In truth, there is no quality; be it a kind heart; an even temper; or a keen wit; that so recommends a person to the general approbation of all, than to be the cause of excessive gossip. That is, a very specific kind of approbation. For indeed, gossip is the nourishment of good society and without it gentle persons would surely be deprived of all satisfaction and pleasure in the world. Thus those persons whose comings, goings and very nature prove a source of gossip are without equal in their utility to society's continuance. One such gentleman of whom this story is chiefly concerned was Mr. James Buchanan Barnes.
The elder Mr. Barnes had been well known and even more well liked in ------shire as all rich and respectable gentlemen are liked. He was known to be a stern and capable master of his estate, Sawston Hall, which was of a size to accumulate nearly 10,000£ a year. His wife had died in childbirth but was spoken of fondly and remembered as the handsomest and most civil woman in the village of Brookton. Indeed, the only thing that impuned the house of Barnes was the entire presence of its heir. In general it was to be supposed that being in possession of a healthy male heir was highly desirable. However, in the case of the young Barnes from a very early age his lack of manners, decorum or civility exposed the family to embarrassment of the highest sort. It was known by all the surrounding that Barnes could be found most days galavanting with the likes of stable boys, village children and even bastards with no sense of the impropriety of his actions.
He did submit to the acquaintance of several boys of trifling fortune in the neighborhood and was even known to be the particular friend of the young Steven Rogers, whose family owned a small estate bordering that of Mr. Barnes' and who was two years his junior. This connection was spoken of with much differing of opinions. Some were of the mind that the Rogers boy, though far beneath Barnes' station was at least of some gentle birth and thus preferable to any common friend that could be made. On the other hand Rogers was a well-liked boy, small and often sickly but dedicated to his studies and kind hearted to all. Thus when it was discovered that Rogers could occasionally, when he was well, be found with Barnes in the village making the acquaintance of low-born children of all sorts, this was seen as a great tragedy and a mark that Barnes was capable of corrupting all who made too close a connection to him. Families near and far decided against the common custom of ingratiating themselves with the father by way of a friendship between sons.
There was a brief period before the age of twenty wherein Barnes made all appearances of reform. His charm in conversation and dance was remarked upon and his pleasing appearance was finally decided to be equal to his pleasing temper. For those years Barnes provided little entertainment in the way of gossip and generally lost standing as a conversational topic even as he gained standing in the general opinion of the neighborhood. Indeed the only circumstance still worthy of being remarked upon was the continued friendship with Mr. Rogers, who now with the passing of his father formed the only living male of his estate. Mrs. Rogers was known to be as, if not more, knowledgeable about treatments and herbal remedies than the apothecary himself and she tended to lowborn people of the village who could not afford to call for the doctor. The entire business was understood to be both above her womanly station and below her position as a gentle lady.This, along with the fact that the mother herself was not well born and that their fortune was believed to be not above 500£ a year made Rogers an altogether inappropriate friend to the now older and more respectable Mr. Barnes.
It wasn't until the age of one and twenty that Barnes again made news in the neighborhood in a most spectacular manner. For without warning the young man disappeared. Several weeks passed and Mr. Barnes made various excuses for his son's absence from social events. First the explanation was just illness, then a sudden tour of the country, finally it was exposed that the young Barnes had enlisted. Being the eldest and only heir to his estate this was seen as unconscionable flouting of his responsibilities. It was known to only a few that on the same day of Barnes' enlistment Mr. Rogers had also attempted to enlist only to find his weak health disqualified him from service. Due to its failure this event was little known and even less connected to the shameful going off of the Barnes boy.
The village and its families moved on to other topics of healthy speculation and conversation. Years passed as they tended to do in the country. Some young persons came of age, others were married. Some of the elder generation were succeeded by their children. Debts were formed and dissolved, various regiments were quartered and departed, scandals were uncovered and buried by turns. With little recognition Mr. Rogers grew up to be a no less weak nor less kind young gentleman and officially inherited his father's estate. It was known and occasionally remarked upon that the only sign of a certain lack of prudence in the Rogers family was that they gave too often and too deeply to charity which was no doubt an honorable but not altogether wise course of action for people in a situation such as theirs.
In the summer of Mr. Rogers' twenty third year his mother fell ill, a wasting sickness that seemed to have no cure. The doctors believed it to be consumption and after only a few weeks Sarah Rogers removed herself to London to seek the opinion of the most advanced doctors in the country as to her treatment. Much sympathy was bestowed upon the remaining Rogers but it was also understood and remarked upon that sickness was a logical effect of deciding to spend so much time among the sick.
At almost the same time a much more unfortunate event befell the elder Mr. Barnes who was injured in a hunting accident and although the best doctors were quickly dispatched the wound festered and Mr. Barnes passed away. The neighborhood was in an uproar over the news and it was understood that the executor of Mr. Barnes' will hurriedly sent a messenger to the man's errant heir. Days passed before any news was heard, and a fortnight was gone before it was known that the younger Barnes was again in Sawston Hall. It was said that Barnes, under the circumstances was honorably discharged from his position so as to return to his estate.
Although many families, forgetting all ill opinions they had held while the man was away, came to renew their acquaintance and invite Mr. Barnes to dine with them, all such interested parties were turned away with the same explanation. The Barnes family, now consisting only of the eligible young James Barnes, was in mourning and as such could make or accept no invitations at that time. For the first few days, even a week, this behavior was seen as admirable and indeed the least the boy could do to honor the father he'd abandoned. But after a month of similar excuses Mr. Barnes was yet again labeled the shame of the neighborhood, for no one could remove themselves from polite society for so long on so little pretense. And then, finally, when an invitation to the last summer ball of the season was dutifully dispatched to the Barnes residence, to the great shock of the sender, it was accepted.
The night of the ball was highly anticipated by all, especially the chance to see the young hermit in attendance. When he arrived the entire room was graced with two concurrent shocks. One, Mr. Barnes was joined by a unknown yet remarkably handsome young woman with bright red hair. And secondly, that he escorted the woman on his right arm for his left sleeve was empty and pinned to his shoulder.
It was hardly to be supposed what was to be remarked upon first in the conversations that erupted across the ball. Several introductions were made and the information soon spread that the lady was one Natasha Romanoff, daughter of Lady Elena of -----shire in the north and a Russian diplomat of unknown rank. When asked by those she spoke to when she had arrived she laughed and said she had come along with "James" when he'd returned home. Furthermore when questioned as to where she'd been staying she replied that Mr. Barnes had offered her a room at Sawston Hall. And they not even engaged! It was highly irregular and much remarked upon, to have two single people sharing a house with no chaperones for so long a period. Most disgraceful.
Mr. Rogers, as the owner of the neighboring land, was asked if he had any inkling of such goings on and he answered that he had occasionally seen the young woman about the property and upon the walks that closely abutted his grounds but that he had not deemed the information enough to be remarked upon.
The matter of Mr. Barnes' arm could not be so easily addressed and although a few of the more bold or imprudent members of the attendance ventured to remark upon the style of his jacket, no one got a reply relating to the up-pinned and empty sleeve. He danced several times with Lady Romanoff and hesitated not at all in adjusting the steps of the dance to accommodate his difference. The Lady also moved smoothly and gracefully throughout and several ladies wondered how ever they were to cope with such a handicap. It was not to be discovered for Barnes asked no other woman to dance at all for the duration of the party.
There were many conversations that night both concerning and involving Mr. Barnes and his companion. Only one was of such consequence to be related here.
"Mr. Barnes, I am glad to see you well. And may I humbly offer my condolences on the passing of your father."
"Steven Rogers, is that you?"
"You cannot possibly have difficulty recognizing me, for I have not changed greatly at all since the last time we saw one another."
"Indeed, I see now you are just as I remembered. It appears you did not grow further as you often hoped to do."
"Alas, no." Here there was a pause where neither man knew quite what to say to one another or indeed even knew quite whether to look at one another or avoid the other man's gaze. At last, Barnes remembered himself and made the introduction to Lady Romanoff. Mr. Rogers dutifully requested of her the next dance with preemptive apologies over his gait which was uneven from a defect of the spine and slow enough to disqualify him from all but the most sedate steps. Despite these seeming marks against him Lady Romanoff appeared happy to accept his offer.
"I have heard much of you, Mr. Rogers, and I am keen to discover if truth upholds the image I've received from James." she said, as they began the first movements of the piece.
"I can only hope the words you've heard have been kind and cannot even hope to live up to them if they were. I must only await your judgement." Mr. Rogers said with a wryness few had the eye to appreciate. But Lady Romanoff was often among the select few of any group she was a part of and in this instance she laughed pleasantly at the joke.
"I cannot yet pronounce any such judgement on the recommendation of only a few words but I will certainly relieve you of your worries as soon as I am able."
They made a few more comments on the size of the room and the number of couples but the lady noticed that Mr. Rogers grew short of breath and fell silent until the dance was over at which point they separated amicably.
The night wound to a close and the carriages were called. Last words of judgment and speculation were pronounced as friends left each other for the evening. It was generally decided that Mr. James Barnes was once again worthy of contempt for all manner of crimes the specifics of which were yet to be decided. But the neighborhood was alive with talk and for that Mr. Barnes' return to society was cause for a certain kind of celebration. For excitement is its own kind of reward.
Steven Rogers fell short of the ideal gentleman in many ways. He was too weak of spirit to hunt, too weak of body to ride for any long periods. He was kind even to those lower sorts who did not properly deserve it. And when his temper was excited he could lean towards a most un-gentleman-like fervor of emotion. What was more, he completely abhorred gossip and was known to keep his own confidence in all matters.
Thus it was, alone and in silence, that Steven contemplated the new addition, or rather re-addition, to the neighborhood. He was currently walking among the outer edges of the property, leaning heavily on his cane. Natural weakness combined with the exertion of the ball the night before had left his legs not fully up to a walk but he couldn't bear to stay inside on what might be the last warm day of the season. He tried to admire the way the sun hit the trees and quiet rustle of wind in the leaves but his mind kept drifting back to Mr. Barnes.
It had been strange, seeing him after so long. Even from across the room his uncalculated smile still struck Steven as it ever had. But they were different men now. Barnes' eyes were lined beyond his years and a few times Steven had caught a somber look on his face that spoke of the battle he had seen. And Steve, he was not quite the same boy who had been left behind those four years ago. He had concerns beyond himself and his own glory now, worries of the estate and of his mother's health, worries of income and of marriage. In years he was still young but in responsibilities he felt old sometimes.
He was caught up in such somber thoughts when the sound of approaching footsteps roused him. He looked up to find none other than Mr. Barnes coming along the path towards him. It would be terribly rude now to turn back but from the look on Mr. Barnes' face he was not immune to the awkwardness.
"Mr. Rogers." he said, bowing politely. "I apologize it seems in my distraction I wandered too far afield and entered your grounds without permission from you. If you could forgive my rudeness."
"Do not call it such. We are neighbors and once were- we are neighbors. I would have you walk freely where you wished upon my land. It's walks are but meager compared to your own but if you desire it do not hesitate to explore them."
"I knew them once quite well. Do not tell me they have changed in my absence."
"No, I dare say you will find them much the same."
There passed a silence between them. Steve noticed Mr. Barnes held a letter in his hand and seized upon the subject.
"You were reading correspondence, I see now how you could so easily walk astray for it is too simple a thing when lost in a letter."
"Oh, yes." he said, as though he suddenly remembered it himself. "It is from a friend I left back in London inquiring as to my health and what he insists should be an imminent departure from the country."
"You- you came from London. I had, that is the common thought was that you came directly from your appointment and were but recently discharged on account of your father."
"The common thought, it seems is wrong," Mr. Barnes said, smiling, "as it often is. It's true I was recently discharged, some three months ago but it was on account of my injury and I was still recovering in London when the news found me."
“Oh, I did not know your injury was so recent. You look the picture of good health.” This was perhaps a small exaggeration lent weight by kindness, for there was a certain pallor to Mr. Barnes’ cheeks and his hair was longer and more unkempt than was the fashion. He looked as though he’d been out of company for awhile, not so carefully manicured as he had the night before. To Steven there was still a certain lightness to his air that spoke of bettering if not yet perfect health.
“Thank you. The combination of rest and fresh air has served me well these past few weeks.” He paused here, looked down at his letter and Steve watched his face. He clenched his jaw, seemed to decide something and then spoke again, looking back up as he said it. “I thought of writing you when I was back on English soil and so near as London. But I thought you might find it impertinent.”
Steven’s hand spasmed on his cane and he wished suddenly his heart was not so prone to unevenness of tempo.
“No,” he said, uncertainly, “no impertinence. I- I would have welcomed any news from you and indeed when you left I hoped that we might have corresponded, but I never received a letter.”
“Did my father not? No,” Mr. Barnes said, eyes stormy, “I suppose he did not. I inquired after you in my letters to my father, asked him to pass on news of my location so you could write to me if you so wished. I did not, considering how we left things, think it appropriate to address a letter to you directly and when I heard nothing I was led to believe you wished to dissolve our connection.”
“Believe me, I had no such desire. I ventured to ask your father if he knew where you could be reached but he always told me you were not in contact with him.”
“A lie, although an unsurprising one truly. He never liked our closeness and must have seen the opportunity to end communication entirely.”
“One should not speak ill of the dead.” Steven said, although his own heart raged at the injustice.
“Then we best turn our conversation to another topic for I feel inclined to speak very ill indeed.”
“Do you- do you plan to return to London soon?” he said, stumbling as he quickly tried to divert Mr. Barnes’ attention.
