says when everyone is downstairs, even James. “Hopefully you’ve noticed, but if not: the first of our Christmas temps have joined us. Today we have Kate, with Erik coming in for the afternoon shift.”
Kate is a dark-haired girl in purple jeans and a t-shirt that says ‘my girlfriend is better than you’. She waves. Steve waves back like a dork and, beside him, James snorts out a little laugh.
“We’re up on our targets from last year,” Maria continues and Steve half tunes her out. He knows he shouldn’t, but targets always boil down to ‘sell more’ so it’s not like she’s saying anything earth shattering. Instead he studies James’ forearms out of the corner of his eye. Ever since James mentioned that he had tattoos Steve has been not-so-subtly trying to work out where they might be, but James always wears huge slouchy sweaters so Steve hasn’t seen anything. Today James has pushed up his sleeves though – not far, but a bit – and Steve’s not sure, but he thinks he can see dark lines in the shadowed crook of his elbow.
“Register three, Steve.” Maria pushes the cash bag into his arms and shit, she’s finished. Steve must have zoned out a bit there. “Help Kate out.”
James has left; disappearing back into Goods In. Steve should have noticed that. He feels sort of bereft, then he just feels dumb.
“Get a grip, Rogers,” he mutters under his breath before turning to Kate. “Hi. I’m Steve.” He almost adds, ‘I’m old,’ but the joke only works if she starts with ‘I’m new,’ plus he probably shouldn’t be recycling James’ jokes.
Kate doesn’t actually need Steve’s help past being shown all the logins, so he gets her set up with shelving the increasingly large deliveries of Christmas stock that’s started to come in. The two of them leave Jane on the register and instead bury themselves in the farthest reaches of Fiction and Sci-fi/Fantasy, where Steve learns that Kate is hilarious, chipper, and terrifyingly reminiscent of Clint. Steve likes her almost immediately and they pass two solid hours trading insults back and forth before it’s Steve’s job to start the first break rotation.
He’s just coming back off break fifteen minutes later when he passes Kate restocking 9-12 Fiction and hears a woman, in the most supercilious tone imaginable, say, “Do you really think that shirt is appropriate for the workplace?”
Steve backtracks on his way to the registers just to make sure everything is okay.
A little opera-and-cashmere-cardigans looking woman is squaring up to Kate, whose hands are full of copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and who’s giving her a look that says I have dealt with worse than you. While Steve’s glad she’s not cowed, the expression still makes him sad.
“What’s wrong with my shirt?” Kate asks, polite as you please.
“You work in a bookshop,” the lady says, like that explains everything.
“I do,” replies Kate.
The lady looks put out that Kate clearly isn’t getting it.
“There are children around!”
Kate gives the shop floor a deliberate sweep with her eyes.
“There are,” she concedes.
“Well, it’s not appropriate.”
“For children to be in a bookshop?” Kate asks in polite confusion and oh yes, she definitely reminds Steve of Clint.
“Now don’t you take that tone with me, young lady,” the woman says hotly and Steve feels like this is his cue to intervene. He’d absolutely love to watch Kate give this bigoted woman a verbal beatdown, but she’s only a temp and shouldn’t really be left to deal with something like this on her own.
“Is there are problem here?” he asks, channelling all the Management Gravitas he acquired through seven years at The Art House dealing with demanding art book dealers and asshole publishers.
The woman peers up at Steve through her gold-rimmed glasses. “Yes,” she says, once Steve is apparently deemed worthy of her notice. “Your colleague has been very rude and is, I believe, dressed inappropriately for an establishment that deals with so many children.”
Steve can tell this is not the kind of woman to back down from a fight. But that’s okay, because neither is Steve.
“I can assure you my colleague is adhering to Ex Libris’ dress codes.”
The Ex Libris dress code largely amounts to ‘do not bring shame upon the family’ and ‘dear God, never wear open toed shoes’. Wanda looks like a classy 90s goth, Bruce wears linen trousers like the old man he’s not, and Okoye’s dresses are so bright you can see her a mile off. In comparison, Kate’s clothing choices are hardly worth noting down.
“There are children present,” the woman all but hisses.
Steve has dealt with worse than this woman – and Steve will probably deal with worse than this woman many times in the future – but she just pushes all of Steve’s buttons. He’s spent too long unlearning years of social conditioning regarding his own sexuality to put up with shit like this, whether directed at himself or at others.
