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Our rain-washed histories (don't need to be told)

Chapter Text

"Here we are," Agent Coulson says, unlocking the door and pushing it open.

The apartment is on the small side, which is not surprising in a building of this size and age. It's spacious, though, and scrupulously clean, as if it's a point of pride.

"My neighbour's niece lets it out," Coulson explains.

Steve makes his way inside, looking around curiously. For all that the walls are never too far apart, the big windows give the rooms an open, airy feel. The apartment is on the sixth floor of the building, just high enough to be able to see some rooftops, a patch of sky, a hint of what the place will look like at twilight, surrounded by twinkling lights. The walls of the rooms are off-white and dusky green, soothing after the stark bleached-bone paleness of the facility in which they had kept him for the past month. The space feels lived-in, welcoming.

Beggars can't be choosers, but Steve is lucky that, so far at least, his luck seems to be holding.

"Thank you, Agent Coulson," he says. "This is a nice place. I'd like to rent it."

Coulson nods easily, pulling out what passes for a telephone these days. "I'll text you Sally's number. I'll call her right now, let her know she's got a new tenant. Should be easy to set up a direct debit for your rent payments and bills. I can show you how to pay them on your laptop, it's not hard."

"Thank you," Steve repeats. It's all he seems to be saying these days. "That's very kind."

Coulson looks down. Steve hasn't known the man long, but it strikes him as uncharacteristic.

"Not at all," he says a moment later. His voice sounds odd; too intent, maybe. "We should be doing more. I'm sorry it turned out like this."

Steve lifts one corner of his mouth. "It's okay, Agent Coulson. I never expected anything from SHIELD. You have already gone above and beyond yourself. I'll manage. I've always been able to get by, you know."

Coulson shakes his head, blue eyes wide and upset.

"After everything you've done for this country, Captain Rogers, it seems incredibly ungrateful to just cut you loose. I'm sorry. I'm not happy about this. I want you to know I'll keep chipping away at them. I never… This isn't the SHIELD I knew when I joined up."

Steve shakes his head. Agent Coulson is a good man. He has glimpsed as much, even from their brief interaction. Where the rest of the SHIELD agents he has bumped up against in the several weeks he'd been awake looked at him like some kind of freak show, a mixture of pitying and disdainful looks following Steve everywhere he went, Coulson has been kind from the very start. He was the one to sit down with Steve and walk him through using the telephone and the computer he'd been given. When SHIELD called him in to tell him point-blank that he was an obsolete model who had no place in the modern SHIELD organisation, it was Coulson who had worked to get his backpay transferred to his new identity – Steven Rogers, Jr., the grandson of a legend, whose mother was begot with some of the genetic material obtained from the supersoldier during initial testing, though those records were sealed as a matter of National Security. Steve Rogers the second was born in the early eighties, raised by a single mother just like his grandfather, and orphaned at nineteen by a car accident involving a drunk driver. He has his grandfather's looks and artistic talent, and has no affiliations to any known intelligence organisation.

Steve has been many things in his unnaturally long life, but he doesn't remember ever being a blank slate before.

He looks at Coulson, so indignant on his behalf, and the smile on his face comes easier. Having people care about him is always unexpected, but never unwelcome.

"It's not your fault. Besides, they're right. I am a fossil. The modern world is… Well, it's going to take some getting used to. But, uh, if it's okay, I'll keep your number, too. In case of emergencies."

Coulson's face eases out of the deep frown; his eyes fill with something other than anger.

"Yes, of course," he says quickly. "Please do. And you can call me any time, for whatever reason. I promise, nothing can be 'too stupid'." He smiles, and Steve smiles with him, remembering all the times Coulson had put aside his own work when Steve had come looking for him with 'a stupid question'.

"Thank you, Agent Coulson," Steve says again, offering his hand. Coulson hesitates a mere second before taking it in a firm, strong grip. It's effortlessly reassuring, and so welcome that Steve feels the familiar burn behind his eyes when Coulson smiles at him.

"Call me Phil," Phil says. His smile is as kind as his eyes. "And I'll hold you to those phone calls."

Five minutes later, Steve is alone in his new apartment. He looks at the worn carpet, the squishy couch that seems close to his own age, the bare bookshelves, the desk tucked away in the corner.

"Well," he says. "I guess I'm home." He might as well start as he means to go on.

Shoes off and lined up by the door, he putters around the place, opening cupboards to look at mismatched glasses and chipped but colourful plates, investigating the contents of the linen closet, and unpacking his meagre possessions from the sports bag Coulson had driven him over with. His clothes barely fill up a couple of shelves, but the bathroom looks less sterile with his toothbrush, toothpaste, and shaving kit on the edge of the sink.

The bedroom is very neat, and the bed is plain but serviceable. Truthfully, Steve much prefers sleeping on a frame that doesn't shock him with the touch of cold metal in the middle of the night, when he sprawls out with one arm shoved under his pillow. The bed is made up with much-washed linens, and there is even a pillow that comes with the apartment. There's definitely a shopping trip in Steve's near future, but for tonight it will do very nicely.

For all that the apartment is high up, Steve is pleased to find a lack of oppressive silence. The neighbourhood is busy and vibrant; from the car, Steve had spotted several cafes and grocery stores and even an art store that he is dying to visit – tomorrow. Dusk is just starting to fall, and it's not like Steve has had a particularly strenuous day, but he feels... exhausted. Drained like he has spent hours wading through hostile terrain instead of taking a ride with his only friend this side of the new millennium. He changes into a t-shirt and boxer shorts (he can't sleep bare-chested anymore. It feels like sheets of ice envelop him even under a whole pile of blankets), to the sight of the surrounding blocks lighting up like jewels in the fading light. There is a warmth here that Steve is so relieved hasn't entirely gone out of the world, that he has to work hard not to cry. It can't be that bad, this new world, if this kind of warmth still exists somewhere in it.

He wakes up a few times that night, shuddering hard with the sensation of falling and falling, a hand just out of reach. He breathes through it, gets up, gets a glass of water, tries to sleep some more. After the third time he has jerked awake, sweat-slick and panting in the middle of the creaking bed, Steve gives up for the night. He got some sleep, and that's good enough for his body to function.

The sky is still dark, but he shoves his feet in sneakers anyway and drops his keys and a few bills in the pocket of his running pants. He leaves the 'phone on the table. He isn't expecting any calls.

His first impression had been right. It's a busy neighbourhood – it can't be oh-four-hundred yet, but the bakery already has a light deep inside the ground floor, someone kneading the hundreds of buns this place must sell every day. When he runs past the alley behind it, a cloud of white dust lingers in the air and, faintly, he can hear Spanish guitar and the hint of a man's guttural voice. He runs on.

When his body tells him he's reaching the fifteen mile mark, Steve loops a couple of blocks and heads back towards the apartment. Now, he's meeting a few early-rising dog owners puttering after their mutts, and another runner who nods at him as she passes in the opposite direction. It's not a park, but Steve has always been a city boy at heart, and he likes the streets. Likes the life. He always thought, before, that he and Bucky would come back to New York, get married here, raise their children a floor apart at most in the same apartment block. It's what he had dreamed about, on those dark, cold nights when it had felt like the war would never end.

He sighs deeply, letting the spectre of Bucky dissipate in the soft dawn light. He doesn't beat himself up. He's going to be missing Bucky like a hole in one of his lungs for the rest of his life. It's okay to get lost in that sometimes. Instead, he tries to ground himself in the here and now by looking around, watching people tumble out of doorways on their way to work, moms and dads with their kids' hands clasped safely in theirs tugging them towards the car on their way to school. Life goes on, even if he feels like he's still dreaming.

He stops for a coffee in his new neighbourhood, from the same bakery that had woken up with him this morning. A smiling Hispanic woman greets him from behind the counter, making his coffee with quick, dexterous movements and wishing him a nice day when she hands it over. Steve sips slowly, savouring the taste. Yeah, coffee has come a ways since his day.

Grocery shopping is next on the agenda, as soon as he's had a shower. The SHIELD nutritionists who had seen him had explained about calories intake and protein shakes and Gatorade. One of them mentioned off-handedly that they were putting him on the same diet that hockey players follow during the playoffs when they burn through their body stores faster than they can be repleted, and Steve had had to bite down on his lip to keep the slightly hysterical laughter inside where it belonged. Little Steve Rogers, professional athlete. Ain't that a turn-up for the books. Bucky would've loved it.

Still, it does explain the always-present ache of hunger he had lived with every day between the transformation and the ice. He had thought it normal, a result of tiny rations and war-time supplies, but maybe it had been something more. He's gonna listen to the doctors on this one for now; they know more about human bodies than he does, at least when it comes to keeping them alive. So he goes out, loads a couple of carts with vegetables and meat and fish - so many types of fish! - and hands over the little piece of plastic Phil had slid over the table. The amount he knows is in his bank account is more than a little staggering. He's going to get a job soon, of course – he'd go mad doing nothing at home all day – but luckily for him, he can put that off for a while without it making a dent in his wallet. Brave new world.

The art store owner is a charming middle-aged South-Asian woman who looks him up and down and immediately hands him a leaflet for a life drawing class. He's flattered, and a little amazed, that she could tell he's an artist just by looking at him, and tells her so.

"Oh, honey," she laughs, patting his arm. Apart from Phil shaking his hand, no one has touched him so easily since he woke up, and Steve finds himself leaning into it, soaking up the contact. "It's great that you're an artist as well, but I must admit, I had an ulterior motive. We're looking for models for the class."

"Oh," Steve says, feeling his cheeks warm a little. Steve Rogers, life drawing model. He grins. "Sure. Why not."

"Great," the lady says, sticking out a hand with four heavy, ornate gold rings on it. "I'm Sonika."

"Steve," Steve says, shaking it. It's warm, and grips his tightly before letting go.

Sonika makes him write down his number for her, and clutches it as she promises to call as soon as she knows the next date. "You don't even have to model straight away. You can come just to draw a couple of times."

Steve nods eagerly, before piling a few sketchbooks and seven different types of pencils and charcoal sticks on the counter by the cashier register. Sonika gives him a ten percent 'new customer' discount and wishes him a nice day. Steve finds himself thinking it actually might be.

Life away from the SHIELD compound seems to have its own rhythm. Steve gets up way too early still, runs a minimum of twenty miles, gets breakfast to go, showers, and eats it as he looks over the news on his computer. It leaves him angry and unsettled, especially all the reports on the fighting in the Middle East, suicide bombers taking out a school, a police station, a city market. These times seem so much more violent, and he has lived through a world war. He knows what he's talking about.

Afterwards, he draws. He sticks to the apartment a lot, drawing the views out of his window, the far-off cityscapes of Manhattan shimmering like a mirage in the bright sunshine. He breaks off sometime around noon for lunch and an energy drink – he likes Gatorade just fine, but he also enjoys the brief kick Red Bull gives him, before his organism metabolises it. He digests his meal on the sofa, making his way through the BBC's The Big Read list, which had come up as he poked around the internet to try and find a way to cope with the millions of books that had been published in the past seventy years. Of course, Lord of the Rings was the first thing he rushed out to buy as soon as he found out about it, but right now he is making his way through the His Dark Materials trilogy and struggling to contain all these emotions it's making him feel. He wishes, more than anything, that he had someone he could talk to about the way Balthamos and Baruch's story reaches inside his chest and squeezes his breath away; about the fantastic new worlds Mr Pullman has created, and about how, as he reaches closer and closer to the end of The Amber Spyglass, his whole body seems to be winding itself tighter, as if gearing up for a fight.

This is how Steve discovers LiveJournal. He could kiss Google. The internet is great; possibly the greatest human invention, because even if it takes Steve half an hour to type a page's length, it still means he can reach through space and talk to starmichaeltrynion, who apparently feels exactly the same way about Balthamos, and moreover, has some further insights to impart that leave Steve blushing a fiery red but undeniably intrigued. Star then links him to a couple of books that would have been burnt in a pyre in Steve's time, and also to the unbelievable bounty of webcomics. Steve is enthralled. The level of skill of these young people is unbelievable – and to think, they do all of this for free, because they want to share something with the world and they feel strongly enough about it to put it out there, risking criticism and worse. Steve shyly contacts the writer of Gunnerkrigg Court to gush about how beautiful the art is and ask about the drawing medium. His list for the next time he visits Sonika grows exponentially.

Star also finds out that Steve hasn't read Harry Potter, and enlists a couple of – her? His? The internet sure makes things interesting, one way or another – friends to yell at Steve that he needs to do that IMMEDIATELY. So Steve goes out and buys all seven books, the last of which apparently only came out last year. And then he promptly loses two weeks of his life curled up on the sofa making incoherent noises into his fist as his eyes dart over the page. Sonika, when she calls and asks how he is, laughs at him about it and asks if he has found The Hex Files yet. Steve says no, and can he please call her back later, Harry is about to do battle with a dragon!

Sure, Steve has seen some things in his life, but he's pretty sure dragons don't exist. So it's fun, and incredible, and then not so fun as people keep dying. When he finishes the sixth book, Steve puts it down gently, and then goes and takes a long shower, trying to convince himself that he should stop crying, it's not that bad. He goes out to the store and buys eight pints of Ben & Jerry's, which, as far as he's concerned, goes a long way towards making this era a good one to be alive in. He eats two of them before he goes to bed, and clutches at one of the pillows he bought last week, and tries desperately not to ache at the memory of Doc Erskine, and Peggy, and all the people he lost. He decides to take a break before he tackles book seven. The way the emotional wringer has been tightening over the books, he thinks it might be a good idea to try and get some distance from it for a little while.

He goes to that week's life drawing class. It's set up in a beautiful old building, the kind that Steve used to walk around in awe when he was a kid. The studio is on the ground floor, full of light and the smell of paint and faint laughter as he makes his way inside. People are sitting in a wide circle around a plinth, easels upright and propping up pristine canvases waiting for the artists' touch. The hum of conversation falters for a moment and then resumes; Steve feels eyes on him that he isn't sure he likes, but he has had a couple of years to get used to being stared at (never mind that the idea of getting used to the attention is laughable). He walks to the far side of the room, where there are still empty spaces in the circle, and picks up an easel, turning to set it down in the spot he had chosen.

"Hey," someone says on his left. It's a smooth, pleasant voice belonging to a man around Steve's age – that is to say, looking twenty-four-ish. He is shorter than Steve (then again, who isn't anymore), with sturdy shoulders and a frame that suggests he keeps fit. "I'm Jonah, I put this shindig together. Good to see a new face, man."

"Hi," Steve says, trying to keep up. "Steve. Good to meet you, too." He shakes the man's hand. It's a good, solid grip, which Steve expected from looking at him. His hands are a little cold, and it makes Steve have to fight down a shudder.

Jonah asks him a little bit about himself, and Steve tells him he just moved here, is trying to get settled in, and leaves it at that. Jonah doesn't push, which is nice, because Steve still isn't sure how much he wants to say about himself to people he just met. The noise rises a little just then, and Steve turns to find a stunningly beautiful red-headed woman climbing the steps to the plinth, clad in a navy terry-cloth robe, feet bare.

"Ah, you must be Natalie," Jonah says, Steve forgotten as he makes a beeline for presumably this week's model. "Thanks for coming in on such short notice, you're a lifesaver. Hopefully Patrick should be fine to come back next week. How weird that Poppy ran away like that, she's normally so well behaved! Well, never mind, you're here now. Would you like to get settled? Everyone, this is Natalie, she's covering for Patrick. His cat got into a little bit of trouble with a pigeon, yeah, we'll be sure to tease him about it next week, huh?"

As Jonah prattles on, Natalie unties the front of her robe and lets it drop from her creamy shoulders. Steve swallows dryly. She is so beautiful, small, well-shaped breasts tapering into a trim waist and then swelling again at her hips. He feels his face heat, and busies himself laying out his charcoal. When he looks up again, he has managed to steel himself to look at her as a model only, not as someone who lights up the room and makes it disappear at the same time. It's easier like that; his stomach no longer wants to crawl out of his mouth with nerves. He falls into an easy rhythm, drawing from his shoulder, long, sweeping lines across the canvas. Natalie's body is so perfect that it's almost more difficult to draw it – every line has to mean something, has to have purpose, has to be precise, and, well, Steve is rusty. It's been a while since Bucky sat for him, and in his case, the bulges of his muscles gave a nice break to the form on the page, made it easier for Steve to render.

He swallows past the familiar stab of ache and focuses on what's before him. Natalie's neck is long, and she has quirked her head just so to accentuate it. There is a freckle on the side of her right breast, and Steve dabs it on, rubbing with the tip of his finger to smudge it into her skin. The way her face is tilted, her features are nearly in profile, and Steve swipes his stick to put down her plump lips, her straight, regal nose, the high line of her brow, the slits of her eyes... looking at him.

His heart pauses, then trips into double-time. Her face doesn't move – she's a good model, she has obviously done this before – but her eyelids twitch, and a little crinkle appears in the corner, acknowledgement enough. Steve's mouth lifts a little in reply; then he goes back to his work, concentrating on replicating the arch of her hand in her lap, palm half-closed and turned inwards, finger curled towards it.

"Dude, you're seriously good," Jonah says a little while later, on his way around the room. Steve hesitates to think badly of a brand new acquaintance, but Jonah reminds him of nothing so much as a peacock strutting about, puffing out his chest. He's sure Jonah is a perfectly nice guy, just.

"Thanks," he replies quietly. "But I'm really not. I can't get her knee right at all."

"You'll get there," Jonah says confidently before passing on towards Steve's neighbour, a tall woman in her sixties with a helmet of chin-length grey hair.

The next hour passes quickly, and Steve is left staring disappointedly at his nowhere-near perfect drawing as Natalie shrugs her robe back on. She climbs down the steps and makes a slow circuit of the room, shaking out her arms and arching her back. She pauses when she gets to Steve's offering, and he has to stifle the urge to cover it so it doesn't offend her.

"Mm, Jonah is right. You're good," Natalie says. There is a soft burr to her words, something not quite foreign but not exactly local, either.

Steve flushes and shakes his head. "Thank you, ma'am, but it's not that good, not really."

Natalie huffs a soft sound of amusement. "Artists," she says, shaking her head a little. "Either your ego is the size of a house, or you're never happy with what you produce."

Steve would like to argue, but – "Well, you ain't wrong. Although I draw the line at pickling cows to make it look like I'm special."

Natalie stares at him for a moment, then throws her head back with laughter.

"I like you," she says, smile blinding. "Keep up the good work."

And then she's gone, closing the circle and disappearing to get dressed. Steve packs up slowly, aware of the pleasant heaviness in his body, the quiet in his head. He's definitely gonna be doing this again.

---

Time passes. Steve agrees to model, and finds it hard at first to stay so still for such a long time, but as with everything, he keeps trying until one day it clicks. He makes sure to hit the local gym extra hard afterwards, even if he has to pull his punches when the first couple of bags burst and leak sand all over the place. He also takes up yoga, which is entirely Sonika's fault, but which turns out to be a very good fit for him, because the first time he stretches out on the mats as far as his body would let him, he nearly moans with pleasure, it feels so good.

Plus, it helps with those times when he feels like his skin will split down the middle with restlessness, when he wants to do something so badly that he's vibrating with it; when even a thirty-mile run can't silence the voices in his head. His body may be perfect, but flexibility still requires commitment and regular practice, so at those times, Steve finds that folding himself into the bridge pose with his right leg up and holding lets his mind quiet while his body works hard to balance itself.

He makes sure to go up and say thank you to Yingtai, their instructor, after the next practice. She looks at him shrewdly as she wipes her neck with a lime green towel.

"Vet?" she asks, no-nonsense and straightforward. Steve likes it a lot, even if the question makes him squirm.

"Yes, ma'am."

Her eyes soften a little, and she flips the towel over her shoulder to hold out a hand to him.

"Thank you for your service," she says. Her touch is dry despite the layer of sweat visible over her shoulders – she works her classes hard, and her students appreciate her all the more for it. "My brother's over in Afghanistan right now. Hope there's someone like you taking good care of him."

Steve shifts his feet and looks down, gently letting her hand drop. He isn't sure how he feels, being praised like this. She doesn't know him. She doesn't know what he's done, what he's lost. What he let fall.

There is silence between them for a couple of minutes, but she doesn't walk away, and Steve lingers, too, strangely loathe to break the quiet.

"Listen," Yingtai says. When Steve looks up, she has her bottom lip between her teeth, chewing on it a little before she speaks again. "I know it's none of my business, but my buddy Sam runs a VA meeting a few blocks from here. If you ever feel like going, let me know and I'll set you up."

Steve swallows past the sudden lump in his throat. He's—it would probably be good, he knows Phil would approve, but—he can't. Talking about it is just. How would he even start? He can't. He signed SHIELD's NDA because he knew it was the right thing to do, and even if he hadn't, he still doesn't know how he could talk about what he's been through, what he left behind somewhere over the Arctic sea in 1944.

"Thank you, it's kind of you to offer," he says, non-committal. Yingtai's mouth twists, but she nods, patting his shoulder and stepping back.

"Good practice, Rogers. You're getting pretty good at the stretches, but next time, let's see how you do in the twists, huh?"

Steve grins. "Bring it," he says, and enjoys the way she laughs, half-challenge, half-exhilaration, zero judgement that he isn't ready to bare his soul to a stranger.

He walks home that day feeling loose and warm, the anxiety that he's getting used to finding coiled tightly in his gut a little less pronounced. He stops for a bagel and sits on a park bench in a spot of sunshine, watches dogs caper after toys and kids play hide-and-go-seek as he snarfs it down, suddenly ravenous; and, fleetingly, the feeling creeps up on him: he's glad he's still alive.

Chapter Text

One day, Steve sits down at his kitchen table, and realises that his life has filled up. He knows people; he has contacts in his phone, a mass of texts, emails from his internet friends padding up his inbox. He's got people he can call and go out for coffee with, and someone he can talk to as One Hundred Years of Solitude shreds through his heart and leaves him a mess of emotions on top of his sofa. He even has someone to talk to when a guy at Maria's bakery asks him out the first time – okay, less 'talk to', more being catcalled via gchat and told to 'go get him, baby'. His reading material has expanded to include fanfiction about Harry and Draco being in love, and Steve is pretty well versed in the history of the Stonewall Riots now, and LGBTQ rights. He never thought, when he woke up lost and sore and so viciously alone, that life in the twenty-first century could be like this. That he could—that getting beaten up and probably lynched was not something he had to look forward to if anyone caught him looking at other men.

And the truth is. The truth is that, while Steve's life is filling up with pretty incredible people, he still feels – too big in his own skin. Shaking hands with a new person has become the highlight of his existence, because it meant touching someone, and someone touching him, and he sometimes found himself embarrassed at how his whole body would sway into it, screaming for more. He hasn't – fuck, he hasn't been with anyone in years, subjective and objective time both. The chorus girls had been the best thing that happened to him, those first few months after his transformation. He learned a lot from them, mostly that he enjoyed his partner having fun with him almost more than he enjoyed the release. He likes making people feel good, but it's been so long since he has touched another person like that, and it hurts something inside him, leaves him empty and restless.

Fuck it. His life is a science fiction novel. If he can't go out and bring someone home in this day and age, well, he might as well go back under the ice and stay there.

Decision made, he begs Star and a couple more of his LiveJournal friends to coach him through getting dolled up. Maya is dead-set against a button-down, and Laura concurs, but at least all three agree that those indigo jeans are a winner. In the end, Steve ends up opening his closet and taking a picture of the inside, which he shares with his chat group.

