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When Life is Not Coming Up Roses Look to the Weeds (and Find the Hidden Beauty)

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The greeting alone has Steve’s heart falling. It feels like someone’s reached into his body and pulled out his stomach.

“This is Amy Jones from Brookdale Hospital Medical Center. I’m calling in regards to a patient wearing your Collar of Protection? James Barnes?”

Weak at the knees, Steve needs to brace himself on his desk so he doesn’t fall over. A hospital. Calling about Bucky. The room spins around him.

“Yes.” He can barely hear his own voice. “He’s wearing my Collar of Protection. What’s… what happened?”

“There’s been an incident involving Mr. Barnes,” she says. “We need you to come down as soon as--”

“I’m on my way.”

If she has more to say, she can say it to Steve in person. He’s not about to wait any longer to get down there, and he’s certainly not wasting any time on the phone. Not when Bucky is in the hospital.

Steve is in such a rush to get out of there he almost forgets to tell Chief Fury that he’s leaving. He makes sure to do that. It’s his legal right, of course. A sub under his protection is in the hospital. He’s allowed to leave work, even as a cop since he’s not on a call.

“Go on, go,” Nick says. “Check in when you can, okay?”

Already halfway out the door, Steve waves over his shoulder and sprints out of the station without even telling Sam what’s going on. To be honest, he doesn’t even really know. And he has to find out. Has to get to Bucky.

His mind is already coming up with every horrific scenario imaginable as he weaves in and out of traffic on his Harley. Bucky was crossing the street when someone made an aggressive left turn and slammed right into him. Someone mugged him and stabbed him numerous times in the process. He’s been shot.

Whatever’s happened, Steve could just kick himself for not being there. It’s irrational, of course. He knows that. He knows that’s not quite his responsibility. Just because Bucky’s wearing his Collar of Protection doesn’t mean he’s expected to be at his side at all hours of the day to make sure absolutely nothing happens to him. Even if Steve was Bucky’s Dom the notion would be ridiculous. Sure, he’d be meant to take care of him, but he couldn’t protect him from life happening.

This, though?

This is Steve’s worst nightmare. He has no idea what’s going on and his stomach keeps knotting as he blinks tears away so that he can see where he’s going.

And everything’s been so wonderful. Maybe even straddling the impractical idea of perfect.

 

Ever since that morning two months ago when Steve woke up to the smell of bacon and eggs. And coffee tickling the very outside of his nose. He’d rolled over, not sure why his apartment smelled better than Angie’s diner and cracked his eyes open to see Bucky kneeling at the side of his bed with a breakfast tray.

Steve inhaled heavily and sat up. Blinked a few times since he couldn’t be sure if he was dreaming or not. It wouldn’t be unlikely. How else would that angel have gotten there unless he envisioned him from the golden rays of Heaven.

The collar from the previous night was still around Bucky’s neck while he himself maintained such a proper pose, Steve was sure he’d been sculpted out of his greatest fantasies.

“What’s all this?” Steve asked.

Breaking position for just an instant, Bucky gaze fell from Steve’s and roamed over the tray of prepared food.

“Breakfast, Sir,” he answered, softly. “For you.”

Steve smiled. “Thank you, Buck, but you didn’t have to do that. I’d’ve taken care of it.”

A disgruntled look passed over Bucky’s face. He tried to hide it, tried to maintain his proper submissive training, but Steve caught it. Confusion trickled through Steve, the corners of his room whispering with it. As Bucky’d proved time and time again, he was a sub, but his personality was far from submissive. Their scene from last night was over. Sure, Bucky was still wearing Steve’s Scene Collar, but that hardly called for domestic sceneing, especially when Steve hadn’t requested anything from him.

“What’s wrong?”

Eyebrows stitched, Bucky shook his head and sighed. He nibbled on his lip just slightly before he answered with a shrug.

“No, really, Bucky, what is it?” Steve asked. “You can tell me.”

Bucky took in a deep breath like he was preparing for confession. “This is all I know, Steve.”

Heart falling, it then dawned on Steve just what Bucky meant. Last night was the first date he’d ever been taken on. He wasn’t used to be pampered. The idea of someone really wanting to spoil him and do these things for him probably made no sense. By all rights it didn’t make sense.

Textbooks said it didn’t, anyway. Subs were supposed to serve their Doms, not the other way around. They existed to please their Doms. All their choices were to be made based on whether or not it’d please their Dom. Their greatest satisfaction was supposed to be knowing that they’d pleased their Dom.

While a great many subs had taken to interpreting such beliefs in their way and not settling for a Dom who didn’t see it as such, those ideas had been indoctrinated in Bucky by one too many asshole Doms. No, he didn’t believe that submissives, in general, were meant for this or that, but it was the life he knew, and if Steve was ever going to show him that he could keep saying yes to him, he was going to have to take it slow.

“Well.” Steve sat up straighter and pointed to his lap. “What are you waiting for, little sub? My breakfast is getting cold.”

A smile brightened Bucky’s face. “Yes, Sir.”

He placed the tray over Steve’s lap while Steve asked if he prepared his coffee the right way. Bucky nodded and assured him he did. Milk and two scoops of sugar.

Though he said he didn’t need it, Steve insisted -- ordered, really -- for Bucky to kneel on a pillow. As he ate, he handfed Bucky bits of food. Pet a hand over his head until a dreamy expression fell upon his face as his head gradually came to rest on the side of the mattress.

There probably isn’t a dreamy expression on Bucky’s face right now. Steve just hopes nothing’s happened that’s so bad he won’t be allowed to see him. The thought makes his glands swell even more as he parks in the garage, almost forgetting to turn the ignition of his bike off before sprinting to the nearest elevator.

Steve jabs his thumb several times against the button until he gives up with an angry grunt and decides to just run for the stairs. He’s about ten paces away when he hears the elevator doors ding.

Skidding to a halt, Steve spins around to dash back only to have the doors close almost right in his face. He smashes his finger into the button to no avail. The numbers above the elevator mock him, each lower one lighting up as it goes down.

“Oh, fuck you!” Steve yells, smashing a fist into the closed door and turning for the stairs again.

By the time he reaches the front desk, Steve is completely out of breath and his heart is ready to burst through his ribs. He still somehow finds enough energy to talk.

“I’m looking for Bucky Bar--” He shakes his head. “Uh, I mean, James. James Barnes.”

The lady behind the desk nods and then does something on the computer. Asks from the correct spelling of Barnes, and Steve knows she’s doing her job, but he swears he’s never seen someone work at such an impossibly slow pace before, though he’s sure it’s all a fabrication of his panicked mind. Not that the reality side of his brain isn’t arguing with his infuriated side to not leap over the strangle her.

