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A Rough Trade

Chapter Text

Introduction

He's supposed to be in his room. Supposed being the operative word, and Bucky can't help but feel the quiet thrill of freedom as he slips through the quiet halls where every footstep might cause an echo and give him away. His guards have been given strict orders to keep him confined to his quarters by any means necessary, the consequence of a particularly nasty exchange with the Duke this morning, and they'll come looking when they realise he's broken out. Bucky's never been one to follow the rules, and he's certainly not going to stay in a cage against his will.

The escape hadn't even been difficult this time, and Bucky is starting to think the Duke severely underestimates him if he really thinks two guards are enough to keep him confined. He'd slipped out while they were engrossed in conversation with the pretty new chamber maid (her daily rounds are the most fun they get, stuck guarding a royal brat, so it was an easy distraction) and made his way to the west wing of the palace. It's almost empty at this time of day, only an occasional maid or butler roaming the halls as their duties require. Perfect for a boy who wants to stay hidden for as long as possible. He’d love to be around people, love to have heartbeats and skin near him that wasn’t mottled with age or sweating under the intense heat of another society ball, but it’s too risky. If Bucky wants to be hidden and keep even this tiny bit of freedom, he needs to be alone.

The sound of hurried footsteps echoes down the hallway, making his heart rate spike nervously, and Bucky ducks quickly into an empty drawing room. He closes the door quietly behind him and waits, ear pressed to the wood to see if he's been discovered. He doesn't intend to be docile and sweet and go quietly back to his punishment like he's supposed to, not this time.

The footsteps pass after several minutes, and Bucky breathes a long, low sigh of relief. He advances further into the room, dragging a hand across the fancy wallpaper and letting the nervous sweat of his fingertips drag along with it. It’ll leave smudges, visible ones, and that shouldn’t give him such a thrill as it does. Crossing to a small table, he picks up a random trinket and tosses it under a chair before carrying a vase across the room and depositing it onto a different table with an expensive clink that’s oddly satisfying. His acts of vandalism are never anything too obvious, always petty and maybe a little childish, but it’s just enough to annoy the Duke. Tiny rebellions are about all he has left to express himself against the dull and crushing loneliness of routine, and Bucky takes advantage at any chance he gets.

The windows have been left open, probably to take advantage of the fresh air on such a stiflingly hot day, and he leans out to glance down at the ground below. This particular room looks out on the Duke’s private entrance and he spots the Duke’s favorite guard, Rumlow, disinterestedly standing watch below. There’s a collection of small stones on the sill, likely dropped there by the birds who sometimes take shelter under the old, decorative awning. Bucky palms one of the larger stones and leans out again, doing his best to aim at Rumlow’s greasy head before tossing it down. When it misses, he picks up another one and uses his mistake to aim again.

This time the stone connects with a thwack Bucky can’t hear from this high up, and Rumlow jerks a hand up to rub at the back of his head, whipping around to scan the house with a frown. Bucky ducks out of sight behind the wall and smirks to himself, enjoying his little victory to the tiniest molecule he can because he doesn’t get a lot of them lately. Rumlow has always been particularly annoying in his meticulous obedience to the Duke’s orders, bordering on excessively ‘exact’ adherence at times, and that’s just the smallest of his many crimes. Bucky can think of no one more deserving of a smack to the back of the head.

He chances a peek around the wall after a second or two, and his heart drops into the pit of his stomach. Rumlow has spotted him, his expression folding into a thunderous scowl, and his hand jumps up immediately to point the window out to someone just inside the house. Someone will be coming in any moment to drag Bucky back to his room, and he can’t let that happen when he’s only just got the sweet air of freedom into his lungs. He sprints across the room, throwing the door open wide and taking off down the hall as he tries to ignore the sounds of a quickly approaching mob of guards behind him. He just needs to make it to the staircase leading to the kitchen, then he can escape to the garden through the servants’ entrance and nobody will be able to find him for hours in the elaborate hedge maze.

He probably could have made it, if he hadn’t accidently missed the turn and ended up cornered at the end of a hallway with no exit. He watches the guards close in with a carefully cocky expression, a facade of stillness despite the almost certain knowledge that he’ll be punished severely for this infraction. He won’t give them the satisfaction of seeing his fear, not when he got so close to getting a whole fifteen minutes to himself this time.

“You’re supposed to be in your room, sir.” The guard at the head of the group steps forward, gently taking his elbow. They’ve dealt with Bucky enough to know that staying close isn’t enough to keep ‘the brat’ (as he’s un-affectionately referred to among themselves) from taking off again.

“Don’t you have better things to do than babysitting me? Wars to fight? Rebellions to put down?” Bucky rolls his eyes dramatically, purposefully ignoring the quickened pace of his heart as he does his damndest to keep up his front of bravado and sarcastic tone. “Let’s get this over with. Deliver me back to my cell.”

Once he’s been contained, the guards disperse back to their designated posts without a backward glance. Despite the indignity of being forced back to his gilded cage like a petulant child, Bucky feels a little better when he sees that there are two extra guards left flanking his door. Maybe the Duke doesn’t think so little of his desire to escape after all, maybe one day soon his wish for more freedom will be taken seriously.

Bucky sinks down onto the plush bed, as fluffy and empty as all the promises he was made when he was first brought here as a child. His life was like a daydream back then, the horrors of his distant past left behind in favour of the bright lights and delicate ways of the palace he was purchased for. Things changed as he grew, but back then he’d felt all the promise of a real future laid out before him and no bed has ever been so comfortable since. He throws himself down onto the quilt, burying his face in the soft pillows and swearing that he won’t give in to his emotions this time.

That’s the first thing he learned when he was brought to this palace. Emotions are for the weak, the feeble who don’t last beyond their first punishment or their first long, lonely night away from home with nothing but solitude and a sweating old man for company. All of Bucky’s emotions were left behind in a crumbling mansion, falling under the weight of debt that only the selling of his parents’ only son could repay. As a babe he’d learned to crawl in rich carpeted hallways. As a child, they had worn to wood. And finally, in his youth, they had become bare and rotten just when everything else did. He’s never been sure who exactly arranged the match, between the Duke who lacked an heir and the noble family who desperately needed to pay their bills, but he remembers the carriage arriving at his house and then… and then everything changed.

Things have been the same ever since, and Bucky is hungry for something, anything, to change for the better.

Chapter Text

It takes the Duke nearly four hours to arrive at Bucky’s room, which he’s pretty sure is a record length of time between crime and punishment. Maybe the man is slipping in his old age, or maybe losing interest in his pet project when it becomes more of a hassle than a pleasure. Bucky’s always hoping for some kind of political catastrophe that would see his benefactor called away to court and far away from the house, but things have been upsettingly stable lately. He still has hope though. The tiny ray still left in his heart is hard to kill.

“You’re testing my patience James.” The Duke moves toward Bucky where he sits on the bed, words clipped but expression unreadable as ever. He never lets Bucky know when he’s really pissed off, not until it’s too late. “I’m just trying to keep you safe. The least you can do is follow a few simple instructions.”

Bucky keeps his expression neutral, only the smallest tic of his jaw giving the game away. Showing fear in front of the Duke only makes things worse.

‘We’re lucky that Rumlow wasn’t seriously hurt, young man.” The Duke folds his arms and watches him for a moment before he continues, just waiting for Bucky to slip up even as he keeps his voice steady and calm. “What would we do around here without the protection he provides?”

“Of course.” Bucky mutters petulantly, glaring down at his knees and hoping that’ll be enough to hide his emotions from the Duke. People frequently call him a brat behind his back, he knows that. He hates to perpetuate the stereotype, but he can’t help the burst of sarcasm that slips through in his frustration. “Because you don’t employ fifty other guards for that exact reason.”

“You will not take that tone with me.” The change is immediate. A tightness sets into Pierce’s jaw and he brings the back of his hand down hard across Bucky’s cheek with a crack that reverberates through his skull and snaps his head sideways. Bucky runs a hand cautiously over his still stinging skin as he reels, an icy chill settling in his stomach. It’s rare that the Duke actually strikes Bucky (he must look presentable after all), which is what makes it so terrifying when he does.

Pierce turns away, clasping his hands behind his back as he crosses to the fireplace while Bucky shrinks back into the bed. He feels very small and vulnerable in moments like these, would like nothing more than to crawl under the bed and stay there until he was alone and safe again. Even if he can’t remember the last time that was really true.

Several agonizing moments of silence pass before Pierce turns back to Bucky, unreadable mask carefully in place.

“I will need you to be on your best behavior tonight. We have many men of worth joining us. More worth than your temper tantrums.” He steps closer again, brushing his fingers lightly across Bucky’s cheek where the skin is still inflamed and angry. Bucky forces his flinch down into the pit of his roiling stomach. “We wouldn’t want to have any incidents that might tarnish our family’s status, now would we?”

Bucky hates the way he relaxes into the touch, craves it even, because it means that Pierce isn’t upset with him anymore. He spends so much time disobeying his rules, telling himself he doesn’t care about the punishments or the consequences, but his body betrays him every time.

“I can trust you to do this for me, can’t I? It’s such a little effort and it would make me very happy.” Pierce settles his hand on Bucky’s shoulder, a small smile creasing his usually stoic features. Sometimes he talks down to him like this, like he’s a dog or a child, and Bucky can’t help but feel oddly comforted by the rare show of affection.

Bucky nods limply, cheek burning as a strange counterpoint to the chill in his veins. Pierce’s hand feels heavy on his shoulder, and the weight is an odd grounding when his head is still fuzzy from the jolt of the slap.

“You’re a good boy really, James. My good boy.” Suddenly Pierce’s hand is gone, and when Bucky manages to raise his sluggish head he’s back across the room, opening the door with his usual carelessness. It’s as if their argument never happened. “Wear your blue neckcloth. The one I bought you in Paris. It brings out your eyes.”

And suddenly he’s gone, the door shutting firmly behind him and leaving Bucky alone again.

As soon as he can move, once the ringing in his ears dies down enough for him to hear the faint hustle and bustle of the household preparing for the festivities, Bucky crawls back on the bed and reaches over to his nightstand. The top drawer holds his flask, the cabinet underneath the bottle of brandy that’s been running worrying low the last couple of days. Pierce doesn’t much care if he drinks, so long as he can’t smell it on him and as long as Bucky behaves himself in front of company.

There will be plenty of company tonight, and Bucky does intend to behave, but right now he needs to take the edge off. His limbs are beginning to tremble with the cold adrenaline aftermath of any physical encounter with the Duke, and his valet will be coming to make sure he’s dressed correctly soon enough for getting himself under control to be a matter of priority. He mustn’t embarrass the Duke, especially not in front of his own staff when they might gossip.

He empties the flask in a few long swallows, relishing the burn. He’ll behave, he’ll be good, he just needs to make everything a little more quiet and distant. He’ll be charming and social this way, and he can stop before he gets drunk.