"What's that edge of blue I see there?" Laura types. Steve looks over at the pile of t-shirts, and extracts the one Laura seems to be indicating.

"This?" he asks, sending through a picture.

"OMG YES," Star and Maya type simultaneously. "THAT. Get your ass in it."

A couple of minutes later, Steve stands in front of the mirror in his hallway, looking himself over critically. He looks... good. Even with the stubble he hasn't shaved in two days and hair not yet grown out after his customary shear. He has seen the way people look at him. Someone out there is gonna like what he or she sees.

"Have you got condoms? Lube?" Star wants to know, and shit, good point.

"Thank you," Steve types quickly, making a note to swing by a pharmacy on his way to the bar. It's a gay-friendly place Sonika had told him about last week, when she suggested he join her and some of her friends for a drink. He'd had plans to call Phil, though, and give him an update on how things were going, so he'd had to pass, but he'd made a note of the name and, well, here he was.

The bar, when he gets to it, is well-lit, furnished in shades of metallic dark-grey and neon – lime, orange, blue, pink. The tables and chairs are metal and plexiglass, and it's nothing like Steve is used to, but it's so perfectly the future, this future, that he finds it's easy to let go of the memories of dance halls and jazz orchestras as he makes his way to the see-through lime-green plastic bar. The short black man behind it looks him up and down, and grins with all of his perfect white teeth.

"Hey," he drawls. "How's it goin'?"

Steve smiles back, grateful for the easygoing atmosphere. "Hi," he says back, sliding his ass over one of the small barstools lining the front. "Seems busy. This place always like this?"

The bartender throws his head back and laughs. Steve's eyes catch on the perfect arch of his throat, and he finds himself swallowing reflexively.

"Nah, it's slow tonight yet. Hang around for a couple hours, then you'll see us hoppin'. What can I get you, stranger?"

Steve eyes the refrigerators behind the bar, a little overwhelmed by all the choices.

"Tell you what," the bartender says, when he hesitates longer than seems natural. "You in the mood for a beer, or would you like a mixer?"

"Mixer?" Steve asks sheepishly, embarrassment making his cheeks flush.

"Right, see, a lot of people around here are suckers for cocktails, and of course as their bartender I encourage the hell out of their choice. But for me, personally, on a night out, I like to drink bottled. That way there's less of a chance someone might slip you something, and also the drinks keep fresh longer. You got any allergies, flavour preferences?"

Steve shakes his head at both, because, well.

"Cool, man. Well, here's something I enjoy a lot. Picked it up in London, they go nuts for this shit. 'S called Smirnoff Ice, there's vodka in it, and it's got a lemon twist. Wanna try?"

"Sure," Steve says upon seeing the bottle the bartender holds up. "Looks good to me."

"Awesome," the guy grins, popping the top and sliding it over. Steve returns the gesture with a ten, then lifts it to his mouth and takes a cautious sip. It's cold, not quite freezing but refreshing, and the lemon twist really comes through. Steve thinks he's just found his favourite new drink.

"Thanks," he says sincerely. "This is great."

The bartender is looking at him strangely – or, it seems strange, until he works out that the guy is staring at his lower lip. Steve licks it purposefully, and the bartender blinks.

"Damn," he says, with definite appreciation. "I should have, uh, maybe mentioned that Smirnoff Ice is a favourite with the gay boys. If that's, uh, if that might be an issue for you."

Steve holds the guy's eyes and grins slowly. The bartender shrugs, looking sheepish.

"Hey, a guy's gotta try, right?"

"It's really not a problem for me," Steve says slowly. The bartender lights up.

"Name's Shawn, by the way."

"Steve," Steve says, and offers his hand. Shawn's palm is large and soft, curling nicely around Steve's. When Shawn lets his hand go, his fingers slide over Steve's in unmistakable invitation.

"Very nice to meet you, Steve," Shawn purrs, then leans closer. "If you fancy hanging around, and no one else catches your eye, I get out at two."

There's really no confusing it when Steve's skin flushes all over. He squirms on the barstool, feeling it drag over his balls that suddenly feel oversensitive.

"I'll keep that in mind," he says, arching an eyebrow.

Shawn sighs wistfully, dragging his eyes slowly up and down Steve's frame again. "Damn stupid work," he mutters, before pushing away from the spot in front of Steve with obvious reluctance and heading to the other end of the bar, where a young woman is leaning over it and waving two fingers to flag him down. Her blouse is low-cut and shimmering, a gorgeous golden green to accentuate her olive skin. Steve thinks about pressing his mouth there, right where her breast swells above the décolletage, and hey, look at that, the tight jeans were maybe a bad idea.

He pulls out his phone to tell Star that, and relay the news of his first successful flirtation with a man. The resultant row of exclamation marks and evil grinning faces is reassuring, he supposes.

The lights dim a little just then, and the music kicks up a notch. It's a bewildering mixture of instrumentals that Steve associates with the dance halls, sax and trumpet and bass, but with a fast, jumping rhythm, like a heart beating out of time. The beat winds through hoops and swells, trips over itself, and Steve is surprised to find his initial uneasiness fade as his heel starts tapping. He half-turns on his stool to bring the dance floor in sight, and loses time watching the twisting bodies, the gorgeous shapes they make, the way they seem to give themselves over to the music. It's fascinating, and Steve wonders what it must feel like, to be a part of a crowd that sways in one rhythm, sings with one voice.

"Hi," someone says at his side, and Steve turns back to see a slight young man in his space, leaning back against the bar and looking at him with hooded eyes. The man's light hair falls in bangs over his forehead; he is dressed in a tight black shirt that says "Eye Candy" in hot pink sparkles across his chest. His jeans are very tight. "You look like you might wanna dance. Can I interest you in a partner?"

"Um," says Steve, wondering what the etiquette is when you're being flirted with after you've already sort of made arrangements for the night.

"Come on," the man drawls. His voice is like liquid honey, wow. "I promise you'll have fun."

Steve looks over to Shawn as the man wraps his hand around Steve's wrist and tugs gently. Shawn catches his eye, looks over at the other man, and grins, tipping his head towards the dancefloor. Given tacit permission, Steve grins, too, and, feeling bold, winks. He sees Shawn throw his head back and laugh again, and then he is being tugged away towards the mass of dancers.

"I'm not very good at this," Steve says, raising his voice to be heard over the music.

"Lucky for you, I am," the guy says, drawing Steve flush with him and beginning to twist his hips in a way that makes Steve's entire body heat up. The man's hands are everywhere, sliding over Steve's abs, around his back, up his arms.

"Sweet Jesus," the man says in his ear, one thigh creeping between Steve's. "You're hot as sin."

Steve blushes, but he can't deny that feels good to hear. The man looks not unlike what Steve used to see in the mirror every day, before, but he definitely knows how to work it. He has a kind of presence that makes him seem bigger, somehow.

"What's your name?" Steve shouts.

The man leans up on his toes, bringing his mouth to the shell of Steve's ear. "Tarren," he says. His lips brush Steve's skin, and Steve feels a shudder race down his back.

"I'm Steve," Steve says.

"Hello, Steve," Tarren says, grinning, before deliberately rubbing what is unmistakably his half-hard dick over Steve's thigh.

"Oh," Steve says faintly. Tarren grinds sinuously against his front, and then there is a hand curling over the nape of his neck, and Tarren slowly pulls him down into a firm, wet, open-mouthed kiss. He sucks on Steve's tongue, and Steve finds himself moaning into it, smelling aftershave and a hint of shaving cream and the tang of fresh sweat.

The way his own dick jumps at the sensations crashing over him, he thinks he definitely has a few questions answered already. When he puts his hands on Tarren's back, pulling him closer, Tarren groans into his mouth, low and rumbling, and oh.

Tarren pulls back from the kiss, lips disengaging with a slick pop that Steve can't hear but definitely feels.

"Oh, you are delicious, Steve," he purrs.

"Uh, thanks," Steve says, flushing again. Tarren pats his shoulder, trailing his hand down Steve's chest as he presses another kiss against his lips.

"Look me up sometime if you fancy taking this somewhere else, I'm here most weekends," Tarren says, winking at him and stepping away as another body presses itself against Steve's back. Soft breasts tease the skin of his shoulders under his shirt, and Steve's eyes roll up into his head a little, it feels so good.

"Is this okay?" a high, feminine voice asks close to his ear.

Steve turns in her arms, coming face to face with a gorgeous woman with bright purple hair caught in an untidy bunch at the back of her neck. Bangs trail to frame her round face, and her lips are painted a shade of chilli red that makes Steve unconsciously lean closer.

"Very," he reassures her, bringing his hands to curl around her waist, thumbs framing her belly button. She presses herself to his front, and gosh, she's just so soft and plush, and the space between her legs is scorching hot when she parts them for his thigh. One of her hands slides around him, coming to rest at the small of his back, and the other twines in his hair, and when he leans in and presses his lips to the edge of her jaw, she sighs sweetly in his arms.

Something inside him, some part of his core that had been so tightly wound for so, so long, slowly unspools under the heat and taste of her skin. She is beautiful, and she holds him so tight, and when her hand slips lower and grabs a handful of his ass, Steve can't help moaning and jolting towards her, wanting to press her to something and then press himself to her.

A hand worms between them then, and Steve looks up to find another woman pressed to his partner's back, mouthing at her neck. The woman in his arms shivers and presses back, tilting her head to drop on the other woman's neck. Picking up his cue, Steve disengages gently from her hold, leaving her to smile at him suggestively before pushing her hips back to grind against her new partner's front.

Steve makes his way back to the bar then, and Shawn slides him a new bottle of Smirnoff Ice along with an impressed raised eyebrow.

"You've got some moves, my man," he leans closer to say.

"I'll show you some of them later," Steve replies, chest thrumming with adrenaline and anticipation.

Shawn's eyes go wide, and his mouth drops open a little.

"I want to drag you into the back room and blow you right now," he says.

It's Steve's turn to stand there gaping, dick going from half-hard to fully interested. Shawn breaks his gaze and checks his watch, before groaning.

"Half an hour to go," he tells Steve, voice low and full of intent.

"I can't wait," Steve replies, because it's the truth.

The time both drags and flies. The drink does nothing for him – he hasn't forgotten his hard-learned lessons about the questionable benefits of his metabolism – but it makes his stomach warm and his limbs feel a little looser. His mouth still tastes a little of the sweet drink Tarren must have had before he kissed him, and he can still smell his other dance partner's perfume when he lifts his hand to his face. Alone for a few minutes, he takes stock.

He has never been the kind of guy to judge other people for what they choose to do with other like-minded people. Love is love is love, and it sure beats the hell out of war and the kind of destruction he has seen in his two lifetimes. When he was growing up, having so little and seeing his Mom worry every day how they were going to get through the next, the only thing that had made life bearable had been other people. Bucky, really, for him, but he hadn't been so ignorant not to know what went on in certain bars near the docks. No one thinks the little guy is someone they have to hide from, and anyway, the looks on men's and women's faces when they were with the person they loved, it meant more to Steve than any empty platitudes the church could declaim.

And okay, so love is not something that's involved here for him. Steve has only ever loved two people like that, and they are both long gone in this day and age. But God, oh, Lord, he is so lonely. And surely, if the other person knows not to expect anything from him beyond the night, he can let himself have this. Lose himself in another person's body, just for a little while escape the memory of everything he misses like breathing.

A hand slides over his shoulder.

"I'm done," Shawn murmurs in his ear. His breath stirs the fine hairs at Steve's temple; Steve finds himself leaning into the touch without conscious thought. "You still wanna go someplace with me?"

Steve turns, careful not to dislodge Shawn's hand. From up close, Shawn looks a little different, body taut and compact but thick with muscle across the chest, hips trim below a solid core. There is a hint of apprehension in his eyes, as if he expects Steve to change his mind, now that they're on the edge of action.

Nothing could be further from Steve's mind. He slips a hand around Shawn's waist, catches his earlobe between his lips before saying, "Let's go."

Shawn draws a shaky breath before grabbing Steve's hand and tugging him towards the door. Steve goes easily, matching his stride to Shawn's.

"I live a few blocks over," Shawn tells him when they're outside and they can speak at a normal volume. "Is that, are you okay to walk, or do you wanna try and find a cab?"

"Nah," Steve says, turning his hand to lace their fingers together. "I'm okay to walk if you are."

"Cool," Shawn says. He sounds a little dazed.

When he doesn't say anything else, Steve tugs a little on his hand. "Hey. You okay? If you change your mind, you can tell me, I won't get mad."

"Are you kidding me?" Shawn laughs. "No way I'm changin' my mind. I just—I wonder. Why in the hell you picked me, I mean."

Steve blinks at him in confusion. Shawn slants him a look, before widening his eyes. "Dude. Have you seen you?"

"Hey," Steve says. "You're... really attractive, okay? And you're nice. But, uh, I wanna be upfront with you. I'm not looking for anything after tonight. Is that, I mean, are you okay with that?"

Shawn just nods, hesitation fading away. "Yeah, man, that's totally fine, whatever. Jesus, I've been staring at you all night. You can't be unaware of how you look. That ass is a work of art."

Steve feels his cheeks warm again. "Thanks," he says, ducking his head. "Haven't gotten used to it yet. I was a skinny little kid, growing up."

"Oh, man," Shawn says, shaking his head. "That's gotta be a head trip. But – no offence – I think that probably makes you a much cooler person, going through something like that."

Steve shrugs. "It certainly taught me what it's like to be the little guy, so I know to watch where I throw my weight."

"Mmm," Shawn says. When Steve darts him a look, he's licking his lips and watching Steve's torso. "Yeah. I'm all about the throwing."

Steve laughs, blushing again. It feels amazing, walking through night-time New York with someone's hand held in his, just staying in the moment, anticipation of more touching bubbling away happily in his stomach. He feels – a connection. Like he belongs some place, in this moment. It feels better than anything has since he woke up.

"Speaking of," Shawn says, squeezing Steve's fingers. "How do you like to do this? I'm fine with whatever."

Steve doesn't speak for a few moments, trying to figure out what Shawn means, then wanting to be sure he knows what he's being asked.

"You mean, do I normally..." He can't say it. Why the hell can't he say it?

"Pitch or catch," Shawn finishes for him. Steve exhales. He's going to have to remember that metaphor.

"Uh, either, I guess. But, if that's okay, I think I'd like to catch tonight."

Shawn's answering inhale is shaky. "So okay, man, you got no idea."

"Great," Steve says, relieved. This isn't so hard. Okay, so maybe it's because Shawn is a nice, considerate guy, and Steve is so lucky to have stumbled upon him tonight, but hey, it's just sex. Steve can do this.

"Definitely great," Shawn drawls. He moves their hands, sliding them both in the back pocket of Steve's jeans and squeezing a handful, and it's like the temperature of the air just jumped ten degrees. Steve lets out a squeaky little sound of surprise, and Shawn laughs again. He's got a really nice laugh, low and rich, inviting you to laugh along.

Feeling brave, Steve says, "Hey, I'd really like to stay in touch, after. Just as friends, maybe?"

Shawn smiles at him. "Yeah, man, for sure."

A few minutes later, Shawn turns them towards the stairwell of a low-rise apartment block.

"This is me," he says, unlocking the front door and leading the way up three floors to a front door painted the same lime green as the bar he works behind. He unlocks that, too, and pushes it open, waiting for Steve to walk through before closing it and locking it again.

Then he turns around, pushes Steve into the wall, and kisses the breath out of him.

Shawn might be short, but what he lacks in height, he makes up in intent. His touches are sure, confident; he presses just hard enough for Steve to feel him, licks into Steve's mouth like he's preparing to lay him asunder, and it's so helplessly arousing that Steve just opens for him and lets him take whatever he wants. A hand slides down his hips, palming his hardening dick, and Steve moans into Shawn's mouth, hitched and high and needy.

"I'm gonna eat you up, dude," Shawn murmurs. His voice has gone low and rough, and in the dim light, he looks like a shadow intent on devouring Steve whole.

It's not a happy thought.

"Shawn, uh, you mind turning on the light?"

Shawn pauses, looking up at him. Whatever he must see has him moving straight away, reaching for the light switch that turns out to be just next to Steve's shoulder.

"Okay?" Shawn asks. One of his large hands curls around Steve's wrist again, and Steve sags against the wall, the tension going out of him.

"Yeah. Better. Thanks."

"No worries," Shawn says, leaning in again slowly, as if he wants to give Steve the chance to push him away if he wants to.

Steve definitely does not want; he curls his body inwards with a moan, parting Shawn's plump lips with his tongue. Shawn makes a happy sound and presses close again.

"Take these off," he says when they pull apart for air, fingers scrabbling over the button and zipper of Steve's jeans. "And the shirt. Been wanting to see that body all night."

Steve does as he's told, lifting his t-shirt over his head, kicking out of his shoes as he pushes down his jeans. He stands there naked, feeling incredibly surreal just for a second – then Shawn wraps his arms around his shoulders, leaning up for another kiss, and when Steve reaches to take off his purple t-shirt, the slide of skin together makes him moan out loud.

"More," he begs, pushing until it's Shawn's back pressed against the wall and Steve is plastered to his front, kissing everywhere he can reach, Shawn's jaw, his neck, his collarbone, the meat of his shoulder. Shawn moans quietly, hands tracing over Steve's back, grabbing his ass cheeks, pulling them apart a little. A single digit strokes between them gently, and Holy Mother, he had no idea this could feel so good. Sure, he's tried touching himself there, slipped a finger inside himself a couple of times, even, but there's apparently something about another person's touch that has his entire body feeling like it might catch flames any second.

The noise he makes is on the wrong side of obscene, but Shawn seems to like that, kissing him harder before he drags him around the corner and into the bedroom. Shawn heads straight for the bedside lamp and flicks it on, before pushing his own jeans down his legs. His dick springs out, thick and heavy and curving to the left a little, and Steve's mouth waters. He has to squeeze the base of his own dick to keep the urge to come at bay.

"Can I," he says, stepping closer, eyes still locked on Shawn's dick. "I really want to suck you."

"Well, I ain't gonna say no to that, am I," Shawn says, voice pitched high. Steve grins, and tackles him onto the bed before he mouths his way down Shawn's body, scraping his teeth here and there when his lips catch on ridges of muscle. Shawn is gratifyingly responsive, bowing his spine off the bed when Steve sucks one of his nipples and flicks it with his tongue.

"Mother Mary," he says, hands sliding over Steve's shoulders. "Look at you."

Encouraged, Steve slips lower, until Shawn's dick is right in front of his face, twitching a little with anticipation. Steve licks at the tip, wanting a taste. It's salty, a little bitter, but overall, the combination of what he's doing, the smell of Shawn's sweat, and the taste of his skin, is really doing it for Steve. He opens his mouth, lowering it over Shawn's dick.

"Oh my god," Shawn moans, shuddering hard. Steve puts his hands on Shawn's hips, keeping him steady as he tries to go lower. The girth of him fills his mouth, stretches him wide, and Steve's jaw struggles to open enough to accommodate him, but it feels... amazing.

"Yeah, just like that, baby," Shawn says, winding one hand into Steve's hair and pulling a little, and sweat prickles over Steve's shoulders. His dicks jumps against the scratchy blankets on Shawn's bed.

He closes his eyes and sucks. He varies what little technique he has, using his tongue, watching his teeth, trying to set up a rhythm. He's so unpractised, and he knows he can't be that good, but Shawn is making these amazing noises, and his hand pets Steve's hair encouragingly, and Steve gets lost in it, the feeling of being filled, being used to make someone feel this good.

"Okay, okay, stop, stop," Shawn gasps a short while later, throwing his head back against the mattress and pulling Steve off his dick with a gentle hold on his hair. Steve is a little disappointed, but then Shawn drags him up the bed and kisses him like he wants to climb inside his mouth, swallow him whole. One of his hands slides down Steve's thigh and pushes it up to near Shawn's ribcage; catching the hint, Steve straddles his body, rubbing his needy dick against Shawn's abs. Shawn's hand kneads his ass for a minute, before letting him go. The flick of a cap is loud in the air filled only with their heavy breathing, the rasp of skin against skin. Steve's hips hitch, rubbing him harder against Shawn's body. Wet fingers slip between his ass cheeks and press firmly against his hole, before one of them edges inside him. Steve's body tries to seize up, but he arches his back and makes his muscles unclench and accept the intrusion. It feels a little strange, but not bad – just different.

"Baby, turn around, yeah, on your back. It'll go much easier like this."

Steve complies, shifting onto his back and spreading his thighs. It makes him flush to be so exposed, opening himself up like that, but the look on Shawn's face quickly assuages his doubts. Shawn looks entranced, like he can't believe how amazing Steve is, and sure, the thought is hard to internalise but there's no mistaking the way Shawn's dick is leaking against Steve's hip as Shawn presses a finger back inside him. It slides in easily this time, and Shawn keeps going until it's in all the way to the base. He shifts a little inside Steve, crooking it and stroking firmly before shifting again, and-

"Oh my god," Steve moans. His eyes fly open and his mouth drops, and he feels like he can't get enough air into his lungs.

"There you go, baby, there you are, you're so good, Jesus, look at you," Shawn murmurs, mouthing at Steve's shoulder, his chest. Another finger presses inside him, and Steve's hips jerk, trying to get them deeper.

"Oh," Steve gasps when Shawn pushes them apart, starting to stretch him. It stings a little but fades quickly, and his muscles just part.

"You were made for this, Steve. Look at you take it, my God, I can't wait to see you try and take my cock, you're gonna writhe on it, I'm gonna nail you so good."

Wow. Okay. So being talked to like this is, uh, definitely a turn-on. Good to know.

"What else you gonna do to me," Steve whispers, and Shawn takes that as permission to tell him, in filthy, incredible detail, just what he plans. When he gets to how he's going to stick his tongue inside Steve, have him come on that, Steve starts shaking, and can't stop, and seconds later he is pulsing all over his stomach and sounding like someone is – well, fucking him sideways, if anyone wanted to make a point of it.

"Steve," Shawn groans, pressing his dick harder against Steve's hip, and orgasm or no, Steve wants him inside now.

"Come on, come on," he urges, tugging Shawn on top of him and trying to mind his strength so Shawn won't get alarmed.

"Wait," Shawn gasps, pawing over the blanket at Steve's side. He comes back with a condom, and okay, Steve has been told that he doesn't need to worry about STDs ever again in his life, but Shawn doesn't know that, and Steve is grateful for his presence of mind when Steve himself feels like his brain has leaked out of his ears. In moments, Shawn has the condom rolled down his length, and then he is pressing inside Steve's ass, and, oh.

It hurts. No two ways about it. It hurts, but then the head of Shawn's dick pops past the rim, and it still hurts, but Steve is mindless with the need to get all of Shawn inside him right this second.

"Do it, do it," he hears himself repeating, and Shawn is groaning but still going so slowly, and it's torture, and it feels amazing, and Steve never wants it to stop. God, he never knew, he never knew.

He isn't aware of how much time passes before Shawn stops, all the way inside him, his hips pressed to Steve's ass. Steve isn't even sure how he feels; his body is like a foreign entity, like he's anchored inside yet floating out of it. Shawn is stroking over his sides, long, soothing swipes as he kisses Steve's neck.

"So tight," he croaks. "Tight and hot and fuck, Steve, you have no idea, you feel amazing."

"Fuck me," Steve says. He doesn't sound like himself. His voice is low and drugged, and his eyes feel heavy yet burning, and his thighs fall open as far as they can – which is plenty far, as Yingtai can attest. He shifts his hips upwards a little, and Shawn groans and sinks another half an inch inside him, and suddenly Steve can't get enough air. "Shawn, fuck me."