“I had been considering it. Winter will be upon us soon enough and,” he paused, looking at Steven with an unfamiliar gaze, “there is, of course, nothing to keep me here.” There came another slight but noticeable pause before Mr. Barnes seemed to recollect himself and continued, “Nothing to keep me, that is besides my role as source of the village’s gossip.”
“You would not want to disappoint the ladies of the neighborhood by removing their source of conversation.” Steve said, a tiny smile half forced to his mouth.
“No,” Mr. Barnes said, attention drifting off for a moment before snapping back sharply, “and yet I must. Yes, I will be going back to London soon. Within a few weeks to be sure. After all, a temperament such as mine is better suited for the wild streets of London, is that not what they will say?”
'I am not so sure I know your temperament anymore,' Steve thought, but did not say. Instead he invited Mr. Barnes to dine with him later in the week after Steven's friend Colonel Wilson had arrived. Mr. Barnes accepted and the time was set. They parted after a few more pleasantries but as Steve turned he noticed Mr. Barnes did not do the same.
He tried to listen for the sounds of retreating footsteps but his hearing was not up to the task. So he walked back towards the house, too aware of his cane and the awkward shuffle of his feet, imagining Mr. Barnes' eyes on him. But when the walk turned he glanced back and saw no one.
Steve returned, in silence and deep thought, to his empty house.
Colonel Samuel Wilson was an old friend on Sarah Rogers' side of the family. Like Steven, his father's family was gentile while his mother's was successful in trade. A younger son, Colonel Wilson had found the service more rewarding than the clergy. Steven had kept up correspondence with Samuel throughout most of his life although they rarely had the chance to see one another in person. So during his short period of leave Steven had invited him to stay at Tenem House and Samuel had eagerly accepted.
He arrived on Wednesday and spent most of the day recovering from the long journey, talking with Steve about everything that had passed since his last letter. Steven was always interested in the specifics of the war effort, on the back and forth of Napoleon's troops and their own responses. Samuel explained that a large scale retreat and regrouping effort was slated for the winter so in fact his leave was extended until March. It was decided that Samuel would stay at Tenem House at least until February.
On Thursday evening Mr. Barnes and Lady Romanoff dined with them and the night went spectacularly well. Lady Romanoff was just as agreeable and quick-witted as she had seemed at the ball. She easily engaged Colonel Wilson in conversation on the intricacies of strategy and politics. Mr. Barnes seemed somewhere between the carefully cultivated charm of the ball and the earnest, tense composure of their meeting on the grounds. When Colonel Wilson discovered that this was the Barnes that featured in so many of Steve's childhood letters he was called upon to give his recollection of some of the more outrageous accounts.
"Oh, don't let his stature or quiet demeanor now deceive you, it was Mr. Rogers and not I whose actions lead to most of the more shameful stories."
"I am wounded at such an accusation!" Steve said, laughing.
"Indeed? Have you forgotten the Lewis' ball which we both attended with bruised faces because you insisted on wandering down the village's back alleys at dusk?"
"It is true that it was my idea to be there but I can hardly be blamed for finding some older boys tormenting a dog. I don't remember you insisting we leave after that."
"No, I suppose I did not. But I still hold that the blame as much as the praise resides with you."
"I believe I am amenable to that." Steven said, and he realized he was smiling more honestly than he had in a long time. They fell into the rhythm of retelling old tales and amusing their guests with the foolhardy actions of their youth. They moved to the sitting room and Lady Romanoff proposed a game of quadrille at which she thoroughly beat them all.
Steve was by no means a recluse and regularly socialized with nearby families. He was, after all, of marriageable age and in his situation it was vital to make a prudent match while he could. So he often dined out or invited others to dine in with him but it was rare to enjoy an evening so thoroughly. The conversation was light but enjoyable due to the quick wit of its participants. The atmosphere was relaxed and pleasing as though they all often gathered together and knew one another well. As the night drew to a close another dinner was proposed and accepted. Steven found himself wishing there was not so little time before Mr. Barnes would be departing for London.
Indeed, the weeks passed quickly after that. They met often either just the four of them or in a larger group. The next time Steven met Mr. Barnes while walking he accepted the offer to walk together for a turn and they somehow fell into a pattern of meeting and walking every few days. Finally they found themselves strolling the lane the day before Mr. Barnes was set to depart.
“I hope you would not find it forward if I were to write to you?” Mr. Barnes said after a lull in conversation. “Making up for lost time one might say.”
“That,” Steve said, “sounds splendid. I would greatly enjoy hearing about your misadventures in London.”
“Perhaps you could even visit. Surely you’ve been to town have you not?”
“I can’t say I have. Winters are usually a time for sickness and my mother always insisted I could not properly come out until I was well. And now, with her condition as it stands, I am not in a position to present myself in London.”
“You do not keep a house there then?”
“My mother stays now with her sister but there is hardly room for her much less another relative.”
“If, that is, if lodgings alone stand in your way. I have room enough for you and Colonel Wilson in my London home. It would be easy-”
“No.” Steven said sharply, wishing they could speak of something else. Something that did not so shamefully highlight their differences in circumstance. “I would not hear of imposing on you in such a way.” he said, trying to soothe the subject but not willing to back down.
“Of course.” Mr. Barnes said tightly. No more was said on the subject and they moved on to other topics. The next day Sawston Hall was vacated and its occupants left for London.
The first letter arrived so quickly it must have been written nearly as soon as the travelers arrived.
"Mr. Rogers," it began. "I must warn you first and foremost that I am a terrible writer. As you can see my hand is small, my letters ill-formed and as will be apparent soon, I have a tendency to ramble. For instance before I continue I must comment on the first line of this letter. For in polite society it is no doubt expected that I refer to you as Mr. Rogers just as you refer to me as Mr. Barnes. But in private correspondence it seems a terribly formal manner of address. Still, I would rather undue formality than undue familiarity, thus the decision not to begin this letter differently. I would however, if you were amenable to it, propose your return missive be directed to a James at this address for Mr. Barnes suits me ill.
"Now that such trifling matters have been addressed I may get to my point. Namely, I have arrived safely in London. The road was rough but uneventful and I was at least blessed with good company for the duration. I find I had quite forgot the foulness of London's air and streets. Everything is delightfully dirty and broken. I say delightful because it is a wonderful gift to see overly polished persons forced to walk through mud and worse with noses held high pretending valiantly that London is a beautiful haven of society and not just a few bricks from falling apart.
"I have not yet reacquainted myself with my London friends. I called on Lord Stark this morning but was told he was unavailable for the foreseeable future despite the fact that he was the one urging me to return to London to ease his boredom. I would say that is the way of the titled but in truth that is just the way of Lord Stark. I plan on meeting with another gentleman tonight, although I will not tell you where for fear of damaging your nerves. Regardless, the Mr. Barton I plan to meet is a good man once you get past his rather rough exterior and a true friend of both Lady Romanoff and myself. I dare say you would like him, you were never prone to unjust opinions.
"I have made my way rather circuitously through all I wanted to say and now must find a way to finish gracefully. Or failing that I will just finish swiftly.
Before the final sign off was a large spot of ink as though the pen had rested there a long time before its owner had decided its just course. Steve read the whole letter several times. It sounded less like the man he'd spoken to just a few days past and more like the boy he hadn't seen for years. It was delightful but Steven had no idea whatsoever as to how he should reply. Finally, respite came to him in the form of news. That, at least, he could relay.
“I cannot disregard a request as understandable as how you wish to be addressed. It seems strange to call you James but my discomfort will no doubt fade with time. I am glad you arrived safely in London and are meeting once again with your acquaintances there. I would dearly like to meet any man you find agreeable, such as the Mr. Barton you mentioned. Tell me, does he live exclusively in London or does he have an estate in the country? If no to the latter then I may here point out the completely unrelated fact that Stuy House, not four miles from your own Sawston Hall is being let and is currently lacking an occupant.
“Speaking of new society, shortly after your departure Brookton has found itself quartering a large regiment. Everyone was quick to welcome the officers into the neighborhood and the Odinsons in particular threw a dinner party large enough to accommodate most everyone who could have desired to come and some who had no desire at all. I, as you perhaps could guess, was of the second inclination. Still, I found many agreeable men in attendance and even spent the majority of the night in conversation with a young Lieutenant who is generally agreed upon to be the most gentlemanly officer of the group.
“I fear my news must seem very dull in comparison to the perhaps scandalous entertainment you find to busy yourself with in London. Heed not my nerves, I would be interested in anything you have to tell me about the goings-on of the town. And in truth, I dearly look forward to your next letter.
After that they fell easily into correspondence. It became as commonplace as the frequent letters to and from his mother. Writing letters and entertaining Colonel Wilson would already take up most of Steve’s leisure time were it not for another person who quickly gained a spot in Steven’s social routines. The man Steven mentioned in his letter to Mr. Barnes was a charming gentleman, Lieutenant Rumlow. His manner of address was smooth and forthcoming without being overly familiar. He naturally endeared himself to everyone about Brookton and was well-spoken of by all his superior officers. At first he seemed to make no particularly close connections, dolling his time out equally to those many persons who desired it. But soon Steven began to notice a certain inclination in the Lieutenant toward Steve himself. He would often seat himself near enough to speak to Steve while dining or afterwards in the sitting room. Occasionally Lieutenant Rumlow would even ignore subtle summons by ladies of the party and choose to converse with Steve instead. Steven found himself blushing, half embarrassed and half flattered by the attention.
The more time they spent together the more Lieutenant Rumlow seemed incredibly well-suited to Steve’s disposition. He had a graceful manner where Steven was too often awkward. He was freer with his laughter and in quiet moments turned his keen wit against the more grand and pompous of the party. These were thoughts Steven had had often had but always kept to himself. And when Steven fell silent, too caught up in his thoughts or too unsure what to say next, Rumlow was there with a quip or a story or a comment. He clearly cared for Steven and wished to engage in conversation at every opportunity.
What's more, he was not shy in talking about his experience in the war and Steve was always eager to hear. He painted a picture of glory and righteous battle. It came at a cost, he said, the deaths of many good compatriots but they died justly and there could be nothing more important than that. It made Steve wistful, and angry. It should have been him fighting for freedom, earning respect in life or in death. Lieutenant Rumlow seemed to understand that.
"I wish you had seen combat with us," he said once, "I would have felt safe with an honorable man such as yourself at my back."
Steve had had to look away, stunned and pleased. It was an uncommon blessing to know that he was not weak or useless in Rumlow's eyes.
It was only a month and a few weeks before Steve counted Rumlow among his closest companions. Samuel did not care for him as such but when questioned could not propose a single sensible flaw in his character. Steve did not write to James about him, fearing a similar unfounded dislike which would end up sullying his opinion of Lieutenant Rumlow and Mr. Barnes both.
They spent more and more time walking the grounds together. Rumlow would speak about the war and Steven would confide in him about the financial situation with his mother and the estate. Steve felt self-conscious, admitting his difficulties, but Rumlow reassured him that he cared not for material concerns. It was on one such walk in the cold autumn air when Rumlow stopped Steven with a hand on his shoulder and turned to face him.
"Steve," he said, although he had never addressed Steven as such before, "I can no longer keep quiet. I must admit that I regard you so highly and respect you so deeply that I cannot conceive of us ever being parted. That is, if you would honor me with your hand I would want for nothing else in the world. Please, tell me you will."
Steven was struck speechless. The thought had crossed his mind, no doubt, as he became aware of what a good match they made. And yet such a marriage would be terribly imprudent. Neither of them had enough wealth to relieve the other of worldly pressures. And yet, Steve had always thought of himself as above that. He'd always fancied that if he found someone who he truly loved nothing could stand in his way. Indeed that had seemed to be nearly the case once before, with Peggy. And now, Steve would not have said he was in love with Lieutenant Rumlow but the potential was there, the compatibility of temperament existed such that they would surely be happy in marriage. He knew the sensible action would be to delay his response, think about his options. But here Rumlow stood, looking as though any instant he could split apart for want of a confirmation of everything he desired. And so, Steven had no choice but to say yes.
"I know it has been too long since my last letter. Life has contrived to be so busy I have scarcely hours in the day to live it all, much less to mark it down. That is a poor excuse but I must only beg forgiveness for it is the truth. I have much to tell you, although I know not how to begin. I suppose there is no other way but to start.
“I am engaged. It happened but recently to a man not of your acquaintance, a Lieutenant Rumlow whom I mentioned to you but briefly several letters ago. I know such a decision must seem precipitous and indeed it is quite sudden. My companion, in his eagerness, insisted we confirm the engagement before consent could be obtained from my mother although I’m sure to hear her response in but a few days time and am likewise sure she will have no insurmountable objections. As for the match itself, we are well-suited and I believe we shall make each other very happy in marriage for in all the ways I lack, he excels. I will not bore you with undue overflow of emotion nor with the dull minutiae of wedding preparations, I only wished you to know that the date has been set for a fortnight from now and if you were to come I would find myself greatly pleased. There are other queries I have regarding your last letter but I am being called away and do not wish to delay this news from reaching you.
“I hope this letter finds you well,
Steve had not in fact been called away to other business. He had woken early that morning expressly for the purpose of writing his letter to Mr. Barnes but now that the primary point had been made he found himself too weak to go on, hand shaking and stomach sick. He folded and sealed the letter and then sat, head in hands for a period of some minutes, held in the grip of strong emotions he could not name.