As if that’s been true any time in the last two years. Still, Bucky has his hope along with the rest of the bottle.

 

This isn’t the first society party Steve’s been to, but it’s definitely the stuffiest.

Alexander Pierce isn’t the most prominent noble in the country, but he’s very influential in military circles. That’s why Captain Rogers is here in full uniform, all his medals polished to gleaming in the tasteful candlelight, and sweating through the rough wool propriety has ensconced him in. He’s here to give Pierce the spiel about military funding in the North, on behalf of his superiors who consider him personable and non-threatening to delicate high-society men, but he hasn’t had a chance to get anywhere near the Duke yet and he’s getting sick of turning down dances.

The primary source of the Duke’s distraction seems to be his ward, the boy Steve has heard all the rumours about just the same as anyone who’s anyone has. From what he’s heard, the boy’s parents died in some newspaper-friendly tragedy and Pierce acquired the child as a sort of pseudo-heir in an out-of-character fit of philanthropy. Steve doesn’t pretend to understand the monarchy and its various complexities, but he’s pretty sure there’s a rule against adopted orphans inheriting the family titles of the landed gentry.

The boy (more of a man than Steve had expected, given the apparent childishness of his behaviour if the rumours are to be believed) hasn’t left the Duke’s side all night, and it’s becoming apparent that Steve won’t get even a moment of the Duke’s time if he continues to hover just outside the inner circles of the party. He finally steels himself and moves into the throng of guests, making his way to the Duke. He has to dodge an old man with a rather bulbous nose who has been asking him all night about his marriage prospects and informing him that he has a daughter that would make a fine wife (not exactly the most comfortable conversation), and in his crooked path he narrowly misses smacking directly into someone without the gall to get out of his way.

“My apologies. I should pay closer attention to…” He struggles to maintain his military issue frown when he realizes who exactly is in his path. “I’ll be more careful.”

The young man’s eyes squint up at him as if he’s struggling to bring him into focus before he flashes a brilliant smile. A trained smile, one that just about forces the corners of his eyes to crinkle. It doesn’t exactly set Steve at ease, even if it’s pleasing to look at.

“No harm done. Captain Rogers right? You’re staying in the palace this week. The Duke’s special guest.” He sticks his hand out, eyes twinkling with mirth that at least seems genuine. “I’m Bucky.”

Steve clasps the hand in his own and nods somewhat stiffly, adjusting his grip when he feels bony fingers digging into his palm and suddenly feels bad. This is almost a child, not someone he needs to intimidate through irrelevant displays of dominance. The poor kid is probably out of his depth already, no matter how confident he seems in this situation where Steve feels like a fish out of water. Horses for courses, his mother always used to say.

“So what’s a big, strong soldier man doing in the palace? Shouldn’t you be charging into battle on your trusty steed?” Bucky’s hand lingers slightly too long, fingers dragging against Steve’s palm purposefully as he pulls away. Steve suppresses his urge to shiver at the overly-forward touch, especially as it must be an accident coming from another man. The boy must be drunker than he seems, must be sloppy in his movements instead of sharp and aware as he seems.

“There’s more to the military than the actual fighting. There’s strategy and discipline, and occasionally there are parties.” Steve drops his hand to his side, looking the boy over with a critical eye that’s trying hard to help him maintain his patience in spite of the youth’s slightly rumpled look and position blocking him from the Duke (politely ignoring, of course, the whiff of alcohol emanating from him). “It might be past your bedtime… sir. Bucky. Perhaps someone should escort you to your quarters.”

“If you insist.” Bucky leers, a little too loose to be intentional. “I’ve got a bed big enough even for you, Captain.”

Steve’s normally controlled demeanor vanishes, his posture visibly tensing as his cheeks burn, but before he can respond the Duke appears behind Bucky, hand materialising on his shoulder like it’s always been there to guide him back to the straight and narrow.

“Now James, I think the festivities may have tired you.” Pierce’s face flashes one of those smiles Steve is used to seeing from the upper class, the bland and pleasant promise of caring that’s usually entirely false on close inspection. “I apologize for my ward, he seems to have forgotten his manners.”

“No. No sir. Bu...James was just telling me about the, uh…chandelier. It’s beautiful. Really.” Steve hopes the Duke doesn’t ask him about the specifics of the imaginary conversation. He doesn’t know the first thing about chandeliers, he didn’t grow up around all this wealth and opulence like most of the people at this staid party. He can tell a chandelier from a regular candlestick, that’s for sure, but that’s about as far as his knowledge goes.

The Duke frowns slightly, a new crease forming in his wrinkled brow, but he doesn’t inquire further.

“I have yet to have the chance to thank you for your hospitality. I know the Lieutenant gave you short notice of my arrival. He didn’t know I would be passing through the area.” Steve relays the pre-rehearsed narrative easily, voice wavering only slightly under the intense gaze of the Duke.

“Of course. The Lieutenant is an old acquaintance.” The smile is back. “I hope you find your lodgings adequate.”

“Yes, sir. Quite.” His gaze falls to Bucky again. Even though he tries to tear himself away, when the young man’s eyes find him again.

“Maybe I should escort you there after the party. Make sure they really are adequate.” Steve can see the blue in Bucky’s eyes darken slightly, even from the feet of distance between them. It’s clear he’s full of mischief and no doubt about to embarrass himself again if his previous outburst is anything to go by.

The Duke raises a hand slightly, subtly motioning to someone across the room.

“I believe James has reached the end of his night, Captain. I’m sure he found it a pleasure to meet you. Tell our guest good evening, James.” Pierce’s hand falls down to Bucky’s bicep as another man joins their circle, surreptitious in his movements and dressed almost just like any other party guest. “Ah, Rumlow. James has grown tired. Please escort him back to his room.”

Steve looks up from Bucky in surprise at the familiar name, eyes landing on a face he thought, or maybe hoped, that he’d never see again.

“Captain Rogers. It’s been a while.” Brock’s voice is just as grating as Steve remembers it, just as off-note and wrong as it was in the weeks when everything went to shit, before the court-martial.

“Brock. I thought you went to Vienna after they discharged you.” He almost adds dishonourably, but he refrains. This isn’t the time or place, not now. His past with Rumlow doesn’t need airing in front of these people who couldn’t possibly understand what a soldier goes through. It feels somehow obscene to even think about discussing it here, in this lavish ballroom.

“I did, for a while, but his Grace needed a guard to keep the palace safe.” Brock’s face cracks into a superficially charming smile that Steve sees through like glass. “Someone with the right kind of experience.”

“I should have known. Of course you’d be friends with Rumlow.” It’s as if the name tastes bitter on Bucky’s tongue as he says it with how tightly his face screws up, and Steve is taken aback by the sheer vitriol in his tone. “You get the same look on your face when you’re lying about what you really think.”

Steve balks at the young man’s tactlessness even as the Duke’s hand visibly tightens on his arm, creasing his impeccable jacket.

“Rumlow. I’m sure you can catch up with Captain Rogers another time. James really has had enough tonight.” The Duke’s voice has lost its carefully calculated calm, and there’s a thread of stern steel underlining his command. “Please take him. Now.”

Rumlow’s hand wraps tightly around Bucky’s other bicep, making the boy flinch and almost try to yank away from him before he’s whisked off without another word. The Duke turns back to Steve once they’re gone, face completely neutral in a way that’s too studied to be masking anything but anger.

“James has had a long day. Please excuse his… indiscretions. The Lieutenant mentioned you had to speak with me about a business matter, I haven’t forgotten. We’ll talk soon, Captain.” He doesn’t wait for an answer but simply turns on his heel and disappears into the crowd of people, leaving Steve alone once more. It’s sort of a relief after being hit with the full force of whatever the hell is brewing between the Duke and his ward.

Steve would be lying if he didn’t say he was baffled by the whole situation, the complexities of the upper classes don’t seem to explain everything he just saw and it tugs at the back of his mind uncomfortably. He’s pondering what just happened over a glass of wine, that is much too rich for his palette, when he’s approached by a woman whose face is turned sharply skyward. He can’t understand for the life of him why these haughty people feel the need to turn their noses up like that. It’s not exactly an attractive angle from where he’s standing.

“Captain Rogers, I hope you’re enjoying yourself. I’m sure parties can seem trivial to a man fresh from the battlefield.” She curtsies gently, holding out her hand demurely for Steve to take. The low light glints off her tasteful jewellery and the beading of her dress, and such finery can only indicate the hostess of their gathering.

“My husband can be so brusque sometimes, I hope you don’t feel slighted by his sudden disappearance. He always feels the need to put on the face of a good host at these parties. Mingle with all of his guests.”

Steve studies the woman shaking her hand gently. He seems to remember somewhere during his brief coaching (to not make a fool of himself during this visit) being told that this is the Duke’s second wife. The first died in childbirth, he thinks he was told. He can’t be sure, because he’s been fed so many cribbed notes about these people over the last two days, but he thinks that’s it.

“Of course not, your Grace. He was very accommodating considering the great number of hands he has to shake.” He releases her hand, dropping his back down to his side to avoid fiddling awkwardly with his wine glass. “He had his hands full with James. They seem very close.”

“Oh, yes. My husband is very invested in James’ future.” The woman’s smile falters, just a flicker in her delicate composure. “It’s really very sad, the circumstances in which he came to us. His parents, the poor things, they perished in a fire along with half their household. James was very lucky to make it out alive, and if my husband hadn’t come along, who knows what would have happened to him.”

“I heard the stories, it’s very sad.” He pauses for a moment to consider his next question, trying to decide if it’s impolite to ask. “Excuse my boldness, I don’t mean to offend, but does the Duke mean for him to inherit the title?”

“Oh, heavens no. That would be impossible, he has no claim to it.” She does a very poor job of hiding a sneer, and Steve wonders just how much liquor it would take to get these people to really loosen up. “James is to be a clergyman, or perhaps join the Royal Navy. The Duke has connections there, as you know.”

“Yes, of course. I haven’t been in polite society in a long time, do excuse me. I’m never quite sure what’s proper anymore. I just meant they seemed well acquainted with the way he grasped his arm and such.” He quickly backtracks. All he needs is to offend the duchess and get banished before his mission is completed, that would be the icing on the cake of this fiasco. His eyes dart quickly around the room searching for an escape. “I don’t mean to cut our conversation short, your Grace, but I really must excuse myself. My journey here was long, and I find myself very tired. I believe I will retire to my room for the evening before I become unfit for good company.”

He bows politely before moving away, cutting a path toward the door. He really should get to bed anyway. His nightly routine is already hopelessly ruined, and if he doesn’t fall asleep soon his morning routine will be in for a similar fate. If he’s going to have to deal with these people for an entire day then he’s going to need all the energy he can to keep his wits about him. Otherwise he’ll probably end up married to one of the Duke’s daughters before he realises what he’s agreed to.