Shawn pulls out and then jams back in, and Steve's skin prickles with sweat, two sizes too small. He lets out a moan that seems to come from the soles of his feet, and wraps an arm around Shawn's neck, yanking him in to devour his mouth. Shawn loses some of his control then, starting a fast, punishing rhythm as deep as he'll go, barely shifting out, just ramming in and in and rubbing some part deep inside of Steve that makes him see stars. It's so incredibly satisfying, and it feels so overwhelmingly good, and Steve doesn't even realise when he shoots again, just knows that the front of Shawn's belly is slick and his dick feels shivery and oversensitive, and his eyes are wet, and he doesn't know if he wants Shawn to stop or never stop. But then Shawn pushes an arm under Steve's leg, and lifts it up towards Steve's chest, opening him up even more, and wow, oh, wow, "Shawn!"

"Look at you, fucking look at you, look how pretty you are when you take my cock," Shawn rasps, and half a dozen brutally hard thrusts later, he stills on top of Steve and groans deep and guttural before sagging onto Steve's chest, breathing like he just ran ten miles in as many minutes.

"God," he grunts a few minutes later. "I think I'm dead."

Steve laughs. He feels loose and languid and pretty damn spectacular. "You're not dead."

"That's what you think, wonderboy," Shawn mutters, giving Steve's chest a couple of uncoordinated pats and growing even heavier on top of him, not like that bothers Steve in the slightest. He feels so happy, energised, like he could go out and take out a bunch of hostiles off the high of the past hour.

But this is nice, too. Lying tangled together, sweat and come cooling between them, pressed from chest to shin to another person who seems perfectly happy to lie on him and let Steve bask. The sex was incredible, but this easy, pliant intimacy... It feels almost as good.

"You c'n stay, 'f you want," Shawn murmurs, sounding half-asleep.

Steve seriously considers it, but it wouldn't be viable. He still wakes up too many times in the night, sometimes flailing hard enough to wrap half of the bed's sheets around him, and that is something he can't have anyone see.

"I'm gonna go," he replies softly, but adds, "in a while," to make Shawn smile against his shoulder and settle himself more comfortably against Steve's side.

Steve – 1, ice – 0.

He does leave that night, an hour or so afterwards, gently sliding out from under Shawn snoring softly in his ear. He walks home in the small hours of the morning, feeling a thrill shoot up his spine every time his ass twinges when he unconsciously speeds up his stride. He feels loose and settled in his skin like he can't remember ever feeling before. Sex is pretty amazing. His inner Catholic boy wants to cringe at just how good his body aches, but he squashes him down, letting himself have this. The world has changed. The church – not so much, but attitudes have definitely shifted, at least amongst the more enlightened Americans. There is even a word now for what he is – 'bisexual' sounds strange in his mouth, but it fits in a way that 'white picket fence' never had.

Nevertheless, the next time he gets dressed and goes to a bar, he has a game plan, and he intends to stick to it. It's not the same place as last time; sure, Steve had fun, but he's got a different agenda tonight. He is still nervous approaching women, but knowing what he wants, knowing what they will want out of him, does wonders for his inner peace. Besides, he has done his research. He set up a poll last week on his LiveJournal (aguyfrombrooklyn – there's no need to stray that far from his roots), asking the girls how they like to be approached in bars, and the results are pretty straightforward – 'be polite' seems top of the list, followed by 'respectful', and 'upfront' when it comes to the business part of the evening. Steve has never had trouble being any of those things – he is more appalled that men in this day and age need to be schooled along those lines. Steve isn't going to the bar looking for a fight, but if he finds any young man abusing women's good nature, there will be words.

He opts for a button-down shirt this time. His self-appointed fashion police squad nixed the plaid, but a nice navy blue is deemed acceptable - even if they complain about the lack of going-out choices in his closet - so he tucks the tails into his jeans and toes on his loafers, checking his reflection in the mirror for a brief moment before leaving his apartment. He hasn't shaved in a couple of days, but Karen, a lady from his life drawing class, had complemented his look, so he decides to try it out on a few other people. If it results in striking out, well, it won't be the end of the world, and that's fixable, at least, unlike the rest of his face.

The bar he chooses for part two-point-oh of his social experiment is all the way out in TriBeCa, which means he'll definitely need to get a cab back to his place, but also means the ladies he meets will feel more secure in a classier setting, and it's a small price to pay. Whatever else happens, Steve needs to know his partner is comfortable with picking him. It's about the only deal breaker he has found. Phil, when tentatively asked about a good place to go in the area, recommended Brandy Library, an upscale cocktail bar that sounds pretty much perfect for what Steve has in mind. Phil had sounded unruffled as ever when talking business, even pleased to be consulted. Steve resolves to call more often. It's nice to see a familiar face who knows who he really is, for all the wonderful new friends he has somehow managed to make.

The bar's light fixtures give it a golden amber sheen, welcoming and enhancing the upscale mood. It's Thursday evening, which Steve picked deliberately because weathering a Friday night in a place like this seems like advanced mechanics. Maybe with some practice, it will feel less daunting. The place is pretty full despite the weeknight, mostly with businesswomen in skyscraper heels and hair unwoven from the tight buns they favour during the day. It's nice. Steve likes the atmosphere, likes these decisive, driven ladies. They remind him of Peggy, and how good it felt, to have her in his corner, at his back, pushing him on and taking the lead when he couldn't seem to find his way. Steve despises the 'strong women' classification men appear compelled to utilize these days. All women are strong, and no man should ever even consider a woman being anything but.

He weaves a path through the tables heading in the vague direction of the bar, feeling the familiar prickle in his skin that signifies eyes sliding over him. Unlike the fields of engagement in various parts of Europe, in this situation Steve takes it for the encouragement it is. The bartender eyes him as well, one corner of her berry-red mouth tilting up.

"Hey," Steve says, smiling past the butterflies in his gut.

"Hey there," she replies. "What's your poison tonight?"

For a long second, Steve freezes, before forcing his shoulders to drop. She's just an ordinary lady doing her job. The war is long over, soldier, remember?

"Uh, I was told you did great cocktails?" he tries.

The bartender hums, inclining her head. The curtain of her long black hair follows the movement over the shoulder of her white t-shirt. "That we do," she muses. "If you trust your mixologist, I could pick for you? Sweet, tangy, spicy, just let me know what you prefer."

The cocktail list Steve spots at the other end of the bar looks vast and complex. There's no way trying to pick by himself won't be a disaster; too many choices still make him freeze up and shake sometimes.

"Something fresh?" he requests, quirking a self-deprecating smile.

"Sure thing," she agrees easily. She tosses a few cubes of ice in a short curved glass, then reaches for a blue bottle of gin, tipping a measure into a shaker full of even more ice. Her deft hands add fresh lime juice, a line of syrupy liquid from a container she takes out of the bar fridge, and shakes vigorously. Steve watches the surface of the metal shaker sweat, droplets snaking down the sides where the bartender grips it, and follows her smooth, practiced movements as she strains the mix into the glass. She slices a couple of cucumber circles to finish it off, adds a few fragrant green leaves, then drops a napkin on the bar and pushes it across.

Steve picks it up, holding it up to his face. The scent of basil and cucumber zings over the freshness of the lime, enhanced by the juniper from the gin. Steve goes for a taste, and doesn't try to stop a low hum of approval.

"That's fantastic," he says. Reaching into his pocket, he peels off a ten from the small wad he brought with him, handing it over and refusing the change. "Thank you." He might not be able to get drunk anymore, but that just means he can take his time appreciating a fine-tasting drink.

"No," the bartender murmurs, eyes falling to half-mast as her gaze rises over his chest and back to his face. "Thank you."

Steve forces himself not to blush, turning to give the room a look-over while he sips his drink. It tastes like spring; like green, growing things. He has got to find out what it's called. The room is honey-gold from lights tucked away in alcoves along the walls. The tables and booths scattered around the space are nearly all taken by women in various models of suits and open-collared shirts, jackets discarded across the backs of their chairs. Easy laughter mingles with the beat and the smooth, jazzy instrumental of the music, loud but not obnoxiously so, just enough to give the place a buzz. The men in attendance are mostly ignored, or laughing along with whatever group they're part of. It's easy, if not particularly given to striking random conversations. Oh, well. At least his drink is spectacular, and the atmosphere is nice. There are worse ways to spend an evening.

A few women come up to the bar as he's musing on how well Peggy would have fitted in with the crowd, if history had fallen together differently. They lean on his right, ordering more cocktails and wine. One of them, a beautiful dark-skinned woman, thanks Steve absently as he steps back to give her space.

Then she pauses, and looks back up at him. Steve smiles as non-suggestively as he knows how to.

"Hi," the woman says, cocking her hip against the bar. Her lips are a pale caramel colour that makes Steve want to lean closer to taste them. "I'm Laeticia."

"Steve," Steve returns, offering her his hand. She looks at it for a second before taking it.

"Haven't seen you here before, Steve, and I'd have noticed."

Steve smiles, resigned to his face heating up.

"Trying something new," he admits. "Been out of the country for a while. Trying to get back into the groove of things."

"Well, you've picked a good place to start. We're pretty friendly here at the Library. I see you've braved Selma's mercies too, good for you." Laeticia nods at the bartender, who grins back toothily.

Steve laughs softly, toasting Selma with his drink. She tips him a wink. "Yeah, she's definitely in my good graces."

They chat for a while, leaning casually against the bar. A little later, one of Laeticia's friends comes looking for her and ends up sticking around when Steve compliments her half-sleeve tattoo and asymmetrical haircut. She looks fierce, powerful. Steve can't stop staring at the intricate dragon inked in shades of orange and red, coal-black eyes seeming to bore into him all the way down to his core. Erie is a graphic designer, as it turns out, and the conversation flows into art talk, putting Steve even more at ease. He confesses his bafflement over the popularity of Jackson Pollock, and Erie laughs, delighted.

"I should introduce you to Numiko, she's curating a modern art exhibit in her gallery in Soho right now. You can butt heads for a while, she'll like that."

"Oh no, don't do that, she'll think I'm a hopeless philistine," Steve laughs, shaking his head wryly.

At one point, he looks back at Selma to ask for another drink, and realises that there is a whole group gathered around them. Six other women and two men prop the bar on either side of him, laughing and talking up a storm, having clearly just met. Two ladies on his right are eagerly arguing with one of the men about some character named Bane, and on his left, another two women are exchanging facebook contacts and planning to meet up at some up-and-coming food truck. Erie bumps his hip and drags his attention back to her as she pulls closer a tall blond woman whose shirt is the most spectacular shade of teal Steve has ever seen. Erie introduces her as her girlfriend Frieda, which gives Steve a small but happy thrill. Girlfriend. These are clearly his people. He smiles and shakes hands while Erie orders her girl a gimlet martini with three olives. Frieda tells him she is a financial analyst; unable to help his curiosity, Steve asks how she and Erie met, and watches in wide-eyed fascination as Frieda raises her grey pinstripe skirt to show off her gorgeous watercolour rose tattoo.

"Patrick did us both, our appointments overlapped a little as he was finishing Erie's dragon," Frieda explains. "I said it was super-hot, and Erie asked if I fancied a drink when I was done. The rest is history." She grins down at her shorter girlfriend, accepting both her drink and a kiss before turning back to Steve. "Have you ever thought of getting inked? Man, Patrick would wet his pants to have you on his chair."

Steve twitches an eyebrow at her mischievous grin, but shakes his head regretfully. "Allergic to most commercial inks," he says, an innocuous lie he'd thought up in class when one of his fellow artists had asked.

"Oh, that's a shame," Erie says, looking genuinely disappointed for him.

Steve shrugs. "Sure, yes. There are a couple of things I'd love to keep with me."

"Oh, like what?" Frieda asks, curious, before Erie nudges her with an elbow. She dips her head then, bashful. "Sorry, I'm pushy. You don't have to tell me if it's private."

Steve clenches his teeth and swallows tightly. In truth, "It would be a serial number. For, uh, my friend. We - he fell."

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Frieda says, face paling. She puts a hand on his arm, squeezing a little. "You served?"

"I did," Steve agrees, taking a deep breath to shake back the edges of despair that try to swallow him. "I can't talk about it though."

Laeticia smiles faintly, patting his arm. "I know all about that, soldier. My best friend is a lieutenant in the Marines. I've learned how to skirt awkward silences."

Steve smiles back, oddly comforted. The conversation drifts again as more people come up to the bar and join the impromptu real-life chatroom. Steve feels a warm sense of achievement. He did that. He stood there and made himself open and approachable, and people came to him, and met other new friends, too. Emboldened, he wades in on someone's wrong opinion about baseball, and laughs good-naturedly when it earns him a punch in the arm from a mock-glaring lady in inky-blue jeans and sparkling heels. The people around him laugh, too. It feels fucking great. Steve wonders if Phil would maybe like to come with him next time. The fella seems so stressed and unhappy these days. Letting loose a little feels like it would be a real good thing for him.

He has been careful not to act like he's angling for something all evening, but when an hour or so later, Laeticia sends him a half-lidded look and asks if he'd like to get out of there, well, Steve isn't idiot enough to say no. They end up at Laeticia's apartment after a short taxi ride spent with Laeticia's hand wandering up and down his twitching thigh. As soon as the door is closed, Laeticia pushes him back against it, tugging him into a kiss that steals the breath from his lungs and makes his heart pound. Her mouth is hot, tastes of whiskey and cola; her tongue paints figures over his that make his jaw want to unhinge to get more of her in him. The bite over his lower lip is not so much teasing as a declaration of intent, compounded by Laeticia growling, "Jesus Christ, I want that pretty fucking mouth on me right the hell now."

Never let it be said that Steve isn't good at following orders.

The granite floor is not exactly comfortable on his knees, but Steve forgets all about that when Laeticia's breath hitches and blows out on a long moan. Steve curls his fingers around her hips and ratchets up her skirt, drawing her pantyhose down and off over toenails painted turquoise, pausing to press an open-mouthed kiss to her anklebone. Laeticia squeaks, saying his name again and again, more and more insistent every time. Steve makes himself be patient, kissing up her leg, sucking gently at the sensitive skin of her inner thigh, harder when she asks him to. The scent of her arousal is mesmerising; when Steve finally gets his mouth flush to her mound, he has to take a minute to just breathe her in, wondering if it would be bad manners to come at her feet just to take the edge off.

She solves his quandary for him, fisting her hand in his hair and tugging until he looks at her face.

"I'm clean, if that's what you're wondering about," she says, fast and blunt like she wants to get it over with.

Steve frowns. "Honestly, that never crossed my mind," he says, indignation and anger rising up inside him at the thought that some waste-of-space asshole out there made her need to justify herself. Before she can say anything else, he opens his mouth and goes for it, just like Melanie taught him so many years ago – open and wet, sliding his tongue between her labia hard enough so it doesn't tickle, just firm pressure that Laeticia yelps and jerks into.

"My God, your mouth," she rasps. "I feel like I should be paying you for this."

Steve doesn't bother replying with words. He presses his thumbs into the crease between her thighs and pussy, opening her up while he nudges deeper, flicking his tongue just short of entering her. He closes his lips on her clitoris and sucks, holding her pressed against her wall as her knees buckle. She's loud, pleasantly so; she isn't shy about telling him how she likes it, what he's doing to her, which is incredibly reassuring, because he wants this to be so good for her. Steve's dick is hard and swollen, trapped between his thigh and zipper, making him whimper when he shifts forward and the unforgiving fabric cuts into him. Reluctantly, he takes one hand off Laeticia's smooth warm skin and flicks his jeans open, pulling himself out and giving himself a nice hard tug. Fuck, the taste of her; it slides down his throat when he swallows, overwhelmingly aware of how wet his face is from her body. It makes him want to lick all the way inside.

He makes her come like that, until she's shaking and swearing roughly, one hand tugging sharply at his hair.

"Shit, you should be getting paid for this," she slurs, still twitching from the aftershocks. Steve presses the heel of his hand firmly against the length of his dick, angling it sideways towards his hip. Laeticia pants heavily, pulling at his shoulders until Steve gets the hint and climbs back to his feet.

"Holy mother," Laeticia breathes, gaze on his dick. It twitches under the attention, a drop of liquid squeezing out of his slit. "I can't believe how pretty that cock is. You're just too perfect to be true, babe."

Steve flushes, breathing a little hard. He'd been holding his breath for a while there, but it had been worth it, with how hard Laeticia had come on his mouth.

"I kind of want you to fuck me against the wall," Laeticia muses, hands tracing Steve's shoulders, his chest. Steve's own hands are on her waist, tugging her shirt out of her skirt to get at more skin. "Except that you already did all the work there, and that would just be ungrateful. Come on."

She takes his hand and walks him into her bedroom, flicking on a floor lamp as she goes. The room is painted a dusky purple, and her bed is wide and invitingly piled with pillows. Laeticia pushes Steve down onto them, tugging his jeans off while telling him to lose his shirt. Steve complies, taking deep breaths of the sweet butterscotch musk of her perfume. She throws him a condom from her bedside drawer, and proceeds to take off all her clothes while he nearly drops it at the sight. She's enticingly curvaceous, with a small round hint of a belly and heavy breasts that overflow when she removes the confines of her bra. Steve wants to put his mouth on her all over again.

She doesn't give him much time to make a move, though. She stalks to the bed, bracing one knee by his hip so she can throw her other leg over him, straddling his groin.

"God, Laeticia," Steve manages. His voice is low and shot to hell, but she doesn't seem to mind; on the contrary, it makes her sway closer and lick into his mouth, nails digging into his shoulders just hard enough to make his dick twitch.

"Here," she says, wrapping her right hand around the base of him and guiding the head inside her. It's tight and slick, just how Steve remembers, and it makes him throw back his head and moan loud enough that he bites his lip to try and muffle it. Laeticia looks pleased as pie with his reaction, hips twisting as she lowers herself, taking more of him in. He hits some spot inside her that makes her gasp, jerking further onto him until he's all the way inside. The feel of it's incredible; sure, Steve definitely loves having a dick inside him a whole lot, but this is something he doesn't think he'd want to go without. Laeticia is panting sweetly, clenching on him before she starts to move, thighs flexing to bounce her body over Steve's. Before he knows it, it's nearly too much; he whimpers, trying to hold himself back, but knows it's not going to be long until he loses it inside her heat. He moves his right hand from her waist, spreading it over the top of her thigh so he can press his thumb to her clitoris, rubbing every time she thrusts down. The pitch of her moans changes, gets higher; her vagina grips him tight and pulses, and Steve can't keep it together any longer. He jerks up into her and lets go, coming fast and hard enough to bring him off the bed. Laeticia grinds down onto his cock and hand both, and Steve can feel the spasms of her climax drag another weak spurt out of him.

Laeticia rolls off him and flops over onto her back, breathing hard. Steve doesn't feel any calmer himself. He throws out an arm hopefully. Laeticia takes the invitation with a smile tinged with gratitude, curling closer against his side. They come down together, a little too warm in the humid air but deliciously languid and sated. Laeticia tugs the condom off him, rolls away to drop it into a wastebasket on the other side of her nightstand, then rolls back into him with a contented sigh.

"I'm so glad I spoke to you tonight," she says, fingers drifting over his chest in a meaningless pattern that he finds incredibly soothing.

"I'm glad too, Laeticia," Steve says, smiling into her damp curls.

"Hey, wanna watch some TV?" Laeticia asks, open and unselfconscious. It's a pretty great end of the evening, and Steve tells her so.

He leaves after another hour and a couple of beers, kissing Laeticia in thanks.

"This was fun," she says. "Maybe we could do it again sometime."

Steve nods happily. "I'd like that." He loved having sex with Laeticia, and he loved her company even more, so there's is absolutely no downside he can find to seeing her again.

Chapter Text

It's not like his life changes, after that. He still goes to yoga class, still has dinners with Sonika and Jonah and some of his other fellow artists that he gets along with. He still chats with his LiveJournal friends, and makes time to have coffee with Phil every couple of weeks, and spends the nights following those worrying about the stress wrinkles etched deeper into the agent's face every time Steve sees him. He even goes back to Shawn's bar, picking up a couple of guys who cement the knowledge of just how much Steve likes getting it from other men.

But more and more often, Steve finds himself going back to the Library. It's addictive, the thrill of fitting in – and he does fit in. He's a regular now. Most people he sees there know his name, and Selma seems to be on a personal mission to get him to try as many cocktails as she can make in a night. He meets Sebastian and Dora, two of the other bartenders who work the place, and experiences a sharp spike of pleasure when they greet him with a smile and, a few weeks later, a kiss on the cheek. He gets used to hanging out with a big, boisterous crowd of friends and acquaintances. Erie and Frieda turn up every few nights, and he sees Laeticia about once a week, too. One night, he has the dubious pleasure of calmly backing up Gavin the bouncer when he had to throw out a guy for harassing some of the girls, and finds himself with a conundrum when none of the bartenders will take his money anymore, insisting his drinks are on the house now. Not that Steve drinks all that much, but he likes trying out new flavours, interesting combinations – much like the people he ends up going home with every night.

Because he does. Go home with people, that is. It's almost as if there's some sort of secret arrangement that he isn't party to; each evening, as soon as he comes through the door and exchanges hellos with the other regulars, someone will introduce him around to people he doesn't know, and of them, there will always be one person bold enough to ask Steve to go home with her or him. Steve never says no. It's sex, and he likes it. The dark, aroused, happy noises of his partners slide down his spine and lodge right into his balls, and Steve finds himself coming harder and humming with satisfaction the more his partner is into it.

It works, is the thing. Steve is... happy, in a way that he never would have expected when he first opened his eyes in this new world. He loves his job, loves his friends, loves the way his days are always full, more often than not to the soundtrack of people's joyful laughter. He wakes up with a smile, sleeps more than four hours a night, and doesn't need the sight of a pristine punching bag to settle him into his bones.

It putters nicely along, until Katya – and then, it shifts and clicks into place.

Katya is a tall, willowy Russian expat who works for the UN. Steve meets her, as usual, in the Library, and spends most of an evening talking with her about so many things, his brain feels excited and alive from the exhilaration of a good conversation. When Katya asks if he wants to come home with her, Steve lingers only to get his coat.

A few hours later, Steve rolls off Katya and stretches contentedly in her bed, skin thrumming with pleasure, dick almost sore from how many times Katya had brought him off, demanding he fuck her again and again. Non-existent refractory period – 1, Steve's stamina – 0. He needs to get more cardio into his workout routine, he muses as he tries to catch his breath. This won't do at all.

"Well," she drawls in that deliciously dark, purring accent of hers. "The girls were right. I know we didn't exactly negotiate prices, but boy, you are worth every cent you charge. Will six hundred do?"

Steve blinks at the ceiling, unsure if he heard right, or words simply stopped making sense after orgasm number five.

"Beg pardon?" he says, letting his head roll to the side to find Katya propped up on one elbow, grinning smugly as her bright green eyes trail down his body and back up again.

"Prices, baby. Rates? I don't know what term you use these days. How much do I owe you for tonight?"

Steve opens his mouth and closes it again. Katya smirks.

"There's no need to be embarrassed, kotenok. We all have to make a living, although I'm willing to bet a lot of people wish they enjoyed their work as much as you do. The girls at the bar, they say, 'Katya, if he comes in, you have to take him home with you. He is amazing, makes you feel so good. Of course, I don't ask them how much you cost, it's just good manners. But you can tell me. And while you're at it, let me know what you charge for a full night's service, will you? Escorting me to an event, that kind of thing, because baby, who wouldn't want candy like you on their arm to make everybody around them disgustingly jealous?"

