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"Him?"

Steve knew he wasn't supposed to hear that. And normally he wouldn't have. The back room at Nine Realms Tattooing wasn't soundproofed, but the buzz of tattoo machines, the hum of conversation between artists and clients, the thump of music—normally they'd combine to cover any noise from the staff only part of the studio.

But that him had been loud, more than its volume cutting through the sounds of the studio; it had held a sharpness, a knife-edge of disbelief that had made it carry.

Unfortunately, Steve knew what had prompted it, just like he knew who the him in question was.

He was the him.

Looks like the job's not going to pan out after all.

He wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or not.

He needed a job. He needed a job with out of the ordinary hours, because normal business hours he needed to be at Nine Realms. He needed a job because being a tattoo apprentice paid exactly nothing in terms of money, even if Steve was pretty damn happy with what it actually did pay.

He could get by for a while, he had some savings banked, but he didn't want to keep living off it if he could avoid it. Even when he finished his apprenticeship, it could be a long time before he was pulling in enough money to make a decent living. Draining his account now would be stupid.

The job his boss had maybe kind of lined up for him had sounded next to perfect in terms of hours, but he'd been a bit unsure about the job itself. Working in a brothel had never been something he'd pictured himself doing.

Of course, quitting his shitty corporate hell-job to apprentice as a tattoo artist was also something he'd never pictured himself doing, yet here he was.  

And it wasn't like Sif was trying to get me a job as a prostitute. No, apparently one of her friends needed a receptionist for the night shift, and Sif had promised to recommend Steve.

"Look, just talk to him." Sif's voice, always clear and firm, like it was made to command armies not a bunch of tattooists and the occasional asshole client, rang out as she opened the door to the back room. "I guarantee you'll change your mind."

It didn't take her long to walk down the hall that ran the length of Nine Realms. Individual rooms came off the hall on either side—no doors, but each had a heavy privacy curtain that could be pulled if needed, and the semi-openness gave the whole studio an intimate feel, conversations bouncing easily between the rooms, while still giving each artist a space of their own.

Steve lifted his head and turned his sketchbook around as Sif walked into the front of the studio, a reflex action because Sif was his boss, his mentor, the one who'd given him his way out. She studied it, then gave him a faint smile of approval. "Go talk to Natasha. Be yourself. She's only seeing," Sif waved a hand at him, the curling vines and brilliantly coloured flowers that twisted up her arm catching the light, "this. Show her," she leaned forward and tapped his chest, "this and I'm certain you'll have the job."

He had no idea what that meant, but he nodded and headed down the hallway to the backroom.

It was crowded and cluttered, shelves stacked high with books and loose paper, bits of tattoo equipment waiting to be scavenged or salvaged, the walls covered in old stencils, the only place in Nine Realms that wasn't scrupulously pristine. There was a fridge in the corner, a microwave and coffee maker on the counter next to it, and a table in the centre, its once pale wood covered in layers of paintings like strata, evidence of the artists who'd come and gone over the years.

Sitting at the table was a slender, red-headed woman with eyes that bored into him. Steve made a split-second decision not to call her Natasha, not unless she explicitly told him to.

"Uh, Sif said to come and talk to you?"

Instead of replying, Natasha stood up and walked closer, eyes flicking over him and Steve flashed back to tenth grade biology, dissecting frogs. Suddenly he really felt for the frogs.

She stopped exactly at the edge of his personal space, right at the point where if she moved any closer he'd be getting really uncomfortable, giving him a good view of the top of her head, and he found himself trying to make himself smaller, trying to find that tiny guy he used to be back before puberty gifted him with height and strength and muscles he barely had to work for.

"Do you know what I do for a living?" she asked.

Steve nodded. She raised an eyebrow, obviously wanting more, so Steve said, "You own a brothel."

"Sif recommended you." Steve didn't say anything, because what could he say? "Can you tell me why you want to work in a brothel?"

"I don't, not really." He winced internally at how that sounded. "I mean, I don't not want to. I need a job. You need a receptionist. Sif said it would fit around my hours here, it sounds like something I could do well, and I trust Sif…" He trailed off, not sure what else to say.

"And you'd be comfortable working in a brothel?"

"You're not going to ask me to have sex with anyone, are you?"

Steve thought he saw the tiniest twitch at the corner of her mouth. He wouldn't swear to it, but suddenly the atmosphere eased. Became less like an interrogation and more like a conversation.

"No."

"And everyone who works there is there because they want to be, right? No one's making them?"

Her gaze sharpened, and she cocked her head, like he'd done something surprising. "No. I make very sure of that."

"Then sure, I'll be comfortable." It might not quite be truth, but any discomfort was going to be on him because of how he felt about sex, not because it was a brothel, so it was close enough.

A few more moments of study, and then she smiled. It was a beautiful smile, if a little too perfect, too practiced, but still, he couldn't help returning it. "All right. Sif's never steered me wrong, so I'll give you a chance."

"Thanks."

She nodded. "Can I ask you a question? You don't have to answer, it has nothing to do with the job."

"Sure."

Her eyes dropped to his bare arms, clearly visible since he was only wearing a t-shirt. "Why no tattoos?"

He laughed softly, because it was a question he got a lot, sometimes friendly and curious, sometimes…not. "They're there, just not where you can see them." He ran a hand down his forearm. "I've got the rest of my life to get covered. I'm going to take my time, make sure I choose right." He grinned a little, lifting his eyes to hers. "After all, I've only got so much skin."

The grin she offered in return seemed neither perfect nor practiced; it looked genuine, even if it was verging on the genuinely amused. "More than most, though," she pointed out, looking him up and down, and he sighed and hung his head, making her laugh. "Don't worry. I won't hold it against you." She sat down at the table and pulled a stack of papers out of her bag, gesturing at him to sit. "Let's get this done, shall we?"

 


 

Steve had a job. No, Steve had a job working nine pm to three am in a brothel, The White Russian, and didn't the name roll off the tongue, just like he was sure it was supposed to.

This was his first night as The White Russian's receptionist, and he couldn't help repeating the name a couple of times under his breath, because it hadn't quite sunk in. He felt like working at a brothel of all places should have more impact, especially for him, but when he poked at it all he felt was relieved to have a job, especially one that didn't mind him sketching if it got quiet, since Sif had no problems giving him homework.

Steve leaned on the desk in The White Russian's reception area and took it all in. It was a subtle mix of traditional elegance and modern touches: deep brown leather couches and chairs here, chrome and glass there, floorboard lighting touched with a subtle warm yellow that gave the entire area a golden glow. There were tasteful abstracts on the walls, with more than a hint of O'Keefe floral work about them. Whoever had painted them had obviously been aping her style, but they'd done it well, the colours bold, the paintings hinting at suggestiveness, but it'd take a second look to see it.

He had a clear line of sight to the front door, there were monitors set out of sight under the counter that showed the feed from CCTV cameras so well hidden that even knowing they were there, he had trouble seeing them.

The front door was locked at night, one of Steve's jobs was to listen for the ding that signalled someone approaching the door and release it if it was a customer, and there was a camera over the door to help him out if he needed it. On top of all that, every room had a duress alarm, monitored from the main office, along with the camera feeds.

Steve had a thick manual to read and with the all the security, the rules, the procedures, he'd have felt more like he'd gotten a job at a bank than a brothel, if he hadn't also met the key employees. Given how some of them were dressed—although it wasn't all lace, lingerie, and leather; half had been wearing sweatpants and hoodies, staying comfy between clients—this was obviously not a bank.

They'd eyed him a bit warily, and he'd done his best to make himself as non-threatening as possible, but Natasha—since she'd insisted he call her that—told them she'd vetted Steve (and he wondered what that meant), that there wouldn't be a repeat of the trouble with Brock (and he really wondered what that meant), and they'd relaxed. She'd introduced him to Candy, Roxy, Violet, Honey, Peaches, Angel, each name a little more clichéd than the last, and they'd laughed at his perplexed expression, Venus explaining that they were working names.  

A couple were friendly, but most went back to what they'd been doing before Natasha interrupted them, and he answered the few questions he got asked. A couple more perked up when he mentioned tattoos, asked where he worked, and then Natasha was steering him away to the reception desk and running him through his duties.

Mostly it was greeting people, checking IDs, giving them a menu, and putting them at their ease. If clients were interested in something not on the menu, he'd direct them to a private room on the ground floor to discuss their special request. If they were happy with the standard, he'd show them through to meet the ladies, but he also had to run supplies up to the second floor rooms if they ran low, take bookings and collect payments, answering questions, and keeping an eye on waiting clients.

It honestly didn't seem all that different from the studio.

He was glad Natasha was going to be sitting in the little room behind the reception desk until he settled in. He didn't mind being tossed in the deep end, but it was nice knowing there was someone waiting to pull him out if it turned out he couldn't swim.

 


 

Swimming turned out to be easy enough. The clients ranged from nice to indifferent, at least to Steve. No one was rude, a few were super friendly. No one seemed interested in making trouble. Steve didn't know if it was the time of night, and maybe people were too sleepy by the end of his shift to make trouble, or possibly people about to have sex were just in a good mood, he didn't know. Or maybe it was the detailed manual he'd half-memorised, even if there were frankly some things he could have done without reading, that cued him in to managing clients, but the first week went off without a hitch.

The second week, he'd said good night to Rina, the receptionist on the shift before him, and was just getting set up behind the desk when the bell dinged and he looked up to see a man approaching the front door. He didn't look like trouble, and he waved at the camera, so Steve buzzed the door open.

He came in, smiling when he saw Steve. "Damn, you're big. Where did Nat find you?"

Steve frowned at him. It only made him grin wider. It was a nice grin, it invited Steve to join in as he scratched at the barely-there stubble gracing his elegant jaw, and his grey eyes were sparkling.

"Welcome to The White Russian, sir. Do you have a booking?" Steve knew he didn't, not unless he was incredibly early. The next booking wasn't until ten.  

The guy laughed. "You'd have to tell me. I'm Brooklyn."

Steve blinked. "I thought you were a woman."

Brooklyn looked down at himself, made a show of patting himself down, stared contemplatively into the air, as if pondering the nature of being, then shook his head. "Nope, still a man."

"Oh."

One eyebrow went up. It was not a friendly gesture. "Is that a problem?"

"What?" Steve asked. Brooklyn tilted his head in challenge, and Steve played back the last few moments, wincing when he realised how it sounded. "No! No, I was just surprised. I didn't know there were any men working here."

Now Brooklyn's other eyebrow went up. "Judging by appearances is a terrible habit to get into, so is there something I should know?"

Now Steve was just confused, and it showed.

"I was assuming you're a man, what with the," he waved a hand at Steve, "all of this. Do I owe you an apology?"

"What? Oh! No, I mean yes, I am. A man. I meant I didn't know there were any male prostitutes wor—" Steve stopped as Brooklyn's eyebrows pulled down in a scowl. "What did I do?"

"Not prostitutes. Sex workers. We work in the sex industry, ergo we're sex workers."

