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Some things you do for money

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Steve sure as hell had never wanted celebrity endorsements, and a national profile was not something you generally aspired to in his line of work either. His current level of whispered local notoriety was more than satisfactory for bringing in all the clients he needed.

It had only been one appointment - and even that was barely more than a glorified massage with a bit of low-grade dirty talk. He'd never have let her book, if she’d used her real name, and he would have confiscated her phone at the door if he'd know that grainy picture of him with his shirt unbuttoned was about to get nearly half a million likes on Twitter.

His email account that was supposed to be for referrals only was suddenly clogged with over 800 unread messages, and the constant buzz in his pocket from notifications was giving the wrong impression, but the worst of it was being here, trapped in the sort of meeting he got lured into time and again with that particular combination of calculated flattery, abstract threats and sheer rapid fire persistence that Tony Stark had made into an art form.

"Look at you," Tony was saying. "You were made for social media. You are so completely, so phenomenally … instagrammable." He thumbed rapidly at his phone and turned it around to display that shot from their opening party last year, Steve in stiff lines of immaculate black, gleaming leather tinged by the new neon sign above as he gripped Nat’s whip with power that flirted with actual menace. "You know what this is? This is so much more than just a pretty a picture. It’s a story. It’s just enough that everyone who sees it gets thirsty to know a little more. You’ve gotta let me put this on the website."

"Not in his contract," said Shuri from the opposite end of the table, and marked the paper in front of her decisively.

"Not in my contract," Steve repeated, spreading his hands in a what-can-I-do gesture.

Shuri wasn’t his lawyer – wouldn’t be any kind of lawyer at all until she passed a few more years of exams – but the pile of documents in front of her was tagged with an intimidating number of sticky notes, and more than a few of them were red, and Steve appreciated a piece of good, honest theatre as deeply as anyone.

"Okay, keep your anonymity then. Give me a few sound bites. Let’s show them a human personality to put with everything they’re imagining."

"That’s not in his contract either."

Tony owned the building in which T’Challa’s club leased the ground and basement levels. Out of all the investments in his portfolio, this one had piqued his interest so hard he’d taken a stake in profits in return for discounted rent, and since they’d shifted premises a year ago he’d shown more commitment to growing this fashionably disreputable business than in all the sleek office towers and high-end shopping malls where his father had made his millions.

"I told you, Tony," Steve reiterated. "I’m only here one day a week now. And in my own business, I've got all the clients I need. I’m not looking to be the face of fetish for your club."

Tony grinned at him victoriously, brandishing his phone. "Did you look at this picture? This man could be anything – catwalk model, part-time stoner, assassin, wrestler, lapsed priest. The Captain is the man of a thousand fantasies. I don’t have to make you the face of fetish, Steve. That’s a package you put together all by yourself."

Steve frowned at that. He dressed nice out of respect, and he acted calm because when you were shaped the way he was shaped there was no call to act any other way, and he got off on making people feel safe, not afraid. It wasn't some kind of gimmick.

They were interrupted by Stanley’s hesitant knock on the door. "I got a delivery driver in a hurry out here. Have to give him a little extra for getting around the construction works."

"Why don’t you take it out of the cash drawer?" Shuri asked.

"That’s, ah, still in the safe."

Tony’s head whipped around

"You said he was trustworthy. You were very clear about that, or we wouldn’t have let you put an ex-con on our staff. Sounds like you’re not so confident after all."

Stanley gave him a helpless, inarticulate look.

"Twenty all right?" Steve said, breaking the unpleasant silence as he dug around in his back pocket. "You can give it back on Saturday."

"And lender of last resort," Tony said pointedly. "Add that to the list."

Steve waited until the door was closed again. "Back to your plan to throw more fuel on a disaster I've spent the last week trying to hose down."

"What can I say? There are over three million comfortable middle class bedrooms in this city, and your wholesome take on D&S can get us into every one of them. Trending on socials makes you safe. We've got to use that while we can."

They chased those two opposing points around in circles for another few minutes because Tony's default mode of argument, when he couldn't pull rank, was to rotate the salient points like the head of a drill as if the obvious superiority of his logic was bound to break through in the end.

"And I have to ask you," he said, winding up a lengthy exposition on the transformation of pole dancing into a fitness activity for adventurous moms and rebellious grandmas. "If you want to stay on the shadowy side of kink, why'd you dress for work like an upscale bartender accepting the award for gin cocktail of the year? Where's your edge? Where's your sense of danger?"

If it was getting this personal, it was time to let Tony cool off and come back to the debate in a more reasonable frame of mind. Steve pushed away from the table and unhooked his satchel from the back of the chair, slung his leather jacket over it.

"I'll think about it, all right. In the meantime, I'd better not see any identifiable photos of me anywhere on the internet."

"Well," Tony prevaricated. "The internet's a big place."

"Don't get cute, Tony. I see anything on your website, or anywhere near it, that I don't like the look of, and I'll be out of this place so fast it'll set the floor on fire."

"And that one is in his contract," he heard Shuri saying behind him, wholly straight, as he left. "Didn’t you read the annexures?"

Outside, the bar had that unsettling daytime look where the sunlight from the open door highlighted the worn patches on the carpet, the sticky fingerprints, and the dust caught in the creases of the tufted black velvet wallpaper that were normally glossed over in the neon.

It was easy to pick the new guy, wearing a pale grey hoodie with the sleeves cut off, exposing a left arm ringed with crude black tattoos. He was working diligently enough, though, earbuds in and hair tied back as he tilted the trolley to wheel the last of the new kegs into the back room, hefting the weight of it with care.

"Paying my debt to you sir," Stanley held out a twenty, crisper than the one Steve had parted with. He followed where Steve's attention had been, watched his nephew reverse the trolley up the three stairs to the bar level, quietly focused in a way that was at odds with the larger-than-life tendencies of most of the staff here. "He's a good kid. Could do with a break after the luck he's had."

They both watched him wrangle his bulky load patiently through the door to the back room. "You've got no faith in people, huh?" Steve thought out loud. "Anyone misses a dollar bill today, they're gonna come looking for the guy who did time."

Stanley made a cynical face. "No harm in keeping the cash under lock and key. Folks being what they are."

The new guy hung the keys back on their hook and stood with the locked door behind him, giving the room a quick sweep from one side to the other with barely a pause for Steve and Stanley. He tapped his pocket like he was missing a pack of cigarettes. Something extra alert about him, Steve thought, like he was mapping the place for threats and exits.

"You want a drink of something?" Stanley asked. "Since you're not on the clock today?"

"Errands to run," Steve told him and jerked himself into action, thoughts on the long lunch time queues at the hardware store and the per-hour cost of running late for his accountant. "This new side hustle isn't ready to run itself yet."

**

Despite the solid day of planning he'd put in, Steve recognised a thread of nerves in himself as he walked through the door of the Club. Though the Wednesday training sessions had been running for a while, apart from the packed masterclass Natasha had given when she joined, he'd skipped everything but the mandatory health and legal topics. Until his out-of-focus torso's recent brush with social media fame, no-one had found his vanilla brand of play remarkable enough among the knives and the puppy dog tails to ask him to present anything. Perhaps he should have come in his usual suit, instead of trading it down for a black t-shirt and jeans in some self-sabotaging attempt to demonstrate that the magic was not in the outfit. He stopped for a moment for a breath, stretched up his spine, held it for a count of five then made sure his shoulders centred back into alignment when he released.

The Vault looked glary with all the lights on full blast, intensified by the mirrors on both sides. About a dozen staff, club members and guests were sitting on bar stools at the far end of the room. The last session was winding up late: Peter had clearly been over-ambitious in his knot work and was going to need a good while longer to get his model – Steve warmly noted the defined muscles of his back and shoulders showing through the net of cord, the licks of black ink – freed up.

"Oh hey Steve," Peter said, glancing up from the knot he was unpicking.

Steve gave him a nod, thinking how much gladder everyone had got to see him in the last nine days precisely.

For someone who appeared to have learned his knot work from YouTube tutorials and a gap year vacation in Tokyo, Peter took his craft seriously and was deftly unplucking the web of restraints when a question interrupted him.

"Hemp's the way to go for a demonstration like this one," he replied, warming to his topic with his fingers paused under the cord just behind his model's shoulder blade. "There's nothing like it for a good, solid look. But when you put the knots under pressure, they clump and lose their shape."

He gave the knot an emphatic tug. The model jerked his head towards the door, a minute gesture, quickly stilled, that set off realisations tumbling like dominos in Steve's mind. The model was the new guy who worked behind the bar, Stanley's nephew, barely recognisable with shoulder-length hair obscuring his face. The tender way he held his left elbow away from his ribs indicated a shoulder injury that had been aggravated by the long period of immobility. In that momentary glance, his eyes caught the mirrored light and trapped it like crystal. And the look in them spoke straight to Steve's professional instincts: he could practically feel the rabbit-fast pulse of a sub in distress.

"Hey." It came out with a bit more bite than he intended. "Want to wind this up now?"

With a slightly sullen look, Peter resumed his work, and about ninety seconds later the model was shooting out the door, tugging his shirt back on as he went.

Steve's set-up consisted of taping a sheet of A3 paper to the wall. But, when he'd done it, something felt incomplete. With a sigh, he glanced at the doorway that led back to the bar. It wasn't his problem, what had gone down with Peter's model. But all the same, half his mind was out there, wondering if he'd pulled himself together, thinking of the steps he'd take to put it right.

Ignoring the growing audience behind him, he went back out to the bar, where the new guy was noisily racking the last glasses from the dishwasher.

"Can I get a soda water please?"

The guy froze for a second, then pulled down a tumbler meant for spirits and ran it under the post mix head. His movements were steady, but it looked like it was taking all his concentration to keep them that way.

"Thanks," Steve said, unwittingly fixated on the movements of his hand tossing half a lemon onto the counter top and slicing off a round with one deft arc of the knife, halving it with another. "You're family, right? Stanley's family."

"Yeah." He lodged the wiped knife and the lemon stub back in their respective places. "James. You want anything else? I'm about to go on break until opening."

James's gaze was evasive, focused on the bar in front of him or the other side of the room. He snatched up a cloth and started to wipe down the counter top. Steve thought of how he'd seemed earlier in the week, intently focused on his tasks, compared to how he seemed now. He'd been going to pull up random audience members for a bit of role play, but now his intentions had taken a different turn.

"Can you stay? I'm taking the next class and I could do with someone to demonstrate."

"For twenty bucks an hour I can stand on my head if you want me to," James said flatly, as he wiped his hands on a towel and hung it over the faucet. "Sure."

It was only when they were back in front of the class (now grown to a flattering thirty-odd) that he seemed to hesitate, maybe asking himself too late what it was that he'd agreed to demonstrate. But despite the tightening tension in his shoulders, he wasn't backing out.

"You got anything you – anything I should be prepared for?" he asked over the dwindling chatter noise.

"Just do what you're told to," Steve told him. "That's all there is to it. There's no restraints this time, you don't need a safeword. You get uncomfortable, we take a break." He was doing that thing again, looking anywhere but at Steve, as if shying away from human interaction. "And you get paid either way. You listening?"

"Yeah, yeah," James said, as if Peter's shibari demonstration hadn't pushed him this close to all-out panic. The detachment was a coping mechanism, Steve guessed, and had to stop himself planning out strategies to ease his way around it. He was a one-time model, not a client, even if Steve's instincts were struggling to tell the difference.

"Okay." He centred himself and took the sort of deep breath he could use to fill up a room without raising his voice. "All right, that's enough."

In complete silence, drawing a marker from his pocket, he wrote on the taped-up sheet of paper: Voice. Presence. Stillness. Touch.

"That's the agenda for the next fifty minutes. No photos, no videos, and bring an open mind. Those are all the rules you need."

They'd got a good way into Voice before he saw an opening for demonstration.

"Who's here to work on their dominant side?"

The experienced doms weren't inclined to respond, so he picked out Wanda, a waif of a red-head who helped out with suspension bondage down in the sub-basement rooms where Steve rarely went. When he glanced over, he found James leaning back on the wall inside the door, wearing an intense focus that instantly disappeared when Steve beckoned.

"It's pretty simple, you'd think. Telling someone what to do. People do it every day. But there are ways to do it that make your client want to comply, and ways that make them want to fight, and it's one of the skills we all have to learn, working out which tone to use, and who to use it on."

Leaning in, Steve spoke a few quiet instructions in Wanda's ear.

"Go ahead," he said to her hesitant look.

With her focus back on James, she took in a tight breath and said: "I'm going to ask you to get down on your knees."

James met her gaze for a moment, then flicked an inquisitive glance Steve's way.

"Go on," Steve nodded once, and James went down, side-on to the audience, his expression going blank.

"And put your hands behind your back." Her voice had a thread of aggression, pre-emptively overcoming anticipated disobedience, but he did it this time.

"I can only say what works for me," Steve began. "Some clients need that spark of conflict. But for most people, that's exactly what they want to leave outside the door. So how about you focus on your voice, Wanda. Breathe deep, relax a little, fill up the room with it. But you can be calm about it. You got nothing to prove here."

Though she looked at him doubtfully, she took a few deep breaths. "Keep your eyes on the floor,
she said. "You've got no need to look anywhere except where I tell you."

The room watched as James blinked uncertainly and slowly bent his neck. It was a lot less than he'd taken in Peter's class, but it was obvious how uncomfortable it made him. If Steve were drawing him, he’d need a blunted tip to capture the tension vibrating off him, dark strokes for the solid defensive muscle in behind. Maybe it wasn't the scrutiny of the crowd. Though he'd done what he was told, a muscle working in his jaw said he was having to fight to do it. Really, Steve had no idea what sort of history this guy had with authority – probably not a pleasant one. The instinct to pull him into this had been wrong, all wrong.

"All right, that's enough. James, you can take a seat for a bit."

"Sound like a school teacher, is that it?" someone called out.

"Yeah, that works too," Steve replied, unruffled. "I've made clients write out lines. It's a good way to get past some hang-ups, for someone who finds it hard to verbalise what they want."

He worked with Wanda on voice some more, pulled in a couple more volunteers, and made his way through Presence and Stillness. Then all of a sudden there were five minutes left and he'd put off Touch as long as he could.

"The thing about touch," he started, glancing around fruitlessly for a chair or a bench. "Is that almost nobody gets as much of it as they want. Not in a way that's focused on them, completely. That's something it's in your power to give them, and for some clients, it's the single biggest rush they get from you."

"Yeah, I read that on Twitter recently," said some smart-mouth at the back. Steve didn't notice who because he was too busy thinking ahead and, damn it, he should have made sure there was a chair.

"James, I'm gonna have to ask you to kneel down again."

He pushed himself off the wall and, with the speed of getting an unpleasant task over with quickly, sank down into the same position from before. It was just a demonstration, Steve told himself. This stiff-limbed show of compliance was all he needed. But there it was again – the instinct to solve this problem, to puzzle out what it would take to ease some of that defensive tension out of him, get him to lean on the power dynamic between them instead of enduring it like an unanaesthetised suturing that was surely going to end soon.

In his pocket was the elastic band from the paper he'd brought. He slipped it over his wrist.

"The first rule is, know your client." He reached out to wind a stand of James's hair around his finger, the wary surprise tightening his face unmistakeably from side-on. He moved around behind his model. "If you don't mind a sweeping generalisation, women have more flexible boundaries than men." He slid his fingers into James's hair, combing it back off his face, and this time Steve was the one surprised by how good it felt: clean, heavy, and just lightly textured with natural oil, warm near the scalp and cool where the ends ran over his fingers. For an instant, he lost his train of thought completely. "So women. They're used to having strangers in their space – hairdressers, cosmetic demonstrators, pedicurists." He pulled himself together and started to work the smooth locks into a single strand which he could fold on itself and cinch the elastic around. "For your male clients, you can never underestimate how powerful it is to be touched. You don't need a blade in your hand to get a reaction."

From where he stood, that point was illustrated vividly when he ran his fingers from James's temple, behind his ear, down the side of his neck, only stopping when he hit the neck of his t-shirt. While every moment of contact settled something in Steve, quietened that instinct that had been clamouring for connection, it seemed to push James the other way. He shuddered and went still,
every muscle tense. Steve leaned down and murmured, "Okay?" The answering nod was no less tense, but there were only a few minutes left to go.

"Some of you have probably never thought of touching your clients this way, and not all of them are going to like it. But for the ones that do … the key is to have some strategy about it."

He hooked his fingers into the neck of James's t-shirt, thinking how he'd normally have naked skin to work with, and the frisson of heightened vulnerability that came with it, but almost certain it was a risky thing to ask of an inexperienced model who'd already come pretty close up against his boundaries today. He'd only tugged on the cotton once, twice, in indecision when James reached up, knocking Steve's hand away as he pulled it over his head.

"Think about the places you're not touching," Steve continued, working on autopilot for a moment as he swallowed hard against the hoarseness that had crept into his voice. "Map them out."

It was the responsiveness of the gesture, the intuition cutting through his clear unease, that weakened Steve's knees. The suddenly bare, muscled shoulders were secondary. Steve made himself focus as he traced his way around the back of James's ear, down his neck to his upper arm, crossing the raised white scar at the top of his left arm, passing the nickel-sized shiny patch above his collarbone that looked like an old burn. It had the opposite effect from what it should have. The rise and fall of James's breathing was getting more agitated by the moment. He stilled his hands.

"That's as far as it goes though." That was Tony's voice, welcome for once. Steve glanced over his shoulder to see him standing in the doorway. "Nothing that hurts. The Captain doesn't do corporal punishment, am I right?"

He'd probably come to check on the class and visualise the inflowing profits from having ten more staff trained to do what Steve had been doing without any great fanfare for the last three years.

"I'm not opposed to it," Steve said, and felt the flinch under his hands as James responded to that as if violence was going to be a definite step too far. He set one thumb to stroking gently at the base of James's neck, trying to communicate reassurance and safety. "If it's something a client needs, I'll have a conversation about boundaries. Some sides of it I can get into. There's the anticipation, and a good verbal count kind of does it for me." Even as he spoke, the muscle under his hands kept getting tighter until he felt the wrongness of it like a burn and broke contact completely. "But if someone wants to end up looking like a butcher's shop window, there are other people they have to go to for that."

"Hey!" objected a woman with black braids and probably a set of scalpels in one of the dungeons downstairs.

He stepped back and grinned at her. "My butcher's got the neatest hand I know of. No offence meant. We're out of time, so I'm gonna call it a day and hope you found something useful in all of that."

There was a vigorous round of applause, appropriate to his new second-hand celebrity status. He waited it out for a polite few seconds before he circled round to kneel in front of James and put a hand on his shoulder.

When he looked up, Steve's heart gave a sympathetic thump. The guy had eyes like a goddamn movie screen. Everything was in them: the distress that thrummed through his whole body, a glimmer of yearning, all undercut with the intense discomfort of exposure. Pieces came together in Steve's mind, too late. He'd been young when he was put away, he remembered someone saying. Missed out on a lot of years of learning how to be with someone, years that would have been full of gleeful casual sex, experimentation, and plenty of skin contact. He looked like he had no idea how to deal with someone touching him the way Steve had, like it was so foreign he hadn’t even thought to long for it.

"You okay?" Steve heard himself ask, dumbly.

"We done now?" James demanded, his voice almost perfectly even despite it all, except for a note of undirected anger.

"No," Steve told him. "You and I are not done."

He wanted to watch James drink a hot tea and wind down a little. That was all. But he slid his shirt back on in a jerky movement that shrugged Steve's hand off him. Whatever mess of responses he'd felt before was definitively resolving into anger. "I got work to finish."

It hit him there, down on one knee with James scowling at the floor as he pulled his shirt down and ripped the elastic out of his hair. God, this was something Steve wanted, with a fierceness that came out of nowhere. It was so rare to have someone in front of him who hadn't paid a handsome sum to be under his control, who wasn’t feigning resistance. He wanted to make James look at him properly, force a connection between the two of them. He wanted to give James reasons to trust him and put himself in Steve’s hands.

"Excuse me, Captain," said a voice behind him, and he turned to see one of the greeting staff hovering with her phone out. "Okay if I take a picture of the world's most ancient Powerpoint slide?"

"Sure, but no social media." Her nod was just a bit too eager, so he had to stand up and elaborate. "That means no What's App. It means no Insta, no Twitter, no text messages even. It means nobody sees this who isn't you."

Once he was sure she'd got it, he turned back, but by then James had vanished.

"That was nice," Tony said in that voice that hovered just on the tipping point into sarcasm. "Very professional. Exactly what we were looking for."

"Yeah thanks Tony," Steve said, grabbing his satchel, tearing down his paper, and heading out the door, dodging questions as he went.

**

Blinking into the afternoon sunlight, he could see the man he wanted heading downhill towards the bus station. Between them was thirty feet of construction trenching that Steve cleared by stepping over the safety barrier and leaping recklessly across. James was covering ground with quick-footed determination but Steve caught him at a run. A light jerk on his backpack stopped him long enough for Steve to block the sidewalk in front of him.

"I said we're not done." James gave him a panicked look and eyed the traffic going past as if contemplating dodging through it. "You don't run off after a session like that." He stepped right to block an attempt to dodge him and made himself shift gears. "Come on. Come back and have a drink. One drink, and you're still on the clock while you do it."

James's fists clenched like he was planning to barrel his way through Steve's objections.

"I got better things to do than go back to that place." He was feinting to both sides, testing out Steve's determination to stand in his way but not forcing the physical confrontation. "I've had enough weird shit for one day."

"Yeah I can see that," Steve told him with a half-step forward that made him retreat. "Look at you. You're charged up like a livewire, and I'm the one who made you that way. That makes it my job to make sure you're in the right state to go back out there."

He actually stopped still. "The right state?" he said, incredulous. "Can you even hear yourself? The right state to go out back out there is the state of fucking dealing with it. There is only one state. You people – Jesus."

He pushed forward, stopping again one step from a clash.

"Get out of my way."

His hand twitching towards his pocket made Steve draw back. "How many knives you got in there right now?" James's hand shifted guiltily away, but the glare doubled its intensity. "You know that's a breach of your parole."

"You a cop now?" The agitated side-to-side pacing picked up again.

"Used to be."

Eventually he was going to get frustrated and charge. Steve wasn't afraid of that. James would be ruthless and quick, fighting like a man who'd long ago learned that it wasn't a game. But it wasn't going to come to that, because the moment he did it, Steve would have no choice but to yield.

"One drink." Steve gave it one last shot, taking a step back as he bargained desperately and abandoning all the tricks of his trade. "I'm buying. And you're on double time."

For a moment, James paused. Then he left off the pacing and drew himself up.

"I did what you asked me to," he said softly. "And now I’m finished. I’d like to be paid what you promised, and after that I’m going to walk away. That okay with you, or are you set on fighting about it out here in the street?"

James just looked at him, chin up in challenge, as Steve tried and failed to find a toehold in that unassailable wall of politeness.

So Steve pulled out his wallet and counted out some notes, rounding the tip on the high side.

"Call me if you want to talk," he said, handing it over with one of those business cards he'd tried to dissuade Tony from printing.

"Sure," James said without the slightest attempt at sincerity as he passed, the notes crushed tight in his grip.

Steve watched him as he walked the rest of the hill and into the bus station, feeling for the first time in a while like he'd failed, and failed badly.

**

Chapter Text

"You been a stranger lately," Sam stopped by to tell him, a bunch of boxing gloves strung over his shoulder as he leaned on a vacant weight machine. "Getting all the exercise you need at work these days, is that it?"

Steve kept up his steady pace on the treadmill. "I'm keeping busy."

"Yeah, I saw that. I couldn't help seeing that. I saw that with over 100,000 likes underneath it." Steve was steeling himself for another interrogation when Sam looked at the machine's settings with a disbelieving expression. "Oh come on! This is the guy I can count on to wreck my equipment by running everything on max and asking for more. What do you call this?"

He reached out to turn the dial two clicks higher.

"I'm taking it slow today," Steve told him, easily picking up the pace.

"Uh-huh."

"Got a meeting after. I've gotta stay – you know, neat." He turned the dial back down again, even lower than before.

"Neat? I call this six feet under. I got mould on my bathroom wall grows faster than this." He turned it back up to a comfortable mid speed and walked off shaking his head. "Not everybody gets off on neat, any case."

"Not that kind of meeting!" Steve called after him.

It wasn't any kind of meeting, truth be told, in the sense of being scheduled. He took the short walk from the gym to the club lightly, because he could already see that his timing had been just what he hoped. The truck was pulled up as close to the front door as the drainage works permitted. The two liquor delivery guys were talking about what sounded like the last season of The Walking Dead, while they waited for the rear tray to lower to the ground. James stood off to one side, conspicuously apart.

"Take a break, fellas," Steve said. "Let me give you a hand."

They were big guys, both of them, stocky, with thin t-shirts stretched over generous bellies, groomed for nothing fancier than shifting beer kegs. One of them shrugged and pulled a battered pack of smokes out of his pocket, nodding to Steve nice and friendly.

As he turned, James's expression was far from welcoming.

"What?" Steve said. "You think I can't handle some heavy lifting? Try me."

It wasn't an easy job even for two men, as they wheeled the trolley with its loaded keg off the tray and wove through the disruption of the drainage works. Squatting down to lift it over the tricky part where the narrow gantry crossed the incomplete piping trench, Steve was grateful for how hard Sam had worked him over the last few years while he built his body into the image his profession and lifestyle demanded.

"There's a loose board there," was the most James said to him, as they cleared the front steps and crossed the threshold into the bar. "Watch it."

Steve set the front of the trolley down gingerly on the other side of the obstruction.

"You know this place pretty well, huh?"

All he got was a vaguely affirmative grunt as James worked the delivery up behind the bar and into the store room behind. He hadn't expected a lot of chat, he admitted to himself while he listened to James unloading the keg and bringing the trolley back. It didn't have to be any kind of bitterness about the way that training session had worked out – and James had nothing to be embarrassed about there anyway, since only someone who'd touched and seen him as close-up as Steve had would have been able to tell how shaken he'd been. No, even before Steve started to sit up and take notice, he'd already seen that the guy wasn't conversational, not even in the lead-up to a Saturday night when everyone else in the place was buzzed and laughing.

As James wheeled his trolley back out, wholly focused on his task, Steve was tempted to just blurt it out and say sorry – sorry for not asking the right questions, sorry for making James so uncomfortable when his whole calling in life was to make it easy and safe for people to put themselves under his control – but he'd already seen how confrontation made James tense up, and dodge, and resist.

"It's a hard day's work here," he said instead. "Harder than it looks."

James held his gaze for a couple of seconds, thoughtful, and Steve had the impression he was picking his way with care.

"I've got no complaints."

They dragged the last two loads in neat and quick, now that Steve knew when to lift and when to hold back. And then he was standing awkwardly by the bar while James tucked the trolley in its corner and picked up a pen and paper. Steve had done his best to look approachable for today, dressed in grey sweats and a Mets tee, hair still scruffed from the gym. But being out of uniform clearly wasn't enough to make him welcome.

He was thinking about asking for a drink when James looked up abruptly and set his feet apart. "You got something you want to say to me?" There was just enough time for a tiny thrill to sizzle its way up Steve's nerves at the sudden challenge in that, before James was visibly pulling back, making his voice flat. "I'm listening. You may as well say it."

Steve took a deep breath. "Look, I'm sorry. About what happened on Monday. I'd never done a class like that before and – well, there's things I'll do differently next time."

"Okay," James replied, still flat. "Not the worst thirty bucks I've made." He picked up a tea towel and put it down again.

"You get that stocktake done yet, Bucky?" That was Stanley, walking through towards the bathrooms with a paint tin and a bucket. "Steve."

"Yeah, almost. I signed for the liquor delivery – here." James pulled some folded paper out of his pocket and handed it over. Having a task to focus on seemed to drain some of the awkward jitters out of him at last, and talking to Stanley he was a whole different person, capable and sure. "You want me to add the new stock to the count or keep it separate?"

"Nah, keep it out. Clear the count with me and then start on the restocking."

"You got it."

He was already out the door when he finished that last instruction.

"Bucky?"

James gave him a long, evaluating look. "Family nickname."

The quick scowl of discomfort made Steve curious. "You don't like it?"

"What's there to like? I gotta be called something." And with that he was back behind the bar, straightening out his half-completed stocktake table and tapping the pen against it as if it could make more numbers appear. It didn't take a professional eye for body language to see he was waiting for Steve to go.

"Bucky," Steve tried the name out levelly. "You got all the shifts you need here?"

His expression turned wary. "Three days. It's enough to get by."

"You wanna do better than get by?" Steve asked. "Come work for me. I've got my own business on the side. It's –ah – kind of had a lot of interest lately. I could do with an extra pair of hands."

He took a long while to reply.

"Sure," he said eventually, cool and brittle. "I may as well fuck for money as any other line of work. Same rates, or you got something better on offer?"

And Steve faltered as he rapidly tried process a complex series of reactions, starting with horror and ending up with quickly stifled curiosity

"No, not— It's mostly stuff I don't have time to do anymore. Paperwork. Maintenance. A bit of cleaning."

Bucky looked down at his spreadsheet as if it held the answer.

"Starting when?"

"Soon as you can. I've got a busy weekend coming up."

"Payment all done regular, with a reference at the end?"

"If that's how you want it. If you have other questions, get in touch. Let me give you my number."

With obvious reluctance, Bucky slid a phone out of his back pocket and handed it over. Apart from the cracked screen and the pink diamante studded cover, it appeared not to be connected to any network at present.

"Out of credit," Bucky mumbled.

Steve put his number in anyway, already plotting out how to sweet talk Shuri into helping him figure out how to hire an employee without doing anything that could land either of them in trouble with the IRS.

"Sounds to me," Steve said as he saved the number. "Like you need a second job."

"We'll see how that works out." Bucky sounded like he already regretted it. He was poring over his stocktake table again, still on what looked to be the same line.

Steve's plan had been to go get something from his locker, to give himself a pretext for being here and make the offer seem like a casual, spontaneous idea. But in the end, he preferred to let the gesture speak for itself.

**

It was only afterwards he thought to ask the question, and even then only because he was stuck in a conversation with Tony that looked like coming back round to those photographs he wanted to put on the website, not to mention making Steve late for his Saturday night session.

"A whole lot of things," Tony told him, shrugging it off impatiently like he couldn't wait to get back to discussing the FAQ page. "At the top of the list was assault – not the small stuff either, there was grievous bodily harm in there somewhere. That's why he's restocking the storeroom and taking out the trash and not going within fifty feet of front of house."

There was something about Bucky – an abstract hint of menace sitting uncomfortably beneath the deep reserve and those shot nerves that tweaked at Steve's protective instincts. Maybe he'd found out where that came from.

When he put that information to Stanley, later the same night, he took a few moments longer to mull over the question, looking like he was angrier than he could show in the middle of a mixing a martini.

"He'll tell you what he went in for, if he wants to." He ran Steve a soda water without being asked, and handed it over. "But don't you go making the assault about more than what it was. He was already inside when that happened."

He underlined that with a hard look Steve's way, wielding the authority of having tending bar here since T'Challa's father owned the place, long before it assumed its current niche business, and turned to the next customer.

**

Three days after that, Bucky was standing on the front steps of Steve's building with his hands jammed in his jacket pockets like he had state secrets crushed in his fists, wound even more tight than on their previous run-ins, and looking as if he would have changed his mind and scarpered if the door had taken one more second to open.

"Hi," said Steve with the easiest smile he could manage, as he quelled the clamour of professional instincts that itched to take all that tension and spend a slow afternoon turning it into stillness. "Right on time. Come in."

With a misgiving glance under his clenched brows, he did, following where Steve led, down what had been the central corridor in the decades when the old factory had been repurposed as low-rent office space.

"Find the place okay?"

"In the end." When Steve looked back at him, he elaborated with obvious reluctance, "I thought I must have copied down the directions wrong. The neighbourhood wasn't what I expected."

Steve pushed open the door to his apartment and held it open. "You get less complaints in an industrial area. I got a good deal on the rent. They save on insurance by having someone in the place."

Stopped inside the entrance, Bucky was glancing over the apartment with an expression that said it met his expectations even less than the neighbourhood had. And if he'd been picturing a smaller scale version of the club, that wasn't surprising. The main room that made up three quarters of the floorspace looked, quite deliberately, more like an upmarket hotel than a dungeon. Between the long, windowed wall in original red brick, and the white wall adjoining the corridor that Steve had painted himself just two months ago, the furniture was clean and minimal: a fawn coloured leather sofa strewn with geometric patterned blue cushions, a footstool and some open-backed cube bookshelves decorated sparsely. The only hint of trade was Steve's sketches framed on the walls: abstract body studies with bare hints of erotic curves of hips and mouths and shoulders.

Down to the fluffy blankets folded over the sofa arms, Steve had designed it to make people feel two things: valuable, and safe. He wasn't sure right now that any of it was working on Bucky.

"The office is down this end," he said, edging past his guest to lead the way. "That's where I work."

Full of light, with the windows pulled up to air, the big corner room showed its history rather than its present: it had been the manager's office from the fifties to the seventies when the factory had housed a printing press. With the one major piece of bondage furniture he'd invested in – a table that rotated to the vertical to double as a rack – tucked behind the door and covered in a piece of black satin, it actually looked like the office he'd named it for. But later, with the blackout curtains in place and the cupboard drawers pulled out to reveal their metal and leather contents, it would become his work space.

Bucky's gaze travelled over the benches and desk set against two adjacent walls, the cupboard with its big mirrored doors that showed a few weeks' worth of thumb prints in the daylight, and up to the rarely used ceiling hook.

"There's a lot to clean," he said, without turning. "Where do I start?"

By mid-afternoon, Steve was sitting on the sofa, using the time Bucky had liberated for him to test the new security cameras that had been delivered two weeks ago and were still waiting to be installed. From the next room came nothing but industrious silence.

It was distracting and strange, having someone in the apartment who wasn't his responsibility to take care of. The first time he'd wandered over, he'd found Bucky bent over an upturned bench to wipe away dust and faint traces of cobweb that seemed to instantaneously grow back in the old building. Steve made a concerted effort not to focus on the limber twist of his spine or the muscular arms that showed through his shirt, and in particular not on the way he was kneeling over a piece of furniture that regularly had satisfied clients bent over it.

"That's the price of a heritage building," Steve told him. "The rotten gaps in the beams are basically a highway for spiders and ants. There's still a few cracks I need to shore up."

"Yeah?" was all Bucky said before he went back to working with the intense focus that seemed to be his default approach.

Much later, Steve called out, "The address you put on your paperwork. Is it permanent?"

"It's reliable."

"I guess you're not living with Stanley then."

There was no answer to that – though technically, it hadn't been a question. A few moments later, the vacuum cleaner went on noisily.

Once he'd got the security camera feed working properly, Steve put the cameras and laptop down. Bucky was sitting on the bench running a cloth over a pair of cuffs, easing them open to get to the joints within, applying the same taciturn diligence he used behind the bar. Just as Steve was feeling his way towards a question that might open up a window onto Bucky's history without seeming contrived, Bucky glanced up at him and asked,

"This is legal, right? I don't have a whole lot of credit for breaking the rules right now."

"Yeah, it's legal. I'm not running a brothel here. I don't need a licence to use those." By way of reply, Bucky only frowned and kept on running a corner of the cloth through each of the links in turn. "You won't be responsible for anything that happens on this side of the door, okay? I know where the line is, and I'm careful about crossing it. Anyone asks you, the answer is no."

"Asks me?" Bucky repeated, looking up sharply.

"Um, yeah. When you finish here, we need to have a talk about my emails."

He hadn't meant to be sharing his passwords on day one, but the number of unread messages had hit four figures, and if it went any higher he'd have to give up and ditch the account altogether. As it was, Bucky had barely made a dent in sorting the booking requests from the media enquiries and obvious hoaxes when the end of the day approached.

"Hey," Bucky said from where he sat on the sofa, breaking a good hour of silence, while Steve was in the bathroom changing into a clean white tee. "I got a booking reminder for six. There something I should do with that?"

"Yeah. Open up my calendar. You'll need to know your way around that too."

The night's two bookings weren't the sort of clients that Steve needed to dress up for, so he settled for running a comb through his hair and splashing cold water on his face.

Bucky went on, "Okay. You got billing records in here. They pay in advance, do they? Seems smart." It went quiet for a moment. "There's a mistake though. Your six o'clock's paying almost half the rate of your eight-thirty." There was an uncertain pause. "You want to show me how to fix that up?"

"No, that's David," he explained, towelling his beard dry. "He lost his partner eighteen months ago. They couldn't get married if he wanted to keep his teaching job. He's still sorting through all the legal crap."

"Got it. David gets a discount." He glanced up as Steve started to go around the room, switching on lights and pulling down the blinds. "Looks to me like everyone gets a discount here. Compared to the entry fees at the club. Even the general admission spaces cost a premium to get into – forget about the private rooms."

Since it was the most conversation Bucky had ventured all day, Steve indulged it. "Yeah. Prices have gone up since Tony got involved. There's a whole new crowd. It's not raw like it used to be. That's one of the reasons I started on my own."

In the office, he closed the curtains, blocking out the noise and the last of the light, and took out a pair of cuffs and a blindfold.

"So that's 25 minutes until your booking," Bucky said, just loud enough to carry. "Anything else you want me to do?"

There was a weird, defiant note in it that made Steve wonder whether sorting emails was somehow a demeaning task to allocate to a first-day employee. But when he came back to the doorway, there was no missing how Bucky's gaze dropped nervously to the toys in his hand, as if steeling himself for what he expected to confront as the last task of the day.

"You can go, Bucky," he heard himself say, too shocked to soften the curtness. "I'll see you on Sunday. Sometime around midday would be nice."

He retreated into the office and stayed there until he heard the door close. Then he used his last twenty minutes to drink a big mug of peppermint tea, because between David's quietly spoken grief and the deeply held tensions Belle brought from her work, he had two clients who needed him at his best.

**

Saturday night meant the club, and the tricky switch from being a small business owner to a paid contractor.

He was still in the dressing room getting changed when Natasha came in, with a tote bag slung over her shoulder that made an ominous clunk when she dumped it on the counter.

"Hey Steve." She started unloading her costume and tools, the thick, coiled black whip that was her trademark, black leather boots with a lethal spike heel, an electric wand that she plugged straight into a wall socket.

"Help you with that?" she offered, coming over to take the black silk tie out of his hand and slide it under his collar. He watched her warily. "Tony asked me to talk to you about putting some publicity shots on the website. I've got to say, it never did me any harm."

On top of a disgustingly loyal in-person clientele, Natasha's social media following was in the tens of thousands.

"Why won't you do it?" she asked.

His eyes tracked her fingers as she tightened the knot and slid it out of his sight. "Old fashioned sense of privacy I guess," he told her as she plucked his tie pin off the counter and slid it into place. "It's personal, the way I do the job. Those kinds of photos, what they show isn't what I do."

"Thanks, Steve. Good talk."

She patted his chest with a quick grin and returned to her side of the room.

Once he'd pulled his stiff jacket on, he studied himself in the mirror. What he'd told Nat was less true, here at the club, where they billed him as the Captain and he dressed the part, though when you were built like he was built it didn't take much more than a black suit and a pair of leather gloves to create an image of authority. In his home business, he worked in a t-shirt when he could get away with it, and let the authority come from how he held himself.

"Hey." Nat's reprimand made him aware that, in distraction, his attention had slipped to the mirror in front of him, which currently showed his colleague standing with her leather catsuit pulled up to her waist and nothing on her top half. She met his gaze frankly. "You starting something, Rogers? Is that what this is?"

