Soundtrack: Across the Universe (cover) – Fiona Apple
Words Flow Out
Bucky wished his anxiety didn’t constantly make him think that the other shoe was about to drop.
Steve treated him with the most respect and care that anyone ever treated him in his life. He brought Bucky lunches even when he wasn’t working at the library himself. He made Bucky fancy drinks with elaborate latte art drawn across the top of his Wonder Woman mug. He hawked Bucky’s children’s programs to exhausted parents at the library cafe when that wasn’t even remotely a part of his job.
Bucky tried to be everything that Steve was right back to him, but it didn’t always quite work out. He brought Steve flowers, but he was allergic to them. He brought Steve bagels for breakfast, except that Steve was gluten sensitive and couldn’t have them. He tried so damn hard, and it probably wasn’t enough, but Steve mattered so much to Bucky that Bucky refused to give up.
But the nerves wracked his body. Nothing this good had ever happened to him, especially not in his life post-service.
Before he decided enlisting in the army to pay for college was a real great idea – he was a poor kid that wasn’t quite the best at anything, and his scholarship opportunities were few and far between – Bucky had this innate sense of self. He might not have been out to his high school classmates, but he won homecoming and prom king respectively. He had friends coming out of his ears. Sometimes they checked up on him, but he isolated. He didn’t think any of the people that liked Bucky the Prom King would like Bucky the PTSD-Riddled Librarian.
Steve, though. That crazy bastard seemed to like Bucky no matter who he was.
More often than not, Steve ended up at Bucky’s apartment at night, these days. He would jetpack-cuddle Bucky, because Bucky liked being spooned, and told him how gorgeous he was.
They hadn’t said I love you yet, but Bucky thought about how much he loved Steve just about every minute of every day.
He didn’t want to scare Steve off by going too fast. They’d only been dating for three months.
Bucky did like running his ideas by Steve – Steve was an only child (bless him, he’d never had anyone roast him out of any hubris he might have had, so he was replete with pride), but the way he interacted with children made Bucky’s heart swell every time he saw it. Steve slipped hungry kids snacks and offered teenagers falling asleep in the library cafe free coffee. He wasn’t supposed to do any of those things, but hell if Steve’s chaotic good ass was going to cut that shit out.
“I have an idea for a program,” Bucky said one night.
“Oh?” Steve replied from the stove. Whatever he was making smelled amazing – just like Bucky tried to work around Steve’s allergies and sensitivities, Steve worked around Bucky doing his level best to keep kosher. Bucky didn’t always succeed, but he liked to think trying his hardest ought to count.
“Yeah,” replied Bucky. He hauled himself up onto the kitchen counter. A little thrill rolled up his spine as he watched Steve cock a brow and his eyes rove over Bucky’s arms. Steve was really into how much upper body strength Bucky had to counterbalance the weight of his prosthetic arm.
For all Steve’s mouthiness, he liked being manhandled around.
Steve spread out his skinny hands, all those rings sparkling under the kitchen light. “Tell me more, honey,” he said, and Bucky’s heart ached, because he was Steve’s honey.
The thing about Steve.
The thing about Steve was –
Bucky had never felt more comfortable with another human being in his life outside his own twin sister. Steve didn’t drain his energy the way that a lot of other people did, and when Steve asked if he could tag along with Bucky after their shifts ended, Bucky almost always said yes, because he knew that Steve would probably just fall asleep in Bucky’s lap while Bucky was reading.
So unlike the people Bucky struggled with talking to – literally everyone except children and his sister – he could spew any thought in the world at Steve.
“Well, I’ve been looking online, and there’s this program called Drag Queen Story Hour –”
“Yes,” Steve said.
Bucky snorted. “You didn’t even let me finish.”
Steve smacked a kiss to Bucky’s cheek. “I think it speaks for itself and you should do it.”
The library cafe, and the library district as a whole, was pretty gay.
Carol had her wife Maria, an airline pilot with a mom glare like no other.
Valkyrie the security guard definitely had a girlfriend, although the identity of the girlfriend was thus far a mystery. Steve swore to them all that he would find out if it killed him.
America the barista was dating a sporty disaster of a human named Kate that sometimes came into the library covered in band-aids to collapse in a chair with a cup of coffee. One of the newer baristas, a twenty-year-old kid named Billy, had a blonde boyfriend that was about as tall as Bucky and just as bulked up.