Finally, fourteen hours later, she looks up and asks, “Family or Dominant?”

“Uh…” If Bucky had a legal Dominant, it’d be in his files. “I’m… his Dominant? Or, well, he's under my--"

“Protection, yes,” she says with a polite grin. “He's a lucky sub.”

She nods at her assumption and asks for his identification. Eyebrows stitched, Steve digs his wallet out and hands her his license. After a good look, the woman hands it back to him and Steve only briefly notices the steel bracelet around her wrist.

“Very good, Mr. Rogers. You’ll find Mr. Barnes on the fourth floor in room one oh seven.”

Without even taking the time to put his license away, Steve hurries through the halls. He does his best not to actually run so that he doesn’t crash into anyone. Twice on the way, Steve finds himself mixed up and turned around, having to ask for directions from hospital employees.

When he finally gets to the elevators, Steve swears it’s the slowest he’s ever been in. It’s never taken so damn long just to go up four floors, and that’s with no stops along the way. Finally, the doors open again, and Steve rushes out. Stares at the sign on the wall in front of him for a second so he doesn’t go the wrong way again, and heads down the hall.

The room is only around the corner, and when Steve gets there his heart plummets to his stomach. There’re three officers standing right outside it. Talking to each other. Filling out paperwork. Getting statements, Steve thinks, from a doctor. That’s who Steve heads to first.

“What’s going on?” he asks, out of breath and near shaking. Not at all professional looking despite still being in uniform. “Where is he? Is he okay?”

Before the doctor can answer, even to verify who Steve is, one of the three cops is interrupting.

“We’re working this case,” he grumbles. “What’re you doing here?”

“I’m not here for that,” Steve says as simply holds out his I.D. “I’m here for Buc- for James Barnes. They called me. The hospital. He’s wearing my--”

“That’s your Collar of Protection?”

The way he says it, with that hard, disgusted edge, like Steve should be ashamed that Bucky’s wearing it, it’s like a stab to Steve’s chest. The last thing he expected.

“Yes?” Steve shakes his head as the three of them exchange glances. “Why? What’s wrong? What happened?”

“He’s not trained very well.” The words roll off his tongue cool and nonchalant as he flips through paperwork and chuckles darkly, getting ready to drop some sort of bombshell. His gaze coolly lifts back to Steve’s. “Is he?”

A breath catches in Steve’s throat, those words slamming into his chest like a battering ram. He was called down here for Bucky. Something is wrong with Bucky -- he’s hurt, he’s sick, or he’s dying -- and the first thing Steve’s told about is their opinion on his behavior. If it was at all appropriate, Steve would be taking a swing at the nearest of them. Somewhere in the darkest depth of his soul, he can imagine himself pouncing. Can hear cracking bone and see the pain he’s caused just to make sure none of these people get anywhere near his Bucky.

Strange, that. He’s never imagined truly hurting anyone before. It’s almost frightening, and yet he doesn’t have it in him to regret it. Steve signed an agreement to protect Bucky. It’s not only in writing -- signed and notarized, outwardly shown by the collar around Bucky’s neck -- but it’s a part of who he is now. Keeping Bucky safe just feels right.

Fingers curling into a tight fist, Steve feels like he’s breathing around a lead pipe. He’s already having trouble seeing past the three condescending smirks in front of him. Portraits of just the right amount of tradition that causes grief and pain.

“What are you talking about?”

All Steve can think about is how impossibly wonderful Bucky’s trained. Flawless, really. From his posture to his eyesight to just how fluid he makes everything look. For someone to suggest that Bucky hasn’t been trained is just ludacris.

“Well, for starters,” the first cop says, “you might be interested to learn that at 7:12 this evening, the sub your protecting assaulted a Dominant at the Red Star Pub.”

“Bullshit!”

And there he is. Mouthing off to a handful of cops, sure, but Steve couldn’t care less. It’s music to his ears. Even if his voice is angry and yelling, just hearing Bucky at all his a huge relief.

“It was a fight!” Bucky goes on to yell. “A fuckin’ fight, god damn it!”

Someone inside the room tells him to please remain still and calm. There’s a loud noise like maybe something’s fallen. Steve takes a look over the shoulder of the third officer, the one who’s just stepped in front of the door. He only catches a glimpse of Bucky, but what he sees makes his insides boil.

Why,” Steve growls at the doctor, “is he strapped to the bed?”

Rolling his eyes, the doctor looks into the room, but never actually gives Steve a reply. Instead, one of the cops answers.

“Standard procedure for a crime like this.”

“What crime?!” Bucky shouts. “This isn’t a fucking crime!”

While Steve takes perfect note of what Bucky says -- how he says it, his tone of voice, all that anger -- the rest of them ignore his shouts. Background noise to them, Steve supposes.

“He hasn’t exactly been the most cooperative, either,” the doctor says as he pulls the door closed and blocks off the rest of Bucky’s yells. “Like your fellow officers explained, the sub your protecting doesn’t come off as very well-trained. He’s been quite hysterical, as you can tell.”

Steve’ll deal with his so-called brothers-in-arms later. Right now, he has more pressing matters.

“He’s hurt!” That’s a mere assumption, but it’s the best he has to go on right now. “You’re supposed to help him, not belittle him.”

“And what exactly do you think I’ve been trying to do?” the doctor asks, his pride and own clear Dominance rising to Steve’s questioning. “But how can I do that when he’s so untrusting and won’t behave? He’s clearly lacking any basic submissive training and can’t control himself.” He shakes his head, sharing a laugh with the cops -- a joke that Steve just finds no humor in. “We all know that a sub’s biology makes them prone to hysteria, but I’ve seen submissives just out of their orientation tests follow orders better than him.”

Steve scoffs. “You’re a stranger, what do you expect?”

“I’m a Dominant,” is the answer Steve gets. As though that’s a good enough reason for Bucky to be docile and complacent to just anyone. “These officers of the law are Dominants. I expect him to be trusting and obedient.”

There’s a headache building in the back of Steve’s skull. A dull throbbing that’s getting worse and worse the more these men speak of such absurd notions. He rubs between his eyes. Sighs. All he wants to know is if Bucky is okay.

“Look,” he asks the doctor. Tries for polite and probably gets twelve percent at best. “I’m not trying to be difficult and I’m sure he wasn’t either. Just, please, tell me if he’s okay.”

The doctor first glances to the other officers, as if he needs to check with them to answer. Not having any of that, Steve steps around the doctor so that he's the only one in sight.