He reminded himself that being feeble and sickly as he was, with so little wealth to recommend him, he was lucky to find so amiable a match as Lieutenant Rumlow. He was losing nothing because he had had nothing to lose. This was the time to plan for the future, be relieved in decisions well made and find joy in the man soon to be his husband. He spoke sternly to himself until the emotions clawing at his mind subsided and he could stand to properly begin the day with duty to his friend done.
Four days passed with a good deal of events not to be related here, intricacies of preparation and courting. Upon a marriage agreement being reached Lieutenant Rumlow had immediately been convinced of no possible action besides retiring from the service. He could not stand to be so often and so long away from his husband as the war would require and the retirement income would, he assured Steve, be a healthy addition to their means. In the meanwhile, Rumlow suggested he reside with Steven until the day of the marriage. At first Steve resisted the idea, insisting it would universally be seen as improper to live together before their official union. Rumlow just laughed and told Steven they would be married soon and then the delicate sensibilities of their neighbors would mean nothing. And besides, Steven must surely care less for appearance than for fact and in fact they would be staying in separate rooms, with Colonel Wilson as a chaperone and nothing untoward would happen whatsoever. His pride roused by the implication that he cared overmuch for the opinions of others, Steve relented to the request and granted Rumlow a spare bedroom.
That day, after breakfasting Rumlow was to go into the village to take care of several matters of business and told Steve not to wait on him for dinner as the settling up may take some time. Samuel had been invited on a long ride about the Odinson's park which Steve could not partake in. And so he arranged himself at a desk in the sitting room to go over matters of accounts and manage expenses as much as they could be managed. Several hours passed in this manner leaving Steve with sore eyes and a weary heart. He was almost glad to be interrupted by a servant who announced a visitor and upon hearing the name Steve stood so quickly his weak legs nearly gave out from under him and he was left twisted about to face the door, holding on to the back of the chair to keep upright when in strode, in a great manner of hurry and disarray, Mr. Barnes.
He was covered in mud and even had a visible sheen of sweat upon his brow. His hair was violently unkempt and he swept in with such keen forward momentum that Steven almost wondered how he would manage to stop. But stop he did and quite abruptly in the center of the room, eyes alighting on Steve and the sight pulling him short. He appeared to take a second to gather himself before managing to bow civilly.
"Mr. Barnes," he acknowledged, "what brings you here in such haste, you seem in all manner of distress."
"I come directly from London. I left by coach yesterday but found the travel too slow for the urgency of my purpose and thus finished the journey on horseback. I would apologize for my manner but I believe my information is of utmost importance so as to render my disarray excusable."
"Please, tell me then of your purpose." Steven said with growing worry.
"Your letter reached me yesterday with news of your impending marriage. You assumed in your letter that I had made no acquaintance of the man you intended to marry. I am sorry to say this is not the case and indeed he is well known to me. And what's more, though it pains me to tell you this, Lieutenant Rumlow is a coward, a scoundrel and a traitor to his country." This was said with such solid conviction that it struck Steve almost as a blow.
"I- I do not understand you. What- you make very serious allegations of a man I know to be exceedingly well thought of." Steve said, less in a tone of argument than pure disbelief.
"I do not doubt that. Despite being the perpetrator of all manner of vile crimes he is protected completely by the sway of his uncle, Lord Pierce. Nonetheless, I would tell you the whole story if you would suffer to hear it in all its unpleasantness." Steven now managed to collect himself enough to offer his guest a seat and take up a spot near him so he could hear clearly. He then most solemnly, with a sinking heart, urged Mr. Barnes to speak.
The tale was indeed vile, almost too terrible to be heard or told here again. It was explained that Mr. Barnes had served in the very same regiment as Lieutenant Rumlow and not knowing of his family or his wealth, Rumlow always treated Mr. Barnes and all men he saw as beneath him with great disrespect. Lieutenant Rumlow even made a habit of breaking rank so others fell upon the enemy first and he was protected further back in the lines. Even these accusations struck Steven sharply for they so conflicted with the man he thought he knew.
"Speak to any man above him in rank and you will hear praise showered upon the Lieutenant, but speak to any man in fact or in appearance below him and you will hear my story corroborated thoroughly. And these are but the least of his crimes."
Mr. Barnes went on to describe a change in Rumlow's manner that he noticed but a year ago. He kept more often to himself and was frequently away from camp for extended periods of time even while they were near enemy encampments. Mr. Barnes explained a slowly growing, dark suspicion that the Lieutenant was no longer loyal to England. He resolved to follow the man on one of his excursions late at night to discover the cause. He told no one of his thoughts or plans, not willing to accuse a fellow gentleman of treachery without some manner of proof. So on the night he went alone and followed Rumlow to a clearing populated by French soldiers among whom Rumlow was immediately accepted as a friend. However, in endeavoring to overhear what manner of confidences the traitor was betraying to the enemy, Barnes was discovered.
Here there was a silence, Steven made quiet by the horror of the imagined scene, Barnes certainly contemplating the memory as he gaze fixed itself on his single remaining hand as it clasped and released the air.
"I was captured." he said finally. "Many evils befell me during that time which I cannot bring myself to describe any more than I would wound you by hearing them. Let it be said that that is how I lost my arm and that shall end the matter. All that sustained me was the thought that I must reveal the traitor and put an end to his dealings."
He went on to explain that he was eventually given freedom in exchange for the life of another French prisoner. However, upon returning to camp his intelligence fell on deaf ears. Rumlow had poisoned the commanders to another way of thinking, namely that Barnes himself had been a traitor and when he was found out by Rumlow had taken safety in the enemy camp. Barnes' wounds revealed the lie but the shadow of Lord Pierce's hand was long and weighed heavy on the minds of their commanding officers. It was decided that at the most they could have Lieutenant Rumlow removed from the front lines and sent back to England. In the meanwhile Barnes was to be discharged with full pension and position under the condition that he spoke to no one of his suspicions of treason.
"And I have not broken my word until this day, although it brought me great pain to imagine the villain still proudly calling himself a Lieutenant while I am merely Mr. Barnes. But it was too much to stand by and allow you to marry such a man when knowledge of his character was mine to disclose. That is what brought me here today to tell you my tale and beg you believe me and not the man you seem to love. I wish it were not so, but thus stands the truth of the matter."
As the tale unfolded Steven had been filled with disbelief, disgust at the betrayal and sadness for Mr. Barnes to have endured the fate he had. But now that the story was finished Steve found himself filled with a bone-deep despair.
“Thank you for revealing the truth to me. Knowing this, nothing could make me want to marry Lieutenant Rumlow. However, I fear it must be done.” As he spoke, Mr. Barnes’ face turned from relief to shock.
“I don’t understand.” he said, aghast.
“There are many reasons I cannot explain but let it only be said that what has begun I believe can no longer be undone.”
“I beg of you, share every reason, every cause that could bring you to such a conclusion. I have bared all to you in telling my tale, can you not do me that favor of giving me a glimpse into your mind in return?” Mr. Barnes said with some agitation. Steve hung his head and swallowed back emotions that threatened to bring tears to his eyes. He was consumed with shame at his predicament and the certain knowledge that he could not conceal it from Mr. Barnes out of pride.
“I cannot break off the engagement for want of propriety and freedom both. Since our agreement to marry was reached we have been living together, considering Rumlow gave up his quarters among the regiment. If we were to marry this indiscretion would be seen as negligible. But to live together only to break off the engagement, I would be ruined. It would be utterly impossible after such a scandal to ever find another suitor willing to entertain me. And in honesty, I would bear that alone with all the grace I could for it would be preferable to permanently joining myself to such a man.
“But more than that, I want for freedom of funds. Upon making the engagement Rumlow confessed to me that he had some debts he was not at present capable of resolving himself. He assured me that if I were to produce the necessary money I would soon be paid back in kind and more as he expected soon to receive remuneration from that very uncle, Lord Pierce, that you mentioned. Thus I was most foolishly convinced to use the savings I had been keeping for the procurement of spring seeds for my tenants on absolving the debts of this deceitful man. Now, with the cost of my mother’s treatment, the upkeep of the house and grounds and spring approaching I have no means with which to keep myself and my estate afloat. I have beggared myself and see no way to continue to serve my tenants and my servants than by marrying Lieutenant Rumlow and hoping for the appearance of the promised funds.”
There followed a terrible silence wherein Steven contemplated the entire unfortunate situation laid before him. Mr. Barnes seemed equally lost in thought but far more agitated by his musings. After a moment he leaped up and began to pace to room.
“It cannot be so.” he said, in a manner that made it unclear if it was directed toward Steven or himself. “It cannot be.” Spinning in Steve’s direction he paused in his movements to look at him directly. “There must be another way.”
“How I wish that there was!” Steven cried, humiliated and angry at himself. “But I have trusted where I ought not, spent where I should not and now I see no path but the one my mistakes have laid before me. I would do anything to escape this situation with my dignity and my responsibilities intact but I see no recourse but to marry this man.”
Mr. Barnes continued to pace, running hands through his already disheveled hair. Abruptly, he stopped. Slowly he turned to face Steven, and said almost in a tone of wonderment.
“Marry me in his stead.”
“Excuse me?” Steve asked, for surely he had misheard. Barnes sat down once again, now leaning forward in his seat towards Steve.
“Do not marry Lieutenant Rumlow. Break off the engagement and accept my hand instead.” Steven could not even bring himself to respond, he was too taken aback, but he must have shaken his head weakly for it prompted Mr. Barnes to continue. “Such an arrangement would solve all your problems. My fortune is such that I could easily provide for your lands as well as my own. Your mother’s medical expenses would likewise be but a small matter for me to take care of. It is true your reputation would be harmed by breaking off an engagement after living with the man, and indeed your status in the village would be further hurt by a closer connection with me, I know what they say on that subject. But it wouldn’t matter, for you would have no need to find a suitor or make another engagement for we would be married.” As he spoke the truth of his words had impressed themselves on Steven. It was clear that such a solution would indeed bring an end to all his worries.
“You would offer such a thing, for me?” he asked, voice soft with confusion and doubt.
“I would d-” Barnes began but then seemed to catch himself. “Yes, I would do this. It is but a trifling matter-”
“It is a matter of your life as well as mine! We would be joined together forever, it is not an offer to be made lightly nor accepted without thought.”
“Then reassure yourself. It is not made lightly, but in earnest. And as for acceptance, I would not ask you to decide now. It is a question that must be weighed carefully and I understand fully if you cannot bring yourself to accept my offer. But know that it is made only with the utmost desire to aid you in this trying time and to save you from further unhappiness and pain. I- I suppose I will leave you now, to ruminate on my proposal and decide on your response.”
“Yes,” Steven said, weakly. “I must think.”
“Then I will remove myself, and the distraction I represent, from your presence. But my doors and my ears are open for your answer whenever you find yourself ready to give it. Good day.”
And with that he departed, sweeping out with less urgency but with all the conviction with which he entered but a few hours ago.
Not long after Mr. Barnes left, Colonel Wilson returned. He found Steve in the study amongst a flood of papers and letters and ledgers. Before he could inquire as to the cause of such disorder from an otherwise fastidious man, Steven asked him for a thorough report of his outing. Steve knew there must have been a hint of desperation in his voice for Samuel was kind enough to entertain his request. However when he finished and Steve began to make inquiries into the manners of dress and style of the rest of the party, a most out of character interest it must be said, Samuel put an abrupt end to it. There was displeasure clear in his voice.
"I am no fool, Steven. I am in possession of all my faculties and all the powers of observation the Lord has given me. And more than that, I am your friend. Do not insult me by pretending to conceal your distress." Steve sat stiffly for a moment, stress and hurt pride urging him to react in anger. But instead, after only a moment's pause for thought, he deflated.
"My apologies. I meant only to keep my troubles to myself so they may not weigh so heavy on a friend as they do on me."
"You forget a friend's purpose is to help shoulder burdens and share confidences. I would not call myself your companion if I was not willing and able to do these things. Come now, tell me what has passed in the short time since I saw you last."
And so Steven unwound the tale. He gave not the specifics of Rumlow's treachery, for that was not his secret to disclose. But he did state that Barnes knew him to be a coward, a cruel commander, and a knave. Even without the details Samuel did not find this hard to believe, for he had always harbored a deep distrust of Rumlow based only on his instincts, which rarely steered him ill. But when Steve stated that his heart had changed so completely by Mr. Barnes’ story that he wished if he could to break off the engagement, Sam appeared conflicted.
"Steve, it is a terrible thing to find yourself deceived by a man you thought just. And if Mr. Barnes is right, I would not wish Rumlow’s company or his companionship on anyone, least of all my dear friend. And yet in many ways your choice has already been made. Were you to change your mind now you would be shunned by all your acquaintances." Some hurt must have shown itself on Steven's face for Samuel made an expression of derision. "I do not, of course, count myself among those casual acquaintances who would be so easily swayed from your friendship. But," he continued more gravely, "I would be one of few."
"I know, and there are yet more reasons not to break the agreement that I have not yet said." He went on to sketch but the briefest picture of his financial difficulties, for his imprudence pained him to share. As the reasons to keep the engagement mounted Samuel's face twisted with pity. Finally, Steven came to Mr. Barnes' proposal and Sam suddenly revived. Before Steve had even finished describing Barnes' reasons it was clear that Sam was strongly in favor of this course of action.
“This is a wonderful thing you have told me. Mr. Barnes is a generous and kind man, and although I do not know him well, your past descriptions and this act highly recommend him. And yet, still you look unsettled on the matter. Tell me, do you harbor such ill will towards Mr. Barnes that even now you would not wish to accept his offer!”