Natasha the tech specialist had her girlfriend Sharon.
The list went on.
So when Bucky pitched his idea for Drag Queen Story Hour to Carol, even though he was nervous enough to bounce his leg and pick at his cuticles while he asked her, she slammed her fist on the table and said, “That is an amazing idea, Barnes.”
He jumped at the noise, but some of the anxiety balled up in his chest unfurled. “Yeah?”
“Absolutely,” Carol replied. “I’ll bet a few of us even know some good queens to coordinate with.”
Bucky expected to be met with some resistance from parents at the suggestion of their scheduled Drag Queen Story Hour, but while there was a little, it was less than he expected.
Imagine his surprise when their queen – Lady Loki – came accompanied with one of his teammates from his high school baseball team at his heels.
“Thor?” Bucky managed, as the man himself sidled in through the staff entrance behind Lady Loki, who was dressed to kill in faux fur and an elaborate green gown that the kids were going to go apeshit for. Kids loved dress-up. He was one hundred percent certain that Loki knew they were about to be asked if they were really royalty, and what they were a queen of.
“Bucky!” Thor exclaimed. “How the fuck have you been? I haven’t seen you in,” – he paused to count on his fingers – “eleven years. Hell, we are aging, my friend.”
Bucky knew what Thor did after high school. He went to college to study video game design, which he did as a side gig to his career as a major league baseball player. Unlike Bucky, Thor had always been exceptionally good at every sport that he deigned to play. Knowing what Thor did with his life was unavoidable, because he was famous. Royalty in his own right. King of the diamond, or whatever.
“Um,” Bucky managed, floundering.
Lady Loki cocked a brow. “Clearly, he became a librarian, genius.”
Thor rolled his eyes. “Bucky, this is my sibling, Loki.”
“He comes with me to these – events. Even though he knows very well that I can take care of myself,” Loki said, all haughtiness. What Bucky would kill to have that kind of bravado.
Bucky brought Thor and Lady Loki through to the meeting rooms, where he and his coworkers had begun setting up for the event. They’d set up craft tables to make crowns and wands, and ringed chairs around the front of the room. They’d even enlisted the help of the library cafe to cater the event with pastries for the kids and coffee for the parents.
“The basic idea is that Lady Loki will read three books to the kids,” Bucky explained, shifting into work mode. He functioned much better in work mode than he did in his personal life. “and then we’ll lead a craft together. There’s gonna be snacks if you want them, and, um, I guess that’s it? We had a lot of sign ups. No offense, Thor, but aren’t you going to like – get attention?”
Thor shrugged a shoulder, one of his camera-ready grins on his face. “I find that when I come with Loki to story times that I am not quite as popular as they are.”
Loki smirked. “That is because I am far more impressive.”
The siblings exchanged an irritated glance at one another.
As Bucky flitted from place to place, fussing with tablecloths and chairs, Steve ducked into the room with an urn of coffee. They never needed as much coffee as Bucky thought they might, but his anxiety dictated that he plan for every possible thing that could go wrong, including running out of coffee for harried parents trying to distract their kids for a couple hours.
Bucky stumbled to him to help with the urn, which Steve turned away from him, because he always insisted upon doing things like this by himself, the stubborn asshole.
“Hey honey,” Steve greeted. “How’s your event?” He dropped the urn onto the plastic tablecloth and situated it, then leaned back against the table to smile up at Bucky.
Shit, Steve was beautiful. Even though months had passed since they’d started dating, Bucky would never be over how beautiful Steve looked all the time. Even when he was tired, with smudges of exhaustion under his eyes, Steve shone the brightest in any room that he walked into. He wore his tattoos uncovered lately, since the late summer heat had yet to wane into autumn, and in his short-sleeved button down, Bucky wanted nothing more than to take him home and cuddle him for hours.
Intricate tattoos. Big silver rings. Glasses. Skinny jeans that encased a perfect ass.
Bucky bent to kiss him – just a peck, since they were at work.
“Bucky, may I ask who this is?”
Bucky startled. He’d forgotten that Thor, the high school classmate that knew nothing about Bucky’s gayness or PTSD or weight gain at all until now, was standing right behind him. He flushed red, but before he could open his mouth, Steve exclaimed, “Are you Thor fucking Odinson?” and clapped his hand over his mouth.