He should be politer, but today he just doesn’t feel like it.
“You keep saying that,” he says, mildly enough for his tone to boarder on patronising. “In the interest of understanding the precise nature of this complaint, please can you describe exactly what is so damaging to children about my colleague’s clothing choices?”
The woman turns red under her pale foundation and her lips compress into a thin, angry line.
People hate being called on their bullshit.
“I will not be spoken to like this,” the woman says firmly. “I want to speak to your manager.”
“Unfortunately, she’s in a meeting,” Steve replies. She’s not. Maria’s on her lunch break, but Steve is fucked if he’s bothering her with this bigoted idiot. As it is he has to forcibly remind himself not to just loom over the woman. He’s about a foot taller than her and he can be really fucking intimidating if he wants to be, but he is a goddamn professional. “Though I can assure you,” he continues, “my manager will tell you exactly the same as I have.”
Steve doesn’t actually know if Maria will back him up on this, but if she doesn’t – well, Steve doesn’t need this job that much.
The woman gives him the stink eye and then says, in the most Entitled Rich White Lady voice Steve has heard outside of BBC period TV shows, “People will hear of this,” before turning on her heel and stalking out.
“Have a nice day!” Kate calls after her, only a little patronising.
Steve slowly unclenches his fists.
“You okay?” he asks, after taking a couple of deliberate, steadying breaths.
“Yeah,” Kate says, faux casual, “heard it all before.”
But Steve can see how her knuckles are white against the spines of the books she’s holding.
“Hey,” he says, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Go on break, I’ll tell Jane you’ve swapped.”
Kate gives a jerky nod, dumping the books she’s holding into Steve’s hands and leaving with a muttered, “Thanks”. Steve watches her go. Poor girl, getting shit from strangers over something as dumb as a t-shirt and who she’s allowed to love. Christ, sometimes Steve wants to punch the world. Or at least get a t-shirt that says ‘angry bisexual’ on it. Hey, Kate might even know where to buy one from. He shakes his head and dumps the books into the overstock on top of the 9-12 shelves.
“That,” says a voice from behind Steve, full of glee, “was brilliant.”
And suddenly James’ warm hand is on his shoulder, and James’ entire body feels like it’s only an inch away from Steve’s, and all Steve’s angry thoughts scatter under the onslaught of what feels like every nerve ending in his entire body becoming immediately hypersensitive. He tries not to tense up noticeably or, even worse, lean into James.
This is fast becoming a problem. He speaks to James in five minute increments; he’s probably talked to him for an hour total since he started here a month ago. This cannot be happening.
Steve manages a shrug, finding he doesn’t trust his voice anymore. James’ hand doesn’t move.
“Nah, man.” James comes around to face him better. Steve swears he feels James’ pecs brush his shoulder blade – fucking fuck – and his eyes are just so… blue. “That was epic. Like, corporate badass.”
James grins, his long (beautiful) fingers curled around his returns clipboard, and Steve is saved from saying anything else by a woman asking, “I’m sorry, do you work here?”
Shit. Maybe Steve needs a break to calm down.
Steve is so focussed on methodically reorganising all the overstock under the 3 for 2 table – Christmas stock is the worst – that he doesn’t even notice Sam until Sam’s practically on top of him. As such Sam’s, “S’up, Rogers,” scares the absolute crap out of him, causing him to overbalance from the crouch he’s in and land hard on his ass.
Then Sam laughs at him, because Sam is the worst fucking friend.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Steve asks, getting up from his undignified sprawl under the watchful gaze of two teenagers in Graphic Novels.
“Christmas shopping,” Sam says, through sporadic laughter. “What does it look like?”
Steve screws up his face in exaggerated confusion. “But you can’t read.”
Sam punches him on the arm, but Steve isn’t done.
“I have some great picture books in the Children’s section,” he says in his most earnest Customer Service Voice. Sam’s girlfriend Claire is grinning. “And our Education section is great for people just starting out.”
“Shut the hell up, man,” Sam grouses. “I read.”
“Not books, surely,” Steve shoots back with an overdramatic gasp.
“And not cooking instructions either,” Claire cuts in.
Sam groans, but Steve will take literally every opportunity to hear about stupid shit Sam has done. It’s only fair, seeing as Sam does the same thing right back at him. And Steve has done a lot of stupid shit.
“What did he do?” he asks in glee.