“No, nothing of the kind. I wish it most exceedingly and harbor only good will towards his generosity. I waver only because it is such a selfless thing. My means and connections are poor compared to his own. My health is such that I command no natural vigor to entertain a man. I am as well-educated as my mother could have made me and well-read. But it seems as though in all ways I would be bringing nothing to such a union. I would only be a burden that he would surely come to regret.”
“I have known you long and well, my friend. And you take great pains to burden no one. In this instance it is true you would be always in some manner indebted to Mr. Barnes for his help in solving your current problems. But between close companions and wedded partners such small matters would be of little importance. In what I have seen of the gentleman he seems not one to make an offer only to grow bitter later at its consequences, indeed it is my feeling that if he did not honestly feel the two of you would make a good match then he would never have offered his hand. No man, in my experience, is so selfless as that.” Steven was somewhat comforted by these words and they spoke more on the topic over dinner, going in circles about the issue and its various snarls. After dinner they were joined by Mr. Rumlow who was in as energetic a mood as always and told them that after spending the morning settling a few of the debts which were so central to Steven’s current predicament, he had used the remaining money to entertain himself at a local gambling establishment. His assurances that it was just a few pounds would have been enough to satisfy Steven somewhat that morning but in the light of what he knew now Steve could barely restrain his anger at Rumlow’s smugly comforting expression.
Steven slept little that night, caught in an agony of indecision. He wanted to accept Mr. Barnes’ offer, both for his own reasons and because it was by far the most prudent option. And yet he wanted just as much to prove that he needed no aid, that he could weather his difficulties alone. The fact was, he could not, and it grated terribly. In the early hours of the morning his anger and self-righteousness finally seemed to exhaust themselves and he was left with a simple decision: marry Rumlow and hope for the money that he now no longer trusted to be coming at all, or marry Mr. Barnes and have his worries settled for the small price of being connected to a man he greatly admired. The choice was easily made once his pride could be laid aside. In the swell of feeling at having made his decision Steven dressed and left even as the first light of morning was only beginning to banish the icy fog from the meadows and glades. The difference in temperature wrought ill effects on his lungs and Steven had to stop several times as he walked to lean on his cane and cough until his bones seemed to shake with the force of it. Finally, feeling firm of purpose but weak and embarrassingly feeble of body, Steven arrived at Sawston.
He was escorted into a sitting room with more expensive furnishings than were boasted in the entirety of Tenem House. As he waited he thought about Lady Romanoff. Steven had never imagined himself in a marriage that involved his husband having lovers. But he has also never imagined a marriage so guided by necessity and not desire. Regardless of his own emotions on the matter, he decided, he would not seek to hinder Barnes’ relationship with Lady Romanoff or any other person he fancied. Even if they were to be husbands there was no reason they must necessarily be lovers.
It was not a long wait and when Mr. Barnes did appear he seemed to have been hastily dressed for his shirt was not completely tucked and he was not wearing boots.
“Mr. Rogers.” he said, and Steve responded in kind, the address made awkward by the discomfiture of its participants.
“I believe I have made my decision. I humbly and gratefully accept your offer.” A complex set of emotions seemed to pass over Mr. Barnes’ face and Steve wished he could decode them. But before any single feeling could settle he continued. “However, there are a few more related matters to be discussed before… well, before.”
“Of course.” Mr. Barnes said, clearing his throat and taking a seat. “Please, continue.”
“First is the matter of heirs. It is well-known that you have no direct heirs for this estate and a union with me would mean there would not be any produced.”
“But you have a relative set to inherit your estate do you not?”
“Yes, a cousin on my mother’s side.”
“And in this age it is no longer so frowned upon to adopt an heir as it once was, if that was something we both desired.” Mr. Barnes said somewhat hesitantly.
“No, that is a possibility. I only wanted to bring the topic to your attention for the passing of Sawston hall not to a direct heir might have been a concern you had not thought of. Furthermore, if it is amenable to you I would like to delay the announcement of our engagement until consent can be obtained from my mother. I will of course break off my previous match immediately and I feel certain she will have no objections to our engagement but hastily moving forward and flouting convention once almost proved disastrous."
"Of course," Mr. Barnes said smoothly, "I would wish it no other way."
"Lastly,” here Steven drew his pride tightly about himself as if to armor himself against any hurt his weaknesses might invite. “Lastly, I understand that this is primarily a financial arrangement and entirely for my benefit. Therefore, I would not think that we should have to do any more than keep up the appearance of marriage. That is-”
“Yes, yes of course.” Mr. Barnes said quickly. “I understand.” Then after a brief pause, “This is an arrangement, not a union and all the complexities of a true marriage may be avoided.”
“Exactly.” Steve said, perhaps a little more sharply than he meant to, “I’m glad we understand each other.” He stood up, preparing to leave. “And may I say again that I am most sincerely grateful for your generosity in this.”
“No, the pleasure is mine.” he said with a stiffness that belied his words. Steven bowed and took his leave. The matter was settled, now he had to break off his engagement with Mr. Rumlow and begin the preparations for a much more desirable marriage.
Breaking an engagement was always a nasty business. Injury of either feelings or pride was unavoidable and where harm was done to one party, retaliation against the other was bound to result. Given that knowledge, the breaking off of the connection with Rumlow went rather as well as Steve could have expected.
Steven put no special effort into making sure his meaning was presented kindly. He was not rude, but Rumlow did not deserve kindness. Upon comprehending his words Mr. Rumlow was quick to snap that Steven was making a terrible mistake, spurning someone so much above his station and that he would live to regret it. Steve blandly said it was simply a matter of personal differences. In his reply Rumlow made clear that he'd had no intention of going through with marriage to such a poor excuse for a man and that indeed it had just been too easy to find a fool willing to dissolve his debts for him. It was around this time that Steven lost his temper and icily informed Mr. Rumlow that he knew exactly what kind of man he was and would not be surprised by any rudeness or treachery he might stoop to.
"Your opinion of my wits or my physique mean less than nothing to me. I believe I will be very happy to forget your existence entirely if you would only be so kind as to remove your offensive presence from my premises and never return to this neighborhood again."
Rumlow proceeded to leave the estate. Upon his departure Steven was almost disappointed, for he had not managed to make abundantly clear how much his circumstances were to improve now. A petty part of him would very much have liked Rumlow to know, but he supposed the news would be printed in the papers soon enough and that would have to do.
With that done, Steven composed a letter to his mother with all the details of the past two days. He sent it off immediately and then had nothing to do but wait for the news to spread and his standing in the shire to drop accordingly. He was not disappointed. Within a day invitations to dine were rescinded and arranged excursions were cancelled on the most spurious of pretexts. Samuel did a fine job at overhearing gossip and was called upon despite his protests to relay it all back to Steve's ears.
It was decided by the men and women of neighborhood that such a mess was all you could expect of someone but barely highborn and rather more common than his lineage could fairly account for. Mr. Rumlow was said to be lucky to escape such a coarse connection and all people of edible age were called upon to pronounce Steve most rude, poor and unseemly to the eye. In everything it was understood that to shun the boy was nothing but just and deserved.
A few days later when the expected reply came from Sarah Rogers and the engagement was announced the tune of the local song underwent an abrupt change. While it was true that Steven was still socially disreputable he was soon to be terribly rich and thus allowances must be made. Acquaintanceships were renewed and connections restored. Although his transgressions against society were not forgotten, and indeed some of the more haughty members of any party would bring it up at the least occasion, he was also catered to in a way he never had been before.
Steve concerned himself not with the changing tides of the gossip except to comment on it wryly to Sam and in the meantime preoccupied himself with choices regarding the marriage. His mother’s health was such that she could not make the journey to ------shire and so it was decided that they would hold the wedding in London in a month’s time.
Wedding clothes were bought and arrangements regarding money were made. The few pieces of furniture and decorations which Steven could not bear to be parted with would be moved to Sawston along with Steve himself once they returned from London. Tenem House would be let but the grounds and tenants would still be Steve’s responsibility, as would the staff. Steven was not sure how he felt about leaving his childhood home for the grand but rather stiff sitting rooms and halls of Sawston. He was even less sure about his feelings regarding the company he would keep there.
There was a thick layer of awkwardness adorning all interactions between himself and Mr. Barnes. They could not quite manage to fall into the same ease or familiarity they had achieved in their letters or interactions before Barnes had removed to London. For this, Steve mostly blamed himself. He could never quite forget that he was dependent on Barnes, that he should be thankful and gracious and accommodating in all things because Mr. Barnes had been kind enough to help him. This demonstrative civility did not quite suit Steven’s temper as well as he would have liked and it left him stiff and unsure of himself. Mr. Barnes seemed just as uneasy and Steven often voiced concerns to Sam that their relationship should be begun on such poor footing. But nothing could be done for it, they must continue on and hope that once the marriage vows had cemented their relationship the awkwardness of their interactions might dull.
The weeks passed quickly and slowly in turn. Steve fell ill as he was wont to do during winter, but it was not so serious as some of his illnesses had been and he had made a full recovery nearly a week before they were set to depart for London. It had been discussed at length and finally decided that the night of their arrival should be spent in Mr. Barnes’ London home. With Lady Romanoff and Colonel Wilson as chaperones it would not be a terribly scandalous choice and after their marriage the following day they could share a room and be above reproach. Finally the day of their journey commenced and the coach was called. Travel had always been difficult for Steven, the constant jolts aggravating his bad back and the tight space aggravating his nerves. But they passed the time as amiably as they could and the miles went by quickly.
London was not quite what Steven had expected. In the darkness, that dirt and grime Barnes had described in his letters was hidden although Steve could still smell it in the cold, thick air. Even as late as it was the streets were noisy with carriages and well populated by vagrants, drunks, and gentlemen alike. But the houses they passed were beautiful if cramped and the lamps along the road created a false light that made everything seem unreal. No, it was not at all what he'd expected.
They were welcomed by Lady Romanoff when they entered the house, which was larger and more impressive than any other on the block and made Steve almost as embarrassed as Sawston did. He and Sam were shown to their rooms and they settled in easily enough. Steve had thought anticipation would keep him up all night but the stress of the travel weighed heavily on him and he found himself falling into bed at once.
The nerves hit him upon waking the next morning, twisting his stomach into anxious knots. He couldn't even be sure exactly what frightened him, only that the entire situation suddenly seemed out of his control. They breakfasted and changed into their wedding garb. Looking in the mirror Steven wished his reflection could have been less pale and wan, although even as he thought about it a blotchy blush stained his cheeks which was not precisely what he has hoped for.
They rode separately to the church as Steve wanted to get there early to see his mother before the ceremony. She looked better than last he'd seen her and her touch and smile calmed him as nothing else could.
"My stern-faced son. You are to be married today, and you assured me in your letters that you find the man very amiable, so where is that mischievous joy I used to see in your eyes when you were a boy?"
"I doubt very much you would like me getting up to mischief on my wedding day, mother. And as for joy, my happiness is but dimmed by natural nerves, but I know how lucky I am, believe me."
"Of course you're lucky," she said, putting on an air, "I am your mother, am I not? That alone is quite lucky indeed." Steve laughed and felt some tension drain from his shoulders. He had missed his mother more than he realized.
Mr. Barnes and Lady Romanoff arrived shortly after and the ceremony could begin. Standing opposite Mr. Barnes with the minister between them Steven found himself distracted by how handsome Mr. Barnes looked in his wedding suit, how his longer hair suited his angular face and Steven was caught in the brightness of his eyes. He supposed there was no better time to reflect on the handsomeness of a man than shortly before he was to become Steve's husband. Still he found himself blushing at his thoughts and Barnes smiled just slightly, just for Steve. His heart beat its rhythm quick and loud in his ears as the vows were made and the rings exchanged. Finally they were pronounced a wedded couple in the eyes of the Lord and all that was left was a kiss. Steven took a tiny step forward and Barnes met him there, cupped the back of Steve's head gently and leaned down to kiss him. It was brief and warm and Steven almost without thought leaned up into it. But then Barnes drew back and Steve fell back onto his heels. Barnes turned and offered his hand which Steven grasped firmly. And then they lead one another out to the carriages that would take them back home where a dinner party was to be held in but a few hours.
In the carriage they fell into silence. Finally Steve could stand it no longer.
"It would be rather silly, I think," he said in a light tone, "for you to still call me Mr. Rogers. I am amenable to both Steven and Steve, whichever you prefer. And I suppose I could call you James."
"You could. My friends call me James. But you had a different name for me once." Steve almost laughed, but Barnes looked serious.
"Such a childish nickname wouldn't wound your pride?"
"Not coming from you, Steve."
"Well, alright then. Bucky it shall be."
The dinner party was well attended and everyone was quick to offer their well wishes to the new couple. Steve had the opportunity to meet the Mr. Barton that Barnes had mentioned and he indeed seemed a kind, if somewhat awkward man who apologized repeatedly for his visible bruises and what the doctor had told him was not quite a fully broken nose. Inquiring as to the source of his injuries it was revealed that Mr. Barton had a proclivity for bare knuckle boxing which he again apologized for profusely. Steve found the thought rather exciting however and Bucky seemed pleased when Steven expressed interest in seeing a bout while they were in town. They socialized for most of the evening, mostly with people Steven had never met before and by the end of the night he found himself remaining close to Samuel’s side if only for the respite of a familiar face. Finally the attendees began to filter out into the crisp London air and it was left with just the four of them once again. While they had been entertaining, the servants had moved Steven’s things from his previous room to the master bedroom he would now be sharing with Barnes. When they retired the awkwardness that had somewhat dissipated over the course of the evening came back in full force. The room was spacious with separate wardrobes and a large bed. As they undressed on their separate sides of the room Steven couldn’t help wishing that they could do away with even this pretense. But if they shared separate rooms from the beginning servants would talk and from servants, gossip easily spread to every household in town. If Barnes soon spent most of his evenings with Lady Romanoff that would be a different kind of scandal, one not so unbelievable as a married couple never having consummated their union.