As he goes through the motions of folding his dress uniform neatly and carefully lining up the few possessions he brought with him, Steve can’t help thinking about his exchange with the Duke’s ward. Something about the whole situation struck him as odd, but he isn’t sure exactly what. Maybe it’s in the way the Duke’s eyes lingered for slightly too long on the boy’s retreating back, or the way the Duke passed his over-sexualized banter off as a childish lark when it was clearly on the verge of breaking laws, let alone social conventions.

Eventually Steve falls into bed, pulling the elaborate bed clothes over himself and quietly longing for the familiar feel of his more modest housing. Sighing, he pushes away the thoughts of Bucky that are still running around his weary mind, and closes his eyes.

He’s here to complete a task, and he can’t let blue-eyed troublemakers distract him.

Chapter Text

Bucky has been pacing the richly-carpeted floor of his bedroom for an hour, body still thrumming to the rhythm of the party below. He’s still drinking, working his way through the bottle he had hidden in his dresser for just such an occasion, and he just barely has time to hide the evidence under the bed when his door opens. He straightens up cautiously, watching as Pierce makes his way into the room without a word, Rumlow flanking his side like a glowering shadow.

“James, I thought we had an agreement. When we spoke earlier, you promised me you would be on your best behaviour tonight. What I saw was very far from your best behaviour.” Pierce clucks his tongue disapprovingly, moving toward Bucky with a slight cloudiness to his gaze. He’s clearly consumed enough wine to give this interaction an air of danger, the seasick uncertainty that has nothing to do with the way the floor is moving under Bucky’s feet. “Our guest would have been scandalized if he had any knowledge of proper social conventions.”

Bucky takes a step back as Pierce closes in, hands balling into fists. There’s no point in trying to escape, not with Rumlow here to block his path, but maybe he can at least brace himself for what’s coming.

“Rumlow.” The Duke turns suddenly, with a smoothness Bucky would no longer be able to manage at his level of inebriation. “Leave us. Dismiss the guards. You will suffice for the time being.”

So that’s what kind of visit this is. Bucky’s fists automatically unclench, hands relaxing in relief. It’s not like he wants this, but given the choice he’d much rather deal with this Pierce than the violent Pierce that visited him earlier. There are things he can handle from experience, but being beaten is something he’s never gotten used to.

As soon as the door shuts behind Rumlow, Pierce closes the distance between them and lets his hand drift up to Bucky’s cheek. He strokes a leathery fingertip over his prominent cheekbone before slipping lower to cup his chin. He squeezes Bucky’s face suddenly, holding him in place with a bruising grip. Bucky goes limp, it’s easier that way.

“I know what you were doing. Flirting. Trying to make me jealous. ” Pierce’s usually controlled features twist with disgust as he spits the words, so close to Bucky’s face he can feel the heat of anger radiating from him. “But you can’t possibly make me jealous, boy. You are mine. You belong to me.”

Bucky lets out a quiet sob as Pierce’s hand slips slightly lower, coming into dangerous proximity of his throat. It wouldn’t be the first time, but he really doesn’t want to be choked again if he can avoid it. The bruises are difficult to hide even with his high collars, and with a guest in the house he doesn’t want to be confined to his quarters again.

“I’m willing to let your lapse in judgement be blamed on brandy, since I can smell it on your breath from here.” His eyebrows raise, eyes flat and deadly as some tropical beast Bucky has only read about. “But only if you say it. Say you’re mine.”

“I’m…” Bucky swallows roughly, struggling against the weight of Pierce’s hand. “I’m yours.”
Pierce smirks triumphantly, the corners of his eyes creasing with the effort, and Bucky has no time to protest before he leans forward and crushes his lips against Bucky’s.

“You are a good boy James. My good boy.” His hand drops to the front of Bucky’s waistcoat, fingering the buttons momentarily before letting nimble fingers unfasten them.

Bucky knows what comes next so he shrugs out of the waistcoat, letting it slip unceremoniously to the floor. Pierce reaches down, pulling his shirt up over his head and leaving him in only his breeches and underclothes. Bucky feels exposed, but he does nothing to show his discomfort. It only ever makes things worse.

Pierce pushes down on Bucky’s shoulders, forcing him down to his knees and running a hand through the slicked-back hair that’s already become dishevelled. His hand then moves to the front of his own pants and makes quick work of the buttons to free himself from the confines of his underclothes. The Duke’s length is already swollen, ready and waiting for Bucky to begin his usual task. The same task he’s been made familiar with since he first came to live at the palace. His inexperienced throat hadn’t been able to handle much of the Duke’s length back then, but that’s not the case anymore. After all, practice makes perfect.

“Open your mouth, darling.” His hand is suddenly cupped around the back of Bucky’s neck, guiding his head forward with a force that dares him to even try and resist.

Bucky does as he’s told, parting his lips and tilting his head to accommodate the shaft as it pushes thickly into his mouth. He hollows out his cheeks, creating a gentle suction and beginning to bob his head as he’s been taught, as he’s learned the Duke likes. The quicker he gets this over with, the sooner Pierce will leave and Bucky may even get some sleep tonight. There’s still a half bottle of brandy under his bed, it’ll be enough to soothe him to sleep if he can just get through this.

Pierce begins to move along with Bucky, thrusting harder and harder against the back of his throat until it begins to burn. Bucky’s eyes are beginning to water, gag reflex coming threatening close to betraying him when suddenly Pierce is pulling away, hand releasing from where it’s tangled in Bucky’s hair.

“Get on the bed James.” Pierce’s eyes rake over his body hungrily, all the fog of inebriation transfigured into something more primal, harder to deny. “I need to make sure you believe the words you just said.”

Bucky’s head screams at him to resist, to run and fling open the door and flee as fast as his legs will carry him, but he learned a long time ago that would only make things worse. He walks slowly to the bed, climbing up and laying back against the pillows. Pierce follows, leaning over Bucky with a devilish gleam in his eyes. He reaches down to the fall on Bucky’s breeches, slipping his fingers underneath the flap and releasing the buttons with a familiar dexterity. Bucky lifts his hips as Pierce rakes his fingers down his stomach, letting them catch in his underclothes and drag his remaining coverings away, leaving the boy completely nude.

“No one else gets to see you like this. You know that, don’t you?” Pierce’s touch is cold against Bucky’s skin that burns with the embarrassment of being laid bare in front of another man. He knows down to his very bones that this is improper, even if the Duke has seen him in this state of undress almost weekly since he was a mere boy of fifteen. He was smaller then, as small as he still feels when this happens now.

Pierce reaches down, fingers finding Bucky’s hips and then circling down to the ample planes of his backside. Bucky holds back the feeling of nausea as Pierce’s hand moves closer to his entrance, dry and promising the pain that always comes. It doesn’t matter how many times this happens, how many times he lays here with the Duke on top of him, he’ll never get used to the burning pain and the discomfort of being invaded. Bucky widens the spread of his legs slightly, relaxing his body forcibly because he knows that accepting what will come is the only thing that makes this bearable.

“That’s my good boy, opening up for me so well. You enjoy this, don’t you?” Pierce leans in, breathing Bucky in deeply before steadily forcing a finger inside him.
Bucky tenses involuntarily, which only makes things worse. The Duke hasn’t even taken the trouble to use saliva this time, so there is nothing to ease the slide, nothing to alleviate the burning as the muscles fight against the intrusion. Pierce pushes his finger in and out a few times, but it’s not enough to prepare Bucky before he presses in another finger that feels like it’s tearing him apart. Bucky lets out a whimper, grabbing onto Pierce’s bicep in an effort to ground himself, but he doesn’t dare let out more of a complaint. Pierce seems to relish the sound of discomfort, because his eyes shine with light and he smiles as close to genuinely as he ever gets.

“You like that, don’t you sweetheart?” He pulls out his fingers, settling himself between Bucky’s legs before pressing his knees up and out. Bucky feels frozen, like he’s watching this happening to his body from a long way off. “You’ll like this even more.”

Pierce has the decency to drop his head and spit roughly in the vicinity of Bucky’s opening a few times, but it does very little to help as he presses his cock inside without restraint. Bucky can’t hold back the cry of pain this time, and he tries in vain to push back against the Duke’s chest even though his intoxicated limbs have all the strength of a wet kitten within them right now.

“No, no, no. Be a good boy. Take your punishment.” Pierce moves his hips and every centimeter more that he buries himself inside Bucky feels like a thousand relentless knives. Why hadn’t the alcohol dulled his feelings instead of his reflexes?

“It hurts. Please.” Bucky finally loses his pride and gives in to begging, breathlessly, closing his eyes to try and shut out everything around him.

Pierce ignores his pleas and continues to push into Bucky without pause. He picks up speed until his body tenses suddenly, gaze shifting upward as his thrusts grow shallow and jerky. Bucky finally opens his eyes when the movement stops, gaze reluctantly falling upon the Duke lying sweaty and panting above him. He lies there, trapped for several moments until Pierce finally rolls off of him and Bucky can finally get some air into his lungs.

The Duke steps to the basin on the dressing table and begins to wash the evidence of their meeting from his skin, back to being businesslike as if he’s about to put money on the bedside table before he leaves. Bucky stays still on the bed, not daring to move or even breathe as the Duke completes his routine.

When Pierce finally steps back towards the bed Bucky collapses in on himself in a near fetal position, trying to make himself small. It’s a coping mechanism he’s developed for nights like this, and occasionally it spares him extra suffering on top of what he’s already endured.

“Oh, James.” Pierce reaches out, stroking Bucky’s cheek with the back of his hand in some semblance of tenderness and care. “I suppose you’ve learned your lesson.”

Bucky nods weakly, shrinking away from the touch, and the gesture of submission brings a small smile to Pierce’s face because he likes it when his toys know their place.

“You’ll do better for me next time, won’t you? You’ll be a good boy for me.” Pierce’s hand moves up to Bucky’s hair, wrenching his head back from where it’s tucked into his knees and bending to press another kiss to lips. It’s a parody of affection, a movement of control over love, and Bucky’s stomach rolls at it.

As soon as the Duke releases his head, Bucky presses it back into his knees defensively. He doesn’t see Pierce leave but as soon as he hears the door close he uncurls himself, trying to ignore the nervous trembling of his limbs. He reaches below the bed for the half bottle of brandy and clings to like a lifeline, pushing himself up and take a long pull from it, relishing the burn. It makes him feel like he’s coming back to his body, at least. The world spinning around him is irrelevant as long as he’s pretending he’s fine.

He thinks crazily, drunkenly, for half a second of seeking out Captain Rogers. He looked strong, solid, like someone who would protect Bucky from all the bad things in his world. But the prospect of getting caught and the promise of what would happen afterwards is enough to squash that idea even in his inebriated thoughts. He’s scared to even imagine what Pierce would do if he found out someone knew.
Bucky’s stuck in his head, letting himself live in the fantasy of Captain Rogers coming to his rescue and carrying him out of this place and out of this existence as he takes another burning swallow of brandy. That’s why he doesn’t notice at first when his door opens and then softly shuts again. The intruder takes a few quiet steps in, and it’s only when they hit the floor near the fireplace where the carpet gives way to bare wood that their boots make a sound, alerting Bucky to their presence.