"Right. I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"And now you do."

"And now I do." Steve looked down at the counter, then up at Brooklyn. "Is there any chance we could start this again and I'll try not stick my foot in my mouth?"

Brooklyn hummed thoughtfully. "Show me your feet."

Without another word, Steve came out from behind the counter, automatically pulling his shoulders in so he didn't loom over Brooklyn, and waited while Brooklyn studied his feet.

"Okay," Brooklyn said. "There's no way you'd get those monsters in there a second time."

Steve broke into a smile and offered his hand. "Steve Rogers."

"Brooklyn, like I said," he replied, taking his hand and shaking it, then he paused, tilted his head, and said, "Actually, since you're staff? It's Bucky."

"Bucky," Steve repeated, feeling oddly touched.

"Always Brooklyn in front of the clients, though," he added seriously.

"No, of course," Steve promised. "Good to meet you."

"You too," he said, glancing down to where Steve was still holding his hand.

Steve let go with a sheepish smile. "Sorry." Bucky waved it away. "Why did you come in the front door? The staff entrance is safer." The manual had been very clear on that point.

With a sigh, Bucky said, "Because I put my key card through the dryer and it cracked into seven different pieces. And now I have to explain it to Nat, and she's going to tease me about it, endlessly, right after she makes me pay for a new one."

"Yes, she is." Steve and Bucky both jumped as Natasha appeared out of the back room and leaned on the door. There was a smile in her voice to match the satisfied smile on her face. "Every time you go on holiday you lose it, or you break it, or you feed it to a goat. I always tell you to leave it here and you always say, this time will be different. And you're always wrong."

"The goat was one time," Bucky protested.

"One time getting eaten by a goat is one time too many."

Bucky laughed and walked around the counter to drop his forehead on Natasha's shoulder and she ruffled his hair. "Welcome back. You've got a booking at ten, one at twelve, and there'll be walk-ins for you tonight for sure." She held out a keycard. "Don't feed this one to anything."

"Thanks, Nat, I won't," Bucky said, accepting it with a grin, and he tossed Steve a quick smile over his shoulder as he headed into the maze of hallways that led to the staff only part of the ground floor.

 


 

The waiting area at Nine Realms was quiet, not surprising at mid-day on a Wednesday, two clients, an older man and a young woman who were waiting for their appointments, both watched as Steve dealt with the young man who'd arrived without an appointment and who had so far proved immune to gentle dissuasion.

"Like this. Just like this, in black." It was a very definite statement. Just like his previous definite statements.

Steve stared at the printout lying on the glass counter in front of him. It hadn't changed in the last five minutes. It was still a star. A big, boring star. Probably printed off Pinterest—and dear god did Steve hate that site with all the passion he had inside him—and no indication who'd drawn it in the first place. Not that, at least in this case, it really mattered. It was a nothing star, no pattern, no shading, just five points and a whole lot of empty space.

Steve looked up, trying to gauge how committed this guy really was. Steve couldn’t see any other tattoos on him, but that didn't mean anything. The guy could be half-sealed under his t-shirt and jeans, but Steve doubted it. Not if he was asking for a plain black star and looking pretty damn stubborn about it.

He'd been working at The White Russian for three weeks now and, moments like this, he almost preferred it.

"How big were you thinking?" he asked, opting for another tack.

"This big," the guy said, holding out his hand and spreading his fingers, and Steve estimated about seven inches square.   

"And you want it solid black."

"Yeah," the guy said. Fiercely. "So it really pops, you know? I want it to stand out. Make a statement."

Steve didn't close his eyes. "That would make a statement," he muttered, and went on quickly, "And where were you thinking of getting it?"

"Right here." The guy slapped the left side of his neck. Steve's face didn't contort into a pained grimace, but it was close. Over the guy's shoulder he saw Sam wander out to lean in the doorway of the waiting area, rolling his eyes.

"Okay, so for your first tattoo," Steve took a chance, "we don't recommend starting with the neck."

"How'd you know it was my first tattoo?"

"I have a gift."

Sam grinned and Steve made You want to step in here? eyes at him. Sam shook his head and Steve realised this had just become a teaching moment.

Fantastic.

"How about your bicep, or your chest? Those are more traditional places for a first tattoo. Or your shoulder."

"How's anyone gonna see it there?" It was sheer outrage. "It's gotta be on my neck, that's where my buddies all said I should get it, so that's where it's gonna be."

"Well, the neck isn't a great place for a tattoo, the skin can be hard to work with, and a design with this much black in it, it probably won't go on well."

"Look, this is a tattoo parlour, right? And this is a tattoo. So just give it to me." The guy leaned forward, belligerent, obviously trying for intimidating. "How hard can it be?"

Steve wasn't intimidated. If he straightened, he'd be taller, and a lot bigger, but he didn't move, didn't lift his elbows off the counter, just gave the guy a thoughtful look. "What do you do for a living?"

"What?"

"Answer the question." It came out with enough of a bite to it, with enough subtle snap of command, that the guy did as he was told.

"I fix cars."

"Okay, and what do you do when a customer comes in and tells you how to do your job? Do you listen to them? Because obviously they know what they're talking about better than you, you're just a professional with years of experience fixing cars. I mean, you only do it for a living, what would you know about it? Right?"

The guys eyes narrowed.

"No. You ignore them, or if they're really bad you tell them to get out of your garage, because you're a goddamn professional and you know what you're doing."

Steve wasn't sure if it would work. He figured he had a fifty-fifty chance of the guy storming out, but there was no way anyone at Nine Realms would tattoo this guy's neck, so there was really nothing to lose.

"Fine," the guy growled, and shoved the star closer. "Then what do you think?"

"For a start, lose the solid black. Get some shading in there. And you fix cars, so why are you getting a star? Why not go for something to do with cars? And if you're determined to have it visible, let's think about your forearm."

The guy huffed through his nose, but he nodded.

"Okay. What I'm going to do is set you up for a consult with one of our artists, who'll design you a kick-ass tattoo, something you're going to be happy to see in thirty years, not forking out big bucks to have it lasered off."

This time, when the guy nodded, he looked a little intrigued. Steve grabbed the appointment book, set him up with Sam—because it served Sam right—took his deposit and sent him on his way, making sure he took his shitty printout of a star with him.

When he was gone, Sam came over and leaned on the other side of the counter. "Now, wasn't that at least a little bit fun?"

"Honestly, Sam, I suddenly missed the brothel."

"Maybe so, but you did a good job." Sam laughed and shook his head. "Come on, I've got a fresh batch of oranges you can practice on. Maybe you can give one a solid black star. Just in case he changes his mind."

 


 

Wednesdays at The White Russian were usually quiet, but it was one am and Bucky had just sent his fifth client of the night off—a well satisfied client, judging by the tip. He hopped out of the shower, dried himself, and ran his fingers through his hair, getting it to just the right level of artfully dishevelled, then zipped himself into his favourite hoodie, old and soft—and someday soon it was going to fade away into nothing, it was so thin from repeated washing—but he had to lie down to slither into his jeans, they were so tight. It was a comfortable compromise—the hoodie he could swap for a shirt in a couple of minutes but getting into the jeans was a production—and he stared at the ceiling when he was dressed, weighing up his options.

He could go downstairs and hang out, see what everyone else was doing, but that wasn't always relaxing. He was in kind of a strange position—not because he was the only guy working here, although that was unusual, but because of his friendship with Nat. No one was unfriendly, but there was sometimes an awkwardness, a sense that they were watching what they said when he was around, like they couldn’t be quite sure he wouldn't repeat something to Nat.

He wouldn't, not unless it was going to put someone in harm's way, but nothing he could say was going to reassure them—how would he even start that conversation?—and everyone deserved a chance to bitch about their boss, even when their boss was his oldest friend.

Tonight, he wasn't really in the mood for possibly-awkward. That left read, watch Netflix, kill time online, or— He grinned. Or he could go bug Steve.

It was becoming something of a hobby. Steve intrigued him. He hadn't been able to get the measure of him at first, but that had been his own fault. He'd assumed Steve was another Brock, another version of all the other guys just like Brock, muscle-bound and shoving their way through the world like it owed them something. In Bucky's experience, guys only ended up looking like that because they had something to prove, and what they usually proved was they had a great big chip on their shoulder branded 'asshole'.

The assumption didn't last long. Steve didn't shove himself through the world. He was built like those guys, except bigger, broader, wider, taller—there was no getting around it; Steve was huge—but so far that was about the only thing they had in common. Bucky had seen Steve around the girls, around Rina, hell, even around him, and he'd never seen a big guy try so hard to make himself small.

It didn't work, but he tried.

It was intriguing. It was endearing. Steve was interesting, he was incredibly easy on the eyes, and he seemed happy enough to be bothered by a bored Bucky.

With a last glance in the mirror, Bucky headed downstairs.

Bucky had always moved quietly, and he doubled-down on it when he slipped down the dog-leg hall, specifically designed by Nat to give whoever stood at the corner a view of the reception area without being seen. There were no clients waiting, so he was good to head out and talk to Steve, but instead he stopped, staring at him.

Okay, that's pretty damn endearing. Possibly angling for an upgrade to adorable.

Steve was sitting at the reception desk, head bent, obviously deep in concentration, pen moving smoothly across an oversized sketchbook, his tongue caught between his teeth, the tip poking out of his mouth. His nose wrinkled, his brow furrowed, and he sucked his bottom lip between his teeth, tongue disappearing. But only for a moment, then it was back, poking out.  

Bucky hadn't intended to come down and stare like a creeper, but this was too entertaining not to.

Eventually Steve stopped, leaned back with a sigh, made a face at whatever he'd been drawing, then leaned down to start pulling orange balls with multi-coloured markings out of a bag, laying them out one by one, tucked against the back of the desk.

The scent of citrus wafted into the air. Steve picked up his pen, but before he could start drawing, Bucky had to come closer and ask, "Are those oranges?"

"What? Oh, yeah." Steve looked embarrassed, half-heartedly trying to hide them, but Bucky's curiosity was up.

"What happened to them?"

Steve looked from Bucky to the oranges and back and he wasn't sure Steve was going to answer, but then he sighed, picked one up, and held it out. Bucky walked over and plucked it out of his hand. One half was covered in a mandala, a bit lopsided but graceful, all dots and swooping lines.

He tilted his head in question, and Steve said, "I tattooed them."

"You…tattooed them."

Steve nodded.

"Are they rebel oranges? Trying to prove something to their parents?" He sternly told the orange in his hand, "Didn't anyone ever tell you you'll never get a good job if you cover yourself in tough stickers?"

A snort pulled his eyes back to Steve. "Tough stickers?"

"Haven't heard that one, huh?"

"No."

"Well, you can add it to your repertoire." Bucky offered him the orange and Steve took it back. "You know what I'm going to ask, right?"

"Why was I tattooing oranges?"

"Got it in one."

"Yeah, it was pretty easy to figure out," Steve said, deadpan.