“He set bread on fire – ”
“Nah man, we’re here for your boy – ”
“ – in the microwave.” Claire gives Sam a very pointed look. “The whole house smelled of burnt toast.”
Steve cracks up laughing. “The fuck were you doing microwaving bread?” he says, before registering what Sam had said. “Wait, ‘my boy’? What?”
“Your boy,” Sam says pointedly while Claire rolls her eyes behind him.
It’s embarrassing, but Steve feels his stomach lurch.
“James isn’t – he’s not my boy,” Steve hisses, though he can’t stop himself from adding, “and it’s a Sunday, he doesn’t work weekends.”
Claire gives him her Eyebrow of Doom.
“Wow,” she says, with no inflection whatsoever, “You have it bad, Rogers.”
“I hate you both,” Steve grouses, not bothering to explain that the Goods In shift is the only one that has a regular nine-to-five, Monday to Friday work pattern.
Darcy walks past, her white Ex Libris badge easy to spot on her dark top. Steve can practically see Sam’s intention to lean over and ask her about James.
“Don’t you fucking dare, Sam,” Steve almost growls.
Sam puts both his hands up in overdramatic acceptance.
“Look man,” he says, and why does this have to happen here and now. Sam has plenty of opportunities to harass Steve about his love life. “I’m just saying, I know the whole thing with Sharon knocked you for six a little. I just want you to be happy, and you seem to be really – ” a customer walks past and Sam lowers his voice “ – into this guy.” He gives his encouraging Sam-smile. “Just give it a shot.”
Steve sighs and rubs his hand over his face. “Really? You’re choosing now?”
Claire puts her hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, Steve. Sam’s being his usual meddling self. We really did just come in for a book.”
“Yeah,” she replies with a smile. “Do you have Their Eyes Were Watching God? And I also need a couple of good picture books for my cousins’ kids.”
This Steve can do so he gestures them both over to the registers so he can check the database.
“You’re usually such a shit, man,” Sam says a little while later, as they search for Zora Neale Hurston under ‘H’ in Fiction. “And like, confident and shit. What gives?”
“Aha!” Claire exclaims, snatching the book off a low shelf before straightening and smacking Sam on the arm. “Leave the guy alone, Wilson. He’s at work.”
“No, but really.”
Steve fucking hates it when Sam breaks out his Therapist Voice, especially when he knows Sam means it. Despite evidence to the contrary, Sam is actually a good friend.
“It’s – I.” Steve stops himself, conscious of the customers only two or so feet away. “I think just after Sitwell and The Art House and… well, and Sharon, even though that was mutual and the right thing to do and all that. It’s just so nice to be somewhere where they like you and take you seriously and everything. I just – I don’t want to mess that up.”
“Steve,” Sam says gently, “you’ve been here a month. And Sharon was six months ago.”
“Yeah,” Steve agrees, “but I was with The Art House for seven years and Sharon for two. It takes a while to get over that.” He smiles, fleeting but genuine. “We can’t all meet the love of our life in our first job, aged twenty one.”
Claire and Sam smile at each other, because they’re sappy and awful, but Sam concedes his point.
“He better be funny and hot, that’s all I’m saying,” Sam says, clapping him on the shoulder and heading for the Children’s section. “You’re only allowed to date people who are funny and hot.”
Christmas in Ex Libris, Steve quickly learns, is fucking insane. The Art House, being a small specialist bookshop, never got huge numbers but there was a definite pickup around Christmas. This Ex Libris though is in a fucking shopping centre and, while Steve guessed it would be busy, this is ridiculous. He now understands why they hire on so many Christmas temps; they wouldn’t be able to keep up without them all.
“We do have that book, sir,” Steve says, thankful that at least upstairs, he doesn’t have to yell to be heard over the sound of kids pitching a fit in the Children’s section, “but our system says it was only delivered today so I’ll have to go looking for it in the back.”
The man nods, looking relieved.
“Just to let you know though,” Steve continues, “it may take a while to find. There’s a lot of stock coming in at the moment.”
The man nods again. “That’s fine,” he says. “I can wait.”
So Steve motions to Okoye that he’s leaving and slips out the staff door and down the back stirs towards Goods In. The calm and quiet of the staff area is a blessed relief after the noise of the shop floor and Steve takes a moment to breathe and shake out the tension in his shoulders. He’d never have guessed that it would be this physically exhausting to sell books and, considering he’s been a bookseller for most of his working life, that’s saying something.