He sits up unsteadily, eyes scanning the room and landing on a figure half cast in shadow near the wall opposite. He squints his eyes to bring the face into focus, drawing in an involuntarily pained breath when he realises who it is.


Rumlow stands there, a half grin on his pointed face and his arms crossed over his chest. He has the kind of rough look that suggests a life spent mostly outdoors, and the firelight casts his sharp cheekbones into shadow to make him look like some kind of demon.

“What do you want? Did the Duke send you to tuck me in? I’m perfectly capable of doing that myself, you know.” Some of the snarkiness is back in Bucky’s voice in spite of the waiver, the fresh addition of alcohol doing a lot to help, but there’s still a distinct fear that colors his words.

“Oh no, James. I’m here of my own accord.” The half smile turns to a sneer as he walks towards the bed.


Bucky takes another swig before he sets the bottle down. There’s no use resisting, he knows that now.

Chapter Text

It takes two days for Bucky to work up the strength to get back to being his normal, cocky self. He spends most of that time confined to his quarters, paddling around in his nightshirt and repeatedly filling his flask from the various bottles hidden in his drawers. He’ll send his valet into town to restock him soon, bribe the man to keep his mouth shut about what he’s buying and for whom, as if the fact Bucky’s almost constantly inebriated isn’t an open secret within the Pierce household. The Duke greets him with a bright smile when he finally emerges for breakfast on the third day, and if Bucky didn’t know better he’d almost believe the happiness is genuine.

“James, my boy. Your valet said you were ill, it’s nice to see you up and about again.” Pierce watches every movement intently as Bucky walks over to his usual chair across from the Duke’s eldest daughter. Near the Duke, of course, he’s never left out of sight for too long. The rest of the family acknowledge him politely, like he’s some distant relative and not somebody they grew up with, but it’s at least familiar.

The meal passes with Bucky barely making a sound, choosing instead to push his food around on his plate moodily and avoid being drawn into the light conversation about the latest society gossip. It lets him fly under the radar so he can slip his coffee cup under the table long enough to top it up with brandy, which helps things immensely. The maids enter the room to retrieve their plates at the end of the meal, and only then does Bucky look up and clear his throat to get the Duke’s attention.

“Is there something you need James?” Pierce pats his napkin across his mouth delicately before setting it onto the table, making it clear that he’s only giving Bucky his attention because it’s convenient.

“I… I was wondering if I could call on Master Dugan. I could use a ride through the country and the fresh air would be good for my… ailment.” He chooses his words carefully. It’s not often that Pierce lets him escape, and he desperately needs a break from the palace if he’s not going to repeat what happened last Christmas.

“I suppose if I could procure a suitable chaperone, I’d be obliged to let you go.” Pierce studies Bucky’s face, looking for any hint of dishonesty in his expression. “Would you return tomorrow or stay longer?”

“It’s an awfully long ride. I think perhaps staying for a few days would be better. If your Grace will let me, of course.” He’s laying it on thick and he knows it, but he hopes Pierce won’t see right through him if he just bats his eyelashes enough. He’ll probably pay for it with his mouth when he returns, but for now all he’s thinking about is fresh air and freedom.

“I suppose you may go, providing I can find a chaperone. You’ll need to ready your things.” Pierce stands, allowing the rest of the table to rise from their seats. “And of course, you will be on your best behavior. We wouldn’t want another incident.”

“Thank you, your Grace.” Bucky stands too, relief flooding through him. The last careful threat doesn’t go unnoticed, but he can still barely conceal his excitement over the tiny taste of freedom as he dismisses himself to his room.

 

The Duke has drawn the curtains closed in his study, blocking out the bright morning light that would give too cheery an air to this meeting. He taps his fingers on his desk absentmindedly as he watches Captain Rogers shift uncomfortably in his seat, no doubt unnerved by the general atmosphere of the room. Using the intimidation techniques he learned after being subjected to them for years by his own father has always been his favourite part of these negotiations. Today, he relishes it.

“Have you enjoyed your time here, Captain Rogers?” When he finally speaks, his voice is low, forcing the man in front of him to crane forward to hear his words.

“Yes, sir. It’s been very enjoyable. The palace is… vast, I’ve found many interesting places to visit.” Pierce can see the sweat beading at the Captain’s brow and he takes a slight thrill in knowing he’s the one causing it.

“I had an interesting conversation this morning and thought perhaps you might fancy an excursion. My ward has plans to call on a friend in the countryside and he’ll need an escort, I thought you might be just the man for the job.” He settles back in his chair, forcing the Captain to lean forward even further. “I could pay you handsomely to be his guard, he needs a firm hand to keep him out of trouble.”

Steve swallows thickly and Pierce allows his mouth to widen into a smile, expression tighter than he wants it to be when he’s wearing his good person suit.

“I suppose an excursion would be relaxing, your Grace, but I thought maybe we would be able to talk today. About business matters.” Captain Rogers is putting on a good show of trying to make himself seem unintimidated by wealth and power, but the Duke can see through it and secretly enjoys seeing the man squirm.

“Of course, Captain. I was hoping we could talk when you get back, since there will be more time then. If you wish to accept my proposal, of course.” Pierce pauses, the look in his eyes speaking volumes more than his carefully measured words do. This is clearly not a mere suggestion, it’s plain that Steve’s ability to state his case is contingent on his answer now.

“They don’t need you back right away, do they?”

“I don’t suppose they need me immediately.” Steve allows, cagily. Pierce watches the frown forming on the Captain’s face with a measure of triumph quiet in his expression, happy to express power over such a powerful man.

“Good, good, then it’s settled. You’ll leave today, James is preparing for the trip as we speak, I’ll have his valet come and fetch you when he’s ready.” Pierce raises his hand, motioning to Rumlow who’s standing at his post at the back of the room. He opens the heavy wooden door with a loud bang, and the Duke is satisfied with the fact he almost certainly sees the Captain tense momentarily. “Thank you, Captain, you really are doing me a tremendous favor. I’m sure you’ll find the trip very restful.”

With that, Pierce dismisses the Captain with a wave and watches his back as he retreats from the room. As soon as the door is closed Rumlow steps forward, boldly enough that he clearly demands to be heard regardless of how against position his actions are.

“You could have asked me, sir. There’s no need to hire a stranger to do a job I can do.” Rumlow’s hands are clasped behind his back, his stance rigid. It’s the same position he takes when he’s refusing a guest entry to a ball, and Pierce takes that to mean he’s trying to assert authority he really doesn’t have at all here.

“Rumlow. You’re my most trusted guard, are you not?” The Duke clasps his hands back together, drumming his fingers along to the beat of his heart and waiting for the next move.

“Of course, your Grace.” Rumlow’s face doesn’t falter, but his body relaxes just the slightest bit to give away his insecurity. Blood in the water to a shark like Pierce.

“When I was a child, Rumlow, our governess would scold us for fighting over our toys. She said it was proper that we should learn to share our things. I had a spinning top I adored, at the time it was my prized possession. My father had brought it back with him from a trip and I loved it so, but my brothers coveted it from the very moment it was placed into my hands. I remember it was a particularly harsh winter, that year. We’d been inside the palace for days, working up our cabin fever with no reprieve. I had been spinning the top over and over again, and finally my brother said he wanted a turn. I must have remembered what the governess had told us because I let him use my toy. It was a mistake, I know that now.” Pierce pauses, rising from his plush chair to make his way slowly towards Rumlow. “My brother, he was jealous that my father had brought me back something so beautiful. He grabbed my spinning top and he threw it on the fire. I tried to save it, but it was too late… my beloved toy went up in smoke.”

Pierce circles Rumlow before stopping less than a foot from him, close enough to see the pulse ticking in the younger man’s jugular. It’s satisfying in a way he can’t quite put his finger on.

“I decided that day that I would no longer trust other people with my beautiful things. That I would never be forced to share them with anyone.” His eyes search Rumlow’s face, and he’s spitefully pleased when he finds fear there. “You understand Rumlow, don’t you? That I would be forced to take action if someone, anyone, put their hands on something of mine.”

Rumlow nods, barely concealing a gasp of surprise when the Duke closes the space between them, crowding into him forcefully and twisting a hand in his collar. He stands there for a full minute, invading Rumlow’s space before suddenly moving away, smoothing Rumlow’s waistcoat, and seating himself back in his chair.

“That will be all, Rumlow. You’re dismissed.” He watches Rumlow stand in place for a long moment before the man finally gets his legs in motion. He shuts the door firmly behind him, giving the Duke a reason to smirk to himself. This particular problem seems to be taken care of, and now he can move on to more urgent matters. Matters concerning Captain Rogers and his presence here, specifically.

 

Upstairs, it doesn’t take long for Bucky to ready his things. He’s already set his trunk near the door, ready for the valet to carry it to the carriage, and that just leaves one very important thing to be taken care of. The elder Mr. Dugan is a devout man, and his morality drives him to abstain from all things that might cloud his judgement, mainly alcohol, which means Bucky needs to bring his own supplies. It really would have been better if he’d had time to send his valet out to replenish his stock, but he’s managed to find a near full bottle hidden in the back of his dressing room and another one wedged behind the bedpost with just enough to fill his flask.
Bucky’s in the middle of filling said flask when the door to his room opens suddenly, he jumps, sloshing the amber liquid over his hand and muttering a curse under his breath.

“Go away Rum-” His eyes widen when he turns and realizes it’s not Rumlow who’s interrupted his task. “Captain Rogers?”

“I’m sorry, sir. They told me… Um, I’m supposed to escort you.” Bucky watches as the Captain’s cheeks begin to warm, ending up a vibrant shade of pink, and that gives him just enough time to regain his composure.

“This is my private bed chamber, Captain Rogers. Haven’t you ever been taught to knock?” He quickly pushes the now full flask into his waistcoat, hoping the other man hasn’t seen. He really doesn’t need the Captain tattling to the Duke and stopping this trip before it even starts. “I suppose I’m ready. We need to get going quickly or it’ll be dark before we arrive.”

The Captain doesn’t even question carrying his trunk down to the carriage, and Bucky is slightly charmed by the way the weight seems like a feather in his arms. He’s not easily charmed, at least he tells himself so, but he must admit that the bulk of Captain Rogers doesn’t go unnoticed on their descent.

It’s just his luck: the Duke has managed to find one of the few people in the palace Bucky’s desperately trying to get away from to be his chaperone. Bucky sighs heavily as he descends the steps to the courtyard, patting the flask where it’s hidden in his pocket for reassurance. He thinks for a moment of cancelling his trip, but only for a moment.

He can’t trust himself around Captain Rogers, not after his display the other night and the fantasies he eventually fell asleep to later on. But cancelling the trip would only make the Duke suspicious. The old man probably chose the Captain to chaperone on purpose, to catch Bucky in the act of some small rebellion that would justify punishment. No doubt the Captain will be taking careful notes to report back to the Duke upon their return, and that makes Bucky a good deal more than nervous.