He frowned, thinking about that weird vibe he'd got from Bucky at the end of his shift yesterday. "Do I come across like the kind of guy who might?"

She shook her head, slipping into the arms of her suit. "Why do you think I staked out a space here? You're the safest guy in the place. Wouldn't lay a hand without a signed consent form. Come and help me."

She jerked her head and held her hair up off her neck. As he pulled the back of her suit closed and fastened the zip, he could feel her reflection studying him. "You ever going to try anything?" she asked.

Pausing, he let his bare hand rest on her skin for a moment. "If you needed me to. You'd only have to ask."

Her smiled turned a little sad as she caught his eye. "I've got everything I need. Good to keep in mind though."

He pulled on his leather gloves and they got to work.

For all its discomforts, the night went by quickly. He went downstairs to find they'd bumped Nat to the Vault, where the small space meant exorbitant entry fees, and left him the biggest room in the house. The second half of the night saw him paired with a paying guest, a guy who flew in from interstate with his boyfriend every couple of months or so, who they said was a lobbyist for an industry that must pay pretty well, judging by the way he threw around money here. Pretty and flexible, with the shameless abandonment of a generation that had grown up with kink, he was no hardship, but no real challenge either. What left Steve drained was the queue of casual visitors afterwards, feigning a sudden interest in his technique that they had not felt when none of his client base had appeared on the cover of Vogue.

He was pretty tired by the time he changed back into his street gear, sometime around two. Outside, Bucky was emptying a carton of empty bottles into the skip while, next to it, Magdalena snuck in a quick cigarette break before her last round of clean-up for the night.

"While you got your jacket off, I got some boxes in there could do with moving downstairs," she was saying with the sort of leer that only her status as both the most well-loved and (bar Stanley) the oldest member of staff allowed her to get away with. "Then back up again. Guns like those, you gotta keep 'em in condition. 's what they call community service."

Bucky just laughed and said, "You don't see enough of that in there that you gotta keep an eye on me as well?" He wiped his hands on his jeans and sidled up to her. "You got one of those for me then?"

He made a ravenous sounding noise when she lit one and handed it over.

"Thought you didn't do that no more."

"Got better things to spend my money on out here," he told her, breathing out long and hard from the first drag. "My body and I aren't on the same page about that yet though."

Behind the fatigue, he sounded relaxed, more open than Steve had got a glimpse of over a whole day of working less than twenty feet apart. Steve turned the other way and went through the drainage works towards his bike.

The first thing he did when he got home was count out the money he owed for Bucky's day of work and put it in an envelope to take with him next time he dropped into the club, because he had a growing feeling he was not going to see his new employee a second time.

**

Chapter Text

On Sunday morning, he put an old pair of sweats and a jersey, pulled his tool kit from under the sink, and ventured into the unoccupied storage space on the opposite side of the building to fetch the ladder. The ordeal of extracting it from where it was wedged in behind a stack of damp and slumped archive boxes gave him plenty of time to note the rusted joints and bowed rungs and recollect how it would have been a risky task to undertake with two of them, let alone on his own.

He was genuinely surprised when the buzzer rang at a couple of minutes past twelve. His first impression was that Bucky looked surprisingly neat with his hair tied back and a loose button down with the sleeves rolled up.

"What time d'you finish up last night?"

"Five. Five-thirty," Bucky informed him, volunteering nothing further.

From his vantage point of one stair higher, Steve thought there was something faintly provoking about him. When he wasn't avoiding eye contact altogether, he had a direct way of looking that came across as a challenge, but there was something soft in his eyes too, even under the three-day growth and the world-weary attitude. Something that had spoken to Steve's professional instincts with a promise of acquiescence, from the day of that disastrous masterclass. Not a good combination in the high-testosterone environment of a prison, Steve speculated, where establishing your place in the hierarchy would be everything. No wonder he was so careful with his words.

"You want me to do that?" was the next thing he said to Steve, a good while later, when the ladder was propped up high against the building's façade. "You can hold the legs down here."

"I'm pretty sure I didn't include health insurance in your wage," Steve told him. "So it had better be me up there."

Only a quarter hour later, he was back on the ground without incident, the new security camera sitting exactly where he wanted it.

"It's a privacy thing, is it?" Bucky asked, starting to gather together left over screws and bits of packaging, now that his hands were free, and toss them in the bucket he'd brought out. "The high angle doesn't catch much of people's faces."

"Yeah, that's it," Steve said.

It must have been something about the camaraderie of a mildly dangerous task successfully accomplished. While they were manoeuvring the ladder back in place, Steve looked up and asked, "If I'd asked you for a resume, what would you have put on it?"

Gauging the tight space he had to work with, Bucky fed his end of the ladder up onto the vertical to angle it through the door into the storage space. "Lies, probably." Just when it looked like the ceiling was going to get in the way, Steve pushed the foot of it through the doorway so they could start lowering it again. "No-one wants an ex-con for unskilled jobs when their neighbour's kid's out of work. I told some people I'd been in the army, when I first got out." Steve guided the ladder back into its original place and let it drop. "It didn't make a difference. In case you were wondering."

"You didn't study inside?" he asked as held open the door that led back to the corridor and flicked off the light.

"Sure I studied, Steve. I learned all over again how to do long division, because it was better than doing nothing. At the age of 30 I was still writing about the symbolism of the conch shell in Lord of the Flies. But did I learn anything that might make someone think they could trust me with a cash float? No, they haven't worked out how to teach that one yet."

Fishing out his door key, Steve pushed a bit further. "What did you do before?"

The door had closed behind them before he got his weary answer. "I stacked shelves in a warehouse, and I went out dancing every night. And I spent a lot of time trying to convince my ma that there was some sort of career plan in all of that."

Steve nodded and went to put the kettle on, thoughts already on the next question.

"You live here."

Bucky said it in sudden shock, as if Steve had been hiding this fact, when all he'd done was put up high screens and a curtain to fence off enough room for a bed and a clothes rack, at the opposite end of the big living space from where the office sat. The kitchen, which was basically screened by floor to ceiling shelves, was barely more than a sink and a mini fridge with a portable gas cooker sitting on top of it.

"Not exactly set up for dinner parties," Steve said.

"I've seen worse," Bucky reminded him, with a wistful little smile that could have been for the tea canisters or the pasta jar or just the general prospect of boiling water on call.

**

Steve spent the afternoon with his tape measure, planning the next round of maintenance, while Bucky ground away at that backlog of emails.

"Lady from the west coast," Bucky had informed him, breaking a long silence, "wants to know if she can fly you to a hotel in Vegas."

Steve jotted down a new measurement in his notebook. "Anyone who mentions Vegas goes straight in the No folder. Got nothing against legalised prostitution, but that's not what I built this business to do."

That was when his phone rang. If his blood pressure faintly rose at the sight of the caller name, it was edging towards worrying when the conversation rang off.

"I'm moving one of tonight's appointments forward," he said. "He'll be here at four."

Bucky looked up from where he was wedged into the corner of the lounge suite with the laptop on his knees. "This is Stuart, is it? Your regular 9pm Sunday."

"That's him. You see any messages from him, they come straight to me, right?"

"Okay. 9pm moved to 4pm. Anything else you need me to do?" Bucky asked.

"No. Yes. Just check the office is neat. I mean, really check."

Bucky was watching him closely as he stood up to do it. "Okay, Steve. I'll take care of it."

In his bedroom, Steve laid out his clothes numbly. There was a reason he scheduled physical tasks for himself on a Sunday and gave himself Mondays off. The appointments with Stuart were the hardest in his book. He'd learned to buffer them with a solid self-care regimen and work his way slowly into the headspace he needed. It was half past three already. The layers of black came on, one by one, down to the stiff jacket and the glossiest pair of shoes he owned. As he pulled the leather gloves on with a jerk, he felt the first hot lick of the anger he needed to draw on.

Bucky was replenishing towels in the bottom shelf of the cupboard when Steve leaned over him to start pulling out equipment. He looked up from his crouch, and kept on looking as Steve picked up a cane, and a heavy duty flogger.

"So you put that shit on and people let you do whatever you like?"

It was the first time he'd expressed any interest in what went on this side of the door. Steve's pride in his work battled with the urgency of getting into the headspace he needed.

"I don’t need the suit. But it helps maintain a professional distance. I’m a big believer in uniforms."

"Let people know who’s boss," Bucky said, standing. "Smart psychology."

He was still watching, tasks forgotten, and it occurred to Steve that this was probably the first time he'd been in full dom costume in Bucky's presence. When he glance over, Bucky seemed more curious than daunted.

"What?"

When he turned away to slice the cane through the air, the whistle of it pulled him that bit further into character.

"Nothing."

Steve took the tip of the cane in the fingers of his free hand and asked again, softer. "What?"

The look Bucky turned on him started off reluctant. "You don't like it. All of this. That's why they pay you so much to do it."

For a moment, Steve was too surprised to say anything. Then he put the cane down.

"You're wrong about that, Bucky. I do like it. And that's why they keep paying me to do it."

He closed the cupboard, pulled the cover off the rack that stood behind the door, and handed it to Bucky. "Fold this up and put it out of sight somewhere, will you?"

The rack was a thickly padded platform supported by an A frame on a slightly oblique angle, with a thin kneeling platform at the base and a row of anchor points lining the long sides for fastening cuffs. The sturdiness of its build appealed to him, and that helped, thinking of his client as the missing piece in an edgy work of art. Steve manoeuvred it into position and ran his finger around the rims of the strategically placed holes, double-checking for dust.

He leapt into action at the sound of the buzzer.

"Don't." Something about the way Bucky rose from the sofa, waiting for direction, gave him a bad feeling about getting him involved, and he didn't have time to question it right now. "Can you take your work into the bedroom? I'll manage him myself."

He didn't stay to see what Bucky's surprised expression resolved itself into. A few moments later, he was on the door step, accepting a firm handshake and ushering Stuart in.

"I have a flight at nine," Stuart said, opening enough buttons to pull his shirt over his neatly shaved head and drape it over the waiting stool. "Meeting in Miami tomorrow."

"Let's get started then," was the last thing Steve said before he switched to the hard dom voice that he almost never used, the one that oozed contempt, and spread belittlement, and made the ugly things he had to say even uglier.

It wasn't the irony of the reversed power dynamic that rattled him so deeply – the fact that, while all the appearance of control lay with him, it was Stuart who had arranged the lease and permits on this place, and whose property development firm now held the future of Steve's business in its hand. It wasn't the sex, either, since they'd been doing that since he'd been a regular at the club.

"Does it make you hard, laying into me like this?" Stuart was spitting out, strapped hard against the rack and struggling. "This must be a fucking wet dream for an animal like you. You make me sick."

Letting the flogger rest, Steve hooked his finger into the back of the collar and pulled until the tendons in Stuart's neck strained. "Every word that comes out of your useless mouth is two more strokes. And I got plenty more juice in me yet. So please, you keep shooting your stupid fucking mouth off."

What made him dread these sessions was the sense that, whatever Stuart thought he was getting out of them, all he was really doing was etching the pain of a self-hating youth more deeply into himself.

When the front door closed behind him, Steve gave himself a moment to lean against it. That was the other thing that threw him every time. Alone among his clients, Stuart shunned the elegant give of Steve's sofa, the carefully chosen music and soft throw rugs. He laced up his anger and his pain with his shoes, and he left without a kind word on either side.

Having resumed his position on the sofa, Bucky was working at the laptop with a studied intensity that confirmed Steve's suspicions about the lack of soundproofing on the office door. Steve slumped down at the other end, calculating that he probably had another twenty minutes to pull himself together for his six o'clock.

"I'm almost up to last weekend," Bucky said quietly, after a while. "I'll stay and reply to a few more of the No pile. Get that out of the way."

Curling his fingers into tight fists to still the lingering tremor in them, Steve lay back against the cushions and closed his eyes and listened to the soft tap of Bucky's fingers on the keyboard.

**

After Sam's early morning PT class followed up with a morning at the gym, Monday lifted his spirits, and Tuesday he saw him cheerfully fighting his way through morning traffic with more hardware supplies strapped to the back of his bike.

By the time Bucky arrived, he was already well on the way to cutting the new skirting boards into the lengths he needed. The work went quicker with two. Bucky had steady hands and an eye for precision.

"You going to cut them a bit shorter so you don't end up with an odd length in the last section?" he asked, about a minute after Steve had gauged the dimensions with his eye and come to the same conclusion.

Bucky's taciturn tendencies made him easy to work with, too. If he spoke, it was to ask whether Steve wanted the boards mitred or square on the mid-wall joints, or did he want to check the alignment one last time before the adhesive went on.

Slight as they were, over a long afternoon, the accumulation of these little practical enquiries had started to feel like the sort of conversation Steve could enjoy. It was probably the longest time anyone had been in his place since he moved in, he thought curiously as he got up to run himself a glass of water. Even including the ones who paid by the week to be here. Add in a couple of beers, they could be friends chipping in together to get the job done, like when Sam had helped him with the floating timber floor.

Except for how he turned back to find Bucky down on the floor, bent into a low angle that took phenomenal core strength to hold so easily as he steadied a wall plug against the hole Steve had drilled in the brick work. He hefted the hammer in his free hard like a familiar weight, muscle tensing across his shoulders as he struck. And there it was, that little spark that couldn't quite be extinguished from Steve's memory, the knowledge of what he wanted from Bucky, the startling attraction that had been there, that he'd substituted for a job offer and put permanently off-limits.

"You bought spares of these, right?" Bucky asked without turning. "This one's got a crack. I don't think it's going to take the pressure."

The corner by the office door took a bit of tricky work to get it flush up against the jamb. When they'd glued in the last piece, they both stood back looking at it, and the sense of accomplishment made Steve want to bridge the quiet between them with something.

"Ten years ago, I thought that following orders and clocking in for my shifts on time was the best I could do." He nudged the newly laid board proudly with his toe. "It's not much of a business, but I built it myself, all of it."

"Ten years ago I was serving eighteen months for dealing and just about to get a nine year head sentence for fracturing the skull of a double murderer," Bucky said, flat. "You've done all right."

He smiled a melancholy smile that Steve didn't think he'd seen before. It felt like a door being opened between them at last. But before Steve could think where to take that abrupt announcement, Bucky's pocket buzzed, and he pulled out his phone, tapped open a message and put it away again. It was the third time that had happened this afternoon.

"Still got no credit?" Steve asked. "Aren't you working two paid jobs at the moment?"

Bucky shrugged. "I got other priorities than seeing a picture of whatever new flavour of donut someone decided to make up this week. If we move it along a little, we can get the rest of this short wall done and still have time to pack up before your first session."

**

"Something not working?" he asked, coming back from the gas station with hot dogs and caffeinated-spiked energy drinks late in the afternoon.

Bucky was unmistakeably frowning at the screen. "Trying to work out what qualifies as an emergency in your line of work."

"Right," Steve said, setting his purchases down on the coffee table. "That's Will, is it? Does he want to book in an extra session?"

"Tomorrow."

"Sure," he said to Bucky's sceptical expression. "Ask if he can make 12.30 – he can have half an hour if that's all he wants. He likes to schedule in extra time when he's got a big project coming up."

Will had a single-minded relationship with sexual pleasure that put him utterly beyond the reach of shame, and he enjoyed being pushed around and admonished for little things that paled into insignificance next to the multi-million dollar risks he held in his hands on a weekly basis. He turned up the next day curt and stiff in his blue pinstripe suit and lavender button-down, and left loose-limbed, smirking and nudging Steve with his shoulder.

"So what was the emergency?" Bucky asked afterwards, tentatively, when he was running a bucket of hot water to wipe down the spanking bench.

"Never did find out." Steve was lying back on the sofa, sleeves still rolled up as he let himself bask in that pleasant cocktail of professional satisfaction and low-level arousal that a really good session left behind. "You could do that later."

"Or I could do it now. Why don’t you charge extra for emergencies?"

"Don’t have to." Steve fished around in his pocket and found himself squinting at a couple of machine-fresh fifties. "He tips like he was allergic to the stuff. Half of this is yours."

Although Bucky's face tightened, attention zeroing in on the cash, he didn't move to accept what Steve was holding out. "Go on, take it."

In the end, he had to stand up and tuck it in Bucky's pocket himself, still a bit giddy from the session and realising too late how far he'd had to trespass into Bucky's personal space to do it. Bucky tensed, making the water in the bucket lightly plink, as Steve's fingers lingered.

"Well, all right. You're pretty hard work to manage," Bucky said, and stepped away.

"Probably a hostile takeover," Steve continued flopping back onto the sofa. "Or a merger going off the rails – something high-pressure and corporate. You'd make a fortune in insider trading if you could match his client list with my booking records."

"Sounds like he could definitely stand to pay more."

Steve was thinking about how he needed clients like Will, among all the others. Clients who came to him for sheer pleasure, and left him feeling buzzed like this, all his energy replenished.

"How much do you think he paid for that suit?" Bucky was continuing from the office. "Or the last fancy dinner he had? Why aren't you worth as much as the gym membership he's too busy to use?"

Steve closed his eyes, thinking about how you put a dollar value on what he did, and wondering if he should tuck the other fifty into Bucky's backpack as well.

**

On Friday, the work went by quick and familiar. They'd almost finished the inside corridor wall when Steve stood up and brushed his hands off.

"You've still got work to do on the emails, right? I've got to go out for a bit."

"Oh," Bucky said, sounding both surprised and curious. "Sure."

"I need to sign something for my accountant," Steve answered the unspoken question. "That's all."

Bucky distractedly tucked a sawdust-flecked strand of hair behind his ear, then glanced up.

"Your accountant? You could have left me with all of this and spent the whole day doing anything, and signing some forms is the best you've got. What do you do for fun?"

The chop saw twitched in his grip, like he regretted the question.

"Lots of things," Steve told him, frowning, because it wasn't always easy to draw the line between work and pleasure in his job, and he needed a lot of time for recharging and recovery.

"Okay."

The tone was neutral; it was his eyes that offered the faintest provocation. "What?"

"Seems to me like you go out less than I do, and I got parole conditions." He softened that with a little glimmer of a smile that he tucked away almost as quick as it had started, reaching down to test the clamped board he was working on and tighten the screws. "You on one of those hook-up aps? I heard about those. Everybody keeps telling me."

"Thought you were set on using your phone as a messaging service." Turning his mind to peak hour traffic jams, he checked his jeans pockets for his keys, then plucked his jacket from the coat-stand by the door, and dug around until he found them. "And no, not anymore. Pack up the tools when you're done. I'll have time to sweep up when I get back."

"You got it."

He was half way to his destination before it occurred to him it was the first time he'd left Bucky in his place alone. By the time he parked his bike, he'd forgotten it altogether.

**

It was Friday that Bucky came in late for the first time, flustered and looking unslept.

"Next time, text me," Steve told him, only half joking because Bucky had seemed like the kind of reliable that made you worry the one time he missed his mark.

"Yeah," Bucky said as he made his way inside and dropped his pack in its usual place beside the door. "Sorry."

They finished the last of the skirting boards around mid-afternoon. Long before his 6pm knock-off, Bucky's eyelids were starting to droop in front of the laptop screen. He jerked in surprise when Steve set a coffee down on the side table.

"How many nights are you working at the club?"

"Just three. And I do restocking in the mornings sometimes. It's not --"

"You need to cut down your hours here?"

"No," Bucky replied almost before the question was finished. "It won't happen again."

Later, he brought the cup over to where Steve was tidying up at the sink.

"You got the wrong idea, you know," he said, reaching past Steve for the sponge so that their shoulders almost touched.

"About what?"

"It's not the work that's too much. I went out with Val and some of the girls from the club after work. Pushed it a bit harder than I should have."

With the club's hours, that would have made for a pretty late finish. The surprise was that he'd managed to drag himself in at all. Steve couldn't help noticing how it hadn't done any harm to the way he looked, though, scruffy and unshaven with his eyes softly hooded.

"You ever go to that kind of thing?" Bucky went on. "Dancing, I mean. There's a regular place they go. Free entry after two. Pretty casual."

"No," Steve told him firmly, taking the cup and dropping it in the water. "I've got too much work to do. You can leave this with me."

Bucky threw his hands up in a can't-blame-me-for-trying sort of gesture and started to pack up his stuff.

**

At half past five on Sunday, Bucky looked up and said to him, "Your unread messages are under a hundred." And a bit later, eyes still on the screen, "I'm going to stay a bit and finish them off." And, at Steve's lack of reply, "I won't get in your way."

True enough, he introduced himself pleasantly when Christina arrived, and disappeared altogether when the buzzer announced Stuart at the door.

All the work Steve had put into psyching himself up this week went out the window almost instantly, because Stuart arrived angry, screaming mad at some part of his life that was out of his control, and got angrier the more Steve tried and failed to fix it for him. He spent the last few minutes pulling his blows as he tried to avoid the two places where tiny flecks of blood were starting to break the surface, and compensating with the same ugly phrases repeated over and over in a voice that had gone hoarse.

After it, his client turned to him and said with a raw hostility that was half out of the scene and half still in it, "That's the best you've got, is it?"

Steve just looked at him blankly, thinking nauseously of the blood drying under his clothes, and shrugged.

When he'd ushered Stuart and his viciously resurgent tension to the door, he hung his suit jacket up and slid the gloves into the pockets. Then he followed the unexpected smell of mint to the kitchen, where Bucky was fishing a tea bag out of a steaming mug.

"Come and drink this," Bucky said without looking over his shoulder.

He seemed more subdued than usual, quieter. And he was still here. As Steve watched him run a little cold tap water into it, he noted a couple more things. He looked a little bit rumpled, like maybe he'd given in to one of those naps he often seemed to need and never took. His hair was half escaped from its tie, loose around his face, and his shirt was rucked up in a way that Steve knew better than to take an interest in.

When Bucky turned to face him, leaning his hip on the sink, it gave him the sort of moment of profound rightness that he usually needed a perfectly executed scene to stir up in him. In the last half-minute he'd forgotten about his problem client, his heart rate had sunk down to relaxation, and the quiet and the steamy smell of mint were speaking direct to his nerves with a promise of peace.

When he reached for the mug, Bucky deftly manoeuvred it out of reach and set it on top of the fridge.

"Actually, I'd better put this down," he said, and calmly returned his attention to Steve. "Keep it out of trouble."

For a couple of breaths, the silence seemed to fizz with possibilities. In the end, it was completely unsurprising when Bucky reached out for his belt and pulled him closer, then started to work it open. And Steve was going to say yes. Even knowing how unbalanced it left him every time Stuart walked out that door leaving unresolved conflict in his wake, even knowing how many promises he'd made himself about not crossing this line, he was going to do this because something in him was crying out for the connection Bucky was offering.

It didn't even make a difference that when he reached out to touch Bucky's cheek, he turned his face and pushed Steve away to start unfastening his own jeans. But then he was pulling that foil condom packet out of his pocket, and turning around, bracing himself with his hand on the tiles.

It wasn't that Steve didn't want him this way, either, except that something was missing. Something that felt like a half-hour of discussion, boundary-setting and build-up. He didn't even think he could get hard fast enough to give Bucky what he wanted.

"Hang on," he said, floundering on the line between embarrassed and desperate, heat flooding his face. "Slow down a second. That's not how I --"

"Oh come on," Bucky ground out. "When you get down to it, we all do it the same way, buddy. Ain't no point trying to be fancy about it."

As far as slurs on his lifestyle went, he'd taken far stronger than that without wounding, but it must have said something about his state just now that he cycled through anger, hurt and regret in the space of a blink, and turned to slump back against the counter.

"I guess I need a little more warm-up," he heard himself say numbly. "And you, with everything you've—"

He was cut off by a look that told him not to speculate in that direction unless he wanted a fight. Then Bucky was putting himself to rights and tucking in his shirt, barely thirty seconds after he'd started the whole thing.

"Bucky," he started, clutching for any thread of connection between them and unsure how to do it.

Bucky just patted him on the shoulder, twice. "Moment's kind of slipped away," he said. "Drink your tea."

As he headed out towards the door, flicking overhead lights on as he went, he turned back over his shoulder. "If you want my advice, you need to ditch that guy. There's twenty better offers in your emails, if you ever bothered to read them."

A minute later, Steve was alone in the apartment. The mug was still hot.

At least he wouldn't have to spend all night thinking about Stuart and his issues.

**

Chapter Text

Three pieces of good fortune came Steve's way that kept him from dwelling on either self-recrimination for how close he'd got to crossing that line with Bucky, or regret for the swiftly-vanished possibility. The next day was Monday, so he didn't have to worry about enforcing his boundaries with either clients or staff. Tony called him for another round of lobbying about the publicity photos, giving him a chance to raise his voice a little and butt heads. And an old army buddy staying with Sam came into the gym looking for a workout, which turned into an entire afternoon of sparring and a bottle of vodka drunk lying on the mats with the lights turned down.

**

Not only did Bucky defy his expectations by showing up to work on Tuesday, he showed up at the front door with one ear bud in, humming along faintly. Steve's first impression was that he seemed light, as if what happened on the weekend had resolved something for him when it had only complicated things for Steve. There was a strip of white tape protruding from his left sleeve.

Bucky followed his glance as if surprised. "I had some work done. On a new design. You've got to close the door on the past, like Johnny Cash used to say."

"Huh," Steve said, more of a grunt, biting back curiosity about what Bucky was getting inked onto himself.

"It's got a long way to go yet," Bucky told him, closing the topic. "Three more sessions at least."

Steve sat at the table under the window, sketching vague configurations of human bodies in gravity-defying restraints and maintaining a neutral silence, like it was ordinary day, like he wasn't thinking about the sure grasp of Bucky's hands on his belt almost to the exclusion of everything else.

It was crawling towards two before Bucky looked up from his screen and said hesitantly, "Look, I've done everything I can with your inbox. The next step is making some choices and filling up the gaps in your schedule, and I don't think that's something you want me to do for you."

"Leave it with me."

The emails, he found out later when Bucky was in the office cleaning with the door shut, weren't nearly as unpleasant as he'd imagined, now that they'd been pared down and neatly sorted. The first one was from Ricky, a guy who'd used to come to the club before he moved away, basically for nothing more than to be elaborately tied up and untied again, and Steve slotted him in on Tuesday and wrote himself a note to see if he could borrow some rope from Peter for variety. He moved a few into the No folder after that, then picked three of the remaining new enquiries and invited them in for coffee.

Sure, he heard about that first thing on Wednesday afternoon, the moment Bucky logged in.

"You moved a few things from Yes to No. What for?"

Steve knew exactly which one he meant.

"Not the kind of work I do." He emptied out the bag of clean laundry he'd been meaning to leave for Bucky and started folding towels.

"The paying kind, you mean?" he prompted, talking to the screen. "Steve? I looked up what she paid you last time. What's the deal with turning that down?"

"The deal is I saw her once and I ended up all over social media for the last month."

He ignored the critical way Bucky was watching him managing a task he'd been doing all by himself, twice a week, every week, up until four weeks ago.

"Is this like your Sunday 9pm appointment? She wants you to hurt her in a way you don't like?"

"No."

"Well then."

Steve put the last towel down, feeling flushed and flustered.

"It's the dynamic." With a deep breath, he tried to put the thing into context. "It's not the submission she wants, not really. It's a service like any other and she's in control. No different from her plastic surgeon or her personal trainer."

"This a pride thing, is it? You like to be the one in charge."

"What she wants from me, it's just an experience. She thinks of me like one of her thousand dollar shoes or designer dresses. It's a bit edgy, no one else has it yet, and it makes her look good. She doesn't need what I do. Doesn't need me at all." Steve could feel his face clenching into a scowl. "Look, I don't have to do this, you know."

Putting the laptop aside, Bucky sat up from his slouch on the sofa.

"All right. I wondered about that. You got some sort of trust fund, do you?"

That made Steve smile, though sadly. "Not exactly. You know I left the police force? That was five years ago, before I moved here. It wasn't exactly a happy ending."

He wasn't in the mood to relate the whole history, but the abridged version was good enough. The armed robbery pursuit that escalated when it could have been contained if they'd been allowed to follow their instincts instead of misguided regulations; a desperate driver ramming a cop car on a bridge; the fall into the river; seventy minutes underwater before the rescue no one thought would succeed. And a compensation payout at the other end that his accountant had invested smart enough on his behalf to tide him over when business was slow.

"Did you used to do this, back then?" Bucky asked quietly, afterwards, nodding towards the office and everything it symbolised for him.

Steve just blinked, feeling the weight of the memories he'd shared and the ones he'd kept to himself. "Not really. Not until after. I was sort of looking by then, but it … it took a lot longer to find it."

"I get it," Bucky said in the same soft voice. "Hard enough for a guy like you to find someone in the first place, without adding more complications."

When he looked up, hurt, Bucky was smiling at him. He didn't wink but it was a near thing.

Later, he saw Bucky had moved the email back into the Yes folder.

**

On Saturday night, he ceded the main room to Nat and got to retreat to the relative privacy of the Vault.

He met a nice couple from the Iowa who wanted to book him for a one-on-one training session before they went home.

He came home to two texts. The first said OK if I start late tomorrow? Gotta let the guys in at seven to fix a leaking keg. The second, sent an hour later, said, I bought a plan for this. Say yes.

Steve said yes.

**

He was glad he had, by the end of Sunday night, because while Stuart had dialled down the stress and rage this week, it left him cool-headed enough to turn his mind to other things.

"You get permission for that?" he said, nodding at the freshly painted skirting boards, before they'd even got into the office. "Those are heritage walls, and that kind of thing matters if we ever need to sell."

Steve had gone through the make-good clauses in the lease with Shuri, and besides there were a dozen other planning violations in the rest of the building, but something about that was ominous. "You thinking that's something you might be looking to do?"

"Might have to rearrange some finances soon. That's life."

Divorce, Steve guessed. He had a wife somewhere, and kids, the rumour mill at the club said. The sort of false life he would never have had to lead if he'd had the luck to be born a decade later.

The session was gruelling enough to leave him drained, so drained he barely noticed that Bucky was sitting in his customary spot on the sofa, looking sleek and professional in a dark pinstripe shirt and his hair tied back neater than usual, a lamp on behind him in keeping with the soft-lit look that Steve preferred for client visits.

What made him notice was Stuart stopping dead in the middle of the room.

"New employee," Bucky said matter-of-factly, answering his expression. "James. Pleasure to meet you. Sounded like a good session – I hope you enjoyed it. Same time next week?"

"I believe that's how a standing appointment works," Stuart said stiffly, and left it at that.

"Maybe next time he'll think twice about the way he speaks to you," Bucky said defensively, when Steve had come back to stand in the doorway.

"Don't wind him up," Steve warned him. "His company owns the building."

"Understood." Bucky folded down the laptop screen and moved it onto the side table. Steve handed him his pack as he passed, not quite letting go of the strap.

"And keep in mind that he's a bit of an exhibitionist on top of everything else. So stay out of his way unless you want an invitation to the party."

The expected flip reply to that didn't come. Instead Bucky said equably, "All right. There's tea in the kitchen. Knock yourself out."

And then he used his newly purchased plan to text a running commentary on his Uber ride home, while Steve slouched on the sofa with his tea, pulled a rug over himself and watched the messages come in. In the gaps between texts, he thought about how, outside the scene, Stuart was aggressively competitive, knifing deals or jacking up prices by a meaningless fraction of a percentage just to see the other guy lose, and how Bucky had an unconscious glimmer of insubordination in him that was going to bring out the absolute worst in that, if Steve didn't do a better job of keeping them apart. Bucky had probably dressed up tonight for a sense of authority, but he can't have realised how the grey trousers drew the eye up his long legs, and the crisp lines of his button-down only provoked curiosity about the contours of muscle underneath. He had enough trouble keeping his own wandering thoughts in check, let alone having to watch out for his most powerful client too.

**

The session with Ricky went well, and the revision work Steve had done on his knots did not go to waste. Ricky liked to talk almost as much as he liked the feeling of the rope enclosing him knot by knot. He talked about his dad, whose relapse had brought him back to the city, and the sales targets that kept him up at night, and the hiking tour he was doing in Canada as soon as he got the money together. By the time Ricky was sitting with his feet tucked up on the sofa, drinking an iced water, he was loose-limbed and smiling, and Steve felt energised in a way he'd missed. Ricky was sweet. The kind of sweet Steve would have fallen for when he'd been twenty, when he was training to be a paramedic and what he wanted from life was simpler.

Steve wrote his fee down by 40% and left a note in the calendar for Bucky.

**

There was an afternoon when Steve came back from a laundry run to find Bucky installed on the sofa, in the corner that Steve no longer sat in even when he had the place to himself, in a pose that could only be described as lounging. Beats were leaking out from his factory issue ear buds as he tracked around the mouse pad and tapped with his thumb.

Steve couldn't say it was a new development, if he thought about it. Since conquering that mountain of emails, there had been a marked uptick in what Steve thought of as lounging behaviour. Bucky had less to occupy him, but at the same time he seemed to spread his workload over longer hours. He was increasingly likely to be there to greet the first client at five or six, although it was only on a Sunday he started late and stayed until close of business.

Not that Steve was complaining, exactly. Everything about his business ran more smoothly than it had two months ago. His employee had done his best to look the part, from a few new shirts to switching something in his grooming routine that left his hair looking soft and sleek instead of hanging like a screen around his face. And he still cleaned without complaint whenever Steve asked him to, and usually before he had to ask.

"I can't afford to pay you for more hours," Steve said bluntly one night when the clock had clicked over to 7pm.

Bucky sat up straight, all trace of lounging promptly vanished. "Did I ask you to?"

"You've got a home to go to, right?"

"Yeah I've got a place," Bucky told him, with a change in terminology that seemed deliberate.

It was a day later when he circled back to it.

"You want me out of your hair?" Bucky asked directly, at one minute to six. "I thought it was safe to assume you'd have a way to let me know, if you did. Being a professional at giving people orders."

He was looking up at Steve with that disorientating combination of half-hearted challenge and brattish provocation. Steve nearly said yes, just to teach him a lesson.

Instead, he said, "Can you start early tomorrow?"

"How early?" Bucky asked. "I have to see my parole officer at nine."

"Straight after that then."

Having booked in another two potential new clients back-to-back, he was thinking that even in broad daylight, even with a glowing celebrity endorsement behind him, his broad shoulders could come across vaguely threatening, if you were nervous already about walking into what looked like a derelict factory in the industrial quarter, and he could be intense with strangers, before he had a chance to get comfortable. Whereas Bucky, as he found his feet more firmly, was revealing a tendency towards mild, indiscriminate flirtation that might put people at ease.

"If I'm running your client relationships now, I've got one condition."

An instant after he said sure, thinking it was going to be money, Steve got an inkling of where the request was really heading. He hastily amended it to no.

"Let me book her in for next week. You got another email from her assistant, and I think it's your last chance this time. Come on. You could ditch three of your client book for what she pays you."

A subtle quirk of his eyebrows said he already knew who'd be first on the list.

"You mean that? About being a condition?"

Bucky just looked at him expectantly.

"I'll think about it."

"And another thing," Bucky added without missing a beat. "You should write one of those blogs. It's not like you don't have the time."

**

It was a few days later, on the way back from his morning session with Sam, that his tires slid on a patch of oil the wet weather had stirred up and he had to wait two hours by the road before a mechanic could come look at the wheel alignment and confirm Steve's suspicion that the bike was unfit for riding.

Under a sagging umbrella, Bucky looked pretty drenched by the time Steve's cab pulled up. Although thankfully he didn't need to be told to keep his wet denim off the leather sofa suite, after ten minutes of watching him huddled on a folded towel on the floor, Steve had no choice but to throw a dry pair of sweats at him and say, "Christ above, will you get in the shower and stop shivering already?"

"Will you write your blog while I'm in there?" Bucky asked, dumping the laptop on the coffee table so he could do just that.

"Doubt I'll have time."

"I've seen that shower," Bucky told him. "You'll have time."

It was true, the rain shower Steve had spent up on was enormous, the hot water system was resilient, and he didn't see Bucky for the next half-hour. If he didn't accede to the request to write, he did flip to a new page in his sketch book and start jotting down ideas, a couple of which he illustrated with the sort of abstract figures that decorated the walls.

"That's a nice touch," Bucky said over his shoulder, startling him. "Adds a bit of personality."

He stepped back, towelling his hair off, the colour back in his cheeks at last. Barefoot, Steve tried his best not to notice.

"You're gonna take this the wrong way," Bucky said, giving him a cautious look. "But you need photos as well. People connect with that."

"I don't photograph my clients."

He snapped his sketchbook shut by way of punctuation, but Bucky only glanced away with a long-suffering look that was completely unwarranted.

"Well," he said softly. "The clients are all out then. You think of anyone else you know – someone who's got an interest in your business and needs all the work he can get – you be sure to ask him."

"I'll keep an eye out," was all Steve managed to reply as he watched Bucky walk away, all loose and damp and warm from the shower, wearing those sweat pants that surely didn't drape so thinly over the muscle when Steve was working out in them, and settle into his corner of the sofa with his bare feet crossed under his knees like he was about to lead a yoga class.

The thought of photographs nagged at him all afternoon, enough that he got out one of his old editions of Black & White and flicked through looking for human figures, thinking about the play of light on smooth flesh and the contrast of leather.

"Oh," was all Bucky said, later, when Steve dropped a spare set of keys in his lap.

A few moments after that, he added more articulately, "I had to pay a $300 bond for this, at the place I'm renting. And it's got newspaper over the windows. Can I afford to take this?"

"Not sure I can afford the hot water bills if you don't."

"Seems like you've just given me open access," Bucky said with a rare smile as he put the keys in his pocket.

Steve went off immediately to start setting the office in order for David, but immediately was too late, because he'd thought it once and now he was going to think about it every time. Five hours later, with his working day over, he reached out to turn the shower on and thought, helplessly, of Bucky's bare feet standing on those same tiles, his wet clothes piled on the sink, steam in his hair, water streaming over his skin.

**

"You're not making my job easy," Bruce said to him when he'd barely sat down, distracted by the city view through the glass façade.

Steve had meant to read the letter attached to Bruce's email, he really had, but one thing after another had distracted him, and Bucky didn't curate his personal email account. He realised with a sinking feeling that he should have paid more attention.

"Did you look at your last statement?" Steve jerked his hand non-committally. "Okay, I'll give you the run down. We're in a low interest market. The last three months, you've spent through all your earnings and you're eating into principal now. Which is your choice. But when you ask me can I free up some funds to top up your transaction account, the answer is yes, you can have your funds. You can have them quickly, or you can have them on favourable terms, but you can't have both."

Steve really should have opened that letter. The trouble was that he saw all his financial affairs through the lens of Bruce, whose quiet, mild-mannered competence made it seem like everything was perpetually under control. And the amount he'd handed over to Bruce's management was several times more than he'd ever owned in his life up until the accident – the equivalent of two years' salary at the time and the sort of figure you could be confident about.

"Low-risk investments, that's what we decided when you got your payout. You're a contractor, no health, no security, so we planned a regular income stream for you. Modest but safe. The trouble is, bonds and term deposits don't give you much of an exit strategy."

Bruce was all about finding solutions, that's what Steve liked about him. He didn't ask where the expenses were coming from, so Steve didn't have to openly admit that he'd hired an employee relying more on a general sense that things were bound to work out, rather than any actual financial calculations, or that he still had almost $1500 of repairs to pay for from that tumble he'd taken on his bike.

"This is Small Business 101, Steve," Bruce said as he was winding up, holding the door open. "There are two ways to get your balance sheet in order. Either trim your expenses, or make more money."