Steve loved baseball. It was probably the straightest thing about him. Bucky poked fun at him for it.
A booming laugh echoed across the meeting room. Thor replied, “I am. May I ask your name?”
“Steve Rogers,” answered Steve.
“You are Bucky’s significant other? Do you also work at the library?”
“I’m one of the baristas,” answered Steve. “How do you know Bucky?”
“We went to high school together,” Bucky quietly told him.
“We played on the baseball team together,” Thor added.
Steve made a face, glancing from Bucky to Thor and back again. “You didn’t tell me that you played baseball.”
“I’m only okay at it,” Bucky answered. “I don’t know if I’d be any good at it anymore.”
“You can always play with me,” Thor said. “I’d love to catch up and have fun with an old friend.”
He clapped his hand on Bucky’s shoulder. This time, Bucky jumped out of his skin. His heart leapt into his throat, beating wildly and – no, no, no, not right now, he had an event to run. He had kids to entertain. He had his old classmate watching him. He couldn’t have an episode now . He just didn’t expect it – he didn’t –
“Honey,” Steve’s hand drifted to Bucky’s forearm. He knew to touch Bucky gently when he got this way. “Three by three. Let’s try it.”
Though sweat had broken out on Bucky’s forehead, he nodded. Three by three was the most effective grounding technique he’d found thus far outside of his medications. It felt a little ridiculous at first, but he couldn’t deny the effectiveness of the method – he found an object, thought, for example, that is a clock , and inhaled, then exhaled, slow and deep. He did it three times – the three part of three by three – and his head went a little less swimmy.
And you know what, fuck it. To Thor’s alarmed expression, he explained, “Sorry. I have a real shit case of PTSD.”
Bucky tugged off one of the gloves he wore when he worked with the books. With all the germs that could overtake community books, most of the librarians and library specialists wore gloves, and he liked that they had the added bonus of hiding his prosthesis. Some days, Bucky didn’t want anybody to see it.
He wiggled his metal fingers. “I got a little blown up. I’m all right, though.”
Bucky didn’t actually believe that most of the time, but it was true today. He’d catatrophized running into anyone from his old life, anyone that remembered him as Bucky the Prom King, but Thor had yet to blink an eye at anything. And as far as Bucky could tell, Thor tagged along with his genderfluid sibling to Drag Queen Story Times.
Maybe not everyone from his past would think he’d deteriorated.
Only then did Bucky notice some more things about Thor: while he was still beefed up and handsome, he too had put on weight. He had lines around his eyes that suggested he might also have seen some shit younger than anyone should have to. Maybe. Maybe Bucky wasn’t as bad off as he thought he was.
“I think you and I have a lot that we could talk about,” Thor said. “After you and Steve are done with work – would you be interested in going to dinner with Loki and me?”
“Yes,” Steve said, then blushed. “Sorry, should’ve asked first. Are you up to it, Buck?”
“Yeah,” Bucky murmured. “I think I am.”
Bucky took another moment to ground himself, and after he assured Steve that he would be just fine, Steve slid out of the meeting room to bring the rest of the event catering to the meeting room.
Slowly, parents and kids began to filter in. Many of the kids had taken the costumes admired but not required to heart, jumping into the room in princess dresses and superhero get-ups.
One little one, a kid with short purple hair in a Cinderella dress, stared up at Lady Loki with eyes as wide as saucers. They announced at the top of their little lungs, “You are the most beautiful person I ever sawed!”
Lady Loki, for all their standoffishness upon entry, knelt down to eye level with the kid and said, “That’s quite interesting, because you’re the coolest kid I’ve ever seen.”
A couple of parents exclaimed admiration over major league baseball player Thor Odinson standing in the corner. A few people wanted his autograph, but most people wanted Lady Loki, tugging their skirt to show them the crowns that they decorated and asking if they could touch her gold headpiece. Loki went with patience, overseeing the book-reading and craft with the dignity of a monarch.
Overall, Drag Queen Story Hour was such a smashing success that Carol suggested they host the event every month. She wrote up a “wow” review for him in the library system, which didn’t actually mean anything, but was sure awesome when your love language was words of affirmation. Bucky could listen to being told nice things about himself forever – it made him squirm and blush, sure, but he loved hearing it.