He climbs into the small carriage, pressing himself close to the wall to avoid accidentally brushing against the Captain who doesn’t seem to take the hint because he takes the seat across from him, their knees practically touching in the cramped quarters.

“I hope you aren’t too upset by my presence. The Duke insisted that I should escort you.” Captain Roger’s voice is exactly as he remembers it. Deep and warm. The kind of voice he could imagine whispering his name in the darkness. He swallows hard, closing his eyes to try to force away the visions swimming in his head.

“It was unexpected.” He keeps his answers short, cold. There is no way he can be accused of doing anything unsavory if he keeps it that way.

“The Duke said you were ill the last couple of days.” The Captain is clearly trying to fill the near agonizing silence, and Bucky already feels his resolve failing. “I hope you weren’t too poorly.”

“Just a head cold.” He allows his gaze to drift slowly to the Captain before snapping his eyes back to the clasped hands in his lap. “Rest. That’s all I needed.”

“I...you seem different than you did the other night.” Captain Rogers seems almost surprised, his voice rising up slightly in register.

“Why? Because I’m not so forward?” Bucky’s face snaps up, eyes narrowing. “Contrary to popular belief I don’t bed every person I meet.”

The Captain seems to choke on his own surprise as soon as the scandalous words have left Bucky’s mouth, sending him into a coughing fit. It takes him several moments to catch his breath again and when he again can speak, the words come out scratchy and course.

“Heavens no. I didn’t mean to insinuate…” He gestures wildly and it’s only then that Bucky realizes that he’s more scandalized by the thought that he has offended him than the ugly words Bucky shouted. “ I simply meant you are much more reserved. Almost shy.”
Bucky has the good sense to look momentarily ashamed before he allows himself to relax the tiniest bit.

“I apologize. That was unnecessarily harsh of me.” Bucky could kick himself, and he may just do that once he’s managed to secure a little privacy. This existence, the one where people think they can just take and take from him without his say so, has left him more scarred than anyone can even imagine. He wipes his now sweating hands on his breeches nervously before reaching into his waistcoat. There’s no point in worrying now. If the Captain is supposed to report back to the Duke, it will be several days before he can do so. His fingers stumble upon the familiar coldness of his metal flask, and he slowly pulls it from it’s hiding place. His hands are trembling slightly from the adrenaline still coursing through his veins after his earlier outburst, so he has to use both hands to steady the flask as he drinks, the burn of the alcohol warming him all the way to the pit of his stomach. When he finally chances a glance upward, the Captain is studying him closely.

“What? Do you want some?” He holds the flask out in front of him, hands already steadier as the brandy hits his system, and to his surprise, the Captain grabs it from him, his Adam’s apple bobbing dangerously as he drinks from the spout.

There is no way he can implicate him now, not without making himself seem an unfit chaperone. Bucky is suddenly confused by the Captain’s presence. If he’s not here to help Pierce catch him breaking the rules, Bucky can’t begin to understand why he would have accepted the job.

“Why are you here? Why did you agree to escort me?” Bucky throws decorum and propriety out the window, blurting out the question before raising a hand to his mouth in embarrassment.

“I told you. The Duke insisted. While I find you very interesting, and I don’t mind keeping you company on your journey. There are very pressing matters that I have been sent here to attend to.” He finally passes the flask back to Bucky, and Bucky notices that it is now much lighter. This man must have an extremely high tolerance to this stuff if he can drink so much all at once.

“Oh.” Bucky feels a tiny twinge of sadness settle in his chest at the thought that the Captain would much rather be elsewhere.

He can’t help thinking that the Captain Rogers in his fantasies has one very large thing that makes him much more desirable than the flesh and blood copy that sits in front of him. The Captain Rogers who soothed him to sleep with his gentle words and strong arms when Bucky had been so close to falling apart, had no other place it seemed he’d rather be.

Chapter Text

Steve has been watching Bucky sleep for what seems like hours, studying the gentle rhythm of his chest as he breathes in and out and listening to the quiet murmurs that break the silence in the cabin at intervals, when he feels the carriage take a sharp right turn and slow considerably. He forces his gaze away from the sleeping man and out of the window, his eyes falling immediately on a sprawling estate with a large white house settled at the top of a hill. There’s a faint memory, just below the surface that causes a slight twinge in his chest.

The white house in his memory is much smaller with far fewer acres stretching out around it and an even smaller stable around the back occupied by two perpetually annoyed dappled-grey horses. He hasn’t thought about that house in years, not since his mother’s second husband sold it behind his back to pay off a gambling debt. He’s still not sure how the weasel managed to convince the lawyer that he had any right to sell it, but the news had come by post too late for Steve to do anything. Last he’d heard, the son of a well-known businessman had moved his new bride in on their wedding day. His mother had been apologetic about the situation, but there was little she could do by then. The prospects for a widowed woman past childbearing age and with grown children weren’t such that she could challenge her husband and potentially lose him, so Steve had found himself without a home to go back to.

The carriage comes to a halt outside the house, and Steve prepares himself to jump down and help Bucky out. Before he can move, however, his charge slips under his arm and lets himself down without so much as a glance over his shoulder.

Steve knows he’s done something wrong, but he’s not sure exactly what he did to upset the Duke’s ward. He thinks briefly about asking what he’s done wrong, but Bucky has already stepped up to the front door and knocked before he can unfold his much larger body from the carriage. The young man seems to have a rather childish temperament anyway and Steve supposes he’ll probably get over it soon enough. He shouldn’t care that much about the whims of the spoilt nobility anyway.
The servant who answers the door is extremely old and, it would seem, nearly blind because he squints at them down the bridge of his nose for several moments before a spark of recognition crosses his face.

“Oh, Master Barnes, Master Dugan said he was expecting you. I’ll show you to the parlour.” He steps back, leading the two men into a room off the main hallway. “Let me just go and fetch him, sir.”

While Bucky sits down, making himself comfortable in a chair in the center of the room, Steve stands awkwardly near the door with his arms clasped behind his back. There’s a clear contrast between the two men: while Bucky feels completely at ease in these formal settings, Steve feels twitchy and irritated when surrounded by such opulence. He studies the room around him, eyes taking in every crystal vase and piece of ornamental fabric that decorates the room. While the manor’s facade reminds him of his father’s house, the inside could not look any more different. He’d lived comfortably as a child, his parents had always had enough money to meet his needs, but they were never able to fill their house with this sort of refinement. They were lucky to have a few portraits and a single pair of prized, hand-crafted Parisian candlesticks to decorate their parlour for company.

“Bucky.” The voice comes out of nowhere and Steve cannot help the flinch of surprise that jerks his body. “I thought you’d be here much later. I’ve only barely had time to warn father to keep to his study so he can avoid your devilish behavior.”

Timothy Dugan has a towering presence due to his considerable height, but his shock of bright orange hair and his overgrown sideburns take prominence over any of his other features. He’s broad-shouldered and generally large all over, with the general build of a man who spends his life outdoors. He dwarfs Bucky’s smaller frame when his friend stands, but there’s no intimidation in his stance, only warmth.

“It’s not my fault your father finds fun ungodly.” Bucky reaches out a hand to shake Dugan’s briefly before stepping back again, a quirk to his pale lips.

“So, to what do I owe this visit you fiend? You’ve never been one to call without reason.” Dugan quirks an eyebrow with a smirk, making it clear that this teasing is a normal occurrence between them. “I’m not entirely sure why we remain friends, you know.”

“Because I bring alcohol to the house of no fun. You’re greatly in my debt.” Bucky teases right back, and Steve thinks his face may be displaying the first genuine smile he’s seen on anyone since he arrived at the palace nearly four days ago. “I thought we might go for a walk, I have some matters to discuss with you.”

“Of course, I think a walk would do us some good. Come on, we’ll go out to the garden and take the path toward the stable.” Dugan’s voice drops conspiratorially so that Steve can barely even make out the words. “We’ll have a much better talk away from the prying ears of my father’s maids, I suspect he keeps them mainly for the gossip these days.”

Steve feels mostly invisible as he watches the two friends exchange pleasantries without so much as a glance in his direction. It seems like, and probably is, an afterthought that Bucky even flaps a hand in his direction to bid him follow them as they leave the room.

 

Bucky accompanies Dugan into the garden and down a worn path toward the stable without a word. He waits until they’re several dozen meters from the house before he dares to speak, making sure that their little party is out of hearing range of the people inside.

“Is your father upset that there was so little notice of my arrival?” He studies Dugan’s face carefully for a reaction. He’s become an expert at reading people’s faces the longer he’s been at the palace, and the amount of time he’s spent with Dugan has left him very aware of the way his mouth turns down when he is being deceitful.

“No, I think he’s used to it now. He didn’t even put down his bible when I told him, just grunted.” Dugan half-laughs, and Bucky is relieved to see that the corners of his mouth stay perfectly in place. Dugan turns his head slightly and lets his eyes dart sideways to find Captain Rogers in his position several steps behind him, glancing back at Bucky curiously. “Who’s your companion? I don’t recognize him, he’s not one of your usual guards.”

“That’s Captain Rogers. He’s not a guard, just some soldier that the Duke sent to keep me from ‘doing anything that may tarnish the family name.’” He lets his voice drop octave, scrunching his face up as if he’s just smelled something foul to mock the duke’s scowl.
Outside the Duke’s house is the only time he can truly let his guard down like this, and he relishes in the feeling of freedom even as the rebellion causes a twist of nervous nausea in his stomach. Dugan lets out a deep laugh at the impression, and Bucky feels genuine happiness for the first time in what seems like months.

“At least the view’s quite... appealing.” Bucky’s grin brightens as Dugan’s cheeks redden at the naked impropriety.

“You’re far too bold. Talk like that could get us both jailed for indecency.” Bucky can see Dugan’s eyes shining, letting him know that the comment is in jest, so he steps closer to him, arm brushing comfortably against his friend’s.

“I do prefer a man in uniform, but I guess those breeches will have to do.” Bucky continues as if he’s talking innocently about the weather, and Dugan shakes his head and bites his lip as he stifles another laugh. “At least they’re tight enough to show off his assets.”

The talking ceases while the men try to gain some air of seriousness again, but it’s slow going as they each let out involuntary laughs before they can regain solemnity. When they do finally find their composure again, Dugan clears his throat and shifts his gaze to Bucky’s profile, studying him but trying to be subtle about it.

“You are alright, aren’t you? You’re being more careful, I mean? It’s hasn’t even been a full year since…” He’s cut off by a loud sigh from Bucky.

“Yes, of course I am. Do I seem troubled?” Bucky’s tone is clipped, almost no emotion in his words but the prickle of defensiveness. “I wish you’d let that go. It was only an accident.”