“Doctor,” Steve says, voice growing stern. “The submissive wearing my Collar of Protection is currently under your care. You are obligated to share with me any information you have regarding his case. If you don’t, I won’t hesitate to report you to the Board of Medicine.”

Eye closed, the doctor takes in a deep breath and nods before flipping through the charts he’s been holding onto.

“A few cuts and bruises,” he tells him. “Mostly minor. Stitches above his right eye and abrasions on his right knuckles. There seems to be some slight dislocation with his left shoulder, so I’d like to have one of our surgeons to take a look--”

“No.” Steve shakes his head and is already taking his phone out. “Not one of yours.”

“Not one…” The doctor looks over Bucky’s charts like that’ll clear the confusion. “I’m sorry, Officer Rogers, does he have a--”

“I’m getting Tony Stark to come in himself to look at it,” Steve answers. “You can have your surgeon talk to him.”

The doctor is saying more -- maybe protesting -- but Steve isn’t paying any attention. He’s more concerned with focusing on his phone ringing and hoping that even if Tony’s not around, he’ll still come in to help.

“Hola, mi amigo! Que pasa?”

“Tony, hi.” Steve swallows the lump in his throat. This is one of his best friends, but he doesn’t just want to jump into favors. “How’s it going?”

A pause. Then, “Hangin’ in there. What’s up, big guy? What’s wrong?”

That shouldn’t be surprising. Tony, though he might act tough and play like he doesn’t care, knows when something is going on. Steve sighs.

“It’s just… you remember that submissive from The Armory? The one with the metal arm?”

“Oh, yeah, sure.” There’re some noises. Sounds like maybe Tony’s tinkering on something. “Something happen?”

Though Steve still hasn’t gotten the full story, he explains to Tony as much as he knows. Once he’s filled in, Tony is asking Steve to hand the phone to the doctor. When the doctor takes the phone, he attempts, several times, to say something, only to have Tony interrupt whatever he’s trying to say. It happens so many times, that the doctor crushes his jaw in frustration and even, once, stomps his foot.

Mr. Stark.” He huffs. “If you’d please just come in and take a look so we can--” The doctor rolls his eyes. “Okay, fine. Thank you.”

Sighing, he hangs up and stares at the phone for a few seconds. Not an unusual reaction to interacting with Tony Stark. Steve smirks when the doctor hands the phone back.

“He’s, Mr. Stark is, well.” The Doctor scratches the back of his neck. “Mr. Stark is on his way down here. To take a look at--”

“Good.” Steve stuffs his phone back in his pocket and turns his attention back to the cops. “Standard procedure?” he questions. “For what?”

“We told you,” says the first cop. The defensive cop who greeted him earlier. “He assaulted a Dominant.”

“Or was there a fight and he needed to defend himself?” Steve asks. “Which is it? Because I know him well enough to know that he’d never just assault someone.”

“Really?” One of the other two scoffs. “This James Buchanan Barnes has quite the record. Over two dozen arrests for shoplifting and conning and prostitution and drugs. Broken contracts.”

Try as he might, Steve can’t quite keep the surprise off his face. Bucky may have mentioned some run-ins with the law, but never anything like that. Sure, Steve knows about the times Bucky’s been taken in because of sub raids. These are entirely different charges. From within the room, silence.

“Nevermind his past records,” Steve replies. “What I’m concerned about is what happened today. I want those details.”

Rolling his eyes, the cop with today’s incident report hands it over to Steve. Steve’ll have to sign off on it anyway since Bucky’s wearing his Collar of Protection. He quickly scans over the words scribbled on the page, easily able to tell when the cop realized he was dealing with a submissive who stood up to a Dominant. Even the strokes of handwriting change from professional to personal, as though offended by the very notion of a sub doing whatever it was that Bucky did. Which, according to a witness…

“According to the other bartender working there this evening,” Steve says, “the Dominant you’re so quick to defend was harassing the submissive under my care all afternoon.”

One of the cops snorts. “A few comments, if they were really made, is hardly a reason to pick a fight. Doesn’t sound like there was a need to defend himself after all, hm?”

“I guess that depends.” Steve, report in hand, folds his arms over his chest. “Was he wearing my collar?” The only answer he gets to that is their continued staring. Good enough. “That’s what I thought. And I’m sure this Dom is well aware that it’s illegal to make any advancements on a submissive wearing a Collar of Protection?” Steve is already signing the report. “You should also be aware that if he tries to press charges, I will counter with charges of my own.”

Really, though, Steve’s not opposed to just pressing charges anyway. No matter what Bucky did in retaliation, he was provoked illegally. Had every right to fight back. Bucky’s own statement is that this Dom followed him to the back and continued to make his comments. He’s wearing a Collar of Protection. This guy had no right to be speaking to him at all if Bucky already turned him away.

All they say after Steve shoves the signed paperwork back over to them is that Bucky will be released to him once the doctor clears him. He’ll need to remain with Steve for the next four-eight hours, too, while the investigation is still pending. An old, outdated law that these cops will clearly enforce. Just a nice way of saying a submissive is remaining in a Dominant’s custody rather than just being allowed out on their own. Too many emotions for such a fragile mind to overcome so quickly, of course.

Once Steve is done with the business he needs to handle out here -- and he certainly has no desire to spend even a minute longer with these people than necessary -- he brushes by them and reaches for the doorknob. Hand around it, Steve pauses.

Inside the room, Bucky is still strapped to the hospital bed and hooked up to IVs and looking completely miserable. Steve is willing to bet he’d be able to fry an egg on his head right now. See steam coming out of his ears if he looked close enough. Flames in his eyes. And any other clever cliche about red-hot anger.

Taking a deep breath, Steve pushes the door open. The second he does, Bucky’s eyes flick up to him. They stay that way until Steve closes the door behind him. Then, Bucky drops his gaze back to his lap.

“Excuse me, sir,” the nurse in the room says, “you can’t be--”

“That’s my collar he’s wearing,” Steve interrupts. “He’s under my protection.”

She glances from Bucky to Steve to Bucky again before simply nodding and doing something on the computer in the room. As though Bucky being strapped to the bed's completely inconsequential.

“You can take the straps off of him now,” Steve says. “I’m here.”

“I’m not authorized to do that.” She doesn’t look up from what she’s doing. “That’s up to the doctor on call.”

The woman does nothing else. She doesn’t even seem to notice the angry tears that fill Bucky’s eyes. Or the curl to his lip as he goes on glaring at his lap. Steve does. And it hurts right down to the center of his stomach as he marches straight up to the nurse and takes hold of her elbow. She looks quite startled by the sudden contact and pulls away, backing into the counter.