So they were left, dressed for sleep and staring at each other over the bed between them. Tension was thick in the air but Steve tried to ignore it, making the first move to settle himself into bed. He couldn’t quite stop himself from blushing at the strange intimacy of seeing Bucky’s bare feet. It seemed right to use that old name now, the name he’d called an old friend who knew him almost as well as he knew himself. Perhaps he could find that man again by calling his husband by the same name.
Bucky put out the bedside lamps and got into bed himself. With the curtains at the window drawn the only light was from the banked fire and in its warm glow Steve could see but the barest outline of Bucky’s face. Somehow they had ended up lying facing one another, not close enough to touch but close enough to feel the way the bed dipped under the other person’s weight. Perhaps now was the time he should close his eyes and pretend to fall instantly asleep but Steven couldn’t help himself from straining his eyes in the dim shadows trying to make out the expression on Bucky’s face.
“It feels rather strange, doesn’t it?” Bucky said after a while, voice barely above a whisper.
“Being married.” he said and Steve nodded a little. “We’re raised to think of it all the time, always evaluating such and such a person, planning this or that match. All that’s done now.”
“Yes, it is. Whatever will fill our thoughts now, as married men?” Steven joked, half-heartedly.
“I suppose we now have the freedom to be completely empty-headed.” Bucky replied. Steve could feel something in him uncoil. This was not a cruel man, nor a pompous one. He did not seem to think himself better than Steve or act out the differences in their stations. They were joined together now, and perhaps they could be friends.
“Do you remember when we used to steal out of our houses in the middle of the night to meet during the summer?” Steve asked. There was a breath of laughter that Steve felt brush his face.
“Yes, and we would meet by the old oak tree just on the edge of Sawston’s estate. And if the moon was full you would read me the poetry you were composing for some village boy or girl you held a candle for. And I would tell you it wasn’t proper to go writing poetry for any old person, but then urge you to continue anyway.”
“Of course you would remember that,” Steve said, embarrassed, “but if the moon was not full we would sit and look at the stars and talk about everything we would do when we were older. And once-” Steven faltered here, not sure if he should continue. But this had been what prompted the memory to begin with. “Once we said we would marry some day, just to scandalize your father and the rest of the village.”
“I remember. My father had been particularly awful, so I said that he would no doubt disown me for the disgrace, and then we could live together in Tenem with your mother and my governess.”
“Yes.” And Steve wished he could see Bucky’s face, just as he often had when they were children making plans in the dark. “That’s strange too. That events should occur so like yet so unlike what we’d imagined.”
“Indeed. Strange.” Bucky said and his voice was barely a breath of sound. Steve could think of nothing else to say, only watched the shadows where Bucky’s eyes should be until he could no longer keep awake and drifted into quiet dreams.
They had many callers over the next fortnight, coming to congratulate them either sincerely or insincerely. If the latter they would be sure to slyly mention Steve’s other recent engagement or inquire as to his plans for his estate. For surely, they said, with such increased funds he could rejuvenate his house. To this Steve always had something cutting and rather rude to reply but unless the person in question was particularly uncivil he would usually bite his tongue. It was one thing to reduce his own standing in the eyes of people whose opinions he cared not for, but now his remarks reflected on the Barnes name as well, and it was not his place to disgrace his husband because of his temper.
Besides the society, London had its drawbacks and its pleasures. Steven soon found the air in London did not agree with him and he had more fits of coughing or irregular breathing than he ever had in the country. He was not so taken with the filth as Bucky seemed to be and instead preferred the days when it rained, the icy water seeming to wash away the city’s flaws and making the view from the house’s upper windows hazy but beautiful. The company was a blessing however. He found himself enjoying the conversation of nearly all of Bucky’s friends. Lord Stark was strange and eccentric but seemed kind hearted when you spoke to him with his Lady Potts. Mr. Barton reminded Steven more of the village boys he had known in his youth than most gentlemen and it was a pleasant change to converse with a man who seemed to always speak his mind even when he instantly regretted it. For the most part it just made Steve laugh.
And Lady Romanoff was always a pleasure to be around. She let slip piece by piece information that pointed to the fact that she had lead a rather interesting life, that she had spent long periods abroad, that she could mimic many accents with ease, that she knew intricacies of war that none but a soldier should. It was easy for Steven to remain true to his resolve not to harbor jealousy against her and even went so far as to think her a friend. But what was strange was that Bucky never retired with her. Every night he went to sleep beside Steve. But he did not always stay there. The first night Steven woke to find the other side of the bed empty he scolded his heart for sinking and reminded himself that it was exactly as he’d expected for Bucky to find comfort in another. But the second night Bucky was not in bed Steven noticed a chill in the air and looked about to see his husband sitting on the seat by the window looking out the open pane onto the foggy streets below.
“Bucky?” Steve whispered but seemed to go unheard. “Bucky?” he said again, slightly louder and Bucky started at the sound. He turned.
“Steven, Steve, did I wake you? Of course, the cold, I didn’t think.” He moved to shut the window but Steve saw his hand was shaking.
“No, leave it open if you wish.” Steve said and Bucky did, standing before the opening one hand clasped over the place where the other arm should have been. “Are you well?” Steve asked after a moment.
“No. Yes, that is, yes, I’m alright. It is only… some nights, my mind deceives me and I think myself somewhere else. The cold air reminds me where I am.”
Steve did not know what possible reply he could give to such a statement. Eventually he could no longer bear to lie there looking at the shadowed figure by the window, he left the warmth of the bed to go over to Bucky. Not sure if touch would be welcome he only stood close behind, so their nightgowns brushed each other.
“You are here,” Steve said, “in your home in London. It is the 18th of January.” And then, not sure if it was the proper thing to say, he continued. “You are not alone. I’m here, if you, that is, if you had anything you wished to discuss.” Bucky brushed up against him as he turned and this close Steve could see his gaze did not look so far away as he had feared.
“No, I would not burden you with my thoughts.” he said with a small smile, “but your presence is a comfort. Go back to bed. I will join you shortly.” And as he moved to close the window his hand no longer shook so terribly.
This scene repeated itself once or twice every week. Sometimes Bucky would be at the window and could be tempted back into sleep. Other nights the light under the study door indicated that he was occupying himself some other way, no doubt reading, and Steve did not disturb him. Still other nights there was no trace of him and Steve lay awake wondering if Lady Romanoff, Natasha as he called her now, was a greater comfort than he could be. Or if perhaps Bucky was somewhere else entirely, walking the streets of London or partaking in some other activity Steve could conceive not of. Either way, he did not sleep well on those nights and always observed Bucky carefully at breakfast the next morning.
Towards the close of the month Steve fell ill again. A fever and pain in his head and extremities kept him miserable for days while the doctor ordered only that he be kept alone in a closed room so the illness could not be worsened by bad air. A servant was assigned to his room to keep him as comfortable as possible and provide cool water whenever it was desired. By the third day Steven was more blighted by his own ennui than by the sickness itself. His hands ached too much to consider writing or holding a book. He was not allowed visitors. He was told only to sleep and eat and recover as though all other concerns of the mind could be completely eradicated. Finally, by the end of the first week the doctor, under much pressure from Steven himself, condescended to allow visitors, but only one at a time and no more than one visitor a day. Steve’s hearing was just good enough to make out the muffled sounds of disagreement coming from outside his door and imagined Samuel and Bucky were comparing their relative credentials as lifelong friend and new husband to determine who would be allowed to visit first.
Bucky it would seem won that particular contest as he entered the sick room not long after. He looked at little perturbed by the sight of Steve. After a moment he said, "I wish I could say you were the picture of good health." Steve suppressed a laugh, knowing it would start him coughing.
"I wish I could believe such a lie if you brought yourself to speak it." At a gesture from Steve, Bucky took a seat on the edge of the bed.
"How do you get on?" Bucky asked.
"Better, now that I have someone here to distract me from my body's battle with itself."
"Then let me perform my due of distracting you." And so he began a rather circuitous description of the parties and outings Steve had missed while lying in his sickbed. The gentle tones of his voice were soothing but did not lull Steve to sleep, he had slept his fill for an age it felt. But he drifted, half attending, half caught in the cadence of the sound until a name drew his attention most abruptly.
"I wondered if you were even listening. I was just explaining that you missed a caller three days past, a Lady Carter and her wife, Lady Martinelli. They had just arrived in town and said they were acquaintances of yours." Steve stayed completely still, and yet felt the symptoms of having sat up too quickly, a pounding of blood in the head and a shortness of breath with no explanation.
"Is that so?" he said, rather weakly, "I do indeed know these women."
"Are you well?" Bucky asked, concerned, "your color is not good and-"
"Yes, I feel weak suddenly. I find I'm not quite prepared for the excitement of a visitor. Forgive me."
"No, of course. Sleep and recover yourself, I will return tomorrow, or the day after perhaps if Samuel has his way. Sleep, dearest."
It was said almost without thought, and followed by a brush of lips to Steven's sweaty brow. Steve could not attend to it, too caught up in his sudden racing thoughts. Bucky left the room and Steve felt far from sleep.
He had thought somehow the topic could be avoided, at least until their marriage was more settled and less susceptible to upheaval. But if Peggy had come calling while he was ill she was bound to make another attempt once he was well. And it was unfair, almost cruel, to keep the truth from his husband. He tried to tell himself he was reacting out of proportion to the situation. Surely, Bucky would not care one way or the other about details of Steve's past. He already knew Steve had been engaged to Rumlow and this was surely not so embarrassing as that. Still the truth clawed at Steven's throat as he tried to swallow it while knowing it must be revealed. He ruminated on the problem for the rest of the evening and by the time Samuel visited him the next morning he felt more resolved on the subject.
"Sam," he said after they had spoken for a time, "send Bucky in to see me after you leave. I know," he said, raising a hand to stave off his friend's interjection, "it is against the recommendation of the doctor. But I am feeling quite recovered and much desire to speak to my husband."
"I care not for your desire, Steven, I care for your health."
"Then you must send him in, for I do not think I may possibly rest without speaking to him. And rest is of the utmost importance to my health." Samuel gave a rather unamused look at this but his face softened.
"I will comply only because you have the look of a slighted angel and I dare not deny you this. Or perhaps," he said, making his way to the door, "only the look of a slighted young boy."
Steve expended more energy than he would care to admit attempting to throw a pillow at Samuel's laughing head. But he could not help but laugh as well. And then fall to coughing as he knew he would. Still the exchange strengthened his nerves and he felt composed when Bucky entered the room not long after and took up the seat by the bedside.
"Steve? Samuel said you asked for me with some urgency."
"Yes, but don't worry yourself, it is not a matter of my health." He took a steadying breath. "It is to do with the ladies you mentioned to me yesterday, and particularly Lady Carter. For I think it only fair that you know my past connection to her." Bucky was beginning to shake his head but Steve forged on. "Let me speak, please." Bucky stilled. "But a year after you left, the Martinellis let Stuy Hall for a summer. They brought with them their good friend Lady Margaret Carter. She was kind and sharp of wit and had none of the pretension the landed class so often exhibited. She and I fell quickly into a courtship and we lo- there was a strong attachment. On both sides. We knew the match was ill-conceived and unequal but we thought the strength of our feelings would overcome objections. My mother of course gave her consent but when I asked Peggy’s, that is, Margaret’s father for her hand he rejected the notion entirely. Several attempts were made by me and Peggy alike but to no avail. However, we were both of the headstrong sort and conceived of the idea that we would elope to Gretna Green and see our connection made without leave of her father. I am ashamed to say we almost went through with the plan. Ashamed that is for I thought only of our l- emotions, and not of Peggy’s future or standing in society. Indeed, the only thing that stayed our hand, on the very eve of our plan was the news that an accord had been reached between her parents and the Martinellis for a wedding to unite their families. They would not, could not had they tried, force Peggy into something she did not want. But she cared for her friend dearly, even loved her, and it would be a tremendous step forward for Miss Angela to marry into a title. All these things with the acceptance of her family recommended the match and diminished the pull of our ill-conceived notions of elopement. So we agreed to forget our plans, to set aside our feelings and look for happiness in more favorable climes. It- it was not easy. I cannot convey how difficult it was, I can only say that I regret most deeply losing Peggy, even though my clearer head now tells me I did the only just thing. I tell you this now because I came very close to ruining both myself and the lady you met and both she, and I, and the Martinellis know it. It is only fair that my husband know as well.”
“And yet,” Bucky’s face was sharp and dark when Steve finally looked up from his own twisting fingers. “She came calling. She still seeks some acquaintance.”
“Yes,” Steve said, “when she left we agreed that friendship at least should not be closed to us. I did not write for a long time, for the wounds were still too fresh but we have recently communicated by letter. I greatly desire to see her when I am well.”
“Of course.” His manner was so stilted and wooden, Steven wondered is this was a sign that Bucky was angry with him. Disgusted? Contemptuous of his past follies? “I will arrange for her to call again when you are well, so you may speak to her.” Steve knew not what to say to break through Bucky’s hardened outer demeanor.
“Thank you.” he said and Bucky nodded.
“I will be going now. You must rest. Recover your strength.”
“Good day, Bucky.” he said, almost desperately.
“Good day, Steven.” Bucky said, and departed leaving Steve alone.