And Bucky and Steve went out to dinner with Thor and Loki. Once Steve got past his starry-eyed admiration for the major league baseball player that once shoved a tube of Bucky’s chapstick in the locker room vent when they were sixteen to see what would happen (everything smelled like fake cherry for about two weeks), the conversation flowed free.
Bucky was more than happy to let Steve do the talking. He loved when Steve talked. Steve could probably read the instructions for putting together an IKEA bookcase and he’d feel just as in love as he did when Steve told Bucky his butt looked good in his jeans.
They shot the shit about the soon-to-be-ending baseball season and laughed about library stories Bucky told – the kids that had a literal screaming contest in the back corner, the gentleman that always put a paper towel over his head before he used the headphones he checked out, the kids that practiced Fortnite dancing in the reflective front windows.
But as their food dwindled and they started getting deeper into their drinks, Thor admitted that his and Loki’s parents had died. Bucky talked a little about his army service.
“I just feel like I used to be this person that people liked,” Bucky explained, and maybe he was too drunk for this shit, but he powered on anyway. “People wanted to hang out with me. I had a personality. Now, I’m just – I don’t know. A mess.”
Thor hummed. “I would say that very few people know the things that I’ve seen. I don’t really like talking about them, but –”
“Bucky just makes you feel safe, doesn’t he?” Steve interjected.
Thor smiled, and Bucky’s face heated.
“Yes,” Thor agreed. “I know that I’m in good hands. I’d love to do this again, if you would.”
“Of course,” Bucky said. He didn’t know that anybody still wanted to be friends with him. He didn’t know that anyone other than Becca and Steve thought he was worth a damn.
Maybe Bucky underestimated not only himself, but the people around him, too.
“Let’s go home,” Steve said, which they’d come to know was Bucky’s apartment.
They shouldered into a dark apartment. Bucky’s place wasn’t huge, but it was bigger than Steve’s tiny closet of an apartment on the other side of town.
They dropped their belongings in the entryway and stripped the day away.
Sometimes this led to sex. Sometimes, Bucky would watch Steve peeling off one of his hipster shirts and want to put his hands all over him. Other times, Steve would come up behind Bucky and grab his ass, and they’d end up falling into Bucky’s bed with their hands all over each other, palms roving and mouths against one another.
For whatever reason, Steve admired every inch of Bucky, and he never failed to tell him as much.
Other nights, when Steve leaned up against Bucky, his bony chest pressing into the meat of Bucky’s back, Bucky would hum, “Mm, I’m not up for it tonight.”
The first time he’d told Steve no, he’d felt like he was going to throw up. He knew that other people had a higher drive for sex than he did. It wasn’t that Bucky didn’t like sex at all – he really did, especially with Steve. He loved sex with Steve more than he’d liked sex with anyone before, and he included the adventurous shit he’d tried before he got as fucked up as he was now.
It was just that sometimes he just wanted to sit and be with somebody. They didn’t need to be in and around each other. Being near to one another was closeness enough. Bucky liked that every touch didn’t have to come with strings. Not every kiss was a promise for something later, sometimes they were just nice presents, kisses for the sake of kisses.
The emotional weight of the day – of pulling off a successful albeit stressful event, of running into a past he didn’t think he’d ever have to confront again, of freaking out in front of Thor, even though he managed to get his anxiety on lock – hit Bucky the second that he dropped his jeans onto his bedroom floor. He exhaled, loud and low, and rested his forehead against the wall.
“You okay, Buck?” asked Steve.
Bucky made a noise. He didn’t know whether it was a yes noise or a no noise.
“Sometimes I get so in my head,” he explained.
“Yeah, I know that about you, pal,” Steve dryly replied. “You wanna fuck about it?”
Bucky snorted. “Nah, I’m, like, spiritually exhausted. All this shit happened today and none of it went as badly as I thought it would, but maybe that’s making me even more tired? I don’t know. I know that doesn’t make sense.”
“You do like catatrophizing.”
Bucky managed an exhausted laugh. “I sure do. Can we cuddle and read?”