“Of course. You accidentally almost killed yourself.” Dugan mumbles under his breath, clearly annoyed with the way Bucky brushes him off. “It’s not uncommon for a man to worry for a friend who’s had a hard time. Is it?”

Bucky shakes his head, and his refusal to discuss the topic lets them fall into silence again. He may be tired of his moment of weakness being brought up again and again, but he can’t exactly blame Dugan for showing concern. He doesn’t intend to isolate one of the only friends he has left, after all.
Bucky sighs before trying to change the subject. “The Duchess is planning another ball, she was discussing the guest list with the Duke a week ago. Miss Carter will likely be in attendance.”

“Are you sure she’ll attend?” Dugan’s cheeks flush bright red as he struggles to maintain a passive expression.

“Well, I’ve heard rumors.” Bucky smirks mischievously. He enjoys torturing his friend much more than is entirely socially acceptable. “I could be persuaded to send you a note upon her acceptance of the invitation.”

“You’re playing a dirty trick. Just because you’re a confirmed bachelor and don’t understand the importance of courting.” Dugan’s voice shows just a hint of exasperation, which makes Bucky much happier than it should.

“Oh don’t be such a sore sport, of course I’ll tell you Miss Carter’s answer. Although I really don’t understand why you won’t just have your father call on hers, I’m sure they could have the whole affair arranged quite quickly.”
Dugan ignores the remark, stopping to turn and face back up the road they’ve been strolling down. “We should get back, it’s almost time time for dinner and I’m not about to let you make me late again.”

Bucky nods, turning on his heels to follow Dugan. Steve turns too, staying a decent distance in front of them as they walk back to the house. As they walk, Bucky can’t help letting his eyes run over Steve’s muscular form. He watches the way his broad shoulders roll slightly with every step, and the way his pants tighten against his backside every time he extends a leg forward. He can’t help but wonder what the body looks like laid out bare, and he lets his mind wander to Pierce.

The Duke’s body went soft long ago, muscle melting away in his old age. When Bucky grabs Pierce’s arm or pushes against his chest he feels the skin give way and sag. Rumlow, on the other hand, is lithe and lean like a greyhound. When Bucky tries to push him away it’s unyielding like touching stone, all harsh angles and straight lines. When he tries to imagine Steve he can’t quite find a suitable image. He’s only ever seen two men naked in his life and neither of them can even begin to compare to Steve’s bulk. There’s something about him that makes Bucky’s brain go just a little fuzzy when he tries too hard to picture him, and he tends to half think that the sheer beauty of his fully exposed form would just be too much to handle.

When they arrive back at the manor they return to the parlour to find the elder Mr. Dugan has emerged from his study and settled into a chair by the fireplace, bible open in his lap, with his eyes firmly fixed on scanning the page.
“Father?” Dugan clears his throat to alert the older man of their presence and Bucky stays silent, waiting to be addressed. Mr. Dugan has always been stringent in his adherence to the more formal conventions of society, and Bucky definitely doesn’t want to offend him this early in the visit.
Mr. Dugan holds up his finger, eyes cast down to the bible for another moment before he finally raises his head and looks to them in the doorway.

“Master Barnes. I hope your journey was acceptable.” He stands, allowing the three younger men to move further into the room.
“Yes sir, it was quite enjoyable. I like a ride through the country once and awhile, it clears the mind.” Bucky reaches forward to shake Mr. Dugan’s hand. “I’d like to introduce Captain Rogers. He’s my escort for this trip.”

Bucky watches Steve’s hand jut forward and his earlier visions of those muscular arms wrapped around him resurface, sending an involuntary shudder through his body.

Bucky doesn’t have time to think about exactly what that means before the maid is alerting them to dinner and they’re being whisked off to the dining room. Silence settles over them as the servants bring out their plates, and Bucky is just trying to figure out how to sneak a nip from his flask when Mr. Dugan decides to break the silence.

“Captain Rogers, how long have you been a military man?” Mr. Dugan’s voice is exactly as boring as one would expect from a man who finds reading the bible to be an acceptable leisure activity, but Bucky sits up slightly straighter despite that. He’s more than a little interested in Captain Rogers’ answer.

“Uh, it’s been seven years. I joined when I was eighteen.” The Captain seems uncomfortable now that the attention has been turned to him, but he puts up a valiant effort of hiding it. If Bucky hadn’t been so good at reading people he might have believed him.

“Were you at Waterloo, under Wellington?” Mr. Dugan’s eyes are trained on the Captain and Bucky can see his already weak facade crumbling.

“Yes, sir.” He sets his fork down on his plate, abandoning the food in front of him in favour of conversation. “You’re familiar with the battle?”

“I’ve knowledge of it. I find some pleasure in reading about military strategy.” Mr. Dugan begins discussing the specific details of the battle, but Bucky doesn’t hear much of it. His mind has already wandered again this time to thoughts of Captain Rogers clad in uniform and riding off into battle. He can almost smell the gunpowder in the air and hear the yelling of men as they’re in the throes of fighting.

He doesn’t even notice Dugan calling his name for several moments, and he emerges from his thoughts with a start.

“I’m sorry. I’m suddenly rather tired.” He plays it up, letting his eyelids become heavy and his shoulders roll slightly forward. “I hope you won’t think ill of me if I retire to my room instead of returning to the parlour.”

“Of course, I hope you’re not unwell.” Dugan is clearly concerned, and Bucky dials it back slightly.

“No. No. I'm fine. It was just a long ride.” He plasters on a small smile, trying to reassure him.

Mr. Dugan gives the signal to stand, and Bucky nearly knocks over his chair he jumps up so fast. He’s about to make his escape when the Captain steps forward.

“I’ll escort you sir. I’m feeling rather tired myself.” Bucky can’t exactly tell him that he’s trying to get away from him, especially since his thoughts have turned much less innocent the longer they’ve stood here staring at each other.

“I suppose. If you insist.” Bucky turns to head up the stairs, keeping a step ahead of Captain Rogers. He’s not sure he could control his actions if he were to find himself once again staring at the Captain’s ass.

When they arrive at the hallway marking their guest rooms, Bucky stops outside the room he usually sleeps in and motions to the room across the hall.

“That one’ll be yours.” Bucky presses his back to the door, trying to keep himself closed off as he waits for the Captain to leave. “I suppose this is it. Thank you for accompanying me on this trip.”

“You seem distant, sir… quiet. Have I done something to offend you?” Captain Rogers gazes at him, face full of concern as Bucky feels his resolve cracking.

“No, of course not.” Bucky sighs, raising his gaze to find the Captain’s face. “It’s been a nice day. You’ve had a nice time haven’t you?”

“Yes, it’s been lovely. This is a very picturesque place.” The Captain’s face seems to relax and Bucky notices the relief that settles over his features. He can’t help but think that when the Captain finally allows himself to relax even the tiniest bit, he’s beautiful.

There’s a short lull where the Captain doesn’t seem to be leaving and Bucky feels the need to say something, anything to fill the silence.

“I’m sorry that the Duke made you do this. I know you have more important things to do, Captain Rogers.” Bucky can’t figure out for several moments why he feels so awkward around the Captain, but he decides to blame it on the lack of brandy in his system.

“You should call me Steve. Captain Rogers is very formal.” The Captain looks down breaking eye contact, and Bucky can’t help the longing he feels. “I’m glad that I agreed to accompany you, other matters can wait.”

Bucky pulls a shy smile, practically kicking himself for letting his carefully constructed facade of cockiness fall. However, he doesn’t have time to get too upset about it before Steve reaches for his hand unexpectedly and pulls it between his own much larger ones.

“Good night, sir. I hope you have pleasant dreams.” Steve leans down, pressing his lips gently against Bucky’s knuckle. It’s a strange feeling, there’s no ulterior motive behind the gesture, no display of dominance or promise of pain later. There are only soft lips against his skin and a strange warmth radiating through his body.

“Good night… Steve.” Bucky feels the hold on his hand slacken and then Steve is stepping to his own door, leaving Bucky’s mind reeling.

He waits for the other man to open his door and disappear inside before he opens his own door, shutting it firmly behind him and then sliding down against it.

There are two things Bucky knows now: the first is that he’s hopelessly drawn to Captain Rogers, and the second is that this is going to be a long couple of nights. Mainly because he can’t seem to get the feeling of Steve’s lips against his hand out of his head.

Chapter Text

It’s several days later that the carriage carrying Bucky and Captain Rogers returns to the palace. Pierce has been impatiently pacing in the window of his study for nearly two hours, finally stilling when the carriage comes into view.

He moves towards the glass, close enough that his breath mists against the window, and he’s struck by the memory of a young James drawing pictures in the fog on the carriage windows that first journey to the palace all those years ago. He can still see the way James stilled suddenly as they entered the gates, looking up at the great building with eyes full of wonder. He used to look at the Duke like that too, but those innocent eyes full of admiration are now long gone.

Pierce watches intently as Captain Rogers dismounts the carriage first and holds out a hand to James, the picture of propriety until the wayward ward comes into view. The boy takes his hand and follows him to the ground, and Pierce’s gaze sharpens to a glare as his ward smiles and raises his hand to rest on the Captain’s bicep. He lips tighten into an involuntary frown, but his silent fury is interrupted by the creak of the old wooden door that signals Rumlow’s arrival.

“The Captain is growing too close to James. We may need to set my plan into motion a little earlier than I intended.” Pierce clasps his hands together behind his back as he pontificates aloud, needing to give voice to his words to fully realise his vision. He’s always been a talker, and Rumlow is a decent enough sounding board even if he’s not sophisticated enough to understand everything his master says.

“What plan is that, your grace?” Rumlow moves forward (without asking permission, but it can be overlooked for the moment even though he’s becoming increasingly too familiar lately), joining the Duke near the center of the room to hear him better.

“You served under Lieutenant Fury, didn’t you? Before you were discharged?” Pierce leans back against the desk slightly, a more casual position than he’d take in front of any other staff. Rumlow is his man, his alone, and he assumes he can let his guard and manners down just a little at this point in their time together.

“Yes, your Grace. Lieutenant Fury is the reason I was… abruptly discharged.” A frown pulls at the corners of Rumlow’s mouth as he squares his weight across his legs, clearly trying to keep himself from shifting nervously like a boy or a subordinate. Pierce is slightly proud that he’s still intimidating as he reaches his twilight years, not that he’d ever say so aloud.

“I’ve always been a friend to the armed forces. A benefactor. And, on occasion, I have asked that my own special interests be taken into consideration in their actions. An occasional peacekeeping mission for certain foreign diplomats that I call friends and such.” He pauses, folding his hands in front of himself now. He’s been suppressing his emotions since he was very young, bottling them up and pushing them into the pit of his stomach so no one ever truly knows what to expect, and now he’s an expert in masking his intentions until he chooses to reveal them. “Several months ago, I proposed one of these missions, and Fury refused to follow my orders. His insolence nearly caused a political disturbance which could have been highly embarrassing.”