"Would it help if I got a cheaper accountant?" Steve asked.

"Yeah," agreed Bruce, smiling underneath his usual faint worry. "It would help me. It would help me a lot."

At least it was a shorter meeting than the one Steve had thought they'd be having.

**

When Steve put his key in the building's front door, he could already feel the vibrations, and from inside he could hear the beats, thumping in the sort of rhythm that leaked out of Bucky's ear buds. From the corridor, there were brass riffs running through it, hot swinging trumpet from another era, and lighter, brighter drum beats that made even his clay feet itch. He opened the door slowly, curious.

In the big stretch of bare floorboards between the sofa and the office, Bucky was dancing to the music that poured out from the expensive speakers that Steve had put in for clients and rarely used for himself. Dancing wasn't the word for it, Steve could see in an instant. He was lost, his body riding the beats like waves, helpless. Eyes closed, his whole body rippled with it, from his quick-moving feet to the forgotten cloth in one hand. He moved with an unexpected grace and skill, and sheer abandon that set off Steve's longing.

The way Bucky did it, dance was a physical discipline, learned young and trained indelibly into the muscle. He danced weightlessly, as if he'd found a way to untether himself from gravity's pull and put his feet on the ground only when he chose to. Steve watched his feet slide over the floorboards light as bird wings. His hands curled out the rhythm in the air like he was filled with it, not a single other thought in his head, and that's what Steve would remember of the moment, later. That the music had lifted a weight off Bucky, erased all the history and the bad luck and the disappointment, and underneath all that weight there was only joy.

Steve hung his jacket on the coat stand and schooled the expression on his face as the song wound up in a long, golden trumpet note. But Bucky went on into the office without seeing him, moving lightly still, one last quickstep and drag of his foot behind him as he crossed the threshold and disappeared. Steve turned toward his bedroom.

"Hey," Bucky said later, looking down from where he was dusting the top of the cupboard, standing on a chair. "You finished early."

The music had ended, and it was as if there was an absence now where previously there had just been silence.

"That email you keep moving back into the Yes folder?" Steve told him. "Book her in."

**

It took her less than a day to post about the appointment she was looking forward to so much, the session with "my Dom". This in turn led to a few smug glances in Bucky's direction, and another meeting with Tony which ended with raised voices and an aggressively waved contract that showed he'd at least learned some tricks from Shuri in the theatrics department.

**

"You want to keep it simple to start off with," Bucky said. "Right?"

He was standing in the office, stock still and stiff, with a wariness Steve remembered from weeks ago, looking at the contents of the cupboard rather than at Steve. And damned if that didn't speak right to the core of Steve, the uncertainty of him as he waited for Steve to decide what to do.

Steve decided what to do.

The collar that Steve took out from the cupboard was one of his oldest, supple and worn but well-tended over the years. Bucky gave it a lingering assessment, then looked up steadily. "All right."

He tilted his head obligingly to let Steve put it on him, and didn't have to be told to slip his shirt off.

Steve swallowed. "Can you kneel down for me?"

"I can do that, Steve." There was the faintest note of mockery in that, insolence that Steve would have gently dealt with if this had been a real session instead of a photo shoot. Instead, he dropped a folded towel on the floor and tried to watch disinterestedly as Bucky sank fluidly onto it.

Instantly, Steve's visual brain started lining up the promising shot from behind him, with the sleek leather and sturdy metal studs of the spanking bench out of focus, and the early afternoon light slanting in between them, leading the eye to the sharp detail of his bare shoulder, his lightly shaded jaw, and that stark black leather band.

As he scoped out the shot, Steve did his best to think about what he wanted to capture – calmness, vulnerability, trust – and not get caught up in the contours of Bucky's back and shoulders, all that densely packed core muscle laid on over countless hours on whatever makeshift equipment he could lay hands on in prison, not the sort of look you could buy at the gym. The easy strength that Steve had seen in action carrying a drinks crate or a plastic tray stacked thick with dirty glasses was embodied in chiselled abs that made his palms itch.

The settings of his camera were a welcome distraction, settling him before he got to work.

Bucky was patient as a model, making space for Steve to clip on the leash. He turned when Steve asked him to turn, and glanced over with interest when Steve pulled on the leather gloves. If his breathing was unmistakeably deep and deliberate, he held himself calmly until it was done.

"Was that okay?" Steve asked when he'd detached the leash.

Bucky answered him with a jerky shrug. "I could have walked out of here if it wasn't." He stood and pulled his shirt back on, giving Steve one last view of his torso in motion. "I've gotta say, I still don't see the point."

"You didn’t hate it though."

Steve was distracted by the collar that looked so right sitting there on top of Bucky's everyday clothes.

Bucky made an equivocal face and reached back to unbuckle it himself. "It's better than the rope. And you weren't so handsy this time."

There was a teasing glint in his eye as he put the warm leather in Steve's grasp. "I hope you got something you liked."

He spent the rest of the afternoon mopping the outside corridor and eradicating cobwebs, while Steve worked on that blog entry. In the end, he picked the starkest shot of all – sepia, taken from behind – and put it with some musings about the nature of trust, and hit post.

**

This was why he didn't do social media. It got out of control so fast, and once that fire was started, it was close to impossible to put out.

"You can't even see his face," Tony was saying across the table. "You can't object to that."

The photograph was pretty much just Bucky in that collar, and Steve's gloved hand holding the leash. With product messing up his hair and a day's beard grown in, even the few inches of bare shoulders didn't leave him looking especially vulnerable, and if you hadn't been there, you couldn't be sure that he was down on his knees. They'd kept his bandaged sleeve tattoo out of the frame.

And yet Steve was just about to lose it. "It's a private account, Tony. Unaffiliated. We went over this already."

"How much privacy can you have over one hand?" Tony mused. "It's wrapped in leather anyway."

"There's a little thing called copyright standing in your way there, Mr Stark," said Shuri helpfully. "Copyright law does not have a view on the presence or absence of leather."

"You can't stop us linking to it."

"I'm a little bit insulted you don't think of me as a competitor."

"Please don't take offence, Captain," chimed in T'Challa, who Tony had brought in to pile on the pressure. "I'm certain we can find a solution that honours both our copyright obligations and your years of service in our business."

Tony's half-concealed smirk said he knew exactly what solution he was going to angle for. A moment later, Steve could see it too. He let it stare him back in the face for a few more seconds before he recognised the inevitable.

"Fine," he said, teeth barely gritted at all. "The party shot, is that what you want? All right. Put some shadow on it, blur out the face, send it to me for approval, and we'll see. My lawyer--"

"Not your lawyer," Shuri interjected, not for the first time.

"-- my unpaid general business advisor will send you some terms and conditions."

T'Challa shot a betrayed look at his sister.

"Not your lawyer either," she told him firmly.

"He does own the copyright in the party shots," she said to Steve later, in what might appear to be, but definitely wasn't, legal advice. "And it's hard to make out falsely implied endorsement if you're actually on his payroll. You made the right choice. Now, how much grief do you want me to give him with these T&Cs?"

It didn't make a difference. Two days later, that shot of Steve in his black suit, gloved hands straining Nat's whip, was up on the website, shadowed enough that his own mother wouldn't have recognised him, but any one of dozens of former clients would.

**

It probably was not that Stuart was any worse than usual, but Steve had had a roller coaster of a week and, now that the threat of pulling the lease had been spoken, all his usual barbs were laced with it. When Steve closed the door behind him, he was thinking about putting his sneakers straight on and running himself into exhaustion, or, better yet, laying into a punching bag until he was blind with sweat – basically anything that allowed him to let his emotions off the hook and lose control for five fucking seconds.

But Bucky was speaking to him. "Come and have a look at this, will you? Only take a moment."

Numbly he stripped off his gloves, jacket and tie and came to sit on the sofa.

"You want one?" Without waiting for an answer, Bucky poured two shots from the whisky bottle on the side table.

"You're helping yourself to my liquor now?"

"If you saw how much time I had to spend on the IRS website today, you'd be asking me why the bottle isn't already empty. Drink up."

Steve did, taking a couple of sips and shooting the rest back with a hint of the aggression he was aching for. The warmth eased its way down into his belly, as the sofa – the softest he could pick that still retained a formal structure – started to do its job, pulling him down into its embrace.

"So I logged all the receipts from your little renovation project, for your tax records." Bucky turned the laptop to demonstrate. "But what it looks like is there's another way to do it." He scrolled down through his document, through still more tables. "See? You've got a big floor space here, and everything except your actual bed is arguably used for work purposes, so I'm guessing that's the way to go."

As they both leaned in, Steve found himself watching the glint from the screen reflected in Bucky's eyes in the dim light. That had been his first impression, he remembered with a jolt, how Bucky's eyes caught and held the light.

"Steve? What do you normally do?"

Practically horizontal as he leaned down on one elbow to read the screen, Steve felt clarity start to slip away from him. The numbers were so far beyond his comprehension they might be random swirls. Bucky's voice was calm and low. The lights were dim. The blanket draped over the arm on Bucky's other side was so fluffy he could almost feel the softness against his cheek. He was tired, and he was comfortable, and everything was going to be okay.

"You think I should save the receipts then?" Bucky asked him quietly, a long while later when the figures on the screen were nothing but a blur.

"Yeah," Steve mumbled. "Hold on to them."

"You look like you could use another," Bucky said, holding out first the undrunk glass, and then a cushion, warm with body heat when he slid it against Steve's elbow.

Once the second shot was burning pleasantly inside him, Steve didn't sleep exactly. He just listened to the tap of the keyboard for a peaceful long time, felt the floaty touch of the rug being laid over him, and let himself drift, waiting for the careful click of Bucky letting himself out.

**

When Steve woke up, it was absolutely still. The lights were off. Under the blanket, he was warm and snug. He woke feeling deeply rested, his head clearer than it had been in a while. Something about sleeping in an unaccustomed place seemed to have shifted his mind onto a new track. In the dark, the apartment around him felt like an extension of himself, as if every nail he'd hammered in had connected him to it, and it to him. He could feel the solid craftsmanship of his build and, underneath that, the centuries-old labour of other workers, captured in the timber, in the render. It occurred to him, as he hadn't stopped to think for a while, that his life was pretty good.

Sunk into the soft leather sofa, moulded into it even, he stretched his arms over his head and thought he could see why Bucky spent so much time working here. He'd almost drawn breath to say it out loud when he realised two things. Tomorrow was Thursday, so it would be more than a day until he saw Bucky again. And that was too long.

Since it was dark, with no one around to judge him, he let those thoughts wander, uncensored. It deepened the more he thought about it, the ache of absence. He wanted to thank Bucky for the company, for the blanket. He wanted Bucky asking him questions about how he arranged his tax records, and reminding him about blog updates. He wanted Bucky here.

He looked that desire in the face, acknowledging the tenderness he didn't want to sell either of them short by denying. Then he thought about all the very valid reasons it would be unhealthy to pursue what he wanted, from the weirdly uneven power dynamic to the risk of derailing Bucky's rehabilitation, and the fact that, since the off-the-charts signals he'd got when Bucky was modelling for his masterclass, he had seemed almost completely indifferent to the formal discipline of submission.

So he put that thought away for good, pulled the rug up to his chin, and went back to sleep.

**

Chapter Text

David was still grieving with an immediacy that showed in everything he did. You could see it even if you hadn't known him as Steve had, before both the loss and the love that preceded it. The muscles in his thighs looked stringy and underfed, hunched over the spanking bench in nothing but his underpants. The discipline Steve offered him these day was nominal at best, blows delivered softly with the palm of his hand and followed up with a solid hour of skin contact that was probably the only physical intimacy his client allowed in his life.

Steve imagined him as a good teacher, patient and slow to anger, the kind a kid could only appreciate with the wisdom of hindsight. When he talked about his students, it was with frustration at the obstacles that were outside his ability to fix. When he talked about the fiancé he'd lost, it was in short, factual statements that quickly cut off. He rarely talked about himself at all.

"You can keep going," David murmured, as if imparting the agreed number of blows was what stopped the session being something he was not yet ready to allow himself.

Steve stroked the full width of his hand down David's spine and let it rest. He could feel it stronger than ever today, how deeply David needed this touch, and how hard he had to work to remember that the hand touching him was Steve's and not the one he longed for.

Thumb hooked under the waist band of David's underpants, he said in a hushed voice, "I could take these off. If that's something you'd like."

If he knew the line between legal and criminal, he also thought he had a pretty good idea of which clients it was safe to cross it with, and he was more than ready to give David his hands or his mouth if it brought him a few minutes' reprieve from his private battle with grief.

"Not today," David breathed after a while. "Not yet."

He ran his fingers over the short, black hair at David's neck, up into the longer strands at the crown of his head. Then he bent down to kiss the back of David's shoulder joint, lightly. "You deserve to find comfort. I want you to think about that."

The way David breathed out was like letting something go, and Steve thought he should stop holding back on kissing his clients. They came up five strokes short that week, and neither of them said anything about it.

**

When Steve got back from the gym on Friday, Bucky was winding up a video chat.

"And we will certainly do our best to keep it that way," he said, giving a mock salute into the camera as he signed off. "Thank you kindly."

"How was she?" Bucky asked turning to Steve. "From what I just heard from her crew, you've got a satisfied customer."

Steve shrugged. "Better this time. A bit better."

He pulled back the curtain to drop his gym bag at the end of the bed.

"You want to expand on that a little?"

Something in his tone reminded him that Bucky's continuing employment depended on Steve being able to maintain high-paying clients like this one, so he dug behind his general sense of irritation to get to the heart of it.

"She's playing a part. The whole time she's sitting there, looking up at me with her hands in her lap, it's like she's auditioning for the role of sexy submissive."

Bucky looked up at him, clearly surprised. "You're all playing a role though. Aren't you?"

The twinge of hurt Steve felt was completely unwarranted, since he could hardly expect Bucky to understand the human intricacy of what went on with a closed door between them. "What we're doing is getting in touch with a part of ourselves. And letting it free, I guess. And with her – maybe she's been performing 24/7 for so long that she doesn't even remember how to let someone get behind that. Certainly not some dude she met in a club and hired to spice up her Instagram feed." He shook himself into action, picking up a jacket he'd thrown over the sofa. "Speaking of which, I said no photos this time. I took one for her, just a little bit of light rope work."

"I know you did. It's got 20,000 likes already."

With a sigh, Steve ran the water to deal with the cups from last night that Bucky had moved into the sink.

"And you've got a new booking request." The cautious pause gave him an inkling of trouble. "Her sister wants to book some time with you. She's overseas for the next three weeks though." He could practically hear Bucky gauging the silence, working out how far to push. "Can I find her a time next month? Same rates?"

He thought about Bruce's gentle warnings about his finances, how his choices were either to make more money, or cut expenses.

"Send her the paperwork. And make sure her people know that she needs to fill in the checklist herself."

When he was done with the dishes, Steve pulled up his favourite chair under the window and tried to sketch, but all that came out was a set of perspective lines that resolved themselves, as they always did when he was wound up, into a bridge, a tunnel of light beneath the night sky, and a set of headlights in the distance.

"There's a couple of new enquiries worth looking at," Bucky's voice interrupted him, later, when he'd been staring at the stark image for a long time. "You want to come see what you think?"

He was glad to swap his pad for the laptop, settling onto the sofa, thumbing through emails and getting a sense for the kind of clients their authors would be, what precisely they needed from Steve. The second one gave off a good vibe. He stared at the text a while, imagining.

"You know what I'd do with a wall that big?" Bucky was lounging back on the sofa, gaze on the space to either side of the apartment door that was empty apart from a couple of medium sized picture frames. "I'd watch movies on it."

Though Steve had always meant to buy a television, it hadn’t been a priority as long as there were bars he could watch the occasional game in, and an invitation to Sam's place for the finals. He shook his head. "You think I want to put a big black screen up there to suck all the light out of the room? No way."

"Okay," Bucky said in that carefully measured tone that Steve was coming to learn meant the matter was being put on hold for another time.

"No screen. It's not happening."

"Okay," Bucky repeated, a flicker in his eyes somewhere between teasing and devious. "Hearing you loud and clear on that, Cap. No screen."

**

His Saturday night session turned out to be gruelling. Nat was away, leaving him once again as the main event before the biggest crowd. His partner for the night, one of the newcomers Val had introduced, had enough experience that Steve didn't have to go easy on her, and a pair of wide brown eyes that showed every tremor and entreaty a curious audience could wish for. But the dynamic between them was laboured and cool; they were both holding something back in front of the room full of strangers; no matter how prettily she said Please, Captain, he couldn't quite convince himself it was something she needed.

Still, he brought her back to the dressing room afterwards and watched her finish a packet of chips and a rum and coke while they both wound down, while patiently fending off her questions about his celebrity client base.

When she'd left, he stripped off his tie and shirt like a straightjacket and threw them over a chair. The man who looked back at him from the mirror seemed worn to the bone, tired lines digging in permanently around his eyes. Week by week it got harder to put on the Captain's costume and play the role. He leaned on the counter and let himself think of David, or Belle, or – he pictured someone who needed the structure he could give them, and a private place he could quietly connect with them. He'd never thought the energy he brought to his work was a finite store, but tonight he sure felt like he was running on empty.

He turned at a knock, and a moment later Bucky was standing in the doorway, wearing his hair loosely tied and the usual industrious air he brought into the club.

"Hey Steve," he was saying when his gaze dropped down and his expression froze. The scars from the crash, Steve remembered wearily. The struts from the bridge parapet that had pierced him in two places and Peggy in one.

Bucky stepped into the room and closed the door behind him, shutting out the noise. He seemed to take a few moments to get his thoughts together. "We're going out afterwards, a bunch of us. It's a dance club, but, you know, there's tables. You can sit and drink." He persevered, though it looked like he was losing optimism by the second. "You should come. How about it?"

Bucky held himself still, waiting for Steve's answer, and for a moment it was like twenty years had dropped away and he was just a kid being asked out by a hot guy who'd been on his mind forever. But it wasn't so simple, and tonight was one of those nights he felt the weight of those decades.

"Not tonight." Bucky looked like he wasn't going to let it rest, so he went on. "Thanks though. Have a good night. If you need tomorrow off, just text me."

"I don't finish up for another hour," Bucky told him. "You've got time to reconsider."

Steve wasn't going to change his mind. But when he turned back to the mirror there was a colour in his cheeks that hadn't been there before, a faint sign of life. He gave his reflection a wry smile and resigned himself to a night of thinking of Bucky out there in the city somewhere, trapped in a sweaty clench of bodies and beats, dancing.

**

When Bucky showed up on Sunday, three hours late, he had a box under one arm, stray flecks of glitter on one cheek, and a manic kind of energy crackling off him.

"You slept at all?" Steve asked as he set the box down on the coffee table.

"I might have dozed a little on the chair." A flicker of discomfort crossed his face as he rolled his left arm in its socket, the skin freshly taped at his wrist. "But by the second hour I was so hazy on the pain I don't think I could tell the difference."

"What's in there?"

The box was old and worn and dusty, the flaps loosely folded over each other.

"Just something I found in one of the storerooms at the club. There were four of them, and I'm pretty sure they won't miss one."

A few interesting possibilities crossed Steve's mind before Bucky tugged open the box and pulled out a data projector, a block of smooth cream and grey plastic with a baffling array of ports from the days before bluetooth.

Surprisingly, there was a cable capable of connecting the relic to his laptop, but it took Bucky what was left of the afternoon to get the two devices to communicate properly, while Steve topped up his coffee and watched him patiently turning things off, turning them on again, and wrangling every setting option until he got a result.

"There," he sighed eventually, after nearly two hours, when the wall was illuminated with the projection of Steve's desktop. "You can't say that sucks the light out of the room."

He opened a folder and a picture filled the space, four white figures on a blue background.

"Matisse?" Steve couldn't help smiling. "That's what I've been missing?"

Bucky frowned, embarrassed. "Reminded me of-" He gestured vaguely at the walls which bore Steve's artwork. "And you can get Netflix or whatever."

The display cycled through five more paintings after that, while Bucky went into the office to replenish the towels from the laundry bag and polish the cupboard mirrors.

"Have you got an account?" Steve asked later, dressed for his first client in a navy t-shirt and jeans. "For Netflix or whatever?"

"No." Bucky gave the office a once-over, apparently finding it satisfactory. "Bit hard to open an account without a credit card. Don't forget to ask her whether she's going back to weekly appointments or sticking with what she's got. I can fill every second week if she's not using it."

Then he went off to power down the projector and stow it behind the sofa.

"Hey," Bucky asked a minute later, while Steve was setting up his supplies for the sort of post-session decompression that Christina preferred. "You think I could switch around days on Wednesday? I've got some work I could do. A friend of Val's does set-up for exhibitions, said he could use an extra pair of hands."

Steve paused in laying out the mugs and macarons, grateful that Bucky was too busy to notice how his face reacted to that. Because it had been one thing to know in his head that Bucky's competence was going to take him to bigger places than managing Steve's booking schedule, but some naïve part of him had apparently been hoping that it wouldn't be so soon.

"Sure," Steve told him, leaning back against the sink to watch him gathering up his stuff to cede the main room to business, and thinking how, since the day he walked in, he'd been steady and focused, helping Steve in so many quiet ways that went beyond his job description. He'd thought he was doing Bucky a favour by taking him on. But now, he wasn't sure what he'd been able to provide in return, apart from sorely needed income. "And you should – there's got to be some course you can do, on databases and accounting and stuff. You should find one and let me know."

Bucky took his time winding the laptop power cable around his forearm. It was a while before he looked up. "Okay."

There was something inexplicably bruised in his tone, so Steve pulled his wallet from his pocket to extract his Visa card, adding, "And it looks like I need a subscription to Netflix while you're at it."

When Christina was done with her session, Bucky came out of the bedroom with a list on screen. "Pick one. I'll queue it up for you, so you can watch it – after."

The hesitation acknowledged that, whatever he picked, he had ninety minutes of Stuart to get through before he earned the chance to watch it. He chose the first thing on the list without looking, assuming Bucky would have curated them to put the best on top.

"You want this?" Steve held out the plate with the last of the macarons. "You look like you could use it."

If Bucky had looked beat at 8.30, he was practically shut down by the time Stuart left at 10.30, slumped against the back of the sofa with one of Steve's paperbacks half-closed in his lap. There was something vulnerable about it that made Steve stop mid-stride. His spine loose like spaghetti, he'd finally lost the alertness, the lightly coiled tension he carried with him around the clock. Steve was on the verge of fetching him a blanket when he roused himself.

"Right," he told Steve sleepily, crawling to the opposite end of the sofa with his shirt rucked up and everything about his posture still loose and defenceless as he stretched down to retrieve the projector and fire it up. "Go make your tea while I get this going."

The titles started up just as the kettle boiled, that familiar swashbuckling trumpet line going up and up, bringing a helpless smile to Steve's face even on the laptop's in-built speakers. Bucky gave a satisfied nod and started to haul himself up.

"No," Steve told him, drawing the syllable out warningly. "You can barely keep your eyes open. I'm not letting you walk out the door in that state."

For a second Bucky looked torn, but Steve had been utterly right because he was curled up against the sofa arm before Indy had replaced the idol with a bag of sand, blinking heavily through the scenes in Europe, and by the time they got to snakepit, he was out cold.

Steve switched everything off a half-hour later and put himself to bed. He hadn't thought of Stuart once.

**

He very nearly walked out the door in the morning, heading for the gym like any ordinary Monday. But there was something about how perfectly settled Bucky looked, sunk into the enormous sofa with one arm cradled across his body and the other curled up above his head. Neither of them was on the clock today. When he came back, the place would be empty.

So he brushed his teeth again, noisily this time, and when he came back Bucky was stirring.

"You need some more sleep?" he asked quietly. "I'm going to the gym. You can come along if you want to."

Bucky rubbed the back of his hand over his eyes. "Yeah. All right."

The invitation had been completely impulsive. He hadn't thought ahead to how it was going to be, having Bucky on the bike behind him, maintaining a careful distance with his thumbs hooked into the pockets of Steve's leather jacket to hold on. The ride was only a few minutes. He spent it trying to think whether he'd seen Bucky touching anyone, even the co-workers at the club he was friendliest with, or whether this was as close as he got.

"This the one, is it?" Sam asked him in an undertone full of implication, afterwards, while Bucky was in the showers. For a moment, Steve worried he'd talked about Bucky more than was appropriate for someone he saw for six hours a day, four days every week. "The one who brings out all your Mother Theresa instincts. The one who got such a raw deal on life that you gotta step in and make it all right."

Steve was about to object hotly to that characterisation when Sam went on. "He fights like a demon, your boy. Never misses a blow. Focus like a goddamn professional killer and there's serious muscle behind that." Steve, who'd been in the weights room when Sam and Bucky sparred, tried to reconcile all of that with the attentive, patient figure who swept his office right to the corners. "And I'd say he's not even in peak form right now, since you got him pushing paper all day."

He could feel Sam watching him, looking for an answer. "Look, I know a guy. Could get him a chance in the ring."

Steve's instincts responded to that with a blaring no, before any sense of reason kicked in. He looked over to where Bucky was coming out of the showers, finger-combing his damp hair, holding Steve's gaze for one easy moment while he dug in his pocket for an elastic band, and tried to fathom whether the revulsion he felt was on Bucky's behalf or his own.

"Is there money in it?" Steve asked, and made himself breathe while he waited for the answer.

"Nah," Sam said at last, following his gaze. "Nothing serious. Not worth messing up that pretty face for."

Even so, when they were getting off the bike, back at the apartment, Steve had to ask him.

"You like that then?

Bucky shrugged, though there looked to be something he was holding back. "He's fast. Hard to predict. Gave me a good work out, no denying it."

He sounded oddly subdued, while Steve was charged up, the way he usually felt after Sam's sessions.

"You could come again if you want. Make it regular. I go six mornings a week."

Handing Steve the spare helmet, Bucky shook his head. "Not for me," he said, tucking his hands deep in his pockets. "Not anymore."

A few minutes after that, Steve was frying up eggs and mushrooms, and the question had been dropped for good.

**

"Oh Jesus," Bucky said when he opened Steve's mail on Friday. "You'd better not let me take off two days in a row again. This is ugly."

He sounded more amused than worried, like the observation was a metaphorical cracking of knuckles before he set to work on putting the ugliness in order.

Steve paused where he was hunting around under his kitchen sink for an empty jar.

"How many?" he asked.

"Unread? Bit over two hundred. That rope picture must have got more shares." Bucky frowned at the screen. "Got no idea how so many of them keep finding you. She never posted your name."

His search successful, Steve emptied out the bag of coffee samples Bucky had brought back from the trade show where he'd spent most of last night setting up display stands, and started packing them into the jar.

"Looks like a lot of media this time. All of them in the No file?"

"Yep," Steve confirmed. "Every single one. No exceptions."

Bucky had come back from the job moving stiffly in the shoulders and hips, but either Val's friend's team had been a chatty bunch, or there'd been no conversation at all, because he'd come to work today in one of his more gregarious moods. There was an upbeat energy in him, even under the obvious fatigue.

"Did it go well then?" Steve asked, busying himself with refilling the sugar bowl to mask the intrusiveness of the sort of direct question he normally knew better than to waste his time asking.

"Yeah," Bucky told him. "Good set-up. Knew what they were doing. What's your opinion on gimp masks?"

Steve lost his grip on the sugar bag and had to catch it.

"This one sounds genuine," Bucky went on over the hiss of escaped crystals and turned the computer around. "You don't normally bring this kind of dress-up into your business though."

When Steve went over to look, embedded in the email text was a picture of a handsome woman, tall, long boned, and mostly naked apart from the zipped black mask in custom leather that covered her face.

"How much of this stuff are we getting now?" Steve asked, frowning.

"A bit. More since the blog. This one's pretty mild by comparison. No big deal."

"You can change the settings to hide those. It's not the image I'm interested in. What else have you got?"

"How about this one," Bucky asked after a minute or two. "This guy wants to make a one-time booking. Sounds young, doesn't mess with punctuation. He says he doesn't know how far he wants to take it … will there be a chance to talk it through first … can it be Tuesday afternoon – you've got space there. He wants to know how close you are to the bus terminal. He says – ah."

"Bucky?"

"He says he'll take whatever he can get for $150. Just the sort of high rolling client you need." Bucky sighed. "I'm booking him in, aren't I?"

"Put him in the Yes folder. I'll look over all of them when you're done."

"Hey," Bucky said thoughtfully, a bit later. "There's a lot of legit customers here. More than you can handle. You should ask around the club and see if anyone else wants the business. You could see who's interested in referrals and send out a list of contact details and – ah – area of interest, I guess. You want me to take care of that?"

And there it was again, that feeling that things were going to change. Because in a world where his life hadn't been derailed by a drug conviction that tore all those years out of his future, Bucky would be off running a start-up somewhere, or running hostage extractions, or keeping construction projects on schedule.

"Sure," Steve told him. "Show me through it, when you've got it in place. I need to understand your systems better."

Bucky looked surprised at that, maybe even resentful, as if it was a sign of mistrust, when really it was the opposite.

"You're doing a good job, Bucky," he blurted out before he could stop himself. "A great job. I've been glad so many times that I took you on."

He wanted to wince with how clumsy that sounded, but maybe he didn't need to, because Bucky was staring intently at the screen, with his mouth tensed up like he was fighting off a smile.

"About time you noticed," he said, and left it at that.

**

In the two years she'd been his client, he'd never seen Belle quite this wound up. She'd apologised for it twice before he'd even shut them into the office. A little boy under her team's care had gone missing from his grandmother's house. The estranged father was suspected. She'd faded in the month since he'd seen her last, make-up half-hearted and stale cigarette smells clinging to her hair. Just being in the room with her made Steve feel useful.

She liked to have him undress her, so he took it slow, from the buttons of her cardigan to the zip of her dress. All the muscles down her back were tight against his hand, and her skin was dry. From front-on, he slipped his fingers under the crimson strap of her bra, departing from the usual script.

"You want to keep these on?" She looked at him with big eyes for a long moment, then slowly shook her head.

She was breathing fast when he put the cuffs on her, jittery on her toes when he suspended them from the ceiling hook, and instantly responsive to the touch of his fingertips. Belle was the easiest client he had. She never asked to be hurt, and rarely even wanted humiliation. All she needed was to be touched in a way she had no control over, while he murmured meaningless things like That's it, beautiful and Let me have it, let me have it all until she trembled and sighed.

Afterwards, dressing, she turned herself away from him in a manner that lacked her usual ease, like the endorphins from the session had drained away from her already, making him think there was something he'd missed.

"Okay?"

She paused with her zip undone, her face taut with pain.

"Belle?"

"It was me," she said, voice cracking. "I signed the report that let his father have access."

And then before he knew it, he was pulling her into his arms, and she was clinging to him fiercely, gasping away tears as he stroked her back and held her. A minute later, as the distress in her eased a bit, she turned her face against his neck for a few moments then pulled back just enough to give him a questioning look before she kissed him. It was a sweet kiss, undemanding, so he let her have it, and another, her hand sliding up to settle inside the collar of his shirt and pulling him down to kiss him deeper.

On the sofa, he let her lean into him while she drank her tea, both of them talking in low voices like it could preserve the intimacy they'd brought out of the session. She was laughing when she left, a bit giddy, going back into the world a lot easier than she'd come in.

"Don't let them fall for you," Bucky said from the bedroom doorway the moment he stepped back into the apartment from seeing her off.

When Steve just looked at him, he went on, "Think about it. What happens when they start to want something they can't have? The more you say no, the more they want it. All it takes is one call to the cops, saying you crossed the line."

"It was hardly even –"

"Doesn't matter. Wouldn't make a difference if you'd never crossed the line. I'm telling you, people change when they're hurt, even good ones. You've got too much faith in the world. I could see that from the start."

Since Bucky was genuinely angry, and probably had good reasons to mistrust his fellow humans, and every response he could think of sounded like it belonged on an motivational poster under a picture of a leopard or an eagle, Steve just promised to be careful, and sullenly tidied up the tea cups while Bucky packed up to leave for the day.

He dreamt of Bucky that night, fastened to his ceiling hook and wanting to be kissed. He woke up feeling radiantly happy for one drowsy minute before he rolled his face into the pillow and groaned.

Chapter Text

Nat said a strange thing at the club that week.

"Stanley's nephew," she said as she leaned in to the mirror to get her eyeliner on straight. "The one with the pretty hair. Is it true he's done some work for you?"

Dressed already, Steve popped a mint out of the tin on the dresser and tossed it into his mouth. "Yeah. Why?"

She took her time finishing the line and deepening it.

"He came to my class on Wednesday. Mixed me a drink afterwards and asked me some questions."

Steve crunched the mint and told himself the jealous burn in his stomach was ridiculous. "What's wrong with that?"

"What I want to know," she said patiently, tracing the other eye and finishing with a tiny, deft curl before she turned to him, "is why wasn't he asking you?"

He swung around in the chair and gave her a sunny smile. "If you're asking straight out am I sending spies into your classes to steal your trade secrets, the answer is why wouldn't I?"

She left it there, but later, in between sessions when they were rehydrating and switching their equipment for the next scene, he was the one who came back to it.

"What kind of questions?"

"Did I hear you right?" She leaned on the counter and crossed her arms. "Do I have to tell Tony we need a repeat of that session on client confidentiality?"

"Okay, okay. You're right."

But even so, once he'd fixed the loose metal link on the cuffs and found the cane he wanted, he couldn't help asking.

"Did he seem interested?"

She took her time winding her black whip around her forearm until she had it neat. For a while he wasn't sure she was going to answer.

"He seemed like he was expecting to sit a test on it afterwards," she said from the doorway, over her shoulder. "And he wasn't all that confident about passing."

He thought about it on his way down to the Vault, and on his way back up again, and he was still thinking about it in the dressing room when Val jerked open the door without knocking.

"Need your help, Captain. Manager's office."

The urgency in her voice, and the fact that she'd come up here at all, made him follow her, buttoning his shirt as he went.

In the office, T'Challa was leaning on his hands on the meeting table, looking steely and unimpressed. Behind Val, Bucky was standing against the wall, white as a sheet. He turned away wearily from Steve's questioning look.

"What happened?" Steve demanded.

"What happened," T'Challa responded gravely without shifting his position, "is a customer with a broken nose who is this close to calling the police if my sister can't talk him out of it. My sister, who should not even be in this club during operational hours."

"He wasn't a customer," Bucky said flatly, like he knew it wasn't going to matter. "He was just some jerk on the street who wanted to make trouble."

"Come on, boss," Val said, the cool confidence in her voice backed up by the black leather suit she still wore. "You'd want us to look out for each other, right? The streets are dangerous out there. And Mags is our friend."

Steve thought about Magdalena's youngest daughter, just old enough to drive, who picked her up after late night shifts.

"That may be true. But all the same, Shuri will be promising him that the staff member who injured him will be immediately dismissed."

Steve protested, "There's got to be another way."

T'Challa turned that implacable gaze on him. "Yes there is, Steve. The other way is my license gets suspended and James gets pulled back in front of the parole board next week with an assault charge hanging over him. Or we make this go away quietly."

Val set her shoulders like she was about to solve this with her fists. "But it's his fault. Mags told me what he said to them, and she was scared. He had mates with him – anything could have happened. He's the asshole here."

"Doesn't matter." That was Bucky speaking, his voice even deader than before. "Sometimes the assholes get to call the shots. I'll get my stuff."

"I'm sorry, James," T'Challa said, and glanced at Steve too. "You've done good work here."

Outside, the bar was emptying out as closing time drew near, the music turned down. Steve left his stuff in the dressing room and waited for Bucky to come out, carrying a backpack that couldn't contain more than a book and a jacket.

"I'll talk to him again tomorrow," Steve said.

"Don't."

"We'll work something out."

The streetlights made his face haggard, and there was something withdrawn and defeated in him that Steve had never seen before, making him stumble around for something, anything he could say.

"At least you've got more time to spend in those dance clubs you like so much."

He smiled, looking to share the humour, but the expression Bucky met him with was desolate.

"Is that what you think?"

The way he looked in that moment, completely thwarted, beaten back to the defenceless core of himself, his eyes imploring as if Steve's good opinion was the last thing he could stand to lose, it hit Steve everywhere at once. Bam in the middle of his chest, for sure, but also in the parts of his brain that ran off power dynamics, and one hundred percent of him longed for a way, any way at all, he could reach out and solve this problem.

"I think you should let you drive me home," he said, instead, putting aside all of those impulses that Bucky had no use for. "Least I can do."

They didn't speak on the way, apart from Bucky's curt directions in his ear, but there was something comforting about the vibration of the motor and the press of their bodies that slid together more and more firmly the deeper they went into the outer suburbs. It was further than Steve had pictured, by the time Bucky told him to pull up beside a closed-down betting agency with what looked to be a rudimentary flat on top. He recognised it from the newspaper over the windows.

"You still sore at me?" he asked when Bucky was dismounting and giving him the helmet back. "I didn't mean it. I'm sorry."

The streets were empty this time of the morning, and there was something intimate about the quiet and the dark.

"I barely touched him, Steve." Hands shoved in his pockets, Bucky seemed shrunk in on himself, more uneasy than Steve had seen him since that first day at the masterclass and stripped even of the wild, scared energy he'd had then. "I clocked him once in the gut to knock the wind out of him, and then a right hook to the face when his buddies looked like they were gonna step in too. The guy was terrified though. Like I was really going to put an end to him. I forgot I could act like that. I forgot what it felt like."

His troubled expression said that the feeling wasn't all bad, and Steve remembered the physical run-ins from his law enforcement days well enough to relate to the complications of that. He felt like he was getting a read of a side of Bucky he hadn't seen before. Like he was afraid of himself. He'd fractured a man's skull, in prison, and god knew what else he'd had to do to keep himself in one piece in there.

There were no words Steve knew to resolve that kind of conflict. What he could have done – what he ached to do – the thing that was his gift to give – would have been to take Bucky out of his head for an hour. Disarm him of the strength he was afraid of, and relieve him of the necessity of choice while Steve took away his pain and replaced it with pleasure, at first, and then surrender.

It occurred to Steve that he'd let himself get really shitty at connecting with people in any other way.

He turned the bike off and reached out to squeeze Bucky's shoulder, and let his grip linger.

"He'll live," he said. "And you're going to be all right."

After a few moments, Bucky took a step back, separating them.

"I'll see you tomorrow then," Steve told him.

"If I'm not back inside by then."

"Won't happen, Bucky. I won't let it happen. We'll fix it."

He watched Bucky take the stairs. When the door opened, he caught a glimpse of a spartan interior, a small fridge and a fifties looking dining table, before the view was cut off.

He called the club after that, to see if the guy was on social media enough to know who The Captain was. T'Challa didn't pick up, but Shuri did.

"Already tried that," she told him. "You're signing some pictures for him – nice and neat so he can get a good price for them. He must have seen the look on your face when you were walking out the door though, because I have never met anyone less interested in having a beer with you."

**

"What are you even here for, Cap?" Tony challenged him the next morning, derailing the argument, as he so often did, onto the personal.

"Bucky's my friend," he replied, because the language hadn't invented a better term for someone you spent four days a week with, who made you laugh at surprising moments, and kept you in line, and made you want to care for them. "And since I spoke to Magdalena and her daughter already, I know as well as you do that it wasn't his fault."

T'Challa had his shin up against the table and his fingers steepled in front of his face – never a good sign.

"We are entirely dependent on this man's goodwill," he said. "Shuri's non-disclosure agreement is completely ineffective to halt a criminal investigation, if he chooses to make a report. You don't want to risk that by going back on our word."