By the end of the week the doctor allowed Steven to leave his bed and move about the house freely. He was not yet allowed on outings that might tax him but visitors were acceptable and the desired meeting with Peggy was arranged. The day of the dinner Bucky left before Peggy arrived saying he was being called away by a family solicitor on matters of business. So only Steve, Samuel and Natasha were there to entertain Peggy and Angela. It was such a great pleasure to see them again, and even more so to see them so well and happy in their marriage. Knowing them as friends, he had seen the playfulness and vigor of their interactions with one another but it seemed only enhanced by their union. It filled Steve with longing. At first he thought it was longing for Peggy, who he still loved most dearly, but that was not quite the feeling that seemed to tremble in his breast. Instead it was a longing for what they had, a deep wish to laugh and tease and rely on another person, on his husband, the way Peggy could rely on Angela. Even while he was overjoyed to see them so happy, he ached knowing his own marriage was so dissimilar to theirs, based on necessity rather than friendship. And he worried now that it would grow and change as theirs had but not into love, and instead into unhappiness for both parties.
Although the dinner party was taxing, Steven remained awake in bed after it was finished, waiting for Bucky. Finally he came home very late smelling of smoke and alcohol. Steve worried that this meant he had received ill tidings from his solicitor that had driven him to drink before he ventured home. But Bucky brushed off his concerns, saying that nothing was the matter at all. Something cold settled in Steven’s heart as he pulled the sheets over him and tried to ignore Bucky’s clumsy undressing.
That cold did not thaw come morning, as Bucky’s mood was still withdrawn and unhappy. It did not thaw that week or the next. Indeed as spring began to make itself known in cool sun and less frequent rains, the winter of their union did not change. Bucky spent less time at home and Steve spent more time with company, trying to distract himself from everything that seemed wrong. Samuel and Natasha of course noticed the differences in their friends. Sam tried to convince Steve that the only way to proceed was to air grievances and discuss his feelings openly with Bucky. But the time had turned Steve’s hurt into anger and he bitterly refused to bare his soul to Bucky when Bucky barely deigned to be in the same room as Steve. No, he would not sit and hear whatever issues his husband had with him. Let them fester and rot in Bucky’s chest, just as the hurt and wounded pride left icicles in Steven’s own heart.
He thought at first that Natasha would be glad of the distance between them. After all, it had driven Bucky more into his lover’s arms: Natasha was the one he spoke to at meals, danced with at parties, looked to as he avoided Steve’s gaze. But she seemed at first exasperated and then merely annoyed at the attention. It even occurred once or twice that there would be loud arguments in Russian between the two after coming home from some event or another. Steve didn’t know what to make of it and neither did Sam so they both endeavored to keep themselves out of the matter entirely.
Steve and Bucky still retired together every night. And there were still nights when Steve woke with a chill before dawn to find Bucky at the open window. And despite his feelings Steve still went to him, stood by his side and offered what words of comfort he could find. These were the only times during those days when it felt as though things were right with their marriage. Other nights Steven would wake for no apparent cause and turn to watch Bucky's sleeping face, examine the smooth lines of his jaw and listen to the deep regular puff of his breath. In those moments Steve forgot himself, forgot his hurt, forgot his anger, forgot even to hold his thoughts in check and instead wished most dearly that he could brush his lips against Bucky's and wake him sweetly. But by the time morning came these feelings were once again pushed aside and Steve chastised himself for even thinking such things.
In February, Samuel departed back to his regiment and even though most of their lives they had spoken primarily through letters and seen one another rarely it was still a blow to have him leave. Steven missed him most dearly and wrote perhaps more frequent letters than was strictly necessary, filling Sam in on every detail and event. Only a few weeks later, business with their estate called Peggy and Angie away from London and they did not expect to return before the fall. Steve saw them off the morning of their departure with an offer from them to come visit their home any time he liked. It was a kind thought and Steve believed he would take them up on it should summer find Sawston to be as small and oppressive as the house in London felt now.
After Peggy's leave-taking Steve began to spend more time with Mr. Barton, who he found the most agreeable of his London acquaintances. Their outings found them in dim gambling houses and dirty back rooms where men beat one another bloody. It was a side of London Steve had never imagined existed and was somewhat shocked to see. But he was determined not to play the part of the sheltered country gentleman appalled by the town's underbelly. Instead he threw himself into the evenings' events, talking with all manner of folk and even getting into a brawl once or twice when a man he was speaking to became too liberal with a woman, to her displeasure. This ended in Clint and Steve both being thrown out with curses and bruises to their names. But it gave Steven a righteous thrill and deterred him not at all from further excursions with Mr. Barton.
During this time Bucky's demeanor finally began to soften. He accompanied Steve and Clint some evenings and spoke to Steven more frequently than he had for more than a month. There was still something guarded in his manner of address that had not been so obvious before all this but almost despite himself Steven slowly warmed to Bucky again. He feared it was in his nature to hold onto feelings longer than he should so once he noticed Bucky's apparent change of heart Steve made a concentrated effort to let go of his own anger. The four of them, Bucky, Steve, Natasha and Clint made quite a happy group after a while and one was rarely seen not in the company of the others.
Clint had, like Bucky, been discharged from the militia for reasons of injury. He was now quite near deaf and relied heavily on watching a person's lips to determine what they said. He had advanced enough before he was hurt to live quite comfortably now on his retirement income. So it was not entirely out of his means to let a living as small as Stuy House. As spring snuck into the air and slipped into the sweat at the small of Steve's back, Steven suggested the idea of Stuy House to Mr. Barton. Natasha thought it a splendid plan and Clint began making the necessary inquiries. They stayed another month in London before the topic of Sawston was broached.
It had been an unseasonably hot day and the night no longer held a hint of chill. The late evening air instead came through the open windows into their bedroom tepid and stinking as only London could. The bed had been stripped of all but a single sheet and still Steven could feel sweat barely prickling at the back of his neck as he readied for bed.
"This is unreasonable." Bucky said suddenly. They didn't often speak as they got dressed for bed. Steve turned to find Bucky bare chested, staring at his night gown in disgust. "I refuse to button myself up to the neck just so I can sweat in my own bed. Steve, please tell me you are sensible to this."
Steve ducked his head to hide a smile and because it seemed somehow indecorous to gaze at Bucky’s chest despite the fact that they were married. "I can see your point."
"Then you will give me leave to sleep a bit more comfortably."
"Of course, Bucky, it is as much your bed as mine and certainly your body to clothe as you wish."
"I wish it to be as unclothed as possible." he said bitterly and Steve could not stop a laugh. Bucky smiled back wryly. "You know, my bedroom at Sawston has a balcony attached. It is an easy thing to open the doors wide and let in the breeze. Or just drag the mattress outside and sleep under the cool night sky."
"It sounds wonderful." Steve said honestly, settling into bed. Bucky followed his lead.
"It is. You'll love it. Sawston in summer is a sight I have sorely missed these years past."
"You were home in time for the tail of summer last year." Steve said. They were curled facing each other, breaths mingling.
"True but I was not in a state to enjoy it."
"When would you like to leave London?" Steve asked because this close it was easy to see the yearning in Bucky's eyes.
"Goodness, right now I say with all haste."
"We can be in Sawston by week's end."
"Yes." Bucky said gratefully, "I will start the preparations tomorrow."
"Goodnight, Steve." he said and they fell asleep that way, hands but inches apart on the bed between them.
It was decided that Natasha would remain in London another fortnight or two as Clint tidied up his finances and secured the house in Brookton. Then both would follow and the four would make a pleasant party once again. It was strange for Steve, to be going home yet not home, returning to the village but not to the house he'd grown up in. Instead word was sent ahead and Sawston was prepared for their arrival.
Steven had wondered, when leaving for London before their marriage, what arrangement they would keep when they returned. Sawston's servants were more trustworthy than those who kept the London house. It would be not impossible to keep news of them sharing separate bedrooms from the neighborhood. And even should it be known, it would not be so scandalous after a few months of marriage. People would talk, but that Steve could count on no matter what they did.
Yet, when Bucky had spoken it had seemed a foregone conclusion that they should share a bedroom. Without friends sharing the household this seemed... not scandalous for they were married, but certainly intentional and it was the basis of that intent that Steve dared not imagine.
Their return found them flooded with invitations from every household in the neighborhood, to dine, to hunt, to ride, to generally make themselves sociable in all possible fashion. They accepted in a careful manner so as to offend the fewest number of families while also spending the least amount of time with those people whom they both found rude or foolish. They fell quickly back into the rhythm of country life. Steve read or walked the grounds with Bucky some days. Others, Bucky rode, for he was a great lover of horses and hounds alike. Rather than feeling uncomfortable at Sawston, Steve found himself enjoying greatly being master of such a fine estate. Without discussion it was somehow decided upon that Steve should have dominion over the house and servants, while Bucky managed the grounds and the groundskeeper. It was a terrible relief to not spend hours pouring over accounts that never added favorably, to instead know that most any expense that arose, they had means to pay for.
Some days, however, the halls felt too lofty and the furnishings too grand to take a natural scuff. And Steve yearned for Tenem that sat empty: tended but unlived-in. And then he would walk his old paths and look in vacant windows. He felt displaced. But he brushed off the melancholy and did his best to feel welcome in his new home.
The week after they arrived summer settled in in earnest and it was talked to be the hottest summer anyone could recall. Steve and Bucky spent several days wilting in the heat before a solution was discovered.
"Bucky," Steve said suddenly as they lay in the shade of an oak and wished for a wind that did not blow. "Do you remember the summer we met?"
"We met as babes Steven it would be impossible to recall."
"Oh don't be difficult just because you're hot. I mean the first summer we truly knew each other, spoke and played and such as boys."
"Yes, of course I remember. I dared you to eat dandelions because I'd read they were medicinal and you ate them until you threw up."
"My god, I'd forgotten that. No, I was just remembering it was the longest, oddest summer. It got hotter as it went by until the first week of September was hotter even than this."
"Oh yes, and we went to the lake."
They both sat up with a suddenness they would not have claimed possible the moment before.
“How could we forget?” Steven asked, honestly shocked. There was, in the far corner of the property a minor lake, not much larger than a pond. It was too small to support fishing and thus had gone mostly ignored by the inhabitants of Sawston except for the hottest week in their youth when they had spent afternoons splashing along the banks. And then, as was the custom with young minds, it was completely forgotten the next week when the heat broken and fall began in earnest. Only to be remembered now, years later when it was needed again.
There passed between them a certain look. It was a look that had been frequent between them as young boys, some mixture of excitement and challenge. In that moment Steve knew they were both contemplating the ground between here and the lake, daring the other to race the distance and see who could be the victor. It was a mad scheme, for running with the sun beating down as it did was a recipe for unpleasantness. Still, Bucky raised one eyebrow pointedly and that was all that need be done. The next moment they were scrambling up and sprinting off through the fields between there and the outer edges of the property.
Steve’s body was not much made for running and his lungs were not up to the task. He kept up for a while through pure stubbornness but soon was forced to slow, breath wheezing and legs protesting. Bucky took advantage of his lead and soon disappeared ahead. Steve stood hunched and gasping until he could continue and then made the rest of the way slowly, knowing he would need his cane tomorrow after such an exertion today. By the time he arrived Bucky should have been there quite a while. And yet, when the glittering water appeared between the trees surrounding it, for a moment Steve saw nothing but a tranquil, untouched lake. Then he noticed a faint ripple. He stood where the bank began to slope down to the lake’s edge and looked.
Out of the water erupted Bucky, standing suddenly in the shallows and revealing himself. He’d taken off his shirt and shoes and the water ran in streams down his bare torso. For a moment Steve was back on the path gasping for air because he couldn’t breathe looking at the muscular lines of Bucky’s chest. He blushed, a deep embarrassing flush that surely could not be completely explained away by the heat. Steven tried to compose himself as Bucky brushed his wet hair out of his face and grinned up at him.
“Enjoying yourself?” Steve asked, trying for wry and managing something more honest.
“Oh, it’s wonderful. I know, I should have waited for you but I got here and the water called to me. Come Steve, you must try it. Truly it is delightful.”
“Of course.” Steve said, taking off his own shoes and shirt as Bucky swam back into deeper water. He left them on the bank beside Bucky’s and picked his way down to the water’s edge. The first gentle touch of the lake on his toes was wonderful, cool and refreshing. He waded in further, until the water reached his waist. Then Bucky began to turn back and Steven ducked all the way under the water. He told himself it was to cool his overheated skin, but in truth, he didn't want Bucky to see his pale, skinny chest, his pronounced sternum and ribs. Next to Bucky his own body shamed him.
So he focused on pushing through the water smoothly, tried to enjoy the relief from the heat and ignore the imagined gaze of his husband. He knew the basics of swimming, could keep himself afloat at least but he wasn't graceful so after struggling for a few long minutes he gave up trying to swim properly and just allowed himself to drift on his back. The sun warmed his front while the water cooled his back and he listened to the sound of water in his ears. He could hear Bucky moving and after awhile he inclined his head in Bucky's direction just enough to see him but not enough to push the rest of his body underwater.
Bucky's movements were more confident and powerful than Steve's. But Steven saw quickly that he was hampered by lacking his left arm. He relied mostly, it seemed, on his legs and just used his right arm to keep his head above water as he swam. Steve drifted toward the bank after a time and Bucky evidently tired of his exercise as he began to leisurely make his way in Steve’s direction. As Bucky got closer Steve righted himself so he was kneeling in the shallows and ducked his head under the water for a moment to cool his burning face. When he came back out Bucky was standing before him, smiling. Slowly Bucky reached forward and brushed Steve’s wet hair off his face, letting his hand linger for the barest moment on Steve’s cheek. It was a friendly, confident gesture but Steve felt his heart squeeze uncomfortably in his chest.