Steve thinks he's getting an inkling of what she's talking about, and the thing is, the flush on his face is not mortification. No, it appears he's getting off on the attention. He's getting high on the idea of being needed, appreciated, of people wanting to spend time with him enough to pay for it. Huh. That's new.

...But, why the hell not? Steve is all about new experiences these days, and he enjoys meeting new people, getting drawn into strange conversations that dash off on myriad tangents. And the sex, well. He's already established he enjoys all kinds of it. It's not like he needs the money, but – it's not like he doesn't, either, and if people are willing to pay for his services...

"Six hundred is good for tonight," he hears himself say. His mouth goes on to add, "double that for an event beforehand."

He cannot quite believe he just did that. He has never been so brazen, assumed so much. Surely, she's going to laugh him out of her incredibly stylish and well-appointed condo, and she'd be right to do it.

But Katya does not, in fact, laugh hysterically. She just grins, flashing her pearly whites, and rolls off the bed to pad naked over to her designer handbag and count a stack of notes from her wallet.

"Here you go, dorogoy. Leave me your number before you go, will you? You like art, there's a gallery thing I have to go to in two weeks, and I'll need someone to talk to who doesn't make me fall asleep. Assuming your schedule is free, of course? I'll email you the details."

Still feeling like he's watching himself from some place outside of his own body, Steve rolls to his feet and takes the bills from her hand, kissing her cheek while she pats his ass.

"Thanks," he says solemnly. Katya drapes herself back onto her bed as Steve pulls on his pants and hunts for his shirt. He spots a notepad on Katya's dresser, so he walks over and jots down his phone number and email address.

He's going to have to have some cards made out, he catches himself thinking, and has to bite hard at his cheek to stop the hysterical giggle rising in his chest. Is he really doing this?

"Spokoinoi nochi," Katya murmurs drowsily, blowing him a kiss as Steve salutes her with two fingers and lets himself out, pausing outside Katya's door to make sure it's locked and to push the folded bills into his back pocket.

Apparently, he is.

Steve wakes up the next morning late enough that sunlight is streaming through blinds he forgot to close the night before. He stretches thoroughly between his Egyptian cotton sheets (a tip from one of his LJ friends who is a self-confessed hedonist, and boy, is Steve grateful to her) and, as last night's events catch up with his sleepy brain, wonders if it all really happened. Maybe Katya will never call. Maybe it was all a spur-of-the-moment crazy notion and that'll be the end of that.

Except when he gets up to piss and start the coffee, and turns the wifi on his phone back on (he'd started leaving it off when he went to bed, because it was hard enough to sleep through the night without it beeping at him with messages from his European friends, and he's too paranoid to leave it on silent because what if there is some emergency and Phil calls and Steve misses it?), he finds an email from katya.mikhailovna@gmail.com that contains the itinerary for the event she mentioned last night.

This is the moment, Steve knows, when he could still back out gracefully. Tell her he got carried away, that he isn't an escort, just a guy from Brooklyn with a bit too much free time on his hands. But the thought of it makes his stomach curdle with unhappiness, and he didn't get where he is today by not leaning into the choices he makes, no matter how ill-advised. There was a quote he came across not long ago, about how life is either a great adventure or it's nothing, and… Steve doesn't want what's left of his life to be nothing, a vast, barren emptiness fenced in by fear of the unknown. He's been through a great war, and losing the man he loved (even if he knew it was hopeless), and seventy years under the ice, and he is still alive. What is a little potential embarrassment to that?

So he emails Katya back to say that he is available, and then spends the next couple of hours downloading a scheduling app and designing a minimalistic business card with his name, cell number and email address on one side of it, leaving the back empty for note-taking. He does not make it red, white, and blue, despite the perverse spike of defiance he weathers. That's not who he is anymore. He's just a guy, trying to make his way in the world, who'd gotten luckier than most in the health department.

He has to tell someone, though, needs that reality check to reassure him he isn't going completely off at the deep end. So he opens an email to Star (because no one in his life will take him more seriously and ask fewer questions than people who routinely discuss alternate universes and lives and kink-based sexual relations - like, for example, his fandom friends) and types, 'So I might have pretended I was an escort last night, and now I have people wanting to hire me for things, and I want to say yes. Is that crazy? That's crazy, right?'

He gets a gchat notification within the minute.

starmichaeltrinion: OH MY FUCKING GOD
starmichaeltrinion: ARE YOU SERIOUS???
aguyfrombrooklyn: My life is a fanfic. I have no idea how that happened.
starmichaeltrinion: Ahahahahaha
starmichaeltrinion: this is AMAZING
starmichaeltrinion: dude you should TTLY GO FOR THAT
starmichaeltrinion: were they hot?
starmichaeltrinion: they were hot right
starmichaeltrinion: WAS IT GOOD
aguyfrombrooklyn: ....really, REALLY good. >.>
starmichaeltrinion: DUDE
starmichaeltrinion: i say go for it. you liked it right? no one can tell you you're doing something wrong, and if they try, fuck 'em.
starmichaeltrinion: except, word of caution, remember how i did that research for that story the other month? TAX EVASION IS BAD, BRO, DON'T DO IT. there's all kinds of legal escorts out there nowadays. they call themselves sex therapists or something. YOU CAN BE A SEX THERAPIST, BROOKLYN.
starmichaeltrinion: seriously, tho, it's ttly legit for tax purposes. maybe ask a friend to set it up for you? you know that guy who does accounts and paperwork, right?
aguyfrombrooklyn: Um, maybe. Not sure I can talk to him about this kind of stuff, though. He's... kind of straight-laced.
starmichaeltrinion: he's your friend, tho, right? if he can't do it, he'll rec you s/o who can take you on.
starmichaeltrinion: OTHER THAN THAT, YOU HAVE MY BLESSING, YOUNG PADAWAN. GO FORTH AND HEAL PEOPLE WITH YOUR DICK.
starmichaeltrinion: but use protection, tho, seriously, i'm not kidding. keep yourself safe, man.
starmichaeltrinion: &always make sure at least one other person knows where you're going. like, pick someone you trust who you can forward your timetable to so at least they'll find you if you get picked up by a serial killer, yeah?
aguyfrombrooklyn: That's good advice, Star, thanks. Don't know who I can trust with this, though.
starmichaeltrinion: Brooklyn, come on. you're not doing anything wrong, remember? besides, if it makes you uncomfortable, don't tell them it's for money. just say you're going on a date &you'd feel better if someone knows about it in case of being murdered in a ditch or whatever.
aguyfrombrooklyn: You really are a star. Thanks for being okay with this.
starmichaeltrinion: ARE YOU KIDDING ME, i'm totally going to be like living vicariously through you or whatever. THIS IS AMAZING. you can feed me stuff for the Neal/Peter/El sequel! :D
aguyfrombrooklyn: So you ARE writing it! :D :D
starmichaeltrinion: ....maaaaaybe. >.>
aguyfrombrooklyn: :D :D :D
starmichaeltrinion: THESE GUYS ARE JUST MADE FOR OT3 OKAY.
aguyfrombrooklyn: You won't find me arguing with THAT.

So that's a ringing endorsement if Steve ever saw one. Star is right, however. No one might care about who he used to be any longer, but Steve is not oblivious. He knows that people could still do a lot of damage, not just to him but to SHIELD - to Phil, essentially. So if he's going to do this, he's going to have to let Phil know at least some of what's up.

As it happens, it's time for their fortnightly coffee this week. Steve is meeting Phil in their usual spot, a little hipstery café tucked between a bookshop and a pet store that does the best cappuccino that Steve has tasted since he woke up. He's a little late, rushing through the door with his yoga gear still in the backpack over his shoulder. He'd gotten caught up in chatting to Yingtai about a Hot Vinasya Yoga class that she's thinking of starting and Steve definitely likes the sound of, and lost track of time.

Phil waits for him in what Steve has come to think of 'his' seat, in the corner of the room, putting his back to the wall, very considerately leaving Steve to take the other chair facing the room. Once a soldier, Steve thinks, dropping his bag by the table and leaning in to give Phil a hug. It's a recent development, and Steve still chuckles sometimes when he thinks of the mixture of shock, awe, and a hint of panic on Phil's face the first time Steve had gone for one. The guy could really use them, though – now, nearly two months after the start of this new custom, Phil leans into Steve's arms with no hesitation.

"Sorry, sorry," Steve says when Phil retakes his seat. "I hope you weren't waiting long?"

"Not at all," Phil says with a smile, indicating the pile of paperwork spread out over the coffee table like he hadn't even noticed the time. Steve shakes his head ruefully. Paperwork used to be the bane of his existence – and that was back in the 1940s, when there were at least three times fewer forms to fill. There were only so many times he could requisition yet another kettle before the brass started asking what happened to the old one this time, and he had to think of a fresh excuse for Dum Dum and Dernier's existence.

Even to Steve's untrained eye, though, Phil seems to have too much of it. He looks tired, too, worn thin with worry. Steve wishes Phil could talk about it; that Steve could at least help him carry the burden. But that's not the way SHIELD operates – a lesson Steve learned all too well.

He buys Phil a blueberry muffin instead of saying any of this, pushing aside his protests with one of the blank looks that served him so well when dealing with Colonel Phillips.

"I really shouldn't," Phil says, patting his flat stomach. "I'm not getting out in the field as much as I used to, and I'm definitely past the age when that didn't use to matter. Being a handler isn't quite the same as being an active agent, whatever platitudes Nick tries to feed me."

"I honestly don't think you've got anything to worry about," Steve says, stifling a smile. "And don't talk to me about age, son, I'm a senior citizen, you know."

Phil barks a surprised laugh, leaning back into his chair. Steve is pleased to notice that his shoulders are much less stiff than when Steve walked through the door.

"That's me schooled," Phil quips with that pleasant, enigmatic smile that Steve has come to associate with him alone.

"How've you been, Phil?" Steve asks, before settling back to enjoy Phil's dry, biting wit. Phil never uses names, but Steve feels like he knows more about the Tinker, and the Analyst, and the Spy, and the Soldier, and the Tailor, and the Archer, than he would be allowed to at any other time. He's still laughing at Phil's story about nerf guns and panicked chickens, when Phil nails him with one of his patented handler looks and asks about how Steve's been.

It's the perfect opening, so Steve takes a deep breath and a fortifying sip of coffee, and wades in.

"Actually, there's something I wanted to talk to you about," he admits, playing with the handle of his cup.

"Oh?" Phil says, folding his hands together on top of the table and arching one eyebrow.

"Yes. I—I've decided to start dating." He throws Phil a searching glance, reassured when Phil merely smiles encouragingly. "I mean, I'm not sure how ready I am for a full-on relationship, what with all the things I can't talk about, but. I was thinking it might be nice to go out to dinner with people, try the, uh, the sex thing." Why is this so hard to say? He's going to be having it for money soon. He should be able to talk about it, at least.

Phil clears his throat. "That's really good, Steve," he says earnestly. "That's great news. I'm very happy for you."

Steve ducks his head, unable to help his pleased smile. "I meant to say thanks again for recommending the Brandy Library. It's a great place, I feel really at home there. Maybe you'd like to go with me sometime? Bring a friend you wouldn't mind me meeting?" Considering how many of Phil's stories feature arrows or other shooting implements, Steve has started to wonder, but he doesn't want to hear any more of Phil's regretful refusals to speak about his life in more detail.

Sure enough, Phil is making that face, the pained one that precedes another excuse.

"Steve, I want you to meet everyone. You know it's not like that."

Steve stares down at his hands, stomach churning. He has never been in the position of being somebody's secret, and he can't say he cares for it, deserved or not.

"But, uh, if the offer still stands, I'd love to go to the Library with you sometime. It's been a while since I went out anywhere, and I don't want to admit it, but I miss it."

"Anytime," Steve says immediately, before looking up at the ceiling. "There's actually a reason to bring this up," he says.

To his amusement, the tops of Phil's cheeks heat, and he's starting to look a little cornered.

"I was kind of hoping you could be my wingman? By proxy, of course, but – I'm not unaware of how much my DNA would go for on the black market, and I don't want to cause more problems for you. So could we maybe make some kind of arrangement where I tell you where I'm going, and with who, and then if I don't get back in touch by a pre-arranged time, you could look into it?"

Phil, to Steve's probably not too well-hidden amusement, has settled back down into the competent agent Steve has become so fond of.

"That's great thinking," he agrees, nodding. "I'm so glad you brought this up, I would absolutely be happy to liaise with you on that."

Now for the tough part. Not that Steve cares about other people's opinions of him, but Phil has become a friend, someone Steve likes and respects. It would – yeah, it would suck for Phil to think less of him for the people Steve sleeps with.

"Some of those dates won't be with women," Steve says carefully.

Phil blinks, but that's the only reaction he projects. "I had wondered," he says mildly, indicating with a finger the dogtags Steve still carries around his neck when he isn't going out in the evenings – one of his, and one of Bucky's, just like he has done since he found Bucky again in that awful research facility. Steve didn't blush when he talked about sex, but now he feels heat prickle over his skin all the way down to his chest over his suddenly racing heart.

"It wasn't like that," he says reflexively; he pauses, but he feels like he owes Phil at least this much. "I'd have liked it if it had been, though."

Phil hums, nodding his head and letting out a huff of air. "Well," he says, mouth twitching, "I can't say this is anything but good news for me, personally. It's just one more reason for my teenage self to feel vindicated over his choice of personal heroes."

"Aw, Phil," Steve protests, ducking his head again.

Phil chuckles. "It wasn't just you, okay. Sergeant Barnes was a pretty big part of my life back then, too."

"Yeah, he was something," Steve agrees softly. So Phil, too, is like him. It doesn't have anything to do with him, but Steve still feels comforted to know.

It doesn't mean that he'll be divulging the other part of the deal, at least not any time soon. Maybe when the tax return deadline comes rolling by, and only if Steve can't figure it out by himself.

"So how's the Soldier settling into her new role as your boss?" Steve asks, changing the topic to give them both a chance to settle themselves.

Phil laughs, and tells Steve of the Soldier's bizarre and unexplainable habit of illustrating personnel files with little drawings that no one but her can make heads or tails of, and after that, it's just like any of their other coffee dates; except that by the time Steve waves goodbye to Phil, they have arrangements for new anonymous email accounts through which to keep track of each other. It might be silly and overkill, but Steve has learned, through lessons that he'd much rather he'd managed to avoid, that a little caution goes a long way.

Steve meets Katya back at her condo on the night in question, barely a minute off the time she'd asked him to come. He kisses her cheek carefully so as not to smudge her perfectly applied make-up, and offers his arm to escort her outside. She has a car waiting for them, a beautiful oxidised-silver Bentley with deliciously soft leather seats. When Steve slides inside, he can't help the low noise off appreciation at the touch of it, the smell that he will, in time, learn to associate with luxury - polished leather, a woman's heady perfume, the edge of oak that comes from the whiskey she pours for them both from the mini bar. Katya smiles at him, pleased, and clinks her glass to his.

She tells him a little more about the exhibit they're going to, but as used to be his habit, Steve has done a bit of research the past couple of days (the internet, so helpful), and manages to contribute asides that have her perfectly arched eyebrows rising.

"You have done your homework," she muses, clearly pleased. Steve smiles crookedly.

"Habit," he admits, and she laughs.

"It's good. I wouldn't expect any less. You are a true professional."

Steve hums noncommittally and wonders if he should admit that he doesn't know a gnat's worth about what he's doing, merely relying on his Ma's upbringing to carry him through. Seems to be working, anyhow.

When the car pulls up outside the gallery, Steve has to stop and stare for a long moment. It's a large asymmetrical white building, with the front wall formed almost entirely of wide glass panes and a long roof to cap it off. The latter is made of overlapping wooden rectangles that seem to both absorb and reflect the light coming from within - the same honey-gold that Steve is beginning to recognise and love, especially in the early evening when summer dusk is falling around them. People are milling around outside and in, and Steve is suddenly fiercely glad that he let Phil talk him into buying a few tailored formal suits. It had made a sizeable dent in his bank account, but if everything goes to plan, they'll be paying for themselves soon enough.

"Beautiful, isn't it? Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp designed it."

"Spectacular," Steve agrees appreciatively, then shakes himself and opens the car door, turning to hand Katya out of it. She exits gracefully, long ruby-red gown settling over her shapely legs like a waterfall of silk.

Steve surreptitiously takes a deep breath, steeling himself. He can do this. He's been to these kinds of events with Sonika before. He knows his stuff. No one is going to look at him and label him an impostor.

"Shall we?" Katya asks, and Steve smiles in agreement.

He knows, theoretically, that they make a striking couple, but it still takes him by surprise to catch their reflection in one of the glass doors - both tall, his blond hair a contrast to her dark, shining twisted braid, her hand wrapped possessively around his arm. It makes him feel good, to be necessary in some way to her. It also gives him permission to touch - not inappropriately, of course not, but a hand at the small of her back, her elbow, letting her take point and following happily where she leads.

He enjoys it, he discovers. When he isn't forced to be in the lead, he likes his supporting role - making sure she's comfortable, bringing her a drink when her glass is empty, being thanked for it with a brilliant smile. He leaves her to network when he senses her body language withdrawing, and takes the time to walk around, unselfconsciously losing himself in the space, soaking it in. He never would have come here if she hadn't brought him, let alone been brave enough to walk in on his own. Already, this deal is paying unexpected dividends.

The grace the serum provides saves him from collision more than once. He is a little distracted by the beauty of the building, eyes drinking in the angles and unexpected symmetries hidden in the corners, but he isn't unaware of his surroundings - he never could be. He's chasing a beam up to its natural conclusion when he's jostled gently from behind, just enough to tip him into the shoulder of another person.

The lady apologises profusely; Steve takes a few moments to reassure her before turning to issue his own apology. It dies in his throat when he sees the man he bumped into.

He's almost as tall as Steve himself, broad in the shoulders, solid-looking in his neat Air Force Lt Colonel's uniform. What grabs Steve most of all is his face. His brown eyes are weary but kind, and when he smiles, deep lines crease their corners and the skin on either side of his beautiful mouth.

"It's quite all right," the man says. He has a faint British accent that curls in Steve's gut and warms him from the inside out. "Lieutenant Colonel Stacker Pentecost, at your service."

Steve has a split second to wonder if he should salute, but he's trying to stay under the radar here; and besides, Lt Colonel Pentecost is offering his hand like he expects nothing more.

"Steve Rogers," Steve says, taking it. Pentecost's grip is firm and reassuring, calluses matching Steve's own, and he looks Steve in the eye without trying to lord his rank over him. Steve finds himself effortlessly sinking in that space between parade rest and awaiting orders. Huh. Looks like his army days aren't quite as behind him as he'd thought. "I should probably salute," he admits. Steven Rogers Jr. served, too, albeit briefly, so it's a perfectly legitimate thought. "Then again, I don't know if you'd want a salute from a mere US Army Sergeant."

Pentecost's eyes travel down and back up his body in a lazy exploration that makes Steve's skin buzz with awareness.

"That's the least of what I'd want from you," he murmurs.

Holy wow, Steve thinks faintly as his dick stirs in his tailored pants. Would he be down for that. Heh, down.

But he has a different purpose tonight, which he is reminded of when he hears Katya's low laughter somewhere behind Pentecost's shoulder. He shakes his head a little to clear it, then reaches into his inner breast pocket.

"I'm here with someone tonight," he says apologetically, then looks at Pentecost through his eyelashes as he holds out one of his newly minted business cards between two fingers. "But maybe you could call me sometime. I'm sure we could make arrangements."

Pentecost takes the card from Steve with a considering expression. He looks between it and Steve a couple of times, and then his mouth twitches.

"I will, at that," he murmurs. "I'm sure you'll be worth my… time."

Steve grins. The man's sense of humour just made him even more attractive.

"I promise I'll be free whenever you decide to call," he says, blinking slowly at him before sliding around his frame, making sure to brush their shoulders gently as he heads over to Katya's side. He can feel Pentecost's eyes on his back, and it sends a thrill down his spine to join the warmth in his belly.

It's pretty clear that this is one of the better decisions he has made for himself.

So the evening is a success, in more ways than one. Steve had worried a little about the transfer from escort to, uh, sex therapist, thank you, Star, but it goes seamlessly – just like other nights when Steve has gone home with someone from the bar. Katya pulls him against her by his slim black tie, and proceeds to fuck her tongue into his mouth until Steve is panting and needy and hard enough to drill through his pants. Then she tugs his head down, and explains in his ear exactly what she wants him to do to her, peppering her instructions with purring phrases in Russian – and boy howdy, it takes Steve even less time to come that it did last week.

Katya looks at him with speculative, narrowed eyes; then she spreads him out on her bed, pushes his fists closed around the grates of her wrought iron headboard, and talks Russian to him right into his second orgasm of the night, coming untouched on that alone.

"Boje moi," she rasps, one hand buried between her legs as her hips flex and her breathing speeds up. "That is one of the hottest things I've ever seen."

Steve is still panting and bleary-eyed when he unclenches his hands from the metal and rolls her over, pushing her thighs open to get his mouth on her pussy and eat her out until she's yelling mangled English and Russian and pulsing around his fingers.

He checks the headboard for damage once Katya is lax and spent, eyes closed as she catches her breath. It's only good sense; but it looks like his caution paid off. Relaxing, he lets himself tumble onto the bed, too, curling on his side to press kisses into Katya's stomach and ribs. She threads one hand into his hair, tugging lightly and scratching at his scalp.

"So, language kink?" she asks, amused.

Steve shrugs. "Never noticed before, but it's not like I had the opportunity while I was working overseas, so. Looks like a firm 'yes' on that front, huh."

"Very firm yes," Katya drawls, and they both laugh.

Steve fucks her again before he leaves, grinding deep and tight inside her, pushing into that spot that makes her, if not scream, then produce some vehement yelling and cursing. She kisses him slowly and thoroughly before letting him climb out of her bed.

"This was good, right? I can call you again?" she wants to know.

"Definitely call me," Steve tells her as he settles his undone tie around his neck and buttons his jacket.

Her eyes bore a hole through his chest, languid and satisfied; Steve leaves feeling pretty damn great about himself.

Chapter Text

After that night, it's like a dam breaks. Katya must have given his number to a couple of her friends, and they must do the same after Steve takes them out, because all of a sudden, Steve is finding his nights pretty full. He hasn't even been back to the Library in over two weeks, that's how much business he's getting. He goes and buys several more suits, splurges a little on the tailoring and watches women's (and men's) eyes travel over him like they want to eat him alive. When he mentions this to Star, he sends him a macro that has Steve laughing, groin tightening a little – because it's definitely not just women who feel that way.

Katya has also apparently passed on another little detail, because out of the dozen or so clients Steve gets those first few weeks, about half proceed to take him apart in a variety of languages. Steve now knows how to say 'harder', 'faster', 'good', 'just like that', 'come for me now' in German, Spanish, Portuguese, Farsi, and Korean. He's looking forward to expanding that list.

He also learns how to read between the lines. He has always been good at working people out – all that time staring at models as a kid paid off in the end. Now, though, when he is being paid to look, he finds that he can discern what his clients want before they ask for it. Some of them don't even look like they will ask, so it's up to Steve to give them what he thinks they need. Some of the women want to be on top in every way. Some of them want to let go of having to be in charge every second of the day. Steve is just as happy being on his knees for them as he is putting them there himself (and even if he does enjoy the former more for himself, that's not what he's there for).