"Hey, I'm a mysterious enigma."

Steve gave him a doubtful look. Bucky pouted. Steve ignored it and said, "I'm an apprentice tattooist, so I practice on things that aren't people. Oranges are, well they're not a great substitute, but they're okay."

"I don't think I've ever met an apprentice tattooist before. I don't think I ever thought about how tattooists became tattooists. Huh."

"Glad I could clear that up for you."

"You know, you're awfully sarcastic for an apprentice tattooist."

"How would you know? You've never met one before."

"Good point. Can I see the rest of your oranges?"

"Be my guest," Steve said, pushing his chair away from the desk and waving his hand at the line of citrus fruit. When Bucky came around to join him behind the desk, Steve stood up and leaned in the doorway of the backroom. Bucky knew he'd done it deliberately. There wasn't much room behind the desk, not when one of them was the size of Steve, and if he'd stayed where he was, Bucky would have been effectively trapped against the desk.

Bucky wasn't even surprised, but he contemplated Steve thoughtfully out of the corner of his eye before he turned his attention to the oranges.

They were beautiful. There were flowers and birds, and maybe he could see wobbly lines and colours that didn't match up perfectly, but they all had an elegance to them, a distinctive style.

Except for one. "What happened here?" he asked, hefting the orange that was half-covered by an ugly, solid black star. He looked over his shoulder in time to see Steve roll his eyes.

"Some clients are too stupid to be helped, and being an apprentice means you get all the crap jobs, including dealing with clients who are too stupid to be helped."

"So you did this to an innocent orange."

"Bucky," Steve said earnestly, and Bucky eyed him at the tone, "that orange wasn't innocent. I won't subject you to the horrors it was planning, no one deserves to have that kind of nightmare inflicted on them, but trust me. That orange deserves whatever it gets."

Bucky huffed a laugh and chucked the orange at Steve, who caught it and grinned. "What did I say? Sarcastic."

"I can neither confirm nor deny."

Shaking his head, Bucky tsked at Steve, but his rejoinder was interrupted by the ding that warned of someone approaching the front door. "And that's my cue to get out of here. Enjoy your oranges. Try and keep them from taking over the world."

"Will do."

As Bucky headed into the maze of the back rooms, he heard the front door open, heard Steve greet the new arrivals. He put on an extra burst of speed, unzipping his hoodie as he went, because one of the women who'd just arrived was one of his regulars and he needed to swap his hoodie for the shirt he'd left in the bathroom.

 


 

It was a week later, and Steve was sitting behind the reception desk at The White Russian, trying to sort out the pile of invoices Rina had left him, when a voice said quietly from next to his ear, "Did you dream of this when you were a kid?"

Steve jerked in surprise, because Bucky could move like a cat, and he'd snuck up on Steve.

He knew it, too, from the way he was grinning.

"What are you talking about?"

"You know, when I grow up I want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a fireman. Did you ever dream you'd grow up to be the receptionist at a brothel?"

Steve could feel his eyebrows judging Bucky. "How old of a kid are we talking, here, and why exactly do you think I knew about brothels?"

"That's a fair point."

"Thank you."

"It was my roundabout way," Bucky said, "of encouraging you to tell me how you ended up working here."

Steve gave it some thought, then had to admit, "I don't really know."

Bucky lifted an eyebrow. "That's not usually how jobs work, there, Steve."

"No, I know. I just, Sif, she owns Nine Realms, the studio I'm apprenticed at, she's friends with Natasha." Bucky nodded. "I know she recommended me, but I also know Natasha really didn't want me for the job, and then suddenly she did." Steve shrugged helplessly. "I don't know what changed her mind, because when Sif sent me to talk to her she wasn't happy to see me."

Bucky hummed thoughtfully. "I can answer that. At least, I can answer the why she didn't want you part."

Steve gave him an expectant look. 

"See, awhile back, Nat thought it would be a good idea to hire someone like you to work this shift."

"Someone like me?"

"Big. Broad. Built like the proverbial brick shithouse."

"Right," Steve said, shifting in his chair.

"You are, Steve. You can't deny it." Bucky flashed him a piercing look. "No matter how small you try and make yourself."

He went still, searching Bucky's face.

"Yeah, I see it. We've all seen it. You do it with the girls more than with me, but you do it. The closer we stand to you, the smaller you try and make yourself."

"I don't like looming over people." He rubbed his arm, avoiding Bucky's eyes. "I hated when people did it to me."

Bucky blinked. "Okay, you're going to need to explain that one sometime. Anyway, the guy Nat hired, he was good at talking the talk, not so good at walking the walk. He was built like you. Not quite your size, but pushing it, only he liked to puff up like a rooster. Looming was practically his hobby." Bucky's smile was humourless. "And boy did he like the idea of working in a brothel. He was very good, because he managed to hide how he felt from Nat, but it rapidly became clear that he assumed it was going to come with perks."

Steve winced and unconsciously tried to make himself smaller.

"You're doing it again," Bucky said softly. "You don't have to, you know. None of us thinks you're going to do anything bad with your ridiculous size." He paused, then went on, "It didn't take long for Nat to throw him out on his ass. Literally." His grin was bloodthirsty. "Nat has skills like you wouldn’t believe, but it left a sour taste in her mouth. So I'm guessing she took one look at you, flashed back to Brock, and figured not a chance in hell."

"I don't blame her."

"Nope, neither do I. But whatever you did," and after that story, Steve was starting to figure it out, "I'm glad she changed her mind."

Steve ducked his head and Bucky laughed, but it was easy, gentle, laced through with notes of fondness, and he reached out to pat Steve's shoulder. "Okay, I've gotta go get ready. I've got a client coming in for a BFE at…"

"…at eleven," Steve finished with him. "I know. You've got everything you need?"

"The room should be fully stocked, but I'll ring down if I need anything."

 


 

Unless Bucky arrived to find his schedule fully booked, it was impossible to know how the night would go. Some nights would end up being nothing but tumbleweeds and crickets, and some nights were practically revolving door.

This had turned into a tumbleweeds night, at least for Bucky, and he was calling it quits. He was rostered on until three am, but they were all allowed to cut their hours short, and tonight he was calling it. He was done. If anyone showed up and wanted him, they could go away disappointed for one night.

He was restless, though, wasn't quite ready to head home, wasn't in the mood to go out. He hadn't had a chance to talk to Steve since last week—and unlike him, Steve had been busy all night, but a peek around the corner showed he'd finally hit a quiet spot.

Bucky walked out and hopped up to sit on the desk. Steve looked up at him expectantly, like he'd been waiting for Bucky to show up. It warmed him, helped settle some of the restlessness.

"Okay, so why tattooing?"

Steve laughed, warm and mellow. "Is this what you do for fun? Interrogate me?"

"You're interesting."

"I'm really not," Steve promised, and Bucky had a sneaking suspicion Steve actually believed that. It made him a little sad.

"Interesting's in the eye of the interrogator," Bucky said airily, waving a hand, and Steve laughed again. "You know you don't have to answer me if you don't want to."

"No, it's fine. Honestly, I never saw tattooing coming. I was working in advertising."

"Okay. How to you get from advertising to tattooing?"

Steve hesitated, fiddling with a pen one the desk. "This really isn't all that interesting."

Bucky leaned forward and planted his elbows on his knees, set his chin in his hand. "Tell me anyway."

"All right, if you insist."

"I do. I insist." Bucky waggled his eyebrows. "I have ways of making you talk."

Steve stifled a laugh. "I'm scared to ask. Okay, so I studied art at college, got a degree and everything. I loved it, I don't regret it, but it's not the most employable field." Bucky nodded. "I had to take what I could get. I ended up landing a job as a graphic designer for an advertising agency. The pay was, looking back, it was incredible for someone fresh out of school—which should have been the first red flag. Most of what I was drawing was, well, you know what most ads are like."

Bucky winced.

"Yeah," Steve agreed, grimacing. "But some of it was fun, and I liked having to work to a deadline, having to pull stuff out of nowhere at short notice, I really enjoyed that."

"I hear a great big but in there."

"Yeah, they were the problem."

"Come again?"

"The great big butts."

"Ah."

"It was… Have you ever heard the expression douchebro?"

"Steve, not only have I heard the expression, I've had sex with more than a few in my time." Steve gave him a look of horror and Bucky grinned. "I usually found a way to charge them extra."

"Good," Steve said with feeling. "The company was nothing but douchebros as far as the eye could see, with a reputation to match. Problem was, once I'd worked there, I got tarred with the same brush." He smiled wanly. "No one else in the industry was interested in hiring me and that's where all my experience was."

"So you decided to become a tattooist?"

"No, I decided to get a tattoo." Bucky cocked his head. "I was waiting for my session one day, and a species of bro was trying to explain this fully sick tat, bro," the way the words curled out of Steve's mouth made Bucky cringe, and Steve gave him a look of sympathy, "to Angie, one of the artists, and she wasn't getting it, because she doesn't speak fluent bro."

"But you do."

"But I do. I always have a sketch book with me, so the easiest thing to do was just draw it up, I did, and gave it to her, and I swear to god, Bucky, I thought they were both going to kiss me."

"Can you blame them?" Bucky asked. Steve shifted uncomfortably, and Bucky nudged him with his knee, grinning a little. "If you hadn't stepped in, they'd probably still be there, trying to work it out. I'm surprised they didn't propose on the spot."

Steve huffed a laugh. "Anyway, when you spend as much time getting tattooed as I did, you run out of things to talk about. I might have bitched too much to Sif about my job. When we took a break, she asked to see my sketchbook, asked me to draw her a few things. I thought it was just an art thing." He laughed softly. "I didn't realise it was a test. After my last session, she told me the studio was looking to take on an apprentice and asked if I was interested." He shrugged. "And here I am."

"And here you are." Bucky stretched, covering a yawn, his restlessness having faded while he was talking to Steve. "I am sorry about the douchebros, and I'm sorry your life didn't work out the way you planned, but I'm not sorry you ended up here." Steve glanced up at him and the light caught his eyes, making them gleam blue. Bucky had a sudden urge to run his hands through Steve's hair, to see if it was as soft as it looked. It took him completely by surprise. He covered his momentary hesitation with an impish smile. "It'd be way less interesting without you."

"Oh yeah, I'm just a barrel of laughs," Steve said, dry as dust, and Bucky curled his fingers together to keep himself from giving into temptation. "What about you?"

"Oh, I am a barrel of laughs. Ask anyone."

"Not that," Steve said with a little huff. "How'd you end up doing this?"

Bucky leaned back on his hands, studying Steve, who gradually began to fidget under Bucky's scrutiny. "Are you asking for my tragic backstory?" Bucky finally asked.

"No?" Steve said, blinking in surprise. "I mean— Do you have a tragic backstory? I'll listen if you want to tell me, I didn't mean I wouldn't listen to you. I'd listen to anything you want to tell me, but I wasn't trying to get you to tell me anything that personal." He frowned. "At least I didn't mean to. Sorry?" Steve offered while warmth and what felt distinctly like affection spiralled up Bucky's spine.