"Put him on day shifts then," Steve pressed him. "He already does afternoons on a Monday. Most of the prep work he does can be done earlier. Stanley can let him in the back entrance in the lane so the guy won't see, even if he's watching."

"Means finding one more worker to cover trash and dish duty on a Friday and Saturday night," Tony said. "We don't need more part-timers."

"Just let me know what I can do to help."

He really didn't care for the way Tony looked at him then.

"As it happens, champ," Tony said, leaning back in his chair like he had the thing all wound up now. "We're doing an open day."

"Open day? This isn't a college campus."

"You're in, though. Right? We could do with a poster boy. We can count on you?"

Steve looked at T'Challa, who tilted his head equivocally.

"I did just lose a bit of small change keeping your friend out of prison. We always need to work on our profile."

Pushing up from the table, Steve nodded. "Book me in then."

**

"You're taking a day off," he said when Bucky showed for work that afternoon. "It's about time I gave you one. Besides, the bad news is that you start at ten a.m. on a Monday now."

It felt awkward at first, Bucky sitting on his sofa without Steve's schedule in front of him, as a guest, or a friend. But there was cold beer, and a ball game playing rowdily on the projector, and it was nice, to be honest, to sit and watch sports with someone, with the office door closed on all the toil he did within it. It was nice to watch out of the corner of his eye as Bucky tilted the beer bottle to his mouth, and wonder if it tasted fresher and better after all the years without it.

"What did you have to do?" Bucky asked without turning, when the half time break began.

Steve shook his head.

"Come on. What did he ask for then?"

"There's an open day. Sometime later in the year. I said I'd be there. I probably would have said that anyway."

Bucky seemed to process that for a long time.

"If you need a model, I'll do it." Steve didn't mean to look sceptical but it must have shown. "That was then. I know you now. I could handle it. I handled the photo shoot, didn't I?"

"This would be harder. In front of a room full of people." He stopped because he knew he wasn't phrasing it right, it wasn't that Bucky couldn't do it, it was that if Bucky was going to do it, Steve knew in his bones that it shouldn't be in front of a crowd of curious strangers.

"So I'll work out a little. Go see your friend at the gym. Get back some of the condition I've lost since I started spending too many days sitting on my butt on your sofa. I gotta pay you back somehow."

"How about we save this conversation until Tony sets a date?" Steve said. "Maybe he'll realise that an open day is the last thing a fetish club needs. You hungry?"

He had steaks in the fridge, and a tomato and basil salad pulled together as far as he could without looking like he'd put a lot of work in. They ate at the little table under the window which Steve normally only used for sketching, and he couldn't decide what touched him more, the besotted light in Bucky's eyes when the plate went down in front of him, fat still sizzling, or how hard he worked to eat it slow, taking sips of beer in between.

Later, when they were back in front of the game with the last innings winding down towards a foregone conclusion, he let himself wallow in it, the satisfaction of lying back on the sofa he'd worked so hard to choose, a little bit drunk, a little bit in love, and above all doing something he knew was useful, for someone who needed it. He let himself think about how it all fed on itself. The feelings he had for Bucky, thwarted though they were by their situation, did him good. He knew that when he reached out to stroke David's hair, it was only half David he was reaching for. It made him better at what he did, to have this wellspring of tenderness to draw on. Somehow it made him stronger, when it could have made him bitter, or distracted. It had been a lot of years since he'd known that feeling.

"My sergeant was in the car with me," he heard himself say out of nowhere – words he didn't think he'd ever said aloud before. "When it went off the bridge."

Bucky turned in his corner of the sofa, pulled his knees up in front of him, listening.

"She was – I'd never met anyone like her. She was –" He paused for a moment, trying to get it right. "She was never down, even when the rest of us were ready to throw it in, when some regulation let an offender off the hook, when a witness wouldn't talk, when another dumb kid wrote himself off in a way that never had to happen and the parents were taking it out on us. She just stood up and walked right through it with a smile. I mean, I got mad, Bucky, but Peggy was smarter than me. She got results."

The soft click of a bat connecting sounded in the silence, followed by a half-hearted cheer.

"We were – well, we weren't anything. She was my supervisor and we would have had to break a lot of rules for that to happen, but there was something there. She didn't make it. I didn't even know until a week later, when they took me off the drugs. I missed her funeral. They had no reason to wait for me."

After a while, Bucky said, "You don't have any pictures of her."

Steve's eyes flicked up to his, jolted into thinking first of himself, and then of Bucky, wondering whose picture he'd had to get him through those long years.

"I've got one. From the news. I'll show you where it's saved. Later."

"Sure," Bucky said, and sat quiet for a bit as the post-match interviews began, while Steve lay back and looked at the ceiling and let his heart fill up with it all.

They were into the highlights reel when Bucky said, "Is there anything you want to ask me?"

And Steve wasn't sure exactly what he was most curious about – the two sentences he'd served, the family he never talked about, the life he'd lived inside, whether there'd been anyone he cared about – but it didn't matter because he knew what the answer had to be.

"No, Bucky. There isn't."

In the commercial break, Bucky got up to run the tap and wash up the plates.

"Another beer?" Steve offered. "There's four more under the sink."

"I don't think so, buddy. You've got two clients starting an hour from now. Good thing I got enough coffee to make a rhino dance."

He hit the kettle switch and started emptying out those coffee samples from the trade show, but it turned out not to be true, because when he was finished with Christina, he had a text from Stuart saying he needed to cancel.

**

The guy with the $150 budget turned out to be barely more than a kid, twenty at most. He arrived five minutes late, out of breath, saying the walk was longer than he thought, so Steve made him sit on the sofa and drink a glass of water before they went in, and tried to get a read on him. He was on the short side, stocky around the chest, with a nervous look. He had a fine silver chain under his shirt, the sort that usually hung a cross. He drank the water quick and sat there holding onto the glass with both hands.

"Ever done this before?" Steve asked him.

He shook his head without asking which part, so that looked to mean all of it, maybe even the part of having a man's hands on him on the first place.

"You didn't check a whole lot of boxes on the paperwork. So we'll keep it simple. You can stop anytime. You won't have to pay for any time you don't use."

He could picture the face Bucky would make if he were here to hear that, if Steve hadn't sent him out on an emergency laundry run precisely so he wouldn't be here to make that face. But the kid, who'd given his name as Oscar although everything about his accent, his clothes and his thinly veiled terror said it had to be something that appeared in the Old Testament, looked relieved.

Steve's guesses had been right, he discovered when he was half an hour in and still doing nothing more than touch the kid lightly on the outside of his clothes, rubbing his back, squeezing his biceps, and teasing lightly down the centre of his chest. His face was screwed up in guilt, or pleasure, or both, and he was undeniably hard.

"You're doing great," Steve murmured to him, coming around side-on to stroke one slow finger down his forehead, between his closed eyes, over the tip of his nose and onto his lips. "Take what you need to. There's no rules here."

"I need you to touch me," the kid said plaintively, without opening his eyes.

"You know I can't give you that," Steve said, reminding himself that if he wanted to stay in business, he had to be strict about not crossing that line with people he didn't trust completely. "Not when you're paying me."

But the kid was practically quivering with how badly he wanted it, and if Steve was right about the sort of community he came from, there was no one else he could ask to give him what Steve could. There was a reason he'd had to save up everything he had to buy this.

"Come back tomorrow," he said before he could stop himself. "No money. No checklist."

The kids eyes snapped open, looking at him like he'd been stabbed. "I can't. If I miss another day at the store, they'll give me trouble."

"Next week then. Thursday. Any time you like."

After the session, he sent Oscar to the bathroom and put on some music while he fixed them both a tea. They'd gone twenty minutes over, so Bucky came back in while they were drinking it.

"Hey," he said mildly and disappeared into the office with the laundry bag.

The kid smelled of ruthlessly applied hand soap and still looked flushed in the face when he left.

"Thursday, right?" he said on his way out, bright-eyed. "I won't be late this time."

Steve felt the critical look even before he turned to see Bucky leaning in the office doorway with a towel in his hands.

"Thursday?" he said, shaking his head in exasperation, but sounding fond. "You don't take clients on a Thursday. Am I working for a charity now?"

Then he went back to folding those towels.

**

The work on the apartment wasn't done yet. Steve fixed two rows of shelves above the kitchen sink so he could move some of the jars and bottles up there and make space in the cupboard for a slow cooker.

On Thursday, he spent an afternoon in bed with Oscar and sent him back to his small town family with a lot of choices to make and a bit more confidence to make them with.

He came out of a Tuesday night session to find four wine glasses carefully arranged on his new shelves, the fancy kind with thin stems that were going to take a lot of dusting if they were going to keep catching the light with the same satisfying gleam, and a framed print of that picture of Peggy that was too small and too high up to invite awkward questions.

Since Bucky's new hours meant he had to drop his Friday work, on top of the semi-regular event set-up gig, Steve got a bit better acquainted with his filing systems, and got a horrifying glimpse of the graphic and disturbing and downright rude email traffic that Bucky had been filtering out for him.

When his big-name client passed through for a catwalk show and wanted an urgent hour with him, he used it to try and tease out a few hints on the daunting question of what her even more famous sister was likely to want from him.

He saw in his news feed that Belle's little client had been returned to his grandparents unharmed and sent her a text saying, Forgive yourself. Everyone else has.

He still thought about Bucky more than he should, when he wasn't there and when he was. He wondered if things might be different when he took that next step and stopped being Steve's employee, and reminded himself firmly every time that the last thing Bucky had said about Steve's sexual lifestyle, weeks and weeks ago, was that he just didn't get it.

As soon as Tony fixed the date for the open day, a month away, he asked Ricky if he was up for putting together a demonstration scene with him, and Ricky said yes.

Even though Stuart hadn't been to an appointment in three weeks, he sent a letter – a letter in business font with a black ink signature – informing him officially that the owner would be putting the property up for sale and inspections would take place on 24 hours' notice, during office hours, starting next month. Steve sat on the sofa for twenty minutes, willing the words to spell out something, anything, other than a death sentence for his business. Everywhere he looked, from the wrought iron door knobs to the long painted ceiling, had weeks of his work soaked into it, and now Bucky's work too. It didn't feel right, that something so intimately connected to him could technically be the property of someone else.

He pinned the letter to the fridge so he wouldn’t have to tell Bucky himself.

Chapter Text

Although he had a rule against letting his clients drink, even in the come-down from a session, he had so little idea of what his new client was going to want (beyond the sparse ticks and coyly handwritten "maybe!"s from her paperwork) that he went out at the last minute for a stupidly expensive bottle of champagne to put in the fridge so he could be sure of having something to fall back on.

When he got back, Bucky was asleep on the sofa, with the laptop cradled against his chest and his cheek mashed into the hoodie Steve had thrown over the arm on his way back from the gym. More than a mid-task nap, he was sleeping the helpless sleep of exhaustion, after an early morning of event set-up and what had to be more than a week of back-to-back working days before that. Steve bit back the teasing comment that was on the tip of his tongue and closed the door gently behind himself.

There was something he couldn't resist about having Bucky in his home, comfortable enough to sleep, familiar enough not to be woken by the everyday sounds of Steve moving around the space in his sock feet, putting things in order. When the office was set, and a saucepan of pasta boiling on the hotplate, he leaned back against the sink and let his thoughts wander, tapping into that well of tender feeling that had started to serve him so well in his work, that he was going to need more than ever tonight. It wasn’t hard, cataloguing the stray hair falling over Bucky's eyes, the way his cheeks plumped up in sleep and his perfect cupid's bow mouth looked vulnerable and soft surrounded by the dark, rough stubble of a busy week.

He'd been watching for a while when Bucky stirred, squinted his eyes open and raised himself on one elbow to survey the state of things.

"Huh. Turns out you still know how to set up your own workplace," he said without apology, making Steve laugh at the nerve of it.

The timer for the spaghetti buzzed.

"You want me to clear out?" he asked when Steve was draining the water out of the saucepan with the lid. "You got your big booking tonight." Steve could feel him watching intently from the side. "Or maybe you want me to stay a bit?"

"Stay. Eat something at least. It's still fifty minutes to go."

He mixed in smoked salmon and sour cream and a bag of spinach leaves that needed to be finished off, and when the worries he'd been holding at bay all day finally hit him hard, it was okay, because he could watch Bucky picking the salmon pieces out of his dish and putting them in his mouth one by one, like he wanted to savour the taste.

Steve's phone pinged with ten minutes to go, while the dishes were draining. Room for my crew, right? +3 accompanied by a picture of herself behind big shades, flanked by two men in dark t-shirts with biceps that belonged on the reception wall of Sam's gym.

"Can you stay?" Steve asked quickly. "She's bringing some people."

Bucky glanced doubtfully down at the clothes he'd been wearing since he arrived straight from his early morning set-up job. "I'm not exactly –"

"Borrow something. My suit's on the clothes rack, just back from the dry cleaner yesterday."

The doorbell rang. He had a bad feeling about this already.

"Go on," Bucky said, heading for the bedroom. "Buy me a minute and I'll take care of it."

She was tall, almost as tall as him in her heels. Behind her was her crew of three, and behind them a silver Mercedes Maybach the likes of which this industrial corner of the city had never seen before. She looked him up and down, made a tasty sound of approval and said, "Mind if we jump in early?"

By the time he'd asked about the traffic and the directions, Bucky had got the projector playing a music video channel and was busy getting Steve's supply of cold beer from the fridge. As he stood up, hair neatly tied, sleekly dressed in the pants and button-down from Steve's dom costume and his shiniest pair of shoes, he looked like someone to be reckoned with.

"James Barnes," he told her with a nod that looked like tipping a hat. "Pleased to meet you. Get you a drink, fellas?"

Behind the hospitality there was something Steve hadn't seen since the first days of their acquaintance: the barest hint of aggression that would have been unimaginable an hour ago, when he'd been curled up like a worn-out pre-schooler on Steve's sofa.

Steve left the entourage in his hands and turned to his client. "This way."

They were maybe twenty minutes into the session when the music started up, not Bucky's light-stepping beats but the sort of pounding hip-hop they sometimes played during set-up at the club. He let it go until the volume cranked up suddenly and he had to excuse himself from his client to stick his head out the door.

Two of the guys were on their feet, half-watching the game. The third was snorting a line off the coffee table. Bucky shot Steve a "what can I do?" sort of look and went to turn the sound down.

"Don't want them to distract you from your work," she said a moment later, looking up through her lashes exactly like her sister had and wriggling her shoulders to shift around all her fine curves and glossy hair to advantage.

He put his hand under her chin to tilt her head up, thumb stroking her jaw. "I'm pretty focused when I need to be. That's the last thing you need to worry about."

He'd got in a half-hour of strict words and soft stroking before he heard it. The unnerving tinkle of broken glass. Raised voices. He froze, listening, and a half-second later came the swell of a car alarm. The main room was empty when he broke out into it, the front door hanging open. From out on the street came the screech of tires, a discordant scrape of metal.

"Stay with her," he told the bodyguard coming out of the bathroom, and ran.

As he sprinted down the corridor, he heard an engine revving hard, more squealing rubber, and then a hideous and final crash. He cleared the front stairs in one leap and rushed towards the sound. At the tight corner at the end of the street, the blue Mercedes had plowed head-on into a lamp post fast enough to crumple the hood like paper.

He picked up speed, hurtling down the asphalt, head swimming with flashbacks and thinking not Bucky too, god not Bucky,. But even as he thought it, his rational brain knew that, if the worst had happened, it was too late for prayers now.

Pulling up, he saw one of the bodyguards on the other side of the vehicle saying, "Hold him steady, hold him". He almost couldn't bear to look, blinded by images of the grisliest auto injuries he'd had to manage, but he made himself do it. As he moved step by dreadful step around the wreckage, what he saw was a skinny kid – the sort of skinny kid he'd spent four years pulling out of crashes like this one – being held down by the last of her men. And there, on the ground behind him, was Bucky, sitting with his phone to his ear. The knees of Steve's suit pants were shredded, one of his hands was bloody, but he was talking fast and steady and so clearly alive that Steve's legs wanted to go from under him.

He must have stood there a long time before he heard the click of heels behind him.

"You call the cops?" asked the client.

"Had to," Bucky told her, putting the phone in his pocket and gingerly pushing himself to his feet. "Apart from this mess, the little piece of shit scraped a fire hydrant back that way, and there's security cameras outside the carpet warehouse. It would have made it worse not to call it in."

"Is he shot?" Steve asked numbly, looking up from a bullet sized hole in the rear windshield. "Are you shot, kid?"

"Only bruised," said the guard holding him on the sidewalk and started to haul him up. "I can handle this, boss. Had to keep clean for driving. You wanna-"

Before the approaching sirens had reached them, she'd retrieved a couple of bags from the trunk and swept away in a new ride with the other two of her guards, deftly snapping a couple of pictures on the way.

Suddenly everything was still. Despite the fact that he'd worked these scenes on the regular, or perhaps because of it, Steve realised that he was shaking. "You okay?"

Bucky lifted his hands and examined them in surprise. "Seems so."

And a moment after that, two cars were sweeping in, one to take the kid away and the other to disgorge two surly police officers who took some pictures of their own and walked the three of them back towards the apartment to take in the scene, while Bucky and the driver sketched out the theft as they'd seen it happen, the sequence of events, the colour and make of the second car that had gotten away.

They were already inside when the adrenalin died down enough for Steve to remember that Bucky had seven months parole left, and there were drug traces on his coffee table, and, for all he knew, in Bucky's system as well.

"That one checks out," said the younger cop, coming in from the corridor behind them, indicating the driver. "This one though. James Buchanan Barnes. He's on parole."

"He's a witness," Steve objected.

From the corner of his eye, he saw the driver swipe his half-drunk beer bottle from the coffee table and slink out, sensing a threat.

Their tone changed completely, turning menacing, all trace of customer service vanished as they squared their shoulders and closed in on Bucky. "You want to explain what you were doing here?" demanded the younger guy, putting away his notebook. Bucky was getting that blank, shrunken look that Steve passionately hated, staring mutely at the wall behind them. "You on something? We got reason enough to bring you in. One little swab and we'll find out what you've taken."

"Okay, that's enough," Steve said in the voice he hardly ever used outside the dungeon. "He's not a suspect and I didn't see a warrant when you came in here. I’m the occupier of these premises. You really want to be explaining to a disciplinary committee why you didn’t show me a warrant? I think I’ve been pretty patient so far but my staff are off limits."

He knew – and if he hadn't, the fearful warning in Bucky's expression was telling him – how hard these guys got drilled in standing up to that kind of attitude, so he softened it up a bit and hoped they were too tired for conflict at this time of night.

"Let's take this conversation outside, please," he said, drawing himself up to his full height and flexing his shoulders wide as he held open the door to the corridor. "I appreciate your understanding. You'll find him easily enough if you've got more questions. He works for the Stark group of companies – yeah, that means a pile of paperwork on top of what you've got already. You let me know if there's anything we can do to help with that."

The older guy looked like he was about to pull himself together and raise an objection, so Steve shut the door emphatically between them.

Bucky collapsed onto the sofa, a shaky gesture with none of his usual grace.

"You can't talk to cops like that."

Steve came back with a bowl of warm water and a towel. "You'd be surprised the different kinds of people you can talk like that to, if you really sound like you mean it."

Taking Bucky's hand, he put it in the water, making him hiss, startled.

"Why the hell are you working here instead of using that? You could do anything, Steve. Why don't you?" Steve wanted to blush at the sudden onslaught of praise and the intense look that went with it. "You really do like it. Ah, that's enough."

Under the blood it was just a gash at the base of his palm that was easy work to towel dry and tape up.

"I guess I should say thanks then," Bucky said, wilting back into the sofa while Steve dragged himself up beside him. "I never knew you had that in you."

For Steve, the shock, fear and reprieve had left him feeling drained to empty. The beginnings of a headache were pounding behind his temples. But for Bucky, it seemed as if the danger had charged him up, with an energy that had to be let out in words. "Good thing I've never been an insubordinate employee," he was saying with a dry, faltering laugh. "You gonna give me a raise? For keeping the streets safe?"

It was quiet in the apartment. Someone had turned the game off long ago, and taken the music with them. It was just the two of them, and they were alive, but all their daily routines had been shattered and he felt like a stranger in his own life. He touched Bucky's hand, the grazed part around the tape, until he pulled it back.

"What do you say to a lady who's worth millions?" Another question – more questions than Bucky usually asked in a week – as if the evening's drama had damaged his filter. "What is it she wants you to tell her?"

Steve met his enquiring gaze levelly. "It doesn't matter what, Bucky. You find something you can mean, and you say it. That's what it takes. Most people just want to hear that they're good."

"Huh," Bucky said, and left it for a while.

Neither of them moved. Steve was happy just to look at him, bruised up but breathing, sitting on Steve's sofa, safe.

"I thought he was going to hit me," Bucky said into the silence. "When I was chasing him down the street. I think he was trying to, before he lost control. If I hadn't fallen over in your fucking elephant sizes shoes, right before he swerved …"

The possibility hung between them for a few grim moments.

"Next time, let him get away."

He got a weary smile for that. "You really hate answering your own emails, don’t you, pal?"

A bit later, Steve managed to get as far as the fridge and come back with water.

Bucky looked up at him as he took his glass. "I wasn't even dealing," he said softly.

"You sure you want to talk about this right now?"

Bucky sank back again, resting his head on the back of the sofa.

"I had a handful of pills I'd picked up for a party," he went on. "Not even trafficable quantities, but the guy I got them from was buying from a syndicate they wanted to take down, and I was still on the premises when they came in. Bad fucking luck. It didn't help that I had a record – stupid punk things I did as a stupid punk kid. Driving unlicensed, pinching a candy bar. The syndicate was a big deal, so they put their top prosecutors on it. The guy who led it, he ran for A-G a few years back. And my lawyer – oh Christ, he was only a few years older than I was – even I could tell he was outclassed."

He took a sip of his water, then went back for a few thirsty gulps.

"They offered me a deal if I gave them information. If I'd had half a brain I would have made something up. But I thought I didn't need it. You know, I really believed I was going to walk out of that courtroom. Even when they read out the sentence, I thought I heard it wrong. It wasn’t until I saw my ma’s face that I got it. Did I say I was a punk?"

"Go easy on yourself, Bucky," Steve said, even softer than he said it to clients. "You were just a kid."

"I was – I could have taken one of their deals at the beginning. My parents had to choose between my sister's college fund and paying for my lawyer. I was so scared I was nearly two months in before I even worked out where the money must have come from."

Just when the urge to reach out for him was becoming unbearable, Bucky shuddered and pulled his feet up, wrapping his arms around his knees.

"I had a smart mouth when I went in there. An attitude that was never going to do me any favours. And there's this other thing, too. You only see it later, once you've got some time on the clock. The new kids, they bring something from the outside, if they haven't had it beaten out of them already. Confidence. Faith, maybe. I don't know. It burns you up inside to see it. It's something the men want, and something they hate, and as long as you got hold of that you can use it, if you know how."

He swallowed, and looked like he was steeling himself.

"I didn't know how. I figured a lot of things out too late. There was nothing to me when I went in. I had the sort of body you get from all-night raves and a few too many uppers and not sleeping for three days. Didn't matter at the start. But by the second year things – things got different. That's when I started to work on myself. Because there were – there were people I owed, and the sort of payment they wanted --"

His jaw clenched hard for a moment, his eyes falling into that blank, defeated look that Steve wished he hadn't come to know so well.

"It took me a few months to build up some strength. I put them off with the best lies I could come up with. The things I had to say to my ma to make her stop visiting."

Bucky put his forehead on his knees and breathed out a string of curses.

"It was never going to work forever. They said it was my last chance. If I hadn't found someone to smuggle in supplies for them by the next visitors' day – well, I didn't do it. And they – they'd given me warnings before, my shoulder didn't sit right for a week after the first one. But the guy they sent after me – he was an animal, Steve. The sort of enforcer who shot the target's knees out and made him scream before he finished a hit. The world was better off without him. And he would have – if I hadn't done what I did, I would not have walked out of that cell."

He looked at Steve then, for the first time, direct and with his eyes gleaming.

"I got no regrets. And goddamn, it added nine years to my sentence, but it turned out that at least I got a reputation that didn't do me any harm. Didn't save me from a lot of sleepless nights in those first years, though, and you never quite lose the fear, because they got long memories in that place. Not much else to think about."

Steve just looked at him, the miserable knot of his arms and legs and the defiant jut of his chin, and ached with powerlessness.

"I'm sorry it happened like that, Bucky." His own voice sounded even worse, cracking. "It kills me that I can't do anything about it."

Bucky's head tilted on a curious angle, but he didn't have anything to say, so after a while Steve pulled himself up on limbs that felt filled with concrete and brought back the chilled water to top up both their glasses. It went quiet again while they were drinking, with a silence that felt like a kind of bond between them as they let the rawness of the night settle into something they could handle.

"This is why I don't talk about it," Bucky said in a washed out kind of voice. "It feels like a fucking steamroller going over me, every fucking time."

He scrubbed his hand over his face and slumped back, a loosening in his posture that signalled directly to Steve's gut. He crawled along the sofa and, thinking better of trying to pull Bucky into any kind of embrace, settled for dropping his forehead onto Bucky's shoulder, closing his eyes and resting gently against him. A little while later, with a long sigh, Bucky's hand came up, fingers winding into his hair, holding him there, but keeping him at bay too.

It was a minute, maybe a few minutes, before Bucky patted him twice and rolled up onto his feet.

"You want me to book you a ride so you can go home?" Steve asked.

Though he did his best to make the offer genuine, his head was full of the sight of that car crumpled up on the pole, the feeling of being angry enough to rip time apart with his hands and undo what he thought had happened, and, worse than it had ever been before, the need to wrap Bucky up in his arms and shield him from all the bad luck and unhappy memories.

"No," Bucky replied.

He moved, disappearing into the bathroom while Steve let himself fall into the sofa's embrace, nerves still jangling. The light over the mirror went on, the door closed, but through it he could hear things shifting around, the water running. It felt like the dead of night, some place out of time and beyond the normal rhythm of things, though his head told him it couldn't be midnight yet.

"Steve."

The door was open. Bucky was calling for him. His stomach was already buzzing as he pulled himself up.

In the softened light from the candle globes that flanked the bathroom mirror, Bucky was leaning back against the counter. With his hair down, and Steve's black shirt half undone, he looked elegantly ruffled and, to Steve, utterly irresistible. Steve's lube lay discarded by the sink. The button on his pants was open; the zip mostly down. In his face was a question, and Steve didn't have it in him to say anything but yes. He let his gaze answer for him, clinging to Bucky's body as it drank him in.

The moment he was in reach, Bucky pulled him in, thumbing lightly down his windpipe, over his chest, then hooking into his belt to work it open, slow. All the while he kept his chin tucked down on an angle that made him hard to kiss – and that wasn't all that Steve was hungry for, either. He wanted to coax Bucky into the bedroom and take all night to do this, kiss him until they were dizzy with it, learn the ins and outs of him, leave them both absolutely filthy with each other. But if the thing between them had grown since the first time they failed at this, he still had a sense that it was a fragile thing with Bucky, a delicate balance that he could upset with a single word. So when Bucky held out his palm with a square foil packet on it, Steve took it, and worked himself hard, and rolled the condom on.

Bucky touched his arm, once, squeezing just above the elbow, as if reassuring them both of something, and then he slid his pants down his hips, turned and braced himself. All of Steve's expectations had been recalibrated since the last time. If this meagre taste of intimacy was the best Bucky could give him right now, he was going to gorge on it and suck up every last crumb. Steve was bursting inside his skin, swollen with the need to forge a connection between them any way he could. He needed the blood rush of penetration, of coming, as a reminder that he was alive – that they both were alive.

So he let Bucky steady himself with one forearm down on the counter and his uninjured hand splayed against the mirror, and then he pushed his way in.

And, Christ, it was hotter than it had any right to be, both of them still dressed, Bucky wearing his shirt, and Bucky's body only half ready and fighting him every inch so that every one of his senses zeroed in on that tight, intimate connection. He held Bucky around the ribs – hard muscle under his palms – as he worked himself in. When they were flush up against each other, close enough to feel the pulse in Bucky's thighs and ass, Bucky let out a gasp of held breath, and pushed them back a little and used the space he made to get a hand on himself, stroking in quick tugs.

Groaning, Steve pulled out and shoved in again, hungry now, because it had been far too long since he'd had this, and Bucky was so hot and keen under him, letting him in close at last. It couldn't have been more than a few minutes of it, the quick, shallow rhythm of his hips, and the rougher, wet tempo of Bucky's strokes, before he felt the first tug of orgasm. He pulled back his pace, eager to last as long as he could, but Bucky's hips were starting to jerk by then, chasing Steve's rhythm as he got lost on his own pleasure. That was what pulled Steve under, helplessly, in the end, lost in the sight and the feel of him, the powerful muscle across his back tensing, the spasm and squeeze of his body as he came.

Bucky was limp under him, rocked under the last few thrusts, his head collapsed down on his arms on the counter, all of his wary self-possession fucked right out of him. Steve flattened his palms over Bucky's back and closed his eyes, listening to their damp and gasping breath and feeling full to bursting.

He traced up the line of Bucky's spine, as if he could funnel everything in his heart into that one fingertip, and got as far as his shoulder blades when Bucky stopped him.

"All right," Bucky said in a warning tone that indicated the opposite.

When Steve had eased himself free and dumped the condom, the stiff shape of Bucky's back, still bent in the same place, told Steve to give him some space, so he tucked himself away, and righted his clothes, and trudged numbly back to the sofa.

"You can call me that ride now," Bucky said when he emerged a few minutes later. Not with any bitterness, but closed off in a way that Steve didn't care for either.

"You sure about that?" Steve was all out of self-censorship now, and he knew what he needed. "You could stay. I'd like you to."

There was a small smile on Bucky's mouth, one of the sad ones, when he answered. "No. I've got to—"

He finished in a shrug, leaving the excuse hanging.

Reluctantly, Steve fished his phone out of the sofa cushions and made the booking.

"Four minutes," he read out.

"Yeah?"

Bucky came around behind the sofa, hand on Steve's shoulder as he bent down to look at the screen himself. Steve shifted the phone into the opposite hand so Bucky had to lean over him, loose strands of hair tickling his temple, the warmth and smell of him everywhere.

"One minute," Bucky said softly, after a while. "Better get going."

"See you Sunday," Steve said, letting him go. "Keep that wound taped up around the club."

Once he was alone, Steve lay down and relived it every moment of it, teasing out the parts he wanted to remember: the vigorous strength of Bucky's body pushing back against him, his long fingers clenched against the tiles, all the helpless, revealing catches of his breath, and the glimpse of his face in the mirror, eyes lightly closed, eyelashes fluttering when he came. His hand on Steve's shoulder afterwards, forging a connection of the kind he could bear.

This whole thing between them, it had been like diving into water in slow motion. And now, five months later, he was fully submerged.

Chapter Text

The little diner at the gas station around the corner was moderately busy with lunchtime traffic, chiefly solitary drivers on break, hunched over their phones. He'd been sitting there for half an hour, thinking gloomy thoughts about the strangers Stuart was showing through his place and wondering whether their investor's eyes were capable of seeing all the beauty that his year of hard work had created, when the bus pulled in outside. He watched Bucky get off it, the only one who did, leaving behind seats full of passengers on their way out to the suburbs. He slipped a book into his backpack as he came past the bowsers – probably one of the ones that created the odd gaps Steve sometimes noticed in his small library.

Even from inside, Steve could see the wary glances he cast, left and right, as he passed through the unfamiliar space. But he smiled when he came through the door and found Steve. He was wearing a checked scarf over his jacket, with soft yellow squares among the grey tones. His hair was loose, his headphones were dangling from his pocket, and he was everything that had been missing from Steve's day up to now.

"Is it a long trip?" Steve asked, when he was sitting down with a coffee and a cinnamon donut. "You'd have to change in the city."

Bucky shrugged. "Nothing wrong with the bus. I don't mind it." Steve pictured what it would be like for him, bent over his book with seats full of strangers around him, tired mothers bouncing their strollers, noisy kids playing hooky, grandmas with wheeled tartan shopping carts. "It's good to be going somewhere."

And that broke Steve's heart all over again, to think the simple idea of motion, and the freedom to get off when he wanted, was something Bucky would think of as a pleasure. It hit him how all the things he'd wanted from Bucky at the beginning had completely fallen away – the restraints he'd imagined, the low-pitched orders, the whole power exchange – and been replaced by one simple certainty. The moment his parole was done, Steve wanted to put him on the back of his bike and let him decide where the road would take them.

"How long until you get the place back?" Bucky asked.

"They'll be finished by one."

"That's not so bad. Your schedule's free until five today."

Steve looked down at his fingers, clenched around the empty cup in front of him.

"There's three different buyers, Bucky. All it takes is one of them."

"Well, let's worry about that if it happens."

"It's going to cost – if I have to fit out a new place, it's going eat into my savings. I can't afford to keep you on if that happens."

Bucky gave him a faint smile. "I've been reading your accounts for going on six months. Did you think I didn't know that?" He cut his donut in half and pushed the plate across the table towards Steve. "Stop sulking. You're not going to lose your lease. They can't knock it down for condos, you said that yourself. Not until they get the street re-zoned. And you're a good tenant. It's all going to work out."

For a while, Steve let himself be persuaded, but it was another thing once he was back in his apartment, noticing how the blinds on the tall windows were raised higher than he'd left them; how the office door was closed. He went over to the big cubed shelves by the front door, straightening the books and the ornamental bowls and the knotted glass sculpture.

"My ink work is nearly finished."

Steve glanced at him quickly, interested. "Yeah?"

"It looks pretty good."

It took a moment for the directness of Bucky's look to penetrate his fug of sadness, but when it did, his mouth went instantly dry. "Can I see?"

"Sure. If you want."

Steve put the sculpture down and turned to him properly. "Yeah."

That steady gaze didn't flag as Bucky unhooked the four buttons on his jacket, one by one, and laid it with his scarf on the arm of the sofa. He made short work of the grey pullover he wore underneath, and a moment later Steve had to drag his attention away from the bare planes of Bucky's chest, the delineated muscle wrapped around his lower ribs and belly.

The tattoo started with a wide black band around his shoulder joint, where the prison work had been thickest. Below that, down to the wrist stretched a pattern of five-pointed leaves, black outlines filled with fall colours: burnt orange, and yellow and a winey shade of red, interrupted by blocks of black where the old work needed to be covered. When he turned his palm up, it revealed a snowflake pattern down the inside of his forearm that must have called for steely self-control when it went on. The work over the wrist was unfinished, just a raw looking outline.

"It's for endings," Bucky explained when he'd been looking too long. "Starting over. Kind of obvious."

"It's really good," Steve said, a bit thrown by how much more beautiful it was than the prison ink he dimly remembered from before. "Is this why you needed two jobs then?"

"One of the reasons. She's got a good eye, really careful work. Can you see?"

He said it straight, but he didn't look surprised when Steve reached him and the first thing he did was run his palm over the design, up to his shoulder.

"Yeah, that's quality work."

"You sure?"

He let his fingers trail down Bucky's chest, catching one stirring nipple, and hooked them in his waistband. "Definitely."

If his kissed Bucky now, he'd be sweet from the donut.

"Come on then," Bucky said, pulling away towards the bedroom.

If he'd been kind of numb the first time, this time Steve's senses were all alive. He drank it in, the sight of Bucky stripped down to nothing and bent over his bed, loosening himself up with two quick fingers. And then, when he'd sunk deep in the perfect, clutching heat of him, Steve could slow it down and skim his fingers over the delicately inked skin of his arm, plant hot kisses across his back, lick the sweat out of the dip between his shoulder blades, nose up into his hair and breathe in the smell of him, every sensation intensified by the insistent connection between them, the tug of Bucky's body wanting more of him.

"Do it," Bucky husked out, going down on one elbow and taking himself in the other hand, working himself with fast, tight strokes. "Give it to me."

Steve ground into him, deep and true, until he was curled in on himself, gasping like he was wounded, and shuddered his way into completion. Then he stripped the rubber off and jerked himself with everything he had until he was spilling over the dip of Bucky's back, hard enough to see stars.

"Is this okay?" Steve asked afterwards, flopped down on the bed beside him and tracing the line of Bucky's spine with his fingertips.

Bucky squirmed discouragingly until he let up, then crossed his arms and rested his chin on them.

"It's hard for me," he said after a while. "You've got to understand, for a lot of years, having a man like you up close, it was my worst nightmare come to life. No matter how long I'd been in, it never got better. You closed your eyes for one fucking second, let the wrong man get the jump on you, and it was all over. There were no second chances in that place. I saw someone shaped like you in there, I'd be watching you move, looking for a weak spot, scoping the place out for a pipe or a hard surface I could drop you onto if I needed." He turned to meet Steve's eyes then, frowning. "Do you get that? It's pretty deep in my nerves now. I don't have a lot of control over it."

Steve ran his knuckles lightly over the outside of Bucky's ribs, the nearest part of him in reach.

"Were you scared of me? At the start?"

Bucky turned grave. "You know when I was scared of you, Steve?"

He rolled up to grab the box of tissues on the bedside table, plucked a wad of them out, started to wipe himself clean.

"When?"

"Never. Never once. Not one single time. That's how scary you are."

With that, he lobbed the box at Steve's head, hooked his clothes off the floor and headed for the bathroom.

**

Emma had used to come to the club, reluctantly, with her husband. Marriage dissolved, she now came to Steve under her own steam, every few months, when she needed to lay down the burdens of caring for two young teenagers and a toddler with a heart condition. She was sitting on Steve's knee in the satiny jade green underwear that probably no one else ever got to see, while he gave her what she needed.

"Say it back to me," he told her, palm skimming the top of her ass cheeks to remind her of the consequences of disobedience, which she almost never pushed him to deliver.

"My time is valuable." When he kissed her bare shoulder, she gave that sigh that was half relief and half arousal. "The company couldn't do business without the work I put in."

"That's it. And the co-ordination role for the IT project. Tell me about that."

"I'd love to do that work. It's important work. But if I'm going to do it properly, I need to go up to three days a week and-" Her voice dropped and sped up. "-and I'd like to be paid at a more senior level."

His hand stilled warningly. "Mean it this time."

She faltered for a second, then took a deep breath and said firmly, "The role deserves to be paid at a more senior level."

"You deserve to paid at a more senior level. You hear me?" He stroked her back until she nodded. "Now how far are we going? You need to come?"

"Please."

He kissed her shoulder again. "You've been so good for me. How could I say no?"

He took his time undressing her, laying her on her back on the bench with the spreader bar fastened to her ankles on the widest setting she could take, and then he spent an easy half-hour taking her apart with his thumb and two fingers and telling her the tender things that no one else in her life was taking the time to tell her.

**

It was a busy Saturday at the club – the sort of busy that made the time pass quick and left him pleasantly drained at the end. The new crowd of customers who'd been drawn in by curiosity after that burst of social media attention he'd generated were settling into regulars now, more interested at last in playing rather than watching. There was less for Steve to do. He finished up early and watched Nat's version of audience participation, which involved arranging a bunch of very willing and very naked men into a circle and walking over them until their backs were covered in red welts from her heels.

It still made him pause to see the new guy hefting a big bag of empty bottles into the bins outside, doing the work that Bucky had done so quietly.

He'd got to his bike before he pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket and checked it. Come out for a drink, Bucky's message said. There was an address – the usual one where he went with anyone from the club who had energy left to burn after their working night was done. If he said no, it would be the fourth, maybe the fifth of these invitations he'd turned down. So he texted back On my way.