“I-I should be getting back to the house.” he said, frozen in place. “I fear too much sun may go to my head.”
“I’ll stay a bit longer. Just wait, you’ll be wishing yourself back here before you even make it to the house.”
“Perhaps.” Steve said, and then finally tore himself away from the moment and the tension his embarrassment was creating between them. He scrambled up the bank and back to his clothes, hearing the sound of Bucky swimming away once more. Steven felt weighed down by his sodden trousers and his emotions. As he slowly made his way back to the house he couldn’t help thinking over and over again of Bucky, beautiful in the sun.
He felt sick with longing and it was foolish. If fate were kind to them they might end up as friends, close companions even, but they were bound together now by circumstance not feeling. He was beholden to Bucky’s kindness but there was nothing more there than decency, certainly not similar yearning to that which hung heavy in Steve’s own heart. As he had known when their arrangement was made, they were married, but they were not, would never be, lovers. The thought pained Steven and his attraction felt silly and pitiable but there was nothing to be done except to ignore the errant feelings to the best of his ability.
This was more easily thought than done, for the next few days saw them often driven to the lake and the impression it left on Steve was always as strong as it was that first day. His face burned quite terribly, at least, so his frequent blush was hidden by his already reddened skin. His salvation, ultimately, came in the form of Natasha and Clint's arrival at week's end.
Natasha spent one night in Sawston and then the following morning when Clint sheepishly shared his discomfort in having so large a house to himself, she declared that she should take a room at Stuy House and split her time between her friends' estates. She said it in such a forthright and easy manner that Steve could not think of anything to say. Only later, when Clint and Bucky were out riding together, did Steven gently try to broach the topic of the scandal that would arise from a lady living with an unmarried man, especially one of relatively low birth such as Clint. Steve cared for them both and wished neither of them to be hurt by the gossip of the neighborhood. Natasha just laughed.
"Steve, my title has always afforded me a certain luxury. That is, I can carry on as I see fit and give no thought at all to the opinions of others. I have my money and my name and no one can take those from me. Thus I am free to do as I like. And Clint was raised too much by his common mother, he does not think words can harm him because he fancies himself below concerns of status."
"I was also raised by a mother not of gentle birth. I still care about my name, still pride myself somewhat in my reputation. That is-"
"That is why you married James, was it not," she interrupted. "Then your preoccupation has somehow served you well. But do not judge others for not having the same concerns."
"Of course not. Both of you are utterly free to do as you wish. I only worry after you."
"Yes, grandfather. I'm sure Clint would join me in thanking you. But our reputations will survive a few weeks sharing a household. As you will hopefully survive as well, in your aged state."
"Oh, fine. Mock me for my concern." Steven said, laughing now as well. Natasha made a few more jokes and then the matter was let to lie, unhindered by Steve's reservations.
He soon forgot the matter in remembering his own predicament with his husband. He spent more time with Natasha and Clint, less time alone with Bucky. It didn't seem to help, always Bucky accompanied them, sleeves rolled up and skin a handsome tanned color that Steve could not hope for. Finally circumstance colluded to produce some relief.
Clint had kept two horses at his brother's estate while he lived in London. Upon letting Stuy he had had them moved to the new house. He, it was soon discovered, had even more love and skill with horses than Bucky. When he rode, the horse almost seemed a part of him and he said he had all but grown up in the saddle. Steve was envious. As a boy his family's horses were all headstrong and willful, fit for only the most skilled riders. At a young age it was decided the risk to his already weak body was not to be encouraged and so he never learned to ride. When Steve told this to Clint he was agape.
"This cannot continue. You are a gentleman of course and if you so choose you may live your life inside a carriage and never feel a horse beneath you. But that is a life barely lived. If I could learn to ride as a child, smaller and more delicate than you are now, then certainly you may be taught. Perhaps you will never be able to ride a great distance due to your health but short, sedate rides should not be beyond you." Steve had no fear of horses, and in fact seeing Bucky and Clint always together in their praise of the animals he found himself desiring to ride beside them. He did not much like to be left behind while the other three rode off. So he accepted Clint's offer to teach Steve the art of riding.
It was easy, being with Clint. There was not the tension Steve always imagined in the air between him and Bucky. They spent long hours together after that, first just getting Steve accustomed to the horses, then leading them, then mounting and dismounting until Steve's legs threatened to collapse, and finally riding. All of this done on Clint's horses rather than any of those connected to Sawston. They were two gentle geldings by the names of Arrow and Lucky.
After long days of physical exertion Steven sometimes did not desire to make the trip back to Sawston and spent several nights in the last spare bedroom of Stuy House. It was a relief but also a burden on his heart to be so far from Bucky, to sleep not beside him. And then, when he did return to Sawston, Bucky seemed more distant, withdrawn again. Steve tried to ignore it but there was a certain undeniable coolness in his manner than Steven could not account for.
On hotter days the slight breeze from atop Arrow was the only relief. One such day Bucky and Natasha had been invited to dine with the Odinsons and Clint and Steve had had a picnic in the furthest pastures of Sawston before riding back home. In the golden light of approaching dusk, shadows between the trees were growing while dust rose from beneath the horses' hooves. Suddenly, perhaps catching sight of a snake or a fox, Arrow reared and Steve, caught unawares tumbled backward off the saddle. He hit the ground hard on his back, air knocked out of him. Clint quickly grabbed Arrow's reins to stop him prancing and crushing Steve. Once the animal was calm, Clint dismounted and helped Steve to his feet. Still winded and aching Steve let Clint assist him back to the house and even bit back his reassurances when Clint insisted on following him up to Steven's room to examine him. When Clint suggested Steve show him his back and the certainly already purpling skin there Steve finally protested.
"It was a fall, Clint. There is no doubt it should have occurred at some point." It was now getting quite late. They should need some candles soon when the last red rays of sunlight disappeared.
"Certainly, but still as your teacher I feel responsible so allow me to reassure myself that you are not seriously hurt. I must at the very least feel your ribs for possible injury to the bone."
Steve relented with a sigh and began to unlace his shirt as Clint moved behind him to see his back. He was just shrugging the shirt off, Clint's hands carefully testing the sore area, when he heard footsteps in the hall, one of the servants no doubt.
"I'm busy," he called, "do not-" He stopped abruptly as the door opened and Bucky entered the room. He suddenly understood how odd the scene must look, how improper. Bucky stood in shadow, face obscured.
"Pardon me." he said stiffly. Before Steve could speak he spun and left.
"Bucky!" Steve called out after him, but he did not return. "You ought to go now." Steve said quietly to Clint, donning his shirt once more.
"I can go explain to-"
"No, I will." Steven said, turning and forcing a small smile. "I'll see you a few days hence Clint, we can see then if I am well enough to ride." He patted Clint's shoulder, trying to ease the sorrowful look on his friend's face. After a second more of pained deliberation, Clint nodded and left. Steve finished lacing his shirt and closed his eyes for a minute, gathering himself. Then he went down to the ground floor study and knocked at the door.
"Can it wait?" Came Bucky's muffled reply.
"Bucky, please let me explain." Steve said through the door. There was a second's pause and then the door opening.
"I do not see-" Bucky began but Steve spoke over him.
"It was a perfectly innocent incident-"
"-that there is anything to dis-"
"I took a fall, and Clint-"
"-cuss as far as I'm concerned. You are-" Bucky continued. Steve's voice had gotten louder so he now almost shouted.
"-was tending to my wounds. Nothing more." This finally seemed to stop Bucky.
"Of course. Naturally." he said. "I have some letters of business to attend to. I will be up to bed shortly." But there was a sharpness to his words, they bit at Steve. He didn't know what else to say in the face of the blankness in Bucky's eyes, so he left. He decided he would wait for Bucky in bed and try again to talk sense into him. But the hours passed and Bucky did not come up. Finally Steven's eyes drifted shut, and against his will he fell into sleep.
The next morning Bucky's mood was unchanged. It was gruff and dismissive, cold and sharp by turns. Steven felt his hackles raising, his own pride injured by the offense of such unjust treatment. Bucky had a lover, it should not have been out of the question for Steve to take one as well. And yet, he had not, had never wanted to. And now he was being punished for something he had never thought to do. It took only a few days of this treatment before Steve abandoned his reason in exchange for anger. Bucky was behaving unfairly and it was not Steven’s duty to sit by and take his rudeness without retaliation. So the mood of the household became harder still, with Steve and Bucky exchanging few words that were not biting remarks or remonstrances.
It reminded Steve very much of the worst period during their stay in London. Once again Bucky was angry with him and Steve saw no course to shore up his own pain than to return the anger in kind. He tried, as he had then, to find solace in the company of others, but of course conversing too often or too easily with Clint only made the situation worse. Finally it came to a head one evening. Bucky had been staying in his study until late in the evenings these past few days. But now when Steven came into the bedroom Bucky was already there, disrobed but not yet clothed for bed, wearing only his underthings. The sight of him penetrated Steve’s anger for a moment, or rather added a flustered, off-kilter layer to it. He set his lamp on the table beside the bed and reached for his shirt but Bucky’s words stopped him.
“I think it perhaps best that you should sleep in one of the other bedrooms.” For a moment Steve was shocked into stillness and silence. Bucky continued. “I have taken the liberty to have one of them aired for you, just down the hall. I think you will find it-”
“I am your husband ,” spat Steve, the last word almost as strong as an oath. “This is my bed as much as it is yours. And I will not be so rudely ejected from it.”
“I did not think you had a particular preference for the room. I would be glad to move, except that this is the bedroom I had as a boy and have a certain attachment to it…” It was not the words, but the way he said them, filled with cool superiority that Steve could not bear. He could not stand one more second of this.
"I know what you think of me.” he said, words quick and sharp, “You think me foolish. Always thinking or acting above my station. An idiot, nearly running off to marry a woman so much my better. And then, stupid enough to spend my savings on a man I thought I knew. You regret your kindness in connecting yourself to me. And now you think me so foolish that I would run off and find what solace I could in another man.” He could feel the rage bubbling beneath his skin. It almost pained him with the intensity and he could barely hear his own hissed words, “But I am at least loyal where I am not clever and whatever your own choices, I will never stray because everything I could want is right here. Even if you never deign to give it to me. Think me a fool, but do not think for a second that I am fool enough to turn from you, no matter how much you hate me. You are my husband."
And he found now that there were tears in his eyes, tears of rage and hurt and love for a man he never asked to hold so dear. They blurred his vision and turned Bucky’s face into an indistinct smudge of dark hair and darker eyes. Steve swiped them away angrily, hating his weakness, hating the truth of his words although he did not regret saying them. If their marriage was to fail now it must fail with every scrap of honesty he could give it. After rubbing at his eyes he looked at Bucky again. His face was open as it hadn’t been… perhaps ever. It easily displayed his shock and his hope and his shame so plainly that Steve could see all his emotions even if he could not explain them. Finally into the dreadful silence that followed Steven’s words, Bucky spoke, voice rough and grave.
“I fear I have been the fool. Perhaps my mind tricks me, and I mistake your meaning, so tell me now, plainly so that I may know the depth of my own mistakes: do you care for me? I ache to suggest it, but: do you love me?”
“I do.” Steven said simply, head held high and defiant. It may ruin what remained of their friendship but it was truth that he would not deny now.
“Then let me be just as plain. I am a terrible fool. No, plainer still: I love you. I have loved you. It is my love that has made me so unwise, so jealous and angry and cruel.” Steve did not understand, could not comprehend his meaning. Each word made sense alone but in conjunction they were nonsense, incomprensible. He managed to shake his head mutely, too taken aback to form words. “It is not surprising that you doubt me, for I have treated you so ill. I can only say that I did so out of pain, pain at the thought of you loving another, and in my pain I acted unconscionably. I do not think you foolish, nor have I ever. I have thought you brave and righteous and completely out of my reach. In London I pulled away from you because it seemed so clear to me that you still loved Lady Carter and I could not bear to see you two together, to see the bond you had with her that you did not have with me. And now, thinking you had taken Clint as your lover, I was torn apart with wanting what I thought I could not have. It is I not you who have acted unwisely and I know not what to do but beg for your forgiveness.” It was as light reaches slowly into the deepest depths of the water, murky and dim at first but light nonetheless.
“You love me.” Steve said, but his tone was questioning.
“Most ardently. In truth, I love you more than I can bear, for longer than I can recall, with everything I am.” There was color high on Bucky’s cheeks but he did not look away.
“You have been so harsh to me because of jealousy.”
“I am ashamed to say, yes.”
“You thought that I did not love you.”
“I never dared to hope.”
“Nor I for you.” Steve said, voice half choked with strange giddy laughter he felt welling in his breast. “I thought, starting on such uneven terms, with my so much in your debt that there was no possibility of asking more of you than what you gave willingly.”
“And I thought I would make myself the worst kind of knave if I offered my hand in aid only to then make motions towards your virtue.”
“But what of Natasha?”
“She and I were involved once, years ago, but have been only companions since before I returned to Sawston.”
“Oh.” Steve felt light, all burdens relieved and all truths revealed. “God,” he said, laughing, “what a pair we make. Married and still making ourselves miserable.” He sat down on the bed and scrubbed his face with his hands. This was all so unbelievable, so utterly beyond his imagination. He heard Bucky moving, looked up to find him standing before Steve. He reached out, as if he was going to touch Steve’s face, then let his hand drop. He still appeared nervous.