"Why are you apologising?" he asked curiously.

Steve's uncertainty vanished. "In case I said something that hurt you."

"You're apologising just in case."

"Yes." It was very firm, but the uncertainty crept back as he asked, "Did I?"

"Nah." Steve breathed a sigh of relief Bucky felt in his own chest. "Most people, when they want to know how I became a sex worker? The 'because you must have a tragic backstory' is implied."

"Oh." Steve scowled. "That's shitty."

"Tell me about it." Bucky rolled his eyes. "Still want to know?"

"I feel a little like I'm walking in a minefield here, but yes, if you want to tell me."

"I needed a job, and everything else on offer was crappy hours, shitty bosses, and even worse pay. Some of us don't have a fancy degree." He wiggled his fingers, but grinned, so Steve would know he didn't mean any harm.

"And a fancy degree can net you a life full of douchebros," Steve reminded him.

"Point," Bucky said. "Nat's been running this place for, hmm, it'd be going on seven years now, and I figured, why not? I don't mind sex, people are willing to pay me for it, and Nat looks after us." Part of which had involved explaining that no, sex didn't bother him, he was fine with having it, because Nat had always known he was ace, but even she'd had certain assumptions about what that meant. "Maybe I wouldn't have been so quick to jump on the idea if Nat hadn't been willing to take me on, and it was a bit strange, normally a place is just girls, or just guys, but it hasn't hurt business any, going mixed, and three years later this is the best job I've ever had."

"Why?"

"The hours, the money, the control," he counted them off on his fingers, "Nat, I don't do anything I don't want to do."

Steve's face was saying I want to ask something and Bucky waved at him. "Ask." When Steve blinked in surprise, he prompted, "Whatever it is you're so loudly not asking."

Steve picked up the pen and fiddled with it, and Bucky braced himself a little, figuring whatever was coming, it was gonna be a doozy.

He wasn't expecting, "You're safe though, right?" Steve paused, looking deeply uncomfortable, but pushed on, "I mean, I read the manual, but, you do all that?"

That spiral of warmth again, of affection. It could have been insulting, it could have been patronising, from someone else it might have been. But there was a wrinkle of worry between Steve's brows and all Bucky was picking up from him was genuine concern.

"Yeah, Steve. I do all that and then some. I'm safe. Every time. You don't have to worry about me."

"Okay, good."

 


 

With its wooden floors and pale blue walls, the room set aside at The White Russian for staff to stow their belongings didn't look anything like a locker room—even with the oversized chrome lockers lining two walls.

Steve closed his and found Bucky leaning against the lockers, smiling faintly. Steve shook his head. "How do you do that?"

"I'm going to need you to be more specific." Bucky smirked at him. "I do so many things well."

"And yet your modesty's what people always notice first."

"Is that what they're calling it these days?" Bucky laughed and Steve couldn't help joining in.

"Something like that. What's up?"

"A bunch of us are going out for drinks. Do you want to come?"

If it had just been Bucky… But it wasn't. "Can't. I have to be at Nine Realms by ten, I need to sleep. Maybe next time?"

Bucky tilted his head. "You start there at ten and you finish at…?"

"We close at six."

"You start here at nine and finish at three."

"Uh huh."

"When do you not work?"

"I've got Sunday and Monday off, but it's not forever."

"Mondays you work here."

"Okay, I have Sunday and most of Monday off," he said, not meaning to sound defensive. "And I only work there on Saturdays."

"Easy, Steve. Not criticising. Just wondering when you get time to socialise." Bucky's voice softened, like he was trying to soothe him. "Down time's important."

"Sorry." He ran his hands through his hair. Bucky's eyes followed the movement, and there was a little half-smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. "It's not forever, and honestly, it's not that bad. I mean, Nine Realms kind of is my socialising. They're good people."

Bucky was nodding in understanding. "I get that. I mean, Nat's my oldest friend."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. I was six when she pushed me out of her tree house and I broke my arm." Steve stared at him. Bucky grinned. "Hey, she helped me get home and we covered for each other, since I wasn't supposed to climb the tree in the first place, and we've been friends ever since."

"Amazing."

"She really is. My family adores her. I think they wanted to adopt her at one point."

"They changed their mind?"

"Nah, but they're all living overseas, so, you know, out of sight out of mind." He tilted his head towards Steve. "What about you?"

"What about me what?"

"Do you have family here?"

"Oh, no, uh it was just me and my mom growing up and she passed a few years ago."

"Steve. I'm sorry."

"It's okay. It was, I'm used to it now." Bucky gently touched his arm and Steve gave him a little smile. He should let Bucky go, he should head home and get some sleep, but he didn't want to. Somewhere along the line, talking to Bucky had turned into one of the high points of his nights. It was that reluctance to let him go that made him say, "Hey, about once a month we all head out to this place around the corner from the studio, grab dinner together. It's not fancy, but the food's good. Next week, you should come."

Bucky gave him a dubious look. "I don't think they'd want me barging in."

"No, friends and family and partners have a standing invitation."

Smirking, Bucky asked, "And where exactly do I fall on that list?"

Steve stared at him, flustered, and Bucky patted him on the shoulder. "It's okay, you were trying to bridge an awkward moment, I won't hold you to it."

"What if I want you to?" Steve asked, stubborn as stone, because he'd meant it, even if Bucky had thrown him for a loop.

Bucky seemed momentarily surprised, then his smirk settled into a warm smile. "I guess you'd better invite me, then."

"Good." He put on his fanciest voice. "Bucky would you be so good as to join us for dinner?"

"I'd be delighted."

"Great." They grinned at each other. "I've got a serious question though."

"Shoot."

"Do you want me to keep quiet about where I know you from?" 

Bucky's smile faded. His voice was casual, but there was a bite to it as he asked, "Don't want your friends to know what I do for a living?"

"No, it's not that. I'm not going to make your choices for you."

Bucky's eyes were dark, doubting, and Steve hesitantly reached out to touch his arm. "Brooklyn." Bucky's eyes sharpened. "You use a working name. That means you care about," he stopped, looking for the right words, then went with, "not crossing the streams." Bucky huffed quietly. "I don't know if that's just for clients or if it's for everyone, so unless you tell me otherwise..." He trailed off.

After a minute, Bucky's eyes lightened and he relaxed against the lockers. He shrugged one shoulder. "They're your friends. It's your call."

Steve bit his bottom lip, unsure, not wanting to ask but needing to know. "Is this a test?"

Bucky softened. "No, Steve, it's not a test. I don't give tests to my friends."

Steve beamed at him, his heart warming when Bucky beamed back.

 


 

The night was cool, the sun just starting to get low in the sky, and Bucky came around the corner from parking his car to be greeted by the sight of Steve pacing back and forth outside the entrance to a completely unassuming looking…bistro, according to the sign. Lock'n'Load had large open windows, a tin awning, and a balcony on the second floor. Add in the name and it looked like something out of an old western.

"Steve," he said as he got closer, and Steve stopped pacing and came to meet him, bright smile lighting up the evening.

"Bucky, hey."

"Am I late?"

"No?"

"So the waiting and pacing was for…"

"Oh, yeah, I," Steve rubbed the back of his neck, "I didn't want you to have to walk in alone."

The rapidly-becoming-familiar curl of warmth and affection made itself known. "That's very sweet." He batted his eyelashes and made his voice honey-rich, mostly to cover the fact that he genuinely thought it was.

Steve grinned. "Shut up," he said lightly. "You coming?" he asked, leading the way towards the open door.

"Lead and I'll follow."

Thankfully there was no sign of a western theme once they got inside, just a lot of mismatched wood and dark paisley wallpaper almost entirely hidden by the haphazard arrangement of small, framed pictures, apparently chosen entirely for their colour—gold and brown and dark greens—judging by the random assortment of subject matter, and a bar with booze on dark wooden shelves stretching to the ceiling. They stopped at the bar to order their meals and grab drinks, then Steve led him out past the tall tables, under the fabric shaded pendant lamps, and out into the courtyard.

The interior had been nothing special, verging a little towards the tacky.

The courtyard was amazing.

It was huge and open, a massive tree growing in the corner, with lush, bright green plants growing around the edges in planters and attached to the walls. A latticed roof, built around the tree, let in breeze and light. Two tables had been pushed together and the people seated at them looked up as Steve led Bucky over.

"Hey guys." Steve briefly rested gentle fingers on Bucky's arm. "This is Bucky, my friend from work. My other work, the one where they actually pay me."

Steve had opted for full disclosure. Somehow Bucky wasn't surprised.

There was a short pause, and Bucky prepared himself for any one of the various ways it could go, but then there were various 'Hi's and 'Hello's and 'Good to meet you's and a man with complex, interlocked birds of prey covering his arms, bold colours contrasting with his dark skin, gave Steve a wicked grin and said, "Hey, we pay you, we just don't pay you in money."

"Of course, what was I thinking," Steve said, deadpan, then turned to Bucky. "Bucky, this is Sam," Steve pointed at the man who'd spoken, "don't listen to him. Sif, who owns Nine Realms, and Angie, Hogun, Lily, Luis, and Fandral, they all work at the studio." Steve pointed to each of them in turn, Bucky gave a general wave to the table and received friendly nods or waves in return.

"Here, is this okay?" Bucky sat where Steve indicated, next to Sam, and Steve sat on the other side, right at the corner of the table.

Sam gave him a friendly smile, and Bucky said, "Steve told me other people came to this thing, but I seem to be the only odd man out."

"They do, Steve wasn't leading you on. You're just tonight's only ringer."

"Good to know you weren't pulling my leg when you said other people show up at these things," he said to Steve.

"Bucky, I wouldn't—"

"Relax, Steve," Bucky grinned, "I know."

"Okay," Angie said, obviously picking up the thread of the conversation they'd interrupted. "Who's next? Worst client you've ever had."

"I think," Sif said thoughtfully, "out of all of them, it was the man who kept demanding changes to the design. Which is bad enough, but is understandable at least, except he wouldn't stop hovering. Standing behind me, staring at what I was doing, making comments, and getting closer and closer. He had no concept of personal space. I thought by the end he was going to climb in my lap." She gave an elaborate shudder. "And after all that, he didn't even tip!"

Everyone at the table hissed, even Bucky.

"That's bad, boss, but I can beat it." Sif smiled and sipped her drink, gesturing at Angie to continue. "Soccer mom, with the latte and the phone and the outfit and all? She came in for a tiny camel on her big toe and carried on like she was being slaughtered. Squealing, crying, brought three of her friends and they all tried to pile their crap on my workstation." She made a face. "If I hadn't had three cancellations, I wouldn't have taken her at all. Never again." She finished her drink. "Never again."

"That is bad," Sif said, to a murmur of agreement.

Bucky glanced at Steve, who was leaning back in his chair, looking relaxed and content. "You're sure this is what you want to do?"