The place was low-key, up a narrow staircase with no signage and no street presence at all, traceable only by the faint beats that leaked out. Inside, the row of tables by the bar was nearly empty, since almost the entire crowd was packed on the dance floor. He edged along the wall, trying to pick individual faces out of the dark churn of bodies under the swooping lights. It wasn't a casual bar, he realised as he took in the profile of the crowd. They were young. They had the same easy, studied moves as Bucky. He might not even be the best dancer in the place.

But he was exactly like Steve remembered, when he found him at last, over near the mixing decks surrounded by people Steve didn't recognise. Lifted up by the music, body pumping with the rhythm. The casual athleticism of it hit him afresh, the endurance it took to tap out the fast beat on one foot and then the other, track after track, and the flexibility of his spine and waist as he span through his moves. But there was something new as well. He was connecting with the crowd of strangers around him – a flash of eye contact here, a smile there, his hand on a muscled forearm as he fell in with his neighbour for a few steps. He was ten times freer with strangers on the dancefloor than Steve had ever seen him.

He turned at a sharp elbow and saw Val standing beside him, dressed like Bucky was in a t-shirt and casual pants, almost unrecognisable out of her usual black leather.

"You like electro swing now, do you?" she leaned up to say against his ear. "Or something else?"

With a knowing look, she shucked the bag off her shoulder and passed it to him. "If you're not gonna dance, go find us a free table."

When she'd been swallowed up by the crowd, along with the group of club staff behind her, he made his way around to do that. Drained as he was, it did him good to sit back in a plastic chair and let it all wash over him, the happy energy in the room, the vibration of the music.

It could have been an hour or more later he saw Val coming through the crowd. She was leading Bucky by the hand. They were laughing, pressed close, their bodies easy together in the cramped space as they approached. If he'd thought Bucky was pretty on an ordinary day, he was practically luminous like this, skin sheened, his hair a soft, sweat-damp cloud and his face giving way so easily to smiles. It was like he'd shed a skin, and all his grief and mistrust with it. If he'd been like this, in his young body, before everything, Steve realised with a startling certainty that he would have fallen for that too.

"Hey," he said, letting go of Val's hand to push his hair back. "About fucking time."

Still smiling and loose, he dropped into the empty seat next to Steve and took the water Val held out for him as she displaced her bag to sit down. "You drinking? Or coming out on the dance floor?"

Steve watched three more of the club crew stumble out of the throng and pull up seats. He shook his head.

"Okay," Bucky said, his attention tracking over Steve's face like he was trying to read something. "I'm done then. Let's go."

Out on the street, Bucky took a deep breath and walked beside him, his steps still loose and easy.

"Good day at work?" he asked, exactly like he might have asked whether the laundry needed unpacking. If there'd been anything in his system, he must have danced it off now; the joy radiating off him was nothing but a night of doing something he really loved.

"No complaints," Steve reported, swinging his leg over his bike and starting it up. "Where to now?"

Fastening his jacket, Bucky slid on behind him, hugging up close. "Take me home."

That put a quiver of nervous energy behind Steve's breastbone. It only intensified as he navigated the city streets, right up until the turnoff for the bypass that would take them to the tiny paper-windowed upstairs flat out in the suburbs. Bucky's arms tightened around his chest when he let it go by.

The street was silent as he parked the bike behind the gate that fenced off the alley down the side of his building. At this hour, they were the only movement in a world of sleeping bricks.

"Explains why you've been tired, doing this three nights a week."

"More if I can get it," Bucky told him.

"Is it the same crowd every time?" He felt that sting of jealousy all over again. "You and Val seem pretty comfortable together."

He padlocked the helmets to the handlebar. When he turned, Bucky was leaning back against the gate, fingers hooked in the wire. "I really missed women," he said, tipping his head back. "Not that way – or not only that way. It was stupid things. Like the way they laugh. Soft hands. How they touch so easy. That's what I dreamed about, for when I got out. First thing I was going to do was find the right girl."

"Why didn't you?" Steve asked.

Bucky looked back at him helplessly. "Yeah," he said with an amused little half-smile. "Why the hell didn't I?"

And then he was closing the distance between them, sliding a steadying hand onto the back of Steve's head, and pulling him in for a kiss. Steve's mind suffered a stunned second of paralysis before he slid his arms around Bucky's waist, tugging him close and kissing him back with everything he had. Their mouths together were every bit as hot and abrasive as he'd dreamed of. Bucky's tongue pushed into him, blunt and hungry, and Steve gave it back keenly, groaning into it a little, until at last the urgency stated to come out of it and he could be gentle about it, sucking Bucky's top lip lightly into his mouth.

"You should have come out dancing sooner," Bucky broke it off to say, pulling back. "It's not like I haven't been asking."

"Yeah," Steve agreed, moving them both towards the door and breaking off to lock the gate behind them. "I sure screwed that up."

Every moment of it was lovely, after that. Both of them scrabbling for their keys at the front door, impatient. Bucky in his room, dropping his jacket on the floor like he meant to stay. The way Bucky's skin tasted, all salt-slicked and hard under his mouth. The feel of him in Steve's arms, skin on skin at last, the flex of his muscles against Steve's eager hands. One thing slid into another so fast they were on the bed before he knew it, Bucky's fingers doing that familiar trick between them, slicking himself up, and Steve wanted him as bad as ever, fumbling the condom onto himself and pushing in, both of them groaning. Bucky going down on his elbows, the angle sharp and tight as Steve kept it slow, slower, breathing deep and forcing himself to make them wait.

"All right," said Bucky on a sigh. "That works."

Bucky shifted his weight on the mattress and arched his back, letting Steve slide into him on a new angle that made him tense up and then go pliant, so Steve held his hips and repeated the motion, chasing the reaction slow and steady until Bucky's fingers were clenching in the sheets. He was hot in Steve's hand, hardening quickly, and still curled in on himself when he came. Then his grip was sure and his eyes greedy as they brought Steve off together, on his back with Bucky's knee between his thighs.

"Stay," Steve said afterwards, reaching for his wrist and letting it go with a squeeze. "Just stay."

"Your problem if you can't sleep," Bucky warned him with a tiny quirk of a smile. "Don't say I didn't warn you."

Steve did sleep, like the dead, but he woke with a start in the grey hours of early morning, aware of Bucky sitting bolt upright beside him and breathing fast. He sounded parched as Steve lay there listening, like he'd been dreaming of fleeing or fighting. He flopped back down into the pillows, but didn't sound like he was sleeping.

After a while, Steve turned over.

"I could watch you all night," he said eventually. "Dancing like that."

The mattress shifted at Bucky's exhausted, irritated wriggling.

He said in a hoarse sounding voice, "I missed that more than anything. Having my own music. The radio wasn't the same, and the batteries never lasted long enough. I never knew what a difference it made."

"Tell me."

A few slow breaths went by. Steve rolled a little closer, close enough to kiss Bucky's shoulder and rest there.

"Okay. First week I got out, I moved into that place Stan found for me. There was nothing in it except a chair, then. I had a chair and an old army sleeping bag and forty dollars gate money, and I was still doing better than most guys do when they get out. But all I did that first week, I lay in that sleeping bag and jerked off like a dumb kid and ate beans out of a tin until the money ran out. I slept so much my head hurt. It seems stupid now, but I just couldn’t walk out that door. I would have missed my parole meetings if Stan didn't come and get me."

He could feel the muscle shift as Bucky rubbed his eyes before he went on.

"And then I was in a store, might've been second week by then. I was taking my time, waiting for it to get busy enough I could slip some stuff under my jacket. You know what, Steve? I knew I'd get caught. I knew I was going to end up back inside, but I was going to do it anyway. So it was me in the store, and the guy behind the counter, he knew what I was waiting for, he'd seen it all before. There was music playing. I didn't notice until a song came on. Shakira, it was fucking Shakira, and I stood there like an idiot remembering the last time I heard that song, eating fries in a diner at eight o'clock in the morning, a bunch of us winding down from the night, knowing I'd go home with one of them, and thinking I was king of the fucking world. And I – I was shaking, Steve. It was like the song was some kind of bridge back to that clueless kid I used to be, sitting in a low-life diner with the sun in the window and thinking the whole world was beautiful.

"I was so fucking shaken I walked right out of the store. I sat on the steps for maybe half an hour. And then I walked to Stanley's place and binned the last pride I had and I told him I wasn't going to make it unless I found a job. As if I didn't owe him too much already."

It was obvious from the tightness of his voice that that wasn't half of what he faced in those first weeks, and Steve was too late to help with any of it. He found Bucky's hand and squeezed it, let it go.

"You should put your music on while you work," he said. "It's too quiet here anyway."

Bucky took a long time to roll on his side, facing him, not quite touching. "And dancing?" he asked, still sounding sad. "You got a rule about that too?"

"Oh, that's encouraged. If it's going to turn out like this every time, you can do it as often as you like."

Even in the dark he recognised it from the sigh that went with it, that look that was equal parts fond and despairing.

**

Bucky must have taken a lot longer to fall asleep because he was absolutely dead to the world when Steve got out of bed at nine, and made coffee, and ate toast and eggs at the table by the window, thinking how the whole apartment felt different just from Bucky quietly sleeping on the other side of the screen.

"Did you skip the gym?" Bucky asked from the doorway, a bit before noon.

He looked shattered, with his shadow of stubble and his face scrunched and his hair snarled in yesterday's elastic, but when he spoke in that voice all gravelly with sleep, he sounded relaxed in a way that was new, the hyper vigilance turned down to zero.

"Sunday's my day off. Sit down, I'll fix you a coffee."

He made breakfast too, while Bucky was in the bathroom, and laid it out on that tray with the wood and gold handles Nat had given him for a housewarming present, and wondered whether he should use it more, maybe have people over for lunch one day.

"What the hell is your bed made out of?" Bucky asked between mouthfuls. "Do you wash your sheets in valium? Feels like I slept for a week."

Steve had been going around the flat and opening the windows to let the breeze in. "What's wrong with the bed at your place?"

"Can't fit anything bigger than a single. Not unless I want to be right under the roof leak in the corner."

"What does the landlord have to say about that?" he asked, coming back to see Bucky poking at the last crust on his plate distractedly.

"No idea. I don't deal with the landlord. It's not my name on the lease." He glanced up. "Come on. You think they'd let to James Buchanan Barnes, fresh out of maximum security with twelve years of absolutely no rental history? Not even a shit-hole like that place." He leaned back and took a slow sip of coffee. "When I said I'd be back inside if it wasn't for Stanley, I wasn't kidding around. Happens all the time, to fellas that don’t have a solid family behind them. I was in there long enough to see who came back and who didn't."

Steve badly wanted to ask about the rest of Bucky's family, the parents and sister he'd mentioned evasively once or twice. It felt like the sort of morning where he could.

But Bucky was going on. "You can't just walk back into your old life. You know, they gave me back my phone when I got out. It was one of those Nokias with the folding screen, and the smartest thing you could do with it was take a picture. It could store music though, if you got the right memory card, so of course it was the hottest thing on the market back when I bought it. I couldn't even give it away now. The charger was fuck knows where anyway. When I got it out on the bus, people looked at me like I'd come from another planet. I threw it in a dumpster my first day back in the city."

Though he told the story with bemusement, Steve could imagine the loss and bewilderment of that first day.

"Now I like what you've upgraded to."

"It does everything I need it to," Bucky shrugged, with a wry smile. "And something that pink and sparkly, at least I don't have to worry anyone's gonna steal it."

He watched Bucky wash his plate and cup, thinking how different it felt from the way he did it on an ordinary working day, then turn and pat his hands on his jeans, looking uncertain.

"Come and sit here."

Bucky looked at him hard, lips quirking. "You know where that's going to end up."

"Yes, I know where that's going to end up."

He pulled his feet up on the sofa and sat with his back against Steve's shoulder, and the warm weight of him felt so good that Steve let him get half an hour's work done before they both gave in to temptation.

**

Only the little things changed.

His celebrity client developed an interest in combat fitness and let him disappear at last from her social media pages.

He took Bucky along with him to his next meeting with Bruce, and sat back fondly to watch the two of them talking in tax jargon for twenty minutes, like Bucky was some sort of whiz kid graduate on a work experience placement who wanted to learn everything on his first day. They resolved the square footage deduction question and spent the rest of the time discussing options for re-writing the lease to adjust rent and outgoings for tax advantage, and it was the first meeting Steve could remember where Bruce had a smile on his face when they left.

One of his newest batch of clients was a couple, one of whom had developed a growing need to be dominated and humiliated in ways his devoted partner wanted to be taught how to satisfy. Steve spent a lot of time thinking about what made the power dynamic of submission work for him, and he came to the same conclusion he always had, which was creating a space that people could trust to try any dangerous thing they desired, and leave feeling lighter.

Bucky juggled the addition of sex into their relationship with the same efficiency as everything else, and every time it blew Steve's mind, and every time it grated on him ever so slightly, the things he couldn't ask for.

Chapter Text

With the open day two weeks away, he scheduled in a practice session with Ricky. If he was going to work in a little light suspension, he needed to hone his technique a bit tighter, not to mention the fact that he'd want to work faster than usual if they were doing it for a spectacle rather than the pleasure of the knot work itself. He was feeling good about the choice. It was real enough to excite the interest of anyone whose tendencies leant in that direction, but with Ricky no more than shirtless, it was something that someone who wandered in off the street could watch with their mom.

As the knots went down, Ricky talked about his new puppy, a Cavalier King Charles the colour of honey who mostly lived with the neighbours just now, except when Ricky took him to classes. The dog was for his father, when he finished his last round of chemo, if he was well enough for it. All morning Ricky had been swinging between winningly upbeat and totally out of words in the space of a few seconds. It could have been disorientating, but that was the space where Steve worked best. By the time Steve started to untie him, telling him he'd done well, telling him he was lovely, he'd fallen into a settled kind of silence. It was such a simple transaction, as familiar as breathing to him now. All he had to do was listen, and touch.

"You okay?" he asked when the rope was all puddled on the ground. He rubbed at a pink spot on Ricky's back where an awkward knot had slightly dug in. Ricky leaned towards him but didn't meet his gaze. "Hey."

When put his hand on Ricky's shoulder and pulled him in, he came willingly into Steve's arms.

"He's my dad," he said wetly into Steve's shirt. "He used to carry me around on his shoulder. I can't watch him like this. I don't know how to take care of him."

For a moment, he thought of himself, how he'd been too young and his mom's illness had been too sudden, to give him time to think things like that.

"Sure you know," Steve told him, hand firm on his back. "Just do the best you can."

When Ricky was wiping his eyes and smiling again, he packed up the equipment and put it away. The club was empty this time of morning, apart from T'Challa and Shuri in the office. And, it turned out, Bucky, who was stacking glasses behind the bar with a vicious clang that displayed none of his usual deft handling, and Steve had the sinking feeling he knew why.

"Since when do you work here on a Tuesday?"

"Stanley had an appointment he couldn't miss." Bucky shot him one fiery glance and went back to work. "I could be a little late in today. By the way. Depending on when the electrician gets here for the bathroom corridor light."

"Okay. Take your time."

The wine glasses clanged like bullets as he slid them one by one onto the rack. Steve opened his mouth to apologise, but thought better of it, because apologising would indicate he'd done something wrong, and he hadn't. He'd done his job, for someone who needed it, and to keep the bargain he'd made with Tony about the open day. What he did with Ricky was intimate, maybe, but it wasn't sexual. And it didn't hold a candle to how he felt about Bucky. It roused his blood more right now, watching the simple flex of muscle as Bucky wiped down the bar top, than the whole last two hours had.

That thought soured in his mind. If he hadn't given voice to many of the ridiculous, tender thoughts he had about Bucky on a daily basis, he didn't try all that hard to hide them either. Bucky was too smart not to have noticed it. This felt like having all that vulnerability thrown back in his face.

"You done here?" Bucky asked, still cleaning. "Or have you got some more off-book sessions lined up that I don't know about?"

"Oh, I'm done."

As he left, Steve could feel the pulse in his throat, angry in a way he didn't like. Angry in a way that only a few hours at the gym could be certain of burning out of him. Even Sam bit back his smart remarks and let him pound himself into a feverish sweat, silently passing him a towel.

It was mid-afternoon by the time he got home, in a marginally better state of mind.

Installed on the sofa, barefoot and quiet, Bucky didn't have more than a soft "Hey" for him as he went into the bedroom to ditch his gym clothes and get changed. At least he'd shown up for work though, that was something.

"Is the tool box in the cupboard? I'm going to fix those hinges," Steve was asking when he saw it.

"Already done," Bucky said behind him, half-noticed.

The collar and leash that Bucky had worn for that one photo shoot they'd done were hanging on the handle of the office door. Bucky's work was tidy, meticulous. He didn't leave things lying around by accident. When Steve picked it up, there was no residual body heat left. He made himself take a moment to let it sink in, what the placement of it meant.

"I thought this left you cold."

Bucky shrugged without looking up from his screen. "I didn't hate it."

He took a deep breath. "So I'm doing a scene with Ricky for the open day."

"Yes I got that bit," Bucky said tersely, setting the laptop aside to move over to the sink and run the tap. "But you don't have to. That's – you don't have to."

He was washing dishes with an urgency Steve had rarely seen on him before, clattering things around.

"It's just a bit of shibari. You didn't like the ropes."

"I've put up with a lot worse than a bit of rope."

It still filled Steve with distaste, the thought of doing that to Bucky, even if he went into it with his eyes wide open this time. It took a few moments to put his finger on the reason. If Bucky was open to that, it should be here, with Steve and no one else. If he could get Bucky to open himself to submission, he was not going to share that with a room full of gawking strangers. And if they failed, that was for Steve's eyes only, too. The mere thought of putting that up for public consumption just killed him.

What came out of his mouth was, "This is an advertisement for the whole business. I need a bit more than putting up with it."

The heavy sounds of mugs in the water continued.

"I can do it," Bucky said softly. "You can teach me. I'll work at it. You know I'll do what I say."

He was so close to conceding, just for the prospect of two weeks of getting to run Bucky through practice sessions, all those slow knots and patient touches and stillness between them. But he couldn't – if he couldn't get Bucky to open up in front of a crowd, he'd failed, and if he made him vulnerable in front of all those people, he'd failed even worse.

"No."

"No? Just like that? That's the best you've got?"

Bucky's voice rose as he turned, and Steve thought how out-of-character that was to force an argument instead of putting it to one side with a patient sort of indulgence and coming back to it from a more advantageous angle. It made him feel wrong-footed.

"I don't have to give you an explanation."

"You don't want to do this with me? Is that it? Because I'm pretty sure you did, the way you looked at me, right back in the beginning. And for a long time after that, too. Tell me I'm wrong."

There was far too much in that that Steve couldn't explain. So he cut it off with all the finality he could muster. "I already arranged this with Ricky. It's too late to change it. That's the end of it, Bucky."

If it finished with Bucky rinsing the dishes in silence, it didn't feel over. Steve went and checked the contents of the equipment cupboard, adjusting tiny misalignments, just to have something to do, to keep at bay the insistent buzz of guilt. Lying by omission, he'd made the thing with Ricky seem like more than what it was. And his reasons – Bucky worked in the kink club, for heaven's sake. Maybe to him it didn't seem like that big a step to put himself on a stage there. But all of Steve's instincts screamed against it.

An hour later, he picked up his sketch pad and put it down again. Bucky was working silently, back on the sofa, just like he always did. Except there was something hurt and withdrawn in his silence that hadn't been there before, not even in that awkward first week. He'd gotten so used to Bucky's presence as the constant axis of his working day, sometimes curt, occasionally disapproving, but always half of a team of two. It had become easy having a second person in his space, easier than he'd expected. He wondered how hard Bucky had been working since that first week, to make it that way. How the synchronisation between them had been anything but an accident.

In the late afternoon, Bucky put his headphones on and dusted the shelves, and the window sills, while Steve watched him helplessly and tried to think of some compromise he could suggest, something that would put an end to this awful distance between them.

"This one sounds like your type," Bucky said much later, in a carefully neutral voice. "Recently moved from San Francisco. Played around in the scene there. Likes strict discipline and mild humiliation but basically just looking for a gentle daddy who knows how to take care of his boy. Pretty easy on the eye. Sound like a yes to you?"

It was exactly the sort of thing he might say to Steve any day, but the fondness was gone, the faint, affectionate teasing and the confidence that he could get away with it. Steve missed it desperately, the trust it had taken him weeks to build up to that he seemed to have fractured so easily.

"Sure," Steve said emptily.

In two hours, he had that new client, the one he thought had only given him half the story when they'd met for coffee. She had a fascination for bondage and discipline that she wanted to explore before she married a fiancé she thought was too gentle to satisfy that side of her. But there was more to it that she hadn't asked for, his intuition told him. Something darker, maybe strangulation, maybe blood play, maybe rape fantasy. He needed to be alert, to listen for what she wasn't saying as well as what she was. But all he could think about was how he could feel Bucky's hurt like a black hole in the middle of the room. And how the one thing Bucky wanted him to do to fix it, he couldn't make himself do.

"You can leave early if you want to. Go see how Stanley's doing."

Bucky let a few moments go by before he said, "All right," and then he was gone, and it was almost as bad. After an hour flipping between foreboding about the upcoming session and reviewing their entire history to think if they'd ever been on bad terms like this, the buzzer finally rang.

Rape fantasy, it turned out. His instincts had been right. He told her he couldn't do that, but he'd ask around for someone who could. Part of him was glad to send her away because, brittle as he felt today, he was not in the right frame of mind to give her his best.

**

Saturday morning, coming back from the gym, his apartment felt so empty he set up Bucky's projector and played a random sequence of You Tube music videos just for company. He watched the casual display of bare flesh and thought some more about whether he should do what Bucky wanted. But he couldn't get it out of his head, the deep resistance Bucky had had in the first session. Maybe he'd seen enough to suppress that now, to quell his reactions and endure it blankly. But the thought of watching him deaden himself with another protective layer made him miserable.

In the afternoon, he turned it off and found himself gravitating to Bucky's corner of the sofa, the one he almost never sat in, even when it was just him in the place. He sank into the giving leather and looked at the half-open office door, wondering how it felt from out here, listening to the muffled sounds on the other side, echoes of stern commands and soft praise.

He surveyed the whole apartment from Bucky's perspective. The big expanse of space filled with afternoon light, the neat red brick outer wall and all the cleanly painted white walls and polished wood inside, the concealed bedroom at the opposite end. He found it soothing in a way he'd worked hard to achieve. Harmonious and safe, a thoughtfully constructed haven. As he lay back, something in his bookshelf caught his eye. In one of his quarto art print books on the top shelf, a sketch protruded, something he'd obviously worked on years ago and folded into its pages of Japanese prints. The pattern was familiar, he realised with a start. Fall leaves with five points, interlocking, in dark red, orange and golden tones. You could only see it from this vantage point, side-on.

On Sunday, when he was starting to count down the hours until Bucky's start time, a text popped up. Got to work all afternoon. Last minute event. Can't make it today.

Steve sorted through the weekend's emails as best he could with half his mind on what that meant. He went for a run and came back two hours later, numb. He checked his schedule for the evening's two bookings, neatly entered in his calendar with all the details he could have wanted, and went to set up the office. He'd done this all by himself for months, before Bucky. It was ridiculous how hard he was listening for the snick of keys in his lock, hoping for a sound that was not going to come. He'd been doing all right before Bucky came into his life, hadn't he?

When he picked up his phone and called, he wasn't sure of anything except that he was going to do whatever it took to heal things between them, and he wasn't going to hang up until he knew for sure that Bucky was coming back. As it rang and rang, he hastily switched his thoughts to the voicemail, and told himself there would be no room for beating around the bush.

"I think I screwed up," he said. "I want to be honest with you. The reason I can't do this open day with you, it's – I put a lot of myself into a scene. I don't know how to fake it. And I'm a bit of a mess over you right now, Bucky. I can't put that in front of a room full of strangers. But Ricky, he's just a sweet guy I work with. There's nothing to see except that we both like what we do. I hope that makes sense."

He sat on the sofa with his head in his hands for a couple of minutes and then he called back.

"And I don't know how to say this bit, Bucky. I don't want you to do anything you're uncomfortable with just for me. I know the whole scene is weird for you. And that's okay. Don't let me push you into being something you're not."

It was amazing how much better he felt after that, finishing up the office set-up and thinking ahead to dinner.

It might have been an hour later that his phone buzzed. Bucky had texted a photo – it was a stand for an adventure travel company, a big picture of Macchu Pichu. The text said, Working. Like I said. And a few seconds later, But thanks.

**

On Monday, he started and finished his training session with Sam early, because on top of his usual list of jobs for his day off were a few things Bucky hadn't been in to do yesterday. It was not long after nine when he parked his bike by the side of the building.

He turned at the sound of footsteps and saw Stuart come down the stairs and cross the sidewalk to his car without seeing him. There were no purchasers with him. His walk was fast and angry in a way Steve knew well, driven by fresh pain. He pulled back into the laneway until he heard the car start up and leave.

He had a bad feeling even before he came into his apartment to find Bucky there on a day that he shouldn't be, and folding the rack back into its corner position.

"What are you doing?" Steve asked.

Bucky set his shoulders defiantly. "I'm keeping your business in business, genius."

"You're seeing my clients now?"

"Just one of them."

Bucky held his gaze for a deliberate moment before reaching over to shake out the black satin that concealed the rack and drape it in place, just like he'd done dozens of times before, only this time it seemed tainted somehow. He jerked it roughly, as if he didn't care if it tore, or as if he wanted it to.

"Are you fucking him?"

Bucky scowled. "He doesn't always need that. He needs to be told no, and I got no problem giving him what he needs."

As he picked a towel up and swiped something off the floor, then folded it, there was a stiff tension in his movements that Steve recognised. The false power dynamic of being in control of someone who held your future in his hands.

"You think you can stop him selling the place, do you?"

"Oh, he's going to sell it," Bucky bit out. "But he's going to sell it with a new lease attached, and you can have three more years. That's the deal."

Bucky held up his hand. "If what's about to come out of your mouth isn't thank you, then you have a good hard think about whether you need to say it at all. You know how he makes you feel, afterwards."

His jaw was tight, and his eyes had that aching light in them that brought Steve to his knees every time. And Steve did know. He took the towel from Bucky's hands and walked it around to the hamper in the bathroom.

"He pay you for this?" he called over his shoulder.

"He paid you. Which you'd know if you ever looked at your accounts."

All of it was so off-form, from the petty reprimand to the spiteful tone he delivered it in.

When Steve came back to the office, he was still there, staring blankly at the corner where the shrouded rack stood. He flinched at the touch of Steve's hand on his shoulder, as if the gentle contact had hurt him.

"Come and spar with me," Steve said.

"No. You just came from –"

"I got another few rounds in me. And it works. Trust me."

At least he seemed to give it a few moments' thought before he gave a depleted, "No."

"You want to go get a coffee somewhere?"

He could feel Bucky's sigh under his hand. "You know what I want? I want to sit on your sofa and clear out your fucking inbox like usual. I want to hang out in the laundromat and watch the machine spin. And right now, I want you to shut the fuck up for five minutes."

Behind the sharp words was a plea, as if he wasn't sure how much longer he could keep himself together. Steve stepped back and cleared the doorway for him to get through.

As he fixed himself a coffee, he tried to process it all. Bucky was hunched in on himself on the sofa, the tension slowly bleeding out of him minute by minute. Had Stuart left him like that, too? No wonder Bucky had developed a regime of post-session distractions. This was different though. Those sessions had left Steve charged up with anger that he'd wanted an outlet to pound out of himself. With Bucky it was something extra, a bit of the same hesitance, the same fear of himself that Steve had observed in any situation that brought him into proximity with violence. He should have recognised the traces of it in Bucky before now.

"How long have you been doing this?" he asked, as gently as he could. "Since he started cancelling on me?"

A vaguely affirmative grunt came from behind him as he kept his attention on stirring his coffee.

"Do you like it?"

"About as much as you do, I'd say," came the drained sounding reply, followed by a long delay. "I thought it would get easier."

Steve knew that it didn't. He knew what helped, though, because Bucky had done it for him every Sunday for weeks on end. He got out his sketch book and went to sit at the opposite end of the sofa, quietly drawing while Bucky put his head down and worked. The pictures came easily to him, for once. He drew a long road narrowing out to a desert-flanked horizon, and a bike heading into the far distance. He flipped the page and drew Bucky, side-on, sitting on the back of the bike and clinging to the shadowy rider in front of him. It was good, sitting like this, together. It felt closer to normal the longer they sat.

"You want to put on some music?" he asked, when the silence had gotten too deep.

Bucky gave him a slow, assessing look before he shrugged and went to fish out his phone from his backpack in its customary place by the door. A few moments later, Steve's fancy speakers buzzed with a brass melody, its Charleston rhythms quickly broken up by harder, machine-gun rapid techno beats. Let's misbehave, sang a jaunty male vocal, and he saw Bucky pause, mid-stride, then continue back to his seat, looking somewhere between amused and resigned.

Hunting around in his mind for anything that could keep that lightness on his face, Steve had a moment of inspiration. The champagne from that disastrous night of the car crash was still lying on the bottom shelf of his refrigerator, perfectly chilled as he pulled it out and popped the cork.

As Steve pulled down two of the long-stemmed wine glasses Bucky himself had bought and carried them over, a wary expression met him.

"If you're seeing my clients, I guess we're partners now," Steve told him. "Might as well drink to it."

"Steve." Bucky's mouth gaped blankly for a moment. "I'm not – you can't bring me into your business. Why d'you gotta mix everything up? We were doing all right."

If Bucky didn't have the password for Steve's personal bank account, he had everything else. He'd made himself so indispensable to Steve's business that those few days without him had felt like living in a house with half the walls missing.

"You don't have to put your name on the lease. You're not going to be stuck here. But I can't keep calling you my employee when you're practically running the place."

Bucky glanced down at his glass, as if it might have some guidance to offer.

"Jesus. I didn't walk out of maximum security looking for a management role."

"Well you should. You can do anything you want."

"This is what I get for stealing your most important client? All right, have it your way."

He was actually looking flushed about the cheeks as he sank back into the sofa cushions, pulling his feet up and resting the laptop on his knees and making Steve warm with unguarded affection. The champagne went too easily down Steve's throat, lacking the heft and substance of the beer he was used to.

"Would you stop seeing him if I asked?" Steve said after a while.

Bucky spared him one swift glance. "No way in hell, buddy. He's no good for you. I'm telling you that as your HR manager now."

It might have been the influence of the Veuve Cliquot, but all of a sudden Steve didn't want to argue, and certainly didn't want to pull rank. Not when the alternative was resuming his seat and letting the sharp bubbles graze over his tongue while he listened to the bright beats of Bucky's music and the familiar tap of his fingers on the keyboard. It worked on him like magic, the relief of having the rift between them resolved, and the decadence of sucking back a $50 bottle of French champagne before midday. He found himself brimming with contentment, his gaze following the limber length of Bucky's body like a breadcrumb trail, from his loose bun down to his bare feet – and why in heaven's name was it so unbearably erotic every time he slipped off his shoes and tucked them under Steve's coffee table?"

"That look," Bucky said out of nowhere. "That's the look that kept giving me the wrong idea."

His eyes hadn't even left the screen, but there was a fond, amused twist to his mouth, so different from how prickly he'd been in the teeth of the fight he was referring back to.

"You didn't have the wrong idea."

"Yeah, I knew that."

When Steve had topped up both their glasses, he set the bottle on the floor and sat close enough to reach out. The sound of typing died away. He slid his palm over Bucky's bare foot and thumbed at his instep.

Bucky put the laptop aside at last.

"I got a whole day's work to make up," he informed Steve levelly. "But if you got no objection to fooling around on your dime, I sure as hell don't."

Steve kissed the dark blue denim over his bent knee. "Nope."

"Well then," Bucky said with that tone of willing indulgence that Steve had been missing so fiercely for too many days now.

He breathed out long and slow as Steve's palm ran down his inner thigh and closed over the vee of his jeans. When Steve squeezed, his knees tilted open in irresistible invitation. He squeezed and stroked Bucky through his jeans, taking his time – and it did take some time before he felt an answer of heat and resistance – and then he let his fingers follow the firming line of it as Bucky's breathing started to get nicely unsteady.

He was just thinking ahead, trying to see past the immediate jumble of emotion and longing and scope out the specific things they could do together with the whole day in front of them and no clients to knock on the door, when Bucky knocked Steve's hand away to yank open the front of his jeans and wrapped his fingers around his half-roused cock. He'd given it a couple of very firm tugs before Steve managed to get enough control of his lust-addled thoughts to object.

"No," he heard himself say. "Let me."

And he did, Bucky let him mould his fingers around his dick and grasp the blood-hot length of it, squeezing indulgently into its last lingering softness while his head filled with a dozen different things he wanted to do to next, with his hand. But before he could decide, Bucky's hand closed over his to force it into a tight, rough stroke that filled him out into hardness, and as it so often seemed to do with this man, all his ambitious plans disintegrated into the immediate momentum of blind lust. He stroked Bucky long and firm, as tight as he could without chafing.

"We could be here a long time if you can't think of a way to get me wet."

The look he shot Steve then – heavy-lidded, insinuating and full of provocation – was the one that had been driving Steve mad for months on end now, sending his thoughts into the bedroom every time. And now, for once, he didn't need to turn away and think about tax deductions. He shifted down onto the floor and tilted the head of Bucky's cock into his mouth. If Bucky didn't make a sound, the immediate tightening of all his muscles made the sofa leather give a very satisfying creak.

The reason Steve had stuck with this job in the early days, when there'd been more sex and almost no money, was that there was practically nothing he liked more than losing himself in someone else's body. His favourite sex act was always the one he was engaged in right now, and that had never been more true as he tongued at the head of Bucky's cock, feeling out the texture of it. There'd been enough time since his morning shower to give Steve something to taste, and he tasted good, stronger as Steve worked a bit of slickness out of him.

He'd been breathing heavy, letting out little helpless grunts of pleasure whenever Steve's lips clenched or twisted, for a few minutes when his fingers wriggled in to grasp the base of his cock that Steve wasn't quite reaching and cinch it tight. As if he'd been in charge of his own pleasure for so long he'd forgotten the rhythm of someone else taking care of him. There was no room for the rough strokes he seemed to want, so Steve pulled back and replaced his mouth with his hand. It was wet enough all around for Steve to give him the tight, rapid jerks that he'd wanted before, and he did, not holding back. For one electric moment, Bucky met his gaze, mouth easing open as he started to lose focus, brow clenching in an expression of agony that seduced all of Steve's instincts in a second. And then he melted back into the cushions, eyes falling half closed as if he was getting everything he needed at last.

Steve felt dizzy with desire for him, muddled in with the faint ache of all the ambitious fantasies he had that were not going to be fulfilled, certainly not today and maybe not ever.

Bucky gave a little grunted ah, and hitched his shirt up out of the way as came, hazily watching as Steve milked the last of it over his stomach.

He drank it in, the dishevelment of him, the flush under his skin, until Bucky swiped his hand over his face and sat up.

"Are we moving this to the bedroom now?" he asked, fixing Steve with an unflinching look and giving his shirt a meaningful tug.

"No," Steve said, hungry for anything he could get that departed from the routines they'd gotten into. "Right here is good enough for me."

"You wanna close some blinds then?"

So far they'd been shielded enough by the back of the sofa, but Steve had to agree that it didn't give them much room to manoeuvre. When the blinds were shut, Steve shucked his jeans where he stood, and stripped off his shirt as he came back, dropping it over the arm of the sofa. Looking up from where he was wiping himself clean, Bucky's eyes widened and tracked down his naked body in stunned, drunk looking jerks.

Bucky cleared his throat. "Yeah," he said, parched sounding. "Bring all that over here."

His touch was sure as it skimmed over Steve's chest, detouring only slightly before he closed around his target and started to stroke lightly. Steve sighed, melting back into the cushions and let him have his way for a moment before he dislodged his grip to raise his hand. The muscles in Bucky's palm twitched and trembled as Steve licked his skin into the slickness he wanted, and his dumbstruck expression in its wake filled Steve's mind with possibilities for another time.

"Take it slow," Steve told him as he wrapped his fingers back in place. "And –" The first long stroke muddled his words into a groan. "– you can keep it loose, use your fingers a little." Bucky switched to a teasing graze of fingertips that had Steve's dick jerking in his grasp and his hips chasing the touch, and kept that up until he'd worked the first bead of precome out of him.

"That's good," Steve managed to get out as Bucky thumbed the moisture across the head, taking a surer, tighter grip. "So good, Bucky."

After that was a long stretch of nothing but the sound of their breathing, wet and heavy, as they watched Bucky work the flushed and glistening length of him. The sure grasp of Bucky's long fingers filled him with tenderness, thinking of all the times he'd been captivated by those fingers capably taking care of everyday tasks, not quite the same way they were taking care of Steve just now. He reached out to trace Bucky's cheekbone, then his parted lips. And then, with one glimmering glance Steve's way, he shifted onto the floor and took Steve in his mouth.

It was all over so quickly after that. The erotic blast of it went off through Steve's body like a bomb. The sweep of his hair, so lush and clean even in its tie; the soft shadow of his half-closed lashes. And the way he was sucking in the same patient rhythm as his hand had used, fitting himself perfectly to Steve's preferences like he'd been doing since the day he walked through the door. The beauty of him overwhelmed Steve's senses as he moved over Steve's lap, making soft suckling sounds in his mouth, in his throat as he started to go deeper. And that was – Jesus, it was embarrassing how quick Steve went off once he started to suck in earnest.

With his eyes squeezed tight against the pleasure of it, he missed the sight of Bucky swallowing him down, but there was a moment afterwards, when Bucky held his softening cock in his mouth before he pulled off, and that, Steve knew, was going to be coming back in his fantasies until the end of time.

"And now," Bucky said a bit later, but gently, "at least one of us has work to do today."

It sure as hell wasn't Steve. He curled sideways into the sofa cushions and felt as if he was floating on them like clouds. Bucky laughed and threw a blanket at him. Everything was back as it should be, and he was going to work harder than ever at keeping it that way.

Chapter Text

Despite Steve's dire predictions, the open day went okay. More than okay. The rooms and corridors that normally crackled with nervous tension were filled with guests in jeans, laughing and nudging each other and sipping sodas as they indulged their curiosity. Steve had a crowd of more than fifty spectators in his session, liberally dosed with encouragement from the bar, and plenty of those watched, rapt, from the first knot to the last.

It was only toward the end, when Ricky was securely attached to the ceiling hooks and Steve stood back to let his serene state of helplessness speak for itself, that he saw Bucky had slipped in to stand at the back of the room. If he stayed, observing with folded arms as Steve slowly set his model free, and through most of the enthusiastic Q&A session that followed, Steve did his best not to let it distract him. When the sensible questions about first aid and aftercare sharpened into a flirtatiously personal angle, he cut them off and wound up.

"You need something stronger?" Bucky asked him afterwards, handing over a soda water, as Steve stilled the thumb that was tapping out an urgent rhythm on the bar top.

The tension from the session was thrumming in him, unresolved. Every knot of it had been perfectly executed, and Ricky had come out of it in a beautifully calm headspace. But for Steve, the connection behind it, the relief that was the whole point of it, had been impossible to manifest in front of an idle crowd. And there was something dirty, something cheap about taking the intensely private thing he did into the public realm.

