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Anatomy of a Scandal

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The letter is both utterly shocking and exactly what Steve expected. He’s not an idiot, after all, and he would have had to be one - or utterly blind and deaf - not to notice the gossip when he was reintroduced into society the night before.

Everyone had been whispering, gossiping about Steve’s return after the scandalous end of his marriage. Their whispering hadn’t been subtle by any means;  even those who believed that no blame was to be placed on Steve, that he had fallen not because of his own indiscretion but because he was foolish enough to trust and marry someone who had turned out to already be betrothed, even those had not reacted kindly, had made little effort to hide their sneers of distaste, or their pity. For even if he had fallen not through his own crimes, he had fallen nonetheless, and was therefore deemed unworthy of being in their company.

Most of the attendees had at least had the good grace to keep their whisperings quiet enough for him to overhear. Some, however, hadn’t been as considerate. In retrospect, Steve thinks he should not have been caught by surprise that Viscount James Barnes and his merry men, who affectionately called themselves the Howling Commandos, had not shown him that courtesy. They hadn’t bothered to keep their voices down, to try and keep their indecent remarks among themselves. Steve had heard them quite clearly; the insults, the boasting, the salacious remarks, speculations about his willingness to bed any of them. The bet who would be the first he’d part his legs for.

They had been drunk, of course, not that that had made it any better. It wasn’t proper conduct for any kind of nobleman; more the kind of behaviour Steve would’ve expected in a run-down tavern in the roughest parts of the city. Sam had looked just about ready to have them all thrown into a cell, or beat them to a bloody pulp. He might have, had Steve not held him back. He doesn’t need anyone to defend his honour. It was all he could do to keep his head high and his face stoic, to ignore it all, to present a mask of calmness he didn’t feel.

He’s just glad his mother had not been there to witness it; she’d experienced enough shame with Steve’s marriage failing. His being soiled in an unlawful marriage has tarnished his repute, and his mother’s with him. Steve will not allow any more shade to fall on their family, will not allow himself to be wrapped up in more questionable affairs, even if it means enduring the whispers, the leers. He still has his pride, at least. And he’d been prepared.

Mostly.

He hadn’t quite been prepared to receive a letter the day after being brought out into society again. Definitely not one from notorious flirt and seducer James Barnes describing in great detail every which way he would like to spread Steve out on his bed to worship and ravish him. The indecency and lewdness of the letter leaves Steve’ cheeks burning with embarrassment and, as he is ashamed to admit, quite a bit of desire. The letter is expertly crafted, making the man sound reverent and longing… but Steve supposes he has had a lot of practice with all the other men and women he has wooed and lured into his bed.

If Steve didn’t know better, he might fall for it, too. In the past, when he was still more naive, he surely would have. Even now, it is hard to resist the temptation of the simple notion of someone loving him, coveting him, touching him like he deserves it.

He nearly rips the letter to pieces; just wanting to believe Lord Barnes' words even for a second is dangerous.

Steve folds up the letter and jams it into the bottom drawer of his nightstand when the doorbell rings. It is widely known his mother is not well enough to receive guests, meaning the visitor most likely wishes to see him, so he makes his way downstairs, trying to regain his composure. He thinks he’s doing quite a good job of appearing completely aloof - until he sees who is visitor is, that is.

Seeing Lord Barnes standing in his parlour, looking slightly ruffled and worse for wear, an expression of sheepish contrition on his pale face, is even more unexpected than the letter.

“Lord Barnes,” Steve says, straightening up and raising his eyebrows. “What a...pleasant surprise.”

“Mister Rogers.” He clears his throat, very obviously uncomfortable.

When he makes no attempt at continuing the conversation, Steve prompts, “Is there something I can help you with, Lord Barnes?”

“Ah.” Barnes flushes, colour rushing to his cheeks and even to the tips of his ears. It’s quite adorable, or would be, did Steve not know that the man has very little shame. “I was wondering - I mean I wanted -” He breaks off, raking a hand through his hair, making it even more unruly than it was before.

“You meant to ask me whether I received your letter?” Steve deduces, and Barnes turns an even darker shade of red. “I have.”

“You’ve read it?”

“I have.”

“I am so sorry,” he splutters. “I didn’t mean - I - I… My deepest apologies. I never meant to disrespect you. I never meant for you to see it. I fear I was quite intoxicated when I sent it and… it made me very stupid.”

“Indeed,” Steve says coolly.

“Will you accept my sincerest apologies?”

Steve hesitates. He could  - the apology seems sincere at least, or maybe Lord Barnes is just a skilled actor. They could both walk away and never mention it again. But Steve remembers the humiliation of the previous night, and well, he has never truly been the forgiving kind. “I don’t think so,” he says. “This letter marks, after all, not the first time you have disrespected me.”

Barnes swallows heavily, understanding the implication perfectly. “Last night,” he rasps out. “You heard us.”

“You made it rather impossible for me to not overhear your discussion,” Steve replies. “For me and, I fear, every other person in the room.”

Barnes lowers his eyes to the ground in shame. Who would’ve thought the infamous Casanova of Brooklyn even had a sense of shame?

“What was it that you said, exactly? Something about how you would surely be the first I would invite into my bed and spread my legs for? I don’t recall the exact words.” He does, actually, but it had been far too vulgar for him to spell out in front of Barnes. His tone conveys quite unambiguously that he does, in fact, remember.

“I should never have said that.”

“You are right, you shouldn’t have,” Steve says coolly. “And I am disinclined to allow you to blame it on the influence of alcohol.”

Lord Barnes draws in a heavy breath. “Please believe me when I assure you that I am not usually so crude.”

“Oh, no, not at all. You are quite silver-tongued when you want to be, as your letter proves. Not that the subject matter was any more appropriate.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say.” He looks a little lost. “All I can do is ask your forgiveness and promise you it will never happen again.”

“I do not accept your apology,” Steve tells him bluntly. “Words are not enough for the humiliation you and your brothers put me through, I believe.”

“What would you have me do?” Barnes asks levelly.

Steve doesn’t have to think about this for long. His heart is beating faster as he realises this might be a singular opportunity. Lord Barnes might have a certain reputation, but he is also still considered an esteemed gentleman, due to his not only possessing a title but also to his family being incredibly rich. Everything that Steve could never dare to do, society forgives the likes of James Barnes. He can entice as many men and women as he wants, lure them into his bed, and society will turn a blind eye, charmed by his smile and his looks and his money. The hypocrisy of it makes Steve want to scream. It makes him want to fly at this young man, who has not a care in the world, who exploits the privileges the world has granted him without even being aware or wilfully ignorant of the injustice. It disgusts Steve. And yet… he is exactly the kind of tool Steve needs to restore his honour and his good name, to make him seem desirable again.

“You will help me regain my good reputation,” he says, “by pretending to be my suitor for the season.”

Lord Barnes freezes. “I cannot do that.”

“Very well,” Steve says sweetly, pretending the mere notion of what he is about to say doesn't make him feel dirty; only the worst kind of lowlife would result to extortion. But then he thinks of his mother, quiet and pale and drawn, the medical bills accumulating on his desk, and well, he is desperate. Desperate enough to have married someone he despised, for a sliver of a chance to save her. He’s desperate enough to do this, also. “Then I am to believe you would not care if the world were to see your letter? If I disclosed to all your friends and business partners and family what words you deem appropriate to send another man without even being formally introduced, without that man making any advances? If I disclosed that you would seem it fit to talk to me in a way that not even engaged couples are allowed to use, one that is reserved, perhaps, for spouses, maybe, at a stretch, for common whores?”

“You wouldn’t,” Barnes says, blanching.

“Oh, I would,” Steve promises darkly.

“This is your revenge, then.”

“Not at all. I am not so ordinary as to take pleasure in such petty things. This is a simple business transaction. Your reputation for mine.” Steve fixes him with a look. “Do we have an agreement?”

Lord Barnes stares at him for a long time. Eventually, he nods. “We do.” He hesitates. “You’re not - “

“I’m not what?” Steve prompts when Barnes doesn’t continue.

“You’re not expecting me to actually marry you, are you?”

Steve smiles sardonically, ignores the sting of it. “Of course not. I’m not planning on forcing both of us into miserable lives.”

“That’s not -” Barnes shakes his head. “I just - I have a certain reputation, as you are well aware. Are you certain that having people believe I am chasing you would not harm you further?”

“I do not need you to look after me, thank you very much,” Steve replies coolly. “I’m quite capable of taking care of myself, without you pretending to care to make things easier for yourself.”

“I didn’t mean - I wasn’t trying to find a way out of it. I know what I did. I know it was wrong. I know I have to face the consequences, and I will. I just want to ensure I don’t cause you additional trouble,” Barnes says, and his concern sounds genuine.

“I will not be your typical conquest, Lord Barnes,” Steve says. “You will pretend to court me. You will do it properly, in the presence of chaperones so that there is no room for gossip of any kind. You will make it known that I have not submitted to your… your charms. And by the end of the season we will part ways and not have to deal with each other again.”

“I understand.”

Steve gestures towards the door. “Then I must ask you to leave now. I trust you will make arrangements for me to accompany you to the next ball?”

“I shall.” Barnes bows slightly. “Mister Rogers.”

“Have a good day, Lord Barnes.”

Halfway through the door, Barnes turns. “It might have been easier for you to ask for money,” he says, sounding strangely dejected.

Steve bristles. The impudence of this man. “I do not require your money,” he says with all the aloofness he can muster. “And if you offered it, I would not accept it.”

The truth is, he does need the money, but it would only be a temporary fix. What he needs is his good name restored, to not be an outcast in society. For someone to see Barnes’ interest, and take it as an indicator that there is more to Steve than meets the eye. That he is someone worth knowing, worth courting, worth marrying. What he needs are connections. A chance to meet someone of higher standing. A chance at lifelong security.

And he cannot do that alone.

The ghost of a smile flits of Barnes’ face. “No, I don’t suspect you would,” he says. “I shall send for you soon. You have my word.”

 


 

 He doesn’t tell Sam.

Of course, Sam finds out the moment Lord Barnes’ letter arrives, asking Steve to accompany him to a ball at Earl Stark’s mansion, not even a week after their agreement. And that - Steve has to take a few minutes to breathe after that. Barnes, it seems, does not mean fool around. He is making good on his promise. Or maybe he is trying to challenge Steve in an attempt to make him back out. Steve isn’t - he’s not a peasant, certainly, but he has hardly ever come across nobility of such high ranks as are likely to be assembled there and it’s - he’s not sure he even has something appropriate to wear that won’t give away his lower position, and worse, his destitution.

Sam notices his distress, naturally. He knows Steve better than anyone. “What’s this?” he asks, snatching the piece of parchment off Steve’s nightstand.

Steve makes a desperate grab for it, but his fingers close on thin air.

“Steve,” Sam says slowly, tensing as he reads the letter, “what is this?”

“It’s an invitation to a ball.”

“Yes, I gathered that much. I am capable of reading, after all,” Sam says. He narrows his eyes. “You’re not considering accepting the invitation, are you?”

“I already have.”

“Steve.” Sam looks at him, aghast. “Why on earth would you do this? Have you forgotten how he treated you?”

“I have not.”

“And you have decided to forgive his ill manners anyway?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Steve says. “It’s complicated.”

“Un-complicate it for me, then,” Sam says. “Because this is worrying me. Steve, how could you even consider going with him? You know he would only take you to make you one of his conquests, to pull you further down.”

“Thank you, Sam, for thinking there could be nothing else he could value in me than my potential willingness to bed him,” Steve replies sharply.

“That’s not - Steve, you know that is not how I meant it,” Sam says, contrite. “You have a great number of laudable qualities, and there are many things about you that anyone with half a brain would find fascinating. I did not mean to appear to be doubting your character; it is Barnes’ that I do not trust. I doubt he could see a good thing if it stood right in front of him. There is only one thing on his mind, and it means your brilliancy is wasted on him.”

Steve allows himself a small smile. “That is very kind of you to say.” He extends his arm, and Sam hands him back the letter, a look of distaste still on his face as he looks down at it.

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed you still have not offered an explanation.”

Steve folds up the letter carefully. “We have a deal, of sorts.”

“A deal?”

“Lord Barnes called on me last week, after…well. After. To apologise.” He won’t mention what he was mostly there to apologise for; Sam would only get angry once more, on his behalf. And, well, he doesn’t need to know the whole truth. If Sam were to know that Steve blackmailed Lord Barnes…No, that would be unacceptable. It would change his esteem for his friend forever.

“So he is taking you to a ball to…what? Make it up to you?” Sam asks.

“You could say that,” Steve says, placing the letter in the ornate wooden box Peggy had gifted him for his wedding, in which he keeps all of his most important correspondence. Barnes’ first letter, he is ashamed to admit, has found its way into the box also, well hidden underneath everything else, where no one can find it.

“Steve, that is -”

“I know what you are going to say,” Steve interrupts him. “It is dangerous, maybe. Unseemly, perhaps. But Sam, I need this opportunity. You know this better than anyone.”

“The opportunity to do what, Steve?” Sam asks, frustrated. “To meet someone of higher standing? To marry another old, so-called gentleman who will treat you badly?”

“If that is what it takes,” Steve replies firmly, “then it is what I shall do.”

“There are other ways, Steve.”

“There is no other way. Not for me. We have discussed this ad nauseam. I cannot support myself and my mother by selling my art. If this is what it takes to keep her alive, then I will do it without complaint.”

Sam sighs, knowing arguments are futile. They have fought over this many times before. There’s a sadness in his eyes which tells Steve he knows that, the way the world works, Steve truly has no other options; he merely does not want to accept it. Steve loves him a little more for his stubbornness. “Just promise me that you will be careful,” Sam says quietly.

“I promise,” Steve swears solemnly.

 


 

Steve exits the carriage and takes a deep breath, surveying the bustle around him. He should have expected, he thinks wryly, that the size of Earl Stark’s guest list would match the grandeur of his family name, his affluence. It is overwhelming, and more than a little intimidating. He smoothes out his coat carefully; it’s brand new, of finer quality than he has ever worn with the exception of his wedding day. And that’s - he doesn’t want to think of that day. Not here, not now. Not ever, if possible.

He runs his fingers along the seams again, admiring the quality, the softness of the cloth. Sam, despite his reservations, had insisted on dragging Steve to a tailor, and contributing as much to the new outfit as Steve would let him get away with. The sum Sam covered turned out to be much more than Steve was comfortable with, but less than Sam had wanted to give; after much arguing, they had reached a compromise that consisted of Sam promising to not purchase a gift for Steve’s birthday this year, and only something small for Christmas.

Steve knows he can count himself lucky to have such a loyal and generous friend. Still, he can’t help the churning feeling in his stomach, the bitterness engulfing him whenever he has to rely on the charity of others.

Shaking his head, he forces himself to stop brooding, and begins scanning the crowd for a familiar face. He is hovering awkwardly near the entrance, and sure to attract some curious stares if he remains here, but he is unsure of what to do. Should he enter? Would he even be welcomed without Lord Barnes at his side to introduce him as his date? Should he wait outside for Barnes, when there is a possibility the man is already inside? With the size of the mansion, would he even find Barnes anywhere?

Just as he is starting to truly regret refusing Lord Barnes’ offer to pick him up, a soft voice startles him out of his thoughts.  “Mister Rogers?”

He turns to see Lord Barnes approaching him, looking almost shy, but smiling hesitantly. It’s not an expression Steve has ever seen on his face; their last meeting aside, Lord Barnes has never exuded anything but extreme confidence. The insecurity makes him look younger, somehow.

“Lord Barnes,” Steve greets him, bowing respectfully as is the custom.

The smile dims a little. “I trust you haven’t been waiting too long?” Barnes asks, voice smooth and polite. “I apologise if that is the case; I planned on being here much earlier so as to receive you here in person when you arrived, but there was a problem with one of the wheels.”

Steve blinks. He didn’t expect that much consideration. Lord Barnes must really be afraid of what little power Steve holds over him. “Oh, I didn’t have to wait very long at all. I only just arrived myself,” he appeases.

“Then I am glad.” Barnes offers him his left arm. “May I accompany you into the ballroom?”

Steve hesitates only for a moment. Some people might argue that the gesture betrays a level of intimacy that is inappropriate for the early stage of their courtship, but on the other hand, this is a ball. You cannot dance without touching your partner. Furthermore, he fears he might get lost in the crowd if he is not tethered to something. So he accepts the offer and links his arm with Barnes’.

They walk to the front door in silence. Steve uses the opportunity to take in as much of his surroundings as possible.

Lord Barnes noticed his amazement. “Have you met Lord Stark before?”

Steve scoffs a little, before he remembers that it is considered impolite. “Lord Stark and I do not move in the same circles, as you can well imagine.”

That brings a sly smile onto Barnes’ face. “You might be surprised,” he says. “Lord Stark is not known for caring very much about such trivial things as social standing. He frequently attends festivities that are not meant for the likes of him.”

“How well do you know him?” Steve inquires.

“Far too well, really.” Barnes huffs out a laugh. “We are related, if distantly.”

“Oh? I did not realise.”

“The relation is truly too distant for it to be common knowledge. I don’t believe anyone but family and gossip-mongers with a great deal of dedication are aware.” He shoots Steve a sly smile. “I’d be happy to explain it to you in detail, but I’m not certain I could manage without boring you to sleep.”

“Maybe when all other topics of conversation have been exhausted,” Steve teases.

“Then I shall take great care in finding other things to talk about.”

“That would be greatly appreciated.”

“Buckaroo!” a voice booms over the chatter, and the host himself bounds over to them, dressed in an intricate red and gold coat that is as lavish as the festivities around them. “Finally, I already thought you wouldn’t make it.”

“I promised I would come,” Barnes points out.

“And you are a man of your word, though I must complain about making me wait, forcing me to endure all these dull people by myself. I’m in desperate need of someone who can free me of this boredom.”

“You are not dragging me off to make things explode, Tony,” Barnes replies, amused. “I have a date. My entertainment duties are to him alone tonight.”

“How boring you have become. Where is your sense of adventure?”

“Right alongside my will to live,” Barnes quips.

“Well, then, who have you brought me to entertain me instead?” Stark asks, and blinks when he finally notices Steve standing to the side. “Well, I never! The elusive Mister Rogers. How in the world did this poor-bred bastard talk you into accompanying him?”

“I beg your pardon?” Steve bristles, clenching his fist, until he realises that Stark is  addressing him, the insult aimed at Barnes, not him.

“You never seemed to enjoy these kinds of outings very much, if you don’t mind my saying. One hardly ever saw you attending balls and the like. And it must be absolute hell for you now, after -”

“Tony!” Lord Barnes hisses.