Though many of Steve’s belongings had begun to migrate to Bucky’s apartment, Steve still liked dressing in Bucky’s things for bed. Bucky’s chest always went soft when Steve emerged from the bedroom in sweatpants so comically large that Steve pulled them halfway up his chest and tied the drawstring in a tight, long bow. Bucky’s summer reading t-shirt from the previous year bubbled out from the waistband hiked near to Steve’s armpits.
Bucky smiled. He loved his tiny boyfriend.
They crawled onto Bucky’s couch in their pajamas – Bucky laid back against the cushions, and Steve nestled between his legs, his back to Bucky’s chest. The gentle weight of him reassured Bucky; Steve was better than any weighted blanket. Bucky plucked up the last book that they’d decided to read together.
Maybe it was a little embarrassing, but as soon as Steve heard Bucky read books to kids at Monday morning storytime, he asked Bucky to read to him, too. They didn’t hit picture books like Bucky would have read for toddlers, but read all the books with queer main characters, since Bucky was a connoisseur. They were partway through We Contain Multitudes , which Steve insisted would have been the two of them had they met in high school, and maybe Steve was right.
Bucky hadn’t realized he had two brain cells to rub together until after high school, so maybe he’d always struggled with his self esteem.
“Hey, before you start reading,” Steve said, when Bucky picked the book up off the end table.
“Today was really cool,” Steve told him. “You’re so fucking competent. I know you question yourself like all the time, but you made those kids’ days, and I’m pretty sure you made Thor’s day, too. Thor! Odinson! You know him!”
“I used to,” Bucky murmured.
“And he wants to know you again. That’s so awesome, Buck. He doesn’t want whatever caricature you’re imagining your past self to be. He wants the person that you’ve grown into. I’m pretty sure that you’ve always been amazing in every iteration of yourself, but for the record, I like this version of you best.”
“You’ve only ever known this version of me.”
“Not true.” Steve shifted in Bucky’s arms and sat up. He crawled back up and straddled Bucky’s lap. It wasn’t sexual – just comforting. “When I met you, you were afraid of me.”
Bucky protested, “I was not,” but Steve was right.
Steve smirked, knowing. “Yeah, you were. You blew my mind, but I scared the shit out of you, and you wouldn’t even talk to me.”
“You made me nervous,” Bucky defended. “You’re so – you . You’re all handsome and shit, Steve. Have you ever looked at yourself in a mirror? Who wouldn’t be nervous around you?”
“Anyway, my point is that even in these last few months, I’ve watched you grow into yourself around me. The fact that you trust me enough to be yourself is an honor, and I hope you know that you can share your true self with other people, too. It doesn’t have to just be me and Becca. I think that, sure, there are people that are willing to drop their friends because they’re mentally ill or whatever, but those aren’t the kind of friends you’d want anyway. The kind of friends you want are the ones that see your struggle and want all of you. They don’t want part of you. They want Bucky Barnes who’s missing his arm and has panic attacks as much as they want Bucky Barnes who’s a hyper-competent children’s librarian that can bench-press his boyfriend.”
Bucky made an amused noise. “Nice speech,” he said.
“I’m serious,” Steve told him. “You’re so much more than you give yourself credit for.”
So naturally, Bucky blurted: “Steve, I love you.”
Panic twisted in his chest. He didn’t mean to confess. He wanted to save it for a more convenient time. Bucky thought he might even go about telling Steve he loved him in a romantic sort of way – maybe a year from now. A more appropriate time than three months in.
But Steve didn’t freak out. He smiled a shy kind of smile, something that Bucky had never seen on Steve’s face before.
“Really?” Steve asked.
“Well – duh,” Bucky managed. “Was I supposed to not fall in love with you? You’re everything.”
“God, Buck,” Steve said. He pulled a hand back through his hair, making it stick up in the front. “I had a plan . I was gonna take you to a book reading or an author signing or something, and then I was gonna make you dinner, and then I was gonna tell you how much I loved you. A plan! I had one!”
This was perfect, though.
No place made Bucky happier than his apartment, curled up on his couch, surrounded by his books with his boyfriend on his lap.
His boyfriend who loved him.
There was no place better for Bucky to know.
“I kinda like that it didn’t go according to plan,” Bucky admitted, and he pulled Steve down into a kiss, sweet and soft, a kiss for kissing’s sake.