“Take off the straps, ma’am,” Steve demands, steel and authority filling every bit of him. Voice. Stance. Eyes. “I won’t ask again.”

Mouth falling opening, the nurse, hit with the force of Steve’s words, just stands there, likely dumbfounded. It takes all of two seconds for the world to catch back up to her and she goes right for Bucky’s bedside. Starts undoing the straps. She muttering things to him as she does. Steve catches a few things in there. Something about this sub getting special treatment and wouldn’t hear me mouthing off like that.

Somehow, Steve manages to keep his mouth shut. He doesn’t know if it’s just to get her out of the room quicker or if it’s the way Bucky rubs at his wrists the moment they’re free. So… soft and endearing. Almost like he’s afraid of moving too quickly and finding the restraints right back on him.

It takes Steve a few moments of hearing machines -- of monotone beep beep beeps -- and nothing else for him to realize that he’s alone with Bucky. There are so many things he wants to say, but nothing seems good enough. Steve wants to fuss over him, to make sure not a single hair on his head is in pain. But that might be overstepping his bounds. Steve wants to greets him, but how small is too small? Bucky hasn’t even looked up at him since he first walked in and Steve hasn’t heard his side of the story and he wants to beg for Bucky’s forgiveness for not being there for him when he needed him.

“Hey, baby,” Steve settles on as a greeting. “I’m here.”

Steve holds his breath. Hopes that maybe the greeting is an okay one. Maybe it is. He can’t really tell. Bucky just goes on staring at his lap and doesn’t make much of an expression.

“Yes, Steve,” he responds shortly, “I see that.”

Steve winces and looks around. On the small table to the side is a plastic pitcher. Just from where Steve is standing he can see it’s filled with water and ice. A plastic cup sits next to it. They both wait patiently, even when Steve starts to reach for it and then draws back.

“Do… do you want something to drink?”

Steve asks it softly, so as not to startle Bucky, but Bucky only shrugs anyway. Doesn’t look startled at all. In fact, the question seems to anger him.

“I don’t know,” he answers. Teeth grit and muscles tight. “Do I want a drink? I don’t think I’m allowed to make my own decisions in here.”

Head spinning, Steve does, in fact, reach for the pitcher and pours out a cup of water. He hands that over to Bucky, who doesn’t quite take it but does look at it like he’s both offended and unsure of the gesture.

“I think you should have a drink,” Steve says, softly. “That’s not… it’s not an order or anything. But I’d like you to have one.”

Lips set in a line, Bucky sighs and accepts the plastic cup. As he goes to take a sip, Steve gets the first real look at his face. The air is punched right out of his lungs. Bucky’s face… oh, his face is…

“Oh,” Steve breathes. “Oh, Bucky…”

Steve reaches for his chin only to have Bucky jerk away. The drum beating in Steve’s heart only quickens. To have Bucky move from his touch-- he hasn’t done that since the night Steve chased him from the station.

“M’fine,” Bucky grumbles. “I’ve had worse.”

Worse. That makes Steve’s stomach tie in such a knot he almost doubles over. The thought of Bucky in worse condition is so horrible, he could just scream. Maybe Bucky doesn’t think it’s so bad, but it makes him shake all the way down to the very marrow of his bones. That black eye and the split lip. The dried blood around his nose.

“Are you in pain?” Steve asks. “Have they… have you had ice? Painkillers? Anything?”

Bucky doesn’t answer that right away. At first, Steve’s not sure he’s going to answer at all. Not until he touches at his eye and makes a soft sound akin to a whimper.

“I’ll get you some ice,” Steve murmurs. “Just sit tight.”

Right outside of the room, that doctor is still lingering with one of the cops. Steve knows the cop won’t be leaving until Bucky is checked out and makes sure he leaves with him. The doctor only has to cross the hall to grab an ice pack which sees Steve having to bite his tongue from asking him why in the hell wouldn’t he get this for Bucky himself.

He thanks him for it anyway and hurries back to the room so he can wrap it up in paper towels for Bucky. When Steve is back by the bed, he, without the help of his brain, attempts to gently apply the ice to Bucky’s eye himself. At the same time, Bucky reaches to take the pack from his hand. Their fingers collide. The ice pack falls to the floor.

“Sorry,” Steve mumbles, bending to retrieve it. “I’m sorry. That was stupid of me. I… um…” His hands fumbles with getting the towels around the ice again. “Here. Here you go.”

Without so much as a thank you, Bucky takes it and presses it against his black eye. He hisses a bit and groans out a sigh of pain, and knowing he doesn’t want his help leaves an ache right in the middle of Steve’s chest.

It’s what he’s supposed to be doing. The whole reason Bucky’s wearing that collar. Right now, it’s like Bucky despises having it around his neck.

Sniffling, Bucky wipes under his nose -- wincing when he does -- and leans back against the pillows more. It becomes clear to Steve then, that the pillows had been holding most of his weight that whole time. Bucky’s finally let himself just collapse back on them as though he’s been needing to do that the entire time.

Now that he has, so much more color drains from his face. His eyes squeeze close and he bites down on his lip. Bucky lets out a jagged breath before switching the ice from his eye to spot on his left shoulder where metal meets flesh. But the way he whimpers, the way he instantly yanks his hand away, it makes Steve’s heart just shatter.

Bucky -- the sub who agreed to wear his Collar of Protection -- is in so much pain and he won’t let Steve help. He won’t even let Steve offer any sort of comfort.

“They took all my stuff,” he abruptly states. The first thing he’s said on his own. “I don’t have my phone. I dunno if they’ve called anyone besides you.”

“Oh.” Steve is already reaching into his pocket. “You can… do you wanna borrow my phone? And I can go find out for you if you want. Do you want me to?” When Bucky just shrugs, Steve sighs and puts the phone down next to the pitcher of water. “I’ll go find out for you. You can use that, y’know, if you want.”

Halfway to the door, Steve gets an idea. It’s not a bad idea, in his opinion. Bucky might not like it, but, right now, he’s just going to have to deal with it. He did sign a legal agreement with Steve and that gives Steve certain rights. Rights Steve never has any plans on taking advantage of, but he is going to use them when he feels he needs to.

“Bucky, I’m… I’m going to give you an order, so I need you to listen to me.”

Even Steve can feel the weight of those words, all of them piling up on an already heavy chest as Bucky gradually lifts his gaze. There’s a shift in the room. A chill in the air. Steve can feel it skitter down his spine as a bit of color returns to Bucky’s cheeks, those steel-blue eyes, like ice glistening on the sea, fixed on him.