“ - after that damned hoodlum screwed you over,” Lord Stark continues, undeterred. “What, is it forbidden to talk about it?” he asks upon seeing the expression on Lord Barnes’ face. “I was merely offering my sympathies and pointing out that this bunch of high and mighty, stuck-up brownnosers can’t have been treating him very well.”

“Your concern is greatly appreciated,” Steve says, carefully polite. Maybe Barnes was right, and Stark is more sympathetic to the lower classes than one would expect. It’s kind of him to care, even though that care is expressed in a rather unconventional and inappropriate way, so Steve tries not to let it rankle him.

“If anyone should give you trouble tonight, come straight to me. I’ll make it clear people with such antiquated views are not welcome here.” Stark says, before his attention is caught by someone across the room. “Gotta go, lovebirds. Have a lovely night. Barnes, do join me in the laboratory later.”

“I’m not helping you blow things up!” Barnes yells after him, to no avail. Lord Stark has already vanished into the mass of people milling about and if in the unlikely case that he heard Barnes’ words, he is ignoring them. Still, when Barnes turns to Steve again, there is a fond expression on his face, like he finds Lord Stark’s antics annoying but endearing. “He likes you.”

Steve shrugs; he has learnt not to take the actions nor the words of the higher class at face value. They are too fickle, he knows, too quick to change their minds. “I was a shiny new toy,” he says drily. “Surely he has already forgotten my existence entirely.”

“No,” Barnes disagrees. “He is unlikely to forget you. Stark may be eccentric, and his way of showing affection may be rather peculiar, but once he has decided that he likes someone and promises to take care of them, he will not go back in that promise. You have just won the favour of one of the richest men in this county.”

Steve is stunned, and it takes a moment to let the information sink in. “Well,” he says eventually, in a weak attempt at a joke, “it’s a shame this particular benefactor is already married.”

A funny look crosses Barnes’ face, but it’s gone as soon as it appeared, and Steve can’t read it at all. “Yes,” he says, a little sourly, “I suppose.”

The idea of Steve marrying into his family and being related by marriage, if merely distantly, must really bother him. Steve grimaces inwardly. He cannot afford to disgruntle his only way into this event, so he changes the topic quickly. “Was he serious,” he inquires curiously, “about blowing things up?”

Barnes’s heaves a sigh. “Unfortunately. Lord Stark fancies himself a bit of an inventor. His experiments frequently result in mishaps.”

“Oh. So he is not very good at it, then? That would explain why I have never heard of any of his inventions.”

“He is brilliant,” Barnes says. “Without a doubt the most intelligent, inquisitive and creative mind I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Unfortunately, he is also rather reckless, hence the explosions.”

“Have you worked with him often?” Steve asks. “You seem very familiar with his methods of operation.”

“He invites me along frequently. I am one of the few who will indulge his ideas and will sometimes be able to give some valuable input.”

“You are an inventor yourself?”

Barnes laughs. “I would hardly call it that. I dabble; I have a fascination for the sciences, but I rarely have enough time to dedicate myself to them the way Lord Stark does, and I am nowhere near as gifted. However, I am happy to assist him when I can.”

“What are you working on at the moment, if I may?” Steve questions. He is fascinated by the glimpse Barnes is allowing him into his life. He never would have pegged him for a man of science - a military man, perhaps, fascinated with stories of war and glory, if anything, but not this.

“Our latest project is a foray into the world of robotics,” Barnes replies. “We are attempting - or rather, he is - to create a machine that will allow those who have been paralysed to walk once again.”

Steve does a double-take. To his shame, he must admit that he would not have imagined Lord Stark doing something so altruistic. He’d expected tales of flashy inventions designed to earn him fame, not something to help the disadvantaged. “That is a very noble and honourable aspiration indeed. How did this issue come to his attention?”

Barnes looks surprised. “You don’t know?”

Steve shakes his head, confused. “Should I?”

“I assumed everyone had heard the story,” Barnes says, pensively. “But I suppose you were…not in town at the time.”

Steve nearly scoffs. That’s a delicate way of phrasing it.

“Lord Stark’s best friend, Lord Rhodes, was injured on the battlefield a few months ago. The wound has left him unable to walk, for the time being. There is still a chance of him regaining this ability to move, but -” He pauses. “Well. It’s always good to be prepared.”

“Of course. It is only natural he would want to aid his friend. And yet, many people would not do the same,” Steve replies, thinking of all the people his mother used to call dear friends who abandoned them in their time of need.

“It goes deeper than that,” Barnes adds after a moment of deliberation. “Lord Rhodes was wounded by one of Stark’s own guns.”

Steve frowns. “I thought he hadn’t produced weapons for many years.”

“He hasn’t,” Bucky retorts. “He stopped doing so when he realised the scope of the atrocities committed with those very weapons, that many had fallen into the wrong hands. Nevertheless, they are still out there, and they are still hurting innocent people. Lord Stark feels responsible.”

“Dedicating his life to helping those in need must make up for it,” Steve decides. “How is it that not many people know of his commitment? Or your own?”

Barnes shakes his head. “What I do is nothing compared to what he does. And Stark is, for once, not doing it to be praised.”

Steve hums. “I must admit, I had not pegged either of you for humble men before tonight,” he admits. “You surprise me.”

“What is it that you dedicate your life to?” Lord Barnes asks, handing him a goblet of wine, clearly uncomfortable and desperate for a change of topic. Steve indulges him.

“Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Art is my passion, as science is yours.” He shrugs. “I may not be particularly good at it, but it is something that I enjoy.”

“Now you are the one being humble,” Barnes says. “I’ve seen some of your work; I thought it was impressive.”

“You flatter me.”

“Not at all. I can draw sketches of the designs we plan to build, but that is where my skills end. To draw something that has life in it, that looks as if every second it will jump out from the paper and into real life… that is not something many people can do.”

Steve feels his cheeks heat with the beginnings of a blush. “Thank you,” he says, accepting the praise in hopes it will end this particular vein of discussion.

Lord Barnes seems to sense this. “Do you wish to dance?” he inquires rather abruptly.

Steve is stupefied for a moment. “Dance?” he repeats stupidly.

“Yes, dance,” Barnes says, smiling. “This is a ball, after all. Dancing seems to be the logical thing to do at one of those.”

“I'm a terrible dancer,” Steve says in an attempt to dissuade him, panicking only a little. “I do not wish to dispossess you of your toes.”

Barnes laughs at that. “I doubt you could manage that. You weigh maybe half of what I do - how could you squash them?”

“You’d be surprised,” Steve mutters darkly.

“In any case,” Barnes says, leaning close and winking conspiratorially, “I have been told many times that I am a fantastic teacher. Come on,” he cajoles, “what good is attending a ball if you can’t have fun at it?”

“Dancing isn’t exactly my idea of fun,” Steve retorts, but allows Barnes to tug the goblet of wine out of his hand and deposit it on the tray of a nearby waiter, and then he lets himself be dragged to the dancefloor, where they get swept up in the crowd performing a rather fast-paced country dance, the kind of dance that ought to be considered unbefitting of the noble company. Steve supposed they indulge in the frivolity of it from time to time, shaking their heads and laughing about the silly, small-minded people that could truly enjoy such simple and wild and indecent past-times.

He doesn’t really know the steps and messes up quite a bit despite the simplicity and repetitiveness of the movements, but he manages to not step on anyone’s toes, and he’s only a little out of breath at the end of the song, so he considers it a win.

There’s a short moment of silence; Steve watches Lord Stark argue with the musicians, and when they pick up their instruments again, it’s with a disgruntled expression on their faces. They play a few notes of a song utterly unfamiliar to Steve, a rhythm he hasn’t heard before, but it must be known to the rest of the guests: there’s a collective cry of disdain and a wave of outraged whispers sweeping through the hall. Many men lead their partner off the dance floor.

Lord Barnes’ face, in contrast, lights up.

Steve takes a step back. “I think we ought to take a break.”

“Oh, but you must dance the waltz with me!”

Steve looks pointedly at all the couples retreating hastily. “I don’t know how to dance a waltz,” he says truthfully. He has never even heard of this dance. “And judging by everyone’s reaction, it is not appropriate.”

“Oh, hogwash.” Barnes dismisses his concerns with a wave of his hand. “Who cares about the uptight conventions of old people? So what if they think it’s scandalous? If it’s good enough for the fine people of Vienna, it’s good enough for me. And it’s quite simple; I can show you easily.”

“Lord Barnes,” Steve hisses, “I will not have you call my reputation into question again.”

Barnes leans closer, a dangerous glint in his eye. “You want to get their attention, do you not? Then give them something to talk about.”

“Not this!” Steve protests, but what other words he was going to say die in his throat when Lord Barnes puts a hand on the small of his back and pulls him in, gathers him close until they are face to face, their chests nearly touching. Steve can feel the warmth Barnes’ body emits; the hand on his waist moves upwards to rest just below his left shoulder blade, and the other is holding Steve’s right hand securely.

“Your other arm should be on my biceps,” Barnes informs him. “Step back with your left foot, and then simply follow the movement. I’ll direct you, so you don’t have to worry about where to go.”

He wants to object more, he really does, but he just follows Barnes’ instructions, even though he feels his face burn when he places his hand up high on Barnes’ upper arm. Society is right in this regard, he thinks; it’s utterly scandalous. It’s far too intimate for such a setting, for people who are not married and - and it’s strangely comfortable.

He stumbles a little when Barnes steps forward, not anticipating the movement despite being warned of it, but Barnes’ hold on him is secure, and he stabilises Steve immediately. After that, he finds that Barnes spoke the truth; it’s not a complicated dance, once you find the rhythm. There aren’t many intricate steps to memorise, just the basic one that basically plays on a loop, but Steve supposes the thrill of it lies not in its intricacy. He’s actually quite grateful for its simplicity as he manages not to make a fool of himself in front of a crowded room with surely as many eyes on them as on the host, who has brought his lovely wife to the dance floor. Even when Barnes goes from turning on the spot to widening his steps and positively sweeping Steve across the room, he finds it easy to follow.

Steve resolutely doesn’t look at the people staring when the music stops and Barnes releases him; he does, however, feel himself wobbling a little, and not from nerves. “I didn’t expect to feel quite so dizzy,” he says, slightly out of breath. He decides to lay a part of his manners to rest for the moment and hold on to Barnes’ arm before he loses the rest of his dignity and collapses in the middle of the ball room.

Barnes laughs, delighted. “It’s quite common to feel dizzy at first. Next time, focus on your partner; you won’t notice the room spinning around you, and the turns won’t affect you quite as much.”

“I don’t think I will repeat this experience,” Steve replies, “but I will keep it in mind either way.”

Barnes’ face falls a little. “Did you not enjoy it?”

Steve allows himself a small smile. “I did,” he admits. “However, it’s still inappropriate.”

“Oh, I’m sure you will learn to not care so much about decency,” Barnes smiles. “Now, let’s get you something to drink and make the rounds so you can catch your breath.”

True to his word, Lord Barnes gives him a few minutes to catch his breath, and then he links arms with Steve and drags him around the ballroom, introducing him to so many people Steve is doubtful he will be able to remember all names and faces. Most of them are haughty and slightly condescending, but intrigued, as Barnes promised they would be. It’s not ideal but it’s - well. It’s something.

“Zat was quite a performance,” a small, pug-faced man that Lord Barnes introduced as Baron Zola, says when Steve does the customary bow. Steve colours and shifts uncomfortably, but for once, the comment doesn’t seem mean-spirited. “Thank you,” he replies stiltedly. “That’s very kind of you to say. I’m afraid I’m not much of a dancer, and I don’t enjoy making a spectacle of myself. I hope you weren’t too put off.”

“Oh no, not at all, Mister Rogers,” Lord Zola assures him, a sleek smile on his face, and pushes his round glasses up his nose. “I quite enjoyed watching you. Fascinating. Quite fascinating. I’m very glad that I made my way here from the city.”

“You live in Manhattan?” Steve inquires.

“Indeed I do.”

“Then you have come a long way for a party.”

“It was worth it, for being able to set my eyes on you.   I would not mind seeing you dance again.”

Steve smiles genially, and ignores the way Lord Barnes glowers. “Another time, perhaps,” Barnes says coolly. “If you’ll excuse us, we must say hello to our lovely hostess.”

“Of course, of course,” Zola says, and watches them as Barnes drags Steve away.

“What was that?” Steve demands.

“I don’t like him.” Lord Barnes shudders dramatically. “He is -- strange.”

“He wasn’t so bad,” Steve decides, pushing aside the uncomfortable feeling that overcame him when Lord Zola looked at him,  the sensation of being observed like a pinned butterfly under a magnifying glass. He knows he shouldn't always judge people by their first impression, and either way, Zola was not immediately repulsive. Awkward, yes, but then, Steve is no stranger to being awkward around strangers. “He didn’t laugh at me, or look down his nose.”

“He’s too small to look down on anyone,” Barnes retorts drily, and Steve doesn’t point out that he is no taller than Lord Zola is, as Barnes does indeed introduce him to Lord Stark’s lovely wife.

The strange mood that has come over Barnes disappears as soon as it fell over him, and he talks animatedly to a variety of people, presenting Steve as his date and singing his praises. He plays his role far better and with far more grace than Steve expected him to, although he believes he might have to warn him not to lay it on so thickly. From what Steve can gather, the reactions to their unlikely “courtship” range between disbelief and conviction that Barnes is utterly besotted with him, neither of which will do Steve much good in the long run.

Still, he has to admit he has a surprisingly good time; Barnes is a gracious and attentive date, and when Steve finally has to cite tiredness to beg off another round of drinks and dancing and socialising, he attempts to insist on accompanying Steve home, until Steve reminds him gently of the rumours this might cause. He appears contrite then, and concedes to only ensuring Steve get to his carriage safely.

“Are you sure you will be alright to travel home alone?” Lord Barnes asks as he helps Steve into the carriage.

”Lord Barnes, I am neither an invalid nor am I alone.” Steve scolds gently. “Coulson here has always served me well, and he will make sure I will be delivered home safely.”

“Of course. I apologise - I did not mean to call into question the competence or loyalty of your staff. But can you fault me for wanting to spend more time with you, even if it’s just a minute, or a second?”

“Lord Barnes -” Steve starts, ready to tell him there’s no need to pretend when there isn’t really anyone to listen.

“Please,” he interrupts Steve, “we have spent enough time together tonight that there is no need for such formalities anymore.”

Steve pauses, considering. “What shall I call you, then? James?”

“You may call me that, if you like. It is the name my acquaintances use. But if you would....I prefer Bucky.”

“Bucky?” Steve repeats, perplexed.

“It’s a childish nickname, I know. But it is what my sisters and my closest friends call me, and I like it. It would seem appropriate that you use it as well.”

“It suits you, I think.” Steve swallows. “Very well. I shall call you Bucky, but only when we are alone. In formal settings I believe James would be more seemly.” He hesitates. “You may call me Steve, if you like,” he offers.

The smile that spreads over Bucky’s face is a thing of beauty. Steve ignores the ache it causes in his chest. “I would like that,” Bucky says softly. “I would like that very much.”

“I will see you soon, then?”

“Yes,” Barnes says, still smiling widely. “Yes, you will.” He grabs Steve’s hand gently and presses a kiss to the back of it, ignoring Steve’s sharp intake of breath. “I shall call on you soon.”

As the carriage pulls away, Steve forces himself not to look back; but when it turns a corner and the driveway comes into view, he can see Lord Barnes still standing there, watching him leave until he’s out of sight.

 


 

Sunday is Steve’s favourite day of the week - it is the one day he allows himself to rest, to not occupy himself with matters of the estate and worrying about finances. It is a day of relaxation: one more hour of sleep than he usually allows himself, followed by mass like the good Catholic boy he was raised to be, and after that, the weather and his health permitting, a trip to the park. He has spent many an hour strolling about and eventually finding a nice spot on a bank or underneath a tree from which he can people-watch and practice his drawing to his heart’s content.

It’s a beautiful, sunny day, surprisingly mild for the time of year, the light perfect for his endeavours, and Steve intends to enjoy it as much as possible. He has sat down in the shadow of a large oak tree, his legs carefully folded under him and is in the process of observing Sam as he is attempting to bond with a flock of birds, luring them closer with offers of breadcrumbs.

His friend had insisted on accompanying him, something that Steve had both anticipated and dreaded. He is always glad for the company, but had expected a lot of piercing questions in regards to his first outing with Lord Bar- James. So far, Steve has only told him the bare minimum -- that it was an enjoyable evening, that the man had been perfectly charming, that he had been introduced to a number of influential people. He’d known better than to mention the scandalous waltz, though he doubts it will be long until the whispers reach Sam’s ears. It had seemed like Sam had known there was more to the story, but in light of Steve’s growing annoyance and unwillingness to share details he had thankfully dropped the matter.

Steve drops his gaze back onto the piece of paper in his lap and begins shading in the drawing of Sam he had started to sketch earlier. He is startled out of his focus when a darker, more solid shadow falls over him and looks up, expecting to see Sam, who is always curious about the progress he makes on his drawings.

Instead of Sam, he finds Lord Barnes smiling down at him.

“Good morning,” Lord Barnes says cheerfully.

“Lord Barnes,” Steve replies, clambering to his feet and hastily attempting to brush off his breeches. He notices another man lingering a little further away, watching the exchange; likely Lord Barnes’ companion waiting for him to return. Steve thinks he recognises him from Stark’s party, though they had only met briefly and had not been properly introduced, Viscount Barton citing an emergency that caused him to bow out early. Sam has also noticed Lord Barnes’ approach, straightening and making his way over as he glares at Barnes. “It is good to see you.”

“I had hoped to run into you here, which is why I directed myself and Lord Barton down this path,” Barnes remarks. “I’ve often seen you turn this way after church, but never dared to introduce myself before.”

“Ah, well.” Steve clears his throat, unsure of how to take this comment. “I enjoy coming here. The light is perfect for drawing.”

“Yes,” Barnes agrees. He hesitates for a moment. “I hope I am not imposing.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Steve replies quickly, although he is, a little bit, keeping him from his task and his leisure time. It would be strange, he supposes, if Barnes had spotted him in the park and not come over for a chat. Still, Steve feels caught off guard. He had not expected to meet Barnes, and even in his Sunday’s best, he feels utterly underdressed. “May I introduce you to my dearest friend, Baron Wilson?” he adds, Sam stepping up to them a welcome distraction. “Sam, this is Viscount Barnes.”

“Lord Barnes,” Sam says curtly, teetering on the edge of politeness.

“Lord Wilson,” Barnes replies with considerably more warmth. “I have heard a great deal about you. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“Lord Barnes was just talking about the great opportunities the park provides for pastime.”