“Hey James, have you seen – ?”
The words die in his throat as soon as he rounds the corner and sees into Goods In. He feels like he’s walked into something solid, completely robbed of motion and breath and higher brain function.
Goods In is almost floor to ceiling with boxes and cardboard to be recycled, piles of new stock teetering in stacks that look haphazard but probably aren’t, and numerous carts full of books ready to be shelved. There’s only about a metre squared of space in front of James’ computer that is actually clear, with a little connecting pathway that means he can actually get out of the room when it’s time to go home.
But that same pathway also creates a direct view into the room that centres on James. So, what Steve sees upon rounding the corner is not the boxes, or the books, or the cardboard, or the carts but James, sans his ubiquitous slouchy sweater and with his hair down and headphones on, dancing around in the tiny amount of space available to him.
Steve can see his tattoos. Steve can see that he’s pretty fucking cut. Steve can see he’s more of a dork than he lets on.
Steve makes an embarrassing noise he’s really glad James can’t hear and ducks back around the corner.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
Steve can be kind of oblivious, he knows. He can get caught up in things to the detriment of everything else – which is one of the reasons he and Sharon split up in the end – and years of being a skinny asthmatic nerd with only one friend (Sam) left him pretty good at burying his own feelings, a habit that even now he sometimes has trouble breaking. That being said, he is aware of the fact that he does, in fact, have a crush on James from Goods In, despite all attempts to smother it in the name of professionalism. James is funny and attractive, he has a nice smile and is willing to razz on Steve, and is generally a good guy. But, up until now, all Steve’s feelings were largely… not innocent, or schoolyard, or anything like that exactly, but at least ruthlessly romantic.
Steve’s sudden need to slam James against a wall and bite bruises along his biceps hits him so hard he’s distantly surprised he’s not suddenly sporting a semi at work.
And shit. He still needs to go in there to pick up this damn fucking book.
You can do this Rogers, he thinks to himself.
He takes a deep breath and turns back into Goods In.
James has stopped dancing and is instead bopping his head as he unpacks yet another delivery of books. It shouldn’t be so distracting that he’s just in a t-shirt, but it is.
James spots him, smiling and sliding his headphones off his head, which sends his hair cascading around his face.
You can’t do this, Steve thinks hysterically.
“Hey, Rogers. What can I do you for?”
Steve attempts to steady himself without looking like he’s steadying himself. “Do you know where that new book about that MMA guy is?”
Real eloquent there, Rogers. Well done. A plus.
“‘That MMA guy’?” James teases. “You mean Georges St-Pierre?”
How did James work that out? Please can he not be a mind reader.
“Yeah,” Steve says, before almost choking on his spit at the flex of James’ arms as he hauls a couple of boxes around. And on top of that, his entire left arm is covered in a sleeve tattoo, half of which must be really recent because his forearm is wrapped in plastic wrap. Steve brain feels a lot like what he imagines his laptop feels like when it unexpectedly gets the blue screen of death and has to reboot.
“Here you go,” James says, holding the book out to him. Steve takes the book almost mechanically, his eyes caught on the swirling patterns wrapped around James left arm. Steve didn’t even know tattoos were a thing for him until James. Fuck, this is awful.
James notices his fixation, but luckily doesn’t seem to think anything of it past artistic admiration – which, Steve can admit to also having, just… it’s mostly for the arm muscles under the tattoo. Though the tattoo is great too.
“It’s cool, right?” James says with a happy smile. “Finally got the whole thing done!” He twists his arm around so Steve can see the whole thing. It seems to be comprised entirely of interlocking metal plates, which on its own sounds boring as fuck but on James’ musculature looks sort of spectacular. It goes all the way down onto the back of James’ left hand, with tattooed rivets ‘bolting’ it onto his knuckles. “I put the plastic wrap on just so I wouldn’t catch it on any of the cardboard. It’s technically past the point of needing it, but you know.” He gestures at all the boxes around him.
Almost without his permission, Steve’s fingers brush against James’ forearm. All he gets is plastic wrap, but he can feel the heat of all that just-tattooed skin through it, hotter than normal. He snatches his hand almost as soon as he realises he’s done it, his heart in his throat. His eyes shoot up to meet James’.
God, this is the worst. He wants to claw his way out of his skin.