He doesn’t answer any more than giving Steve that focused attention, but for now, Steve’ll take that.

“If someone happens to come in while I’m gone, you don’t have to do or say anything to them, understand?” Steve explains. “You can wait until me or Tony are here.”

Bucky’s eyebrows pull in, confused. Well, at least Steve knows he’s listening.

“Tony? Tony Stark?”

Steve nods. “He’s coming to check on your arm. I don’t want anyone here damaging it. Once he makes sure it’s good, you should be set to go.”

“Yeah,” Bucky huffs, his grip tightening around the ice pack. “That means with you.”

That utter disdain behind the idea of leaving with him, it’s like a red-hot poker between Steve’s ribs. Steve can almost hear it sizzling as it sears his skin. He tries to ignore it.

“Do you understand, Bucky?”

Bucky leans his head back against the pillows again. “Yes, Steve. I understand.”

“You can… you can use my phone,” Steve whispers. Heads for the door again. “I'll go find out if they called anyone else.”

When Steve exits the room, he needs a second to compose himself. He leans up against the door, eyes closed as that headache crawls from the base of his skull up to the top of it.

“Like I said.” The voice makes Steve’s skin crawl, his eyes popping open to see that cop sitting right outside the door. “Not even basic submissive training.” He hisses a sarcastic laugh. “Does he even know what it means to wear your collar?”

Of course he does. Bucky knows what it means to wear Steve’s Collar of Protection. Bucky’s gone through more certified training than most of the people in this hospital. He accepted Steve’s Collar of Protection. While it’s worn, Steve, as the Dominant, takes a certain responsibility for Bucky. And as the submissive, Bucky represents Steve as the Dom providing his protection.

Apparently, this cop doesn’t think very highly of how Bucky’s representing Steve.

Well, that’s just too damn bad. Steve’s been more than satisfied with Bucky’s behavior before giving him his Collar of Protection and these past two months with it have certainly done nothing to change his mind. Including today.

If anyone has a problem with how Bucky represents Steve out in public, well, it’s their problem.

So many things are already rushing through Steve’s brain that it’s hard to sort through it all. Snippets of old conversations with Bucky sneak in like static through the rest of the noise.

My second Dom said an educated sub was a waste. I stopped going to school after that.

No Dom believes in the submission is a gift spiel. I doubt any ever did.

I had to see him off everyday in Kiss the Floor.

It doesn’t happen to me! It can’t happen to me!

He sold my violin for gamblin’ money. I never bothered playin’ again after that.

“You don’t know anything about him,” Steve grumbles. “Just leave him alone.”

As Steve pushes away from the door to find whoever will know if anyone’s been in touch with someone else for Bucky, the cop mutters one last thing.

“Doesn’t look like you know much about him either.”

***

The young lady Steve spoke to was just as sweet as could be. A godsend, really, given the rest of the day. When he explained that Bucky wasn’t sure if anyone else knew if he was there, she politely told him that only he’d been contacted.

She’d even gone a step further and asked if Steve wanted to add any other type of procedure to Bucky’s files in case this ever happened again. The thought of this ever happening again was overwhelming enough. Steve even had to hold onto the edge of the counter so that he didn’t fall over.

“Oh, I’m… I’m sorry, sir,” she had said. “I didn’t mean to…”

“No, no.” Steve shook his head. “It’s not your fault. These are things I should’ve taken care of already.” He gathered his bearings. Steve was a Dominant and knew how to take control even when it felt like life was falling apart all around him. “I’ll speak with him about this first. He’s wearing my Collar of Protection, but he’s not legally my submissive.”

The look she gave him was warm, maybe even awed, a honeyed glow about her as she typed something into the computer and assured him that in the event Steve couldn’t be reached, they’d attempt to reach his other two emergency contacts -- Clint and Natasha. Steve thanked her and headed back to the room, anxious to return to Bucky.

By the time Steve got back, Tony was already there and, much to Steve’s surprise, found Bucky smiling with him. It was that fabulously shy smile. One Tony probably didn’t even notice since he was too busy chatting away and barking orders at the doctor who’d returned shortly after.

When Steve sat back in the seat next to the hospital bed, he gave Bucky a warm smile. Or tried to anyway. It was difficult with the way Bucky tensed and moved away even though Steve had made no attempt to touch him. Tony, maybe noticing the reaction, maybe not, winked at Steve while he was explaining the motor function tests they were going to perform to Bucky.

“They didn't call anyone else,” Steve told Bucky once Tony was preoccupied with setting up tools and directing the doctor around. “No one else knows you're here.”

Bucky nodded and for a minute Steve thought that was going to be it. But before Tony could come back over and really start much of anything, Bucky lifted his gaze and gave Steve a twist of his lips.

“Um… thanks,” he murmured. “I… just… thanks.”

He didn’t look at Steve when he said it, but he said it nonetheless, and at least Steve got that much. Steve almost put his hand down on Bucky’s but he rolled his fingers in just shy of the touch.

“You’re welcome, Bucky.”

Since then, Bucky’s made those phone calls, assuring Clint that he’s not alone and Natasha that she doesn’t have to come up from D.C. He calls his sister in Indiana and sounds pleasantly content to be asked a million questions. Between calls, Bucky either sits quietly while Tony lifts and twists and turns his left arm -- having already apologized straight off for having to poke and prod at him -- or sits quietly while Tony makes assessments, calculations, and deductions with the surgeon.

“All right, kid,” Tony says. He’s got a little screwdriver slightly lifting one of the plates of Bucky’s left forearm. “Lemme see you wiggle those fingers.”

Bucky takes in a deep breath and closes his eyes. The last time he did this, it caused sparks to fly out of the spot his arm is connected to his body. He clearly tried to hide it, but the pain rippled across his face anyway. His whole body nearly leapt into the air and, he might’ve tried to pull back at the last second, but Steve is pretty sure he reached for him. Steve would have gladly held his free hand, but Bucky’s kept it to himself, pulled in tight to his belly.

There are beads of sweat kissing the edge of his hairline and Tony’s been working a hell of a lot more carefully. Which is saying something given how carefully he was working already.

The anticipation in the room rises and stretches over everything. It lingers in the corners, just waiting for what’s going to happen.

This time, when Bucky wiggles them, the sparks aren’t nearly as bad, but that doesn’t stop him from jumping again. Though Steve goes to place a hand on Bucky’s hip to steady him, Tony gets there first. Tony’s comfort, Bucky doesn’t shy away from. Seems Tony’s is acceptable.