“We were,” Barnes says smoothly. “But please, did we not agree you would call me by my first name?”

“James, then,” Steve corrects, blushing a little.

Sam’s eyebrows rise high on his forehead, disapproval clear on his face. “Indeed. And what is the pastime you prefer to pursue in the park, Lord Barnes?”

James blithely ignores the thinly veiled antagonism. “I cannot claim to have any talent with a brush, but I do enjoy a walk in the gardens from time to time. It’s a great place to meet people. Do you remember Lord Barton?” he inquires, waving his friend closer. “I could not help but notice your interest in the local birds,” Barnes adds, turning to Sam. “The Viscount also has a keen interest in them. He will be delighted to meet you.”

Introductions are made, and strangely, Steve feels a little more at ease with Lord Barton joining their little group. Being on the tail end of the gentry as a Baronet, practically only one step away from being a commoner, Steve rarely comes in touch with highly ranked noblemen, Sam being the exception. But Sam has known him all his life and doesn’t mind at all that his clothes are a little worn and more than a little out of date. When Steve does come in contact with noblemen the likes of James and Lord Barton, he generally prefers to have a bit of warning so that he does not look entirely destitute. Lord Barton, it turns out, though being of significantly higher standing than Steve, is far more rumpled. With his title and wealth he likely does not have to care so much about being perfectly presentable, all possible transgressions of norms easily forgiven due to the weight his name carries, as well as his significant fortune. Still, it calms Steve to see the Viscount with his collars slightly crooked and his boots scuffed.

Sam and Lord Barton do indeed strike up a conversation about birdwatching immediately, leaving James and Steve to talk among each other. The mandatory civil inquiries about the day and the health of their families are quickly resolved, however, culminating in silence hanging over them, awkward in a way it had not been during the ball.

“Lord Barton and I were just heading to his estate to take lunch.”

“Oh, then we mustn’t keep you,” Steve exclaims.

“I was wondering,” James continues, strangely hesitant, “whether you would like to join us.”

“Oh.” Steve blinks, wondering whether Lord Barton is aware that his friend is inviting strangers into his home, whether there is a way to decline without causing offence. “Oh, I don’t -- I would not want to impose.”

“Nonsense,” Lord Barton interrupts him. “Of course you must come, both of you. I would like for Lord Wilson to give me his opinion on the encyclopaedia of local birds that I have been trying to compose.”

“What he truly wants,” James whispers conspiratorially, leaning in closer to Steve, “is a buffer between him and Countess Romanoff. He believes he is much less likely to make a fool out of himself in front of her with more people present.”

“He is courting the Countess?” Steve asks in disbelief.

“The more surprising matter is that she is letting him.” James snorts. “None of us can quite figure out whether she is actually interested or merely amused by his strange attempts at romance.”

“This is a rude way to talk about your friend.”

James laughs. “I love Clint like a brother,” he explains, “which is why I may tease him like one. My friend has many fantastic qualities, but being a graceful suitor is not one of them.”

“Then we ought to help him where we can,” Steve decides. “Do we have time to run home and change?”

James frowns in confusion. “Why would you? You look lovely.”

“Your charming compliments will not help here, loverboy.” Lord Barton smirks and turns to Steve. “There is no need to change,” he placates him. “It will not be a formal event, merely a small gathering of friends. You are already more well put together than your host -- either of you turn up looking any prettier than you already do and my fair Lady might dump me and turn her attention to you.”

Steve scoffs. That is so unlikely it’s impossible, and while he might usually take such comments as insults, Lord Barton seems sincere enough in his delivery that he might only mean it as a gentle tease, the likes of which are exchanged between close friends. He wonders, briefly, if Lord Barton does not already consider them friends. For reasons he cannot possibly fathom, all of James’ friends and acquaintances have so far been delighted to meet him and received him with much more warmth and hospitality than he had ever thought possible, treating him as if they had known him for longer, as if they were excited to welcome him in their midst. It’s a strange sensation, to have people of such high standing seeming to take a genuine interest in him.

He cannot quite decide whether they are truly kind people or have merely honed their skills of masking their distaste to perfection.

Regardless, with both him and Sam in accord, they follow the Viscounts to Lord Barton’s home. It’s -- different from what he expected. As promised, the luncheon begins as a small, private affair, just him and Sam, Lord Barnes and Lord Barton, the Lady Romanoff and her close friend Lady Hill, all of whom prove to be surprisingly welcoming to Steve and Sam. Both Ladies, Steve realises quickly, are wickedly smart and funny, and the Lady Romanoff seems more amused and charmed by Lord Barton’s antics and bumbling attempts at courtship than anything else. None of them seem to be surprised or put-out by Steve’s presence, and he finds that he has a lovely time and is enjoying himself much more than he expected, in fact even feeling quite comfortable and at ease in ways he doesn’t usually in strange company.

The lunch turns into a walk in the estate’s lovely and extensive gardens, during which Sam has a chance at extensively discussing his birdwatching knowledge with Lord Barton, which probably makes his week. It’s quite worth it, and he happily watches from the sidelines as James hooks Steve’s arm around his elbow and drags him along, attempting to charm both Ladies at the same time with increasingly hilarious and possibly inappropriate jokes that Steve tries to pretend he doesn’t find amusing; usually, he would disapprove of such behaviour markedly and firmly, but since both Lady Romanoff and Lady Hill are visibly happy to respond in kind or put him down in equal measures, obviously quite used to James’ shenanigans, he lets it slide. Every time James catches him attempting to suppress a smile, he throws him a grin that is a mixture of smugness and pure delight.

The time passes more quickly than Steve notices, and ere long, it is time for tea, which everyone insists they stay for; and then after dinner, more friends of Lod Barton and James show up to play cards. It is then that Steve desperately wants to excuse himself; for his last encounter with the Howling Commandos, he remembers vividly, ended in James getting horribly drunk and sending that fateful letter, effectively getting them both into this mess that he is starting to enjoy more than he feels comfortable admitting. He remembers clearly the lewd talk he had overheard; but before he can make a strategic and hasty retreat, he is pulled aside by Lord Jones and Lord Morita, serious and contrite expressions on their faces.

“Allow us to apologise, Mister Rogers,” Lord Jones pleads. “For our unacceptable behaviour.”

“Did Lord Barnes put you up to this?” Steve asks somewhat unkindly, eyeing them with suspicion.

Lord Jones shakes his head. “He did not,” he replies. “Though he did give us a stern talking to.”

Lord Morita snorts. “Elegantly phrased. I would have said he yelled at us for two hours.”

“Huh,” Steve says. “Interesting, that he felt entitled to yell at you, when he himself behaved dishonourably.”

“Well,” Lord Morita grins, “one could argue that it was our fault, the way we encouraged his intoxication and drunken ramblings. Also, I believe you -- rightly and extensively -- gave him a piece of your mind, and he was quite justified to pass your arguments on to us.”

“Please,” Lord Jones adds, ”I understand if our presence makes you uncomfortable, and that we cannot expect your forgiveness; but please don’t feel obliged to leave because of us. It would shame all of us greatly if we ruined your day. If you do not wish to keep company with us, it would be us who ought to leave, not you.”

“That is not necessary,” Steve replies, startled. “You are good friends with Lord Barton and Lord Barnes, and you were invited. If anything, I am the interloper.”

“Nonsense,” Lord Morita retorts. “I can assure you Bucky is much more happy that you are here than that we are, and I am sure Clint feels the same way.”

“I do not appreciate being made fun of,” Steve says tartly, but Lord Jones merely gestures towards Lord Dugan, who is loudly celebrating winning the current game, while Lord Falsworth and Lord Dernier heatedly accuse him of cheating.

“They are a lot to deal with,” Lord Morita comments, still grinning. “But I assure you, they are mostly harmless. Please, will you allow us to prove to you that we are not horrible cads?”

Steve sighs. He is inclined to refuse, but he thinks about James, how his perception of him is slowly changing. Steve had thought him lewd and inappropriate and shallow, but the more time he spends in his company, the more he is starting to realise that the man is much more than that. The Howling Commandos have a reputation, and all his preconceived notions of them had been confirmed by their behaviour -- but James is a good man, honest and kind, and he loves them like brothers, so maybe he ought to see why.

“Very well,” he says after a moment’s pause. “I shall stay.”

“Splendid!” Lord Morita exclaims, throwing an arm around his shoulder. “Now, are you ready to be beaten at cards?”

 


 

After a few lovely weeks, too mild and sunny for the season, the weather takes a sudden and harsh turn for the worse. Steve grumbles a lot, but tries to take it in stride; it’s not unexpected, after all, and really, they can count themselves lucky that it’s mostly rain pouring from the sky, a bit of occasional sleet marking the closest they come to an actual blizzard. His mother’s health, he thinks, might not recover should she fall even more ill in such weather, and he is glad that she is spending the winter months at a health resort further south, where she might not only recover but is also more sheltered from the gruelling cold winds that hunt Brooklyn in the winter.

It does make seeing his mother difficult. It is hard for him, to have her so far away, unable to ensure or at least oversee her recovery, to ask her for advice, to share with her that which weighs down his heart. Of course, she would tell him that he is being silly: he is no doctor, and she is in way better hands in the resort than she would be at home, with no risk of him catching the fevers that frequently plague her, or him infecting her with the cold he perpetually seems to carry around.

His opportunities to visit her are few and far between, these days, a careful balance of both their health, the weather and social obligations permitting the journey.

Steve is returning from one such visit when the heavy downpour starts, the rain pelting against the carriage drowning out any other sound. He grimaces in commiseration as he thinks of old Phillips outside, having to endure the wet and the cold as he drives the carriage. If they weren’t relatively close to home already, he would instruct Phillips to stop at the nearest inn to wait out the storm, but with the situation being what it is and given that they have been away for a few days and are certainly both keen to sleep in their own beds, he figures it is more sensible to brave the weather for a while longer and then warm themselves in front of the fires in their own rooms.

Or at least it is the solution that seems to be the better one until they take a bend in the road a little too quickly, the carriage skidding to the side. Steve yelps and nearly falls out of his seat when Phillips brings the horses to an abrupt stop.

“Are you alright, Mister Rogers?” Phillips calls out.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine!” Steve shouts. The carriage, however, doesn’t seem to have gotten off quite so lightly if the way it tilts noticeably to the side is any indication. Steve pokes his head outside anxiously, watching as Phillips jumps off his seat to walk to the read part of the carriage to examine the damage. “Is the axle broken?” he inquires worriedly. That would be a disaster; the worst possible scenario. He cannot afford to fix the coach right now, and on top of that, they would likely be stuck on the road for the night.

“Doesn’t seem so, ” Phillips reports a few moments later, his voice gruff as always. “But the wheel is stuck in ten inches of mud -- sank in right to the middle of it.”

“Will the horses be able to pull it out?”

“Guess we’ll see,” Phillips grumbles. “It’ll be one hell of a feat, and they’re already tired.”

The horses don’t manage to pull the carriage free, though they fight admirably. After a few futile attempts, Steve climbs out of the sheltered interior.

“What are you doing, Mister Rogers? Get back inside, you’ll catch your death out here,” Phillips admonishes, and it’s only because he has known Steve since he was a child that Steve lets him get away with this manner of address.

“The horses cannot do it alone,” Steve shouts against the rain and the wind. “I’m going to push.”

Phillips grunts. “You’ll ruin your clothes. You’re better off in the spring seat. I’ll push.”

A part of Steve takes offence that the driver, who is pushing seventy, assumes him to be so physically unfit; but there is a grain of truth to it. Phillips has been working tirelessly for all his life, hard, physical work, and despite his age he is still strong. Steve suspects he is simply too stubborn to become frail with age. “I don’t know how to steer!”

“You know how to handle the reins when you ride, it’s not so different, and the horses like you. You’ll be fine.”

Steve is very much not fine, though it’s not the horses or the reins giving him trouble; even with Phillips’ efforts, the heavy vehicle won’t budge. Steve abandons his position before long, joining Phillips in the back. It doesn’t make a lick of difference, not with the horses growing more and more exhausted.  

“We should give us and the horses a break,” he tells Phillips. “Go sit inside and try to warm up for a while, hope the storm subsides a little. There isn’t really anything else we can do right now.” It will be miserable, for sure -- there’s enough room for both of them, but the inside of the carriage won’t be much warmer than it is outside, not with both of them dripping wet and shivering from the cold.

“Wait!” Phillips shouts. “Do you hear that?”

Steve strains his ears, and after a while, he hears it too: the faint sound of hooves, barely audible through the storm that he at first dismissed as a figment of his imagination. He wonders who else is stupid or desperate enough to travel in this weather, but he is not going to complain; either they are going to get help, or they are going to get mugged, but he isn’t really carrying anything that would make it worth the trouble for thieves to bother him.

Eventually, he is able to make out the shape of a large coach through the darkness; no bandits, then, but rather a nobleman or woman. Steve breathes a sigh of relief when the other drivers slows down and brings the carriage to a halt.

“Are you alright, Sirs?” the driver asks.

“Yes, just stuck,” Phillips replies.

“Do you need assistance?”

“That would be very kind,” Steve says.

One of the passengers pokes his head out of the window. “Miller, is everything -- Steve ?” James asks incredulously. “What are you doing out there, it’s freezing!” he exclaims.

Steve curtly explains the situation to him, and James immediately moves to open the door. “No, no, stay inside,” Steve protests, “There’s no need for you getting drenched as well, I am sure we can manage --”

“Nonsense,” James says, shrugging out of his expensive coat and exiting swiftly. He lands in the mud with a splash that surely ruins his pantaloons and definitely soils his boots, but he doesn’t seem to care in the least. “An extra set of hands cannot hurt. The quicker we get you out of the rain the better.”

Steve can’t help it: he stares a little. Less than a minute out in the rain has already turned James’ white shirt nearly translucent, and it’s clinging to his body in a way that shows off the nicely defined muscles of his arms, especially when they are straining with the effort of pushing Steve’s carriage. Steve didn’t think James was that strong -- aristocrats engaging in physical labour is frowned upon after all -- but he can’t say that he minds. He’s quite glad for the darkness that hides his blush and makes it impossible for him to make out too many details of James’ silhouette, as well as the task at hand that distracts him from focusing too much on his admiration for James’ physique.

Finally, the vehicle budges a little, only to slide back into mud even deeper than before a few inches further on.

“It’s no use,” James says decidedly, “not with the ground this rain-sodden. Both of you, into my carriage. You’re both coming back to the Barnes estate, I will have rooms prepared for you. We can try again tomorrow when the rain has stopped.”

Steve protests immediately. “Lord Barnes,” he snaps, “you cannot --”

“Don’t be stubborn, Steve. This is madness,” James admonishes. “You need to get out of the rain, both of you, or you’ll fall ill.”

“The horses --”

“Would not be able to carry you home even if we managed to free the carriage, they have exhausted themselves. We’ll unharness them and lead them home with us, so they can rest in the stables; it’s much closer than your home. The carriage can remain here, no one is going to steal it tonight. I shall send out a party to recover it as soon as possible.”

“But --”

“I insist,” James says intently. “I won’t allow you to spend the night outside in the rain by the side of the road!”

Steve stupidly wants to snap at him, tell him that he is not in a position to give Steve commands, but of course he knows James is right. He is not only responsible for himself, but for Phillips’ health as well; he cannot be foolishly stubborn out of wounded pride and risk someone else’s well-being. “Very well,” he says through gritted teeth, and tries to make it sound as grateful as he can. “Let us hope that your coach won’t suffer the same fate as mine.”

He climbs into the carriage, grimacing at the thought of dripping all over the expensive upholstery. Outside, James is attempting to convince Phillips into joining them inside, which is honestly more considerate and kind than Steve had expected; not many people would offer servants a seat by their side. Phillips declines repeatedly, though, preferring to take his place atop the spring seat. James finally joins Steve inside, shaking his hair out like a wet dog as he closes the door behind him. A few stray droplets of the icy water land on Steve, and he flinches a little.

“Forgive me,” James laughs, seeming surprisingly cheerful and upbeat despite the situation, uncaring that he is ruining the cushioning. In the light of the lantern that’s illuminating the interior a little, it’s easier to make out the shape of his muscles through his shirt. Steve swallows heavily and forces himself to look away. He means to open his mouth and thank James again, the way it is proper, the way decorum dictates, but instead a sneezing fit wracks his body.

James curses in distress, rummaging through his coat until he can procure a handkerchief that is not entirely soaked, unlike the one Steve has fished from his pocket. “Here.” He extends it to Steve, a strangely anxious expression on his face, and Steve accepts with a nod, attempting to blow his nose as quietly and discreetly as possible.

“What were you doing travelling in this weather?” James inquires. “I didn’t peg you as reckless enough to risk a journey in such a storm.”

“I visited my mother,” Steve replies. “We got caught in the middle of it; if I had known it would be that bad, I might not have gone to see her.”

“Now that is a lie if I’ve ever heard one.” James smiles warmly. “But an understandable one; of course you had to visit her! I trust she is well?”

“As well as she can be.” Steve shrugs. “Some days are better than others. Her condition has improved over the last few weeks, hence the visit.”

“Of course. It must be difficult, her being so far away,” James muses. “I couldn’t imagine not seeing my family every day, as much as the constant company and oversight may be stifling.”

Steve raises his eyebrows eloquently. With everything James gets up to, it’s difficult to imagine that there has been - and continues to be - much supervision of the eldest son in the Barnes family. “And why are you travelling in this weather? Are you reckless?”

“I suppose you could accuse me of being so," James muses. "The truth is, I promised my little sister I would come home tonight. It is her birthday tomorrow, and she insisted I wake her at the crack of dawn so as to give her her present, and truly, I am terrified of what she might do if I did not keep that promise.”

Steve cannot help but smile. “That sounds like a good enough reason to brave a storm to me.”

James laughs. “Most people say I spoil my sisters; that I am a fool who will turn them into overindulged, insufferable, snotty brats if I don’t allow them to feel the sting of disappointment in their youth.” He snorts. “As if any rich prick would ever accept even the slight disappointment without throwing a tantrum. No, as long as I am able I shall endeavour to fulfil all their wishes and shelter them from any harm.”

“They are lucky, to have a brother like you,” Steve replies evenly. “Family is important.”

“Indeed,” James says. “Nothing is more important than being there for the people you love, protecting them, showing them how much you care.” He falters for a moment, wringing his hands and lowering his gaze to the ground as if unsure how to continue. “Thank you,” he ventures after a moment of silence, looking up at Steve through his lashes hesitantly.

Steve frowns, bewildered. “What ever for?” If anyone has to express his gratitude, it’s Steve.