There were a half-dozen people in the building who could give him what he needed to vent the tension out of him. People he'd run scenes with, people he'd slept with, or who'd openly indicated it was on the table. But of course, he was he out here at the bar, watching Bucky make minute adjustments to the angle of the liquor bottles.

"You think they would have guessed you had me up against the bedroom wall yesterday?" Bucky said to him, low, and that was when it twigged, the little, nervous gestures replacing the unflappable ease he usually displayed in familiar territory. "Which part of that was the aftercare? Did I miss that bit?"

"You'd only have to ask, Bucky," Steve told him wearily. "If you wanted the whole box and dice, you'd only have to say the word."

His busy hands stilled. "All right."

It was hard to read that, since he was staring at the bar top. Steve put his glass down and waited, and made himself breathe. After what seemed like forever, Bucky looked up, his eyes clear and his jaw propping out.

"Is that you asking?" Steve said softly.

"I guess it is. Yeah."

He held Steve's gaze for a few long beats after that, steady and calm, as if he didn't have the slightest idea how those five words had completely reoriented Steve's priorities.

"Okay," Steve said in a voice that sounded punched out of him, while he tried not to eat Bucky alive with his eyes. "You're right then. I'm going to need something stronger."

**

Getting through his appointments that night tested Steve's professionalism to its limits, thinking of Bucky sitting quietly on the other side of the wall, anticipating everything that lay in front of them.

When he came back from showing his last client to the door, Bucky was standing by one of the windows, generous glass of whiskey in hand. He waited, leaning on the window sill, while Steve changed into a fresh t-shirt and washed his face.

He was holding himself carefully, even more so than usual, and Steve knew him well enough now to recognise that for the defence mechanism it was. The stiller he got, the greater the fear or agitation he was masking.

"Did you look at the checklist?" Steve asked.

"It's in your email. I checked everything you hadn't deleted already." He finished his glass and put it on the table. "Why did I get the short version? You going easy on me, Steve? You give your clients more options than that."

It was that same bruised tone that Steve had heard from him before, when they were arguing about Ricky, as if Bucky's competence were being unfairly questioned.

"That document isn't a shopping menu, even for someone who's paying to be here. It's about what I'm comfortable with, too."

Bucky blinked at that, not looking reassured. "Right."

He sounded so wounded about it that Steve wondered if he even knew that about himself, knew how wild and threatened he'd looked the first time Steve had laid hands on him, without any kind of restraints. Steve had spent the last day thinking very hard about how to do this right, because he knew in his heart that whatever the two of them managed to build together was going to be better and stronger if he could bring his whole self to it, instead of trying to split off the side he couldn't share. If he got this wrong, Bucky might not give him a third chance.

"I'm going to start simple, but that doesn't mean I'll go easy on you. All right?" A single, tight nod. "If you need to stop, if you need to take a moment, you speak up. From here on in, you're giving me control over what we do together, but you can take it back anytime. I need to hear you say you understand that."

There was a bit of a pause. "Yeah. Got it."

"Okay then, Bucky. Let's start with you taking off your jacket then."

Another thing Steve had thought hard about was what sort of tone Bucky might respond to. Most of his clients liked him to be firm. He used to see one guy who'd been in the army, who wanted to be barked at with the unquestioning aggression he was accustomed to. But he didn't think that was going to work with Bucky's unhappy history, all those years of being powerless in the face of authority. It was only a feeling that his best chance was to make this as much an extension of their everyday dynamic as he could.

"And your shirt. I need you to lose that too."

There was a pause, a surly look, and then Bucky did it, clutching the back of his shirt to drag it over his head. It hit Steve hard, then, the first curl of real animal lust in him. Bucky's upper half bare from the handsomely decorated left arm to the lightly clenched fist of his right, because Steve had asked for it. It was too much, for a moment. He closed the two steps between them and put his hand on Bucky's shoulder to centre himself.

The muscle under his palm was tight with tension. Elevated breathing behind the challenge in his gaze, instinctually resistant to Steve's presence in his space. But the moment of physical connection gave Steve what he needed.

He stepped back. "I think you're gonna find it hard your first time, to do what you're told, so I'm going to put some cuffs on you to make it easier. Is that all right, Bucky?"

There was that mulish delay again, then Bucky shrugged. "I guess I can handle that."

This was another part Steve had thought hard about. He went into the office and came back with three alternatives – a flimsy pair fringed with leopard print fluff that would dissolve the tension, utilitarian police-issue cuffs which Bucky's attention skated over quickly, and the third option, sleek metal clad in leather, that Bucky reached out to touch.

"That looks like it's gonna feel okay."

It made Steve's blood run hot, those words and the glimpse of willingness that lay under them.

"All right," he said, swallowing. "Turn around this way and let me put them on you."

When the latch mechanism had clicked closed, Bucky stood tight-lunged and very still. For a while, Steve stood behind him, fingers loose around one manacled wrist, letting him get comfortable with it. Then he ran his palm up one arm, over his shoulder blades, and down his spine, skimming tight muscle all the way.

He kissed Bucky's shoulder. "I've wanted to touch you this way for a long time. I used to watch you hauling kegs up the stairs and think about it." His nerves were sizzling with it all of a sudden, as he stroked up Bucky's flank, the raw physical desire he felt for Bucky's body, underlying the more nuanced emotions that had been building all these months. The compact strength of him made Steve's mouth dry, the defined ridges of muscle that were so often obscured by his clothes. "I'm going to make you feel so good."

"Jeez you're a talker," Bucky said, a sudden explosion of frustration that revealed how not okay he still was with all this. "For someone who wants this so bad, you're sure in no hurry to make it happen."

Taking a firm grip on the cuffs, Steve kissed him again, from his shoulder to the side of his neck, though he was twitching away from it by the end.

"How about I move it along then," he said, and hooked a finger in Bucky's jeans to tow him towards the bedroom.

By the time he'd shucked his shirt and pants and got Bucky straddling his thighs, braced with his knees in the bedclothes, he was no less tense. Touching and talking: Steve had two sure-fire ways to settle a spooked sub; he'd never needed a third.

"Hey," he said, brushing back a few loose strands of Bucky's hair. "There's nothing to fight. Just let it happen, let me give you what you need. You're lovely like this."

"You're so full of shit," Bucky said unhappily, not meeting his eyes.

He kissed Bucky's jaw, soft, only for him to tense up further and jerk minutely away from the touch. His cheeks were flushed now, brow screwed up in a frown. When Steve put his hands on Bucky's shoulders to steady him, squeezing gently, he let out a deep breath like he was trying to get himself under control.

"That's it." Steve leant in and kissed his mouth, lightly at first, then with intent, grazing over his lips. "Just give me a chance."

He lost track of himself for a few moments there, holding Bucky in place with a firm grip at the nape of his neck while he tasted the depths of his mouth, caught up in the heat of it, distantly hearing the low jangle of chain links. And Bucky was responding. At the same time as he was pulling away, he was making wrenching little groans of half-pleasure, right up until he twisted his head to the side and broke contact.

Steve just leant back, out of his space, and stroked his bottom lip with his thumb, thinking that kissing was one of the things they'd barely done at all, and Bucky had almost never been the one to start it. It was something Steve needed, though. It was important; it separated what they were doing from his paid services.

Bucky sucked his lip, breathing hard. "This is messed up."

He slid his hands back onto Bucky's shoulders and held him gently, but he still seemed coiled up, like he'd spring and flee the second the restraints came off him. It twisted him up worse the more it went on, the transmitted signals of Bucky's distress that all of his techniques were powerless to soothe. He'd thought – all right, he'd assumed there was trust there, after all these months. No one had ever seen his work as close-up as Bucky had, had been given so much opportunity to witness the care that he took, before and after, to give his partners what they needed. It seemed like that wasn't enough.

"Look this isn't a scene, not really. I hear you say no, I hear you say stop, then we stop. I take those off you. Hey. Bucky." He was starting to strain at his bonds, muscle rippling down his arms and across his chest. "Take a breath. You're safe. Bucky. We can stop any time you need." He leaned in to kiss Bucky's neck, his shoulder, saying, "It's okay. We're okay."

"No. I can't do this. Take them off."

It took a few seconds before Steve could respond, fumbling the key from the tie around his wrist and unlocking the cuffs by feel. The moment they were off, Bucky rolled off him, off the bed, and into the kitchen where he ran a glass of water, drank half of it, and leaned on the sink with his back still turned.

Steve let himself fall back onto the bed, stunned. He hadn't pushed anyone to end a scene in years, except once or twice with clients who'd specifically asked to have their boundaries tested. The sense of loss was heavier than he could explain, huge, the loss of everything he'd imagined. Tomorrow he'd pull himself together, and let go of his ambitious fantasies, and start to picture a more modest future for them. But right now, he was devastated, in a way he realised he'd been totally unprepared for.

"I'm sorry, Buck," he said hoarsely. "Are you okay? Talk to me. Please."

"You're doing this all wrong," Bucky said angrily. "You got no idea how anything works outside your little bubble of games and secret words and dress up costumes."

Steve winced like he'd been struck, feeling raw everywhere, an unfamiliar tightness at the top of his throat that would turn into tears if he didn't get a hold of himself. He'd always known they mightn't be able to make it work, this side of his sexuality. He never meant to let his dreams get so far out of hand. He should have known better – Christ, he was supposed to be the one in control here.

"I guess you're right, one way of looking at it. I put a pair of cuffs on someone most days of the week. They don't seem like that big a deal to me."

Bucky made an inarticulate sound of frustration. "I really wanna punch you in the face sometimes, Steve. I really –"

He was turning around at last as Steve sat up. "This is something you want, right?" he demanded.

"I already said that."

"And it's not about the kink really. Is it? There's nothing magic about the leather and the chains."

Steve didn't know how to answer that one, because it wasn't the materials themselves, but what they accomplished was kind of essential.

"Oh come on. You think I don't know what you're asking me for? I don't even know if I've got it in me. If all you want is to put your dick in me while I'm wearing your chains on my wrists then hallelujah, let's get back on that bed and give you what you want. Is that what happens next, Steve?"

Steve rubbed his eyes and made himself breathe deep. "No. It's not about the cuffs. Not that way."

"Right. You want to tell me what it is you want then?"

It wasn't something he had to articulate very often, or could have put his finger on, except that right now his chest was full of it.

"All I want is … some kind of connection. A little tenderness. Trust. I'm not trying to take something away from you. I want to give it back to you too."

"And this thing that's so important to you. You want to make it something you have to tie me up to get? That's what I'm asking."

Steve just opened his mouth and closed it again, feeling helpless.

Bucky went on as if he'd answered. "I mean, I'm the last person to know what a healthy relationship looks like – especially between a professional fetish practitioner and his fucking ex-con errand boy – but this does not feel right to me."

He was intensely articulate, glowering under his dark brows, his body all braced for conflict, letting his temper loose in a way he practically never did, and Steve was miserably torn between regret and resurgent, misplaced desire. Of all the ways he'd wanted Bucky, this one hurt the worst.

"I got it wrong. I'm sorry – you have to believe me. I thought you were on board with it. I guess I wanted it so bad I projected that onto you. I'm – I've got no more answers, Bucky. Maybe you could do some of the work here. Let me know what's going on in your head."

"I could do? I could - Jesus you are such high maintenance." He illustrated that with an exasperated clench of his fist. "There's no ever-loving end to what you need. We could have been fucking against the shelves in the cellar room on day one – you could have gotten this out of your system like that – but no, you gotta have a foundation first, you gotta build a relationship, you gotta respect your boundaries as an employer, you gotta not take advantage, you gotta have trust and consent and now you gotta have this too. I'm so fucking tired of trying to put myself in the right place for you to have me the way you want."

It was like being in the ring, reeling under those the successive blows of frustration, anger, accusation and then, right at the end, that disorientating little tap of vulnerability. Steve looked at him blankly through the long silence.

"I need a drink."

"Yeah well you have one because I'm not done yet," Bucky shot back, not losing any of his momentum.

With a gesture of surrender, Steve hauled himself up to get down the scotch bottle. For all his angry words, Bucky was breathing easier than he'd been back on the bed, no longer pulling away from Steve's presence in his space.

"Here's the thing, Steve," he said, shaking his head at the offered glass. "I know you're in this with your heart, I know that. You're maybe the most genuine guy I know. But what you're asking – if what you want is connection, then you've got a queue of eager subs lining up to get in your door and give that to you – and I know because I'm the one who reads all the emails you don't open."

"They're clients. It's not the same thing."

He was watching Steve closely as he gulped his drink.

"What I think they are is missions. Every last one of them. You want to get them all to a better place. And how do you do that? You tie them up, and you talk to them sweet, you talk to them mean. How's it different really?"

"It's different!" Jesus, when was he going to get his self-control back? He felt raw and vulnerable. He'd forgotten it could hurt this bad, feeling this way about someone, like his heart was outside the protection of his ribs. "It's different because at the end of a session, I take their money and all I feel is … well, satisfied, I guess. And with you, every time you walk out that door I feel like I lose something."

At last, Bucky seemed to slump a little, like the gale of his anger was blowing itself out.

"All right," he said, softer than the other times. "All right, so this is something worth working on. Right? I'll think of something."

There were – if Steve's head weren't so mixed up with emotion right now, he'd have something to say to that, because he was the one with all the experience here. He was the one who should be finding a way forward. But there was only room for one thought in his mind.

"Will you stay here?" he asked. "While you're thinking?"

Bucky's expression did a complicated thing that was equal parts irritated and soft. "Give me those."

When he picked them up from the bed, Bucky took the cuffs from him and walked them back to the office. Steve put the bottle away and gulped water from the tap until he'd washed out the taste of it, and then he stepped out of the last of his clothes and poured himself straight into bed, listening to the faint sounds of activity from the other end of the apartment and holding his breath every time something sounded like the door.

But not too long later, Bucky was back in the room, giving him an evaluating look before he bent down to start picking the discarded clothes up off the floor, shaking them out with a crack and folding them intently, even though this side of the bedroom door had never been in his job description before.

"You know I want you, right?" he said, gruffly, with a darted glance Steve's way, as he set the clothes in a pile on the chair. "It's the – the power games I've got issues with. That's all."

Steve let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding. "I think I really needed to hear you say that."

Bucky nodded once, in the direction of the neat pile of clothes, as if that put an end to it.

"You're not even going to clean your teeth?" Bucky asked, frowning, when he was sitting down to get his jeans off. Steve just watched him get himself ready for bed like they did this every night, giddy with relief.

"I've just been told I'm too high-maintenance." He didn't leave enough of a gap for Bucky's indignant reply. "And in any case, I'm planning on getting my mouth dirty the moment the light goes out."

"Well," Bucky said as he switched off the lamp. "That's more like it."

Chapter Text

Steve woke up with one arm mashed awkwardly under him, one cold foot hanging off the bed, a bit cramped, poorly slept, and rapturously happy, because the shape that his body had sub-consciously moulded itself around, leaving a careful buffer even in sleep, was Bucky, patient, present, quietly industrious, and, most importantly, here in his bed. He rolled a bit closer, still nowhere near touching, as he blinked his eyes open.

Bucky was leaning up on one elbow, scrolling through a page on his phone with that awkward slide of his pointer finger that betrayed lingering mistrust. The low angle highlighted the whiskers shading the lower half of his face, darkest over his chin and his upper lip, and the smudges of oil flanking his nose, the little shadowed dip beneath the swell of his lower lip that gave him the impression of pouting, and the glassy, refractive depth of his irises. His dark lashes twitched as he read. Steve must have seen him from hundreds of angles over the months they'd shared this workspace. This one was completely new. He let a few breaths go by just watching this version of Bucky, unguarded and still, this private view of him that no one but Steve got to see, that he wanted to have every day.

Between one blink and the next, he felt the last tension leave him. It was going to be okay. What he'd thought was a hard choice, one that would cost him to make, was in the past now. It didn't matter whether he could reverse the failures of last night and find a way to make a power exchange dynamic work for them. He'd already chosen Bucky, either way.

"Reading anything good?" he mumbled.

Bucky glanced up at him – the same steady, undaunted look he knew from the workplace.

"A bit of professional research for you, actually."

He turned the phone around and held it where Steve could see. Above a picture of a lavishly full bubble bath, the page header read "Seven ideas for aftercare".

"What did you have in mind?" Bucky asked. "If it hadn't all gone off the rails last night."

Steve stopped himself from saying that he'd planned to take it so easy that he hadn't even thought of it as qualifying for anything more than a few soft words and as much skin contact as he could get away with. "Well, you know what I do for my clients. It's usually a cup of tea and a chat and that fluffy blanket on the sofa. A bit of hugging if they're shaken."

"And if I'd really let you tear me up? What then?"

Was this a test – did he want to assess whether he could trust Steve to know his stuff?

"Welfare check-in first – just to make sure you weren't in a bad way. Then physical care straight after – I would have done that before we got in bed. I'd look for anywhere you were bruised or chafed, dress any skin breaks, if we'd gone that far. Medicated cream for the places I worked hardest. And after–"

"That sounds like a good start," Bucky cut in. "My shoulders are pretty tight from those handcuffs."

As he rolled them with a wince, Steve watched him dumbly for a few beats, thinking he'd barely cleared five minutes in those restraints. Then he picked up something in the directness of Bucky's gaze, that said he knew the request was odd, and didn't care.

From the drawers by the bed, Steve fished out a bottle of basic moisturiser that ran all right when he popped the plug of crust out and squeezed it into his palm.

"This all right? How about we work up to the heavy duty stuff."

With a nod, Bucky shifted to the edge of the bed, crawling past him in an up-close display of fitted black underwear and bare muscle that made his palms tingle. He was breathing slow when Steve knelt up behind him, slower still when Steve started to touch him, flat over his shoulder blades then up to straddle his neck, and out over the dense muscle of his biceps.

For a second, Steve had to squeeze his eyes shut against the pull of lust in his groin, always close to the surface this sleepy time of morning. It was almost too much, the permission of it, the warmth of Bucky's skin, the flex of it responding to his touch.

"Give me that."

When he reached, Bucky raised his wrist and let Steve take the hair band from it, let him finger-comb his hair back off his forehead and temples, cinching the heavy bulk of it into his grasp and then fastening a makeshift bun to keep it out of the way. Steve heard the deep breath he took afterwards, the shaky exhale. He pushed gently at Bucky's shoulder to get him leaning forward and squeezed a line of cream down his spine, smearing it over the strong planes of his back and digging his thumbs into the tightest knots in the muscle. Bucky propped his elbows on his knees and let him, and kept on letting him until his skin was shiny and soft from his neck to the band of his underwear and the perpetually battle-ready line of his shoulders was even starting to droop just a little.

"This okay, Bucky?" he asked once he was fairly sure of the answer.

"It's really fucking weird," Bucky ground out. "And good. Good too."

He ran his right hand up Bucky's spine, digging his thumb into the tight muscle all the way, and closed his fingers around the side of Bucky's neck, where he could feel the speed of his pulse, fast where it should have been languid. "You need me to stop?"

"Did I say that?"

"Just checking in."

"I don't need check-ins. I don't want one of your safe words. If I want you to stop, you'll know it, okay?"

Steve could think of a few objections to that, starting with how last night ended up. But in the end, there was practically no rule he wouldn't bend or break if Bucky asked him to.

"If you need that. But it's a bit of a thing for me. Hearing you tell me what you want. So I'd like that to be something we work on."

Bucky sighed.

"Lean into it a bit more then. I can take more pressure. I got twelve years of sleeping on a shitty foam mattress to work out of those muscles."

The strain of hard work was barely starting to make itself felt in Steve's hands by the time Bucky began to twitch under his touch, then jerk away.

"Is breakfast in bed part of the package?" Bucky asked. "Food was number three on that list."

"Sure," Steve said, adjusting as fast as he could. "There's eggs and frozen hash browns – I'm all out of bacon."

"You gonna run me one of those bubble baths while you're making it?"

Steve found himself grinning. "What do you think?"

"I think you should get a bath put in. May as well make the place perfect. Lucky for you, your shower and I go way back."

Breakfast was lukewarm by the time he got out, but he was pink-cheeked and loose at the table while they ate, wrapped in Steve's robe, the messy bun Steve had put in his hair looking damp with steam. When they'd finished up and moved to the sofa, Bucky immediately draped himself over the arm and the fluffy blanket folded over it, still limp as a noodle, while Steve spent a moment wallowing in the clean fragrance of him, something lightly herby and probably very ordinary from Steve's bathroom that, on Bucky's warm skin, smelled good enough to eat.

It was quiet between them. All the many silences since waking had felt healthy, though. As if the conflict from last night had left cracks in their relationship that they were both taking elaborate care not to deepen. The fact that they were both here, being delicate with each other, the fact they both thought it was worth being delicate about, that said something too.

Bucky raised his head. "You want me to put something on to watch?"

"Not really," Steve told him, and went to fiddle with his audio system until he found a station that was doing interviews and commentary for the afternoon game, and turned it down soft enough for easy background hum. Everything felt so comfortable and good, then, that he couldn't make himself take the far end of the sofa. He sat down beside where Bucky's feet were curled up, and reached out to curl his hand around Bucky's ankle. Soon enough, he couldn't help it, his thumb started to stroke over the bony spur, the dip behind it where the skin had got cool now.

"That's all there is to it, huh?" Bucky said after a while. "It sounded like a bigger deal. More like a recipe."

It took a few beats for Steve to catch up.

"It's flexible. I try different things with different people. Some people like a sugar hit – I think there's fudge left in the cupboard if that's what works for you. Or a chat. A good session can open a person up and leave them wanting to say things they can't say at other times. Sometimes it goes the other way, the talking. If we'd taken it harder, I'd be telling you how well you did, how lucky I am. If I thought you needed to hear it."

He paused to let Bucky say that soft praise was yet another ingredient in the D&S recipe he had no need for. But there was only another one of those silences.

"Okay," he said, curling his fingers over the top of Bucky's foot and squeezing lightly, letting himself sink into the rhythm of it. "You've been so good, this whole morning. Thanks for sticking it out. I like having you here. I mean, you're here a lot, and I liked it before, but this … I like you feeling as if you belong." He spent half a second weighing up how much it was wise to say, and decided to go with his gut. "I'd like it if you were here more."

He let himself think about that rental place of Bucky's, with its thin walls and newspapered windows and dripping roof, no room for anything more than a mattress, table and fridge inside, and how deeply he hated picturing Bucky there, by himself.

"How much more?"

The question jolted him – he had to translate a general gut feeling into a measure of time. "As much as you can stand." The silence was an answer of its own, encouraging beyond Steve's wildest dreams, so he let himself go on. "You could be here all the time. Let me take care of you."

There was a bitter edge to Bucky's laugh. Wounded, Steve bit out, "What, you're too tough for that, are you?"

Bucky just rolled onto his back, pulling his knees up so the arches of his feet rested on Steve's thigh. "Let me tell you about the last time someone wanted to take care of me." He let a few moments go by. "Okay. It took me about three days into my sentence to get so bored I honestly started to think I'd be better off dead. There were only two ways to take your mind off it, and I didn't have the connections for drugs, so I spent a lot of time fucking. There was one fella in particular, kind of steady, bit of a loner, didn't have a lot to say, which suited me just fine back then. And it made a difference to walk into the yard and know that one fucking person in that place was glad to see me. It wasn't exclusive, we never had any kind of conversation about it, but the other offers just vanished into thin air. No one messed with me. They must have wanted to – I know that now – this jerk of a kid flashing his cocky grin around and counting down the days to eighteen months. Some of the gang crew had got in my face at the beginning, the youngest kids who had something to prove, but they never did it twice."

Before Steve could process his complicated reactions to that – equal parts jealousy and protectiveness – Bucky went on.

"He was a bent cop, I found out later. Could have found out sooner if I'd bothered to ask, but I thought I was a pretty good judge of character, and I had a philosophy then, Steve. I had a philosophy that said as long as I didn't stop trusting people, I wouldn't be one of them. I could come out the other side same as I went in."

"What did he do to you?" Steve asked hotly.

"Nothing. Not a damn thing. He got moved. I never knew why, but it was the kind of thing the cops used to do to put pressure on someone they wanted to turn for them – shift them to a worse place, away from their buddies. He was no big shot, but he knew enough dirt about the right people, so when he threatened someone, they listened. They remembered too. When he was gone, I found out pretty quick how many enemies he'd made for me, trying to keep me safe."

As much as he wanted not to hear it, Steve couldn't stop listening.

"I had no fucking place to go after that. That was when I started building myself up, thirteen months too late. I was sharing a cell with a kid who was friendly with one of the gangs. When I realised I had no other options, I joined up, got the ink on real quick, quicker than usual. That's when I found out that none of it was free. A kid from a solid family like mine, they thought I'd have an easier time getting visitors to bring in contraband for me. I never found out whether that was true, because I turned them down. And that – you already know about that. It got me another nine years and nearly got me wiped out. So all I've got to say, Steve, is that every shitty little thing comes with strings on, and they're strings you can't see until it's too fucking late."

Perhaps Steve should have been angry, to put his heart out there only to be compared with that kind of cruelty. Instead, all he could think about was how many layers of hard, callused cynicism he had to get through, to build some sort of trust between them.

"See any strings here, Bucky?" He swept his free hand side to side, as if demonstrating. "Any time over the six months you've been here? You've got my door keys and nearly all my passwords. And all I know for sure about you is your date of birth and your social security number."

"Boy, you got a nerve." Bucky was half laughing when he said it though. "No strings? You are literally sitting there and waiting to see if I'll let you tie me up again."

Steve took a deep breath. "I don't need you to give me that. And if you don't like it, I don't want you to either."

"Yeah I know." Instead of relief, there was something terribly weary in the way he said it. "I can leave that to your BDSM fanclub. Then all I have to do is keep on inviting you to bend me over the nearest piece of furniture often enough to keep you interested. Problem solved."

Steve still couldn't put his finger on what the melancholy note in Bucky's voice meant. He sat there, thinking about how he could counter it when he'd already offered the biggest concession he thought he had in him, and came up with nothing.

Bucky rolled to his feet all of a sudden. "I want some music."

He collected his phone and, a few moments later, those familiar up-tempo beats pulsed through the room. Bucky stayed hunched over for a while, like his music required some supervision, before he gave one of those nods that seemed to indicate the conclusion of an internal conversation and left it alone.

Grabbing a cushion from the far end of the sofa, he tossed it down by Steve's thigh, and a few seconds later his head was on it, reversing the position he'd left. It looked too much like an invitation to ignore. Steve reached out stroke Bucky's hair with his fingertips, combing escaped strands back towards his bun. The first song finished, then the second.

"Why isn't this enough?" Bucky's eyes were closed, but his words were careful and deliberate. "Tell me. What do you get out of doing this with my hands tied?"

It occurred to Steve that that when he'd talked about this before, it had always been with people who were sold on the underlying dynamic already and just wanted to finesse their technique. Clients came to his business knowing what they wanted him to give them, even the ones who hadn't learned the terminology for it yet. He'd never really had to drill down into the essence of it before.

"Connection," was the best he could reply.

Bucky let a couple of seconds go by. "You said that before. But we're already fucking. You can't get more connected than that – I mean, literally. What does it give you, doing that when I'm tied up? Why do you like it better when I can't say no? You already write my paychecks. I don't understand what you need to prove."

Steve had to bite back the defensive reply he'd drawn breath to give. It was a fair question, and Bucky was asking it genuinely. But it was hard – he found himself struggling to capture in words the complicated chemistry of what he did, his personal take on dominance, with all its contradictions.

He closed his eyes for focus. "If what I do makes you feel small, then I'm doing it wrong. For me, when you let me take control, you're everything, you're the only thing that matters. I know it doesn't look that way, but that's how it is for me. The worst thing I can think of is if I made you do something you really didn't want. When it sparks, Bucky, all I'm doing is exactly what you want. And you're trusting me to figure out what that is and give it to you, without you having to ask. Asking is hard, for a lot of people. I want to find out what you like, so I can give it to you. I want us both to find out. And – okay, maybe I do want to push you a little. But I'll never put you in a position where you can't stop me if it goes too far. That first time I put my hands on you, at the club, I --"

"I hated that. I wanted to stand up and hit you in the face." Bucky seemed to revive at that, glancing up.

"I know you did. Why? Tell me what you hated about it."

Bucky looked lost for a while. "Everything?"

"I think there was something you wanted there, under the anger. I think it had been too long since anyone touched you the right way. Maybe there are things you don't even know you want, if you give it a chance. If you can trust me enough to try."

He waited out the long silence. Then Bucky pushed himself up on his elbow to look him in the eye.

"You are such a dreamer, Steve. You gotta be prepared for disappointment. It could be the things you're imagining about me are just plain wrong. I had a lot of years in there, and I got pretty good at keeping a safe distance from people. Could be the things you want, I just don't got in me anymore."

Steve thought about that first day, how he'd stood out on the doorstep, choking on nerves, with his hands jammed in his pockets as if every last part of himself needed shielding from the threats he anticipated.

"Let's both be prepared. For anything."

Bucky just shook his head, exasperated to the point of laughter. "All right." His expression cleared, opening right up. "How about we do that right now then."

It took a few moments for Steve's thoughts to unscramble. "Sure."

Since the cuffs had made him panic, Steve took the cord from his robe and used it to fasten Bucky's wrists to the headboard of his bed. With a couple of loose knots, he put the ends in Bucky's hands.

"Think you can hold that with my mouth all over you?"

Bucky looked slightly stunned. "Probably not."

"Try for me."

He shifted onto his hands and knees, placing himself with care to cage Bucky in without putting any weight on him. Apart from that flimsy restraint, it was perhaps the most innocent thing he'd ever done with someone in this bed. Bucky still had the robe on, and a pair of briefs under it, and Steve was fully dressed. Even so, the potential of it crackled in Steve's skin, the pull of attraction between their bodies. When he put his hand on Bucky's chest, the muscle tightened and his fingers tugged hard on their binding. He darted a swift kiss into the dip in Bucky's chin, earning a surprised laugh.

"This is so dumb," Bucky said, breathy with pent-up tension and laughter. "Why do it at all if it's so easy to break? Come on."

Steve kissed his throat while he was distracted, lingering this time, working his way down until he could feel the pulse kick up under his mouth, and kept on descending down the gap in the robe. Bucky was definitely breathing hard now. It didn't feel like panic. Steve ran his tongue up Bucky's breastbone, taking his sweet time.

Then he gripped Bucky's hips with his knees for balance and leaned up to put one more loose knot in the cord.

Bucky laughed again. "Jesus. Do it properly or give it up. Pull it tighter."

The talking was good, too. Complaining about little things was one way to let Steve know he was okay.

"No." He stroked Bucky's cheekbone with his thumb. "I'm not putting you in anything you can't get yourself out of."

"I'm not going to freak out again." Bucky's gaze was steady and earnest, even if it looked to be taking some effort. "And at any rate, I can handle it. I've been through worse."

"Being honest, Buck? It shook me up last night. You were – you gotta understand, it cuts me up to see you losing it. Even worse when I'm the one who made it happen."

Bucky's incredulous expression replied for him, asking why the hell Steve was so keen to keep tying him up then. And that, in the end, was what finally brought the answer to Steve's lips. Frowning, he remembered a moment almost as vivid in his memory now as it had been when it happened, tugging out of nowhere on all his most primal instincts.

"The first time I saw you – I mean, really saw you. You were letting a stranger put his hands all over you. And you hated it so bad you couldn't think of anything except counting down the seconds until you could get away. But you got yourself under control and you let it keep on happening. And I looked at you and I thought that's someone who's had to be strong for a long time. I thought, I want see what that strength looks like when it's not under pressure."

He couldn't help it then – he kissed his way down Bucky's jaw, bristle dragging tenderly over his lips, until he reached the pulse point tucked under the hinge of it and, since Bucky's head had subtly tilted to make space for it, he kept at it, blindly kissing the smooth skin beneath his ear and thinking how they'd been fucking for weeks now and he'd never kissed Bucky quite like this, right inside his defences.

"That's all I want, Bucky," he said, relief washing over him as he managed to find the words for it at last. "I want to make a space where it's safe for you to let your guard down. All you have to do is stop fighting. Just put yourself in my hands and let me be good to you."

He moved lightly down Bucky's throat. Though their bodies barely touched, there was that electricity again, the sheer possibility of having all that latent muscle underneath him, waiting.

By the time he stopped with his forehead against the notch of Bucky's collarbone, he was breathing hard.

"Jesus, listen to you," Bucky said in a hush, all trace of amusement gone.

"This is what you do to me." Steve kissed his skin fiercely, feeling drunk on it. "It's all you."

After a few moments indulging in it, he shook his head to clear it, and knew with a sudden flare of hunger exactly what he wanted next. Shifting to the side, he propped his head up on his elbow and, drawing out the leisure of it, pulled Bucky's robe open. The faint, surprised shudder quickly stilled. He reached out to push the opposite side open too, letting his fingers drag on the return journey and drinking in every inch of bare flesh he'd never had the chance to properly appreciate before. Bucky's abdominals were gently delineated under his skin, and since there was nothing to stop him, Steve reached out to trace their outline with a fingertip, producing another responsive shiver. When he reached the band of Bucky's briefs, he slipped under it and pulled them down enough that the flush and stirring of his dick was on display. He pushed the robe up Bucky's arms, too, baring a short length of those powerful biceps so he could trace his finger up the seam between the muscles on the underside.

He looked his fill then, examined the whole length of Bucky's body, from the whitened flesh where he was clutching the robe cord bindings like a lifeline, past the mouth-watering contours of his chest, the plump line of his dick resting on top of his thigh, down to the impatient flex and curl of his toes. From close up, he could feel how his respiratory system had kicked up in response to the attention; his breathing stopped entirely when Steve lazily bent down to suck one nipple into his mouth, rubbing his tongue over the aroused muscle as it responded to his touch. He pulled off, wet and obvious, and did it again. Bucky's eyes were closed, lips parted, more beautiful than ever.

"Anything you want to ask for, Bucky?" he murmured.

Bucky shook his head, a desperately jerky gesture that clearly meant anything but no.

Steve shifted down so he could kiss a line along the inside of Bucky's hip bone. "You tried edging before?"

Bucky sounded harried, probably because Steve's kisses were inching across and down his belly. "How would I know?"

"So that's where I get you right up to the line, and you tell me when we get there, and we ease off."

"Sounds like a pointless waste of time to me," Bucky said, but he should have known better than to lie to the man a breath away from sucking his dick, because there was an unmistakable throb of interest there. Steve kissed it, just to replicate the helpless twitch and, this time, the grind of hips that accompanied it.

The moisturiser was still there from the morning's massage, and the idea of thinking of this every time he looked at it lit a fire in him. He got his palm thickly coated with it, and knelt over Bucky's thighs.

"I'm just going to make you sweat a little. All for me. Get you there nice and slow."

Bucky was still only half roused when Steve took him in hand, and that gave him a thrill down to the soles of his feet, the vulnerable softness that vanished so quickly under the sure grip of his fingertips. He'd barely got the width of his palm wrapped around him when Bucky's thighs started to flex, squirming.

"You like that?" Steve murmured.

"It's fucking terrible."

With one bright glare, Bucky screwed his eyes shut, and from there on in he did nothing but take it, everything that Steve wanted to do to him. It took a tight grip that must be bordering on pain to get him to let out a suppressed grunt of pleasure, one deep line of intense focus pulled between his brows. Steve's thumb rubbing over his slit tensed his whole body up, like he didn't know what to do with all the sensation, and the longer Steve did it, the wetter he got. But best of all, Steve liked the long, loose strokes that stopped just short of what he needed, so that his hips started to chase the contact, pleading for more and sending waves of tension through his muscles, that Steve watched, hungry down to the core.

Bucky let him play for a long time, breathing heavy and biting down on the reactions Steve worked so hard to tease out of him, until his chest was sheened with sweat and his dick dark with blood and glistening in Steve's grasp.

"Steve--"

He only had to say it once, on a hoarse, pleading note, the desperate clench of his thighs rocking Steve like a wave, and Steve was giving it to him tight and fast, both hands pulling his orgasm out of him as he groaned and tugged against his restraints, keeping the cord wound tight in his fingers until the tips of them were dark.

"Holy shit," Steve heard himself say, so dizzy with wanting him that every syllable was a struggle. "Bucky."

The thrill of it was so heady in his veins that it took him about a second to pull himself out of his pants, stroking himself quick and deep.

"What happened to this edging thing?" Bucky murmured, eyes slitted sleepily but looking sly.

Grinding his teeth, Steve slowed it up.

"Yeah?" he asked. "You want me to make it last?"

Bucky gave him a chastising look as he loosened the tangled restraints on his wrists without quite freeing himself.

"What? Is this okay? I want to hear you say it."

Rolling his shoulders one at a time, Bucky replied, "You know, I managed to have sex in a prison for a long time without having one single conversation about consent. And it turned out okay." He amended, "Mostly."

Steve's scowl was half frustrated arousal and half anger, trying to shut out all thought of what Bucky might have done in that place. He had to pick up his pace to keep from flagging.

"All right," Bucky was saying, pitching his voice low. "You want to hear how hot you look jacking off like that? You want to know how many times I wondered about the shape of your dick – how hard you'd have to get before I could feel it through your jeans."

The words hit Steve harder than a physical touch. With a low moan, he doubled his pace, edging be damned. He could feel it coming to the surface already, one of those huge, wracking orgasms that trembled right down to his fingertips, almost too intense to bear.

"You want me to tell you that I want your load on me so bad I can taste it?"

Like that, it was all over, pouring out of him, pleasure squeezing his eyes closed so he couldn't even see Bucky's reaction. The first thing he hazily saw, when the grip of it started to release him, was Bucky dragging one purposeful finger across his stomach and putting it in his mouth. His balls gave one aching, final clench at that, wringing out the very last drop he had in him, and then he crumpled forward, scraping a parched, feeble kiss across Bucky's jaw as he gave himself up.

Gradually he came back to himself, feeling the press of their chests with each breath.

"Yeah, all right," Bucky said, husky, right next to his ear, muscles shifting as he shook his other hand free. "Some of that I get the point of."

Chapter Text

"So it was better this time?" Steve asked that afternoon when Bucky was getting dressed in yesterday's clothes and starting to gather his things together, the faint pink chafing from the robe cord long since vanished from his wrists.

"Better than what?" Bucky replied. "My standards aren't all that high."

But he was smiling as he unplugged his phone from Steve's charger and tucked it in his back pocket.

"Listen," Steve said, trying hard to make it sound casual. "I was thinking I might make a big lot of chili. Sam gave me a recipe." His tiny pantry probably held at least one of the ingredients, if he dug right to the back. "So if you wanted to – It's been a busy week, I guess you don't have much food at your place just now. You could come back. I'll drive you to work in the morning."

Bucky paused with one arm in his jacket. "Is that what it sounds like? After -- everything? You're asking me to have dinner?"

Steve's first thought was all those double portions of steak, and the little treats like cashew nuts and smoked salmon and jars of marinated feta that he'd been slipping into his shopping basket for months, imagining the things he would have missed most, and the fact that he'd bought that over-priced slow cooker at all. A lot of small things he maybe should have been more obvious about. His second thought was that honesty had been working pretty well for them this last day.

"I might be asking a bit more than that. But yeah. Let's start with dinner."

Suddenly, Bucky was buttoning his jacket as if the task required a hundred percent of his attention. Steve felt more at a loss than ever.

"So I'm making chili. Call me if you want me to come pick you up."

Bucky paused by the door, backpack dangling from one hand. "What are you doing right now?" he asked, reaching out for the handle. "I could use a lift home."