"Yeah," he said, with a tiny smile, nudging his shoulder against Bucky's. "Need anything?"

He shook his head.

"I can top that," Fandral said, leaning forward. "Matching couple tattoos, with a matching couple making out while I was trying to tattoo them. I'm glad you're happy, it's wonderful you're in love, but please stop demonstrating while I'm trying to tattoo you. I know it's wrong of me, but after the tenth time I had to ask them to please hold still, I took a great deal of petty satisfaction in the fate of couples who get matching tattoos."

A collective amused groan arose, and Bucky sent Steve a questioning look. "It means they're basically doomed," Steve said. "A matching couple tattoo is the death knell of a relationship."

"How come?"

"Who knows," Fandral said. "But I've covered up more than I've ever done, and I've done a lot. And the best bit is, if I'm covering up something I've done? Half the time they ask for a discount!"

"Customers," Angie muttered.

"I'll drink to that," Sam agreed.

Glasses were clinked, and it wasn't long before dinner arrived. Conversation slowed down as they ate, falling into natural lulls, and when the plates were cleared, Bucky settled back, contributing occasionally, but mostly watching Steve enjoying the interplay between him and his friends. And co-workers or not, there was no doubt they were his friends. It wasn't like him and Nat, there wasn't that deep closeness, although watching him with Sam, with Sif, he thought there was something extra there. But all of them obviously cared about Steve, they liked him, and seeing it gave Bucky a sense of satisfaction.

Throughout it all, Steve kept checking in with him, sending him little glances, making sure he was okay, that he didn't feel left out, and each time Bucky would give him a reassuring smile.

He was content to observe. It was teaching him a lot about Steve.

Eventually, he checked his phone and it was time to go. They both had to get to work. He gently touched Steve's elbow and when Steve turned, lifted his eyebrows.

"Already?"

"Afraid so."

They said their goodbyes, got a rousing chorus in return, invitations were extended to Bucky to come to the next one, and they made their way outside.

"Where are you parked?" Bucky asked.

"At the studio. It's about fifteen minutes that way." Steve pointed.

"I'm around the corner. Tell you what. I'll drive, and I'll drop you at the studio after work."

"Are you sure? That's, it's really not necessary."

He shrugged. "It's not a problem. It won't be that far out of my way, and we may as well head in to work together."

Steve shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the sidewalk, then slanted a look sideways at Bucky. "Yeah, okay."

"Don't do me any favours, there, Steve."

Steve laughed and fell into step with him as they headed to Bucky's car. "Did you have a good time?"

"Yeah, your friends are nice."

"They liked you."

"I liked 'em, too."

"You going to come to the next one?"

"I'll think about it," Bucky teased.

Steve laughed. "You do that."

 


 

"So, dinner with Steve." Nat handed him a cup of tea, then settled in the chair across from him.

Bucky loved Nat's place, it was warm and cosy in a way he knew anyone who didn't know her, didn't really know her, would never expect and there were very few people she invited over. He'd always been one of them. Hell, he'd help paint the walls that specific and particular colour of pale pink. He loved it here, he loved the time they got to spend together, just the two of them, but experience should have taught him that mentioning the other night would lead to questions.

Although… She hadn't actually asked a question.

He sipped his tea and stayed quiet.

The tiniest smile appeared on her face as she watched him. "Nothing to say?"

"Oh, did you want me to say something?" Bucky asked innocently.

She made judgemental eyes at him over her teacup and Bucky grinned. But he also relented, because it didn't do to push Nat; she had creative ways of making him suffer. "As I already said, I didn't have dinner with Steve. Steve invited me to his monthly dinner with the tattoo gang."

"The tattoo gang?"

"Tattoo posse? Tattoo crew?"

"I'll pass those on to Sif."

Bucky stifled a laugh.

"But you went is the important part."

"It's Steve. Have you ever tried to say no to Steve?"

That got him the tiniest wrinkle between her eyebrows. "You didn't want to go?"

And that he needed to head right off at the pass. Nat did not react well to people making him do things he didn't want to do, no matter how innocuous. "No, I did. I had fun. His friends," he shifted the tea cup between his hands, thinking about it, and nodded, "yeah, they were good."

She made a thoughtful noise, but didn't say anything, just sat there, drinking her tea, watching him, until he sighed and said, "Just spit it out, Nat, whatever it is."

"You spend a lot of time with him."

Surprised, he said, "And?"

"That's not something you usually do."

"Steve's different."

"Is he?"

"Yeah, he is."

"Just be careful, Bucky. I don't want to see you hurt. Getting involved with civilians," he dipped his head to hide his smile at Nat's term for people who weren't part of the industry, and working at The White Russian or not, in Nat's eyes Steve was a civilian, "rarely works out."

"I know, Nat, but it's not a problem, because it's not like that."

Nat set her tea down on the table and leaned forward, studying him.

"It's not," he promised. "Seriously, Nat."

She sat back and retrieved her tea cup. "Then I won't worry about it."  

 


 

Steve was exhausted.

Nine Realms had been crazy busy, and then he'd arrived at The White Russian and walked into chaos. Rina had looked like she was about to cry, so Steve had dumped his bag and jumped in.

He still didn't understand why someone would hold a work function in a brothel—although, thinking back to his old job, he was surprised they'd never tried to do exactly that—but he wasn't here to judge. He was here to get everyone organised and collect the money and say, in his best apologetic customer-service voice, "No special requests," when Rina tapped the note on the desk.

They'd picked The White Russian because it was the only place that could accommodate everyone, thanks to Bucky, and four of them wanted him. Everyone else had a wish list of women. What Steve couldn’t figure out was, given this was literally the only place in the city that could accommodate them, why in the hell hadn't they booked?

He kept that thought off his face, just sent Rina home while he ran credit cards and sorted the schedule and Natasha glad-handed the clients, offering light refreshments while they waited.

By the time they were gone, he was exhausted. He couldn't imagine how everyone else was feeling. After about an hour, an hour in which no one darkened their door, his contemplation of the desk was interrupted by, "I honestly think it would have been easier to see them all at once."

Steve didn't lift his head from where it was resting on his hand, elbow planted on the desk, but he did raise his eyebrows at Bucky, "Except Natasha would kill you."

"Now how do you know that?" Bucky made his way over to sit on the desk next to Steve.

"I told you, I read the manual, Natasha's orders, and it's very clear: no more than two clients at a time."

"She made you read the whole thing?"

Steve nodded.

"Really the whole thing?"

Steve nodded again.

"With the colour pictures?"

Instead of nodding, Steve made a face. Bucky patted his shoulder sympathetically. "Hey, at least you now know how to thoroughly check someone for STIs and make it look like foreplay."

"Yeah, that'll come in so handy."

Bucky gave him a mildly disapproving look. "Safe sex is important for everyone."

He opened his mouth, closed it, sighed, and said, "I know," because it was just easier.

"Good." Bucky leaned around him, one hand on his shoulder for balance, and peered at the clock. "Thirty minutes to go. I don't know about you, but I'm starving. I'm clocking out now, but if you want to have breakfast with me, I'll wait for you."

"What?"

"How tired are you?" Bucky teased. "I'm offering to take you to breakfast-slash-dinner before you go home and crash."

He was exhausted, he wanted to fall on his bed and stare at the inside of his eyelids, but he didn't hesitate to say, "I'd love to."

 


 

Bucky took him to Graeme's. It was a bit hole-in-the-wallish, but that suited Steve fine. Fancy had never been his favourite seasoning.

He slid into the booth Bucky pointed him at, and Bucky slid in across from him. There were menus in a holder, but Bucky didn't grab one. Instead he asked, "Do you have any allergies? Anything you can't eat?"

"I'm not really fond of caviar, but other than that…" Steve shrugged.

"Damn, and there goes my plan to surprise you with caviar omelettes." Steve chucked a sugar packet at him and Bucky batted it away. "In that case, let me order for you? I've been coming here since I started working for Nat, I've literally tried everything on the menu, and I know exactly what to get you."

"Sure. I trust you. Order away."

"How much do you eat? There's a lot of you."

"I can put away a whole cow if I'm sufficiently motivated," Steve said, straight faced, and Bucky looked at him. Steve cracked a grin. "Seriously, whatever you're getting for you is fine."

"If you're sure." Bucky slid out of the booth and went up to the counter. He came back a few minutes later with a plastic number, a carafe of coffee, a jug of milk and two mugs. He set them down, poured the coffee, asked Steve with a single lifted eyebrow if he wanted milk and, when Steve nodded, added milk to his coffee, then resumed his seat. "Now that I don't miss," he muttered.

"What?"

"I was a waiter for a while. Not the best time I've ever had."

Steve nodded and sipped his coffee. Bucky added three packets of sugar to his and did the same, then eyed Steve over the rim. "You owe me an explanation."

"Excuse me?"

"Or a story at least," he said, putting his mug down.

"I do?"

"Mmmhmm."

Steve wracked his brain, trying to figure out what Bucky was talking about, but his brain wasn't really awake enough to cooperate with wracking, and he came up empty.

"How you were ever small enough to be loomed over," Bucky prompted.

"Oh, that."

"Yes, that. You piqued my curiosity, Steve. And I need to know."

"You do, do you?" Steve asked, smiling as he took another sip of coffee.

"I do."

"It's not really that exciting." Not exciting at all, truthfully, but Bucky was watching him expectantly and there was something soothing about Bucky's presence, about Bucky's voice, so Steve didn't mind telling him what little story there was.

"See, I used to be small." Steve held out his hand, about five and a half feet off the ground. "And then I hit puberty, and I got bigger."

Bucky's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Do you have a middle name?"

"Why?"

"Just answer the question."

"Sure, it's Grant."

"Steven Grant Rogers, I do not believe for one second that's the whole story."

"Did you just Full Name me?"

Bucky nodded and took a deep and somehow smug sip of coffee.

"Huh." Steve rubbed the back of his neck. "That was disturbing."

"And don't you forget it. I have all the power now."

Steve put his elbow on the table and his chin on his hand and smiled ruefully. "Honestly, you probably did before." Bucky blinked in surprise. "But you're right, it's not the whole story. I wasn't just small. I was small. Skinny. Weedy. The proverbial ninety pounds soaking wet, blow over in a strong breeze. I mean, pick your cliché."

"And?"

Steve heaved out a sigh. "And I was a target for bullies." Bucky winced, but Steve held up a hand. "Mostly because I made myself one. My mom said I never learned to leave well enough alone, but she usually sounded proud when she said it, so." He lifted one shoulder. "I never learned to pass by on the other side, always had to shove myself in the middle of trouble. Most of the time I couldn't stop the people causing it, for a long damn time they were bigger than me, but if they were paying attention to me, whoever they were trying to hurt could get away."

Bucky set his coffee cup down, eyes never leaving Steve's, and Steve wanted to look away, but there was something in Bucky's gaze that was holding him right where he was. "You didn't like it when people loomed over you."