Making them pant, lose themselves in the feelings Steve helps them uncover – that's his reward. The accounts executive who goes like her strings have been cut when Steve tells her to get on the floor. The graphic designer who asks to fuck him with a strap-on (spoiler alert: Steve is on his back with his knees by his ears before she has time to change her mind). The tall, heavyset cardiothoracic surgeon that sobs with how hard she comes when he fucks her against the wall, her weight negligible in comparison to the cars Steve has literally bench-pressed since the serum.

Other times, it's Steve who is left feeling grateful and like he got the better end of the deal - like his date with the Paralympian athlete lawyer who spends half of her networking event talking to Steve and a group of five other attorneys about her clients, laughs as she teaches Steve ASL over dinner, then takes him home, steps out of her prostheses, and rides him into the mattress while Steve marvels at how amazingly resilient she is and generally tries not to yell her apartment down from how good she's nailing him.

He tries not to think about it too often lest he jinxes it, but by the time a month goes past with no contact with Pentecost, Steve has given up hope of ever hearing from him again. Which is, of course, when his phone rings late one afternoon, 'withheld' flashing across the screen.

"Is this Steve Rogers?" the deep, slightly rough voice on the other end inquires.

Steve doesn't need to ask who it is. He doesn't think he'll be forgetting that voice in a hurry.

"Lt Colonel," he says in greeting. "I was beginning to wonder if you'd misplaced my card."

Pentecost chuckles before clearing his throat. "Hardly, Mister Rogers. That would be a crime in itself."

"Steve, please. Dare I hope you have an event you're looking for a date for?"

The silence on the other end drags a little, enough for Steve to regret being so direct. He'd hoped he and Pentecost were on the same page, but maybe not?

"Not so much an event," Pentecost says at last. "I had a more private party in mind, in fact. Attendance list of two."

"That would suit just fine," Steve says without hesitation. "When do you plan to schedule it?"

Another pause. "Is tonight too soon?" Pentecost asks. Now that Steve listens for it, there's a strain in his voice, running like a current under the words. He must need some stress relief pretty badly.

"By a stroke of luck, I'm free tonight," Steve says with a smile. How fortunate that Aaron cancelled at the last minute. "Tell me where I should go."

Pentecost rattles out an address and asks if Steve can be there in ninety minutes. Steve can.

Aaron likes to do Steve's prep himself, gets off on making Steve take his fingers and come on them before Aaron fucks him. But Pentecost sounded strained, so Steve spends a good twenty minutes getting himself open and slick with lube, probably using too much, but the thought of Pentecost bending him over and pushing into him the second they're through the door, well, it appeals a lot. With that incentive, and mindful of the fact that his muscles tend to tighten again if left to their own devices, Steve slips in a plug, one of the flared ones he loves to tease himself with. Even if Pentecost is bigger, Steve should at least be loose enough to make it easier to take him.

The taxi ride takes just over forty-five minutes. The place Pentecost specified is all the way out in Queens, and it's closer to rush hour than Steve prefers for scheduling his appointments, but that can't be avoided. He is actually a little early, but he figures that if Pentecost hasn't had the chance to get there yet, he'll just wait in the hallway. To his surprise, the taxi drops him off outside of an apartment building, rather than the hotel he'd been expecting with someone of Pentecost's profession. DADT has been history for nearly a year now, but Steve still hasn't heard of many high-rank active soldiers who are 'out'. It's a nice place – the steps to the entrance are clean, and the rails well maintained. Steve rings the intercom for number nineteen and waits.

The door clicks open a moment later. Old habits die hard, so it takes Steve less than ten seconds to find the tiny camera trained on the step where he stands. He grins at it and ducks inside, opting to take the stairs up to the fifth floor even though it jars the plug. His skin prickles nicely, both from the physical exertion and the slow twist of anticipation slithering seductively down his spine. Three more landings until he gets Pentecost's dick inside him. Two.

One.

The door to the apartment snicks open as soon as Steve steps down the corridor towards it. Pentecost stands framed in the gap, down to his uniform pants and shirtsleeves. Steve licks his lips at the thick, muscled forearms showed off by the sleeves rolled up to Pentecost's elbows.

"Hi," he says easily, pleased to see Pentecost's face lose the suspicious squint.

"Hey. You got here fast," Pentecost says, stepping aside to let Steve in.

"Traffic was good. Plus, I had incentive to rush a little." He smiles at Pentecost, making it open and full of intent.

Pentecost's eyes sharpen. "No-gos?" he snaps. Evidently his patience has been exhausted by whatever shit he's had to deal with today.

"No permanent marks," Steve says immediately. Just because he won't remain marked is no reason not to set boundaries. Besides, his clients don't know that, and while Steve likes a little pain with his sex, he really isn't into abuse or torture. "No watersports. I don't like being blindfolded or gagged. Other than that, go to town." He spreads his arms, daring Pentecost to come at him.

Pentecost takes him at his word. Steve's back slams against the door, and Pentecost is on him, prying his mouth open with his tongue, eating it out until all Steve can do, all he wants to do, is lean his head back and take it. Pentecost's palm goes right over Steve's already-hard dick, giving it a tight squeeze. Steve's hips jerk and he moans, wanting it, wanting to be taken just like that.

"Lieutenant," Steve starts, but Pentecost growls and his fingers clench on Steve's balls until he gasps.

"You'll call me 'sir', soldier."

"Sir," Steve amends, hearing his voice go high-pitched and wrecked. Well. He guesses he'll add that to the list of things he's discovering about himself. "Sir, please, I got ready for you, you can just fuck me."

Pentecost shudders against him, mashing his hard dick into Steve's hip, and oh, he's big, Steve can feel just how big through the stiff material of his uniform. It's a good thing he prepared himself.

"Well, aren't you a regular boy scout, soldier," Pentecost rasps. The gravel in his voice has deepened; he sounds ravaged already, and they haven't even lost their clothes yet. His British accent has thickened, rounding out the ends of his words, and Steve's ass twitches around the plug, aching to be used.

"I aim to please, sir," Steve tries, yelping at the end as Pentecost grabs him by his jacket and drags him further inside the apartment, pushing him over the back of his massive couch just the way Steve had hoped. Thick fingers open his jeans and drag them off his ass, and the sharp hiss of Pentecost's breath when he sees the plug makes Steve grin in triumph.

"Look at you," Pentecost says, palming Steve's ass cheeks with both hands and pulling them open. "Fucking cock slut, is that what you are, soldier?"

"Yes, sir," Steve sobs when Pentecost's right hand leaves his skin for a moment and returns with a sharp slap right over the meat of his ass, jarring the plug inside him. "I want it, sir, I want your dick, please, sir."

Pentecost shudders against Steve's back. The sound of a zip being lowered fills the room, loud even with their laboured breathing. Then plastic is being torn open, and the plug inside Steve is jostled before Pentecost tugs it out, fingers catching on Steve's sensitive rim. Steve squeezes his eyes shut and his hands into fists, whimpering from the torrent of sensation. His ass clenches on nothing when it's emptied, but then, oh, then the blunt head of Pentecost's dick is pressing at him, inexorably forcing its way inside.

They groan in unison, loud and helpless. Jesus, the man is big; his dick is so thick, and Steve feels so full already, and it just keeps coming, fucking deeper and deeper inside him, until the small of his back starts to ache from unused muscles being strained. Steve has never had anything so big inside him, and he damn near writhes on Pentecost's length, clenching down reflexively.

"Look at you," Pentecost breathes, once Steve can feel his balls press to his perineum. "Taking that cock so good, you were made for this, soldier."

Something deep inside Steve shakes at the words. He's heard them before and ignored them, but something about the authority in Pentecost's voice makes them hit like punches to his gut. Steve feels like he was made for many things, but pleasure has never seemed to be one of them. Steve was made to fight, to resist, to punch Hitler in the face as many times as it took. He was made to take orders and represent the great country of America and give it all, give up everything, even himself, if it meant they would win.

He was not made to feel this good about anything not an abstract proposition. He was not made to be taken apart, to submit to something as useless as pleasure; or to crave someone's dick inside him, or to be in love with the feeling of belonging – to someone, some place, an idea not hand-picked for him. Yet here he is, and he has never felt so complete as when he brings another person to the heights of release, when his entire being is focused on being the perfect conduit for someone else's satisfaction.

It's too much for him to take. He chokes and sobs when his orgasm slams into him out of nowhere, wrecking his body and shorting out his brain. There is nothing but the thick, hot length filling him up, the hands holding onto his hips, keeping him in place with bruising strength. He feels emptied out when it's over, hollow and pure, as if a weight has been lifted from his chest that he hadn't known he was carrying.

"Holy fuck," Pentecost whispers, one of his hands letting go of Steve's hip to stroke down his back, digging his thumb gently into the knobs of his spine to ease the unconscious arch of it. "You all right?"

"'M good," Steve slurs. He feels drunk, head fuzzy but body warm and languid, sinking deeper into the couch cushions. "So good. Keep fucking me, sir. Fuck me 'til you come inside me."

Pentecost lets out a broken sound; Steve moans, desperately oversensitive, when Pentecost pulls back slowly and then slams back inside him, the side of his dick dragging against Steve's prostate. He's shaking, but he can't help it. It's overstimulation and need all rolled up in one; he wants to be fucked until he's wrecked, until he can't move from all his muscles going lax. Until he can't resist or fight anymore; until he's useless for anything but drifting, mind too drunk on sensation to think. Pentecost fucks him like he wants to break him, and it's so, so incredibly arousing, Steve doesn't know what to do with himself.

"No," Pentecost growls when Steve's insides start clenching again, a hint of how close he is to coming a second time. One of Pentecost's huge hands grabs the base of Steve's dick and squeezes, holding him trapped. "The first time was a fluke, I didn't know how hot for it you are, but you're not coming again before I say you can, soldier. Understand?"

Jesus. Steve honestly doesn't know if that's a promise he can make. He feels torn up already, like his control is a fleeting fancy.

"I asked if you understood the order, soldier," Pentecost says. He stops fucking Steve, dick pulled out until just the fat head holds Steve open. Steve whines, begging for it. He has never heard himself make a sound like that before. He can't believe he's getting paid to have someone wreck him so good.

"Y-yes, sir," he manages, desperately pulling his body back from the brink, trying to think of the least sexy things he can recall; and when that doesn't work, falling back on silently reciting every line of The Lord of the Rings that he can remember. All the while, Pentecost's dick drags in and out of him, making his skin break out in layer upon layer of fresh sweat until he's dripping onto Pentecost's couch, painting tracks over the back to go with the come stains he undoubtedly left all over it. It isn't long before Pentecost speeds up his thrusts, pushing inside as deep as he can go while his hands pull Steve's hips back to meet him.

"Yeah, sir, please, please give it to me, I want it so much," Steve babbles. He is never this vocal, and he has never said such filthy, ridiculous things to any of his previous clients, but there's something about Pentecost that makes him want to beg, keep at it until he gets what he needs.

"That pretty ass of yours," Pentecost rasps, closing in on Steve's level of desperation. "So open for me, you must work to keep it as tight as it feels, with how much cock you must be getting."

"I've never had anyone as big as you fuck me before, sir, I never thought I would love it so much," Steve slurs. He doesn't even know what he's saying anymore, just knows that he needs to come more than he needs to breathe.

"Oh, fuck," Pentecost yelps, voice going a full octave higher, and the next second, he has forced himself in as far as Steve's body will let him, and Steve can feel his dick jerking inside of him, letting go.

"Sir, please," he whimpers, and Pentecost changes his grip, strokes along Steve's dick nice and tight, fingers massaging Steve's head, and that's all Steve needs.

He shakes for real this time, knees buckling, and only the fact that he's pinned on Pentecost's dick keeps him from crashing to the floor. His arms give out, too, and he falls until his face is mashed in the seat cushions. He drags desperate gulps of air into his lungs, dick feeling sore from coming so much, for what feels like an hour straight. Pentecost pulls out carefully, but Steve still grunts when the flared head catches on the sore rim of his ass. He lies there for another few seconds before rousing himself enough to ask shakily, "Is it okay if I, I just need a moment." It's different when he does this with a guy; women almost always like to lie there touching for a little while after they come, but with men, it's anyone's guess whether cuddling is on the cards at all, or if they just want him to leave while they're still coming down.

Pentecost slides a hand along Steve's back, under his t-shirt. "Don't be stupid, of course it's okay," he says, still breathing hard.

He tugs Steve gently upright, steadies him when Steve wavers on his feet, then helps him out of his clothes and steers him into the bedroom. No bed has ever looked so inviting, and Steve wants to cry with gratitude when Pentecost lets him drop in a boneless sprawl over one side of it. Steve hears him move around, the rustle of clothes, and then Pentecost stretches out on his other side, as naked as Steve. Steve takes it as invitation, shuffles until he can lie over Pentecost's firm, warm chest, and sighs when he feels an arm wrap around his shoulders, holding him in place.

Several minutes later, once his brain has restarted itself, he notices the way Pentecost has curled his body around him, touching Steve from head to toe, nearly wrapping himself around Steve, skin pressing everywhere it can touch. Oh, Steve thinks, and shifts to push one thigh between Pentecost's, settles more heavily on top of him. Pentecost's other arm lifts, too, wrapping itself around Steve's waist.

Steve is not unfamiliar with the concept of being touch-starved. He knows that's what he used to be, that it played a big role in his choices at the start of all this. He knows how much it helps him settle into his own skin, to feel another person's body close to his, to be touched by another living being. He can't imagine someone like Pentecost would have too much opportunity to indulge in easy, unselfish skin contact, either. It just seems like another thing Steve can do to help him out.

"I looked you up," Pentecost says into Steve's hair some time later. "Your file says you're the grandson of Captain-America-Steve Rogers. But that's not the whole story, is it?"

Steve tries hard not to tense, but being plastered all over Pentecost like that, he isn't sure how successful he is. One of Pentecost's fingers trails over the chain of Steve's dog tags, and oh, fuck, he'd forgotten to take them off before he left his apartment. It probably fuelled Pentecost's fantasy to see them bouncing against Steve's chest, but it probably also gave him the chance for a good look, and Pentecost is better placed than anyone Steve has fucked to know what they mean.

Steve takes a deep breath. Sure, SHIELD made him sign that NDA, but he isn't exactly talking about it, is he?

"That's classified," he says carefully. He doesn't look up, isn't sure he can meet Pentecost's eyes.

But all Pentecost does is hum, low and deep, vibrations that crawl through Steve's skin and ache sweetly in his chest. A hand slides into Steve's hair, cradling the back of his head. Pentecost shifts under him, but before Steve can pull away, he feels the soft weight of a blanket settle over them both, cocooning in warmth.

"That's fine," Pentecost whispers into his forehead. A moment later, his lips press to the spot his breath brushed, lingering for longer than Steve would have expected. Steve's chest seizes a little, and he pushes his face into Pentecost's shoulder like he can hide from this strange tenderness that threatens to break him much more thoroughly than any amount of rough fucking can come close to.

The hand in his hair moves, and fingers start running through the strands. It's incredibly soothing. Steve could probably fall asleep like this, but he knows he should move, that he can't stay here. He has already compromised himself to an unacceptable degree. Phil would have kittens if he knew. Steve flexes his thigh, brushing experimentally against the pleasant weight of Pentecost's balls. Pentecost's breath hitches just a little bit, and Steve smirks against his chest.

Maybe he could just lie here until Pentecost is ready for round two. It's only providing the best service money can buy, and Steve is all about being good at his job.

Chapter Text

He doesn't know what it is about his encounter with 'call me Stacker, will you, Steve?', but in the coming months, Steve becomes even more attuned to the cadence of his clients' bodies. It's a shocking realisation, just how far a light, barely-there touch can go; how it makes certain people shudder and lean into him, pupils blown wide, every ounce of their being begging for more. He learns how to trail his hand over someone's arm just on the edge of awareness; how to tease a person's mouth until they're whining breathlessly for more. He lays one of his regular clients down on her bed and touches her back with slow, careful slides of his fingers, counting each vertebrae, tracing the wings of her shoulders, the swells of her hips. She is so wet when he reaches between her legs that his fingers come back glistening, and all it takes is approximately thirty seconds of his tongue sliding inside her for her to come screaming hard enough she bites her pillow to muffle the sound.

All through November, Steve isn't short on work. Just the opposite; in the run-up to Christmas, it seems like everyone wants him to take them to concerts and galleries and corporate parties. He starts to look forward to the odd night in, the chance to curl up on his couch with a book and a cup of tea spiced with vodka for warmth. He calls his friends more, too, misses them when he can't see them because of everyone's schedules filling up.

On the other hand, it's good to keep busy. It never quite stops him from thinking of other Christmases, being curled up with Bucky under a dozen blankets they'd bought with their meager savings, once Steve started getting jobs as an illustrator; of Christmas dinner made out of boiled potatoes and tiny pieces of turkey. Steve hadn't cared, as long as Bucky was with him. He'd known he would lose him to a wife soon enough, and he couldn't begrudge Bucky his happiness. He'd leave New York first.

He thinks of Bucky every time he spots a new blanket that he now has the money to buy a hundred times over. His apartment gains cushions and throws, as soft as Steve can find, thick and gorgeous to curl into on a cold night. After he goes to a party where the whole house is full of these amazing English candles that smell of fresh grass and a summer garden, Steve starts hunting them down, too, to the vast amusement of the women in his life who don't know he has only just realised they had these things in the twenty-first century.

Phil, on one of his rare visits to Steve's place, looks around at how it's started to fill up, and leaves with that little reassuring smile of his. A few days later, Steve receives delivery of a package of framed vintage New York photographs, and nestled between those, a candid of the Howlies somewhere in London, a lucky shot someone had captured of them all sitting around a table and laughing uproariously. Bucky is leaning into Steve's shoulder with his head tilted towards him, one of his old grins holding cockiness and genuine amusement that had come so scarcely after Steve found him again. Steve puts that one up in the living room, across from his favourite seat on the sofa.

A couple of weeks after that, he finds himself at a gathering thrown by the Mayor of New York to honor the city's leading art philanthropists, of whom Katya is one. It is held in one of the Met's big public galleries, kept open for the night. The walls are covered in modern art. Steve is a little bit in heaven, even if some pieces are flat-out incomprehensible to him. Maybe he should enrol in that Art History course at NYU that he'd been looking into. It'll keep his mind busy, if nothing else. Katya is chatting up some art dealer, leaning close and flirting shamelessly, so Steve considers himself free to indulge a little until she wants to dance.

(And she does like to dance. The first time she had asked, it had tripped Steve so much that he'd almost had an anxiety attack right there on the edges of the dance floor. So he'd bitten the bullet and taken a dance class, and then another. The impersonal professionalism of his teacher had been just the thing to get him over his hangups; and now, while he still sometimes feels like he's got two left feet, and there's a space between his arms that will never be filled, he can at least do his job and not embarrass his partner. So it goes.)

He is staring at a canvas featuring nothing more than a long thick vertical line and a circle off-centre to the left, and trying to mask his rising disbelief, when someone speaks at his shoulder.

"Remarkable, isn't it?" the lady says. Her voice is plum-rich and smooth like maple syrup, hitting just the right register to be beautiful to his ear. He turns to find a stunning strawberry-blonde woman examine the painting with the kind of focus reserved by most people for a sumptuous meal – or a person they would love to fuck.

"I'm afraid it has the better of me, ma'am," Steve says sheepishly. He can't understand what is so special about a line and a dot.

The woman's mobile mouth curls up a little, rendering it imminently kissable. "It's a commentary on the beauty of simplicity, the natural symmetry of minimalism in this crowded world. I like it precisely because it is so uncomplicated. I find the arrangement visually pleasing, and the particular hue of the colours themselves are a result of years of experimentation on the artist's part."

She doesn't sound like an art critic regurgitating someone else's ideas; rather, she is someone who knows her art extremely well, and even better what she likes. Steve finds that competence sexy - then again, he always has.

"Steve Rogers," he says, offering her his hand. She takes it in a firm grip, long fingers slim but belying her confidence. "Virginia Potts. I curate this exhibit."

Steve smiles. "That would explain your inspiring enthusiasm. Most of the pieces in this room make me feel like I need an art history degree just to look at them."

Ms Potts laughs, which Steve had hoped for – the last thing he wants to do is come across as some pretentious jerk. "I find that trusting my own inner aesthetic compass takes me further than any degree could – but I would say that. I do have a master's degree in art history."

Steve laughs, too, turning towards her more fully. She is wearing a silvery-green silk gown that showcases her creamy skin to perfection. Coupled with her bright blue eyes and red-tinged hair, she is an absolute knockout. Steve wonders why he hasn't met her before. He goes to enough of these things.

He says so, and watches her beam with the compliment.

"I work out of Los Angeles a lot of the time. My boss is a bit of a tyrant."

"Hey now," a man's voice says from their other side; Steve turns politely, and the floor drops out of the room.

He doesn't need Ms Potts' introduction to know who the man standing in front of him is. Time feels like it stretches into the distance, shaved into its smallest component parts. Steve takes in the hair, the goatee, the way the man stands, the breadth of his shoulders, that cocky, arrogant grin. It feels like yesterday when he last saw Howard sport a facsimile of it. This man's eyes are different, and so is the shape of his face – complements of his beautiful mother, Steve presumes, but his essence, his presence – that's pure Stark.

"A most definite pleasure to meet you," Tony Stark says, offering Steve his hand. He doesn't know who Steve is. Of course he doesn't; why should he? Howard might have never spoken of him, for all Steve knew. And even if he had, there is no reason at all to assume that he'd be here, seventy years out of his own timeline.

'Just breathe,' Steve reminds himself as his palm presses to Stark's. 'Be cool.'

"Mister Stark," Steve says. His voice sounds only a little shredded. That's the best he could hope for at the moment.

Tony Stark's eyes are just as sharp as his old man's, just as filled with staggering intelligence. Steve would not at all be surprised if Stark inherited his father's brain. His gaze rakes Steve from head to toe, lingering on his hair, his face, his shoulders.

"Why, Mister Rogers, you do look extraordinarily like an old fossil my father used to know."

Steve throws his head back, and laughs, and laughs. Ms Potts is glaring at Stark when Steve looks back at them, but Stark's eyes are still fixed unerringly on his face, like he wants to peel back a layer of skin and get right into Steve's blood, find the proof he needs that something is rotten in the state of New York.

"I suppose we both have famous progenitors," Steve returns mildly. "Captain Rogers was my grandfather."

Stark looks shocked and suspicious. Steve takes a deep breath and recentres himself, pushing all of his tumbling emotions back in the closet and slamming the door on them. He'll have time to deal with that mess later, when a Stark isn't staring him down and looking for the slightest gap to insert a crowbar.

"My father never mentioned that, and he knew everything there was to know about Rogers."

Steve sighs, heavy with irony. "I sincerely doubt that, Mister Stark," he says, as vacantly as he can make it. This is really not the time to bait the man – if a time like that ever exists. "In any case, I am told that my mother was a product of a surrogate and Captain Rogers' frozen semen."

Stark is still staring creepily at him, as if he could drill a hole right through with the power of his focus. Steve would not be shocked to find that is indeed the case.

"Hmm," is all Stark says, but it's so heavy with suspicion that Steve knows he needs to extract himself from the situation with all haste.

He looks over their shoulders, to find Katya looking back at him, one eyebrow rising in question when she sees she has Steve's attention.

"Excuse me. It was very nice meeting you both," Steve says, possibly a little stiffer than he would normally, but he cuts himself some slack. These are trying circumstances.