**

Bucky's one-room flat was every bit as mildewed as it had looked, a flimsy build that had been done on the cheap and left to malinger on emergency maintenance for the last two decades at least. The drains smelled and the sink was missing one faucet and the single power socket had every appliance in the place drawing from its twin plugs. The improvised milk crate shelves and the tall jars of pickles and all of Bucky's determined, careful touches were powerless to dispel the air of neglect. But the foam mattress was everything they needed to take each other apart one more time, nice and slow, with early evening sunlight putting a dreamy glow in the photos in the newspaper over the windows.

**

Steve's gym schedule was too early for Bucky's club shift, really. But when Steve left him at a diner to fill in the wait, he looked gently bemused to find himself sitting with a magazine and a stack of bacon-topped pancakes and an hour of leisure in front of him, and the waitress already approaching to fill up his coffee. Steve let his bike idle for a moment as he observed through the window, thinking that was another thing he wanted now, to watch Bucky getting used to being the kind of man who could sit in a diner all morning if he wanted to, any diner in the city, and no one could stop him.

**

It shouldn't have made a big difference to know that the bags of laundry Bucky was unpacking contained both of their clothes all mixed up together, alongside a batch of pristine white towels. It shouldn't have made a big difference to know that he was about to start folding his half of them neatly and stacking them on the shelves in Steve's bedroom. But it did.

"Hundred and forty new emails since yesterday," Steve called out to him, mostly to claim back a bit of his attention.

"Is that all? Get on with it then – I've dealt with worse."

Steve smiled to himself and put his feet up on the coffee table, surprised to find how much more he enjoyed the administrative side of his business now that there was some order to it, and now that he didn't have to worry about taking back tasks that would eat into Bucky's hours here.

"I can't work out how they're still coming in."

"Can't you?"

Steve's ears pricked up at the note of challenge in that. There was nothing to link those viral social media posts to him personally, or to the club. She'd only ever referred to him as "my Dom". Even if her photos were geo-tagged in a way he couldn’t see, his private business address wasn't listed anywhere online. He opened up a new window and googled her name in combination with a few fetish terms and the name of the city. It took five searches to bring the club up on the first page, with a link that went straight to the that photo from the party, Steve in his dom costume holding Nat's coiled whip, easily identifiable if you were already looking to match the grainy figure in those Twitter phone shots. He picked the most recent few inquiry emails and replied with some questions. He was still experimenting with other search engines when Bucky put a coffee down in front of him.

"He's done something," Steve said, keeping it to a light, irritated scowl. "He's got someone to rig the club's website so it shows up in searches connected to her."

"Really? You want to speak to Shuri about that? See what you can do about it."

"Oh, he's gonna hear from me."

Bucky sat down, and put his bare feet on Steve's thighs, and sipped his coffee. "If you're sure that you want to put a stop to it."

**

Mondays were harder than ever, knowing that Bucky was spending the mornings with Stuart, the client he stubbornly refused to give up until the new lease was signed, sealed and delivered, but between Steve's determination and Sam's good-humoured persistence, they'd figured out a routine that worked. "Routine" was probably overstating it: the trick was pitting him against a heavy duty punching bag to vent some stress and then letting him loose in the weights room until he was too worn out for anything more than a warm shower.

"Did that get you sorted out then?" Sam asked when he was coming out of the change rooms. "Did you leave all my equipment in one piece?"

"That was one time."

Actually, it had been more than once, in the first months after he'd moved here, when his thoughts had still been trapped on that exhausting merry-go-round of speculation about Peggy, the crash, the bureaucratic response, and the millions of tiny things that could have swung history in a different direction, and his anger had been too ferocious for the cheap gloves and second-hand treadmills that Sam had started off with.

"You seem a little wound up," Sam observed. "You want to grab some lunch? You can tell me how your buddy with the killer fighting form is getting on."

"Oh." Steve made himself hesitate and censor the first thoughts that were just too private to say out loud. "No, everything's going okay. With Bucky. Really okay. This is work stuff. Listen, why don't you come over? I've been thinking I might invite some people for movies and beer. No big deal."

Sam's expression said he was thinking hard. "You want me to come round and sit in the dark with a bunch of ladies who get around in leather corsets and use words like "flagellation" in casual conversation? I think my diary might be free."

"I hope you're not disappointed," Steve said, giving in to an unexpected grin.

He made Bucky come out for burgers in the afternoon, to give him the chance to complain about rising prices, rising plate-to-burger size ratios, and the unstoppable territorial advance of sweet potato fries, instead of rattling with the echoes of Stuart's unresolved traumas.

**

In the bar, he passed a dozen people in office wear chatting boisterously over martinis, which would have been an unusual sight at any time, let alone early afternoon on a Thursday. Bucky was talking to three well-groomed and attentive women, slipping skewered olives into their freshly poured drinks, and smiling that unhesitating, open smile that seemed to pull half the light in the room into his eyes.

"Tour group," Tony told him, sounding pleased with himself. "Everybody's curious. There's a market there, looking for something with a bit of edge. It's all ours, if we can style ourselves as just safe enough."

He was still thinking about that as T'Challa came in and the meeting started.

Tony, who'd been running the website almost single-handedly for at least a year, gave the appearance of being largely in the dark about how its SEO properties worked. Steve ran the discussion in circles for a while, just for the malicious pleasure of making him repeat unaccustomed phrases like "I wasn’t aware", and "How does that work, according to you?", and "I would love to look into that for you, the first chance I get".

"Here's how it's going to go, Tony," Steve stopped him in the end. "In 48 hours, I want a full report on what's gone wrong and how you've fixed it. Or, here's your other option. I bring in an external consultant and we all sit down together and figure this out once and for all. I'll pay half the costs, unless it turns out not to be an accident."

For the first time, Steve felt a flutter of nerves, thinking how this would be his last time in this office, if they couldn't work this out and he had to make good on this threat to quit his Saturday night gig. The club had an energy all of its own, a reviving balance of rivalry and mutual respect, and an inexhaustible tolerance for difference, that was irreplaceable.

Tony was leaning askew in his chair, unsuccessfully affecting nonchalance and looking like he was going back to the argument about it not being technically illegal to manipulate search engine results so as to imply a commercial service transaction that had, as a matter of fact, taken place, when T'Challa leaned forward, joining the discussion at last.

"48 hours seems reasonable. Now, while you're here, I'd appreciate your thoughts on another matter. A proposition, if you like. Fetish is getting more respectable every year, and we need to be ready to be a part of that. Stop working on the margins and move into the center. I want to develop an expanded program of masterclasses, open them to the public this time, and you're the right man to run it."

As the surprise wore off, Steve was pulling together a reply that leaned heavily on words like sell-out and lightweight, when T'Challa went on.

"You have a way of connecting with people, Steve. They trust you. But only the most adventurous customers are going to come to you at a home address. The city is full of people living half-lives, just waiting for permission to ask for more. Reach out to them from a big business like this, bricks and mortar, somewhere their cousin had her bachelorette party, and they'll come to you."

Steve mentally added the word manipulative to his grievance list.

"Think about it," T'Challa said.

Steve turned at the sound of the door and shot Shuri a where were you look.

"Sorry I'm late," she said brightly. "Looks like you reached an amicable resolution without my input. Did you need any help with the legals?"

"You," Steve told her sternly, "are not my lawyer."

She grinned wide. "You really didn't need me at all then."

"48 hours," he said darkly over his shoulder as he left. "And I'll think about it."

**

"You didn't see the place mid-week," Bucky told him that night, clicking through movie options. "There was a time they were thinking of closing down Wednesday nights. Sometimes it was just a bunch of people standing in the shadows in the corners waiting for something to happen."

"You think I should do it then?"

"Just giving you the facts."

As he switched off the overhead lights, Steve was still feeling wound up. He threw a cushion down on the floor and sat against the corner where Bucky was curled up, close enough for the sense of connection he needed but just far enough removed to respect his boundaries.

"Oh that's nice," Steve remarked. "The Magnificent Seven. You got something you want to say about teamwork, huh?"

"Maybe I just like the gunfights," Bucky replied and put the laptop out of reach.

He settled himself while the titles were rolling, leaning back, but all he could focus on was the daily battles that lay in front of him if he accepted T'Challa's offer, and the irritation of having to negotiate every last idea. He could feel the tension twitching in his limbs at the thought of ceding even one iota of the autonomy he'd won by starting his own business.

There was a movement behind him, and Bucky was brushing aside the hair at the nape of his neck, bending down to kiss him there. The light contact made him shiver hungrily.

"Stop it," Bucky said. "You're missing the movie."

His skin was still tingling when Bucky's fingers brushed the same spot, curling into his shirt as if tucking in a protruding tag, vividly warm. His mood shifted and slowed abruptly. Bucky had started to touch him softly sometimes, like this. Every time, he practically held his breath in case the slightest movement changed his mind. He wondered about it, whether prison had given Bucky any chance at all to be gentle with someone, whether in the years before his sentence he'd realised how precious it was going to become. He leaned into the hot point of contact between them while the town was saved, and lost, and saved again.

"Bucky," he said sleepily, when the movie was done. "I think I'm going to say yes."

"Well I'm glad that's settled then."

Steve gave a frustrated sigh, "You know it's going to drive me crazy having to deal with those assholes on the regular."

"You want my opinion? It's gonna stay that way, as long as you keep cutting and running every time people disappoint you."

Bucky shrugged off the look Steve gave him. "I'm going to take a shower and get in bed. You decide what you want to do about that."

Steve decided.

**

His business continued, pulling in all the clients he could handle.

Oscar found another $150 and came back for a second session, from which he took away the knowledge that the restraints and power exchange didn't really do as much for him as the simple fact of having another man's hands on his body. Over tea, they talked about moving to the city where the prospects were better, and Steve mentioned he might know a place on the outskirts, if he didn't mind newspaper on the windows.

That led to an argument when he found out that Bucky had no intention of giving up the lease on the place he no longer slept in.

"That's how much faith you have in this working out, is it?" Steve asked, too stung to hold it back.

He'd put real work into making it good between them. Every day there were moments he had to battle against the instincts that guided him so effectively in all the other aspects of his life, and force himself to give Bucky space, to make him a tea instead of pulling him into his arms, to repeat the mantra that not wanting to be held wasn't the same as not wanting, to stop thinking of Bucky with every weightless sigh he drew out of every happy client, to put aside the dynamic where he was sure of himself and find them another, harder, way, and to wait until Bucky was ready to ask.

Bucky got the milk out of the fridge and put it by the steaming cups, each movement careful and slow, before he turned.

He held Steve's gaze for a few beats, the way he did when he wanted to make sure he was being listened to. "I'm not going to get another lease with my record. And maybe not another job either."

"You've written us off already. Bucky."

He saw from Bucky's face that he should have tried harder to hold that back.

"Okay," Bucky said, aggravatingly calm. "Do you want to talk about what we're dealing with here? You can go on all you want about having faith, right now, but how's faith going to help me when when one of your pretty subs wants a piece of you and works out how to ask you just the right way?"

"Is that – you want me to put a hard limit on sexual touching? Okay, that's something we can talk about. Most of them don't come to me for that anyway."

"No. It's not that." He edged Steve aside to retrieve the teabags and bin them, then pour the milk, using the manual task as a focal point. "What happens when some damaged little twink wants more than what he gets in a session? You know it's not just a service for you. You put your heart in it. That's what makes you so good."

Steve was flat-out horrified. "There's a line there, and I'm not confused about it. Not a bit. A session can be intimate without it turning into something else. I'm not – we're not animals, Bucky, whatever you might think of our lifestyle."

The reprimand in Bucky's eyes made him feel even smaller.

"Sometimes it seems to me you don't even realise how much you put your heart into your work, Steve. Especially when your clients are in pain. What wouldn't you do for a client who needed it?"

Steve could feel his face flushing hot. "Look, I'm a straight-down-the-line kind of a guy. I don't look for hidden agendas, and I know there's things that go over my head. But if you think I'm so simple that I can't tell the difference between what I do with my clients and what I want with you, then why are you even bothering with me?"

He only knew he was raising his voice by the way Bucky reacted, that heightened alertness he so rarely wore these days. Steve took a half-step away, ashamed.

But Bucky was going on, quieter than ever. "You were never going to employ anyone until I came along. Bruce showed me your business plan for the year, but I already knew. You gave me a job here for one reason: you thought you could help me."

It was baffling how a series of statements could be completely factual and utterly, utterly wrong, all at the same time. He couldn't quite put his finger on what Bucky was getting at, except that this thing between them was apparently a lot less real that what he'd let himself think.

"In the beginning I wanted to give you a chance," he conceded. "But then you were here, and I saw how you work. And you were smart, and you were so focused and easy to be around, and instead of wanting you out of my space, I missed you all the time. And then I came home one day and you were dancing and I thought – I thought, that's not for me, what I get is the cool head and the work that never misses the mark. But I wanted all of it. I couldn't stop it. You're the best thing that's happened to me in so long, Bucky. This whole place is different with you in it." Instead of filling him with tenderness the way these thoughts usually did, all he could see was how much was slipping through his fingers. The conclusions wouldn't stop mounting up in his head. He might have said this was his worst nightmare except he'd had far too much faith in his own feelings to even think this before now. "Oh god, Bucky, I wish I never offered you that job. I should have asked you out for a drink instead of mixing everything up, because if you're saying this is just business-- If you don't want this the way I want you-"

"No," Bucky said, hard.

"Fuck." When he looked back, the warnings were there in black and white. Bucky had called him a dreamer, said he had too much faith in people. And he'd just blundered on, convinced that anything that felt this good had to work out. He could feel the colour draining right out of his face as quick as it had come. "You've been telling me from the start."

"Hey!" Bucky's voice sharpened even more. "Stop. You want to ask me what I think instead of assuming?"

Steve wanted a punching bag. He wanted a ten mile run. He wanted to go back to waking up in bed with Bucky that morning and still feeling lucky to be there.

"What do you think?"

Bucky took a few seconds to reflect, picking up his mug of tea and blowing on it pensively, and they were the most awful seconds Steve could remember.

"I'm in this. With you. All the way." He sipped carefully. "But right now, if I'm going to put everything into that, I need to not be keeping one eye on where do I sleep if it all goes wrong. And if that costs me 600 a month, then it's worth it."

It was like his words opened a window that let all the tension blow right out of the room. Steve's heart was beating like he'd come out of a sprint.

"Okay." He let a few slow breaths go by. "Keep your lease then. But you gotta –" He made himself pause again, find the right words. "Can you try to trust me a bit more? That I'm not going to throw you over for the first needy client who makes a move on me?"

He couldn't stand it anymore, he stepped forward and pulled Bucky against him. The tea sloshed and spattered on the floor.

"Jesus," Bucky said on a sigh, sounding as relieved as Steve felt. But a moment later, he roused again, shaken and angry, a delayed reaction. "Don't do that again. You looked – Jesus, don't ever do that. I'm not going anywhere."

Steve knew that, now. The sudden, crippling doubt had passed already. It made all the difference, having Bucky in his arms, curling into him while he scolded him, instead of standing two steps away watching him like a stranger. He held on for a long time, turned his face against Bucky's hair and breathed him in. "We're a good team, Bucky. We're going to make this work."

A few moments later, Bucky was pulling back. "Hard to argue when you put it like that," he said with a faint smile. "Now let me go. Someone's got to manage all those new clients you keep picking up."

**

One of those clients was a referral from Will, a former army medic whose fetish was strict discipline. Steve happily researched military regulations and terminology until he could wield them with the same confidence as the paddle.

Another of his new clients, bringing a couple of years of experience in the San Francisco scene, knew exactly what he wanted and negotiated it with easy precision. If he never talked about the scars Steve could feel under his tattoos, the state of serenity he dropped himself into each time made it clear it was all helping. Dark haired and fine-boned, he was the sort of client Steve felt mildly guilty about charging anything at all. He started leaving the door ajar for those sessions, thinking of Bucky listening to muffled sounds of pleasure on the other side of the wall.

Belle missed a session, taking a vacation, and came back so relaxed she practically purred like a cat under Steve's hands.

When he said that he was going to do those public masterclasses, only Tony looked surprised. T'Challa gave him a figure that erred on the side of generous, and a series of mildly ambitious dates.

**

It was late afternoon and Bucky smelled so good, his skin and his t-shirt laced with exertion from his shift at the club, that Steve's powers of resistance were worn down to a thread just from a couple of minutes of making out, wedged up against the bedroom wall.

"I want everything today. Really want to take you apart."

Though he arched his neck into Steve's mouth, his wrist twisted and jerked against his restraining grip.

"Let me tie you up a little. Can I?"

"Jesus." There was more than a faint note of irritation there. "I spent all day doing what other people told me. You think I could catch a break in my own home?"

Steve just groaned against his shoulder, hand slipping down to coax at Bucky's growing arousal through his pants. "I'll make it good. You know I can make you feel good".

It was growing inside him, the way it so easily did with Bucky, simple animal desire ballooning into something infinitely more complex, greedy, the need to have all of Bucky encompassed in his hands. He'd never had this so strongly with anyone else, the helpless cross-over from one thing to the other, the overwhelming, unspecific need that he had no idea what to do with except channel it into the dynamic he knew.

But Bucky got his hand on Steve's shoulder and held him off. "How do you think you'd feel? All hot under the collar and not a damn thing you can do about it, after a day of repacking the shelves three fucking times to fit in a new range of organic cider? You think I really want to be pushed around right now?"

He was so electrically desirable, angry, aroused, carefully wielding his solid muscle, and spitting out the most emphatic rebuff he'd given, that the denial made Steve ache. But there was something in his words, something –

"Are you asking if we can switch?" Steve's breath caught in his chest for an instant. "Are you saying you want to try it that way?"

Bucky's face told him he was being an idiot.

"Because the answer would be yes." Steve pulled back, giving ground between them, as the ache in him shifted into something else again. "The answer is basically anything you want, Buck. All you have to do is ask."

In the space of half an hour, it went from a willing experiment to something he wanted to ask for again. It wasn't that it changed Steve to have cuffs on – they'd never worked any magic on him that way, and still didn't. The magic was what they did to Bucky.

Steve was stripped down to his briefs, kneeling on a folded towel on the office floor, half-hard already just from the firm touch of Bucky's hands locking him into the restraints. He found himself testing their strength with anticipation while Bucky went to the cupboard, and, a few tense heartbeats later, came back with a blindfold.

The moment it was on, Bucky changed. His thumb ran hard over Steve's top lip, making the flesh give way, leaving the bone underneath tingling. Then his thumb hooked onto the floor of Steve's mouth, pulling his jaw open so Bucky could bend down and kiss his top lip, tugging the flesh, the quick tip of his tongue tasting where he pleased. Steve felt a flood of warmth in his chest that quickly drained down to his dick. It made his head light, the difference between Bucky wanting him, and Bucky wanting to devour him with a hunger that Steve recognised.

When Bucky pulled back, and made him wait, blind and needy, then did it again, he made an embarrassingly loud, strangled sound. With a tight breath, Bucky kissed him again, more like sucking pleasure by force from his mouth, a hard grip on his jaw keeping Steve unable to do anything but take it. And then his hand was squeezing gently on Steve's throat, descending onto his chest to thumb his nipple hard and unashamedly grope over his pectoral muscle, and that kind of rough handling had never especially set Steve off in the past, but now, the certainty of how Bucky wanted him was washing through him in waves, open and unafraid. For Steve, the craving for more was painful, cramping the nerves in his hands and arms and back.

"Bucky," he said, dizzy with it all and sounding as desperate as he felt. "Please."

This time it was Bucky groaning, against his ear, nipping at the lobe while Steve gave the chains of the cuffs a work-out and twisted towards him, seeking out more. Bucky gave it to him, stroking his cheek and kissing him again, tender this time, both of them panting into it, until Steve had lost all sense of up and down, anchored only to the firm grip Bucky had on his shoulder and the touch of his lips.

He was about to start begging in earnest when Bucky reached down to where Steve's cock was stretching his briefs to an ache. The light touch of his fingers was excruciating, and the best thing Steve had ever felt, a hundred times too much sensation with his wrists locked away and nothing he could do about it as those merciless, light strokes kept on wracking him, until he was wet, until he was curling his hips into every one, and then tightening to the point of unbearable.

"Bucky," was all he could say. "Bucky –" and then he was coming with a choked, animal noise.

He was still shaking with the force of it when he caught the unmistakeable sound of a zip opening and – yeah – he could keep it together long enough to let Bucky fuck his mouth, which he did, though he was using his hand more than anything, in those short, rough jerks, while the wet head of him nudged against Steve's lip, the tip of his chin. It was so far from enough, Steve was so hungry for him still. Leaning into it, he opened wide and swiped his tongue, desperate for a deeper taste, catching the smooth crown of him once, twice.

"Christ alive," Bucky said, once, as if he'd been hit, and then Steve got it all, the hot spurt of it half dripping out of his mouth.

He hung his head and let it make a mess of him, all his muscles soft as butter and ready to sink into the floor. He'd done this – or something like it – to subs before, but he hadn't imagined it feeling quite like this, the shivery emptiness of being spun around and dropped by a wave of something enormous. That feeling, it wasn't the product of the restraints but of the fierce hunger of the way Bucky had touched him, with an openness that Steve normally had to coax out of him.

He didn't know how long it was before he felt the blindfold coming off.

"Hey," was all he could say, feeling the dumb, sunny smile taking over his face.

"What?" Bucky asked with a smug glint in his eye, thumbing gently at Steve's cheek. "Did you think I wasn’t paying attention all this time?"

"You're really something else," Steve said, tipping his forehead against Bucky's stomach. "I can't – I've never wanted anyone the way I want you."

It felt like being fourteen again, full of emotions so big he could die from them. But it was okay, because Bucky's fingers were in his hair, holding them tight against each other, not letting go.

"All right," Bucky said later, tugging gently. "Let's get these off you."

As he pulled the elastic with the key off his wrist, the same place Steve kept it, Steve knew, suddenly and fiercely, that he wasn't ready to let go yet. "No. Leave them on. Just for a while."

With a slow, curious look, Bucky hooked the elastic back onto his wrist, shrugging as if to say it was Steve's problem.

When he'd let Bucky wipe him down with a beautifully steamy cloth, he sat next to him on the sofa while he switched on the laptop and entered some cleaning receipts and cash expenses from the laundromat into his spreadsheets, even though it was a day off for the business. The afternoon darkened into night as they sat there, the texture of leather against his bare thighs keeping him shrouded in that feeling of being opened up and connected. There were things he should be doing, probably, like ride to the supermarket to replenish the depleted contents of the fridge, but it was enough to sit and watch Bucky's quiet, precise work, and note the way his attention didn't divert Steve's way once, not until the task was finished.

"You hungry?" Bucky said eventually, without turning from the screen.

"A little."

Coming back with some pastrami and the last slices of bread from the kitchen, Bucky paused. "You want me to take those off you yet?"

When Steve shook his head, Bucky shifted the laptop to kneel beside him and tear off a corner of bread to load up and slide into his mouth. But the plate was still mostly full when he discarded it and climbed over Steve's lap, gaze tracking obviously over the muscles of his shoulders and chest. As he traced down Steve's neck, out to the ball of his shoulder, he seemed more deeply in the moment than ever.

"This something else you do then?"

"It is now," Steve told him frankly.

He took Steve's jaw in hand, tilting it.

"You like this?"

"I like you like this. I really like it. I'm waiting for you to kiss me again."

Bucky pulled back, suddenly hesitant. "I should make you wait, right? That's how the game works. I wait until you beg for it."

"Please, Bucky," Steve said immediately. "I can't think about anything except how good your mouth is gonna feel."

Bucky gave him a look like he wasn't playing fair and then tilted his head to lean down and give Steve everything he'd asked for.

"Why d'you gotta make everything so complicated?" he complained afterwards, wearing that same maligned expression, before he slid back off the sofa and started to pull Steve's briefs off to lavish him with the sort of passionately focused blow job that made his eyes turn back in his head with pleasure.

It wasn't the first time, but they'd done this seldom enough that there was still shock mixed in with the pleasure, watching Bucky's hot, pretty mouth on his dick, the strands of hair sticking to his cheek when it started to get messy between them.

"Don't stop," Steve heard himself whispering. "God, Bucky, your mouth."

Having his hands tied made him vocal – pleading over the jerk and jangle of the cuffs like there were things his hands would have said for him that had no other way to get out now. The broken phrases coming helplessly out of his mouth bore no resemblance to the reassurances and soft commands he normally uttered.

"Bucky – god – please –"

By the end of it, he was actually straining at the cuffs and rolling his hips, as if he had any say in what Bucky did to him. Bucky didn't let him down. Pulling off, he cinched Steve's dick tight in his fingers and stroked him hard through the last excruciating moments before the pleasure of it swallowed him whole.

He watched Bucky hazily afterwards, the gorgeous wreck of him with his hair all loose and his pretty mouth glossy and flushed, thinking how he had to find a way to have this again. Steve wanted to offer him anything, but before he could pull himself together enough to say it, Bucky asked breathlessly, "Can I fuck you? Now that I've got you all relaxed?"

Affirmative responses went off in Steve's mind like fireworks. But all he managed to say, mumbling, was, "Have to wash up first."

Bucky's normally steady hands made a mess of the lock, but eventually he was free.

When he came back to the bedroom, as clean as he could get without letting the heat between them dissipate too much, Bucky had the cuffs dangling from one hand and a collar from the other, and that gave him an unexpected jolt of arousal, Bucky with bondage gear in his hands. He let Bucky fasten them on him, in a configuration he'd didn't use much, with his hands chained to the front of the collar leaving him the barest capacity to brace himself when Bucky bent him over the bed.

Bucky on top was decisive in a way Steve really liked, and was not at all surprised by once it was happening, slick fingers working firmly inside him, forcing the reluctant muscle to give way.

"That enough?" Bucky asked, already pulling free.

"Yeah."

The familiar sounds turned unfamiliar, out of sight. The tear of plastic, the eager silence of the condom unrolling, the rattle of a recklessly tossed tube. Steve wedged his knees against the edge of the mattress because, Christ, he really had no leverage at all. He didn't need it, in the end, because it turned out not to be the angry jailhouse fuck he kind of expected. Bucky was slow and deep and insistent inside him, like it was the tight sensation that did it for him, and not the control or the power. Sliding half out, and back in slow, he gave a trembling sound of pleasure that made Steve's insides weak. With that, Steve's hips found another inch or two of give, and his back arched, and then Bucky's hands were on his hips, pulling him back into the hot connection between them. If bottoming wasn't usually what partners wanted from him, Steve was versatile in the sense of being a sucker for pleasure and intimacy in any form he could get it, and right here and now, the stimulation of being penetrated was magnified a hundredfold by how much Bucky was getting from it. Before long, Steve was reviving enough to get frustrated by the binding on his hands.

"Can you touch me?" he asked softly, not wanting to break Bucky's focus. "Bucky?"

The keys landed in a jangle on the mattress near his head. Bucky moaned as Steve shifted his weight to get his hands free, and then suddenly Bucky was slamming into him like he'd turned the corner into the home strait, and Steve's hand was moving tight and eager around his dick. It was the unfailing rhythm of Bucky moving inside him that pulled him over, in the end, too soon and almost as much pain as pleasure. The shameless intimacy of it, then the helpless, pained sigh that Bucky let out when he came, both hands digging in tight at Steve's waist.

Kneeling on the floor and crumpled over the bed covers, feeling sore and wet everywhere that wasn't still quivering with aftershocks, the sliver of functional thought power he had left was just enough to wonder why it had been so long since he took it that way. Even before he worked on making himself big, he'd been mouthy in a way that maybe didn't invite that kind of invitation. He must have telegraphed something, to so rarely even be asked, given the impression that he didn't like to make himself weak, when what he didn't like was people who threw their weight around because they had something to prove.

"How many rules did we break today?" Bucky asked, putting the tissue box in reach as he cleaned himself up, sounding easy and contented.

"Probably all of them," Steve said hazily. "Like usual."

Tissues in hand, Steve was just staring at the messed up bedclothes in front of him, feeling happily cracked open.

"You need some of that aftercare now?"

Sitting on the side of the bed, somehow with most of his clothes back on again, Bucky grasped his chin gently, his thumb leaving a caress down the grain of Steve's whiskers. It hadn't been the sort of hard play that called for it, but Bucky must have known that when he offered.

"So much, Bucky. You got no idea."

Bucky leaned down and kissed him, soft and quick. "I think I got some idea."

Chapter Text

Aftercare turned out to be eating the rest of the pastrami and bread, sitting on the sofa, with one of the fluffy blankets over him. Bucky had shaken the blanket out and draped it over him so gently that his throat closed up with tenderness, because although Bucky had been taking care of his business, with his precise focus and his indefatigable patience and his unerring eye for inefficiency, since the first moment he picked up a dusting cloth, it was a new development to watch him taking care of Steve, so openly and directly.

He caught Bucky's retreating fingers and held them in his own, as if he could capture the intimacy of this random moment and this whole unexpected day.

"Such hard work," Bucky said, very softly, shaking his head. "Always knew you'd be trouble."

He gradually dislodged his fingers and went to make tea. Strong peppermint with just a touch of sugar. Exactly the way Steve liked it.

**

"I saw the building's still for sale," Will said, making conversation from a kneeling position as he often did when he wanted to be provoking. "Surprises me you don't have any buyers in a neighbourhood with growth potential like this one. What's wrong with it?"

"It comes with my lease attached," Steve told him, opening the cupboard. "Plus the other side of the building isn't fit for anything more than storage, and the structural support for the upper floors would need to be completely re-built before you could put anything on them. Now we're going to have to do something about that mouth of yours."

He laughed and let Steve put a ball gag on him for the rest of the session.

"I did some work for the group that owns the gas station on the main street." Will took up the conversation afterwards, completely unperturbed by the 45 minutes of discipline in between, as he stretched out on the sofa. "Seems like they're one of the last hold-outs against re-zoning the neighbourhood – sooner or later it will kill off their heavy vehicle customers. But their lobbying power is in decline, and the moment it's gets the residential stamp, and values here will go up like mushrooms. I'd buy it myself, only I can't afford to sink that much of my capital into a long-term asset."

Bucky looked cautiously interested when Steve brought it up later.

"You trust him enough to do a deal?"

"What have I got to lose? Even if I had the whole purchase price, there'd be nothing but trouble if Stuart knew I was the buyer."

Bucky gave a slow nod. "So you stay behind the scenes. Let Will do it. All right. You should go in and see Bruce – find out how quick you could get your money."

"Yeah," Steve said pointedly. "We should both go."

He had to dumb down his grasp of simple math a bit to overcome Bucky's objections, but in the end, they both went.

**

"Okay," Bucky said, shrugging his jacket on to leave for the club later that week. "Since you've decided we've got no secrets on the money side, here's what I'm thinking." He fixed Steve with a steady look. "Your small-town runaway can sub-let my shit-hole of an apartment, if he really wants a taste of the big city scene. But only if he takes it week-to-week. Think about it today."

Steve's expression had Bucky shaking his head.

"Don’t need to think about it. I'll let him know. Starting when?"

Slinging on his backpack, Bucky replied, "Soon as he likes. One week's notice though – he's out if I say so, no arguments. You make sure you tell him that part. And I want half the bond I paid."

Oscar, whose real name, it turned out, was Daniel, accepted every one of Bucky's conditions, asked for three weeks to scrape together the money, and signed off with an entire row of eggplant emojis.

**

Not every commercial participant in the BDSM industry took the same benevolent approach to pricing as Steve did, and Tony Stark was a pig-headed asshole. Those two factors had caused Steve's curriculum planning for his masterclasses to stall at the second lesson. Add in the fact that Bucky's week had been that gruelling combination of club shifts and event set-up gigs that meant they passed whole days with barely more than a word exchanged between them, and it qualified as the week from hell.

Battling gamely away at it, Steve had been sitting at the table plugging researched figures into a document for the entire afternoon and most of the evening, on what was meant to be his day off, by the time Bucky got back.

"Hey," Bucky said, switching on more lights and sounding upbeat despite how stiffly he was moving. "You still working?"

He was the best thing Steve had seen all day, looking competent and deliciously scruffy in a hoodie, pants and worn boots. "Just about to quit."

But Bucky had already turned towards the bathroom, stripping clothes off as he went. Even through the closed door, Steve could hear the groan he gave when the water hit him.

It was a quarter-hour before he emerged, hips wrapped in one towel while he worked his wet hair with another, looking so changed that it filled Steve to bursting with satisfaction to know that he could provide all the hot water and fresh towels it took to keep Bucky in this state of cosy contentment forever.

"The crane was double booked, would you believe? We had to unpack all the scaff and take it up three flights of stairs by hand. And the corners --" He must have read something in Steve's face, because he flipped the second towel over his shoulder and came to stand behind him, inspecting the screen. "Is this what's making you scowl?"

"Build Your Own Playroom," Steve recited Tony's session title in a monotone. "Here's the thing, Bucky. It can't be done for under $1500. And that doesn't even include structural advice if you want to allow for suspension."

Bucky leaned over to look closer, enveloping him in the warm scent of clean skin and soap, so good he almost sighed. "But it's good be realistic about the budget, right?"

"Only if you've got a cool few thousand to throw at it! Tony's target market is bored professionals who saw the Fifty Shades movies on TV and wanted to recreate the look."

Bucky dropped a kiss casually in his hair and moved away, taking his enticing cloud of clean-scrubbed fragrance with him.

"You've got to let him have some wins, don't you? Make the next one a bit more down to earth. And in the meantime," he added, heading for the bedroom, "why don't you finish that up and bring all those numbers to bed so we can talk about them some more?"

He saved a few more figures from the tabs he had open, and refreshed his calculations, then shut it down, but by the time he got to the bedroom, Bucky was out cold, too far gone to be roused when Steve pulled the wet towels carefully off him. He made a tiny, faraway noise of pleasure when Steve kissed his jaw and nuzzled against his throat a little, but Steve took pity on him and let him sleep.

He regretted it when he woke in darkness to a dreadful feeling that something was wrong.

Bucky was standing in the light of his phone torch at the far end of the room, dressed and searching around for his shoes. Everywhere else was pitch black.

"What happened? Bucky?"

A few moments later, he came to sit on the side of the bed while he stomped his toes into his boots and laced them. "Didn't I tell you last night? The pianos we couldn't move yesterday. We have to finish up today. The crane arrives at 6.30."

"No." Steve rolled towards him, taking himself by surprise as his sleepy body reacted unthinkingly to the prospect of another absence. He got his arms around Bucky's waist and tightened them.

"Uh." Bucky sounded surprised, and just a little bit tempted, as Steve mashed his face into the soft folds of his t-shirt and the firm muscle underneath.

"Stay." He knew Bucky had to work, but he knew with even greater certainty that he couldn't let him go. "Come back to bed. I don't want you to work for anyone else."

He stroked Steve's hand, tugging gently. A car horn sounded outside. "That's Thor. I've gotta go." He stilled his efforts to dislodge Steve's grip. "Hey, come on."

With a sigh, Steve released him. Bucky shifted to lean over him, kissing his cheek and then his mouth in a little burst of soft mint.

"Your alarm for the gym's going to go off in an hour. You got Sam to keep you busy. Now finish your class plan. I'll be back before dinner. We can have something special."

Steve laughed at that, because Bucky's lack of cooking skills was rivalled only by the almost total lack of facilities in their tiny kitchen, so what qualified as "special" would be Indian take-away instead of burgers.

"I've got clients."

The horn sounded a bit more insistently.

Bucky kissed him again, soft. "Well. I guess I'll have something special then."

**

Steve didn't pick favourite clients, but Sofia and Nick had definitely edged into his top five in the three months they'd been coming to him. She had a bright-eyed thirst for pushing boundaries, and he had an easy-going eagerness to make her happy. What made her happy varied from session to session. This time, she wanted him to bind Nick's arms tightly behind him and direct him to go down on her. Steve let his hands roam free while he tied the knots – she watched both the knot work and her partner's reaction to it avidly, chewing her lip. The rest was a bit peripheral to his interests these days, but he'd done some planning for pacing and vocabulary, and she was expressive enough that it was pretty easy to work out when to have him tease her and when to go in hard.

After it, he was really glad the two of them preferred to go home together and snuggle by way of aftercare. When he closed the door behind them, he was so tired it barely registered that Bucky was slouched on the sofa, and that hot, spicy smells were stealing out from the kitchen.

"Hey," Bucky said as he passed. "Got any of that left for me?"

Any ordinary day, he'd have jumped on the invitation. "I don't think I do, Buck."

Bucky slouched back into the cushions, crossing his ankle over his knee. "You sure about that? Your girl was pretty loud in there. Really sounded like you were showing her a good time. Got me pretty worked up."

Since she emailed through her session plans in advance, Bucky must have known that Steve hadn't laid a finger on her. But the glint in Bucky's eye was hard to ignore.

"I had a hell of a day with those pianos," Bucky went on. "Least you could do is help me wind down a little."

Ignoring the take-away containers, Steve pulled a beer out of the fridge and opened it, aware of Bucky's keen attention on him the whole time.

"There could be something in it for you too, you know."

Pausing with the bottle half-way to his mouth, Steve listened, as much to the uncharacteristically suggestive tone as anything else. "Like what?"

"It's ten minutes past nine. If you've still got your mouth on me at half past, I'll put those cuffs on for you tomorrow."

Steve didn't drop his beer, but it was a near thing. It was the first time the cuffs had even been mentioned, since Bucky had sprung away from them like they burned the moment they were off him. Bucky was watching him, eyes hooded, like he was waiting for a foregone conclusion to play itself out. And tomorrow was Saturday, nothing to do until his club shift in the evening. He put the beer on the sink and came over.

"All day?" he asked, his voice deep not only with fatigue, in a tone he'd never taken with Bucky.

Bucky looked up at him, considering. "Time off for lunch. And I'm making no promises about the afternoon either. Now stop killing time. Nine-thirty."

He'd barely got down on his knees, tugging open the button on Bucky's pants, when he felt the replenished energy flare up in him, driving all the weariness out. The challenge was enough, all by itself, to rouse him. If he had mixed feelings about whether he should claim on the stakes Bucky had set, it made his heart light with hope to recognise the purpose in it, the work Bucky was doing to get them to a place where they could both be satisfied.

It wasn't as if he really needed the incentive Bucky had dangled to go slow. His default speed was leisurely, extending out the pleasure as long as he could, giving the tension and anticipation time to build up, pulling the thread of response and control so taut he could practically feel the vibrations.

Bucky lifted up his hips to let Steve drag his pants down to his knees, and then, out of greed, down to his ankles. He'd take a little work to get hard, Steve knew that already, and a rough, tight grip to get him over the line. But this end of it got Steve just as hot, the soft length of him resting over the line where his thighs joined, shifting when Steve parted his knees. Bucky's fingers curled into his palm against the sofa cushion.

Steve kept his voice matter-of-fact. "No hands, right?"

There was a flash of doubt, like Bucky wasn't sure what he'd let himself in for, quickly covered by provocation. "Think you can do it?"

"Yes." Steve didn't need to be smug, and let his face say it for him. "Think you can handle it?"

He didn't wait for Bucky's response before he bent down, palms stabilising him on Bucky's bare thighs, and used his tongue to lever the soft head of him into his mouth, slowly working him up with nothing but suction and wet heat. He tugged gently at the head with his cinched lips, compounding it with textured strokes of his tongue, until Bucky had all the definition he could want and the muscles in his thighs and hips were flexing helplessly.