James’ hair has fallen into his eyes and he’s wearing a soft smile. Steve can’t read his expression.
“Sci-fi arm,” James says, shrugging his left shoulder. His voice sounds conspiratorial. He then curls his right arm up so Steve can see the red star on his elbow and the dragon on the inside of his bicep. The words ‘not all those who wander are lost’ are tattooed underneath the dragon.
“Fantasy arm,” he says.
In comparison to the ‘sci-fi arm’, it’s pretty bare. Steve wants to suck a bruise right over the dragon’s head. Fantasy arm indeed.
“Long way to go yet,” Steve manages to get out before blushing furiously as he realises he sort of quoted The Lord of the Rings. Films he might have re-watched because of James. Maybe.
James drops his arm and smiles. It’s a beautiful, soft smile. It makes Steve’s heart flip.
“It’ll be worth it, though,” he replies, and it sounds like he’s talking about something else now. “Go give your customer their MMA book.”
It takes Steve a moment to reboot and start moving. He’s not brave enough to check, but he thinks James watches as he leaves, with that same soft, confusing expression on his face.
Steve had agreed to do the pre-Christmas night shifts only a week into working at Ex Libris. Normally, Clint had said, they’d go with someone who’d been at the shop longer, but both Clint and Maria are needed during the day and everyone else hates it. Bruce and Darcy had both reluctantly agreed to do it if no one else could be found, but, Clint said pragmatically, “You’ve worked in bookselling for years, I think we can trust you.”
Darcy had actually brought him a bottle of wine in thanks. Then she’d said, “It’ll be fine. James is great to work with.”
Because of course the guy in Goods In has to work that shift; the entire shift exists to get stock onto the shelves when there are no customers in the way. James is the stock guy.
At the time, all Steve had felt was a mild swooping in his stomach at the thought of working all night with James. Six weeks later and Steve is veering between slow-motion panic and steely get-though-this resolve.
“I am,” he says down the phone to Sam as he walks from the Metro to the shop, “completely ridiculous.”
“Yes, you are,” Sam replies.
“I like him.”
“I think he might like me.”
“I think he’d be dumb not to.”
Steve loves Sam fiercely sometimes.
“Why is this freaking me out?”
Sam blows out a noisy breath that crackles through the speakers.
“Lay it on me Sam,” he says, unconsciously squaring his shoulders as he enters the shopping centre Ex Libris is in. Ten at night and it’s still heaving. Fucking Christmas. “Psychoanalyse me. I’m tired of this bullshit.”
And the thing is, Steve is. Sam wasn’t wrong when he said Steve is normally more confident than this and, even though Steve also wasn’t wrong that the whole thing with The Art House knocked him down a bit, it still doesn’t explain why he’s being such an idiot about this.
“Okay,” Sam says. Steve stops just inside the underground parking garage – great way to avoid the swarming Christmas masses – to hear Sam out. “When was the last time you felt like this?”
“Peggy,” Steve answers promptly. And wow, if he can equate James with Peggy then he’s in this deeper than he previously thought. The realisation makes his stomach swoop.
“Have you ever felt this way about a guy before?”
“No.” That’s obvious, now he thinks about it.
“Have you ever actually liked the majority of people you’ve worked with before?”
Melinda was the only person at The Art House Steve could call anything more than a colleague.
“Have you ever fallen for someone you work with before?”
“And there you go, there are your reasons.”
Sam sounds pleased, but Steve doesn’t feel like he’s any wiser. He leans against the wall.
“What do you mean?”
“Steve. The last time you butterflies-in-your-stomach fell for someone was when you were at college, and she was a she. You knew you liked guys, but this is the first time you’ve liked a guy. What’s more, he’s a colleague at a job where you actually like everyone you work with, after working at a place where the fact that you’re bi would have made things awkward at best. You don’t want to be that guy, who rocks up and promptly fucks up all the dynamics. You haven’t dated a guy in a while and you’re unsure if you’re doing it right – whatever that constitutes in your head. You still feel guilty about Sharon even though that wasn’t your fault or, it if was, then it was her fault too. You don’t want to fuck up this job and have to go back to The Art House. You don’t actually know if James is interested. You’re scared he’ll say no. You’re scared he’ll laugh at you. You’re scared the shop will side with him if something goes wrong and you already love this job.”
And wow, Sam. Sure, lay it all out. That doesn’t hurt at all.