“For letting me help you,” James answers, somewhat nonsensically. “I know that cannot have been easy for you.”

“What are you talking about?” Steve asks. He’s beginning to grow irritated again, he can feel it; he only hopes his question came off as more perplexed than rude, as he cannot afford to anger James in his position.

“I know you value your independence above all things, just as I know that you prefer to deal with -- problems on your own, without telling anyone of your struggles, sometimes not even your closest friends. So I don’t think it was easy for you, allowing me to help. I do hope, however, that as our friendship continues to grow stronger, that you will be able to accept my help more easily.”

“It’s not like I had any other choice,” Steve argues, preferring not to comment on James’ hints. Honestly, he doesn’t want to think about how close they have grown. Lord Barnes is an intelligent man, and much more perceptive than Steve had given him credit for. There is no telling what else he might have noticed, and Steve won’t let the conversation go down that particular road.

James smiles drily. “Maybe so.”

“And you don’t know me that well,” Steve continues, annoyed and slightly uncomfortable.

“Don’t I?” James asks, an intensity in his gaze that makes Steve want to shrink into the ground and hide. Then James blinks, and the moment is over. “You are shivering,” he notes. “Forgive me, I didn’t think -- you must be incredibly cold, having spent so long in the rain. Take my coat, it will warm you.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t -- I’ll ruin it! And you need it as well!” Steve tries to protest, he really does, but James is insistent, won’t stop pushing it on Steve until he gives in and drapes it over himself. There’s still some lingering warmth from James’ body. Steve sighs in bliss, snuggling a little deeper into it and pretends he doesn’t notice that it smells like James.

Now relatively sheltered and with the adrenaline starting to wear off, Steve is beginning to droop. He is cold and exhausted, a constant ache beginning to form in the back of his head, and all he wants to do is fall into bed and sleep. Thankfully, the Barnes lands are really not very far, and despite the slow and careful pace they reach their destination in less than half an hour. James quickly ushers Steve inside after assuring Phillips there was no need to take care of the horses himself and to simply follow his driver to the staff quarters where they would prepare a room for him.

The foyer is incredibly, wonderfully warm. James steers Steve towards the fireplace immediately, and Steve sighs in relief when the heat envelops him.

“Well, this is new.”

Steve startles and turns towards the source of the unfamiliar voice to spot a tall, slender woman standing at the bottom of the stairs, watching them with a curious expression. He imagines they must be quite a sight: both of them dripping wet, having trailed a track of mud and water in their wake, James half undressed and Steve still wrapped in his comically oversized coat.

James groans under his breath. “Hello, Rebecca.”

“Lady Proctor,” Steve hastens to say, bowing as gracefully as he can. He ought to have recognised her from the start - the eldest of James’ sisters, already married to an incredibly wealthy and powerful man, with a son securing the family name. “Forgive me for showing up in your home unannounced --your brother was kind enough as to offer me and my driver shelter from the storm. If you’ll allow me to introduce myself --”

“I know who you are, Mister Rogers,” she retorts, an amused smile tugging at the corner of her mouth as she approaches the two of them. “I have heard quite a lot of you from my dear brother. In fact, one might say you are his favourite topic of conversation,” she continues, blithely ignoring James’ slightly panicked look and not-so-subtle gesturing for her to stop. “I simply did not expect him to ever be able to persuade you to come here, though we have all been longing for this day for years. Needless to say, I am delighted to finally make your acquaintance -- I feel like we are a part of this family already!”

Steve frowns, wondering if he is being mocked, but as he opens his mouth to reply, a series of coughs wrack his body.

“Steve?” James lays a hand on his shoulder, alarmed. “Damn it, I told you you would catch a cold.”

“I’m fine,” Steve rasps when he catches his breath. “But -- may I trouble you for a cup of tea?”

“I’ll see to it immediately,” Lady Proctor assures him. “And I’ll have a fire lit in one of the guest rooms. Bucky, show him upstairs, and for God’s sake, get him some dry clothes to wear.”

Before Steve can even think to alleviate their concern, he is standing in a large, exquisitely decorated room, one of the servants labouring over the fireplace, another placing a pan of heated coals under the duvet by the foot of the bed. James, freshly changed, but scandalously only partially clothed -- no one, Steve thinks, must ever know that he saw James in only soft breeches, his stocking and an old shirt -- shoves a bundle of night gowns in his arms.

“Some of these are quite old,” he apologises. “I wasn’t sure if -- the nightshirts I have now, I fear, would be too large for you, so I also brought some from when I was younger that might fit you. I didn’t know what you might prefer.”

Steve colours at the thought that the last time James wore clothes small enough to fit Steve, he was likely still a child not yet introduced to society. “I’m sure I will find something adequate here.” Steve pauses. “Thank you.”

James blinks in shock. “Are you running a fever?”

“I do know how to behave,” Steve grumbles. “You needn’t be so surprised.”

“I was not trying to tease you, nor insult you. You do look like you might be burning up.” James steps forward to place a hand on Steve’s forehead, finding the skin flushed and warmer than usual. “You are!” he exclaims. “I should send for a doctor, or --”

“There’s nothing to be done now but wait and see till the morrow. I’m sure I will be fine after a good night’s sleep in a warm bed and dry clothes,” Steve interrupts pointedly.

“Yes, you must change into -- ah, yes, forgive me,” James stammers, withdrawing his hand. Steve doesn’t think he has ever seen the man quite so flustered. “I should give you privacy so you can change. If there is anything you need - anything at all, please do not hesitate to call.”

“I won’t,” Steve promises.

James smiles, and then, unexpectedly, bends down to press a kiss to Steve’s knuckles, startling Steve. “Sleep well.”

“Good night, Lord Barnes,” Steve says, mindful of the servants’ curious stares.

He waits until he is alone, to brush his fingers over the spot James’ lips touched, trying to commit the feeling to memory.

The mattress, he finds when he slips under the covers, is the most comfortable one he has ever lain on, and the sheets feel like silk between his fingers. He wraps them around his body to create a surprisingly warm cocoon, and falls into a deep slumber almost immediately.

He wakes slightly groggy and still with a bit of a headache caused by a stuffed nose yet otherwise feeling astonishingly well-rested. A slight twinge in his arms reminds him of the exertions of the night, but all of it is manageable. He remembers how James had worried he was running a fever, and had himself been afraid he might have caught the flu when he found his skin overheated under James’ careful touch, but it seems the willow bark tea the servants had brought him as a preventative measure has done its magic.

Steve slips out of bed to get dressed, and soon finds himself at a loss. A quick look around the room gives no clues as to where his clothes have vanished to; all that he finds behind the paravents are the other nightshirts James had left the night before. He rakes a hand through his hair, mussing it up further than it already is after a night’s sleep. How can he leave this room if he has nothing to wear? Is he to stay confined to this room indefinitely? The Barnes’ cannot have forgotten about him, can they? He remembers James telling him about his sister’s birthday celebration -- perhaps the fact that Steve is here has slipped their mind.

He’s just about worked himself into a state of worry when there is a sharp knock on the door. Upon his call, it opens to reveal one of the maids he had seen the evening before, holding a bundle of clothes that are not his own. “Good morning, Mister Rogers,” she says cheerfully. “Lord Barnes sent me to bring you these; he kindly requests that you wear them. We have washed your clothes, but they are drying still.”

“Oh, that would not have been necessary,” Steve says, embarrassed, even though he hardly could have shown his face in public in clothes that are caked in mud. “Thank you.”

“They are awaiting you in the dining room for breakfast.”

Steve thanks her again and dresses quickly, not wanting to leave his hosts waiting or overstay his welcome. The fashion is a little outdated, which does not bother him much; most of his own clothing is not particularly en vogue, as he simply cannot afford to keep up with the ever more rapidly changing fashion trends. The fit of them is surprisingly good, though the breeches are too long for him, as is the shirt; it’s clear that James was quite a bit taller than Steve when he was still thin enough to fit into these clothes, before he filled out more.

The sound of laughter and rapid footsteps drifting through the house leads him to the dining room where he finds all members of the Barnes family already gathered around the table, watching amusedly as James chases his youngest sister, who Steve thinks must be about fifteen, around the room while she shrieks in delight. No-one notices Steve for a while and he contents himself with simply watching the scene unfold and enjoying James’ carefree laughter when he catches his sister, throws her over his shoulder and spins around so fast that even Steve gets a little dizzy watching them.  James sets her down eventually, out of breath and glowing; Steve didn’t think it was possible for the smile on his face to grow any wider, but it does when he spots Steve awkwardly standing in the doorway.

“Steve!” he exclaims. “It is good to see you on your feet so early. I trust you slept well?”

“I did, thank you very much,” Steve replies.

“No signs of a fever?” he inquires. His hand is twitching at his side, as if he has to stop himself from reaching out again.

“None,” Steve assures him.

“We are all glad to hear it” Lady Proctor cuts in. “Bucky was just about sick with worry yesterday -- I feared he might wear a hole in the carpet from all his pacing!”

“Uh --” Steve stammers, unsure how to react.

James shoots her a warning look. “There is no need for teasing,” he says. “Come, sit.”

The only free seat is on James’ left; Steve sits down gingerly as James goes on to introduce every member of his family.

“I cannot thank you enough for your hospitality,” Steve says, a little stiffly.

“We are delighted to have you,” Lady Barnes, James’ mother, says. “In fact, we have been waiting to be introduced to you for a while, but I fear my son has made it his mission to keep you hidden away so that he may have you all for himself.”

“It’s because he is embarrassed of us,” Lady Alice pipes up.

“I am not embarrassed by you,” James protests.

“Of course not,” Lady Proctor says. “Really, the only embarrassing thing is that you still have not grown a spine and --”

“I take it back, you are all awful,” James cuts her off, his tone annoyed but his eyes fond, his cheeks colouring curiously. “Steve, won’t you come to my rescue?”

Steve raises his eyebrows. “Only yesterday you told me how much you adore your sisters, so all I could offer would be to call you a liar,” he remarks, which makes the ladies burst out laughing.

“That is heartless, Steve.”

“In fact,” Steve continues, “Ja -- Lord Barnes also confided in me that he is afraid of you.”

James gasps dramatically. “What ever did I do to deserve such a betrayal?” he cries. “Must you drive a knife into my back? Have I not been a good host?”

“You have,” Steve confirms with a shrug of his shoulders, “but I rather fear your sisters could outsmart us all, and I am wise enough to choose to earn their favour over yours. They outnumbers us in this house, anyway, so what protection could you offer me?”

His sisters crow in delight while Lady Barnes smiles knowingly at his stumbling over James’ name. “There is no need for formalities here,” she says.

The rest of the breakfast continues in a similar fashion: the Barneses treat him as if he were family, as if they have known him for a long time, laughing with him and encouraging him to call James by his nickname. By the end of it, Steve has been hearing the name thrown around so often he catches himself using it as well, blushing at the way it makes his suitor smile to hear the name from Steve’s mouth. Bucky himself is needled all the way through their meal, but endures being made fun of with surprising grace. It is a little overwhelming, but surprisingly comfortable.

“Alright,” he says with finality when Steve has cleared his plate, “that is quite enough for now, I think. Steve, walk with me? I would like to show you the library; there are some pieces of art I think you might enjoy.”

Steve follows him through the wide, open corridors.

“I must apologise for my sisters,” Bucky says. “They are a raucous bunch at the best of times and they were excited to meet you. I fear it made them forget their manners -- one would think they were brought up in Bedlam.”

Steve wonders, briefly, if his sisters have ever met any of Bucky’s conquests before, if he brings them to this house and smuggles them out under cover of darkness, if he sneaks into their bedrooms instead. He would not have introduced them to his family, surely -- that would mean the end of his lover’s reputation. But he might have had a suitor who knew his family, or tried to court someone else before and -- well. He wonders if they have received everyone like they did Steve, treating them as if they belonged, as if there was no better place for them than in the middle of their family. “There is no need for apologies,” he says. “I enjoyed meeting them.”

“I am glad.” Bucky smiles. “They like you.”

“And they seemed to know a lot about me, as was the case when I met your friends.”

“I spend a lot of time with you nowadays,” Bucky says. “You are bound to come up in our conversations.”

“And did you only mention my positive traits, or were they kind enough not to mention your grievances with me?”

“I have no grievances with you,” Bucky says, frowning in surprise. “Should I?”

“Most people do, eventually.” Steve shrugs.

“Well, it’s almost as if I enjoy spending time with you.”

Steve smiles, and ducks his head. “As do I.”

“Could have been worse, huh?” Bucky asks. “Come now, let’s see if we can’t get you out of those unfortunate clothes of mine and back into your own, before my sisters decide that they now know you well enough to start teasing you.”

 


  

Over time, Steve comes to actually their outings, something that surprised him more than anything. Sam has always jokingly called him antisocial, but there was some truth to his gentle teasing; he doesn’t much like large gatherings of people. They make him anxious, feeling awkward and stilted in the company of strangers, and balls especially used to be his personal nightmare, the prospect of having to dance and make a fool out of himself in public making him tense and disagreeable at the best of times, the loud music and the swell of people talking and laughing reducing everything in his bad ear to static and making it difficult to engage in a decent conversation.

It is easier, he finds, since he met Bucky. Sam has always been great company when they went to social gatherings together, but often Steve felt superfluous, through no fault of Sam’s -- it just so happens that many of Sam’s other acquaintances have not taken to Steve so quickly as Bucky’s have, and while Sam’s presence by his side has often helped Steve feel more comfortable in his own skin, he has often made himself scarce to allow Sam to talk to his friends without a third wheel, just so he could feel less like a burden and retreated to, as Sam calls it, sulk in a corner.

Bucky won’t have any of that; when they are out together, Steve hardly ever gets a moment alone, the excuse being that a gentleman caller would not leave the object of his desire unattended. As much as it annoyed Steve in the beginning, he has grown to appreciate it; Bucky bustles him from one end of the room to the other, still singing his praises to everyone who will listen, and often saving him from uncomfortable situations. And in the rare moments that he is not by his side, one of his friends always seems to be happy to represent in his stead. Over time, he even starts to grow fond of the Howling Commandos and their sometimes childish antics. They are good friends, he finds, and do their utmost to make Steve like them.

Still the constant supervision from Bucky and his friends is sometimes oppressive, and Steve often finds himself irritated when a conversation with someone he might make a connection with seems to be going someplace and Bucky unerringly swoops in to whisk him away before any subtle hints can be made, his timing almost uncanny. In his lowest moments, he wonders if the timing is deliberate, but -- no, Bucky would never be so cruel.

In his darkest moments, he sometimes wishes it were. He tries not to linger on those fancies too much.

Today, however, for the first time in a while, Bucky’s attention seems to have slipped, leaving Steve cornered in the most unpleasant situation. It’s no matter, he thinks; he oughtn’t be angry or disappointed. Bucky isn’t to blame, and he is used to such conversations as he had with Lord Rollins tonight. He just hasn’t had to endure them in a while, and it has struck a deeper blow than he expected. Perhaps he is getting soft, unused to the thinly veiled abuse some members of society like to dish out.

Bucky notices his foul mood, of course, but has the sense not to ask him about it until they are alone, following Steve into the library when they arrive at his home instead of excusing himself and making straight for the stables the way he generally does when they return this late.

Bucky closes the door behind him with a soft click. “Are you alright?” he asks cautiously.

Steve huffs. “Of course,” he says, as nonchalantly as he can manage, which apparently is not very nonchalantly at all.

Bucky frowns at him. “What happened?”

“Nothing.”

His curtness only serves to make Bucky more suspicious. “What did he say to you to make you so upset?” Bucky demands and Steve -

Steve can’t help but let out a bitter laugh. “Nothing that hasn’t been said to me a thousand times before.”

Bucky hums. “I can’t think of a single thing to say about you that is not positive.” He tilts his head in consideration. “Well, an argument could be made for your occasionally volatile temper, but that is hardly an issue whose pointing out would make you this upset.”

He appreciates that Bucky is trying to cheer him up with his soft joke, but he cannot even muster up the strength to give him a weak smile in return.

“Steve.” Bucky’s voice is low and urgent. He reaches out to Steve but seems to think better of it a moment later, his hand hovering awkwardly in the space between them like an aborted plea. It looks like he is hurting, that he is pained by Steve’s ill humour and by Steve’s determination to not allow him to make it better.

Steve wants to tell someone, really, wants someone who listens and offers a strong shoulder to cry on until he has exhausted himself. Who does he have who fits that description, really? Sam, of course, but he doesn’t want to bother his best friend all the time, and his mother has much bigger concerns without him giving her more to worry about. And it’s - it’s pathetic, really, but the entire situation between the two of them is pathetic and Bucky has yet to openly judge him for it, so what is there to lose?

“Lord Rollins expressed his astonishment regarding your prolonged interest in me. He suggested that the long chase was deserving of an extraordinary recompense, and that he believed it unlikely I could live up to the expectations. I believe he said that obviously I had nothing to offer you but a roll in the sheets, and that not even the most phenomenal performance could make up for my, well, my utter lack of allure,” he says, trying to keep his voice even, and gesturing towards his body.

When he dares look up at Bucky, the man looks absolutely thunderous. “He fucking what?” he spits, all his good manners apparently forgotten. “Steve, why didn’t you tell me immediately? I would have punched him in the face. Hell, why didn’t you punch him?”

“I could hardly do that in front of everyone,” Steve remarks drily. “And nor could you have. It’s alright, really,” he tries to assuage him. And how did it happen that he is suddenly the one comforting Bucky and downplaying his own hurt, when it was him seeking comfort from his friend in the first place? It ought to irritate him, Steve thinks, but he is actually oddly thrilled by Bucky’s indignation. “I really ought to be used to it by now. And besides -” he shrugs “- he didn’t say anything untrue.”

If anything, Bucky looks even more outraged now. “It’s the height of impropriety, is what it is.”

“Must I remind you how we met?” Steve asks.

“That’s not -” He takes a few deep breaths to calm himself. “Steve. Steve, how could you say that?”

“What? Is this still a topic we cannot joke about?”

“I’m not referring to the letter, Steve,” Bucky snaps. “How can you say - how can you believe his words to be true?”

“I know who I am, Bucky, and I know what I look like. I appreciate you trying to defend me, but it’s truly not necessary.” Steve finds that he cannot meet his friend’s eye. There is a quiet devastation on Bucky’s face that breaks his heart, that makes him hope too much. And hope - hope is a dangerous thing. A deadly thing. He cannot allow himself to feel it, not even for a moment.

“You truly don’t know,” Bucky say in quiet realisation, “how beautiful you are.”