He let out a breath. "No." It came out quieter than he meant it to. "There was always a moment when I'd hit the ground. Always. I'd get up again, but that moment, there was always someone bigger than me, looming over me, and I hated it." He grimaced and looked away. "I never want to do that to anyone."

Bucky's touch drew him back. His hand covered Steve's, and he squeezed gently. "You don't, you know. You're too careful for that."

Steve stared at Bucky's hand, curled gently around his, at Bucky's fingers, strong and smooth, nails perfectly clipped, and knew he should pull away. It felt too good, and he couldn't afford to want it.

After a moment, Bucky gave another little squeeze and let him go, saying, voice light, "Even if you did hit puberty and become a giant."

Steve firmly told himself he didn't miss the touch. "I'm not a giant."

"You're taller than me. Your shoulders are almost twice as wide as mine, same with your biceps," Bucky pointed out, voice light and teasing. "Face it, Steve. Giant."

"Have you ever considered maybe you're just tiny?"

"Yes, me and the rest of the world," Bucky deadpanned as their food arrived. "Thanks, Mary. It looks fantastic."

It did. It wasn't pretty or artfully arranged, but it smelled amazing and there was bacon, hash browns, eggs, toast, fried tomato, sausages, and mushrooms. "Neither of us are going to be tiny after this," Steve said, when he'd thanked the waitress.

"Graeme's from England and this is a proper full English breakfast. Minus the beans. I can't do baked beans for breakfast, even when it's dinner."

They ate in silence for a while, and Steve was finishing his bacon when Bucky asked, "So you don't have to work at it?"

"No, of course I do, but I don't have to work that much. My body just kind of…does it? I run, swim, do a few weights, and it just," he shrugged helplessly, "kind of happens."

"Good."

Steve's eyebrows shot up and he couldn't help the tiny hint of tension. People deciding his body was good generally led to conversations he didn't enjoy. "Why is it good?"

"Tossing yourself at bullies when you were, what was it, ninety pounds soaking wet?" Steve nodded. "If anyone deserves this?" He waved a hand at Steve. "You do."

The tension faded and left a bubbling warmth behind, and it only bubbled higher when Bucky pressed his shin against Steve's leg, casual, comfortable, like he was saying hey, I'm here with you.

 


 

It was the start of a routine, even if neither of them realised it.

The following Monday, just before three am, Bucky wandered over and said, "Graeme's?"

Steve, after a moment, said, "Sounds great."

The Monday after that, Steve found Bucky shoving stuff in his bag and he was even more diffident than usual, shoulders tucked in, leaning on the wall, chin ducked, when he asked, "Do you want to head to Graeme's?"

Bucky grinned and said, "Let's go," and after that neither of them even asked. They just went. Bucky would try and pay every time. He succeeded a little more than half, which against Steve he figured was doing pretty well. His argument that, "I make way more money than you so I should pay," didn't make much headway against Steve's stubborn glower, but he kept using it because he liked Steve's stubborn glower.

It was adorable, like so much else of Steve. 

He tried not to think about that. When he was being honest with himself—and that mostly happened around noon, when the sun was sneaking around the edges of his blackout curtains and he couldn't sleep—the story of tiny Steve throwing himself in front of bullies might have been what had pushed him over the edge.

Maybe not. It could just have been the way Steve walked so softly through the world, consideration in a beautiful package that didn't need to be considerate of anyone, who did it because he genuinely cared.

Nope, not thinking about that. Liking Steve was…unlikely to work out. Steve genuinely didn't seem bothered by Bucky being a sex worker, but there was a world of difference between being friends with and dating, and Nat was right, that world of difference generally spelled doom.

And he liked Steve, he'd hate to lose what they had to the kind of ugliness he'd seen relationships turn into when the other half couldn't handle it.

Not thinking about any of it. It was just easier.

 


 

It was a quiet night, pushing two am, and apart from one regular at ten and a walk-in at midnight, Bucky had been client-free. He'd been talking to Steve for the last half hour, ducking into the staff rooms whenever a client appeared at the door.

Steve was wearing one of The White Russian polos tonight, the short sleeves showing off long expanses of well-muscled arms. It wasn't the muscles that held Bucky's attention, it was the bare skin.

"Can I ask you something?"

"Bucky, you don't need to ask if you can ask me something. If you want to know something about me, I'll tell you."

There went the little thump in Bucky's heart. He ignored it. "Why you don't have any tattoos people can see? I'd have thought that'd be mandatory for a tattoo artist."

"I'm still an apprentice." Bucky waved a hand dismissively and Steve hid a smile. "When I got my tattoo, if I'd wanted it to be visible, it would have to have been something the douchebros would have approved of."

The possibilities flashed through Bucky's mind and he shuddered.

"Exactly. Nothing I'd have been willing to have on my skin, so Sif designed my tattoo to be hidden under street clothes."

He leaned back on the counter. "You've still only got one?"

"Yeah." Steve chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully. "Have you ever heard that thing about every cell in your body getting replaced every seven years?"

Bucky nodded.

"Right, so every seven years, you're arguably a new person. Except if you have a tattoo, it stays the same. The ink sits in," he paused, "think of it like little pockets under your skin. So while all your cells are changing around it, becoming new cells, it's still with you. No matter how much you change, your tattoo stays the same."

He tilted his head, eyes flicking back and forth over Bucky's face. "It probably sounds stupid, but I want to make sure what I get is right for me. I'm not in any hurry to cover the rest of my skin, not until I know what I want."

"That doesn't sound stupid, that sounds the farthest thing away from stupid," his eyes were bright with curiosity, "but now I really want to know what your tattoo is."

"I've got pictures on my phone, or," and Bucky knew from the way Steve straightened and took a deep breath before he said, "or I can show you," that the offer was a big deal.

"If I get a choice? I'd like to see it."

Steve checked the camera feed for the front door, checked to make sure no one else was around, then turned his back on Bucky and, in one smooth motion, pulled his shirt off over his head.

Bucky's breath caught in his throat.

Steve's entire back was covered.

An oak tree stretched up the middle of his back, browns and golds and oranges contrasting with the greens of the individual leaves that graced the branches. The branches stretched up to wrap over his shoulders and—Bucky moved around Steve and Steve lifted his arms—across his chest, meeting in the middle to form a cage over his sternum that held a deep red bird with a brilliant blue eye. He followed them around, so he was once more facing Steve's back, eyes travelling down to the roots of the oak, which wrapped around grey-blue stones that disappeared under Steve's waistband. A storm raged behind the oak, clouds and sky filling the rest of his skin, and a raven flew in front of the tree, glints of white in its eye making it seem to stare out at him.

"I did the original sketch. Sif made it into something that could actually be tattooed. And she added the raven, said it would keep an eye on me." 

"Jesus, Steve. It's beautiful."

He didn't mean to, wouldn't have done it if he'd been thinking straight, but he gently pressed his fingers against the raven, traced them up the trunk of the tree, half expecting to feel feathers, to feel bark, it was so realistic.

"How long did it take?" Bucky murmured. 

"Months."

"Did it hurt?" Even as he asked, he knew it was a stupid question.

"Yeah," Steve said with a quiet laugh. "But not bad. Except in some places. Over my kidneys I kind of wanted to die."

Bucky's hand slipped down to cover Steve's right kidney, curling around his side, and Steve sighed quietly. The gentle sound knocked him out his half trance and he jerked his hand away. "Shit, I'm sorry." He took two steps back. "I didn't mean to touch you."

"Bucky…"

"I'm sorry. That wasn't okay."

Steve pulled his shirt back on and turned around. "It was nice." There was something in his voice Bucky couldn't quite place, but it was nothing that made him think Steve was lying, and his eyes were soft.

"It was nice."

Steve touched his hand, just briefly, fleeting. "Yeah."

For a long time Bucky didn't say anything. He wasn't sure what to say. The moment felt precarious. "I still shouldn't have done it."

Suddenly, Steve smiled. "Bucky. If I'd wanted you to stop, I'd have asked, and you would've. But it was…" He stopped, looking helpless.

"Nice?"

"Yeah."

"All right," Bucky said, and Steve dipped his head, then busied himself smoothing down his shirt. Bucky felt like he'd just been given something, something fragile and soft, but he couldn’t quite see the shape of it.  

 


 

Steve knew the reason Sif kept him on counter duty at Nine Realms was three-fold: so he'd learn to deal with clients of all types, for practice turning vague ideas into something solid, so at least whichever poor artist ended up with 'like a mountain but on fire' at least had something slightly more useful to go on, and because no one else wanted to do it.

Most of the time he agreed with them, when the client he landed was stupid, or mean, or stubborn—not that most of them were like that. Nine Realms had more than its fair share of amazing clients; sometimes they even brought cookies and, on one memorable occasion, fudge (it hadn't lasted long). It was just that the assholes stood out.

These two weren't assholes. These two were kind of breaking Steve's heart. He didn't know how or where they'd gotten hold of their father's fingerprint from being arrested, and he wasn't going to ask, but he was going to talk them into getting a better tattoo to remember him by.

"The thing with a fingerprint is it's not going to last. It would have to be the size of your back to keep its shape and not turn into a black blob," he kept his voice gentle, "and even that might not be enough."

Both girls looked devastated.

"But I'm sure we can still do something for you. What do you remember about him?"

They looked at each other. "He used to wear a watch?" the younger one said doubtfully, and the other one nodded.

"He did, a big gold watch." She looked hopefully at Steve and he could no more have disappointed her than he could have jumped off a bridge and flown.

"Okay, what about something like this?" He grabbed his sketchbook and a pencil and roughed out a hand, making it masculine, thick fingers curving to gently hold a heart, and sketched in a generic man's watch at the wrist, big and chunky. "And if you've got your heart set on the fingerprint, what about putting some ink on the pad of the finger, like he just made it?"

Now they were smiling.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"Yeah," the older one said.

"Definitely," said the other.

"Okay, I'm going to set you up with Angie, she’ll take good care of you."

He went through the routine and sent them on their way, clutching their appointment cards, because he'd done one for each of them.

"Show me?" Sif said when they were gone, and Steve pushed it over to her. "Good. Nice lines, good spacing. Angie will find this extremely helpful." She graced him with an approving smile. "And you were kind to them." She paused. "But then you always are."

"Not always," he said, huffing a little.

"No, but you give people what they deserve." She grinned at him, full of mischief. "It's an important skill."

When she'd gone back to her client, he made some notes on the sketch and put it in Angie's folder, then leaned on the counter. He needed to sort out the ordering, he needed to update the studio's Instagram, he needed to do half a dozen things, but they could wait until after lunch—which someone would be hollering for him to go and fetch in about twenty minutes. Until then he could lean on the counter, listening to the music and the meditative buzz of the tattoo machines.

And not think about Bucky.

It had been a very long time since he'd felt like this. He'd thought he'd made himself immune, he'd worked hard at making himself immune, but Bucky had found his way inside before Steve had realised he needed to keep him out. He knew it was a bad idea, but unfortunately that didn't seem to matter. His heart was barrelling along, doing what it wanted, not listening to him, and what it wanted was Bucky.