He makes his way back to Katya's side, feeling like the centre of his back is being dissected as he moves. It sets his skin crawling with awareness, but Katya wants to dance, so Steve lets muscle memory take over and swings her gently around the dance floor. She notices his distraction, but says nothing, and makes their excuses shortly afterwards, putting Steve into a taxi and sending him home despite his protests that this wasn't what she had specified for the evening.

"It's clear something's bothering you, Steve, and I know you won't tell me, so take the night. You'll make it up to me next time," she says, leaning in to press a kiss to his mouth before she slips inside the car waiting for her.

He is so, so lucky they get along so well. Katya knows him better than ninety-eight percent of his other clients, and Steve has been halving her fee for some time now, merely because he enjoys spending time with her. He doesn't know how he makes it to his apartment, but he finds himself standing in the middle of his living room, shaking so hard his knees fold under him. He is freezing cold despite having left the heat on, so he drags a blanket off the couch and wraps it around him, leaning back against the couch's side.

How had he not known about Howard's son? He had seen the name everywhere, in every store he has come across, but he had always thought it was shareholders running the company nowadays, after Howard's death. To find himself face to face with his son like that, it...

Steve can't think. His brain just refuses to process. Angry tears prickle his eyes, and for the first time in nearly a year, he wants to punch something so hard his fists ache with it.

What if the others are somewhere out there, too?

He drags himself upright and falls across the couch, pulling his laptop onto his legs. His fingers feel every moment of their age as he works them over the keys, typing in name after name. He has avoided doing this ever since he came back, terrified of the knowledge that they are all gone; the thought of them being somewhere out in the world, still, had been a safety blanket that he can't afford to hide under anymore.

Gabe Jones became a professor, and he had a grandson who works for SHIELD now. Peggy had a niece—has? There is no date of death on the article, and the not knowing makes Steve's heart feel like it's cracking down the middle. It's too painful to breathe, so he holds his breath for a while, until his chest starts burning with lack of oxygen instead of other things. Jim Morita had a huge sprawling family. The thought makes Steve smile, and it's only then that he realises his face is wet. Dum Dum never had children, but there is a chain of gyms and bars across America that bear his name. Dernier died some time ago, in France. Falsworth ascended to being the eighth Earl of Wessex before his death just two years ago. He had two children who are both gay, which should make it interesting for the next generation of the succession.

Steve pushes the laptop away and grabs his phone instead. He doesn't know what it says about his luck that Phil is stateside at the moment, but right now he doesn't give a shit. He makes the call.

"I need you to come over."

The silence on the other end has just time enough to grow heavy before Phil demands, "Are you all right?"

"Just get here, Phil," Steve snaps, terminating the connection. He stews in self-righteous fury until insistent knocking starts up on his door.

He yanks it open, jerking his head for Phil to get inside. Phil does as directed, looking Steve up and down for damage.

"What is it, what's happened?" Phil asks when Steve has closed the door and just stands there, staring at him. He looks rumpled and exhausted, the suit he has on probably yesterday's that he hasn't had the chance to hang up.

Steve doesn't care.

"I made an interesting acquaintance tonight," he says, deceptively mildly. "Goes by the name of Tony Stark." He waves one hand at the laptop sitting open on his coffee table, still displaying his search results. "I guess there are still a lot of things I don't know about this century."

Phil winces. For someone who guards his expressions so fiercely, it's as good as a big red warning flag.

"Steve," he starts, but Steve has had enough – enough of the lies, enough of the hits that just keep on coming at him, enough.

"How could you, Phil? How could you let me find out like this? You didn't think I could know this and not make an idiot of myself? What, you think I can't keep my mouth shut? Recognise 'classified' when I see it? I had to meet him in the middle of an event, in a crowded room with unclear exits, and I had to stand there and take it, pretend for Ms Potts and Stark and my—my—"

"Your date?" Phil prompts. He is probably trying to be helpful, but fuck, Steve doesn't need helpful right now. He needs someone to not lie to him anymore.

"Yeah, Phil, my date, who paid good money for me to escort her to this thing and take her home after and fuck her as thoroughly as she wants it, and I was fucking left standing there not knowing which way was up. You didn't think I deserved a chance to prepare? After everything you say, all that bullshit you sprout about this 'not being fair to me', just—do you even believe yourself?"

Phil's face has turned red and splotchy. His eyes bore into Steve's, asking for something Steve can't give. He barely feels it. He just wants to fold in half, wants to fucking disappear right now, wants to never have woken up at all.

"I'm sorry," Phil says at last. His voice is shaking. "I'm so sorry, Steve. I mishandled that. I knew I should tell you, I just—you were doing so well, there didn't seem to be a right moment to say, 'Oh, hey, by the way, Howard Stark;s son is thinking of moving back to New York from Los Angeles where he ran off to after his parents were killed in a car accident.'"

"There's never going to be a right moment for a conversation like that," Steve says roughly. His legs feel all shaky, so he staggers to the couch and sags onto the cushions, putting his face in his hands. "You still should've told me."

"I know," Phil says, from closer than Steve expected. He looks up through his fingers to find Phil hovering in front of him, one hand outstretched like he wants to touch Steve's shoulder but doesn't know if he's allowed. As Steve watches, it curls into a fist and drops back by his side.

"About the other thing," Phil adds. His voice has leveled out again, crisis of confidence evidently over. Steve wonders what other thing he means, before he replays his words and it's his turn to wince. Oh. Way to come out, Rogers.

He leans back into the sofa and looks up at Phil. In a way, it's a relief to have a focus for his roiling thoughts. "What about it?" he asks.

"Are you—is—you're okay with that?"

Steve feels his mouth curve in a grim little smile. "I'm doing it, Phil. When have you ever known me to do something I didn't want to?"

Phil nods. He isn't quite meeting Steve's eyes, but he isn't avoiding them, either. There isn't an ounce of pity anywhere Steve can see, and just for that, he feels like he could forgive Phil for a lot of the fuck-up.

Then Phil does look at him, and Steve's breath hitches at what he sees on his face.

"How much?" Phil asks.

Steve doesn't pretend to misunderstand. "Six hundred for up to three hours. Twelve hundred for the night."

Phil's eyebrows rise, and he looks around Steve's apartment like he's putting it together for the first time. "Who's doing your taxes?" he asks blandly, and oh, it's just too much. Steve gives up.

He laughs until he actually does cry, tears rolling down his cheeks even as he hiccups from amusement. It's just, his life right now. His life at all.

When he looks back at Phil's face, he's smiling. A little sheepishly, but he feels comfortable in his own skin again, and now that everything is out in the open, Steve allows himself to bring up the thoughts he had locked up tight and refused to examine for a while now.

"Why, you interested?" he asks. He's not talking about the taxes.

Phil looks back at him calmly. "I am," he says. He's not talking about the taxes, either.

Steve reaches out, snags the edge of Phil's jacket and slowly reels him in, giving him plenty of time and opportunity to break free. Phil goes without hesitation, stepping closer until he's standing between Steve's open legs.

"I want to be fucked, Phil. I want you to make me forget," Steve says quietly. Phil's eyes dilate until they're all pupil; his mouth drops open, and Steve watches his tongue trace over his lips, leaving them shiny and very tempting.

"I can do that," Phil says, and he looks wrecked, but his voice is still even, competent, and fuck, Steve trusts him. Heat pools in his gut, dripping down into his groin until his dick fills in his pants and his ass twitches in anticipation.

"Then we should get you into bed."

He pushes off the couch. Phil doesn't move back, crowding him a little despite Steve having at least two inches on him. It's unbearably hot.

"Lead the way," Phil tells him, an edge of authority colouring his tone, and wow, yeah. Steve does have the best ideas sometimes.

He leads Phil into his bedroom, shedding the jacket of his tux as he goes and leaving it to drop on the floor. His necktie follows, then his shirt, before he sits on the bed to watch Phil undress.

"Pants," Phil directs as he undoes his tie. Steve's stomach leaps, and he unzips and pushes his pants and underwear off together, stretching out over the sheets, head propped up on his pillow for a better view. He has never done this in his own bed, he realises. He never brings dates or clients back to his place, and the knowledge that it's Phil with him here, Phil who knows who he is, knows him better than anyone in this time, is shattering. The last of his walls crumble, and Steve lies there naked and open, no pretense left to hide behind, the need for this filling him up until he overflows.

Phil lets his pants drop at last, stepping out of them and prowling naked to stand at the foot of the bed.

"Like this?" he asks, gesturing to Steve on his back, dick jutting out between his legs to point straight at the ceiling.

"Please."

Phil braces one knee on the bed, crawling forward to muscle in between Steve's thighs that open to accommodate him.

"Look at you," Phil says, one hand stroking down Steve's side and over his stomach. He sounds dazed.

Steve curls one hand into Phil's hair and nudges him closer so he can catch Phil's lips in a deep, wet kiss. Phil groans into it, kissing him back thoroughly, exploring Steve's mouth with slow, languid thrusts of his tongue that have Steve pulling him closer to lie against his front. Phil's hard dick slides against Steve's balls, pressing firmly between Steve's cheeks. The noise that tears out of Steve's chest is so pleading, Steve would be embarrassed at any other time – but this is Phil. Phil, who knows him, but is still here with him, so, so careful with Steve like no one ever has been. Yet for all that caution, there is also the promise of giving Steve exactly what he needs, to the letter and a little bit beyond. Steve has never felt so vulnerable and so taken care of at once.

Phil's hands are everywhere, stroking over Steve's neck, down his shoulders, over his sides. Phil sets up a languid roll of his hips that makes his chest slide against Steve's, and Christ, all that muscle. Most of Steve's clients take care of their bodies, but Steve has rarely had the chance to sleep with someone conditioned as an active agent, whose body is his weapon. It makes Steve's skin prickle with sensation, notches the burn of arousal even higher.

"Condoms?" Phil asks as he trails his mouth down Steve's jaw, his neck, brushing his lips over one nipple. Steve throws his head back, panting. If Phil wants coherence and coordination out of him, he shouldn't be asking him questions while he's doing all of that. He reaches over to his bedside table, clumsily pulling open the drawer and taking out a bottle of lube and a roll of condoms, dropping them on the bed in easy reach of Phil's clever hands.

Phil wastes no time clicking the lube open to coat his fingers. He starts with one, too gentle by half. Steve roll his hips to let him know that isn't going to cut it.

"Be patient," Phil says, still in that mild, calm voice, and it makes Steve want to vibrate out of his skin with desire.

"Stop teasing me, then," he returns, and lets out a small whine when Phil's finger pulls out, only to be joined by a second. They slide deep inside him, twisting, stretching him out, before Phil crooks them and Steve's hips come off the bed, trying to get more of that spiky, twisty pleasure.

"So good for me," Phil murmurs, licking down Steve's stomach, inches away from where his dick sways, full and already dripping.

"Want you, want your dick inside me, come on, Phil."

Phil doesn't seem inclined to be rushed. He stretches Steve thoroughly, pushing inside him with three fingers, the end of a fourth teasing around the rim, as if preparing to push inside too, and it's driving Steve wild. Phil doesn't stop until there is barely any resistance around the slide as he thrusts into Steve, and Steve is sobbing and cursing him out and clenching his hands on the end of his headboard. When he pulls back and finally reaches for the condoms, Steve is wrecked and panting, head pressed back into the pillows, no words left in his mouth but begging Phil to get on with it, fuck him, please.

Phil pushes one of Steve's legs up into a deep stretch that he knows Steve can take because he knows just how religiously Steve attends his yoga classes. The little hint of familiarity coils the tangle of need inside him even tighter. When the blunt head of Phil's dick breaches him at last, Steve can't hold back a heartfelt "Thank God," desperate to be taken, filled, fucking ripped apart. Phil isn't slow when he pushes in. He knows Steve's limits instinctively, it seems, and it's just a deep, inexorable slide in until his thighs press against Steve's ass and Steve can feel all of him inside, holding him open so good.

"Come on, Phil, come on, fuck me, take me," Steve begs, and Phil's face twists into naked lust before he surges up both to kiss Steve breathless and finally fuck him like Steve wants it.

It isn't pretty, and it doesn't last long, but it feels so fucking fantastic, so satisfying deep in his bones, that Steve's orgasm leaves him ravaged and loose, making these little achey sounds as Phil fucks him through it and into the edge of oversensitivity before he slams himself inside one last time and lets himself come. He collapses onto Steve's chest, breathing harsh and damp against his skin. He's still buried deep inside; Steve doesn't want him to pull out, maybe not for another hour. He feels so good like this, broken edges smoothing back together, glued with both of their sweat and come, the way Phil clings to him still.

But all good things must come to an end – or at least, mutate into something different, maybe just as good. Phil pulls out to get rid of the condom, and they shuffle a little until Phil pins Steve down with an arm and a leg, half-lying on top of him, weighing Steve deliciously into the mattress. The curl of Phil's body into his is something Steve recognises, has learned to look for. He tucks himself around him, tracing one of his hands over Phil's back, letting him revel in the touch. Phil shudders and presses closer, face buried in Steve's neck.

"Was this what you wanted?" he asks quietly, sucking a languid bruise into Steve's neck that makes his toes curl.

"It was exactly what I wanted," Steve confirms. He isn't planning on moving for the rest of the night.

Phil hums, nails scratching lightly over Steve's side, just hard enough not to tickle. "I don't have enough cash on me. Will a wire transfer do?"

Steve lifts his head to stare at Phil incredulously. "I'm not taking your money. If anything, I should be paying you. This wasn't about what you needed at all."

Phil snorts a laugh, adding teeth to the mix over the bruise that must be rising nicely over Steve's skin. "If you think I got nothing out of this, think again, buddy."

Steve laughs too, delighting in how easy this is, how comfortable he feels lying here with Phil in his arms. Maybe he has been avoiding this kind of companionship so long for nothing.

"Yeah, well. I aim to please."

Phil's lashes tickle his throat as Phil rolls his eyes.

"Always so dramatic," Phil murmurs, and it startles a laugh out of Steve for real.

"That's what Peggy used to say," he says wistfully.

Above him, Phil stills. "About that," he says.

Steve can't help but tense. Phil strokes his wrist in apology. "I don't want to lie to you anymore, Steve. Contrary to what you might think, it's exhausting, and it doesn't give me pleasure. Agent Carter is alive. She is housed in a care facility in Washington DC. She is not well," he cautions. As if Steve wouldn't have known that, for how old she is now. "Her memory is slowly going, but she still has lucid days. They take excellent care of her there. I'll email you the address."

Steve doesn't want to cry. Not about Peggy, not for what he might have lost. She has lived a good life, and he is proud of her for letting herself be happy. He never would have wanted her to pine for him. But still, the ceiling of his bedroom blurs, and his breath hitches a little.

"Thank you," he manages when Phil pulls back to look at him. Phil traces the thin skin under Steve's eyes with his thumb, brushing the moisture away.

"You're welcome," he whispers, and doesn't try to stop Steve from drawing him into another kiss - this one of comfort given and received.

Chapter Text

It isn't a thing. It was never going to be a thing – Phil has his work and Steve has his clients, the life he clawed back for himself from the rubble. But Phil touches him more when they meet up, and every now and again, they find themselves back in Steve's bed, just their bodies sliding together sometimes, going at it as hard as Steve can take at others – and Steve can take a lot. It's good. Satisfying in a way his escort business can't hope to reach, because none of these other people really know him.

But it's good. And when, after one of the times involving a bed, Phil opens his mouth and starts talking – really talking, no fall-backs, no codenames, just laying it out there for Steve to do what he wants with, it gets even better. Steve knows full well that there's no one else Phil can talk with like this, and he doesn't mind being a kind of release for him in other ways than just sex. One time, when Phil comes over strung half out of his skin because a certain marksman hasn't been in touch for a whole day out of schedule, and Fury had ordered him out of the office or he'd lock him up in a holding cell himself, Steve lets Phil tie his hands and his feet and edge the fuck out of him, trying to give him back some of his much-needed control. And when Phil has to leave halfway through their fuck, because of a phone call he started with, "Goddamn it, Barton, where the hell have you been?", Steve makes sure to waggle his eyebrows and tell him in no uncertain terms that he expects to hear the whole story next time they see each other.

Christmas comes and goes, and Steve keeps going with it. He meets Stacker again, at another UN-hosted party, and any worry he might have had over his reaction disappears when Stacker draws him aside and asks if Steve maybe wants to hold him down this time. Steve definitely wants, and it's just as incredible as it was the last. It's reassuring, to know that some things don't change, even when everything else around him seems to be spinning on and on through space, taking Steve along for the ride.

Seeing Peggy is--

He can't talk about it. It's good, but it isn't, but it is, and it's too much for him to make sense of, so he places it gently aside, accepting it for what it is, and trying not to dwell on the myriad might-have-beens threatening around every corner. It is what it is.

He doesn't meet Tony Stark again until after the whole Iron Man fiasco. The guy's ego is even healthier than his father's, not that that's an observation Steve can make to anyone but Phil, who came out of that op spitting mad and yet somehow fond of Stark in a way that makes his face take on a hilariously disgruntled expression every time Steve mentions it. Steve, of course, makes sure to do that every-so-often, because he's an asshole and it's funny, how the Stark men can still wrap pretty much everyone around their little fingers even when they aren't trying. It must be some inbred pathogen they spread; or it could be that they're good men trying to do their best in a flawed world which they'd helped make that way.

It's by accident, in that Steve had not planned this at all. He is, however, definitely planning to accidentally-on-purpose 'lose' his current client's contact details. Steve rarely takes on clients he doesn't know anymore, but the man had said Katya gave him Steve's number, and by the time Katya had called to apologise and warn him not to take the job and that Justin Hammer was a dickhead who eavesdropped on other people's conversations, Steve had already agreed to accompany the man to some pretentious upscale shindig.

So here he is, on a yacht in the middle of New York Bay, rueing his shitty luck. Hammer is the kind of disrespectful creep to grope his date in public and brag about his wealth to other bored-looking socialites. Thank God this is an escort-only arrangement. Steve honestly doesn't think he could bring himself to sleep with the man, and letting Hammer fuck him is entirely out of the question.

"You look bored," a vaguely familiar voice purrs in Steve's ear. "Also, borderline-homicidal. I know Anna-Lee's parties are awful, but surely our hostess has supplied at least a drink to help endure this horror?"

Steve half-turns, the corner of his mouth hitching despite himself when Tony Stark steps into his space and grins up at him.

"Mister Stark," Steve says dryly.

"Mister Rogers. Or was that Sergeant?"

Message received. Stark is like a bulldog with a bone.

"Not anymore," Steve says, taking a drink to chase the taste of those words from his mouth.

"Bad break-up? How predictably short-sighted of the US Army to cut loose a PR asset like yourself."

"Yeah, well. I'm afraid I've got two left feet when dancing to tunes not to my liking."

Stark throws back his head in a deep, viscerally attractive laugh.

"Mm. Join the club, dear. We fellow dancing monkeys should stick together."

"I couldn't possibly compete with your explosive exit from that show, Mister Stark."

Stark grins again. All that's missing is the forked tongue to complete the picture of debonair, too-charming-by-half bastard that Stark paints so well.

"Oh, it's definitely Tony to you," Tony drawls, clinking his glass to Steve's before draining it.

"Steve, then," Steve concedes, following suit. He winces a second later as Hammer's braying laughter reaches them from across the room. He catches Tony making a face, too.

"What a douche," Tony mutters. "At least when I act like everyone is hanging on my every word, it's usually true."

Steve sends him an arch look. Tony glances at his face and dissolves into laughter again, just as richly seductive as the first time. Howard used to be the same; he could find humour in even the most dire situation. It's one of the things Steve liked best about him.

"Man, that judgy look is a piece of art," Tony manages on the end of another giggle, wiping a theatrical finger across the corner of his eye. "I need to make it my lock screen, lord knows it'll be accurate ninety percent of the time."

"It's not my night for throwing stones," Steve confesses. "My own judgement has been well below par."

Tony turns to him curiously as Hammer's voice rises high enough for most of the room to turn.

"Steven? Steven, come here, you simply must meet Miss Chaney – oh, it's Cheney? Whatever, either way."

Steve tries really hard not to cringe, but he feels his skin flush and knows he must look tellingly blotchy. Tony gives him the most appalled look Steve has ever been on the receiving end of. Not even Sarah Rogers could have bettered it.

"You're here with Hammer?" Tony demands incredulously.

Steve gives in and winces. "Refer to my statement on glass houses," he advises, looking around like a way off this ridiculous vessel will just fall into his lap, tied prettily with a bow. "Definitely a client I will not be taking on again."

"Client, huh?" Tony murmurs, those pretty brown eyes growing half-lidded.

Steve shrugs. "Guy's gotta make a living."

"And what a living you must make. Better get yourself a corporate accountant; I can recommend a firm I outsource, they'll save you a fortune in taxes."

"Seriously, why is everyone giving me tax advice all of a sudden?" Steve huffs, lifting another glass of champagne off a passing waiter's tray. He might as well, and this stuff doesn't taste half-bad. "I've been doing this for a year already."

"I wonder," Tony drawls meaningfully, looking him up and down with this slow, heavy gaze that has Steve's skin starting to buzz. "Hey, since you don't seem too enamoured of Justin fucking Hammer, which, by the way, showcases your excellent taste, how'd you feel about getting out of here?"

"We're on a boat, Tony," Steve points out reasonably.

"Yeah, uh huh. And how d'you think I got here, kid?"

'Kid.' Jesus. This Stark is something else.

"One, don't call me 'kid'. And two, I assume it's something suitably flashy and high-tech."

"Right on both counts," Tony says agreeably, taking the glass out of Steve's hand and throwing back the last swallow, the long column of his throat bared to Steve's appreciative gaze. "So? Wanna go on an adventure?"

Steve looks at him, makes himself take a moment to really think through his answer, rather than jump in head-first like he always does. …Oh, who is he kidding? The man's a Stark; and besides, Phil likes him.

"Sure," Steve says, letting out the smile that has been wanting to escape all this while.

Tony winks devilishly. The next second, he grabs Steve's wrist and spins him in the other direction, the two of them sprinting away like excited children, helter-skelter towards the empty deck on the other side of the party. Tony skids to a stop outside a closed set of doors to what looks like a supply cupboard; he sends Steve a conspiratorial look and throws them open to reveal—

"Damn, that's one pretty lady."

It's stunning, all red and gold metal glinting in the dim light. Shadows dip around its curves; it looks dormant like this, sleeping – or waiting.

"You trust me?" Tony says, mouth quirked in a smile.

Steve barks a laugh. "Hell no," he says, but his blood is singing, and he feels alive in a way no orgasm can give him. "You gonna fly us out of here, Stark?"

"You know it, baby." He doesn't seem to have taken Steve's rejection to heart – probably because he knows Steve is very far from saying no to this offer (or any other, if Steve's honest). "Wanna go for a ride?"

Does he.

Tony must read his answer in his face, because that cocky grin is back, and it brought friends. "Light 'em up, JARVIS," he instructs.

The suit spreads open, and Tony climbs inside without hesitation. Steve watches as the armour closes around him from his limbs to his chest, the faceplate coming down last over Tony's elated expression. "Come on up, kid. I won't drop you, I promise."

Steve rolls his eyes, but goes as directed, stepping on Tony's feet and shuddering when those unyielding arms wrap around him. This way, he is face to face with Iron Man, looking straight into the gleaming blue eyes. His face feels tight, and Steve realizes he is grinning hard enough that his jaw aches.