He keeps his voice steady and calm despite the fire burning in the pit of his stomach just thinking about Fury’s disrespect. Rumlow’s nerves are clearly being tested, and it’s highly satisfying.

“I can’t have my authority tested, not by the likes of a lowly Lieutenant.” He lets his gaze wander to the fireplace and watches the flames rise and fall for several moments, gathering his thoughts before continuing. “I’m going to make sure that everyone knows these acts of defiance won’t be tolerated. Fury seems to be very fond of Rogers, he’d be devastated if his favorite Captain were to find himself at the center of a nasty scandal.”

He smiles devilishly, eyes darting back to Rumlow. The guard stiffens once again under his scrutiny.

“I’m going to offer Captain Rogers a temporary placement here. We’ll tell him that Rollins has become ill, so you’ll need to release him from his duty here at the palace. Set him up with a errand that takes him away for a time.”

Rumlow swallows hard but nods, and Pierce moves away from the desk. “I think I’ll pay James a visit later tonight. You’ll need to take care of Rollins before then so you can be at the door. You’re dismissed.”

He watches as Rumlow moves away toward the door, before stepping back to the window. He turns suddenly as the door creaks open, as if having an afterthought.

“Oh, and Rumlow.”
Rumlow pauses, hand tightening on the ornate doorknob. Pierce can’t help the small smile that pulls at his mouth at the involuntary display of anxiety.

“I trust you’ll treat this delicate subject with discretion, of course.”
Rumlow’s jaw tightens as he nods, the sincerity in the gesture letting Pierce know that he picked wisely when choosing his guard. The door closes behind him and the Duke is left alone with his thoughts. A dangerous place to be, but not for him.

 

Bucky has only just finished tucking his belongings back into their rightful places when his door opens. The silence that follows the intrusion is eerie considering the hall outside his door should be bustling at this time of day, maids going in and out of rooms, guards talking in the hall(the normal white noise of a royal household as it settles into its daily routines), and the lack of noise makes the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. This kind of silence can only mean one thing, and it’s not good.

“Good afternoon, your Grace. I was just about to come and inform you of my arrival.” Bucky takes a step back when he sees the Duke standing in his doorway, putting a chair between himself and Pierce. The change in position is subtle enough to keep from drawing Pierce’s attention, but ensures him an extra second to react before he can be grabbed.

“How was your trip James?” Pierce steps over to the small seating area before Bucky can reply, settling himself down on the couch. Bucky swallows a sigh, because of course the old man would want to re-stake his claim after he’s been away.

“Restorative, your Grace.” Bucky hesitates and keeps his position for a moment, a last act of hope before it’s all dashed again. He’s far too sober for this to be tolerable.
Pierce doesn’t say a word, simply crooks a finger and motions Bucky over. Bucky’s actions are rehearsed from this point, dropping to his knees in front of the Duke without protest. He forces himself not to flinch when Pierce reaches out to stroke his cheek, relaxing into the touch slightly when he realizes it isn’t an act of aggression. At least not this time.

“How was your escort? A decent guard?” Pierce removes the hand from his cheek and Bucky nods, only able to croak out a small ‘yes’ in reply. He watches dully as Pierce reaches for his pants, making quick work of the buttons there and freeing his length from his underclothes.

Pierce reaches forward again, guiding Bucky’s head down toward his swollen cock and waiting for him to part his lips before pushing him down hard. Bucky doesn’t choke, because it’s routine enough by now that he’s beyond reacting too strongly when Pierce uses him like this.

“I’m thinking about offering him a temporary position here, since Rollins has come down with an illness of some sort. It’s rather convenient that Captain Rogers is here, we won’t have to be down a guard while he recovers.” Pierce’s voice is nonchalant. Bland. In fact, if not for the dick in his mouth and the insistent pressure on the back of his head as Pierce pushes him further and further down on his length, Bucky could almost believe they were having a conversation.
As if he’s ever been enough of an equal to have a conversation with the Duke. Bucky’s pretty sure nobody’s listened to a word he’s said since he hit puberty.

“Of course, I do have some concerns.” Pierce’s voice drops suddenly and his hand stills, holding Bucky down deep on his dick. Bucky’s throat is burning, eyes watering, but he doesn’t dare fight him. “Captain Rogers seems to be taking certain liberties with you.”

Bucky squeezes his eyes shut tightly. Pierce can’t know. Nothing happened, at least nothing that could have been interpreted as anything other than a blossoming friendship. His jaw is beginning to ache and he finally gags roughly, only just able to suppress the bile that’s threatening to bubble up from his stomach. Just when he thinks he may die like this, choking on the Duke’s cock like the trash he knows he is, the Duke suddenly releases him and lets him pull off his dick and swallow to clear his raw throat.

“It’s nothing, I’m sure. Captain Rogers does seem to be rather ignorant of the customs of polite society, after all. We’ll just have to set him straight, won’t we?” Bucky’s eyes shift upward, finding the Duke’s as his breathing slowly returns to normal.

Pierce grasps his cock in his hand and thrusts into his fist until he finally releases, sticky come landing on Bucky’s face and in his hair. Bucky doesn’t dare close his eyes as Pierce’s head falls back, face contorting as he rides out his orgasm. When he finally raises his head again, he locks eyes with Bucky with such intensity he could be staring right through him.

“I’m glad you’re home, James. My discussions with Rumlow are rather dull and I much prefer our little talks.” Bucky stays still, following Pierce’s movements with his eyes as he stands and redresses himself.

“You should get cleaned up. Dinner will be at the usual time.”
Pierce moves toward the door and Bucky nods slowly, turning his gaze to the floor now that he’s no longer expected to be obedient.

“I have a meeting with the Captain before dinner. I hope he accepts my proposal, we could use some fresh blood around here.” Pierce pauses in the doorway with the lazy confidence of a man who knows he can’t be beaten. “You’re mine, James, and you’ll always be mine. Don’t forget that.”

The doorway in empty for a long time, Pierce’s footsteps long disappeared down the corridor, before Bucky slowly forces himself to stand. The muscles in his legs are stiff, and he has to steady himself against the arm of the chair to keep from falling as he straightens up. The Duke’s mess is already drying against his skin, so Bucky stumbles unsteadily to the wash basin. The water is long cold, but he can’t exactly call the maid for a replacement in his current state so he plunges his hands inside regardless, bringing the icy water up to his skin and scrubbing hard. He knows it doesn’t matter, that he can keep scrubbing until his skin is red and aching but he will never feel clean. Not as long as he lives in the Duke’s palace, at least.
He grasps blindly for the towel beside the basin, hurrying to dry his face before the water drips down his collar and then tossing the cloth carelessly aside. The icy water has done little to dull the steady ache growing in his skull, but he knows what will actually help alleviate the pain. He drops to his stomach next to the bed, plunging his hand beneath the mattress and stretching out his fingers until they find the familiar shape of his favorite bottle of brandy. It had been a parting gift from Dugan when he left and it’s already half empty due to frequent sips as they got closer to the palace.

With one smooth motion he uncorks the bottle, bringing it to his lips and swallowing deeply. The rawness of his throat is overtaken by the burning of alcohol, and he can almost pretend that’s all that’s making it hurt. Another deep drag from the bottle leaves him feeling almost normal again.

When he catches a glance of himself in the mirror, hair still dripping and eyes dull, he flashes one of his best false smiles before taking yet another swig. When the bottle leaves his lips again he sighs, murmuring to himself.

“Welcome home, Buck.”

Chapter Text

Steve has only been in the Duke’s employment for a matter of hours before Bucky decides his best strategy is to make as much mischief as possible. It doesn’t take him long to figure out where they’ve posted the Captain during his stay (the maids are unsurprisingly chatty about the hot new guard), so Bucky spends most of the morning carefully picking out an outfit and checking himself over in the mirror. Captain Rogers is stationed on the North side of the property near the royal stables, so Bucky tells his guards that he’s going for a short ride and makes his way there. They’ll tell the Duke he dismissed them, and he’ll pay for it later, but the punishment will be much less severe than the one that would be doled out if the guards were to see him fraternizing with Captain Rogers.

Bucky is only slightly upset when Steve is nowhere to be found on his way, but his mood quickly reverses when he catches a glimpse of a familiar pair of broad shoulders ducking through the stable doors. As much as he would like to, he doesn’t run. He can hear the Duke’s words in his head sometimes no matter how hard he tries to keep them out (“The nobility never run, James. It’s common.”) Steve is in deep discussion with the stable hand when he enters, so he walks right up between them, cutting Steve off mid sentence as if he doesn’t even see him.

“Saddle up Étoile, I’d like to go for a ride.”

The stable hand nods, shooting an apologetic look over Bucky’s shoulder before moving down the line of stalls to find the horse. Bucky doesn’t turn around, instead waiting patiently for Steve to signal his existence. A minute passes before Steve clears his throat, and Bucky finally turns.

“Captain Rogers. I didn’t realize you were here.”

Steve quirks an eyebrow, obviously less than convinced of Bucky’s overly-theatrical greeting.

“Yes. Of course.” Steve moves slightly closer, posture relaxing somewhat. “Where are your guards? They should be escorting you.”

“I don’t need a babysitter.” Bucky ignores the pang of annoyance that rises at Steve’s words, choosing to place a hand gently on the other man’s bicep to see the look on his face. “But you could certainly accompany me, I suppose. I could use a big strong captain on the back of my horse.”

He swears he sees Steve’s adam’s apple bob as if he’s swallowed a lump in his throat.

“I’m afraid I need to stay here. I’m on duty.”

Bucky’s eyes sparkle with mischief as he drops his hand from Steve’s arm. Satisfactory response.

“Of course. Silly of me to ask.” Bucky walks down the row of stalls before turning suddenly as if he’s thought of something. “Although, I’m sure the Duke would be less than happy if he heard one of his guards let me go out adventuring on my own. But of course, you are on duty.”

Bucky comes up the stall that houses Étoile and reaches out to run his fingers gently over the horse’s muzzle. He’d been a gift from the Duke when Bucky had first come to the palace, a great spotted thoroughbred, black with a lopsided star on his side, and one of the only things that Bucky truly loves. The stable hand leads the horse out into the paddock and hands the reins to Bucky before returning to his duties inside the stable.

With all thoughts of Steve gone for the moment, he mounts the horse and nudges him gently into action, leading him out of the paddock and into the field beyond. They don’t make it far before Bucky hears the unmistakable sound of hoofbeats behind him, so he tugs on the reins to bring the horse to a stop. There’s no mistaking Steve’s shape as his horse trots across the field toward Bucky, who can’t help feeling pleased to see him.

“You decided to join me after all.” Bucky smiles as Steve comes to a halt beside him, one of the genuine smiles that only Steve seems to be able to bring to his face.

“I weighed my options. I don’t think the Duke would like me letting you go off without an escort.” Steve returns the smile with a shy grin of his own, eyes dropping away from Bucky’s quickly.