“Okay, it’s okay.” He nods, either to himself or to Bucky or maybe even to the both of them. “I see where the problem is. Steve?” Tony waves him closer. “Kid, you’re probably gonna wanna take his hand for this. I’m gonna make this as fast and painless as possible, but I think it’ll be better to have Steve close.”

At first, Steve isn’t sure whether or not Bucky will follow Tony’s advice. But when Steve stands, Bucky’s hand opens. It trembles slightly, so Steve is sure to gather it in both of his, something Bucky doesn’t object to.

To the surgeon, Tony is saying something about the connection of this plate to that muscle. The way Bucky’s arm isn’t sitting correctly and just how they have to fix it. They’re both looking at small x-ray slides and seem to be on the same page.

“You didn’t get painkillers, huh, kid?” Tony asks as he gets another tool out. This one looks like an excavator. A dentist’s tool with the hook on it. “Not even Motrin or anything?”

“Mm-mm.” Bucky shakes his head. “Nothing.”

“Sucks I bet, but it’s gonna be better this way in the long run.” Tony tapping spots on Bucky’s shoulder. “This isn’t gonna be pleasant, but it’s gonna be real quick. Promise.”

Without another word, the surgeon places a hand on Bucky's other shoulder. As if suddenly understanding that Tony meant this is going to hurt, and hurt a lot, Bucky’s eyes slam closed. Within Steve's hands, he can feel Bucky’s searching for something. Maybe a better grip. Steve gives it to him, readjusting their positions so that Bucky can hold on as tightly as he needs to.

“Deep breaths, kid,” Tony says. “On the count of three…”

It happens fast. Tony hooks the tool under the seam of Bucky’s arm, counts to three, and then lifts. Eyes wide and filling with tears, Bucky screams and squeezes Steve’s hand so hard it would hurt if Steve wasn’t so concerned with Bucky.

Just like Tony promised, it’s over in less than a second. He’s dropping the tool back on the tray and saying that’s it, that’s it over and over while dabbing a cotton ball on the spot. Bucky’s still got a grip on Steve’s hands, but that only lasts the amount time it takes for Steve to even realize he hasn’t let go yet. Once he does notice Bucky’s hand still in his, Bucky pulls it away and sobs a laugh.

Oh! Oh, god!” He cups that free hand over his mouth. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Stark!” Bucky sniffles and rubs fingers into his eyes. “Thank you.”

Like earlier, Bucky collapses again, only this time, it’s forward and against Tony’s shoulder. His breathing is erratic, but each breath is filled with such relief the room is becoming saturated with it. Bucky’s trembling from head to toe, a few tears sliding down his cheeks. Steve can’t tell which he’s doing more, crying or laughing as Tony -- awkward as he appears doing so -- pats a hand over his head.

“Hey, it’s okay, kid,” Tony says. “You’re okay now.”

Tony even manages to swing an arm around Bucky in a friendly hug. Funny. As outgoing and wild and gregarious as Tony can be, his affection tends to be reserved for those he knows personally. Sometimes even only intimately. Steve counts himself lucky to be one of those people. Still, here, in this hospital room, with Bucky close to hysterics from either relief or shock or just too much of everything, Tony’s holding him close and petting him the way a Dominant might and even kisses the top of his head.

“I know, I know, it’s okay,” he comforts, and although Steve would give anything to be the one giving Bucky comfort, he’s just glad someone is doing it. “You were lots of pain, weren’t ya?” Bucky hiccups and, head still on Tony’s shoulder, nods. “All fixed now. Won’t happen again without some real trauma, kay?”

Wiping at his eyes, Bucky sits up now and nods. He’s no longer crying and his breathing has calmed and he even settles back into the bed with a soft, gentle smile on his face. Already there’s so much more color returning to Bucky’s cheeks. The sweat his drying. A sense of ease and relaxation rolls over him like a midnight fog.

“Okay,” he whispers. “Thank you.”

That patent Stark smirk turns up on Tony’s face and he wipes at his shoulder as though what he’s done is just all in a day’s work. He then leans in really close to Bucky and whispers something in his ear. It’s allowed, of course. Two submissives can talk privately amongst themselves. Sure, if their Dominants asked for the specifics of the conversations it's generally required, but Steve doubts either Rhodey or Pepper would make Tony tell, and he’s not about to make Bucky if he doesn’t want to.

Steve does, however, place his hand over Bucky’s. He’s slow and gentle about it, afraid he might give the wrong impression. If Bucky wants to pull his hand away again, no matter how much it’ll twist Steve’s insides, that’ll be his choice.

But Bucky doesn’t move his hand. In fact, he even starts rubbing soft circles on Steve’s skin with his thumb.

Steve, although ecstatic inside, keeps all his joy contained in one gentle smile. If he let it out any more than that, the entire room would be radiating with pure, unfiltered sunlight.

“Steve?” Bucky’s whisper makes Steve’s skin flush. “Can I…” He clears his throat and isn’t looking when he goes on to ask, “Can I have another drink? Please?”

“Yeah! Yeah, of course. I’ll…” Steve is already fumbling with the pitcher to pour some more water into the cup. “Here you go.”

“Thank you.”

Bucky takes it with both hands, almost as though he needs to make sure he can use them properly, and slowly sips. As he does, Steve grows a bit bolder and reaches over to brush some stray hairs away from Bucky’s face. When his fingers brush against Bucky’s skin, Bucky starts a bit, but he doesn’t cringe away.

They spend a little more time there -- with Tony having Bucky moving his arm this way and that, flexing his fingers in and out, curling his wrist around -- until the doctor finally comes in with release papers. Tells Steve -- not Bucky, but Steve -- that he can leave with Bucky whenever he’s ready to.

Since the cops from earlier confiscated Bucky’s clothes in the name of evidence, the hospital provides a pair of scrubs for him to change into. Steve’s already called down to the station. Put in a word to Nick asking for some help on that.

“Don’t worry about it, Rogers,” Nick said. “This isn’t gonna amount to anything, your boy was well within his rights. How’s he doing?”

Bucky had disappeared into the bathroom to change.

“I, uh…” Steve shook his head. “I dunno. He’s better than I expected, worse in other…” Clearing his throat, Steve decided he didn’t want to get into that. “He’s bein’ released to me for the next forty-eight hours.”

“Figured that. Don’t worry about here. Do what you gotta do.”

“Thanks, Fury.”

Steve is still standing out in the hall, waiting for Bucky, when someone claps a hand down on his shoulder. It comes so out of nowhere that it startles him enough to hop forward. Turns around to see Tony with his palms out and a big smile on his face.