"By Jove, I think he likes it," Tony muses. His voice is distorted by the suit, and just for a moment, Steve feels like he's falling anyway, arousal spiking through his chest and earthing itself in his groin.

"We gonna stand around chatting all night, or are you gonna put your money where your mouth is?" Steve asks. His eyebrows lift to a precisely calculated angle, and he could swear Iron Man's eyes narrow.

"Why, you little shit - I don't have to take this kind of sass," Iron Man rumbles. The voice modulator pretty much neutralizes normal inflection, but Steve has an inkling that under the faceplate, Tony is smiling. "Hold on tight."

Steve's entire body vibrates when the engines of the suit catch and they lift off the deck with a jerk.

"Christ, you're heavy," Iron Man grumbles, dipping back and forth as he balances them both.

Steve smirks. "Had a big lunch. Figured I won't get fed at this shindig."

"You hungry?" Iron Man asks while they arch over the water and head back to New York.

Frankly, Steve is too busy whooping his head off to respond. This, sweet Jesus, this is fucking amazing. He feels weightless, faster than light; he feels like his old self, and his left arm itches for the straps of the shield, fingers twitching in their hold on Iron Man's shoulder. Damn, he hadn't realized how much he was missing it, or the adrenaline rush of doing something so stupid and reckless. He could kiss Tony just for giving that back to him.

"This is incredible," he says, and maybe he sounds a little awed, but he can't help it. This thing – the suit, the flight – it's, yeah, incredible.

"Glad to be of service," Iron Man says, before accelerating with a burst of flame from his feet.

Steve may be yelling again. He's not admitting to anything.

New York stretches under and around them, tall buildings all lit up for the night, cars rushing and honking through the streets, the ever-present pulse of the city cocooning them in the indelible feeling of coming home. Steve doesn't know where to look first, craning his neck this way and that, and when Tony twists them so that Steve is on top of him looking down, Steve honestly doesn't remember a single moment since he woke up in this time when has felt more himself than now. For a brief second, he wonders if Howard had ever imagined this future. If he could have foreseen what his son was capable of, what he would become. He would have been proud as hell.

Tony takes them in a big, meandering circle through the city grid. Steve drinks it in, high off the adrenaline rush and the beauty of it all. He wants so badly to try and capture this with his paints, or maybe have a go at recreating it on a tablet. Digital art seems more fitting to this mad tangle of lights and reflections glowing in the night. After a time that Steve hadn't noticed passing, they alight on the top of Stark Tower, that hideous blot on the landscape that Steve suspects Tony is ridiculously proud of. Tony hovers and drops him gently onto the tiles before landing himself, strutting towards the floor-to-ceiling doors on the terrace that swing open at his approach.

"Good evening, Sir," a cultured male voice greets them. The British accent feels to Steve like the soft fur of a cat rubbing along his ankles. "I see you have company."

"Sergeant Steve Rogers, this is JARVIS, my AI butler."

"Oh," Steve breathes, impressed. "Pleasure to meet you, Mister Jarvis."

"Just JARVIS is fine, sir. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance also. If I may be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to ask."

"Thank you, Jarvis."

"Gosh, this is awfully polite and well-mannered," Tony says once he climbs out of the suit and heads for the bar that spans the far end of the room.

"Something you could benefit from hearing more often, Sir," Jarvis says evenly.

Steve laughs, delighted. Tony built himself an AI that sasses him back. Of course he did.

"I like him," he declares.

Tony looks at him over his shoulder. "You would," he says, amused. "Hey, JARVIS, order us some food from that place, you know the one. Go to town, Steve hasn't eaten since lunch."

"Of course, Sir," Jarvis says over Steve's feeble protests. He really is starved, he should have eaten more before he left for the party but his life drawing class was running late. "Any food allergies, intolerance, or preferences?"

"I pretty much eat what's put in front of me," Steve admits.

Tony turns and brings him a glass of first-class bourbon, going by the scent rising from the beautiful caramel liquid. "Good to know," he says. He isn't looking at Steve's eyes – seems in fact rather focused on Steve's mouth. Steve brings the glass to his lips and takes a slow sip, eyes on Tony's face all the while, so he doesn't miss the quick dart of Tony's tongue over his lower lip.

"So, Tony," Steve says, pointedly looking around. "Here we are in your eight-figure penthouse condo, with at least an hour to kill before you can buy me dinner. How do you propose to entertain me?"

Tony's eyes sparkle with the challenge Steve absolutely intended.

"Well, that gives us either too much time or not nearly enough." Oh, but Steve likes that cocky grin more than he should. "Besides, I'm betting you're not that kinda girl."

Steve lets his mouth quirk. "I don't know about that. I can be any kinda girl you like, under the right circumstances."

He's surprised by just how much he enjoys Tony's answering laugh, loud and spluttering like it's knocked out of him.

"Of that I have no doubt," Tony tells him, cheeks flushed and something unguarded in his face. He gestures towards the low cluster of seats in the middle of the living space as he sprawls along one end of it, watching expectantly as Steve lowers himself into a spot at the other corner. It's comfortable to the point of hedonism, the material hugging his body and cushioning him into a position Steve could relax in for hours.

"I think this is the best thing I've ever sat on," Steve says, rolling his eyes at the way Tony's face lights up. "Yeah, okay," he says, making a beckoning motion with his hand. He laid himself wide open with that one.

But, "High praise indeed, coming from you," is all Tony says, winking with a wicked grin. "You must get around."

Once again, Steve stills, searching Tony's face for any inkling of something ugly that would spoil the favourable impression. And again, it's just not there. Tony's teasing him, sure, but it's all in good humour, honest and welcoming Steve to join in.

"Some," Steve concedes wryly. "Though, rarely in so swanky a place. You do well for yourself, huh."

Tony snorts, tipping his glass at Steve. "You could say that."

"Mhm. Considering that's an original Lichtenstein, and over there you've got a Leonardo drawing sitting in plain sight, your attempt at modesty is dead in the water."

Tony grins sharply enough that Steve has a hunch plenty of people get cut on that smile, egos punctured with surgical precision.

"Art should be allowed to breathe," Tony says. "Be a part of people's lives. Otherwise what's the point of it, stuck behind a six-inch-thick vault door?"

It's funny, how it's those words that have Steve's insides resonating like a tuning fork. Okay, sure, Tony is an arrogant bastard in the best Stark tradition, cocky and irreverent and more than a bit of an ass; but there is a core of authenticity inside him that blazes through if people just pay enough notice. Steve doesn't know if Tony's always been like this, or if the advent of Iron Man changed him, but this man Steve knows he can call a friend if he wanted to.

"I wish I'd met your mother," comes tumbling out of his mouth, shattering the mellow mood. He stares at Tony wide-eyed and horrified at himself. It's one thing to wonder how Maria must have tempered Howard's rough edges, and quite another to blurt that to her son, whom Steve barely knows and has no right to question. He watches as Tony's face arranges itself into an unreadable contraction, yet his eyes remain surprisingly clear.

"You'd have been lucky," Tony says in the end, voice unexpectedly warm. "She was one hell of a classy lady."

Steve just nods, looking down, afraid to open his mouth because of what fresh hell might trip out. He searches desperately for a change of subject, sure that his immediate future includes a polite dismissal and an offer to call him a taxi, and strangely reluctant for the evening to end. Instead, Tony asks if Steve follows baseball, and has JARVIS switch on the Red Sox vs. Dodgers game.

Steve is sitting in a sixty-million-dollar penthouse with his tuxedo shirt's sleeves rolled up, opposite Anthony Stark, watching baseball and eating his weight in freshly-grilled buffalo wings. His life is… difficult to explain. Yet Steve feels a thousand times more relaxed than he had earlier in the evening, swirling his beer and arguing with Tony over pitcher stats while Tony growls and pulls up a transparent work board he quickly fills with equations drawn with a stylus he digs out from under a couch cushion.

'How do you know so much about baseball stats if you hate the sport?" Steve grumbles, annoyed at Tony's loud allegations of superiority.

Tony shrugs, finishing an equation with a flourish and tossing the stylus away. "It's all math, isn't it? I spoke fluent math when I was three years old. This is just Sudoku for geniuses."

"Always nice to see you keeping humble, Sir," JARVIS says. Steve just about manages to stifle a snort. Tony might insist that JARVIS has no facilities for vocal inflections, but Steve calls bullshit. Any thinking system Tony Stark designs will have whatever facilities it damn well pleases to give itself.

"It's not bragging if it's the truth," Tony says reasonably. Steve can see the corner of his mouth twitching. It's incredibly endearing, how Tony treats JARVIS the same way he does everyone else – or, at least, the people he likes. Of which group, Steve somehow appears to be a member. He'd be a liar if he said he didn’t like it, probably much more than is safe.

"Sudoku?" Steve asks, derailing the comfortable bickering he can see coming a mile off.

Tony looks at him like he's grown two heads. "Uh, yes? The numbers thing?"

Without prompting, JARVIS minimises Tony's scribbles and pulls up a grid populated with stray numbers across several lines. Steve squints at it.

"I don't get it," he admits.

"How can you not have heard of Sudoku?" Tony demands, eyebrows up near his hairline. "Have you been living in a cave the past decade?"

"Actually…" Steve drawls, smirking.

Tony rolls his eyes, but he's fighting a grin. "You military types are a hazard to my health," he declares, stuffing several fries smothered in ketchup in his mouth. His eyes twinkle when they catch Steve's, like he knows that Steve is calling him a giant hypocrite in his head and is inviting him to share the joke. He is a very strange man, but the truth is, Steve can't remember the last time he was so entertained, and so… intrigued. Damn Starks and their everything.

"You're the one who invited me to dinner," Steve reminds him mildly, taking a sip of his beer without looking away, so he doesn't miss the way Tony's eyes flick over him, dark and considering.

"I did, didn't I," Tony muses. His gaze is speculative where it rests on Steve, lingering on his bare forearms and spread knees. Steve fights the urge to shift nervously, settling back into the couch instead and letting Tony look his fill. He likes the way Tony isn't shy to look, or to ask for what he wants. The silence stretches, neither of them compelled to break it, content to sip their drinks while the inning winds down.

Once the game is over, though, Steve reluctantly sets his empty bottle on the table between them and pushes to his feet.

"I should go," he says, patting his pockets for his keys and phone and picking up his jacket off the back of the couch. "Thank you for... a wonderful evening." He smiles at Tony, who has also risen like the polite host he's emulating.

"You are most welcome," Tony replies, sticking his hands in the pockets of his pants. With his white shirt open at the collar and his sleeves rolled up, he looks the epitome of effortless chic. His hair is still windblown; his goatee gives off a mischievous impression, hinting at the fun they could have together. Steve is still hopeful that something along those lines is on the cards. Tony clearly likes the look of him, and Steve would be lying if he said he wasn't ready to go to his knees for him at the slightest excuse.

"I had fun," Tony adds after a long moment of sizing Steve up. "So much so, I' love to do it again. You free on Wednesday? There's a dinner I have to attend, and having you there would make it several magnitudes more enjoyable. You can charge me your usual rate."

Steve lifts an eyebrow. Tony lifts one back. A challenge then; or a test. Steve just about manages to hold back his eyeroll. Geniuses are always such drama queens. Is this how Phil feels all the time?

"Should I book my evening, or the night?"

Tony grins, shark-like. "What if I said the night?"

"Then I'd better put on my fancy underpants."

Tony throws back his head and laughs, sounding thrilled.

"It's a date," he says, clapping his hands. "JARVIS, mail him the details. Pick you up at seven?"

"Sure. Should I mail you back my address, or should I just not bother?" Steve asks wryly, flicking a glance at the still-glowing screen.

Tony smirks, smug and pleased as pie. "You know me so well already, Sergeant," he says, batting his really very pretty eyelashes.

Steve only lets his smile break free once he's turned to head for the door.

"It's been a pleasure, Sergeant Rogers," JARVIS says when the elevator doors swish open. Steve flatters himself with the inkling that the computer means it.

"Likewise, JARVIS," Steve replies, folding his hands behind his back into a loose parade rest by force of habit. "Tony."

"Steven," Tony echoes, one corner of his mouth quirking in a teasing half-smile. Gosh, he has such a nice voice. Low and warm and full of a gentle fondness that Steve isn't sure he has earned as yet, but plans to run away with regardless.

Yeah. Hanging out with Tony Stark will be no hardship at all.

Chapter Text

Yeah. Hanging out with Tony Stark will be no hardship at all.

Which is not to say that Steve mopes around languishing and waiting for Wednesday, because hah, no. He models on Saturday, cleans the apartment on Sunday, then spends the day on Monday with his nose in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, switching venues between Laura's café, the local park, and his own couch each time his ass falls asleep. He is completely enchanted by the world Susanna Clarke has created, charmed by the sprawling footnotes telling another story by themselves, and captivated by the characters. It makes for addictive reading, and he has been stopped no less than four times by people who want to talk to him about the book and make a show of hissing and teasing him about what's to come when he tells them how far into it he is. His little notebook has been making a frequent appearance as Steve jots down things he wants to look up and recommendations he gets from the other fans about books he might want to try next.

On Tuesday, he goes to yoga, and then hangs out with a few people from his class who have taken to going for coffee afterwards. Milla and Joseph sit across from him at the café, and Steve listens in while they chat about a store that sells lovely home comforts – thick blankets, nice-smelling candles, rugs, cushions, all the wonderful things that have become such a comfort to Steve himself. He makes them program the address into his phone's google maps and saves the location. He's going there next weekend for sure. The Other Stephen asks if Steve wants to go catch a movie with him, Yingtai, Bob and a couple of their other friends. Steve eyes him suspiciously – Stephen has been known on more than one occasion to try and set him up with one of Bob's friends – but Stephen looks so hopeful that Steve has to sigh and agree. If nothing else, it'll be a nice way to spend an afternoon, and he's been meaning to talk to Yingtai about maybe taking part in a more challenging yoga session, if she can recommend one. Steve feels that he has advanced enough now to want to push himself further. It's a familiar feeling, but not one that has had occasion to appear for longer than Steve wants to admit. He has been coasting, he knows that. He has let the current take him, and while that was exactly what he needed back in the spring, now it feels like settling; like giving up.

Steve is not now, nor has he ever been, the giving-up type. So maybe it's time to push forward. The escort thing is fun, and it sure rakes in the cash, but it's… too easy. A cop-out. Something he'd fallen into when he'd been angry at the world and looking for anything to funnel his rebellion. He's made some good friends through it, is the surprising part – he knows that Katya and Stacker and, yes, Tony too, will remain in his address book for as long as they want to be there. But, he also knows, it's time to try something new.

Hell, maybe he will go back to school. It's not like he doesn't have the money to pay for classes, and being an artist and a soldier are the only two things he understands on a level that seems written out on his ribs, etched into his femurs and radii, buzzing through his phalanges.

He has done a lot of jobs in his life. More than any one person gets through in a lifetime. The army drilled into him how to kill, but it also taught him strategy, and leadership, and people, both inside and out. In the depths of besieged Europe, there had been absolutely no option to drag a medic around with them; so Steve had taken it upon himself to read up on basic field medicine. He already knew muscles and bones from the books he used to devour for his art; but in France, he learned to stitch together skin slit open by a well-tended blade; and in Poland, he learned to immobilize and splint a leg; and in Italy, he learned that knowing that head wounds bleed like seven kinds of hell is not the same as seeing Falsworth's head leaking enough blood to fill half of his body.

And before; in that nebulous time before Steve became Captain Rogers, there was the stacking of shelves, and library work whenever he could get it, and drawing for anyone who'd hire him. There was the reading of letters for elderly neighbours, and thinking up stories to write to Bucky while he was in Basic, to keep his spirits up and try to not let on how desperately Steve missed him. There were the hours Steve spent ransacking the library's law section when a smarmy bastard tried to kick out the tenants of their apartment block on some flimsy pretext in order to knock the building down and build on top of it.

The point is, Steve doesn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer. He doesn't have the imagination to be a writer, for all that he loves reading. Modelling is a no-go, even if it wasn't something that would bore him to tears within the week, and working at a store… He'd have to deal with people all the time. Sometimes, Steve isn't sure he can deal with himself in his head, let alone anyone else he'd be paid to fawn over.

Maybe he could go into private security. He'd have to make his clients sign papers to do what he tells them, when he tells them, but it's a legitimate option. He wonders if he can bribe Phil away from SHIELD to set up shop together if he gave him the option to bring along his favourite agents. It wouldn't be a long shot, right? Sergeant Rogers, ex-Army, private security? Plenty of former soldiers did it. Steve could even hire vets. Stacker could consult him (and boy, would he do a thorough job of that).

Steve yanks his thoughts back from whence they had wandered. Getting hard in a public place is not something he wants to have to deal with. But the seed of the idea has been planted. Idleness is not something Steve is made for, and while his days have been full of late, it's the times in between, when he catches himself staring out of his living room windows and wondering if running thirty extra miles is a viable option for the afternoon, that Steve wants to eliminate if at all possible.

He knows he isn't okay. He couldn't admit it before, couldn't bear to acknowledge just how fucked up everything was, just how desolate and desperately lost he had been when they dragged him out of the ice. Maybe it's because he's doing better now, that he can allow himself the understanding of what it means that he can distinguish his current state of mind as being 'better' when compared to before.

So, in the spirit of not settling without at least trying for the things he wants, he goes home after the café and pulls out his swankiest suit, hanging it up on the door of his wardrobe in preparation to be put on tomorrow evening. He also checks that his white shirt is sparkling clean, and that his diamond-patterned navy blue tie and matching pocket square are perfectly ironed. He has a challenge to rise to, the thought of which brings a pleasant tingle to his belly. He experiences the strange realization that Tony might be one of the very few people alive that would understand Steve even if he was still Captain America. That if Tony knew, he wouldn't look at Steve any differently than he does Sergeant Rogers. More than most, Tony would understand what it's like, having a world-famous alter ego that isn't necessarily everything you are, and that brings with it more responsibilities than perks.

Come Wednesday, he can't settle no matter how much he berates his brain to give him a break and not treat this single date like the be-all, end-all. Sure, Tony is really, really very attractive, and he's funny, and Steve enjoyed himself hugely the other night. But he's also Tony Stark, and maybe Steve is misremembering things about their last interaction. Maybe Tony wasn't as intrigued by him as Steve imagined (hoped). Maybe Tony has changed his mind. Maybe Tony will be all Asshole, Esq. tonight and Steve will want to murder him and never see him again.

Maybe Steve should shut up and do something to take his mind off what's to come that evening. He cues up all the episodes of MasterChef season 4 that he has yet to watch and settles on his sofa with his arms crossed and his business face on.

Halfway through episode six, he gives in and dials Phil.

"What if I just ran away to Japan to become a sushi chef," he demands.

On the other end of the line, there is silence for a long beat, along with the muffled sound of something being put down and then a noise suspiciously like Phil trying to kick someone out of the room and them not budging.

"I think flying commercial will drive you up the wall," Phil says measuredly. "But we could make it work, if you had your heart set on it."

Steve sighs. "Nah. You're right, sixteen hours on a plane full of people will result in me jumping out without a 'chute somewhere over Bering Sea, and neither of us wants you to have to fish me out of that part of the world again."

Phil hums noncommittally. "Does it have to be Japan? If you wanted to learn to cook, I can't recommend Italy enough."

Howard Stark's parents were first-wave Italian immigrants.

"I don't really think cooking is for me," Steve admits mournfully. "Too many sharp implements to test my control when I want to murder a diner for sending back his steak because it's well-done and he wanted to see a trickle of blood when he pressed his fork into it."

"I always thought I would go into culinary school, if I hadn't made agent," Phil muses. In the background, Steve hears a distinctive choking noise. Phil has company, and he doesn't mind if they hear him talking to Steve. How very interesting.

"You'd be magic in the kitchen," Steve says loyally.

"Hmm," Phil says. "Can I ask what's brought this on?"

Yikes. Does Steve come clean about seeing Tony again? Can he take another of Phil's rants right now, amusing as they always are?

On second thought, Steve does have an afternoon to waste.

"Going out to dinner tonight with a high-profile client and I'm nervous for some reason. Someone you know, actually."

"Oh yes? If you tell me who, we can brainstorm how to make them dance to your tune," Phil says eagerly. He loves these little games.

It makes Steve grin evilly in anticipation. Whatever, there's no one around to see him. He's a terrible person, but he settles back into his couch, puts his feet up on the coffee table, and says, "Fella by the name of Tony Stark."

The sharply indrawn breath on the other side of the line makes Steve bite his lips together so as not to giggle. God, he loves baiting Phil. Best entertainment, hands-down.

"Tony Stark hired you to go to a corporate dinner with him." Phil's voice is hilariously close to that time there was a threat on New York City and he went DEFCON 1 while still in bed with Steve.

"Yep," Steve says cheerfully. "I thought I'd wear the pinstriped three-piece suit."

Phil whimpers quietly in Steve's ear. "And here I thought I had a quiet evening at home to look forward to," he says wistfully.

Steve had never understood the internet colloquialism of 'ugly laughing', but in the background of Phil's side of the conversation, that is unmistakably what someone is currently engaged in.

Phil sighs like all the woes of the world are upon him. "I could be in Columbia, chasing drug lords. Instead, I have to spend the rest of the day listening for explosions from the direction of Lower Manhattan. Why do you hate me so much, Steven?"

"Aw, Phil," Steve says, faking commiseration not-at-all convincingly. "Cheer up. It'll be fun."

"I'm hanging up now. I'll go see if I can take up a less stressful profession, like shark dentistry."

"Wait!" Steve yelps. "What about my dancing tips?"

"Rogers, you are testing my patience," Phil growls, and then goes suspiciously quiet.

"Steve? Rogers?!" a man can be heard squawking in the silence.

"Oops," Phil says. "Gotta go."

"Is that Barton?" Steve demands. "Tell him about our arrangement up front, okay, don't screw this up for yourself."

"If you ruin my evening, I'm going to make flying to Japan seem like a summer vacation in the Hamptons," Phil threatens, and the line goes dead.

"Yeah," Steve muses to the soothing quiet of his apartment. "That went swimmingly."

"Hot damn," Tony drawls later, looking Steve up and down like a particularly tasty morsel. He's leaning on the side of a knock-down gorgeous silver vintage E-Type Jag that has Steve salivating. "Now, I knew you cleaned up nice already, but Sergeant, this is taking that skill to a whole 'nother level."

Steve smiles at him. He knows he looks fine. He spent enough time on his appearance this evening to rival even the UN New Year's Ball that Katya had taken him to last year. Steve has never been particularly vain – you couldn't really, when the world was determined to knock the little guy down to where he belonged – but he couldn't deny that it felt pretty awesome to be the subject of that frank, appreciative gaze.

"I won't embarrass you, then?"

"Darling, you couldn't embarrass me if you turned up in boxers and a vest. Trust me, they've seen me in less. Hop in."

Steve does, still laughing. He did a little research on Tony Stark the celebrity before he started getting ready, and from what he could read between the lines (and see in Technicolour right there on his laptop screen), Tony had used to be the wild child of America, brazening his way through every encounter he tripped into. As a rule, Steve makes a point to never, ever judge a book by its cover, but Tony Stark has at least a dozen of those, all heavy hardback editions with swappable dust jackets.

It has occurred to Steve that being taken for a ride might be all this is going to end up as. That Tony will have his fun, drive him home like the gentleman his mother taught him to be, and wave merrily as he roars off into the sunset. And if that's what happens, that would be okay. Steve is certainly not going to be left crying into his handkerchief. So he might as well take full advantage of this while it lasts.