And that possibly hurts more than anything. “Don’t - don’t lie to me,” Steve begs. “Not you.” He knows it’s a kind lie, frequently told to him by his friends to make him feel better, but it’s a lie nonetheless. Most of the time he can ignore it, or pretend to accept it graciously. But not tonight, not from Bucky.

“It’s not a lie.”

“Fine, call it a jest if you will -”

“It’s not a jest either,” Bucky explodes. “How can you -” He runs a hand through his hair, visibly pulling himself together. “How can you have read the letter I sent to you that fateful night and still believe it was a trick?”

Steve scoffs. “Your letter?” he asks. “The prank you and your friends meant to play, the bet you placed, that is what you cite to try and convince me of your sincerity? The letter you had to be drunk out of your mind to write and that you immediately came to retract once you came to your senses again?”

“It was not intoxication that -” Steve levels him with a look. Bucky takes a deep breath. “Fine. I was intoxicated, that I must admit. But not so much that I didn’t know what I was doing. The liquor merely gave me the courage to put onto paper what I had desired for a long time.” He steps closer. “The only reason I came to retract the letter was because I knew you would not receive it well. It was inappropriate, but it was not in jest. I meant every word.”

“I doubt you can recall a single word,” Steve quibs, if only to distract himself from the way his chest constricts, how Bucky’s closeness makes it harder for him to breathe. He doesn’t mean it as a challenge, but the look in Bucky’s eyes tells him he clearly takes it as one.

“I said,” Bucky says slowly, “that I wanted to taste your skin; kiss every inch of your body for hours and hours, until all my lips could remember was the way you felt under them. That I wanted to suck bruises into your pretty neck, and let the world know you were mine. That I wanted to savour every sound you made, every hitch of your breath when I licked inside you; that I fall asleep every night longing to see the look on your face when you come.” He leans in as he speaks, until their lips are almost brushing. His eyes flicker down to Steve’s mouth before his gaze meets Steve’s again. “Do you want me to go on?”

Steve’s heart is hammering away in his chest. He expects it to jump out from beneath his ribs. Bucky is so close, the smell of his cologne making Steve want to bury his face in his chest, his intensity stealing his breath away, and he finds that he cannot speak but only stare, transfixed.

“I would worship you,” Bucky continues quietly, softly, “if only you let me.”

Bucky draws back only an inch to study Steve’s face, his eyes dark and intent and wanting, and Steve - Steve doesn’t find the words to respond. It’s all he can do to stop his body from trembling, the conviction with which Bucky speaks keeping him rooted on the spot. It feels like an eternity passes between them like this, the world frozen around them, but it’s probably only a short moment before Bucky’s face transforms, a weak, wistful smile appearing on his face, and he steps back, breaking the moment.

“Forgive my candour,” he says. “It seems I have not yet learnt my lesson in propriety. I promise I won’t speak out of turn and make you uncomfortable again. I shall take my leave now; I have overstayed my welcome.” He bows hurriedly and walks away.

Steve closes his eyes, feels himself sway and has to reach out to steady himself at the corner of his desk, like a damned Victorian heroine. It’s utterly ridiculous, he thinks, that Bucky can have this effect on him with only his words. Every fibre of his being is yearning for his touch, is railing at Steve to call Bucky back, to just give in. But he can’t. He can’t.

He wants to.

Just once in his life, he wants to know what it feels like. He wants to give himself the illusion that he could be desired like that. Wants the experience of giving himself over completely to another person and enjoy it. Wants to feel Bucky’s touch and pretend it could be forever, that it could be real. Bucky might not love him, he thinks, but from the rumours that have reached his ear, he is very good at making his conquests believe they are the love of his life. He could have that, for one night. Would it even matter to him anymore if Bucky was lying still, if it was about the bet he made with his friends after all?

If anyone found out, Steve would be ruined for good. Could one night of bliss really be worth the risk?

The rational part of him wants to say no. But then, the hunt for a spouse is not going great. He is facing destitution either way; and if it’s not destitution, he will be lucky to not end up with a spouse he greatly despises. Ahead of him, all he can see is a life filled with misery, and one bright spot of hope that could be a cherished memory, something to keep him sane, maybe, something good to look back to whenever he is feeling down.

He’s rushing out the door before he has even realised that he has made a conscious decision, skidding around a corner and nearly tripping over one of the rugs in the foyer. It’s lucky, he thinks, that the few servants he can still afford to employ have already gone to bed and don’t get to see the spectacle he makes of himself. He manages to intercept Bucky before he steps into the night, calling out to him.

Bucky freezes with his hand on the door handle, turning around slowly, his eyes widening in surprise. “Steve?” he questions cautiously.

He must look like a madman, Steve thinks, out of breath and his hair unruly and chasing after Bucky. “Did you mean it?”

Bucky’s brow furrows.

“What you said. I need to hear it again. Did you mean it?”

Understanding dawns on Bucky’s face. He looks very young, suddenly, and very vulnerable, but he straightens.  “I did. I mean every word I said.”

Steve nods and steps closer, licking his lips nervously. “Just once,” he says. “No one must know. Do you understand?”

Bucky swallows heavily. “I do.”

“So you agree to my terms?”

“Just for tonight,” Bucky repeats quietly. “No one will know. You have my word.”

“Alright.” Steve tries to ignore the way his voice trembles. “Follow me.”

 


  

There’s an awkward moment after Steve closes the bedroom door behind them; the silence is loaded, ringing in his ears.

Bucky wrings his hands. “These are lovely rooms,” he remarks in a stilted attempt at civility.

Steve barely holds back a snort. His private rooms are nothing to write home about - the décor is simple, outdated, the furniture passed down for generations, and while everything is well-maintained, the signs of wear cannot be concealed. “I believe we are past such small talk.”

“Indeed,” Bucky says. “I need to ask,” he begins, ”are you sure?”

Steve raises his eyebrows, trying to appear more sure of himself than he truly is. “Would I have brought you here if I wasn’t?”

“I don’t know,” Bucky confesses, running a hand through his hair, dishevelling it. “I did not think you were inclined to such things.” He pauses briefly, delicately. “At least not with me.”

Steve shrugs. “I suppose I want to see what all the fuss is about.”

“I beg you pardon?” Bucky blinks incredulously.

“Oh - I didn’t mean - I was not referring to your - performance ,” Steve says hurriedly. His face is starting to burn with shame. He has heard a great deal about Bucky’s prowess and skill indeed, but he is not setting out to test it. If so, it is only a small part of his reasoning. “I was rather referring to the act itself.”

Bucky frowns, processing his words. “Steve,” he says slowly, “do you mean to tell me you have no experience - that you have never -- been intimate with another person?”

“I have lain with my husband,” Steve replies, fighting to keep his voice even and strong. “As you are well aware, such is the custom to seal the vows in the wedding night. I merely would not describe the experience as pleasant enough that anyone would wish to repeat it.”

Bucky recoils as if stung, his eyes wide and shocked. “Did he hurt you?” he demands eventually. “Steve, did he -”

That explains the horror on his face. “No, no,” Steve hastens to assure him. “He did no such thing. He did not force me or - whatever it is you are thinking of. I simply did not particularly care for it. It was - a chore I had to perform. But I hear it can be quite enjoyable.”

Bucky seems relieved to hear this, but still looks uncertain. “Some people do not care for it,” he says thoughtfully. “There is no shame in that. I would not have you force yourself to do something you don’t want just because you are under the misconception that you should experience such desire to be normal.”

“Experiencing desires,” Steve says firmly, “is not a problem.”

This, Bucky accepts with a nod. “I pray you will tell me when I do something that is not to your liking.”

“I shall.”

“Very well then.” Bucky takes a deep breath, extends his hand. “Will you come closer?”

Steve does. To his surprise, Bucky doesn’t immediately envelop him in his arms and kiss him senseless. Instead, he laces his fingers through Steve’s and caresses his knuckles softly with his lips, once, twice. “It escapes my comprehension,” he says, “how anyone could be lucky enough to hold you in their arms and not treat you with the care you deserve.”

And oh, he is good; the quiet earnestness of his voice, the heavy emotion in his gaze. Steve melts a little. “Oh, hush,” he replies. “You do not need to flatter me to win me over.” Privately, he wishes Bucky would never stop talking.

“It’s not flattery,” Bucky responds. “It’s the truth. Anyone who does not make you feel precious is not worthy of you, for you are very special, and very dear, and you ought to be shown every single day. ”

“Well then,” Steve says with more conviction than he feels, ”show me.”

A small smile tugs at the corners of Bucky’s lips, and he raises Steve’s hand to his mouth again, turning it gently so he can press a soft kiss to the palm of his hand. It’s a silly, chaste little thing, and already it feels more intimate than any other touch Steve has ever experienced. His breath catches in his throat, a tiny, longing sound, easy to miss, but the way Bucky’s eyes snap to his tells him it has not gone unnoticed.

Bucky’s touch is gentle when he lays a hand on the back of his neck to draw him closer, his thumb rubbing soothing circles into his skin as he leans down to meet Steve’s mouth, his other hand settling on Steve’s waist. Their first kiss is slow and unhurried; Bucky’s lips, Steve notices, are a little chapped but otherwise enticingly soft, and they move expertly against his own. Steve’s lips part on their own accord to signal Bucky that he is more than welcome to let his tongue explore as well, but Bucky seems perfectly content to maintain the leisurely pace and not deepen the kiss, simply learning the shape of his mouth. When he draws back for air, Steve’s body follows him unconsciously, going up on his tiptoes and chasing the taste.

Bucky lets out a quiet, delighted laugh and indulges him, this time with a little more fervour, licking into his mouth. However, when Steve tries to tug at his clothes, he moves away again. “Are we pressed for time?” he inquires, a small frown on his face. “I thought you said all your servants were asleep.”

“They are,” Steve answers, puzzled.

“Then there is no need to rush,” Bucky says, stroking Steve’s cheek. “We can indulge.”

“We can.”

“I’m glad.”

“Not one for a quick tryst?” Steve asks, raising his eyebrows. He has heard that Bucky is supposed to be an attentive lover, but he did not strike him as the overly patient type. It’s not that he has not dreamt about kissing someone for hours just because they could, but he didn’t expect Bucky to be similarly inclined.

Bucky smirks. “On occasion,” he replies. “But I do like to take my time when I can.”

“I shall let you set the pace, then.”

“You are allowed input on the matter,” Bucky says, grinning now. “In the unlikely event that you were under the impression you shouldn’t make your feelings known.”

“How generous of you,” Steve remarks drily, secretly both relieved and amused. The teasing feels familiar and comfortable, and the last vestiges of awkwardness dissipate between them. “In that case I would order you to come back here and kiss me again.”

He loses track of how long they stand there, exchanging kiss after kiss, until he is certain he has memorised every moment, every dip and curve of Bucky’s lips, that the feeling will be burnt in his brain and the taste of him will forever be on his tongue. Finally, finally Bucky moves away from his mouth, trailing soft kisses along his jawline and making his way to Steve’s neck. It tickles, at first, the unfamiliar sensation against untasted skin, the butterfly-quick kisses, soft as snow falling on the ground. Steve closes his eyes, gives himself over to the sensation and feels his nerves light up under the touch. He sighs, and when he tilts his head back to allow for better access, he feels Bucky smile against his skin.

He takes his time with this as well, making sure to lavish each and every little spot with attention, first only with chaste kisses and then alternating between touching his lips to Steve, sucking gently on his skin and chasing the sting away with a soothing stroke of his tongue. By the time he slides Steve’s heavy coat off his shoulders and moves his shirt aside just enough to reveal his collarbone so he can mouth alongside it, Steve is trembling.

Bucky notices, of course. “I believe,” he says, straightening a little to whisper into Steve’s ear, “that now would be an opportune time to move to the bed.”

“Good idea,” Steve agrees, his voice coming out slightly strangled.

For a moment, he expects Bucky to sweep him up into his arms and carry him, the way he shifts his grip on Steve. Luckily, if he truly considered it he thinks better of it quickly; Steve might have regretted punching him a little. It would have ruined the moment, certainly. As it is, Bucky simply turns them around and walks Steve backwards until the back of his knees hit the bed, kissing him all the while. Only then does he lift Steve up for a brief moment to deposit him in the middle of the bed, and grins boyishly at the slight glare Steve levels at him.

“Now, don’t be cross, love,” he says. “How could I resist?”

“Quite easily, I think,” Steve grumbles, and Bucky laughs.

“True, but it would not nearly have been as much fun.”

“You enjoy teasing me too much.”

“Perhaps,” Bucky concedes. “Maybe you will find comfort in the fact that you are now in a position that allows you to easily kick me in the ribs should you be displeased by my teasing.”

“Well, now that you have essentially given me permission to do so, I shall make frequent use of well-timed kicks to your ribs,” Steve retorts, unable to keep a silly smile from his face. Bucky kisses it off his lips before kneeling at the foot of his bed, working Steve’s shoes off his feet and kicking his own to the far side of the room, before slowly sliding the stockings down Steve’s calves, watching the pale skin that the motion revealed almost reverently. He wonders if every little thing Bucky does will feel strangely intimate; wonders if he likes it at all, wonders if maybe he likes it too much.

As if sensing Steve’s hesitation, Bucky makes a show of peeling the cloth over his heel. “Oh my!” he exclaims. “An ankle! Well, I have never - I need a fainting couch immediately, to overcome the shock!”

Steve kicks him in the ribs, then, because he can, because he is allowed, and because it seems like an appropriate reaction. He ends up mostly missing Bucky’s torso, however, too busy laughing to take proper aim. Bucky bursts into laughter too; he prevents Steve from attempting another kick by grabbing a hold of his leg, pressing a quick kiss to his ankle before sliding up his body again to drink the laughter from Steve’s mouth.

And oh, Steve did not think it could be this way; that there could be easy, silly laughter in bed, that all he would feel was comfort and warmth.

“If you attempt to tickle me,” Steve says when they part again, slightly out of breath from laughter and kisses, eyeing the hand that is teasing his shirt from the confines of his breeches its hem with playful distrust, “I will throw you out on the street.”

“I would never!” Bucky protests. His fingers slide underneath the fabric, along the high waist of his trousers, stopping respectfully before the tips can touch bare skin. “May I?”

“You may.”

Bucky skims his hands up his torso, bunching the fabric up as he goes along, and Steve raises his arms, allowing him to slide the shirt over his head. The air feels cool against his uncovered skin, but Steve crosses his arms more out of fear than to suppress the slight shiver running through him.

“Let me look at you,” Bucky urges, gently prying Steve’s fingers away from where he has been digging almost painfully into the flesh of his own arms. A few tugs, and Steve complies, letting his arms fall to the side and exposing his chest, ignoring the way he is trembling now.

Bucky sucks in a sharp breath. “Steve.”

“Sorry,” Steve apologises automatically, bringing his arms back up out of reflex.

Bucky catches them before he can hide behind them again, looking positively flabbergasted. “What are you apologising for?”

Steve flicks his eyes down his body, a wordless reply. He knows he is not much to look at; his skinny body with knobbly, protruding bones, the chicken chest, the ribs that you can count under too-pale skin. Too waifish to attract people looking for a strong, handsome man, too angular to appeal to those longing for the soft embrace of a woman. Neither tall and muscular enough to be noticed by men or women, not pretty enough to pass for a girl. “If you wish to leave - if you cannot bring yourself to -” he begins, only to be interrupted harshly.

“Let me make one thing very clear,” Bucky says. “I will not be bringing myself to do anything. I want this, more than you could imagine.”

“Still?” Steve inquires. “Even though I’m-”

“You still believe I am dishonest when I tell you that you are beautiful,” Bucky says, dismayed.

“It is a hard habit to break.” Steve shrugs.

“Then I shall tell you every day from now on, and I shall endeavour to show you every time that I see you, until the day that you believe it yourself, and every day after that as well.”

“That sounds like a laborious and long commitment. You might be setting yourself up for disappointment and end up wasting a lot of your time.”

“No day could ever feel wasted,” Bucky says, “making you feel loved.”

Steve’s heart skips a beat. It’s ridiculous, falling for a line like this, but oh, Bucky is a fantastic actor. “I’m not feeling much of anything at the moment,” he points out jokingly, trying to dispense the tension. “Care to return to the task at hand?”

Bucky grins. “As you wish,” he says, and sets to explore Steve’s body, his lips and tongue following on the trails his hands blaze, leaving fire in their wake. Bucky investigates every dip and valley of his chest, and when his lips close around Steve’s nipple, there’s nothing he can do to hold back the moan that escapes his throat. The sound only spurs Bucky on further; the first scrape of teeth against the peaked bud rips another gasp from him.

“I like the sounds you make,” Bucky says, momentarily detaching himself from his current target, his voice gone slightly gravelly. “Don’t try to hide them.”

For a split second, the petty and competitive part of Steve compels him to withhold all sounds from now just to mess with him, but Bucky goes back to his administrations with such vigour that he is helpless to do anything but make noise. By the time Bucky lets up, Steve is writhing restlessly beneath him, desperate to seek friction and fisting his hands in the sheets to keep himself from bucking up against the man above him. He is breathless, his skin flushed a delicate shade of pink.

Bucky appraises his work with satisfaction. “I have been wondering,” he says slowly, smugly, “how far down this blush goes. I believe I have not yet seen the full extent of it,” he adds, his hands inching lower, following the splatter of soft blond hair that disappears underneath Steve’s breeches. He unbuttons them swiftly, and they soon join his shirt on the floor.

Steve shifts uncomfortably; his thin underwear is doing nothing to hide his excitement, and while a fleeting look at Bucky’s groin tells him that he is similarly affected, it feels strange to be the only one so exposed. “I want to look at you,” he blurts out.

Bucky blinks, and quickly seems to understand the problem. He yanks his own shirt over his head and moves to start on his pantaloons, but does not get further than undoing the first button before Steve surges up, flinging an arm over his shoulder and kissing him. Bucky doesn’t seem to mind in the slightest, groaning and returning the kisses with an enthusiasm that leaves him overwhelmed. He allows his hands to roam, enjoying the feeling of strong muscles working underneath planes of smooth skin.

Bucky, he thinks, is truly a marvel, a work of art come to life. Tall and handsome, muscular yet graceful, he is everything Steve isn’t. He thinks he could spend hours staring at him, drawing him, and not get enough. Suddenly, the need to have Bucky as close as possible is overwhelming; every inch of Steve’s skin that isn’t touching him is one too many. On a whim, Steve locks his legs around Bucky’s hips to draw him down to him, arches up against his body until there isn’t a part of their bodies that isn’t connected. He can feel the heat of Bucky’s hard length pressed into his groin all the way through three layers of clothes, and he grinds his hips upwards, chasing the sensation.