The problem was, as always, that his body didn't. Not Bucky, not anyone, and that'd be a problem with anyone, but he figured it'd be even more of a problem with someone as sexual as Bucky.

But he sure had liked Bucky touching him. Bucky running his fingers across his back—god, it had felt so good, so warm, he'd wanted to close his eyes, just revel in it, it'd been all he could do not to ask him to keep doing it. But that wasn't an option.

It never was. No matter how it started, no matter how okay with it everyone said they were at the start, eventually, when they realised he really couldn't follow through, well, that was always the end. Experience had taught him that lesson a little too well.

Never mind. What they had was good: breakfast buddies, hanging out at work, Bucky coming to their dinners, he'd take what he could get and be glad for it. Bucky was… He'd never met anyone quite like Bucky.

 


 

It was one of those nights when everything felt ever-so-slightly off kilter, like the whole world was too big for its skin. It was a full moon, which couldn't be helping. Not that Bucky subscribed to the theory that the full moon changed people's behaviour, but he did think people used the idea as an excuse to be assholes.

At least his one am booking shouldn't be a problem. He was a regular, granted not one he'd seen in a while, but he'd never given Bucky any problems, even if wanting to discuss a special request was new. But people changed, kinks changed, and in his experience, everyone wanted to experiment once in a while.

The downstairs private rooms were cosy, dark walls and warm golden lights, soft armchairs with a little table between them, perfect for cups of coffee and plates of cookies, because some clients liked the homely touch. They were meant to set people at ease.

It didn't appear to be working on Paul, because he was sitting in the client chair, foot jerking back and forth, and Bucky gave him his best happy-to-see-you smile as he sat in the other one.   

"Hey, Paul. How have you been?"

"Fine."

Okay, not in the mood for small talk. "What is it you'd like tonight?"

He leaned forward. "I want to do something different."

Bucky nodded and gave him a reassuring smile. "That's what we're here to talk about."

"Really different."

"We can talk about it. How about you tell me what you had in mind, and we can go from there."

"I want to tie you up and fuck you."

His eyebrows didn't hit his hairline, because he was a professional. In absolute terms it was pretty vanilla, but it wasn't something he'd have expected from Paul—but the first rule in this business was that people could always surprise you.

Unfortunately for Paul, it was also one of his hard no's. "I'm not going to say I'm not flattered, but that's not something I can offer. Fucking's not a problem, of course, but the tying up, that's a no go." He smiled softly, hands held out. "I can give you some suggestions, places that cater more to what you're looking for."

Paul sighed. "Look. Brooklyn. I spend my days negotiating. I don't want to do it here. I don't want to go through the whole 'I won't do that', then I offer you more money, you keep saying no and we keep going until I hit whatever magic number suddenly gets me yes."

Bucky leaned back, eyes narrowing slightly, because Paul had been a client long enough he should know that wasn't how it worked here. Maybe other places, but not here. "Is that right."

"That's right. So tell me how much extra. Four hundred? Five hundred? You're a prostitute. You have a price, so tell me what tying you to the bed and fucking you's going to cost me."

Bucky smiled, saccharine and sharp. "As it turns out, there's only one service on offer tonight." He stood up. "Let me show it to you," he said as he walked over and opened the door.

It seemed to take a minute to sink in. "You can't do that."

"Actually, I can." He put on his best customer service voice, forged in the fires of retail hell. "I reserve the right to refuse service to anyone."

Paul stood up, fists clenched. "You're a hooker. You'll service anyone."

Bucky shook his head. That was it. Last straw. "We're done here. Take a minute to compose yourself and then you can leave. We'll consider whether you're allowed back and let you know." He wouldn't be, but Nat enjoyed telling people they were banned when they'd treated her people badly. "Don't try and come back until you hear from us."

Paul had always been a decent client, simple, quiet, seemed respectful. Whatever had set him off, whatever had made him act like this, wasn't Bucky's problem, but it had brought his true colours to the fore and they didn't look a damn thing like respect.

He headed out the front, to make sure Paul actually left, and heard quick footsteps behind him. A little too quick, a little too hard, and he turned to see Paul barrelling down on him, a look of fury on his face.

Bucky was so surprised he hesitated, but it didn't matter, because Paul bounced off a wall and staggered backwards, stumbling over his own feet until he hit the ground.

The wall was Steve, who wasn't trying to make himself look small. He was standing tall, shoulders wide, legs apart, arms crossed, and the look on his face…

If Bucky didn't know him, didn't know Steve would never hurt him, right now? He'd be afraid of Steve.

Paul wasn't Bucky. As he stared up at Steve he slowly went pale.

"Brooklyn?" Steve's voice was iron. Bucky felt it wrap around him, like it wanted to shield him from the world, and he marvelled that even in the middle of this Steve still remembered to call him Brooklyn. "What do you want me to do with him?"

He felt like someone had handed him a grenade with a loose pin and one wrong move would set it off. "Toss him. He's banned."

"You heard him," Steve growled, actually growled. "Get out."

Paul said, "But—"

Steve bared his teeth and took one step forward.

Paul went even paler, scrambled to his feet, and bolted for the front door, smacking into the glass before Bucky could make it to the counter and release the latch.

When he was gone, Steve turned to face Bucky, and it was fascinating to watch him change, soften, as he morphed back into himself. "Bucky?" he said, the iron gone, his voice all feathers and warmth. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." And he was, that had been nothing. It had only been the suddenness of it, the sheer unexpectedness of it, like having a mouse go for your ankles, that had thrown him. He looked at Steve, who was watching him out of worried eyes, and ventured, as much for Steve as for himself, "I could use a hug, though, if you're up for it."

Without a word, without hesitation, Steve opened his arms. Bucky walked into them and Steve pulled him close, wrapping him up in all that strength, and Bucky sighed and rubbed his cheek against Steve's chest. Steve stroked a hand over his hair, down his back, then settled into a gentle rhythm, slowly running his hand up and down his spine.

He'd be okay with staying here forever. The thought flashed through his mind before he could catch it. Shit. He'd been trying so hard to stay away from it, been refusing to think about it, but there it was, front and centre. Bucky didn't blame himself. He'd been doing a good job up to this point, but even the strongest of wills couldn’t stand up against the sheer unstoppable force that was the feel of Steve's arms holding him close.

He sighed and snuggled closer, closing his eyes. He probably wouldn't get another chance, so he might as well take advantage. Maybe it made him a bad person, but what the hell. Steve didn't seem to mind.

He frowned a little. Steve didn't seem to mind. His cheek was resting on Bucky's hair, the slow movement of his hand up and down Bucky's back was soothing, he was holding Bucky close. This wasn't a there, there hug, a comforting hug between co-workers—no, the only word for how he was being held was cradling.

He pulled back a little, tilting his head so he could see Steve's face, and saw longing. Steve was looking at him like he was the last drink of water in a world of desert. Except that wasn't quite right. There was no heat. No desire. Nothing Bucky was used to seeing when people looked at him like they wanted him. "Steve?"

He didn't know what might have happened, he'd never know, because the pointed clearing of a throat interrupted them. Neither of them jumped away. Instead, Steve's arms tightened, and he shifted a little, like he was ready to protect Bucky from whatever had made the sound.

It would never be necessary, because the sound had come from Nat. Bucky had no idea how long she'd been standing there.

"Are you okay?" she asked, and it was Nat his friend, not Nat his boss, and he knew she was asking about everything, including his current spot in Steve's arms, Steve who was showing no sign of letting him go.

"I'm okay," he promised, meeting her eyes, letting her read the truth for herself. "How much did you see?"

"I saw him go for you on the feed, I arrived in time to see Steve turn into a lion and chase him off." Her gaze flicked up to meet Steve's. "Thank you," she said, honestly sincere in a way people usually weren't allowed to see.

Steve still wasn't making a move to release him, it was like he'd forgotten it was an option, and his palm flattened against Bucky's back as he said, "No thanks required."

Bucky was pretty sure that wasn't going to be the end of it, but all Nat did was nod and ask, "What happened before that?"

Bucky didn't want to, but he gently disentangled himself from Steve, who instantly opened his arms, even if his fingers opened and closed, like he wanted to hang on. Bucky's heart did a little somersault and he reached out to press a reassuring touch against Steve's arm.

"He requested a service I'm not prepared to offer. I informed him of that and he got pissy and entitled." Bucky rolled his eyes. "I wasn't expecting him to try and get physical or yes, I would have hit the duress alarm," he added, anticipating Nat's next question. "If Steve hadn't stepped in," another touch to Steve's arm, and he got one in return, a brush across his knuckles, and Nat's sharp eyes didn't miss any of it, "I would have hit the one at reception, put the desk between me and him until you could get out here and kick his ass."

He paused, and his next words, soothing and low, were directed as much to Steve as they were to Nat. "I wasn't in any danger. Not really."

The way Steve shifted, the tiny frown on Nat's face, were so different, but simultaneously exactly the same, it almost made him smile. He resisted. He was pretty sure neither of them would appreciate it.

"Bucky, you're going home. I need you to write up a full incident report. Steve, I need one from you, too, but you can both do them tomorrow." She studied them both. "Steve, would you be willing to take Bucky home?"

"Yes." It came out way too fast and it filled Bucky with hope.

"Then go. Both of you. If you need anything, either of you, let me know."

 


 

The drive to his apartment building didn't take long—at this time of the morning there was no traffic, just long dark streets and the flash of streetlights illuminating Steve's face, since Bucky kept sneaking glances at him. By unspoken agreement, they kept their conversation to directions, the weather, and the interesting dog they saw sitting on the corner all alone, waiting for the streetlight to change.

Bucky told Steve to park in his spot, since his car was still at work, and Steve did, turning the engine off, leaving them sitting in silence.

Steve glanced at him, looking unsure.

Bucky smiled gently at him. "Come up? I think we should talk."

Steve nodded and locked the car, following Bucky into the building and into the elevator and into his apartment, and the whole time Bucky had to resist the urge to take his hand.

Once they were inside, Bucky got Steve settled on the couch, offered him a drink and something to eat. He declined both, watching Bucky like a sheepdog with one sheep, expression undecipherable even to Bucky, a hodgepodge of emotions and nerves.

Bucky sat next to him, close enough their knees were brushing, and Steve didn't shuffle away, Steve didn't tense up, he just let out a little breath, like a warm satisfied sigh.

"First, I'm gonna say thanks. I know," he said, holding up a hand, because he knew what Steve would say, "no thanks necessary, but you're getting them anyway. You were incredible; honestly, you were next thing to terrifying, I'd hate to have that directed at me—"

"Bucky, I'd never."

He brushed his fingers over the back of Steve's hand. "I know, Steve. I know. I'm just saying. But most importantly, thank you for remembering Brooklyn. That was protecting me. That was maybe the most important thing—even in the middle of a high-stress situation, you still remembered."

Steve's brows drew down. "Of course."