“But dude,” Sam continues. “You’re being an idiot.”
Steve barks out a shocked little laugh, grateful Sam is a fan of immediately softening the blow.
“You work with a girl who’s out and proud.” Kate. “You work with people who – and you’ve kindly shared – tell you way too much about their sex lives.” Darcy and Clint. And Grant, though Steve really wishes he wouldn’t. “From everything you’ve told me, the guys there like you. Sure, James might not swing that way and could still say no, but I’d be really fucking surprised if people turn against you for it. And buddy, nothing on God’s green earth would make you go back to The Art House.”
“Yeah,” Steve mutters, because that is so fucking true.
“The last six months have been sort of insane for you,” Sam says kindly. “I totally understand why you feel like you do. But man, you’re epic. You’re hot and funny and kind and a great person to work with and, to be honest, I’m kinda pissed you’ve let this whole Art House thing get to you as much as it has. You’re the shit man, you can do this. You’re a catch. Go get your fucking man.”
Sam Wilson, everybody. Getting Steve’s head out of his ass since nineteen ninety whenever.
“Jesus Wilson, what would I do without you?”
“I’m the best, right?” Sam says happily.
“You’re the best,” Steve agrees.
Sam crows. “I’m getting that printed and sent to Peggy.”
Peggy and Sam have this ridiculous, playful, ongoing battle about who is Steve’s best friend. Sam claims he’s winning. Peggy claims that’s only because she lives in London now and can’t cook Steve her famous Sunday roast. Sam says that’s her own fault. Peggy then sends photos of her and Barack Obama.
Honestly, it’s Steve’s favourite WhatsApp group, even if he’s sad that Peggy’s new UN job means he sees her once a year at most.
“Thanks, Sam,” he says quietly, after moment.
Steve doesn’t actually do anything about James on that first night shift. He fully intended to, buoyed up on Sam’s kindness and belief, but then he walked into Goods In and saw how big the stacks of book boxes were, and walked onto the shop floor and saw how utterly decimated the shelves were, and decided making a move had to be postponed in favour of, y’know, actually doing his job.
James tries his patience though, offering him homemade cookies – “My mom’s, not mine, don’t worry,” – and excitedly telling him about new releases, and generally being adorable and excitable and charming and funny. They spend their ‘lunch break’ shit talking each other’s favourite films; Steve hasn’t laughed like that in ages.
But today, tonight, it’s going to happen, and Steve’s ninety-five percent sure the worst that can happen is James letting him down easy.
It’s coming up to three in the morning. Steve has managed to make the Children’s section look halfway presentable – he has no idea how Wanda and Helen cope with looking after Children’s, it’s the worst – getting out most of the newly delivered picture books and fixing all the Children’s displays. James, meanwhile, has managed to book-in all of the day’s delivery, neatly stacked out of the way by Leo, which makes it break time. They’d agreed on this strategy the night before. For the first half of the night, Steve would tidy and do Children’s while James booked-in stock. Then, when James was done, they’d have a break, eat some cookies and have some much needed coffee before wheeling out all the full book carts and spending the rest of the night shelving until their arms ache.
James is in a racerback tank because Goods In is hot when the primary reason for being there involves hauling book boxes around. Also because everyone’s out to get Steve, Jesus Christ.
“Yeah, gimme a minute,” Steve replies, tucking the last copies of Triangle under ‘B’.
He makes sure James has left then takes a deep breath, rolling his shoulders. God, he hopes he isn’t about to fuck this up.
“It is alarming,” James says, as soon as Steve steps into the break room, “just how many copies of A Thousand Splendid Suns Buying thinks we need. I think we’re close to sixty now. I dunno where they’re going to go.”
“Have you read it?” Steve asks, accepting the coffee James holds out to him. Steve quite enjoyed it himself, though he’ll be surprised the day Khaled Hosseini writes a happy book.
“Does it have a spaceship in it?” James fires back. “Does it contain dragons? No, no it does not.”
“So that’s a no,” Steve says with a smile.
James snorts, this time holding out a plate of cookies. “Of course it’s a no. Dragons are important.”
James no longer has the plastic wrap around his forearm. The colours of his tattoo look unnaturally bright under the break room lights.
Steve takes two cookies and sits down on the arm of the ratty couch. James leans against the sink.