Bucky makes a noise like he’s dying, and bites down sharply on Steve’s lip, soothing the sting away apologetically with a swipe of his tongue when Steve’s flinches more out of surprise than pain. “Sorry,” he pants. “Steve, I want - I want -”

“Yes,” Steve says, when it becomes apparent that Bucky cannot find the words. “Yes. Anything.”

It is a strange experience, watching Bucky struggle to regain his composure; Steve didn’t expect him to lose control like this, or rather at all, to get carried away even a little. He feels oddly proud of himself. He did that; he made Bucky look at him like that, pupils blown wide and gasping for breath, and they haven’t even done much.

It would be easier to gloat, he thinks, if his own lungs were working properly, his heart beating a little more steadily.

“You bathed before going out tonight, yes?”

“Yes.” Steve frowns in confusion.

“Then I want to taste you,” Bucky decides.

Steve’s mouth goes dry, and he can only nod. No one has ever done that to him, put their mouth on the most intimate parts of his body. He knows how it works, though, theoretically, has read about it in a couple of shockingly raunchy books he found in the darkest corner of the library that unfortunately still managed to be vague on the specifics. Still, he is surprised when Bucky hooks his fingers into his underwear and slides it down his legs and then manoeuvres Steve to lie on his belly, a pillow placed underneath his hips, ignoring his cock but for a heated glance. It doesn’t seem like the most sensible way to get access to his groin, but well, who is Steve to give advice to the more experienced person?

He lies still in anticipation as Bucky kneels behind him, between his spread legs, and kisses his way from his neck down to the small of his back, following the knobs of his spine. He feels Bucky’s hands dig gently into the meat of his ass, kneading his cheeks before spreading them further apart.

Steve shivers as his hole is exposed to the cool air of the room. “What-” he begins to ask, but his question is cut off by Bucky bending down and pressing the flat of his tongue against the puckered hole, his voice morphing into a high-pitched whine as Bucky licks over the opening. He’s never - he didn’t think anyone did that. When Bucky mentioned licking inside of him earlier, he’d assumed he was talking about his mouth, not, not -

Sensing his inner conflict, Bucky draws back a little. “Bad?” he asks. “Do you want me to stop?”

No,” Steve says emphatically. “Do that again!” he demands, slightly embarrassed with the force of it, with the speed with which the words slip out.

Bucky chuckles, but it’s not mean-spirited. “It’ll be my pleasure,” he says before he dives down again, running his tongue along his taint before focusing all of his attention on Steve’s hole.

And it’s - it’s too much, really, the torturously slow, long licks interspersed with quicker jabs designed to coax Steve’s body open. The sensation is overwhelming, and it leaves Steve’s body warring the two opposite desires of rocking back against his tongue or rutting against the pillow beneath his cock to get some much-needed friction. The first time Bucky truly licks inside of Steve, followed by the slightest scrape of teeth against the sensitive skin, leaves Steve fisting the sheets and burying his face in the pillow to smother his howl.

“Wait,” Steve gasps when he feels his body tightening, the wave of an impending orgasm building up and about to wash over him. “If you don’t stop now, I will come.”

“And that is a problem?” Bucky asks cheekily and accentuates his point by biting the flesh of his buttock teasingly. “Most people don’t complain about an orgasm.”

“I want to come with you inside of me,” Steve explains. “If I spend now, I may not - I might not be able to -” Steve feels his face burn with shame at his stupid, deficient body.

“Hey,” Bucky says gently, and nudges Steve’s shoulder until he turns around to face him so he can’t hide his expression from him anymore. “It’s alright. There is nothing to be ashamed of.”

“That is easy for you to say,” Steve replies miserably.

Bucky shakes his head. “There are plenty of people whose bodies don’t obey their wishes. It has happened to me as well.”

Steve risks a glance at Bucky’s crotch and is surprised to find the pantaloons unbuttoned and haphazardly shoved halfway down his thighs along with the underwear so that his cock is peeking out, rock hard and wet at the tip. “It’s not happening to you now,” he observes, and realises Bucky must have tried to relieve some of the pressure as he was pleasuring Steve. “You really enjoy this,” he says, surprised.

“I do,” Bucky replies, not an ounce of shame in his voice. “I love the way you taste. I love the sounds you make. I love trying to figure out how to get you to lose yourself to the pleasure. Had you not asked me to stop, I would not have been far behind. But,” he says, stroking Steve’s cheekbone, “I do wish to be inside you as well, so it’s probably a good thing you asked me to slow down when you did. I might also have been overwhelmed otherwise.”

It’s a kind lie, Steve thinks, and one he doesn’t feel inclined to call him out on at this moment. “If you wish to be inside me, you should undress,” Steve says and twists away from Bucky to reach for the small nightstand. He opens the small drawer carefully and fishes for the small vial of oil he keeps hidden there. When he turns around again, Bucky has indeed divested himself of all other items of clothing and thrown them haphazardly on the floor. A part of Steve wants to scold him for the carelessness of it, but he doubts it would be well received if he told Bucky to fold his clothes and put them away while he dealt with the next task at hand. On the other hand, he certainly wouldn’t mind the view of Bucky bending over to retrieve the items from the floor, and it would give Bucky something to do besides stare at him as he performs the uncomfortable task of prepping himself. “I’ll be quick about it,” he promises - he has learnt to do this as efficiently and perfunctorily as possible, had to in preparation for his wedding night - but Bucky simply plucks the vial out of his hands.

“Let me,” he appeals quietly.

“Why?” Steve asks, a little helplessly.

“Because I fear you would not be kind to yourself,” Bucky replies. “And because I enjoy this part as well.”

Steve swallows and lies back, letting his legs fall open so that Bucky can crawl between them again. He watches as Bucky coats his fingers liberally with the slippery substance, his body tensing in anticipation of intrusion when he feels the gentle pressure of Bucky’s fingers at his perineum, not pushing in but rubbing soft circles against it.

“Relax, love,” Bucky whispers, dropping a kiss against his knee. “Breathe.”

The first finger pushes past the rim with ease, his body already wet and pliant from Bucky’s earlier ministrations. Still, Bucky keeps his movements deliberately slow, only pushing in to the first knuckle in the beginning, and then pumping in and out a few times, allowing the digit to slip deeper into Steve each time. He is thorough and methodical about opening him further, carefully watching Steve’s face for any trace of discomfort when he inserts the second finger, and Steve has to urge him to keep going, insisting that the slight burn that came with the stretch was nothing he couldn’t handle.

He’s beginning to get used to the feeling, he thinks, though he is not quite sure he would call it enjoyable, when Bucky crooks his fingers upwards and brushes a spot inside of him that makes his entire body light up. “Oh,” he gasps.

“There we go,” Bucky murmurs, a sly smile on his lips, and repeats the motion even as he bends down to suck the head of Steve’s cock into his mouth; his erection had flagged a little, but now Steve wonders if he feels faintly dizzy because all his blood is rushing south too quickly again as he sucked to full hardness.

It had been easier, he thinks, when he was on his belly and couldn’t see Bucky; looking down at him now, his red lips stretched around Steve, he looks positively filthy. He desperately fights the urge to buck up his hips, or to bury his fingers in Bucky’s hair and guide him down to take in more of his cock. Bucky would probably let him, he thinks dazedly, and that’s not a thought he can entertain for very long. He has to tear his gaze away before he accidentally comes down Bucky’s throat.

“That’s enough,” he gasps quietly. “I’m ready, Bucky, you can -”

“Are you certain?” Bucky pulls back, a small frown on his face as he watches his fingers disappearing inside Steve’s body, scissoring them to stretch him further. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

Normally, Steve would assume such a comment to be made by men exaggerating their size to make up for feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, based on his firsthand experience with the matter, but he got a glimpse of Bucky’s groin earlier and looked his fill - this is not some bragging brought upon by overestimation. He is not much longer than Steve, but of considerable girth. Where Steve’s cock is long and sleek, in proportion to his body, Bucky’s is thick and veiny. Accommodating him might not turn out to be a simple task. Begrudgingly, he allows Bucky to work up to three fingers, but tugs at his wrist the moment the burn of the stretch has faded.

“I know what I can take,” Steve insists before Bucky can protest.

He nods. “Very well.” As he coats his erection with the oil, Steve clambers up on his knees, preparing to turn around. Bucky blinks at him in surprise. “You prefer it like this?”

Steve pauses. It’s the only way he has ever done this; possibly, he thinks now with a tad of bitterness, because it was easier for his former husband to pretend Steve was his wife. “I don’t know,” he confesses. “I merely assumed -” He trails off, biting his lip. Bucky knows he is not particularly well versed in the art of bedding someone and doesn’t seem put off by it in the least, but a small part of Steve is frustrated to have his inexperience show this prominently.

Bucky smiles, his eyes warm, like he knows what is going on in Steve’s head. “I would like to be able to see your face,” he says softly, trailing his left hand down the side of Steve’s face. “To be able to kiss you. But I would be equally happy to oblige your wishes and preferences.”

Steve swallows thickly. “I would like to be able to see you also.” He wants to commit every second of this to memory. Maybe seeing Bucky’s face will actually make it feel real.

“Well,” Bucky says, ”if you get tired of seeing my stupid mug, let me know.”

“Ah yes,” Steve mocks, “it is such a hardship to look upon you. It gives me no joy at all.”

Bucky kisses the laughter off his lips, deep and heady, his tongue stroking Steve’s as he lines himself up and begins to sink into Steve. Steve can’t withhold the sound that escapes him when the head breaches his rim, the stretch wider than he anticipated. Bucky makes an apologetic noise and makes to pull back, but Steve brings his knees up to lock them around his hips, throws his arms around him, digs his fingers into his shoulder blades and urges him to continue.

“Gods, Steve,” Bucky moans as he slowly but steadily presses in until he is fully seated. “You’re so - so,” he stammers, lost for words, and Steve can only agree.

The sensation is overwhelming: the burn of the stretch, the feeling of fullness that steals Steve’s breath away, that has him throwing his head back, gasping for air and longing for more. It’s too much and not enough at once.

Bucky’s visage above him is a mirror of his own: pupils blown wide, an expression of genuine wonder on his face. He looks open and overwhelmed and young in a way Steve would not have thought possible for such an experienced man.

“Move,” Steve rasps out. “Bucky, please, will you -”

“Christ, Steve, give a man a moment to gather his wits,” Bucky says, dropping his forehead against Steve’s shoulder and breathing deeply. Steve thinks it was meant to be in good humour, but the joke falls flat with the strain of his voice, the way he clenches his eyes shut in concentration. It makes Steve chuckle, which in turn causes Bucky to whine. “Not helping, Steve,” he pants.

“Forgive me,” Steve says with more nonchalance than he feels. “I did not realise I was supposed to be helping here.”

“You ought to if you want me to last longer than five seconds.”

“I do,” Steve assures him, shifting a little underneath Bucky just to get a feel of it, to see if it hurts.

Bucky curses. “You are such a contrary person.”

“Forgive me,” Steve says again, without meaning it at all.

“Don’t. It’s why I like you.”

He does begin to move then, finally, and it’s Steve’s turn to gasp. The thrusts are shallow at first, almost hesitant, but get progressively deeper. The pace Bucky sets, however, doesn’t change. It’s slow and steady, leaving Steve ample time to adjust to the feeling and allowing Bucky to swallow every moan, every whine that leaves Steve’s mouth when the drag of Bucky’s cock stimulates his prostate and makes his body light up with sensation, when his own cock rubs against the hard muscle of Bucky’s abs where it’s trapped between their bodies. Bucky’s hands are roaming over Steve’s body, still exploring and caressing his skin delicately, reverently, ghosting over his ribs down to his butt, alongside the smooth skin of his thighs. His hands don’t leave Steve’s body for longer than a second, as if it would cause him physical pain to not be joined in as many places as possible. It doesn’t give him much room to move, that they are this closely intertwined, but Steve shares the sentiment and wraps his arms more tightly around his shoulders to hold him closer.

“You feel so good,” Bucky moans. “So hot and tight around me. No one’s ever - never felt this good. Does it feel good, Steve?”

“Yes!” Steve heaves, glad he is not the only one reduced to speaking in half-finished sentences. “Yes, Bucky, it’s so - so -”

“You’re perfect,” Bucky continues. “I’ve wanted - God, so long. Wish you could see yourself right now. So lovely with that pretty flush. Christ, you are so beautiful.”

Steve is well aware what people call what they are doing; not just the common folk, but even members of society, when they are not trying to be delicate. He’s overheard many a crass phrase. But this doesn’t feel like fucking, or screwing, or whichever crude term might come to mind. It feels tender and affectionate and way too intense and it feels - it feels like making love.

It’s only a half-formed thought, but it makes his heart clench in pain and he can’t think of that right now, because it can’t be. He digs his heels into the small of Bucky’s back, prodding him into chasing that silly notion out of his head. Thankfully, Bucky complies and begins to aim his thrusts with more precision and fervour, until Steve has to tear his lips away from Bucky’s to gasp for air, no longer able to control the noises escaping him, high pitched whines and throaty moans that only seem to further spur Bucky on. He nips at Steve’s earlobe and then sucks gentle kisses down the line of his throat as he brings Steve closer and closer to the edge, sneaking a hand between their bodies to wrap around Steve’s length.

“It’s okay,” he murmurs. “It’s alright, Steve, you can let go, I’ve got you, you can give up control for once,” and it’s only when he says it that Steve realises he must have been clutching Bucky almost painfully close, his fingers surely leaving marks on his shoulders in a desperate attempt to hold on to the last shreds of control.

“It’s alright, love,” Bucky reiterates.

It’s the endearment that undoes him. For once, Steve listens; he closes his eyes, and lets himself fall. He climaxes with a silent exhale, his body arching off the bed as he streaks both their chests with come. Bucky groans as Steve’s body spasms around him and slows his movements, drawing back a little.

“No!” Steve protests, reaching out for him with limbs still heavy and shaking from the force of it. “Don’t leave, don’t - I want you to spend inside me.”

“You - you want -” Bucky stammers.

“I want it,” Steve confirms. “Give it to me, I want to feel it, want you to fill me up,” he babbles on, the orgasm making him stupid.

Bucky makes a noise like someone punched all breath out of him. It only takes a few more erratic thrusts before he pulses inside Steve, filling him with his warmth, burying any sound he makes in Steve’s shoulder. He only barely seems to be able to stop himself from completely collapsing on Steve, shifting his weight on his arms even as he covers Steve’s body with his own from head to toe. They are practically sharing the same breath, panting into each other’s mouth without actually kissing as they catch their breath.

Steve cannot tear his eyes away from Bucky’s, the brightness of them. Bucky smiles down at him, brilliant and affectionate, and Steve cannot find a hint of smugness in his visage, only unbridled joy and warmth. He strokes along the prominent line of Bucky’s cheekbone, feeling the onset of stubble along his jaw, just because he can, and tilts his head up invitingly when Bucky bends down to kiss him some more. They exchange sweet kisses as they come down from the high, and it’s only when they separate for air that Bucky pulls back, his softening member slipping out of Steve. It’s a strange sensation, and Steve misses the fullness, the closeness, immediately. A part of him wants to beg Bucky to come back inside him right away, but the slight twinge he feels in his lower back when Bucky, having settled down next to him, turns him to the side and pulls him to his chest tells him that would not be a wise idea.

“I see now,” Steve says slowly, “what the fuss is about.”

Bucky laughs, running his fingers through Steve’s hair. “I’m glad.”

“Is it always like this for you?” Steve wonders out loud.

“No.” Buck shakes his head and draws Steve a little closer. “No. You are special,” he says, dropping a soft kiss on Steve’s temple.

He should ask him to leave now, Steve thinks. That would be the sensible thing to do, before he loses his mind along with his reputation. He understands now why each and every one of Bucky’s conquests have fallen in love with him. It is so easy to believe you are loved by him.

“Shhh,” Bucky whispers. “Don’t think too much. Relax. Let us lie here a little while longer.”

Steve sighs. It’s a stupid thing, but he doesn’t want this moment to end, either, so he allows himself to burrow into Bucky’s side, enjoying the warmth emanating from him and closes his eyes.

 


  

Steve wakes to the first rays of sun shining softly through the window, and an empty bed. He runs his hand over the sheets on Bucky’s side for a moment, yearning for a hint of warmth left behind, but unsurprisingly they are long cold. Steve stomps down heavily on the surge of disappointment running through him, deciding to focus instead of the faint relief he feels. It’s easier to cover up what happened this way. Bucky has done him a kindness by leaving, he reasons. It’s what he wanted, what he would have asked him to do either way, to ensure none of Steve’s servants would spot him slipping out of their master’s private rooms.

It still feels rather hollow.

Steve grimaces when he sits up, the sting of his tailbone making him wince a little, the echo of Bucky inside him. He is surprised to find his room spotless, void of the mess they’d made the night before. His clothes are folded neatly on the small dresser, the shoes lined up to the side. For a split second he panics, thinking that maybe Coulson entered the room while he slept but - no, his most trusted servant would not do that, would not putter around without waking him. Bucky must have taken the time to straighten things up before heading out. The thought of it makes him smile despite himself. Bucky, it seems to have a rather whimsical relationship with cleanliness. He remembers vaguely that Bucky only managed to enjoy their post-orgasm glow for maybe ten minutes before he began pulling faces at the stickiness between them and went to retrieve a piece of cloth to clean them both as Steve was already well on his way to dozing off. He’d joined Steve in bed again afterwards, badgering him until he raised his arms so Bucky could slip the nightgown over his head to shield him from the cool night air.

At the time he’d been equal parts annoyed and charmed by Bucky’s fussing. Now he wonders if it was another calculated move to hide their dalliance; if a servant had woken him and found him in the nude, there would most certainly have been questions. It wasn’t proper to sleep without a nightshirt, except possibly for the hottest, most sweltering nights, and even then Steve had never done so, preferring to be at the very least halfway decent at all times.

He dresses quickly and makes his way  to the dining room to take his breakfast - and stops dead in his tracks when he spots the tall figure already seated at the table.

Bucky smiles at him, bright and honest and utterly unperturbed. “Ah, there is my generous host,” he announces. “Good morning, Steven.”

“James,” Steve manages to croak out, intimately aware of Coulson’s eyes on him.

“Master Rogers, good day,” his butler says. “I trust you slept well?”

“I did.”

“You might have notified us that we were to have a guest this morning. I fear poor Lydia got quite frazzled when she realised she needed to make breakfast for two, and I was worried I could not ensure Lord Barnes had everything he needed when he went to bed. No one to pull down the covers, and make sure the guest room was properly dusted!” he complains in that mild tone of his, wringing his hands slightly.

Steve has no idea how to respond, doing everything in his power not to make his best impression of a dead fish.