“But even knowing my jealousies and my mistakes, your feelings are unchanged?” he asked, carefully.
“Yes.” Steve said, reaching out and guiding Bucky’s hand to Steve’s cheek. “I love you. I wish us to share everything together, to share an estate and a life, to speak on every topic as the closest of friends and to share a bed as lovers do and in every way to belong to each other.”
“I want that as well, more than I can say.”
“Then,” Steve said, gaze running down Bucky’s bare chest without shame now, “Let us begin as we mean to go on.” Bucky blushed even as he smiled.
“Yes, I think that wise.” he said, leaning down and barely brushing his lips to Steve’s, still cupping Steve’s face with his hand. Steve carefully settled his own hands on Bucky’s hips and deepened the kiss slightly so their lips moved firmly against each other, warm and smooth. Bucky pulled back slightly for a moment, resting his forehead against Steve’s with his eyes closed.
“Steve.” Was all he said, but it was laced with emotions Steve could feel mirrored in himself. They kissed again, this time wet and heated, tongues twining together. Gently Steve let his hands wander up Bucky’s chest, over the slight swell of his stomach and the firm muscles of his shoulders. Bucky’s hand moved into Steve’s hair, pulling him deeper into the kiss. Steve felt his whole body heating as he came alive under Bucky’s lips. Eventually, he had to pull away just to breathe and because he realized his clothes stood in the way of further progress. He began unlacing his shirt so he could remove it and Bucky took off his underthings so he stood naked. It just urged Steve faster and he tugged and yanked his trousers and underthings off before placing his hands back on Bucky’s waist. Steve spun them around and wordlessly urged Bucky backwards onto the bed. He paused just to pull the sheets back before complying, setting himself out as a feast before Steve’s eyes. Steve eagerly climbed atop him and fell again into kissing. It felt natural to move hesitantly against the body under his, to press himself closer to Bucky until they touched from thigh to shoulder. Bucky's hands roamed Steven's back, tracing shapes with the barest brush of his fingertips. Steve finally parted their mouths from one another so he could move down Bucky's neck, kissing and biting lightly, making Bucky moan. In the warm light of the bedside lamp he kissed his way to Bucky's collarbone and then laid a trail from right to left across his shoulders. When he got to the scarred skin that marked the end of Bucky's left side Steve felt him shift uncomfortably.
"Do not feel obliged-"
"And if I want to?" Steve asked, belligerent but unwilling to make Bucky uneasy for his own desires. "Does it still pain you?"
"No, no but I know it to be unsightly and strange. I would not ask you to touch it. But... if you desire it, I would not protest."
"I desire it greatly." he said, pressing another kiss to thickened skin. "And," he continued, sitting back to see all of Bucky splayed beneath him, "I find no part of you unsightly. You are quite nearly perfect in my estimation." Bucky blushed again but his eyes took in Steve's own body.
"Then we are of like mind." he said.
"Truly you must love me then, to look so kindly on a subpar specimen such as myself." Bucky surged up and captured Steve's mouth, dragging him down to kiss him, deep and passionate.
"I would not," Bucky said breaking away for a moment, "hear such insults against my husband. And indeed would state my opinion for the general record is that he is one of the most beautiful men I have ever seen." It was now Steve's turn to blush, skin heating on his face and all the way to his chest. He knew not what to say and so silenced Bucky with further kisses. They continued on in that fashion for a time before the lust in Steve's veins had him squirming and rubbing himself against Bucky. He responded by pulling Steve closer and grinding up onto him. Steve had to break off kissing so he could place a steadying hand on Bucky's heaving chest and fight to breathe himself. His other hand gently cupped their cocks, keeping them pressed close as they rutted against each other. He knew he could come easily like this, just from the heat and the friction and the knowledge that it was Bucky beneath him. But Bucky stopped him with a word.
"Wait, after so long, let us at least defile our wedding bed as thoroughly as possible." Bucky said and Steve laughed.
"What do you suggest?"
"There is oil in the chest at the foot of the bed if you could fetch it." Steve got up and rummaged in the trunk for a moment or two before finding the vial. He returned to bed and took up his former place, but somewhat more hesitantly.
"I'm not well versed in this subject, and I will admit I do not know quite how to proceed." he said, feeling foolish.
"Then let me show you how it is commonly done." Bucky replied unperturbed. He shifted and squirmed, forcing Steve to move so he could lie with his legs up, thighs heavy across Steve's own bent legs. Motioning for the vial Steve uncorked it and poured some oil over Bucky's waiting fingers. He then lifted one leg almost to his chest so there was room between his legs for his hand. Steve watched entranced as Bucky stroked his entrance before gently probing inside with one slicked finger. Bucky's eyes were closed in concentration.
"What- what does it feel like?" he asked. Bucky kept his eyes shut as he answered.
"An intrusion. Strange at first." He pressed in the second finger with a hiss.
"Does it hurt?" Steve asked, concerned. Bucky met his gaze and smiled.
"No, dearest, it doesn't hurt. It pulls as when you extend yourself. It's a stretch, but not a pain if it is done with care." Steve nodded in understanding. His eyes were drawn back to the sight of Bucky's fingers disappearing into himself. He was caught up in watching and noticed not the time passing but eventually he realized Bucky was panting and sweaty. His hips were rocking up to meet his fingers and his eyes were glazed. "Now." he said. "I'm ready."
"What do I-"
"Slick yourself and guide your cock into me." Bucky explained and Steve jumped to comply. Touching himself made him groan, he could not imagine how it would feel to be inside Bucky. And yet it was happening. He oiled his cock and adjusted their bodies so he could guide himself into Bucky.
Instinctively he knew to go slowly, to move carefully. The heat was intense and the tightness made his breath catch in his throat. He watched Bucky's face as he pushed in and it was open and engaged, urging him on. Finally he was fully seated and Bucky's hand grasped at his arm, stopping him from moving for a moment.
"Bucky-" Steve began, but he had no other words. Bucky clutched at his arm for a moment longer then let go.
"Now," he said, "move." And Steve did, setting up a smooth rhythm of his hips in and out of Bucky's body. It was a challenge to keep his movements steady but that seemed somehow to be what was expected of him. After a few minutes Bucky pulled at his shoulder, urging him to lean forward. It bent Bucky nearly in half but he seemed not to care. This new position allowed them to kiss which felt wonderfully right. It was also in some way a better angle for Bucky because on the next thrust he gasped in pleasure. Steve tried to keep moving in just the same way and eventually Bucky was moaning with every thrust, little throaty sounds that coiled in Steve's belly. He went as fast as his lungs would allow, which was not nearly as fast as he wished. Bucky's hand raked trails down his back, nails blunt but enough to make Steve gasp. It was a pleasurable kind of pain but Bucky stopped to reach in between them and touch himself. Steve whined, biting lightly at Bucky's lips and thrusting more quickly into him. Finally the sensation of Bucky clenched around him was too much and the pleasure rolled over Steve in waves. His hips stuttered through the aftershocks as he struggled to breathe through weak and overtaxed lungs. Bucky hooked a leg around him, keeping him seated inside Bucky as he softened.
"Steve, Steve, dearest, Lord above-" Bucky babbled into Steve's mouth as he brought himself to climax. In the aftermath Bucky slowly relaxed, going limp and sated in Steve's arms. Steve pulled out carefully and kissed away the slight hiss of discomfort from Bucky. He rolled over and collapsed beside his husband, still recovering from the exertion.
"Was it," panted Bucky, with a grin "to your liking?"
"Hmm," Steve said as though pondering the question. "From one performance it is hard to judge a play. I believe the exercise must be repeated for me to form my opinion more thoroughly." Bucky laughed.
"And so it shall be done, my dear. We have all the time imaginable"
Eventually Bucky forced himself up and to the washroom to retrieve a cloth to clean them both. The night was warm enough that there was no need to don a nightgown and when the candles were extinguished only the moonlight from the open windows lit the room. But the moon was very nearly full so there was light enough to follow Bucky's movements as he got into bed, turning to lie facing Steve. He could even make out the barest outline of Bucky's face and the soft expression it made.
"To think, we could have had this for months." Steve said.
"I imagined it so often it is hard to believe it real now. Hard to close my eyes for fear I will wake and find it all a dream."
"No dreams, just the two of us finally making the most of our marriage, despite every idiocy on both sides standing in our way."
"Oh truly, it is embarrassing the depth of our folly. Natasha will be insufferable when she finds she was right all along."
"She suspected?" Steve asked, brain beginning to fog with sleep.
"She told me from the beginning to be honest about my feelings as they may be returned or at least not completely spurned. She often chastised me for my secrecy."
"Then we must bear her self-congratulations for she was utterly right." he said, yawning.
"Do not sleep yet. I do not want this night to end." Bucky said with a hint of desperation.
“Nothing will change with sleep or the coming of morning.” Steve said, taking Bucky’s hand between his. “I promise you.” He carefully placed kisses on every knuckle, reveling in being allowed to touch the way he had so often imagined, had so often had to suppress. There was the slightest tremor to Bucky’s hand. “Do you believe me?”
“I believe you mean what you say.” he said carefully. Steve focused for a moment on the outline of his face.
“But you do not believe me to be right.”
“People change their minds often. It would be presumptuous to imagine yours never changing.”
“But I am not so fickle as to change overnight. Come now Bucky, it is your mind speaking lies to your heart, let it rest and the truth will shine through come first light.” But still there was something about the set of his jaw that spoke of worry. This time Steve kissed him properly, a gentle press of lips to calm and reassure. “I love you.” he said simply, because it was true and because he could think of nothing else but the truth to soothe Bucky’s mind.
“And God bless us, I love you too.” Bucky said, fervent and relieved.
“Goodnight,” Steve said, “dearest.”
“Goodnight, Steve.” Bucky said, but it sounded much the same.
Come morning the servants were shocked but pleased to find the argument between their masters resolved. The change in mood was palpable and even were it not, their frequent pleased glances and smiles to one another were quite noticeable. In the evening they dined at Stuy House and although neither of them said a word, by the end of the meal Natasha was bursting with barely contained comments and Clint had such a look of relief and happiness that Steve felt sorry again for the worry the situation had caused him. Before the evening was out Natasha found some sly way to reference their better moods and connection. Steve could not help his blush and did not look at Bucky, certain he would find him either grinning or blushing as well. Perhaps a mixture of the two. Either way he knew it would break his composure further so he did not look and answered Natasha politely.
The next morning he received a letter from Sam. It was always wonderful to hear from his dear friend and this one in particular had news of a possible leave within the month that delighted Steve. He of course wrote immediately offering a room at Sawston for his friend and, he realized, this correspondence was well-timed to allow him to better reflect on his change in circumstance as he could relate it to Samuel. He wondered how he could explain it. He settled for a few paragraphs as follows.
“In addition to the goings on of the neighborhood, there have also been changes in Sawston. I know scarcely how to tell it for it may come as a great surprise to you, as it did to me, or as no surprise at all in which case you will certainly find me a fool. I have most recently discovered a strong affection between Bucky and myself. That is, as I have hinted to you, I love him most deeply. In an argument but the evening before last, in my anger I revealed this fact to him. But rather than being met with disdain or even disgust, Bucky explained that he felt similarly! I cannot properly convey my surprise nor my pleasure in hearing this. I even discovered that Bucky’s coldness towards me that we both noted in London was a symptom of his jealousy and pain for which he apologizes now most profusely. To find love in an arrangement where before I thought existed nothing but friendly kindness and duty is a wondrous thing. And now, to be in a loving marriage when I expected no such thing, Sam I cannot explain my happiness, and Bucky seems to share my feelings.
“It seems, indeed, to color everything. The house and grounds now seem different than they did but a few days ago. I’m sure you will tell me it is pure foolishness and that love is often responsible for such flights of fancy. But truly Sam I must tell you, everything appears different now. Where before Sawston was a grand place, too grand indeed for me, it seemed almost a burden to be master of such an estate. Now, however, I feel it to be a duty we share, and those offices of master and husband are now gifts given to me by someone who cared for me greatly. Sawston, it feels to me now, can be my home, a place to make a life with Bucky without concerns for money or status or any such thing for at Sawston we have each other and our friends and nothing else matters whatsoever. As Tenem once was, so Sawston may be now, to me. I will stop my rambling there and get to my questions concerning your own letter. But let it only be said that I am happy now Sam as I have not hoped to be before.”
And so the letter went on to other matters, as too did life. And it was different now, it was happier and they were both more at ease. But still they were friends and still they busied themselves with social events and parties. And life went on in Sawston for Bucky and Steve, happy but common, as such things should be.
It is a well known truth that married couples cause not so much stir as their unwedded counterparts. Marriage is understood as a settling down, a quieting of life. When the union occurred between two such gossip-worthy gentlemen as Mr. Rogers and Mr. Barnes it was not so well understood what should happen to the gossip they had previously produced.
In this case it was discovered that they remained central to several other sources of clamor in the neighborhood, such as Lady Romanoff whose activities would have been nearly unmentionable should they not have been such interesting topics of conversation. As well, the men introduced a new face to Brookton in the form of a Mr. Barton who was plain and common and awkwardly charming and a good acquaintance of many high born and wealthy people thus making him a great conundrum for the collective mind of the village. Colonel Wilson came and went frequently as did various members of London society. All in all the masters of Sawston remained much on the tongues of the neighborhood gossips. But strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely, nothing was ever said about the strength of the match, how well-suited and happy they seemed. For indeed although it did not make for good conversation it could well have been noted that life at Sawston Hall was quite near perfect.