“Sorry, big guy,” he says. “Didn’t think you’d be so jumpy.”

“S’alright.” Steve chuckles. “Long day.”

“No kidding.” Tony nods and seems to think on that. “Your sub should be good though. You should--"

“He's not really my sub,” Steve interrupts. “I mean… y’know… he’s…”

The look on Tony’s face keeps whatever words -- and, to be fair, Steve’s not sure what he’s trying to say -- wrapped around his tongue.

“Maybe not on paper,” Tony says. “And maybe not that particular type of collar. But that kid is yours.”

Steve’s head swims with thoughts of that being the truth. Of Bucky wearing a Permanent Collar. Steel locked around his neck, sitting comfortably as a sign of his submission to Steve. Maybe they’d marry, too. Steve can picture it, even now -- getting down on one knee and asking for Bucky’s hand in marriage.

It’d be amazing, really. They’ve talked about the idea of Bucky saying one yes after another if that’s what felt right. Steve’s heart buzzes with moonlight, iridescent streamers that tickle his insides with excitement. The idea of Bucky not only saying yes to a full commitment to submission but to giving his heart over as well just fills Steve with so much joy he might burst. And it’s just a dream. One so far away it’s not even within reach.

But with everything that went on today, Steve’s not so sure the idea that makes his dreams fly away have turned into nightmares for Bucky. One filled with disappointment and misery.

“I don’t know, Tony,” Steve murmurs. “You weren’t here all afternoon. He… Bucky didn’t seem too happy to have me there.”

“Mm.” Tony, fingers stroking his chin, bobs his head. “It’s… not always easy.”

“What isn’t?”

“Being submissive. This world isn’t always so kind to us, even in this modern age.” Tony shrugs. “Imagine being strapped to a bed in the hospital just because a doctor is a Dom and doesn’t like the way you’re behaving? Even the most well-trained and well-behaved sub can only take so much from a stranger.”

That makes Steve look around for the doctor in question. All the paperwork is folded up and shoved in his pocket. Though Steve shouldn’t be able to feel it, the papers weigh a ton.

“I could ring that guy’s neck,” Steve mutters. “I don’t even wanna think about it.”

“Course ya don’t,” Tony replies. “You’re a Dom.”

Steve straightens and snaps a shocked gaze towards him. “No, I… I didn’t mean--”

“Nah.” Tony grins and pats Steve’s back. “I know ya didn’t. No worries.”

“I’ll tell you something though, Tony,” Steve says. “The way you were with him in there? You’d make one hell of a Dom.”

Face crinkling, Tony pulls his arm back and moves away from Steve like he’s said a most insulting thing to him.

“Ugh.” He makes a face as if smelling something bad. “And play for the bad guys? How dare you.”

Steve chuckles and bumps their shoulders. At the same time, Bucky comes out of the bathroom wearing the scrubs given to him by the hospital. Though they look comfortable, he doesn’t look pleased at all to be in them.

“Well,” Steve says to Tony, “Thanks for all your help today.”

Holding his arm out for Bucky, Steve just happens to notice the quick wink and nod that Tony gives to him. It makes Bucky’s entire face fill with a blush as he holds up his hand in a shy wave.

“Thanks, uh…” Bucky clears his throat. “Thank you, Mr. Stark. Y’know, for, um… the help…”

“Gotta stick together, huh?” Tony shakes his head and throws a fake, gentle punch across the edge of Bucky’s chin. He starts walking away before they do, calling back to Bucky as he does. “Remember what I said, kid!”

Once they’re alone in a hospital full of people, Steve closes his eyes and counts to three. It’s up to him to get Bucky out of here now regardless of how either feels about the situation. It’s way too cold out for Bucky to ride on the back of his bike. Even if Bucky had his regular clothes, Steve’s not so sure this is the emotional time for a bike ride. He’s already called for an Uber.

Without even thinking about it, or maybe it’s just instinct, Steve’s not sure, he finds his hand moving to the small of Bucky’s back.

“Come on,” Steve says. “Let’s get you out of here.”

There’s no protest. Bucky moves right along with him, towards the exit, following Steve’s lead, but the hesitation is clear elsewhere.

“Out of here,” Bucky repeats. “Does that mean back to your place?”

Steve sighs. “Yes, Bucky. That means back to my place. Just for two days.”

Then you can leave, Steve thinks. And never come back if that’s what you want.

The idea leaves him cold, of course. Bucky leaving and never coming back, especially after what Tony said. That kid is yours. Such a small thing, really. Just a tiny, sliver of gold shined in the possible realm of hope that he might be right. Ice cakes around it now. Freezing and heavy as they make their way down to the lobby.

When Steve steers Bucky towards the car waiting for them, Bucky might actually start to question the vehicle. He doesn’t really take the time to though. It’s cold. The thick, winter clouds covering the skies and blocking out the sun. Snow clouds, Steve’s mama used to call them. Maybe the forecast calls for snow, Steve’s not sure, but he does put his leather jacket around Bucky’s shoulders. This, Bucky doesn’t seem to mind at all.

Even when they get into the back of the car, with the heat cranked up and doors keeping them safe from the cold air, Bucky buries himself in a cocoon of Steve’s jacket. Steve might be imagining things, but he thinks Bucky even takes the collar of the jacket up to his nose and inhales deeply.

As though he needs to commit the scent to memory.

***

Late afternoon traffic sees them taking over an hour getting back to Steve’s place. At some point during the drive, Bucky leaned his head against the window with a sigh. He’s since fallen asleep, Steve’s jacket still tucked tightly around him.

“Bucky,” Steve whispers when they get there, gently placing his hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “C’mon, honey, wake up.”

“Hm?” Bucky moans. Lifts his head and smacks his lips together. “Wha…?”

“We’re here, sweetheart.”

“Here? Steve?” He looks around a bit, the confusion clearing and a dark expression replacing it. “Oh. Right.”

Saying nothing more, Bucky lets himself out of the car, pulling Steve’s jacket as tightly around himself as possible, and goes straight up the front steps to wait. Before following, Steve checks to make sure everything is good with the driver, gives her a cash tip, and thanks her for the ride.

“Are you hungry?” Steve asks as he lets them into the building. “I can make us something to eat if you want. Or order out. Anything you want.”

“Can’t I just shower?” Bucky asks. “And then sleep? M’tired.”

As a Dominant, Steve knows he needs to think on his feet to make quick decisions. Hell, it’s the same with being a cop. He takes a light hold on Bucky’s wrist. Light, but domineering.

“Yes, you can shower,” he answers. “I’ll give you clothes to change into, too, if you want. But you’re going to eat something before you lay down. You need to eat.”