“It’s quite alright, Coulson,” Bucky cuts in smoothly, placating the servant. “And you mustn’t blame Steven, he did mean to call you, but I assured him I was well cared for already. I would’ve felt horrible waking you and dragging you out of bed for something I could easily do myself. It was a very generous offer, to let me stay the night on such short notice when I found my horse was lame, I did not wish to cause further trouble.”

“I could hardly allow you to ride such a long way home at the late hour on a lame horse, now could I?” Steve replies, recognising the excuse Bucky has given and rolling with it best he can to mask his confusion. “I do apologise for the simplicity of the accommodation; I know you must be used to better rooms.”

“Not at all. I could not have had a more pleasant night,” Bucky says softly, throwing Steve a significant look.

“I am sorry, Coulson,” Steve says as he sits down. “I did not mean to upset you.”

“It is nice to have the guest room used again,” Coulson says with a longing smile, no doubt remembering the days when Steve’s mother was well and their funds not quite so depleted. His mother always loved to have people over. “How long will you be staying, Lord Barnes, if I may inquire? We ought to touch-up the guest room a little if it’s going to be occupied for another night.”

Bucky pauses, his cup of tea halfway to his mouth, glancing at Steve for a moment. “I do not wish to impose, or exploit your master’s hospitality,” he says hesitantly, like he is suddenly unsure of his welcome. “I have not checked on my horse yet, but I do hope he will be in a good enough shape to carry me home.”

“There’s no need to rush,” Steve says calmly, “or to push your horse past his breaking point. You are more than welcome to stay for as long as it takes for him to get well. If you have business to attend to, you are welcome to borrow my coach. Of course, we will send word to your family to let them know you are here; if you so desire, I am sure they will send a carriage to pick you up.”

Bucky smiles a little, shaking his head. “I have no appointments today,” he says, “but I fear my sisters have commandeered the carriages for the day. I remember them talking about taking a trip to the city to purchase some ribbons or the likes. I will see how my horse fares, and stay for another night if need be.”

Coulson bundles off to share the news with the rest of the staff. Bucky leans closer to Steve and whispers. “I am sorry if I am outstaying my welcome, or causing you discomfort.”

“I did not expect you to be here,” Steve admits quietly.

“I can go,” Bucky replies hastily. “You must already suspect that my horse is not lame, that I did not have the audacity to take a quarter in your home without asking your permission, or informing you of the fact.”

Steve raises one eyebrow pointedly.

Bucky blushes. “I apologise. I did fall asleep for a while, and when I woke up, it did not seem like a good idea to saddle my horse and ride through the darkness. I did move into the guest room, though, so that the servants wouldn’t suspect a thing. I fear I gave the poor girl coming to open the shutters quite a fright.”

“I’m not mad,” Steve assures him. “It was actually a convincing lie. And I trust Coulson that it won’t get out that you were here.”

Bucky smiles wistfully. “I do wish I could have woken up next to you.”

Steve returns the smile. “That would have been nice,” he agrees.

They take breakfast together, Bucky perusing the newspaper and pointing out important stories, offering silly commentary on the more fatuous ones, and chatting idly about this and that, keeping up the air of a gentleman utterly unaffected by the situation. It almost makes Steve himself believe that nothing about this is extraordinary, and while he can never fully quench the gnawing fear that someone might make a pointed comment about his staying the night, it helps to calm his nerves.

Afterwards, they amble towards the stables, where Bucky makes a show of intensely examining his horse’s left hind leg, humming and grumbling as he bends down to touch it. “He’s always had some trouble with it; a weak sinew, the veterinarian said, which is why I knew my family would not question it if I cited it as an excuse,” Bucky explained with a shrug on the way to the shed. “They will likely attempt to badger me into selling him and buying a younger horse less likely to cause me trouble, but he’s been my loyal companion for many years. It would feel disingenuous to abandon him like that.”

As soon as the stable boy has left to fetch some water, he drops the act, straightening and turning to Steve with a serious expression on his face. “What would you like me to tell them?”

Steve blinks. “Why are you asking me?”

“I can pretend I’m worried about his health, still, or - or I can leave.” Bucky swallows. “But it is up to you. If you want me here -”

Steve understands the meaning. Does he want to spend another night with Bucky? The answer is yes, but there are many more factors to consider.

“If you are worried about it causing you pain to do it again so soon,” Bucky continues, his voice dropping further, “I would not at all be averse to a role reversal. On the contrary, I imagine it would be a most pleasant experience.”

Steve hears his own breath hitch, and he looks up at Bucky sharply, detecting no lie in his eyes. He would want - he would really want -- Steve can barely finish the thought, heat rushing to his face, making him feel dizzy with want.

Bucky smirks, pleased with himself. “I see my proposal pleases you.”

“It certainly is...interesting,” Steve manages, then shakes his head to clear his thoughts. “But I fear it is unfeasible. Their eyes will be on us, now, and we will be lucky to get away with the state we left the sheets in.”

Bucky nods, his expression carefully schooled into a mask of indifference, but Steve can read the disappointment and hurt he tries to hide underneath, as if he is not surprised that Steve would send him off for fear of discovery, yet still hoped for another outcome.

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Steve says hastily, unable to stand the resigned air radiating off Bucky.

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Steve. You are hardly the first to have a change of mind with their curiosity sated.”

“My curiosity is not sated,” Steve retorts, bristling at the implication he only intended to use Bucky for his gains.

“- or to have a change of heart for whichever reason,” Bucky amends. “You do not owe me anything, neither an apology nor a justification, nor even a kind rejection.”

Impulsively, Steve grabs his hand. “But I do!” he insists. “Want you to stay, I mean. I just fear that here…” he trails off, shrugging.

Bucky studies him for a moment. “Lord Barton has invited me to accompany him on a vacation in the city,” he says eventually.

Steve startles, thrown by the sudden change of topic.

“Join me,” Bucky says. “Come with me.”

“You - what?” Steve stammers, too taken aback to be polite.

“He has taken a liking to you. I know he would gladly extend an invitation to you as well; you would not need to worry about expenses, as we would be staying at his house there - or possibly Stark’s, should the party get any larger -- and we could travel together,” Bucky rushes to explain, and, with the surety of someone who must have a lot of experience in the field, adds, “It’s much simpler sneaking around in a big house. There is more possibility for privacy in a crowded place.”

God help him but Steve is tempted. “Would people not assume I was invited along for this express purpose?”

“You have always insisted on keeping a certain distance between us in public, on putting me in my place when I presumed too much. People have noticed that while I may be actively pursuing you, you are far more hesitant, and determined to protect your virtue. I doubt anyone would find fault with your accepting an invitation by a friend simply because your suitor happened to be there as well. But if you believe the presence of my friends would not be enough to nip any rumour in the bud, then invite Lord Wilson along as your chaperone. No one would ever question his morals, and he has been very clear about his dislike of me. Everyone would trust him to save you from any untoward advances on my part.”

“Sam doesn’t dislike you,” Steve says. “He is merely worried about me.”

“As he should be,” Bucky replies, seemingly not taking any offence to someone casting doubt on his character. “He is a good and loyal friend.”

“That he is. The best, really,” Steve agrees. “Very well. I shall ask him, and if he agrees to accompany me, and Lord Barton truly doesn’t mind my coming along, then I shall go to the city with you.”

 


  

Sam, it turns out, is rather unimpressed with the idea. “You cannot be serious.”

“It’s a good opportunity for me,” Steve insists stubbornly. “So far I have gained new friends, but no one has expressed any explicit interest in me in a...well, in a romantic way. In the city, I would get to meet new people who might think differently about me.”

“Would they?” Sam questions. “When you bring your suitor with you?”

“We wouldn’t need to be together all the time. You and I could attend events as friends, so that they would not feel like they were stepping on his toes. And from what I hear, people in the city are far less concerned with expressing affection for someone who is already being courted.”

“Are you sure he does not want you to come so he can make you his conquest away from prying eyes?”

Steve huffs. “That’s why I’m bringing you. And I cannot believe you would think that I would --” he adds, feeling guilty for the lie. How can he pretend to get fed up when Sam’s assessment of his character has already turned out to be true?

“It’s not you I’m doubting, Steve,” Sam says gently. “It’s Barnes I don’t trust.”

“He’s been nothing but a perfect gentleman,” Steve objects.

“You like him,” Sam points out. “I think he is well aware of that, and I would not put it past him to take advantage of it.”

“Bucky is - he is not like him,” Steve says, trusting Sam will know to whom he’s referring. “He’s not.”

“Bucky?” Sam asks.

“James. Lord Barnes.”

“If you are already calling him by his nickname and don’t think you are already in danger, then I don’t know what to tell you.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

Sam sighs. “If I refuse to accompany you, what will you do?”

“Stay home, of course.”

“But you wish to go,” Sam says matter-of-factly.

“Yes,” Steve admits. “I would very much like to go.”

Sam sighs again. “Very well. Then I will go with you.”

Steve clasps his hand in gratitude, wishing he didn’t have to feel guilty for deceiving his best friend.

 


  

With Steve accepting Lord Barton’s invitation, the situation seems to snowball. Suddenly, the Howling Commandos announce their desire to join the party, and it is universally agreed that everyone shall stay with Earl Stark after all, whose town house is the only one large enough to accommodate all of them.

Bucky assures Steve that this will only benefit them. “No one is more well-versed in the art of looking the other way and being discreet than Stark’s employees; they have been keeping the most scandalous family secrets for at least two generations,” he explains. “I honestly cannot tell you how many lovers Tony has taken to this house, the people in town being none the wiser. Not to mention,” he adds with a mischievous smirk, “some of the rooms are even designed with doors to connect them to the one neighbouring it.”

Somehow, Steve manages to be both shocked and utterly unsurprised.

Unfortunately, Bucky’s plan to secure such neighbouring rooms for them in order to facilitate the continuation of their dalliance goes up in flames the moment Sam becomes aware of this architectural peculiarity, claiming the room right next to Steve’s immediately. In the end, they wind up on opposite ends of a long corridor.

“It’s not too bad,” Bucky placates Steve, finding positivity in everything. “In fact, it may even be better than what we had planned. No-one will suspect a thing; your friend might expect me to attempt to sneak into your rooms, which he of course would be able to prevent, but he would not anticipate you coming to my rooms; and, as the room next to mine is unoccupied, we do not even have to worry too much about any noises we make waking other guests.”

He is right on this account -- Sam trusts Steve, so he does not suspect any misconduct on his part, and so, after a few days that ease his concerns about possible misbehaviour from Bucky and thus his constant vigilance, Steve is able to make the trip from one end of the floor to the other every night undetected. It is an old house with creaking floorboards, but Steve is quick and light-footed, and doesn’t really weigh enough to make the floors groan in protest and alert anyone to what is going on.

Bucky is awaiting him with a wide smile on his face and wastes absolutely no time drawing Steve into his arms, welcoming him with a passionate kiss.

“Someone is impatient,” Steve comments with a smile.

“I have not had the chance to hold you close in way too long; of course I am impatient,” Bucky grumbles.

“You held me close today during our stroll in the park,” Steve points out. They had walked together for nearly two hours, arms linked and shoulders brushing, under Sam’s watchful gaze.

“Not like this,” Bucky retorts, his hands skimming down Steve’s back to rest at the swell of his ass, which he squeezes playfully.

Steve has to concede the point. He, too, has missed Bucky’s touch, has longed for it during the day and conjured up the memories of it during the lonely nights when he only had his own hands for company. “No,” he agrees, “not like this.”

“I did not go a day without thinking about it,” Bucky murmurs, pressing soft kisses along the line of Steve’s jaw, down his neck. “I could not, no matter how hard I tried to occupy my mind with other matters. You have rendered me a mindless, heartsick fool.”

Steve laughs. “Are you trying to convince me that your mind has never before been absorbed solely with matters of the flesh?” he teases. “Knowing your history, and that of most men, I would find that hard to believe.”

“I could not possibly make such a bold claim,” Bucky replies. “Yet before, I merely dreamt about touching you -- they were only fantasies, and while not fleeting, they were easier to push aside. I could not ever have imagined the wonder of being allowed to teach you for real; it far surpassed any scenario I could have dreamt up. And now that I know how perfect you feel, how could I ever go back to reveries? It has been a slow torture, thinking of all the things I want to try with you, knowing they would be better than anything I have ever experienced, yet not being allowed to reach out to you and touch you.”

“I have felt the same,” Steve confesses. “There are many things I wish to try.”

Bucky smiles, a slow, heated thing. “Where would you like to start?”

It turns out there are many technicalities about sex that Steve has yet to discover, and from that night onwards, he joins Bucky in his room every night, always careful to slip out before daybreak. He expects Bucky to tire of him eventually with his physical needs getting sated more often, but Bucky’s enthusiasm never wavers, nor does his willingness to allow Steve to experiment. Despite being the far more experienced of the two, he generally seems perfectly happy to lay back and let Steve explore. His patience never ceases, offering gentle guidance and taking over only when Steve asks for it, and he continuously and vocally expresses his enjoyment, even when Steve’s attempts are sometimes hesitant and bumbling. If it were any other person, Steve would suspect he was being laughed at, but he is beginning to understand that Bucky derives almost as much pleasure from seeing Steve enjoying himself and coming into his own as he does from seeking his own satisfaction.

Steve wishes it would never end, wishes he did not have to leave the warm sanctuary of their tangled sheets and swap it for the cold air of the hallway as he scurries back to his room while darkness still envelops the city. It is becoming increasingly difficult, he finds, to resist Bucky’s siren call, to reject his pleas for Steve to stay. Steve always hopes to avoid the discussion by being as silent and as possible when getting up, but with the way they always end up sleeping wrapped up around each other, Bucky invariably wakes when Steve tries to detach himself from his grasp, no matter how careful he is.

Bucky huffs out an annoyed sigh and turns on his side, wrapping his arms around Steve’s midsection again and pulled him back against him, nuzzling his face against Steve’s shoulder blade. “What time is it?” he asks sleepily. “It cannot possibly be morning again already.”

“It is,” Steve says, twisting in his grasp to look at the window and confirm his suspicions. “Nearly dawn.”

Buck groans, tightening his grip on Steve. Steve smiles despite himself, and pokes a finger between his ribs, causing his lover to jump. “Hey!”

“You need to let go of me; I have to leave.”

“It’s still dark outside!”

“It won’t be for long,” Steve argues.

“Five more minutes?” Bucky pleads.

His pout is making it impossible for Steve to decline. With a sigh, he allows his body to go lax and nestles himself closer to Bucky’s side. Five minutes, he figures, cannot hurt; not when Bucky presses a soft kiss to his hair and runs gentle fingers up and down his spine. Steve pretends he doesn’t melt into the touch, and knows he doesn’t fool either of them. “You are quite cuddly this morning,” he remarks.

“I’m cuddly every morning,” Bucky grunts, “as I know you are aware of, and as I know you might be more intimately acquainted with if you weren’t always so desperate to flee my embrace as quickly as possible.”

Steve freezes. “I take it back,” he says. “You are bad-tempered and disagreeable this morning. Let me up.”

“Forgive me,” Bucky sighs, rubbing a hand over his face as Steve sits up and reaches for his nightshirt. “That was petty and uncalled-for. It’s just - I hate it when you leave.”

“You know that I cannot stay,” Steve says, only managing to convey maybe half of the annoyance he feels, too taken-aback by how wretched Bucky sounds.

“Yes,” Bucky says. “I know you have to leave. That does not mean I have to like it. I find it difficult to be rational about it when all I wish is that I could wake up next to you and hold you in my arms for hours and hours.”

“Hours and hours?” Steve echoes. “You make it sound as if you would like to not leave the bed for an entire day.”

“Would that be so bad?” Bucky questions.

“No.” Steve shakes his head. Truthfully, the thought makes heat rise into his cheeks. He would not mind spending an entire day in Bucky’s embrace at all, but he had not really expected Bucky to entertain such fantasies. For some reason, it feels like more of a commitment than what they had previously agreed on. “I simply did not realise that was something you might want.”

“Of course I do,” Bucky replies, frowning like that should have been obvious. “I would love to get a chance at spending every second of the day with you. I wish I could watch you wake up slowly, when you are truly rested and not in a rush to go somewhere,” he continues, voice low and sensual as he sits up and peppers Steve’s shoulder with kisses. “I wish I could wake you up in a more enjoyable manner, kiss you awake, get my mouth on you when you are still half-asleep, all relaxed and mellow. We would have all the time in the world, and I could keep you like this all day, never give you a chance to think too much about the weight you carry on your shoulders. I wish I could give you a day where you could be carefree and happy, without any burdens weighing down your spirit and dampening your smile.” He strokes a hand through Steve’s hair, smoothes out the frown that’s threatening to make an appearance over Steve’s brow with his thumb. “I wish I could see what you look like in the light.”

Steve bites back the reflexive answer that Bucky would not like his skinny body much if the sunlight revealed it fully, without the softening effects of dim candlelight. “It sounds lovely,” he says honestly.

Bucky smiles against his skin. “You could beg off your obligations for the day,” he suggests. “Pretend you are feeling unwell, ask the staff not to disturb you while you rest. I only have a minor social call to make and should be able to return to you quickly. With everyone else out of the house --”

“You know that cannot happen,” Steve says sharply. It’s a nice little fantasy, to be honest, but nothing more. Even if Sam decided to go out without him, the staff would notice, and -- well. Discreet as they may be, spending an entire day in bed is not something that would be considered appropriate for anyone, not even married couples. They would talk for certain.

Bucky wilts immediately. “I know,” he says dejectedly. “I know. That doesn’t mean I cannot long for it.”

Steve thinks he might have reacted more harshly than Bucky deserved and presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth, letting it linger, trying to soften the effects of his anger. In truth, he thinks, he probably reacted in this manner simply because he wants what Bucky describes more than anything, and the knowledge that he cannot ever have it is devastating. “I need to go,” he says softly.

“Will I see you at breakfast?”

“Maybe. Sam and I are planning on leaving early. There’s a luncheon at an art gallery -- we will likely be out all day.”

“Oh.”

“You will see me tonight.”

“Alright.” Bucky lifts Steve’s hand to his mouth. “I shall miss you until then.”

“You are ridiculous,” Steve informs him, smiling, and leans down to steal one last kiss before darting out of the room.

He does see Bucky briefly during breakfast, but has no time to talk to him as Lord Jones, having learnt about Steve’s plan to go to the art gallery, engages him in a lively conversation on modern French painters, and then Sam and Steve really only have little time left to freshen up and ensure they are properly dressed before heading out in the flashy carriage Earl Stark insisted on providing for them.

“You are my guests” Lord Stark had said. “And as long as you are, you shall not lack any comforts.”