Steve had noticed, prior to this moment, that James likes tight jeans, but it becomes really obvious when he’s leaning against the sink, legs crossed at the ankle, looking like an off-duty model. They’re just… very tight, showcasing long legs and powerful thighs that Steve wants to dig his fingers into. His gaze travels up – taking in the white tank and James’ arms, one across his chest and one holding his coffee – and up again, to his collar bones. Steve has a thing for collar bones and one day, he realises, James might have tattoos on there. The idea makes him dizzy. He skims over the tendons of James’ neck, the dimple in his chin, gets stuck on his mouth for a while before finally dragging his gaze up to James’ eyes.
James is staring straight at him.
Steve’s heart stops for a second before slamming against his ribcage, double-time. But, suddenly, he’s a hundred percent sure.
“Hey,” he says, quietly. James bites his bottom lip in response and – holy fucking hell. “Hey. C’mere.”
James stands up, all loose elegance and panther grace, and walks towards where Steve is sitting, coming to a halt just within Steve’s spread knees. His entire body is tense, but not scared-tense. Steve doesn’t want to read too much into it, but he feels like it’s more like the tension that comes from stopping yourself, from holding back.
Gently, Steve lifts James’ coffee from his mostly lax grip, balancing it on the couch arm with his own cup and cookies. It’s a terrible place to leave a mostly-full cup of hot coffee, but Steve is fucked if he’s moving any further that that now.
“Hey,” he says again, sitting up straight. And then, telegraphing every movement, he lifts his right hand to cup James’ neck, his fingertips just grazing James’ hairline.
James’ eyes slip shut, just for a moment, and what little control Steve was holding onto suddenly snaps. His hand tightens almost involuntarily and, even as he pulls James closer, he manages to get out a hoarse “Can I – ?” only for James to cut him off.
“Jesus Christ, Steve. Yes.”
Steve sees the kiss almost as of it was happening to someone else. He can see how he surges up towards James’ mouth, how James is pushed backwards slightly like he wasn’t quite expecting the force of the kiss, how James’ hands flare out for balance before landing on Steve’s shoulders, how Steve’s left hand can’t help but wind its way around James’ waist.
James tastes like coffee and chocolate chip cookies. He smells of warm skin and books. He feels solid and pliant at the same time. Steve feels like he’s drowning.
He loses time against James’ mouth, and it’s only when he feels James’ hair tie give, pinging off the filing cabinet and causing James’ hair to swing forward to tickle Steve’s face, that Steve has the presence of mind to pull back for more than a quick breath of air.
“Shit,” he breathes out, far enough from James for him to be in focus but not so far that he actually has to let James go. “Sorry, I – ”
“Shut up, Steve.”
Steve shuts up.
“I wasn’t – I didn’t.” James stops, then starts again. He doesn’t let go of Steve’s shoulders. “You’re like, inscrutable. Cute as fuck but – I couldn’t tell, yeah?”
Steve had been pretty sure he was telegraphing his interest so hard it could be seen from space, but maybe he was wrong.
“Plus,” James continues, “why’d you be interested in me?”
And Steve says, “What.”
“Oh my God.” Steve laughs, amazed. “Have you met you?”
Steve laughs again and kisses James. “I was gonna ask you to coffee. Before. That was – that was the plan.”
James smirks at him and nods over to the terrible instant that Ex Libris provides. “We have coffee.”
“Good coffee,” Steve insists. “From that place around the corner, when it opens.”
James smiles and looks away, embarrassed, before meeting Steve’s eyes again. “I could be amenable to that.”
Steve brushes some hair out of James’ eyes. “Yeah?”
“Yeah, I think so.” James grins, his entire face lighting up. It’s blinding. He curls his fingers into the short hair at the nape of Steve’s neck and pulls him into another kiss.
“Probably should work some first,” Steve points out when they part again. He still doesn’t let James go though.
“Probably.” James kisses him again.
“Seriously, James,” Steve manages, untangling himself from James’ octopus arms.
James cocks his head to one side, considering, and Steve shifts nervously under his gaze.
“Bucky,” he says after a long moment.
“What?” Steve says.
“Friends call me Bucky,” James says.
“And is that what we are?” Steve asks. “Friends?”
James – no, Bucky grins. “That depends entirely on how expensive the coffee you buy me is.”
And Steve can’t help kissing him again.
“Deal,” he says against Bucky’s mouth. “Now hustle, we’ve got shelving to do.”