Steve pulled back and kissed the slick head daintily. As he leaned up to fold Bucky's shirt up over his abdomen, his fingers remembered the softness of the worn fabric against his cheek that morning, how intensely comforting that brief embrace had felt.

"Didn't I tell you to stop killing time?" Bucky said, gravelly, but behind the reprimand, his expression was wide open and all Steve could see in it was willingness.

Steve smiled. "Remember, you asked for this."

He got his mouth back around Bucky's dick and took it in until it hit the back of his throat. And then he worked it in further, pulling his muscles taut and forcing them to give way. A few shallow strokes did the trick, reminding his resistant body that it could do this. Then he breathed deep and sank down all the way.

People never expected him to be any good at this, or to enjoy it, but it had never felt submissive to him to have another man's pleasure completely subsumed in his body, every inch under his control. And it was a pretty sexy thing to do to a partner whose hands were tied, powerless to do anything other than beg him not to stop. He'd learned to do it by applying the same certainty of mind over matter that he'd wielded to reshape his body over the years.

Bucky's hand was petting faintly at the back of his head, as if afraid to do anything that might disrupt what was happening, while Steve gave him a good long stretch of those deep strokes, slow enough to blow his mind with sensation without hitting a rhythm that would finish him off. When he could feel Bucky's thigh muscles quivering under his palms, he eased up a little and went back to sucking gently around the head for a bit, working it with his tongue, before he had mercy and sank back down. This time, knowing what was coming, Bucky groaned every inch of the way.

His body moulded itself around what Steve was doing to him, melting back into the cushions to give him all the space he needed and splaying out his thighs to open up that last bit of depth, so that Steve could feel them tightening around the rough bristle of his jaw when he went down deep. When his throat really started to protest, he pulled back, running his top lip lightly over the slit to make it throb for him. Fuck, he'd made a mess of them both. He dragged his t-shirt over his head and cleaned off the sofa leather, wedging it between Bucky's legs.

"How are we going for time?"

Bucky didn't even raise his head from where he was slumped against the cushions. "You think I fucking care about that? Steve! You win."

Steve did feel like a winner as he bent down to lick the underside of Bucky's dick, over the veins straining against the tight layer of skin, rubbing the meat of his tongue under the crown.

"You want my hand now?"

Bucky jerked his head up, looking like that was the cruellest question he'd ever been asked. "No. I don't know. Can you – keep going?"

Yeah, Steve thought as he sucked in a breath and sank back down, that was something he could do. It was something he could do all night if Bucky asked for it in that wonderfully wrecked voice. He didn't know if he could give Bucky the most mind-blowing fellatio of his life, but he was sure as hell going to make it the most eagerly given. He pushed himself past the point of light-headedness, when everything in his head was reduced to fuzzy, distant emotions and single-minded purpose. Bucky hadn't volunteered much about his sex life in prison, except the fact that he'd had one, but the puzzled expression he revealed sometimes, when Steve was taking him apart slowly, made it seem like whatever he'd had was functional and hurried. Steve wanted this for them both, wanted to dig them both so deep into the pleasure of it that the world outside faded to nothing.

Bucky's hand was in his hair again, perhaps trying to muster the self-control to give him a warning, but Steve was having none of that. He was so hungry for this. Bucky's fingers clenched hard and sudden as he came, his whole body strung tight as Steve sucked him through it.

He was practically boneless afterwards, melted into the cushions, as Steve retrieved his t-shirt and wiped them both down.

"Been a while, huh?" Steve asked gently, trying not to sound too pleased with himself.

Bucky blinked at him, as if he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. "Yeah." His fingers touched Steve's cheek. "I guess it's been a real long time."

Steve turned his face into Bucky's palm and kissed that too.

A bit later, as they lay quietly in bed, Steve felt worn out and contented enough to drop right into sleep, the low-level arousal in his belly just enough to make him feel alive without the need to do anything about it. He was almost there when there was a tentative movement beside him. It was too early for a nightmare, and this wasn't the agitated shuffle of Bucky's restless insomnia either. It happened again. A moment later, Bucky's hand slid over his waist, around his chest, and Bucky shifted closer, pressing up behind him. Steve clamped down too late on the sigh it squeezed out of him.

Bucky shifted again, inching them closer together, curling his knees in behind Steve's. "Shh. This isn't going to be a thing. But my brain's too fried right now to think of a good reason not to."

Steve leaned back into it and let himself go limp in Bucky's arms.

**

The nightmare came later. Assuming they had some sort of healing purpose, helping Bucky process some of the things that had happened to him, Steve rarely woke him, but there was only so long he could endure the jerky, flinching movements and sounds of distress. He put his hand in the middle of Bucky's chest and shook him gently, calling his name.

"Steve," he mumbled, reaching out in the dark to touch his face.

After a while, his hand wilted back against the pillow, and his breathing calmed. Steve shifted away a little and let himself drift back into sleep.

"You need to talk more," Bucky said, still sounding slurred, just as he was dropping off.

"Sure thing, Buck. What do you want to know?"

"Tomorrow. When you got me in those cuffs. Use your voice."

"I can do that," Steve said, settling on his back and opening his eyes in the dark. "You want to tell me why?"

He did one of those irritable 180 degree flips Steve recognised from the nights where comfort seemed to elude him, and closed his arms around the pillow.

"It's stupid, but I can't get it out of my head. In that place, the times they had those things on me, nothing good ever happened. You got no idea what it was like after a fight or a riot. What a man's hands do in a body search when he's got reason to be afraid. The guards knew better than to let themselves go with the real psychos, but the rest of us … well."

Though he held himself very still in the dark, Steve could feel the tension radiating off him

"That day, the day that animal Vacarro came for me. I dropped him against the edge of a bathroom stall. And then the fucker wouldn't stay down. I knew if he got up off that floor he'd be the last thing I saw, so I put him down. I kept doing it until he stopped moving. He had a thick skull. There was blood everywhere. When they took me down, it was still all over me. My shoe was squelching every step when they threw me in the cell. The cuffs were too tight, and the wrist I sprained was swollen up around them before long, and I thought later that I could have lost circulation, but that was the least of my worries at the time. Because I thought that's it, I'd had two months to go but now I was gonna die in jail, and Vacarro 's buddies had friends in the guards, so I was gonna die right in that cell, with those fucking cuffs still on me, stinking of his blood."

After a long silence, Bucky breathed in audibly.

"Look, I don't wanna tell you this stuff, Steve. You got no need to carry it around as well. But you should know what you're dealing with."

After a few moments, Steve rolled to face him in the dark. "You don't need to give me a reason to back out. The only word you have to say is no. It's your choice. Always has been."

"Yeah," Bucky said. "Vacarro's been dead for years now – it was a stroke got him in the end, they said, but that could mean anything in that place. There's no way I'm gonna let the ghost of a piece of shit like him decide what I do." He could feel Bucky's scrutiny in the dark, then hesitation. "And I've seen how people look when they walk out of here. I want to find out if I can get to that place. I'd be crazy not to try."

When Bucky rolled away, onto his side, the movement was slow and deliberate this time. He reached behind himself to rake his hair up so it fell over his neck, leaving clear space beneath. It wasn't the kind of thing they did, snuggling like this, but it looked too much like an invitation to ignore. A few moments later, Bucky was lifting up to accommodate his arm and settling back against him like they did this all the time. The solid weight of him against Steve's chest felt like a missing piece of himself.

"There's one last thing I gotta tell you. But it's hard to put in words."

"I'm listening," Steve said, wanting to spend the whole night lying just here, doing exactly that.

He could feel it from here, as he'd only seen before, the slow, measured breaths Bucky took when he needed to calm himself. It took quite a few of them before Bucky went on, softly.

"No one cares if you live or die. That's what – that's how it was in there. Sure, it was different for some people, they had their gangs, there were lovers even, and all the time I met decent men who'd done unbelievably stupid things to get put in that place. But … Jesus, what are you saying, Barnes? You had to stand on your own two feet. No matter how friendly it got, you always had to be ready to walk away. I learned that lesson hard. And it's not easy to kick now. The last thing you can do is let yourself lean on someone, because what are you gonna do when they let you down?"

For a little while, Steve was too crushed by sadness to know what to say. If he'd known there was a distance there, he hadn't appreciated how permanent it had become, how much of Bucky's worldview had got built on that heart-breaking founding principle.

"I've been leaning on you since you walked in that door, Buck. Took me about two days to see you were someone I could trust." He squeezed gently with his whole body. "It's easy for me. Maybe too easy. It's not the same for you, I get that. But you can lean back all you want. Any time you're ready." He let himself think for a moment, about why Bucky had worked so hard to share this. "What do you need from me?"

He felt the tightness of Bucky's chest, the shudder, the breaths he missed.

"Just keep being you," he said eventually, barely more than a whisper. "Steady like a fucking rock." He swallowed, breathed out through his nose. "Keep letting me lose my shit when I need to. Don't stop pulling. Don't give up."

He asked so little, compared to what Steve was ready to give him.

"I can do that. Lucky for you, I don't know how to quit." He kissed the back of Bucky's head aimlessly, pressing his face into the soft cushion of his hair. "Especially where you're concerned."

The easy promise seemed to put a seal on the conversation. Steve lay there for a long time, letting his thoughts get loose, and hoping that, under all that sadness, Bucky felt in his heart just an inkling of Steve's absolute certainty that everything was turning out exactly as it was meant to.

"I'm getting there," Bucky said softly, out of nowhere. "You know that, don't you?"

Steve shifted his knees a bit to close up the last stray half-inch of space between them. "Yeah, I know. But I don't need you to be any place except right where you are now."

What was surprising was that he meant it, completely. All those ambitious fantasies he used to have had scaled right back to this. Bucky wanting to be held. Bucky needing something that only Steve could give him. Bucky getting there, moment by moment.

He stayed right where he was until his hand had gone numb and Bucky was breathing deeply in his arms.

**

Chapter Text

When he woke up, Bucky was coming back from the shower looking freshly steamed and loose and, judging by the way his gaze clung as Steve kicked his way out of the bedclothes, all set to follow through on the wager they'd made.

But Steve was a big believer in the erotic power of denial, so he made them go out for breakfast on the other side of town, and watched Bucky looking patiently bemused as he speared the berries out of his fruit salad, not a trace of nerves despite the black coffees he was knocking back.

"Okay," Steve said when they were parking the bike next to his building. "Are we still doing this?

"Are you getting cold feet?"

"No. I'm asking-"

"Then we're doing this."

He tossed his helmet Steve's way with a grin, as easy as if they were talking about a baseball game and a beer. It looked like today was one of those days when the weight had lifted off him, leaving him light.

"Look," Steve said while he was fishing around for his door key, trying to call to mind the plan he'd made lying in bed last night. "I know you don't like all the formalities, but I need to have a safe word in place this time."

Bucky watched his search. "I've got a safe word. It's stop. You had no trouble hearing it last time."

For a moment, Steve just looked at his keys, thinking how new clients were usually so eager to impart this piece of information to him, and the story behind it, just to show they knew what they were getting into.

"Your whole body was telling me to stop last time, before your words did. I can't rely on your body language. I need a way to know for sure whether you've hit your limit. At least – traffic lights, okay? You've seen the SSC signs at work."

Bucky pushed ahead of him down the corridor and opened the apartment door himself. "Look, I've had plenty of time to think about this now. You're not going to do anything that's going to make me call red."

His confidence in Steve was disarming, and seductive as hell.

"Yeah. All right. But I still need to know that you can."

He turned around in the doorway and tapped Steve's cheek, almost hard enough to sting. "Red. Orange. Stop. Slow up a little. I'm not going to need any of it."

It was verging on defiance, something he might have come down hard on, except the trust behind Bucky's words, the fearlessness, was something he'd been dreaming of for a long time now.

He cleared his throat. "Was there anything from last time that you don't want me to do?"

"Oh Jesus, the talking!" Bucky toed off his shoes, and started on his shirt buttons. "I thought about that. You've just gotta keep your cool. Last time you got wound up. You were trying to talk me down, but you were losing it, and that made me jumpy." He draped his button-down over the sofa arm and stripped off the shirt he wore beneath, and Steve definitely hadn't watched him get undressed enough times to get tired of it. "You never lose your cool with your clients. Just go slow. I've got it under control this time."

"Hey," Steve said, low. "I tell you you could take that off?"

Bucky's sharp glance was interested. He left off undressing, with a have it your way sort of shrug, and wandered into the office.

"You're a pretty chill guy, Steve," he said as he opened the cupboard and browsed its contents. "I see how you deal with people. I trust that guy pretty hard. The bruiser in the black suit, I don't know him so well."

Steve bit back his reply and went to start up the audio system. It was all the same person, and the sessions he dreaded most were those where clients wanted him to be someone different. But he had a feeling that was a point he could only make by demonstration.

When he stood up, Bucky put the cuffs in his hand.

"Let's do this."

He held Steve's gaze pointedly for a moment, then turned, offering his wrists behind him. Steve put them on slow, and fastened them on the loosest gauge. For a while after that, he didn't do anything except kiss Bucky's bare shoulder, gently rubbing his upper arm.

"This all right?"

"So far," Bucky reported in that carefully controlled voice. "Don't stop now."

Steve let his fingertips wander a little over the bare skin of Bucky's flank for a few moments, feeling the faint rhythm of his body responding to the beats that had started up over the audio system.

"Wait here then."

Down on his knees in the office, Steve pulled the bondage paraphernalia out of the cupboard to get to the shoebox behind. When he brought it back, Bucky's gaze darted to it in the first sign of wariness all day, even though Steve had already promised not to use anything more challenging than the cuffs themselves. He remembered what Bucky had said last night, about talking.

"The first time I did this, it was with a woman I was seeing. I think she thought we could be more than just an occasional hook-up, but we didn't – I didn't have it in me."

As soon as the unplanned revelation was out of his mouth, it felt right. Opening himself up a little could only help right now.

"Come on." He put his hand on Bucky's elbow and moved them both into the bedroom.

"Why didn't you?" Bucky asked.

Steve thought about that as he put the box on the bed and took the lid off, watching the faint tension bleeding out of Bucky's body when he saw that all it contained was art supplies. With his hands free, he unbuckled Bucky's belt and got the bottom half of him as naked as the top.

"You can sit down," Steve told him, which he did, settling his shoulders to find a comfortable posture with his hands restrained behind him. "I got into a bit of a bad place after Peggy. After I left the force. I had a lot of anger." He fished out a pack of coloured felt-tip pens, and some dark markers in different widths, and dropped them on the bed. "The bureaucrats let me down in so many ways, before she died and after. Until then, I never had to think about what I wanted to do. It was always right there in front of me." The pen he selected was dark blue, with a fine point that would leave a tiny, wet line of sensation on Bucky's skin. He twirled it in his fingers. "I lost my way a bit, and it lasted … well it lasted a while. It only started to change when I got deeper into the scene and found a place I was comfortable." He knelt down at Bucky's feet and uncapped the pen. "So I'm grateful to her for introducing me to this, even though it never worked out for us."

He selected a spot just above Bucky's knee and wrote his name, SG Rogers, just like he wrote it on the business documents that Bucky sometimes handled for him, and leaned back to observe his handiwork.

Bucky's lips had parted. He gave a couple of rapid blinks, as if to get back his focus.

"Why didn’t it? Work out for you. She couldn't get into the submission?"

"What? No, it was me. That time in my life … I wasn't connecting with people. Just … drifting. It was finding the dom in myself that showed me how to get that back." He touched the blunt end of the pen against Bucky's Adam's apple and trailed it down to his navel, taking in his nakedness and willing patience, and letting them both get a little bit worked up on the reminder that Bucky had given him the unfettered power to look as much as he wanted. "It's the most honest part of me, Buck. I want to be able to share that with you, any way you'll let me."

He pulled Bucky's foot into his lap and wrote his name finely between the first and second metatarsals.

"This okay?"

Bucky's eyes glinted teasingly and he pushed his heel into the tight denim along the inside of Steve's thigh. "Could be spending your time better."

"Nothing wrong with starting slow."

When he reached out to sign the top of Bucky's right leg, and let his hand linger, the shiver that ran through Bucky's torso was impossible to hide. With a fraught huff of breath, Bucky rolled his hips up, seeking to more of the light brush of Steve's hand against his cock. This time, when he tested the cuffs behind him, it looked like it should look: frustrated arousal, no panic at all. There was colour in his face and he shot Steve a sudden look that said he'd have had him up against the wall if he hadn't been restrained.

Steve smiled, easy. "I thought you might be someone who appreciates the symbolism of ink on skin."

He stood up, and tilted Bucky's head away to autograph along the inside of one collar bone, feeling the shaky exhale as he did it. He kept the lettering small so they could both think about how much skin remained to be covered. It couldn't be much after ten; there was a lot of morning left.

"Wait. Hang on. This isn't – you got a playlist for this?"

"I put something together," Steve replied, calmly.

"You made a playlist for this?" Bucky laughed, sounding so bright and weightless that Steve felt it as an ache in his chest.

He signed his name twice over Bucky's shoulder, just above the band that bordered his sleeve tattoo. "You know I’ve wanted to do this with you for a while now. So yeah, I put some time into thinking about what would make you comfortable. How’m I doing so far?"

More laughter. "When the boy scouts launch a badge for bondage and discipline, you'll be first in line."

That was the moment, right there, when Steve put his worries away, because they were doing okay. Bucky was relaxed under his hands, maybe not what you'd call properly submissive in the professional realm, but leaning into it with everything he had, unafraid, and maybe even letting himself drift a little, trusting Steve to anchor him. If this was the most Bucky could give him, he could thrive on it; and if it wasn't, they were going to be spectacular.

"Now that's all the conversation I want from you," he said, and took Bucky's chin in his hand so he could kiss him, casually proprietorial. Bucky let it happen, like he understood how kisses were a thing to be given and taken at Steve's whim when they played like this, and sucked his bottom lip into his mouth when they were done, with a little murmur of satisfaction and a thoroughly provoking glance through his lashes.

Steve traded the little felt tip for a mid-line black marker and climbed up on the bed, settling Bucky back across his legs so he could write his full name in block capitals right up Bucky's sternum. It met with laughter again – happy laughter, not veiled disrespect – and if some of his subs reacted like this, it was unexpectedly charming to see it on Bucky.

"Okay?" he asked, purely so he could get Bucky to make an are you kidding me? face and mouth obviously at him Stop asking.

He printed his name over Bucky's pectoral, circling an "o" around the nub of one interested nipple until Bucky shuddered faintly, laughter vanishing.

"Best canvas I ever had," Steve murmured.

"Better be your only canvas from now on."

Steve fought his grin. "What did I say about conversation?"

He flipped the marker to trace its blunt end around Bucky's lips, going slow while Bucky watched, rapt, and held his breath. When he dipped it into his mouth, Bucky trapped it against his teeth with the muscle of his tongue and met his gaze hotly and, just like that, the mood that had been smouldering between them caught fire. His free hand reached for Bucky's cock, which jerked and hardened immediately as he watched the jump of muscles in Bucky's face, registering pleasure and frustration at the same time.

"That's what I want," he said. "That's perfect. Just let me take my time with you."

Bucky answered that with a groan of heartfelt impatience.

Steve turned him over then, and spent a good long time autographing his back while Bucky ground dirty and hard over the denim of Steve's thighs as that same sequence of letters bled into his skin, over and over and over. When Bucky was starting to let out little bitten-back noises of need, Steve left one last signature, set neatly over the line of his spine, and got him upon his knees.

He looked fiery, roused and half out of his mind with frustration, immediately testing his restraints in a vain attempt to reach his dick. Steve touched him instead, with a couple of loose strokes that only worked him up worse, then released him to go and sit against the headboard. Beckoning, he sat back to watch the tantalising sight of Bucky wielding those thickly muscled thighs to knee-walk up Steve's legs until he was back in reach, wasting no time.

"I'm going to give you what you need now. But I'm not going to make it easy. I'm going to make you work for it."

Bucky's head tilted fractionally, as if to say his capacity to work had better not be in question.

"Oh, you can do this. I want you to succeed. All you need is a little patience, and I know you've got that in you."

He hooked one finger under Bucky's dick and stroked the underside, where the skin was fine and soft, lifting the heavy, half-roused weight of him. Bucky's shoulders pulled tight and the chain between his wrists lightly clinked.

"Don't worry, Buck. I'm going to give you as much of my hand as you need." He petted over the arch of Bucky's dick with his fingertips, teasing it up. "And you can make as much noise as you want. I like hearing you ask for it." He circled the crown lightly until Bucky's eyes squeezed shut. "The only rule is you tell me. You tell me when you're getting close, and we stop. And I give you a chance to wind down, and then we start again. Until I decide that we're done."

He put his hands on Bucky's thighs and gave himself a moment to take it all in, the controlled strength of him, the tightly packed muscle of his chest, all that power sitting at rest over Steve's lap and waiting for him to decide what to do.

"You got that?"

"Hearing you loud and clear." His gaze had the steadiness Steve knew well. "Just waiting for you to turn all those promises into action."

Steve wet his palm with lube and stroked it on, firm enough to get a reaction, and kept up the same maddeningly gentle pace until the last give had hardened up and the flesh was hot in his hand.

"You like that, Bucky?"

He turned away slightly, like he was biting back a sassy reply. "Yeah. Feels good. I got some things to say about your pace though."

The colour was building in his cheeks, and the dormant muscles in his legs were starting to tense up. Steve badly wanted to take all day over this, to give Bucky the leisurely mutual unravelling that would have been impossible when he was incarcerated, and maybe uninteresting to the youth he'd been before that.

"Tell me."

"Pick it up a little, for a start. And give me more. You got big hands, fucking use them. Twist over the – yeah, god Steve. Don't stop."

With a breathy sound of satisfaction, Bucky tipped his head back, baring his throat

"Can you say please for me?" Steve asked, switching back to just his fingertips. His heart picked up with how badly he wanted it all of a sudden. "Don't even care if you mean it. Just want to hear you say the word."

He caught the shaft in his curled fingers and thumbed over the wet head until Bucky's gaze levelled down to his, defiant.

"Please," Bucky said in a growl that dissolved Steve's spine into shivers, because Bucky, professional to a fault, rarely asked for anything superfluous to the bare necessities of his job, and never for any favours so big that they needed to be adorned with niceties.

Steve gave him a long, firm stroke, and another, building the rhythm, until he looked so deliciously satisfied that Steve had to sink one hand into his hair and kiss him, deep and hungry, holding him exactly where he wanted. Bucky responded to that with a full-body shiver. He was flushed when Steve pulled back, sweat along his hairline. Steve leaned in to lick a trickle of it from under his temple, his tongue grating over stubble.

"Ah, Steve, Steve –"

"Is that stop?"

"Yeah. Fuck."

He took a firm grip around the base of Bucky's cock, cinching tight. "You're perfect." He kissed the side Bucky's face, all clenched up in thwarted pleasure. "That's exactly what I need from you. Take a moment, get yourself under control."

Bucky made a helpless, needy noise, his whole body bent and wracked with it.

"I know, Buck. This is where the work is. You letting me do this to you."

"Come on, come on," Bucky groaned, tipping his forehead onto Steve's shoulder.

"Not yet."

"Steve I can't-"

The greedy desperation of him today was a world away from the panic of their first attempt.

He let go his grip to stroke Bucky's shoulders. "You want something?" he asked, thumbing down the muscles of Bucky's upper arms, tracing the lettering up his sternum, touching him everywhere but the one place he was aching to for. "You show me how bad you want it. Come here. You know I like it when you get sweet with me. Show me."

Bucky drew a harried deep breath. "Jesus, you are—" The complaint ended in a kiss, as sweet as Steve had asked for, both of them with their eyes closed.

He grasped Bucky's cock and gave it a firm squeeze, from the base all the way to the crown, pinching his fingers softly over the tip as Bucky gasped into his mouth. Then he waited for Bucky to kiss him again, and matched the gesture with another long stroke, and another, until Bucky wasn't the only one getting noisy. Bucky's mouth was so soft, his kisses so needy, that Steve was letting out deep noises of appreciation, groaning into every one.

"Slow it down," he breathed out and Bucky made a low noise of protest in his throat like he'd have ripped Steve's head off with his teeth if he could only have forced his jaw wide enough, and that ran through Steve's veins like a drug because the voiced frustration was part of the emotional thrill of submission, sometimes, letting out the anger, giving voice to the need, heightening the temporary state of helplessness.

With that, Steve pushed his shoulders back and worked his chest over while his hand kept up that almost-there rhythm, sucking his nipples messily, tonguing hard against them until they peaked for him and Bucky shuddered and cursed. Bucky was wild-eyed and panting when he was finished, looking so thoroughly debauched that Steve had to yank open his jeans for a bit of relief, even if his hands were too busy taking care of Bucky to do anything about it.

"Steve," he husked out, jangling the cuffs for the first time in a while at the sudden lack of contact.

"Please," Steve prompted.

"Please," he whispered. "Steve."

"Let's get you a bit closer this time."

His hips gave a jerky, involuntary grind into Steve's grasp, searching for the desperately needed pressure that he quickly got as Steve worked a steady, glistening trail out of him that puddled in the folds of his jeans.

"Ah—" Bucky sighed into the next stroke, then tensed up into an explosive silence.

"Close?"

"So close."

Steve sped up into a couple quick pulls and stopped, clamping down around the base until Bucky groaned openly, kissing and biting at Steve's neck as if he had no idea what he wanted anymore. But writhe and groan as he might, he endured it, and Steve loved that about him, the part of him that couldn't help rising to a challenge, finding the strength in himself, testing himself against what Steve had asked him to do.

Steve kissed his ear and stroked the back of his neck until the agonised sounds had finished.

"One more time?" he whispered. "Right to the edge. I think you can get closer."

Bucky shuddered against him. This time when Steve's hand closed around him, he was still hard, leaving a thick, sticky trail on Steve's fingers.

"Please," he said into Steve's shoulder, almost immediately.

Steve let his eyes drift closed and leaned in to nose against Bucky's neck. "I like the sound of that."

"Please," Bucky slurred, and meaning it this time, with the faintest tremor of real entreaty, and that was too much for Steve. He pressed his face into Bucky's throat, sweat slick and thumping with tension.

"Oh, Buck."

A long, shimmering time went by after that, Bucky on the edge of orgasm the whole while, Steve's strokes getting slower and slower but deep every time, milking him right to the tip. Bucky's hands were clasped behind his back, no longer straining the cuffs, and that surrender, he knew how subs described that, like floating, like drowning in pleasure.

"Can you wait?" Steve murmured against his jaw. "I want to keep you like this all day."

"Please," Bucky ground out, completely unselfconscious, all his prodigious defences exhausted.

Steve kissed his mouth, even gentler than the last hundred times he'd done it. "You're so beautiful, Bucky. You keep saying that, I'll probably do anything you ask for."

"Tell me you're going to fuck me. Tell me that's next."

There wasn't enough air in Steve's lungs then. That hadn't been Steve's plan, and he knew perfectly well what he was in for if he taught Bucky how to run the scene with the right tone of voice, but he'd meant what he said. Bucky was so lovely like this, way outside his comfort zone, right at the extreme edge of his endurance, and trusting Steve to push him just far enough.

"Yes," he said dizzily, tipping Bucky off his lap so he could shove his jeans down a bit more and scrabble in the bedside drawers for a condom. A few moments later, they were back where they started, Steve getting his fingers slick and thinking how he hadn't done this for Bucky before, and wanted to with every cell in his body. Bucky clenched at the first touch, but opened easily for one and then two fingers, and then Steve was making an unholy mess of rolling the rubber on, and slicking himself up, and pulling Bucky forward onto him.

Nothing could have prepared him for the sheer, determined strength of Bucky grinding down onto him, mouth open as he took Steve's length. Then he was moving greedily, wielding all the unswerving balance powered by his dense core muscles, as if driving Steve's cock deeper in him was all he wanted in the world, and Steve couldn't hold out against that, not after the morning's relentless erotic build-up. He came hard, sudden, the pleasure tearing through him quick and rough as lightening as his sense of control dissolved into a helpless animal grunt of relief.

Bucky made a wounded sound, and Steve hazily rolled them to one side, pulling out and damning the bedclothes to an early laundry run purely so he could get his mouth on Bucky's dick, moaning hungrily as he sucked him over the edge.

A fuzzy while later, he opened his eyes from where his face was mashed into Bucky's stomach, and kissed at the warm skin. Then he crawled his way among the rumpled bedclothes and exhausted limbs to unlock the cuffs and drape himself behind Bucky to rub at his nearest shoulder a bit.

The permission of it, the pliancy of Bucky lying there, took on a knifeblade intensity, because of its transience. He hadn’t changed Bucky tonight, just taken him out of himself for a while. Some of his walls would go up again, later, when his head was no longer muddled up with endorphins. And Steve would work just as hard at helping him lower them again.

"Holy fuck," Bucky said, sounding shredded, scrubbing his face with the heel of his hand. "Is this how it is with all your subs?"

"What do you think?" Steve heard himself say, soft with affection, still rubbing Bucky's shoulder. "Jesus, no. I'd get burnt out if I let myself go like this every session." He lifted up on one elbow to stroke over Bucky's cheek, his ear, fingers dipping into his hair and brushing it back. "This is just for you." He kissed Bucky's ear, down the side of his neck. "No one except you. That's a promise."

With what appeared to be a great effort, Bucky rolled to face him, shifting away at the same time. "You know what sort of promise I want to hear outta you?"

Steve wanted him so badly like this, wearing nothing but an expression of sleepy-eyed contentment and a whole lot of Steve's handwriting, that he was ready to offer anything.

"Put in a goddamn bath. I'm really starting to get the point of them right now."

**

When he came back from the gym, Bucky was lying across the bed, doing a number puzzle in the newspaper. It must have been yesterday's because he didn't look like he'd got as far as the gas station today. He was still in the flannel pajama pants he slept in, and a thick pair of socks to ward off the morning chill, and the sweater Steve thought he remembered leaving draped over a chair last night. Sprawled comfortably on his stomach, with his hair loose, he couldn't bear less resemblance to the jumpy, defensive ex-felon who never left his pack more than a foot from the door, perpetually prepared for a quick exit. Steve wanted to stand and watch him like this all day, for as long as this languorous mood kept hold of him.

"Did you get any breakfast?" he asked.

Bucky smiled at the paper. "I look like the kind of feller who makes his own breakfast?"

Steve didn't bother to refute that with statistics.

"Eggs okay then? We got the rest of that olive bread to finish."

Bucky made a face like he was waiting for a better lure, making Steve mildly regret that he hadn't stopped off at the patisserie.

"I guess I'll take …" He filled in another square in his puzzle. "… the eggs and toast then."

Once he'd filled up a saucepan and put it on to boil over the portable burner, Steve found it impossible to focus. Bucky hated to be wholly idle, as if he'd used up his quota of indolence in those long years in prison. He was normally dressed and working on something by the time Steve came home. These leisurely moods didn't take him very often and, to be honest, Steve just wanted to keep standing in the doorway and soaking him in.

"I got another call from Maxine yesterday."

This time, Bucky's absorption in his puzzle was absolute, and it took a while for him to answer, "What'd she want?"

"Checking up on your employment situation. She told me something interesting." Steve watched him frown, and lower the pen, and raise it again. "You know what that was?"

Another lengthy pause. "It's my last meeting. Next Wednesday." He looked up, finally. "So long as nothing goes wrong."

He seemed far less excited about the official end of his sentence than he ought to be. But then he'd spent a long time being schooled in keeping his expectations low.

"I'm booked up until the end of the month," Steve told him. "Then after that I've got four days clear. I could make it a week if I moved some things around." He gave Bucky a chance to take that up, then added, "You want to go somewhere?"

"Ask me next Thursday."

"Okay. We should do something. On Thursday."

"You mean instead of what we normally do?" Bucky replied archly, going back to his puzzle.

Steve grinned helplessly at that, because what they did on those rare days when Steve had a clear 36 hours with no clients and Bucky had a week with no events to set up was as predictable as it was satisfying.

"I mean after what we normally do. Just – you know – pizza and beer."

"Sure."

"Is there anyone you want to invite?"

Bucky's face sharpened.

"No, Steve," he scowled, and Steve thought about the family he was still fiercely deflecting questions about.

"I didn't mean—what about your dancing crew? There's gotta be advantages to living in a neighbourhood that's deserted after 6pm."

Bucky continued frowning as he mulled that over. "They're work people. Gonna raise some eyebrows if people know I live here."

Steve shrugged. "Gonna start raising eyebrows sooner or later if we keep pretending like you don't."

"I'll let you know."

He'd known Bucky long enough now to recognise that as close enough to a yes, so the question of marking the end of his parole was dealt with. But all the same, as soon as he'd slid the eggs into the water Steve found himself standing right back in the doorway.

"You know you're still pretty terrible at asking for what you want," Bucky observed matter-of-factly.

"This is you talking."

"Me? I already got what I want." He filled in another number and laid down his pen. "All I gotta do is work out how to hold onto it."

He gave Steve one of those cool-eyed, challenging looks that dared him to find the right casual reply to what was almost certainly a soul-baringly honest declaration.

Steve had got to know that look pretty well. "Well, that makes two of us."

Steve got what he wanted, too, in the end. He spent a happy quarter-hour at the other end of the bed, eating his eggs and toast and reading a story about the Mars Desert Research Station on his phone. One link led to another and he was a lot wiser on the Curiosity rover's evidence for ancient salty watercourses on the planet surface by the time Bucky crawled to him and climbed over his lap.

"You've got clients today," he said, nipping at Steve's jaw, task-focused in the way that made Steve's toes curl.

"Not for another six hours."

"Better get a move on then."

When Bucky kicked things off like this, he usually knew exactly what he wanted. On a slow, rainy morning, Steve was just happy to be along for the ride.

**

He couldn't say what had changed about David this week. He wore the same slimline pants and impeccably ironed button-down as any other session, and the part in his black hair hadn't moved by a millimeter since the first time he'd come here. He still seemed frozen in grief. But as he undressed, for the first time Steve felt as if he could see the warm heart of him through the ice, something human that he could reach.

"You know you don't have to do that," Steve told him gently when he was lining himself up for the spanking bench. "A lot of the people I see don't come here for the discipline anymore."

David hesitated, frowning at the bench with obvious misgivings.

"Sometimes people just want to be touched. It doesn't have to hurt, and it doesn't have to be sexy either. There's somewhere in between."

Even this offer was putting them out of the routine David had stuck to for months. Steve had a moment's anxiety over interrupting the simple comfort of familiarity. But he'd been sure of what he saw.

"Some people like to talk. I'm not qualified to give you any advice, but I can sure as hell listen."

When David looked up at him at last, his eyes were weary. A few moments later, Steve had him sitting on the bench, hands gripping the leather.

"Tell me," Steve said, opening his hands over David's shoulders and rubbing. "Anything you want to. Or nothing, if that's what you prefer."

He'd worked his way down one arm and was massaging the palm of his hand before his client started to speak.

"I heard his laugh last week." Steve kept working, stretching his fingers back one by one, while David spoke in his careful, articulated voice. "In a shopping mall. It wasn't him. I knew it wasn't. It's been more than a year. But at the same time. There's some deep part of the brain that can't process that. I heard him laugh and I looked up, and I cycled through it one more time, remembering that he's gone. I keep thinking, how many more times can I get through that?"

Steve put his hand on David's shoulder and waited for his eyes to lift up. "You're going to make it. That's all I know. Take care of yourself."

It was a slow session. If the talking trailed off before long, David let the gentle mood between them linger, and didn't once ask to be hit. They drank their tea, as they often did, in silence. So it took him by surprise when David reached for his hand afterwards, and shook it warmly, placing his free hand over the top. "Thank you, Steve," he said. "Thank you."

When he was gone, Steve stayed sitting and listened to the violin concertos that Tony said would be good for creating an elegant, soothing mood, until Bucky came out of their room looking nap-rumpled and, to Steve's eyes, kind of dreamy.

"Good session?" he asked.

"Useful, I guess." He was struggling a bit with the residual melancholy of David's grief but, as Bucky had said himself, there were some things it didn't help to have both of them carrying around. "There's only so much I can do for him."

He got up to go tidy the office.

"You know what's good for that kind of mood?" Bucky pulled his phone out and, with two taps, switched the music to the swing beats and irrepressible brass that he preferred. He stepped across Steve's path, slid his other foot smoothly behind, and stood there twisting faintly to the beat. "You'd be amazed the kinds of things it helps with. Much better than punching the shit out of a big bag of sawdust."

He took Steve's hand and span out and back again, bending easily into the move.

"Not exactly built for dancing," Steve told him. "My feet don't move like that."

Bucky put his hand on Steve's chest and did a neat little back step and return. "Hmm. I got no complaints about your sense of rhythm. Always does the job as far as I'm concerned. Five stars."

And that, Steve thought suddenly, that was everything he'd ever wanted for Bucky. He was happy, and safe, and single-handedly lighting up all the gloomy corners in Steve's house.

"You should come out sometime," Bucky told him, still gliding over the floor, shifting from his heels to his toes, "give the dance floor a try."

"I got plenty of other ways I could make a fool outta myself. Think I might leave that one for the experts."

Bucky span away, towards the sink this time, to pull a bottle down from the shelf and twist the top off with a crack.

"I could be that good a teacher," he continued over the glug of wine pouring. "You never know."

The wine was the sort of red that caught the light like a gemstone all through the glass. Bucky brought it over, still keeping rhythm with the surface of the wine barely trembling.
"Put that face away. I spent enough years going without. I deserve one goddamn glass of … whatever this is, and you look like you need one pretty bad."

The wine tasted as lively as it looked. Coming back with another glass for himself, Bucky did a complicated sidestep that sent a wave of motion through his body as the glass, once again, held steady. It wasn't half as effortless as it looked, Steve knew. That was how Bucky did things: concealing the work.

"You wanna pick something?" Bucky asked, touching the laptop on the floor with his bare toe to wake it up. "Something good for your blue mood."

"No," Steve said. "Yeah."

Using his free hand, he hooked Bucky's pocket and pulled him closer. It took him one quick blink to read Steve's intentions, and there he was leaning up, kissing him lightly. The sort of kiss they'd only recently started to share, that was all comfort and no expectation. Steve felt swallowed up by it every time.

Bucky was still keeping the beat in his hips, twisting left then right into Steve's grip. He was the most beautiful thing Steve had ever seen, here in Steve's home, doing this thing that lifted him out of his unlucky past and left him shining, opening up the essential part of himself that he was asking Steve to share.

"Take me out dancing then," Steve told him. "You decide when."

When their lips grazed again, indulgent, he could feel Bucky's smile.

"Sorry," Steve added in between kisses. "I'm slow sometimes."

"I can work with that."

"Pretty sure you've been doing that from the start."

Bucky laughed softly. "Pretty sure it's been worth it."

He slid his free hand around the back of Steve's head and held him steady to deepen the kiss, with an electric flicker of his tongue that disappeared just when the heat in Steve's system was starting to build.

"No dancing tonight though. I got a date with the sluttiest sofa in the country."

Steve stayed to watch him curl into the corner of it like a nest, flicking through movie options on the laptop, then went to fetch that half-full packet of pretzels for a snack.

"Put that shit in a bowl," Bucky called after him. "This ain't a public bus station."

When he returned to the sofa, he brought his phone with him to text David. Today felt good to me. I hope you're doing okay. Come back whenever you need.

Then he turned it off – right off – and pulled Bucky's feet into his lap.

"How's Saturday?" Bucky asked, digging his heels down between Steve's thighs. "For dancing."

"Saturday," Steve promised. "I'll be ready."

"I'm counting on it."

**

The end