As considerate as it is, Steve feels slightly awkward in the huge carriage, the cushions so soft he nearly sinks into them enough to disappear from the view. Sam, on the other hand, exclaims in delight as he settles in opposite Steve, very obviously enjoying the luxury.

“Maybe,” he says with a satisfied sigh, “it was not such a bad idea after all to come to the city.”

“Are you having an enjoyable stay, then?” Steve asks.”

“I am,” Sam confirms, shooting Steve a piercing look. “Are you?”

“I am enjoying myself,” Steve says, “although I have to admit that the number of events we are attending is starting to wear on me. I’m not used to so much socialising.”

“Personally, I rather think it’s good that you have little time to brood. But if you are exhausted, we can cut back on our engagements.”

“No.” Steve shakes his head. “This trip is already less successful than I would have liked; I cannot afford to lose much more time.”

“Steve --”

“I don’t wish to argue,” Steve says tiredly. “Can you let it go?”

Sam is silent for a while. “For the moment,” Sam allows. “Only because I do not want you to be in a bad mood when we pick up the ladies.”

“I’m far too excited to see them again to be in a bad mood,” Steve says, and he means it. He had written a letter to Peggy before their trip, letting her know that he was going to be in the city, and Peggy had been delighted by the news, proposing several events for them to attend together. Steve hadn’t been able to make it to any of them before, possibly agreeing to other events because he dreaded seeing her again as much as he longed to do so. Seeing Peggy is always bittersweet for him, for both of them with the history between them; their childhood fancies, what might have been. It is easier for Peggy, he assumes; after all, she found the love of her life and left him behind. He doesn’t begrudge her that; her wife Angie is every bit as lovely as she looks, and the two make a fantastic couple.

Still, it’s difficult sometimes, seeing them together, when he is both incredibly happy for them, slightly jealous of what they found, and wistful for the life he might have had.

All those thoughts fly out of the window, though, when they stop at Peggy and Angie’s town house and Peggy strides towards him, kissing both of his cheeks, not minding that they are in the streets for everyone to see. “Steve,” she says, smiling as she frames his cheeks with her hands. She is just as radiant as he remembers her. “It is so good to see you again; the letters are just not enough. I have missed you terribly.”

“So have I,” he admits. “You look lovely today.”

“Thank you, so do you. You look much, much happier than the last time I saw you.”

“It’s the air in the city,” Steve jokes.

“Nonsense,” she replies. “We both know the air is terrible for your lungs, not at all like the country air.”

“Maybe I am just happy to see you.”

“You flatter me, Steven, but you cannot fool me.”

“I never could,” Steve replies.

“Perhaps you will tell me about the reason you are smiling so much.”

“I am not smiling,” Steve protests.  

“Oh, but you are,” Angie butts in. “Or maybe you are just frowning less.”

“The perpetual raincloud over his head has been shrinking significantly in size for the last few weeks,” Sam comments thoughtfully.

“Alright, alright, that’s enough teasing me,” Steve grumbles. “We ought to leave if we don’t want to be late.”

“More of an entrance that way,” Angie quips, but makes her way to the carriage. She may not know Steve as well as the other two do, but she does know by now that Steve is not generally comfortable being the centre of attention when it involves an entire room of strangers and important people staring at him, and she is considerate enough not to force him into such a situation by making them late. “Come on now, darling, it is rude to stand and stare at my behind so longingly when I am not even allowed to make a comment about your legs in public.”

Sam guffaws, and Steve cannot help but smile when Peggy sighs exasperatedly. “She is a handful.”

“I am two handfuls, thank you very much,” Angie sniffs. “And they are one of my best features, which you always enjoy very much.”  

“I do at that,” Peggy admits. “Now, gentlemen, why don’t you tell me all about your love lives during our ride to the gallery?”

It is a pleasant trip from there on out, Steve thinks. It feels good to have his closest friends reunited, to joke about old times. And the gallery -- well, the gallery is a magnificent work of architecture, the artwork on display stunning.

He’s caught up in studying the delicate lines of a portrait when someone comes up next to him. “A masterpiece, is it not?” the familiar voice startles him out of his reverie. “Almost as lovely as you are.”

Steve turns in surprise, not quite believing the words he just heard. “Lord Zola,” he says in greeting. “What a pleasure to see you again.”

“The pleasure, Mister Rogers, is all mine.” The Baron is standing almost uncomfortable close.

Steve plasters a mild smile onto his face, determined not to be rude and let his discomfort show even as he takes half a step backwards. “I did not know you were interested in art.”

“Oh, it is true, I mostly find beauty in other things,” Lord Zola admits. “But I do understand that you are a bit of an artist yourself, and guessed you might be here; when I heard that Lord Barnes was otherwise occupied, I figured I might take my chances of seeing you again. May I have a few minutes of your time?” Zola asks. “Alone?”

Steve blinks, thrown by the request. “We can take a walk in the gardens,” he suggests.

“I understand that Lord Barnes has been courting you for quite some time now,” Zola says once they have reached the relative privacy the gardens provide. “Yet I have not heard the happy news of an engagement. May I inquire why --”

“Excuse me?” Steve snaps, taken aback by the brazenness of it.

“I know you might find the question impertinent,” Lord Zola continues, undeterred, “but I must ask: Are you engaged to Lord Barnes?”

“I am not,” Steve replies warily.

“Good, good.”

Irrationally, Steve feels anger boiling up inside up, and he clenches his hands into fists and bites his tongue as to not respond to the rudeness of the inquiry in kind.

“I had to ask, you see, to ensure I would not breach the rules of good conduct.”

Steve wants to snort and point out that he has already trampled those rules, but he bites his tongue. He cannot afford to insult the man.

“However, this way, with you not promised to anyone, I am free to ask what Lord Barnes has failed to do, which is to inform you that you have captured my attention, and I wish to live out my days with you.”

“Me?” Steve manages weakly.

“It cannot have escaped your attention that I have been seeking your company whenever we met.”

“I --” Steve stammers. It hasn’t escaped his attention, not really, but he hadn’t thought much about it. Yes, Lord Zola had sometimes attempted to strike up a conversation, but generally not more than polite and rather stilted smalltalk; nothing that would indicate a deeper level of interest. They had never conversed for long. Usually, Bucky had steered Steve away before --

Bucky. Had he known, Steve wonders, of Zola’s interest in him? Had he deliberately obstructed Steve’s quest to find a spouse?

But no, Bucky wouldn’t do that. What reason would he have for such sabotage?

“Now, I know I am neither as rich nor as handsome as Lord Barnes,” Zola continues, “but if he has yet to propose, it is unlikely he ever will. I can offer you a comfortable life, and while I realise I might not be your first choice, I would like to remind you of your situation; I am in a position to alleviate your troubles. We would be a good match, I believe. And I also believe,” he says, trailing his fingers up Steve’s arm in a way that gives him goosebumps, but not in the way Bucky’s touch does, “that we might have a lot of fun together.”

It is without a doubt the crudest, rudest proposal Steve could have imagined but -- but. It is a proposal, and it makes his head spin, his brain going dizzy with the rising panic. Zola is right: Bucky will not marry him, and it is unlikely anyone else will. This is his one and only chance. Still, he can only force himself to breathe deep and swallow the anger and humiliation. “You make a very generous offer,” he bites out.

“That is not an answer, Mister Rogers.”

“I --” he begins, then stops to think. “If I accept,” he says slowly, “will you agree to one condition?”

“And what is it that you would demand of me?”

Steve takes another deep breath. “We cannot announce it straight away,” he says. “Propriety compels me to inform Lord Barnes personally. I would not like him to find out through gossip before I can tell him that is suit is no longer welcome.”

Lord Zola looks briefly enraged, his pug-like face turning red, before he smoothes his features into something more akin to disgruntlement. “Very well.”

“Then I accept your offer.”

 


  

He spends the rest of the day in a daze, fighting down the waves of nausea that periodically wash over him. He doesn’t even know why this is throwing him so much; he’s agreed to a marriage of convenience with someone he neither knew nor liked very well before. He should be used to it now, it shouldn’t come as such a shock.

His friends, of course, notice his absent state of mind, but thankfully they are too distracted by Sam’s retelling of his conversation with Prince T’Challa to bother him much about it. He thinks they might chalk it up to jealousy; Sam is glowing as he recounts chat word by word, and it is obvious that he and the Prince are quite taken with each other already. Steve cannot find it in him to resent him, though, not even a little bit, even though he doesn’t manage to dredge up quite as much enthusiasm for his tales as he ought to. Sam deserves all the happiness in the world, and he is a much better person than Steve could ever be. It only makes sense that Steve would have to give up his love and settle for a less than ideal marriage while his friend charms the leader of a foreign country.

His melancholy mood gets worse when he enters his rooms and finds that Bucky has snuck inside, greeting him with a bright smile and pulling Steve towards him to kiss him senseless.

It takes more strength than he believed he possessed, to push Bucky away. “We need to stop,” Steve says. “This cannot go on.”

Bucky stops dead in his tracks. “Why?” he demands.

He feels a little like he is going to throw up, his throat closing painfully. Steve takes a deep breath, tries to ignore the choking feeling in his chest, the way his heart is breaking. “Lord Zola and I had a very long conversation today.”

Bucky sneers, never one to hide his distaste of the Baron. “Lord Zola,” he repeats, his voice flat. “And what did he want?”

“He asked for my hand in marriage,” Steve replies, fighting to keep his voice steady, “and I have decided to accept his offer.”

The amused snort that Bucky had clearly been prepared to let out dies in his throat, and he stares at Steve like a man that just had the rug pulled out from under him, a look of utter incredulity on his face. “I’m sorry, I must have misheard you.”

“Lord Zola and I are engaged.”

“To be married?” Bucky’s voice sounds strangled, rising in pitch.

“What other kind is there?” Steve asks with an annoyance he does not truly feel.

“Zola?”

“Yes.”

“But he is repugnant!” Bucky cries out. “You hate him!”

“I never said that!” Steve protests. “You did.”

“You didn’t need to say it, Steve,” Bucky retorts. “You --”

“Stop!” Steve interrupts him harshly. “I will not allow you to disrespect my future husband in front of me that way!”

“But -”

“Don’t.”

Bucky sits down heavily, pale as a ghost. “Why,” he asks, his voice trembling. “Why, Steve?”

“It’s a good offer,” Steve reasons. “He is a wealthy man, of honourable standing.”

“Is that all you care about, then?” Bucky questions bitterly. “Money? A good fortune?”

“Not all of us have the luxury of waiting for true love,” Steve hisses. “My mother will die if I cannot afford further, better treatment. The estate is failing. Where else am I supposed to get that much money, if not through a dowry, by merging my funds with those of a spouse?”

“But not him!” Bucky protests desperately. “You deserve better than him!”

“I’m not likely to get another offer,” Steve says icily, “and I cannot afford to wait.”

“I can lend you the money. All your friends would help if only you weren’t too proud to ask. You do not need to prostitute yourself.”

Steve stiffens. “Well,” he says, “it’s good to finally know what you think of me.”

“That’s not-- Steve,” Bucky grabs his arm. “Steve, you know that is not how I meant it.”

“I am not a charity case.”

“It is not charity when it comes from friends.”

“If I am to receive money, I will do it the only honourable way, and give what I can to repay my debts,” Steve insists. “God knows I won’t ever be able to pay back the money in coin.”

“How can you be so stubborn?” Bucky exclaims. “How can you be too proud to accept help from those who love you when the alternative is throwing your life away?”

“My pride is all I have left,” Steve bites out. “So excuse me if I attempt to hang onto it.” He shakes his head. “Why do you care so much? Is it too humiliating to have your conquest stolen from under your nose by someone you consider inferior and defective?”

“Because you are my friend,” Bucky replies, not rising to the bait, not engaging in Steve’s cheap attempt to change their argument into something petty and mean, something that would allow him to drive Bucky away if only he hurled enough hurtful words at him, something that might make this easier for both of them in the long run. “Because all I want - all I’ve ever wanted is for you to be happy. I cannot let you throw your life away.”

“What I do with my life is not up to you.”

“Please, Steve,” Bucky begs. He seems close to tears. “Won’t you reconsider?”

Steve exhales shakily. “I cannot,” he whispers, staring at his hands. “Every last principle I had, every rule, every moral, I compromised for you; everything but this. Who will I be if I give up this, too?”

“So marry me.”

Steve’s head snaps up. “I beg your pardon?”

Bucky swallows heavily. “If you will not take the money but as a dowry,” he begins quietly, “give me your hand in marriage.”

Steve is shaking. “I did never take you for a cruel man,” he says. “I might have to re-evaluate my perception of you.”

“How could you think this as cruelty?” Bucky asks. “Would it be so terrible to me married to me?”

“You are jesting,” Steve snaps, “making jokes as if we aren’t discussing my future --”

“But we are!” Bucky insists. “You said -- you said you were marrying him because you could not wait for another offer, because you have no other choice. But you do have a choice, Steve. My proposal is genuine. I would marry you, if you would have me. You wouldn’t --” he hesitates. “I think you enjoy my company, inside the bed and out, but -- if you did not want that anymore -- I would not force you. I would never force you, Steve. If you decided you did not want to spend the rest of your life with me, we would not have to share bedrooms, or see each other every day. We would not even have to live in the same house, eventually.”

Steve feels the burning of hot tears rising in his eyes, wants to cry with the unfairness of it. Here it is, everything he has ever wanted presented to him on a silver platter, but all twisted and wrong. He did not think he would ever have a friend as good as Bucky, who would give up his life, his freedom, to help Steve and he cannot -- he cannot accept. “No,” he chokes out. How could he allow Bucky making this sacrifice, destroying all chances at a happy life for himself? How could he marry Bucky and have it not be real, honest and all-encompassing?

Bucky recoils as if punched and does a poor job of hiding his pain at Steve’s violent reaction behind a controlled mask. “I understand,” he says, sounding hollow. “I did not take you for the kind of man who would let someone he hated into his bed willingly, but perhaps I have to re-evaluate my perception of you as well. Forgive me for harassing you such, and taking up so much your time.”

Steve is stunned into silence, so taken aback he nearly misses it when Bucky stands up, bowing stiffly and turns to take his leave. He only barely manages to gather his wits to shoot out his arm, clasp Bucky’s wrists and pull him back. “Bucky,” he pleads.  “No -- I don’t, I could never -- I don’t hate you!”

“Do you not?” Bucky laughs, a bitter, ugly sound, jerking his limb free of Steve’s grasp. “Then why is it that the thought of marrying me is more abhorrent and unthinkable to you than marrying a man you despise? How deep must your hatred of me run that you would resign yourself to a life of misery?” He shakes his head.

He looks shattered, Steve thinks, like Steve had stuck a knife deep inside his heart and twisted it.

“I know -- I always knew, from the beginning,” Bucky says quietly, “that you did not feel for me the way I feel for you. It is alright -- I did not expect you would. God knows you are too good for me and I do not deserve you. But I had hoped that, over time, I might be able to show you that I am not a bad person, that a life by my side would not be -- a hardship, a torture to be endured. That perhaps, one day, you might develop a certain affection, a little fondness for me. Enough, at least, for you to be content, safe and secure, even if I could not make you happy the way you merit. And if eventually you found someone to give your heart to, I would not --” he swallows heavily. “I would not stand in your way. But I see now that this childish fantasy of mine is nothing but a nightmare to you.”

Steve’s head is spinning, unable to process Bucky’s words. “Love,” he says faintly, “you are talking about love.”

“A laughable idea, I know. I must beg your forgiveness for provoking in you that feeling of revulsion. I shall not bother you about it again, or force you to endure my presence.” After a moment of uncertainty, he wraps his fingers softly around Steve’s hand, brings it up to his mouth and presses a ghost of a kiss to his knuckles. “I do wish you all the best, Mister Rogers, from the bottom of my heart.”

“You love me,” Steve repeats. It seems so impossible; something he must have imagined, dreamt up. It cannot possibly be something Bucky said. “This is why you want to marry me,” he realises slowly. “For love? Not out of -- out of guilt, or a sense of obligation to a friend?”

A complicated expression passes over Bucky’s face, flickers of confusion morphing into suspicion. “Are you mocking me?”

“Mocking?” Steve echoes.

“Neither guilt nor obligation could ever have been possible reasons for my proposing to you, as you are well aware. How can you claim ignorance when I have expressed my feelings for you from the beginning? Was this not what landed us in this mess to begin with?”

Steve splutters. “That was not -- it was lust , and an overabundance of alcohol, not -- not -- love .”

“When I courted you, when I doted on you, trying to secure your attention, was it not evident?” Bucky demands.

“You were pretending for the sake of the eyes on us!” Steve cries, even as he realises that this is not exactly true. Bucky had tried to spend time with him and make him laugh, had paid him many a compliment when no one was around to witness it.

“And when I made love to you,” Bucky continues, his voice low and his body coiled, “was it not obvious?”

Steve sucks in a surprised breath. “I thought,” he whispers, having to clear his throat repeatedly to make any sound escape, “I believed it was nothing but wishful thinking; that I was projecting and desires onto you, that I was imagining what was not there simply because I wanted to see what I felt reflected on your face more than anything. I did not think it could ever be true.”

There is still hurt on Bucky’s face, but it turns into something softer; less like pain he is experiencing personally, but rather a sadness he feels for Steve. “All the things I said, all those thinly veiled declarations of love,” he muses, “you did not believe a single one of them.”

“How could I ever believe someone as -- as perfect as you could want someone like me when you could have anyone?” Steve asks. “Do you see now, why I could not marry you? How could I let you bind yourself to me when it would mean you sacrificing your chance at happiness in an attempt to save me? I did not think you could find happiness with me,” he adds shyly, hesitantly, an obvious question in his voice.

Across from him, Bucky is trembling. “And now that you do,” he says, “now that you know being by your side is all that my heart desires, does it change your answer?”

It is becoming increasingly difficult for him to fight the tears threatening to spill over. Steve draws in a shaky, wet breath, unable to find the words. After everything he said, everything he did to keep Bucky at arm’s length and push him away, after he nearly ruined it all, he did not expect forgiveness, or even kindness, and yet here Bucky is, still standing in front of him and repeating an offer that Steve doesn’t deserve. He cannot look him in the eye for shame, but when he tries to hide his face, Bucky lays a gentle finger under his chin, coaxing his head up until Steve cannot escape his gaze.

“Steve,” Bucky says softly, “do you love me?”

“I do,” Steve whispers. “I do.”

“Then will you do me the honour of becoming my husband and making me the happiest man on this earth?”

Steve smiles through his tears. “Yes,” he says. “A thousand times yes.”

Bucky’s answering smile in blinding, and when Steve kisses him, it feels like coming home.