A puff of air rolls between Bucky’s lips as he frowns, but he otherwise doesn’t put up an argument. Even if it’s not the most eloquent of agreements.

“Fine. Whatever.”

A pang of anger rattles inside Steve’s chest. He’s trying. He’s trying so hard to make something go right for Bucky today, but he’s not exactly giving him anything to work with.

“Anything in particular you want?” Steve asks. He’s in the bedroom, fishing through his drawers for a pair of sweats and a t-shirt that might fit Bucky. “You want me to make something?”

“I don’t care, Steve,” Bucky huffs as he snatches the clothes out of Steve’s hands. “Just do whatever you want.”

Lips folded in to keep from snapping at Bucky himself, Steve sucks in a deep breath and pinches between his eyes. All he’s been trying to do, all day, is help. Having Bucky snip and snap at him at almost every chance he gets isn’t what he deserves.

“Pizza, then?”

Steve asks through mostly clenched teeth. He can try to keep his cool. Bucky’s had a rough day. Like Tony said, no one is perfect.

“Fine,” Bucky says with a sigh as though Steve’s irritating him with all these questions. “Can I shower now?”

Yes,” Steve growls and jabs his finger at the bathroom door. “Go, just… go, Bucky.”

Bucky, appearing startled and a bit off-balanced doesn’t wait for any other instruction. He heads for the bathroom. Right before he gets to the door, Bucky reaches behind his neck and wrenches at the back of his collar. The velcro that’s keeping it snug in place rips apart. The sound it makes tears at Steve’s heart, the shock of it blossoming into something he never imagined.

All Collars of Protection are sealed by velcro so that the wearer can take it off, but to see Bucky rip it off like that… To see him just fling it down on the coffee table like it’s a piece of garbage he never wants to see again…

Nothing could have prepared Steve for this kind of heartache.

He touches the inside of the collar. It’s still warm, the plush leather. This isn’t the standard Collar of Protection. Steve had replaced that simple black one within two weeks of taking Bucky to City Hall.

That had been such a good day. The cool fingers of autumn reaching out to tickle the world with colorful foliage. The picturesque streets of Brooklyn painted in oranges and reds. The warm scents of coffee swimming in the wind.

“You’re sure you want to do this?” Steve asked as they trotted up the front steps of City Hall. “We can wait. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

Bucky, a near bounce in his walk, skipped up one step ahead and spun around. Hands on Steve’s shoulders, he planted a kiss. Bold and outgoing behavior for a submissive -- in public, anyway -- but Steve most definitely didn’t care. Not seeing that sparkle in Bucky’s eyes. The crinkle around his grin.

“That’s one more yes outta me, Sir,” Bucky answered. “Do you plan on askin’ me again inside? And again before we get to the clerk?”

“Mm.” Steve rolled his eyes. Tried not to laugh. “You’re a brat, you know.”

“Yes.” Bucky nodded. “Oh! Look, another.”

The spark in Steve’s eyes must’ve been obvious. Bucky had lit up with a smirk and twirled around with a fit of giggles in an attempt to jog up the steps, but Steve was quicker, his hand swatting that sweet little ass just hard enough to make Bucky yelp.

“Y’know what, Steve?” Bucky said as they waited on the benches for their turn. He had just convinced Steve to take a selfie with him so he could text Natasha and Clint to tell them the news.

“What’s that, Buck?”

“You’re the first Dom to let me be a brat. Well.” He snickered. “Other than, like, Tasha, but we’re just friends.” Bucky then grew very serious. “I… is that okay, Steve? Sir? I know how to behave, really. None of my other Dominants would let me act that way, so I can--”

“Hey, hey.” Steve gathered Bucky’s hands in his. “You listen to me, little sub.” The pet name may have been awkward given their lack of contract and legal collar, but Bucky had called him Sir just then. It felt right. “I liked you when you were irritating the hell out of me at The Armory.” He let their brows bop gently, Bucky giving him a sly, little grin. “I think you being a brat is the least of my problems. I like it just fine, Bucky.”

Eyes falling closed, Bucky nibbled on his lip and then reopened them. He smiled and breathed out softly.

“Okay?” Steve asked. “Little sub?”

“Okay,” he breathed. “Sir.”

They weren’t kept waiting much longer, and there wasn’t much of a ceremonious event when it came to a Collar of Protection. Mostly business. The clerk spoke to each of them individually to make sure the agreement was consensual. They signed the agreement that Bucky would represent Steve while wearing his Collar of Protection and Steve would take a certain level a responsibility over Bucky.

Before it was official -- before the clerk signed off and notarized it -- Steve secured the standard velcro collar around Bucky’s neck. And, though Bucky would vehemently deny it later, he was all smiles when Steve did it.

It was two weeks later when Steve surprised him with this collar. Custom created and handmade. Steve had The Armory in mind as inspiration. Plush leather on the inside. Embossed leather, red, on the outside. Black lace on the outside. A dark, Victorian-era inspired collar, complete with brass, ornate heart-shaped finishes and a centered o-ring.

Steve swears, still, that Bucky had stopped breathing when he gave it to him, asking if it was really for him.

“You’re kidding, right?” Bucky’s eyes still hadn’t lifted from the collar in the velvet box. “This isn’t really for me…”

“Not kidding,” Steve told him. “And… if that’s another yes…”

The first answer Steve got was a very enthusiastic submissive straddling his lap, cradling his cheeks, and kissing… kissing… kissing… and Steve needed to remember that he was the Dom and supposed to keep the clear head.

“Is that a yes?” he asked. Only able to get the question out because he readjusted their positions as he did. “Hm?”

“Oh, it’s a yes. I think I can get used to being spoiled.” He flicked his hair back, fanning it out as he did. “Can’t you just see it? Your pretty sub. Dripping in diamonds. Laced with gold. Decadence and perfection all wrapped up and on your lap? What could be better?”

Nothing. Steve decided it then and he still believes it now. He had said it to Bucky that night he chased him: But I want to fall in love with you. Because I will. I’ll fall in love with you and hold you in my heart with all that I have.

It’s happening already. Steve feels the beats of his heart singing with Bucky’s name.

Just like at City Hall, Bucky had happily knelt on a kneeling pillow in a formal Collaring position that day--knees spread and wrists crossed behind his back. Head bent forward and presented to Steve for the new collar. He admired it, excited and blushing and glowing, in the mirror, as though he couldn't believe that was his reflection.

But the warmth inside of Bucky’s Collar of Protection is already fading away from the soft touch of Steve’s fingertips.