"Of course," he said under his breath. "Only you, Steve." Steve gave him a tentative smile and he'd never wanted so badly to kiss someone. "Okay, next thing." He took a deep breath and jumped in with both feet. "I like you. And I think you like me."

Steve's ears went pink and Bucky's whole body lit up from the inside.

"You do, don't you?" he said, half-way to gleeful. "It's not just me who feels something when we're together."

"It's not just you, and it's not just when we're together, because when we're not together?" Bucky's heart lurched at the look in Steve's eyes, at the wistfulness in his voice. "I pretty much just want to be back with you."

Bucky laughed and leaned into Steve, pressing his forehead against Steve's shoulder. "You liked it when I touched you. You told me you liked it. I should have figured it out then, huh?"

He felt a little ripple of tension go through Steve, heard it in his voice when he said, "There might be a problem with that."

He lifted his head. There was a wariness on Steve's face Bucky had never seen before, like Steve was afraid of whatever was coming next. "Steve? Tell me what you're scared of."

"There might be a problem, because I'm ace." He paused, uncertain. "Do you, uh, know what that is?"

Bucky nodded solemnly, biting the inside of his cheek, because if he laughed right now he'd hurt Steve before he could explain why he was laughing, and there was nothing in this world he'd ever willingly do to hurt Steve.

"Okay. Of course you would. I'm, uh, very ace. Very very ace. Sex is, not something that— Honestly? It makes my skin crawl. Even kissing is, it's not good. And that's not something people want to date."  

Something people want to date. Something. Any desire to laugh was gone. "You're wrong. I'm a people and I want to date you. Or spend time with you. Going on dates is," he waved a hand, "whatever. I want to be together, to do stuff together, however that works out for us. But I'm going to tell you something and I'm pretty sure your first reaction's going to be not to believe me."

"You wouldn't lie to me."

"No." Steve's faith was touching. Bucky held out his hand and when Steve gently took it, Bucky felt like he'd been given a gift. "Here's the thing," he said, threading his fingers through Steve's. "I'm ace, too."

Steve stared at him, unblinking, for a long time and Bucky could almost see the wheels turning behind his eyes. "I don't understand," Steve finally said. "I believe you, like I said, you wouldn't lie to me, but I don't understand."

"I don't want sex, I'm not attracted to people that way, but it doesn't worry me one way or the other. With the right person, it can even be fun." Steve's expression was once more wary. Bucky knew exactly why. "I’m not going to try and convince you. I would never do that. I wouldn't ever try and change you, I'm just explaining." Steve's hand relaxed and he squeezed it. "I don't have the instincts, so I got very good at reading people. I don't have any sexual attraction, for anyone, so every client, whoever they are, they're all basically the same. Being ace, it actually helps me be better at my job."

He stopped, giving Steve time to process, to ask any questions, but he was silent, staring at their hands.

"Steve?"

He looked up.

"Is that— Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I mean I knew there were people like you, I just didn't know." The corner of his mouth curled up. "Now I do, huh?"

"Now you do," Bucky agreed and covered Steve's hand with his other one. "So Steve? It won't be a problem."

It took a minute, but Bucky saw the moment, the second, Steve realised what he meant. His eyes widened slightly, and the blue seemed to grow brighter. He searched Bucky's face, and Bucky nodded.

"You're sure?" Steve asked and Bucky's heart broke and knit itself back together, mending itself with tiny pieces of Steve.

"Steve, I am so sure," he replied, voice husky, and lifted his hand to cup Steve's face, thumb brushing across his skin. Steve leaned into his touch, eyes half closing. "You don't like kissing. Is that at all, or just not on the mouth?"

"What did you, I mean, where did you have in mind?"

Bucky brushed his thumb across Steve's cheek, his temple, the corner of his mouth, just brushing the edge of his lips, and when Steve nodded, he followed it with his mouth, pressing soft kisses to each spot.

Steve's expression was radiant and he threaded his fingers into Bucky's hair. "Okay, those kisses are good."

Bucky smiled and did it again, nuzzled against Steve's neck while Steve stroked his fingers through Bucky's hair, down his neck, down his back. Steve leaned back, bringing Bucky with him, so he was half lying on top of him, snuggled into Steve's chest, listening to his heartbeat. He honestly couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this content, this relaxed, this safe, and he just wanted to lie here and enjoy it, but he couldn't. There was one more elephant in the room.

"There's one more thing we have to talk about."

"Hmm?" Steve kissed the top of his head.

"My job."

"What about your job?" He felt Steve tense. "Wait. Does Natasha have a rule about co-workers getting involved? I can quit. I can find another job somewhere else."

Bucky buried his face in Steve's chest and smothered his laughter. Maybe there wasn't an elephant in the room after all. Still, he had to make sure. Stealing a quick kiss, pressed against the side of Steve's neck as he lifted his head, he said, "No, Nat doesn't have any rules like that."

Steve sighed in relief. "Good. I really didn't want to find another job."

"But you're fine with mine?"

Wriggling underneath him until he could lift his head to peer down at Bucky, Steve said, "I feel like this is another one of those situations where I've stumbled into something I don't understand."

"I have sex with other people for a living."

Steve made a face.

"Was that face for the sex part of that sentence?"

"Yeah."

Bucky snorted.

"Okay, what was that for?"

"Anyone else would have been upset about the other people part of the sentence."

Steve went quiet, thoughtful, idly rubbing a circle on Bucky's back. "I guess I can see that," he finally said. "They'd be an asshole, especially if they went into a relationship knowing that was your job, but I guess I can see it. But that's someone who feels like sex is—" Steve stopped, made a helpless gesture with one hand. "Sex doesn't mean intimacy, it doesn't mean love, it doesn't mean romance, it doesn't mean anything. It's a bodily function I hope like hell I never have to deal with." He stared at the ceiling, then nodded. "Like a colonoscopy."

"Like a colonoscopy," Bucky repeated.

"Yeah."

"Sex is like a colonoscopy."

"Yeah. Except for the part where at least that can save your life."

Bucky tried not to laugh. He really did, but he couldn't keep it in, especially not when he met Steve's eyes and they were sparkling with mirth. He pressed his face into the side of Steve's neck and let go, body shaking with laughter.

When he finally got himself under control, he sprawled across Steve like an exhausted starfish. Steve kissed him, a brush of his lips across Bucky's temple, down his cheek, then he rested his cheek against Bucky's temple. "All I care about is that you're safe and happy. That's it."

Bucky propped himself up on his elbow so he could stare down at Steve, then he kissed the tip of his nose. "Stay with me today."

Steve's smile was soft. "I have to sleep. I need to be at the studio by ten."

"I know, that's what I meant. Stay and sleep with me. Here, sleep with me here."

After a moment of thoughtful silence, Steve kissed the corner of his mouth. "I'd love to."

Bucky fed them, fried egg sandwiches, fast and easy, dug a spare toothbrush out for Steve, and they fell into bed. Nothing Bucky owned would come close to fitting Steve, so he had to sleep in his boxers.

Even with that, it wasn't awkward. Steve filled most of the bed, but that didn't matter, because Bucky tucked up against his side, settled his head on Steve's chest, cheek resting on the branches that curved over Steve's shoulders, Bucky's hand covering the bird on his sternum. Steve folded his arms around Bucky, holding him close, and he kissed Steve's chest.

Steve's quiet, "Night, Bucky," vibrated under his ear, and it wasn't long before Steve was asleep.

It was too soon, it was way too soon, it was so much too soon it was ridiculous, but a tiny rebellious part of his mind, a part that didn't give a damn about things like too soon, wondered how Steve would feel about turning this into an every day arrangement. Bucky had room in his closet, room in his drawers, room in his apartment, and the other half of this bed just going to waste when it wasn't filled with Steve's massive, comforting bulk.

He snuggled closer and even in his sleep, Steve murmured comforting nonsense and tightened his arms.

 


 

Six months later

 

When Bucky had asked him to move in, Steve hadn't quite believed it. Not just because they'd only been together for a month, but because it was something he'd assumed he'd never get to have. It had taken him no time at all to say yes.  

They'd blended their things together, blended their lives together, and Steve was happier than he'd ever been. His life had become simple in a way he'd never thought it could be, and it was all because of Bucky.

He loved Bucky. He hadn't told him yet, but he would soon, and he knew Bucky loved him. Bucky hadn't told him in words, but he said it every day, in every moment, in every touch.

And now Steve was going to deliberately hurt him and probably give him a shitty tattoo.

"Hey."

He glanced up. Bucky was lying on his side on the repurposed massage table, his pants and underwear shoved down his thigh to show the curve of his hip, the bold purple lines of the stencil standing out against his skin.

It was simple, it was beyond simple, in the hopes Steve wouldn't screw it up, because this was the first tattoo he'd ever put on human skin. It was an old school stylised swallow, wings curving over the rise of Bucky's hip bone, but he'd given it a little flourish in the curl at the end of its wings, in the tips of its tail, and it was going to be navy blue and as close as he could get to deep gold.

He hoped.

Bucky was still looking at him, smiling reassuringly. "It'll be fine."

"It might not be."

"It might not be," Bucky agreed. "It might have two heads and fucked up wings, but I'll still love it, because I was your first." He grinned and stretched out his hand, and Steve leaned forward so Bucky could brush his chin with his fingertips. "You never forget your first."

It startled a laugh out of him and suddenly he was relaxed. Suddenly he knew he could do this. He'd practiced enough, on fruit, on pork, Sif had even splurged on some fake skin, and he could do this.

He checked his gloves, checked his set up, picked up his machine, smeared a thin layer of Vaseline over Bucky's skin and, just before he turned the machine on, caught Bucky's gaze and said, "I love you."

Light blazed in Bucky's eyes, but Steve couldn’t watch him, he had to concentrate, and the familiar buzz of the machine, vibration echoing through his bones, stole him away as he touched the needle to Bucky's skin.

Bucky didn't move, lay like a relaxed rock under Steve's hands, and the lines went down like pen on paper, Sif wandering in and out to supervise, but not staying, not hovering over him, giving him room to find his own pace, to breathe.

When the outline was done they took a break and Bucky, wincing a little, sat up, caught Steve's collar, pressed a line of kisses across his jaw, and whispered in his ear, "I love you, too."

Steve couldn’t really hug him, but he could press his face into Bucky's neck and kiss his skin, breathing him in.

When he started again, the colour went down like it was waiting for Steve to call it from Bucky's skin, and when it was done, Bucky cleaned up and wiped down, he stood in front of the mirror, looking at it solemnly. Steve stood anxiously behind him. He could see the places he'd screwed up, the places where the lines went thin, where the colour wasn't even, but Bucky smiled, warm and pleased, unquestionably happy, and Steve let it go.

Neither of them was going anywhere. Give him time, he'd get better, and he'd fix it. Although, watching Bucky's fingers hover over his new tattoo, like it was taking an effort of will not to touch it, he wondered if he'd have a fight on his hands to change a single line.