Bucky nods, urging Étoile back into his trot and starting down the path again. Steve keeps pace, riding just a shade behind like he’s shadowing his charge on foot. It’s oddly endearing.

“I was surprised to hear you took the Duke’s offer. I thought you were here on military business, do they not need you back?” Bucky keeps his gaze forward, very carefully not looking at Steve in a way that might be considered overly familiar. He’ll play games with him, sure, but it’s all ruined if he jumps the gun and gets himself punished.

“I found a reason to stay, I suppose.” Steve glances over, finding Bucky focused elsewhere before looking away.

“Why did they send you here in the first place? I can’t imagine they’d be happy to lose such a strong soldier to business matters.” Bucky finally allows himself to look over, eyes darting quickly back to the path when he accidentally catches Steve’s gaze for a second.

“There’s… Well, there’s a matter of money. Which I probably shouldn’t be discussing out in the open like this. But then, they knew I wasn’t a diplomat when they sent me.” Steve stalls, shaking his head before deciding to continue. “We’ve lost several of our benefactors since Lieutenant Fury took over. He refuses to play dirty politics and it’s cost us funding, frankly. Not that I can blame him, I wouldn’t deal under the table either if I were in his place.”

“Why not?” Bucky frowns slightly, because he’s been taught all his life that getting his (the Duke’s) ends achieved is more important than the method taken to achieve them.

“It’s against my principles.” Steve doesn’t exactly shrug, but Bucky gets the distinct impression that he would, were he not in polite company. It’s that simple to him, a moral code he sees as obvious.

Bucky lets his eyes linger on Steve’s profile when he looks over, this time. He’s never met a man like this before, someone who seems driven by morality rather than what he can take. Bucky’s life up until this point has been an endless parade of manipulation at the hands of the Duke, and he wasn’t sure men like Steve actually existed outside of his book of fairy tales.

“Why are you here? If it’s not rude to ask.” Steve’s voice suddenly cuts bluntly into Bucky’s thoughts, and he blushes slightly when he realizes he’s been staring. “I mean… I’ve heard the stories, but it’s hard to discern gossip from the truth these days.”

“Are you saying my benefactor keeps company with liars, Captain?” It could sound cold, if delivered from the Duke’s lips, but Bucky’s tone remains light and teasing as Steve flounders for a moment.

“I’m saying I find it hard to tell snakes from saints when off the battlefield.” That surprises Bucky pleasantly, he hadn’t anticipated that the Captain might be clever.

“A ballroom can be a battlefield too, you know. You’ll learn.” He hears Steve scoff slightly at that, which forces him to hide another genuine, small smile.

They ride in silence for a minute or two, deeper into the trees and away from the manicured lawns of the estate, before Bucky speaks again.

“My father was a friend of the Duke’s, from his school days. They were boys together.” He hesitates, because he’s never told anyone about that night and he’s not sure what compels him to open up to Steve now. He’s never been sure he can actually trust those memories, not when the Duke seems so sure of his take on the events. “There was a fire. Everything was lost, my parents included. The Duke took me in as his own.”

“That’s not what the stories say.” Steve’s voice has softened somewhat, though. He doesn’t sound like he’s accusing Bucky of lying, at least. It’s a balm over the raw feeling of talking about this, delivering the version of events that he can never question.

“I… I remember the night he came for me. The house wasn’t on fire when we turned away from it up the road. My father… he was there, not ashes. I heard my mother crying.” It suddenly occurs to him that he’s speaking aloud, and the fear must show on his face because Steve makes an aborted move to reach out to him. What if he reports Bucky’s recollection to the Duke? He’ll be punished again, always was as a child until he stopped trying to tell the truth and learned to toe the line.

“Sir-”

“But that’s not what happened.” He corrects himself quickly, schooling his expression again. “A dream I used to have as a child, that’s all. The Duke is my benefactor, and I owe him my life.”

Bucky shakes his head, digging his heels into Étoile’s sides to speed him up a little. He gives himself a few moments to get himself together, wishing he’d remembered to bring his flask, before turning back to look at Steve where he’s fallen behind.

“We’re almost there.”

Steve spurs his horse on, catching up to Bucky just as they reach the crest of a hill. Bucky stops, pointing to a small clearing next to a stream only just visible beyond the treeline.

“Come on, Captain. I’ll show you my secret place if you promise not to tell.”

“I thought we agreed you’d call me Steve, now.” He’s watching Bucky with an unreadable expression, probably not sure what to make of him after his little slip-up. “What’s all this Captain business?”

“Well, you’re still calling me ‘sir’.” Bucky raises his eyebrows, and Steve has the audacity to roll his eyes where he probably thinks his charge isn’t looking. Bucky likes a bit of audacity on him, he thinks.

“What would you have me call you, then? James?” He’s definitely not entirely comfortable with the proper protocols of society, and Bucky finds himself somehow extremely grateful for that. Sometimes they feel like a noose as much as a necktie.

“My friends call me Bucky, I’m sure you heard Master Dugan.” He tilts his head and licks his lips unconsciously as he looks at Steve, who may turn a little pink at the tips of his ears. “Are you my friend, Steve?”

Bucky spurs his horse on without waiting for an answer, but smirks to himself when he hears Steve choke on a cough behind him. Very satisfactory.

They dismount at the edge of the clearing, tying the horses to a tree near enough the stream that they can drink. They’re far enough from the estate that there are no sounds from the house drifting near them, just birdsong and the wind rustling through the trees over the gentle babble of the flowing stream.

“It’s beautiful here.” Steve says in awe, watching the sunlight as it dances across the water. “Peaceful.”

“I found it shortly after I arrived here. I used to explore a lot.” Bucky drops to sit on the grass, leaning back and folding his hands behind his head to look up at the sky beyond the trees. “It’s the only place I can be alone.”

“Do you come here often? To be alone?” Steve sits down next to him, more controlled and clearly keeping a carefully calculated distance between them. Bucky doesn’t mind it.

“When I can. The Duke doesn’t like it when I stray too far, he’s afraid I might not come back.” Bucky catches himself, just like before, and Steve frowns at the sudden, hurried correction. “I mean, he just wants me safe. Coming out here alone, anything might happen.”

“You seem man enough to travel within his grounds alone, pardon me for saying. He’s very protective of you. Some might even say overprotective.” Steve is looking at him with that unreadable expression again, the one that makes him feel dizzy and see-through all at once, and it’s all too much.

“Hot today, isn’t it? I feel like a swim.” Bucky stands suddenly, forced joviality in his voice to hide the tremor in his hands. It’s so much easier to settle back into his familiar pattern of self-sabotage, so much safer than looking at the wounds he’s trying to cover up.

He strips off his clothes carefully, laying them out in the grass away from the water to keep them as clean as possible. There can be no evidence of his time with Steve, not if he wants to leave his room in the next few days. Steve’s face turns a satisfying shade of red the more skin he reveals, burning bright by the time he removes the last of his undergarments. The stream is deep enough to come up to his chest in the middle, so Bucky wades out a way before be ducks below the water, resurfacing and slicking his hair back from his forehead.

“Are you coming in, Steve? It must be stifling in that uniform, I’m sure no one would mind if you relieved yourself of it.” Bucky pulls his lip between his teeth, forcing that doe-eyed look on his face that used to drive the Duke wild (when he still cared to give the illusion that there was anything like tenderness between them).

“I think that might be beyond my duties as your escort, but you should enjoy yourself.” Steve’s eyes very clearly search for something, anything to focus on aside from the naked upper half of Bucky’s body. It deflates him, somewhat, because how else is he supposed to get Steve’s attention?

Bucky leans back in the water, mind whirring. For as long as he can remember, the Duke has only been interested in taking one thing from him. There was a time in the beginning when he was naive enough to believe that the Duke really loved him and not just his body, but that belief died quickly and painfully the first time he said ‘stop’ and the answer was ‘no’. He’d assumed it wouldn’t take much to get the same interest from Steve, physical at least, but he’d literally stripped off his clothes in front of him and the man had tried his damndest not to look. It’s confusing, because Bucky doesn’t understand what else Steve could possibly want from him.

When he finally climbs out of the water and lies out in the sunshine on the bank to dry, he takes his time to look the Captain over. He can’t see any reason for him to be so different from everything Bucky’s encountered before, he doesn’t seem to have any special bearing or airs about him. He’s just… different.

“I’ve never met a man like you.” Bucky mutters eventually, quiet in the ambient noise of the clearing. Steve very slowly looks over, eyes meeting his charge’s and locking there so that they don’t accidentally move to other parts of his anatomy.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not like the Duke. Or Rumlow.” Bucky muses, pulling a handful of grass from the ground and releasing it into the slight breeze. “They only care about power. Domination. Taking what they want. You… You care about doing what’s right.”

Steve blushes again, and Bucky thinks he could get used to watching his face turn pink like that.

“It’s nice. I didn’t know men like you really existed.” Bucky’s eyes drop and he flicks an errant piece of grass from his stomach. Steve watches him for a minute or two, wondering what sort of life this boy has lived that he’s been left with the impression that men who care about what’s right and wrong are rare. It makes his stomach clench uncomfortably, but he doesn’t say a word.

“I… We should probably head back, shouldn’t we? They may come looking if I’m gone too long.” He gets up and moves toward the horses without another word, drawing a deep sigh from his charge.

Bucky slowly pulls on his clothes with shaking hands, trying to prolong his time away from the house as much as possible. Steve is quiet, suddenly distant, and he can’t work out what he’s done wrong.

“I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

“You didn’t.” Steve turns, Étoile’s reins held out for him to take. “I just… You seem so confident in yourself, most of the time. Just now, I remembered that you’re still a boy. You haven’t even been out into the world yet, Bucky. There are plenty of good men still around.”

“I’ve seen a lot more than you think, and I haven’t seen that.” Bucky takes the reins and pulls himself into the saddle without meeting Steve’s eyes. He doesn’t wait for a reply, doesn’t want to answer any more questions, just spurs Étoile up the hill and back toward the house.

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Hey guys, 

As you can see, this unfortunately isn't a chapter update. This is just a note to let you know that this story is pretty much on hiatus for the foreseeable future.

Jamesraydean, who does most of the writing on this (I do mostly editing), is pretty seriously sick. So far there's no indication when he might improve, and since there are people waiting for updates I figured I'd let you guys know there probably aren't any coming for a while. 

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, 

neversaydie (@ saferforeveryone on tumblr)

Chapter Text

Hi guys! I'm clearing house on old unfinished fics and giving them some closure - finishing them in note form, giving some insight into the writing process, and giving information about how they didn't get finished in the hope it might be useful to other writers.

Unfortunately I don't have a lot of notes for this one. Despite the fact it was posted as a co-writing project, I mainly served as editor and the plot and content came from my co-author, who's no longer involved with fandom. It seems they posted a rather brief note when they left without much explanation, so I figured I'd just let you guys know that things are wrapped up here.

I'll be answering any questions about the story etc in the comments. Thanks for reading!