"Can I drive on the way back?" he asks, eyeing the mouthwatering curves of the compartment.

Tony glances at him out of the corner of his eye. "You look like you've just seen the light fantastic." He grins. "Yeah, okay. I'll probably have more to drink than advisable, anyway."

"I warn you, I'll carry you out like an overcome damsel if you pass out on me. Right through the main entrance, too."

"We'd be on the front page of every newspaper," Tony says dreamily. "'Drunken billionaire carried out by handsome, gallant stranger.' You'll have the whole city going nuts trying to find you and take your picture."

Steve shudders, not bothering to hide it. "I'm not cut out to be a socialite," he sighs. "The limelight washes me out."

Tony's warm laughter fills the car as he navigates expertly through traffic. "Don't worry, sweetheart. I won't let them terrorise you with their lenses and flashlights. I'm enough diva for the both of us."

"Thank goodness," Steve agrees. "I'm more than happy playing the dumb arm candy. Speaking of, what are your expectations for this evening?"

Tony's head whips around, eyes dark and wide. "Why, Sergeant, you don't beat around the bush," he murmurs, licking his lower lip.

Steve flushes – something he hasn't done for a while now, but there's something about Tony that brings out a strange shyness in him. "I meant for the dinner. Are you expecting me to keep quiet and look pretty? Or do you need me to make you look good?"

Tony's attention is back on the road, for which Steve is grateful. "One," he says out of the corner of his mouth, "I always look good, baby. And two – I don't need you to do anything but be yourself. Maybe don't wander too far away. I tend to make enemies when I'm bored and the company doesn't need more people to campaign for me to step down as CEO."

"People do that?" Steve demands. This is insane. Tony is the genius behind Stark Industries. Without him, there is no company.

"Eh." Tony shrugs. "I can be a loud-mouthed, obnoxious bastard."

"Who is practically roadmapping the direction of modern history into the future."

"Aww," Tony coos. "Are you a fan? I must say, this is highly gratifying. I thought you thought I was just a pretty face."

Steve rolls his eyes. "Sure you did. And who wouldn't be a fan? I like people who know what they're doing, and you certainly fit the bill."

For a long moment, Tony remains quiet. All Steve can hear is the surrounding traffic and the noise of the city beyond it, calling to him like it always has.

"Honey," Tony says at last, so quiet that Steve doubts he would be able to hear him if he didn't have the serum. "I haven't the faintest idea."

Before Steve can work out what to say, or whether to admit he heard that at all, Tony draws to a smooth stop outside the doors of Stark Industries, thrown open and lit up with floodlights to welcome Tony's guests. He jumps out of the car, all flamboyant, expansive gestures, a daredevil grin as he throws the car keys at the valet and offers Steve his arm. Steve is a full head taller than him, but he takes it nonetheless, curling his hand around Tony's bicep and pasting a vapid smile on his face. Phil's right - he's probably going to hate tonight, but... He won't hate spending it at Tony's side.

The lobby of the building is brightly lit and full of milling people in evening dress. Steve recognises a few of them through sheer exposure. He supposes most of New York City's elite spend a lot of time with each other for company; he has seen most of these people at other events he's attended. He wonders what they think of him – a rich playboy? A boy toy to wealthy patrons? Not that it matters to him one whit. He's just curious as to how his carefully tailored persona comes across.

Then he sees one particular face that makes him stop short and nearly gasp in surprise before he catches himself. Phil's expression is like a disgruntled thundercloud, glowering in their direction. He looks phenomenal as always, classy in a black tailored suit that makes him look tall and dangerous, and makes Steve smile. But it's the person on his arm who is more striking even than Phil. Dressed in suit pants, purple shirt, and black leather jacket, he stares around the room curiously, one hand placed possessively on Phil's bicep in much the same position as Steve's own – except Steve wonders if the man – Barton, he has to be – even knows it.

"Agent!" Tony calls, half-mocking and half-sincere. "I didn't know you'd be here."

"Neither did I," Phil replies neutrally, face smoother than marble. "Last minute thing."

"We're not in danger, are we?" Tony asks, batting his lashes coyly. Steve bites his lip not to laugh out loud at the look on Phil's face. Tony looks at him, then gasps theatrically. "Oh, but where are my manners! Sergeant Rogers, meet Agent Coulson."

"Charmed," Phil says, offering Steve a hand while his eyes scream bloody murder.

"Likewise," Steve simpers, shaking it limply. It's taking everything he has not to burst out laughing and ruin the charade.

"And who is your companion?" Tony wants to know, smiling a toothy grin in his direction.

"Clint Barton, Tony Stark," Phil says warily. Steve can't take his eyes off the man, not because he is particularly handsome – though he is, in a tough, rugged way – but because he has heard so much about him from Phil and knows for a fact that Barton has him twisted around his little finger, though once again the man seems thoroughly ignorant of that fact.

"How very wonderful to meet you," Steve says. Barton takes his hand with a quick, sharp once-over before his mouth widens in a dangerous smile.

"Oh, same," he says. His voice is a little rough, like him, and also so full of mischief that it makes Steve grin back.

"I'm going to regret introducing you two so much," Phil says out of the corner of his mouth, once a guest has snagged Tony's attention and drawn him away towards a nearby group.

"So why did you?" Steve asks, genuinely curious.

Phil sighs, put-upon. "Fury heard about this little soiree, and nothing would do but for me to make an appearance. Except that I needed a date so as to not stand out, and unfortunately, Barton was the only agent still on the premises."

"You love me, don't front," Barton says, equally quiet, accompanied with a charming smile. Steve starts grinning and doesn't seem able to stop.

"Oh, we're going to be such good friends," he says, at least fifty percent just to hear the despairing noise Phil makes.

"Sure," Barton agrees. "As long as you stop boning my handler."

"Barton," Phil barks, entirely ineffectual for once in his life. Barton's eyes are narrowed and pinned to Steve's face. Steve wonders what would happen if he said 'no can do'.

"If that's what he wants, then of course," he demurs. Two can play that game.

"That's what he wants," Barton growls. He's looking at Phil now with that same focus, and Steve can practically see the hearts in Phil's eyes. Those two are made for each other if Steve ever saw the like.

"Steve, darling, do come over so I can introduce you," Tony says, saccharine-sweet from the edge of the group he'd been immersed in.

"Oh boy," Steve mutters through the smile he plastered to his face. "See you later."

"You brought this on yourself," Phil says behind him, just loud enough for Steve to hear. He doesn't bother to dignify that with a response. Tony holds out a hand, which Steve takes, allowing himself to be tugged closer.

"This is Sergeant Rogers," Tony says to the circle of... Steve hesitates to call them his friends. Perhaps 'vultures' would be a more appropriate term. Tony, by contrast, looks at him like he only has eyes for Steve that evening. Steve knows it's an act, but it's one he's finding very easy to swallow.

...And he should really lay off the innuendo, unless Tony is amenable to be dragged to the bathroom in the middle of his own event just because Steve can't keep his hands to himself. He's a professional, damn it. There will be no debauching on these premises.

The vultures look at him like he's something stuck to the bottom of their shoes, but smile at him ingratiatingly nonetheless, as if Steve has any effect on who Tony chooses to bestow his attention to.

"You look very familiar, young man," an elderly lady standing across from him says. She leans on her cane to peer more closely at him. "Have you been in one of those promotional television campaigns?"

Steve takes a deep breath and fights to smother his hilarity. "No, ma'am. I just have one of those faces," he replies politely. The others dismiss the question like so much nonsense, which makes a small spark of anger flare in Steve's chest. That old lady seems the most human out of that whole group. Squeezing Tony's fingers quickly, Steve makes his way around the crowd to her side. "May I offer you my arm?"

The lady peers at him myopically before smiling and nodding approvingly. "So polite. Your mother taught you good manners. It's nice to see you didn't lose them in the Army."

"She'd have been gratified to hear you say so, ma'am," Steve replies. Her thin hand clutches his arm tightly, but Steve doesn't pay the discomfort any mind. "Would you care for a glass of wine?"

"I'd care for a whiskey, if it's all the same to you," she replies tartly.

Steve smiles. "Whiskey it is," he says easily, earning himself a grin in return. "Tell me, do you know the host well?"

They walk slowly through the crowd while Amelia tells him about Maria Stark, and how she was a good friend of Amelia's daughter Ysabel. Tony very kindly invites them to this event every year, because it falls on Ysabel's birthday and Tony actually likes her. "That boy has a temper on him," Amelia says wisely, pointing her glass at where Tony is smiling like a jackass at some other rich white guy. "See Peterson over there? He campaigned to have Stark-produced medical equipment subjected to a bunch of unnecessary testing before it was allowed in an actual hospital. Shot down, of course, by Stark's meticulous safety protocols. You wouldn't know it, but every single person in this hall has something they want from that man, or something they're planning on maneuvering him into wanting from them."

"It's not easy, being rich," Steve agrees.

"Or a genius. He's a nice boy. Ysabel is very fond of him. I just hate to see him being picked at like this. Oh! Hello, dear. Sergeant Rogers has very kindly been keeping me company."

"Good evening," Steve says politely to the middle-aged woman at whose arm Amelia is now clutching.

"Good evening, Sergeant Rogers," she says. She has a low, melodious voice that Steve instinctively likes. "Thank you for keeping my mother company. We should be heading in, Mom."

"Of course, of course," Amelia agrees, nodding. "Thank you, Sergeant. You go rescue that poor boy, now, and have a good evening yourself."

"Thank you, ma'am, it's been a pleasure," Steve says, bowing a little. Amelia loves that, cackling quietly while Ysabel sends Steve an amused glance.

"If Stark has any sense, he'd put a ring on that sharpish," Amelia is saying as Steve walks away. "Did you see his tooshie?"

Steve misses Ysabel's answer in the buzz of the crowd, but he's still laughing a little when he spies Tony talking to Phil in a quieter corner of the lobby. For the first time that evening, Tony seems like himself. As if with Phil, he doesn't have to pretend. It's a nice thought, even if it brings Steve short that he apparently knows what Tony looks like when he isn't hiding behind his public mask.

A large, strong hand claps him on the shoulder, and a voice murmurs in his ear, "Let's you and me have a chat, Steve."

Steve trusts Phil, is the thing. Pretty much with his life. And Phil trusts Barton. So Steve turns obligingly and allows himself to be lead towards the opposite corner, by a sprawling Benjamin ficus that takes up almost the entire height of the wall.

"Yes, Agent Barton?" Steve says quietly once they have stopped and Barton is eyeing the room with suspicion-edged satisfaction. "Was there something you wanted to discuss?"

Barton's eyes shift to Steve's, a sharp blue that feels like a laser pointer through Steve's forehead.

"Phil thinks very highly of you," is Barton's opening volley.

"And I think very highly of Phil," Steve replies.

"So you're not just fucking him because he's your link to SHIELD?"

Oh, to be so young and naïve again. ...On second thought, Steve is glad to be spared the terrifying uncertainty this time round.

"I'm fucking him because we both want it. And because it's really fucking awesome, as it happens. I'm sure you'll find out for yourself soon enough."

Barton's cheeks colour. "I'm not fucking you," he spits out.

Steve rolls his eyes. "Glad to hear it. I'm not fucking you, either. For one thing, Phil can and will make me wish they hadn't dug me out of the ice."

Clint Barton is a thoroughly suspicious bastard. Perhaps that's a good thing. Phil sure needs someone paranoid watching his back. SHIELD seems like a dangerous place to be.

"I'm glad he has you," Steve volunteers, folding his hands behind his back.

Barton moves his jaw like he's chewing down on a smile. "Yeah, well," he says, shifting his weight uncomfortably. "He has me."

Steve really hopes Phil knows that, otherwise Steve may have to bludgeon him upside the head with something heavy and also unpleasantly moist.

"What are you two talking about," Phil demands, materialising behind Clint.

"How best to paintball the living shit outta this crowd," Clint replies promptly.

"I'll...just go over there,"Steve manages to splutter through his laughter, and hightails it in Tony's direction while Phil palms the back of Clint's neck and looks like he wants to shake him like a wet dog.

"You look like you're having fun," Tony murmurs when Steve reaches him.

"Your friends are interesting people," Steve says with a smirk.

Tony pouts. "Don't get too close to Agent, he'd taze you and then I'll be the one carrying you out maiden-style."

"Like you could," Steve scoffs.

"I'd get the suit! It would be beautiful. Make a fine cover for the weekend editions. In fact, why don't you go ahead and faint from my mere proximity so we can get right on that."

"Gosh, how tempting," Steve says dryly. "I was promised dinner before the show."

"High maintenance, you are," Tony grouches, but takes Steve's hand and leads him through into an enormous conference hall that has been turned into a snazzy dining room for the evening. At one end, there is a raised podium and a lectern.

Steve eyes Tony. "You're not going to give a speech, are you?"

"If I did, I'd make sure to mention you as the sweet body that made all of this possible," Tony promises.

"That doesn't even make sense," Steve whines as several people, who have clearly overheard Tony, side-eye him viciously.

Tony waves a hand. "Meh. They'll look at you and forget what I was talking about anyway."

They reach what is clearly the VIP table, and Tony pulls Steve's chair out.

"Promise me no speeches," Steve hisses desperately. Tony looks obnoxiously smug. It's a fifty-fifty toss between Steve wanting to punch him and kiss him stupid.

"I promise, Sergeant Rogers, that I will not let him make a speech."

Steve looks at the new arrival like she's an angel from on high; which, let's face it, she really is.

"It's real great to see you, Ms Potts," he says earnestly.

Tony pouts, staring between them accusingly while Ms Potts laughs. "Believe it or not, I'm used to that reaction," she says. "And it's good to see you too. Please call me Pepper."

"Steve, then," Steve says immediately, pleased when she sits down next to him. Tony drops into the chair on his other side, still eyeing them accusingly.

"Oh, give it up," Pepper says to him, leaning across Steve. She smells wonderful, like vanilla musk cut with something warm and spicy. "Jealousy does not become you."

"He's my date," Tony insists with a touch of a whine in his voice.

"And so it follows that I should get along with your friends, which I have been doing very well, you have to admit," Steve points out reasonably.

"You don't have to be that nice to them."

"Now you're just being ridiculous," Pepper says with a roll of her eyes.

Steve judges it prudent to slip his hand to midway up Tony's thigh and squeeze gently. Tony straightens in his chair, sucking in an audible breath.

"Dirty pool," he grits out through teeth clenched in a rictus of a grin as other people reach their table and settle around it.

"Drink your wine," Steve says placidly, sipping at his water. At his other side, Pepper has gone quiet, considering gaze focused solely on him. Steve fights the urge to blush, looking back at her evenly, not aiming to challenge. He isn't trying to be clever or anything, but if he wanted to, he could point out that Tony is actually quiet, and acting like the picture of decorum.

What Steve is going to remember later about that evening, besides meeting the wonderful Ms Amelia, is the moment when an old dear, clearly one of the board members' wives, turned to Tony and asked him politely if Steve was his 'gentleman friend'. Not because it was silly, though it was that; but because of the look that stole over Tony's face when he heard the question. Shocked at first, it quickly rearranged itself into gleeful delight at the opening. But it was the possessive edge Steve detected that drew him up short. Steve had been out with a lot of clients, to countless events like this one; but not one of them had looked at him like he was something they wanted to poke at until they had him worked out to his very building blocks, pinpointed all the things that made him tick. No one had observed him speculatively, like more than anything, they wanted to understand.

"Yes," Tony said slowly, a dangerous smile growing on his face. "Yes, he is."

Steve would never admit it but, looking at Tony in that moment, he would have agreed to be just about anyone, if it would keep Tony looking at him like that: like a challenge he was keen to meet. In all of his life, Steve has felt this way exactly twice, and time has robbed him of both those people. Steve wishes he knew what he could do to hold Tony's interest, to make it stick this time. For Tony to want to stay even after he has learned all there is to know about Steve. Steve wonders if he's even capable of such a feat. (Knowing he most likely isn't does nothing to stop the wanting.)

He files the revelations of the day away, to be taken out and examined after he's finished doing his job. Which, bearing in mind Tony is looking close to the end of his tether, appears to include distraction. He nods when Phil catches his eye from across the room. He's got this.

Playing the vapid blond never gets old. Steve is so used to people underestimating him by now, he gets taken aback when it doesn't happen. So it's easy to thread his arm through Tony's and draw him away from a senator determined to bend his ear, bat his lashes and apologise prettily while said senator (a Republican, of course) sneers down his nose at them. "I'm afraid I have been sent to fetch Mister Stark" covers a multitude of sins, several of which Steve intends to commit tonight on Tony's person.

Tony doesn't seem surprised when Steve draws him out through the side door Pepper had indicated to him five minutes ago. He leers at Steve, however, still on edge and reluctant to let go of the grudge he's nursing against Senator Brandt.

"I was told your office has a marvellous view," Steve tells him, making sure to smile enticingly. Tony laughs, shaking off the last of his mood and pressing his palm to the scanner which appeared when he pressed the button for the top floor.

"Beam us up, JARVIS," he instructs while one of his hands insinuates itself under Steve's jacket, sliding hot and covetous over the front of his shirt.

"Certainly, sirs," JARVIS, acknowledges. "And may I say it is a pleasure to see you again, Sergeant Rogers?"

"Likewise, JARVIS," Steve manages through the insidious warmth of arousal Tony's touch is sending through him. Looks like he'll be breaking his own mandate from earlier in the evening – and he couldn't care less.

Tony tugs him out of the elevator by his tie. The lights on the floor are dim, and a hush presides over the space decorated in neutral tones. Steve can't really see Tony here, doubts he spends much time in his official office. He would bet half of the contents of his bank account that the place to find Tony nine times out of ten are the labs that no doubt take up ten floors or more of the building.

Then, he stops thinking of anything but the heat of Tony's mouth on his throat, migrating over his skin to press kisses under his jaw.

"Wanted to do that all night," Tony murmurs, hand sliding around Steve's side to rest on the small of his back, hot like a brand. "Ever since you walked out in that pornographic suit. Tell me who your tailor is, I wanna commission six more you can wear just for me."

"You've already bought my affections for tonight, Tony," Steve says, amused despite himself.

"Ah, but I haven't transferred the money yet. You better make sure you're worth the price."

Steve hums, looking down into Tony's teasing eyes. God, but he is going to enjoy this.

"How much do you like this shirt?" he asks conversationally, thumbing at the fine cotton. It's a pleasing, sparkling white. It must be brand new.

Tony shrugs. "Not that much. Was there a point-"

His words dry out on a gasp when Steve's hands close on the material and pull. Buttons fly everywhere, and it parts with a satisfying wet rip, baring Tony's chest and the glowing blue of the arc reactor through the thick undershirt. For a moment, Steve wonders if the solidity of the fabric is meant to hide it; and then he lets the thought float away, chased by the dilation of Tony's pupils, the luminous light in his eyes.

"Why, Steven," Tony gasps, swaying closer.

"Beautiful," Steve murmurs, looking down at the veritable feast before him. He traces his fingers over Tony's strong collarbone, the hollow of his throat. He leans in to press a kiss to the vulnerable skin, and Tony sighs, going pliant against him.

"I don't like that undershirt much, either," he supplies, slightly breathless, and lets out a pornographic moan when Steve fists his hands in it and rips that apart, too.

"Jesus fuck," Tony grunts, eyes rolling back a little. "That's not supposed to be so hot. What've you got in those sleeves, a herd of piglets?"

He palms Steve's arms appreciatively, thumbs digging into his biceps. Steve flexes them obligingly, satisfied when Tony's tongue darts out to lick his lips. Steve lowers his head slowly, telegraphing his movements. He wants to kiss Tony, devour his mouth, try to climb inside. Instead, he fastens his lips on Tony's throat beneath his ear, sucking a stinging mark into the skin. Tony hadn't said he couldn't, and Steve is shaken by the need to leave something of himself behind, proof this night really happened, even when it's over - he was here. He mattered. Tony is making gratifying little noises when Steve finally pulls back to kiss down his clavicle and around the edge of the glow, thick and cool under his mouth. There are faint black lines radiating out of it, and Steve wants to ask, wants to cover them with his hand and demand that Tony tell him they're normal and there's nothing to be concerned about. But they're not in that kind of relationship.

There is no relationship here at all.

Steve sinks to his knees. It's good to remind himself what he's here for - he can't let himself think there's more between them than what he's allowed to have. By the looks of it, Tony definitely doesn't mind. Hands slide into Steve's hair, clutching fitfully when Steve opens Tony's pants and takes out his dick, pleasingly sturdy and flushed a pretty pink. Everything about Tony is so fucking pretty. He should be a model; no, a muse. God knows Steve finds him inspiring enough.

He leans in again, and this time he gives in to what he wants, and presses his mouth to the tip. Tony's hips jerk and it grows wet under Steve's touch, making his lips curve smugly. Whatever else happens, Tony wants this, with him. Steve being a firm believer in positive reinforcement, he opens up and lets the tip slide inside, over his tongue, indulging in the taste of arousal, the smell of want on the roof of his mouth.

"Oh, god," Tony whispers. His fingers spasm in Steve's hair, but he doesn't tug, and he doesn't push – just holds on. Steve hums in approval and rewards him some more, lowering his head until Tony presses insistent in the back of his throat, parting the walls to nestle in that space that makes Steve sweat and groan, try to remember that he can go for upwards of ten minutes without breathing. Tony is definitely going to benefit from some of his not-so-state-secret traits.

He's surprised when Tony tugs him gently off – not far, but enough that the head is no longer choking him. Steve blinks up, wet lashes clumping together in confusion. The look on Tony's face is—Steve flushes hot all over, fights to not look away. He had not thought to see tenderness in someone's eyes tonight, least of all his client's.

"You're so fucking perfect," Tony murmurs, his thumb tracing the tears away from the edge of Steve's eye. "So beautiful, Sergeant. So good for me."

O-kay. This was not supposed to happen, Steve thinks frantically, willing himself not to whimper and palm his own dick. He's so hard it hurts to even shift on his knees, arousal pressing uncomfortably into his inseam. He tries to move in again, take all of Tony down his throat, but Tony's hand stops him when his throat closes on the head, keeping him from going lower. Steve swallows, and Tony's mouth drops open, wet and so tempting that Steve has to close his eyes against the sight. His is supposed to be the one in use here.

"Why won't you let me suck you off?" he rasps, pulling back to swallow the lake of saliva his mouth is producing. Shit, he wants that so bad. He looks at Tony from under his lashes, well aware what that look usually nets him. "I'm good at it. I'd make it so good for you, Tony."

Tony groans, biting at his lower lip. Steve is not going to take it in his mouth, suck on it until it's cherry-red and hot to the touch. He's got some degree of self-preservation left, whatever Phil likes to say.

"I have zero doubts about that, but if you do I won't last five minutes. I want to fuck you."

Oh. Okay, then. That is an acceptable alternative.

"Here? On the desk?" he says. His voice is low and gravelly already, and he watches in delight as Tony's lashes flutter and his head hangs back, exposing the long lines of his throat that Steve wants to bite.

"Anywhere, really," Tony murmurs, fingers unconsciously stroking through Steve's hair. "But yeah. The desk will do."

Steve rolls back onto his feet with a smoothness entirely attributed to the serum but that makes Tony's breath hitch anyway. He strips off his jacket, shirt, undershirt, kicks off his shoes and then his pants. His boxer-briefs land on top of the heap of fabric, and he stalks over to the vast glass and chrome desk, leaning back against it.

"Well?" he says, opening his arms before bracing his hands along the edge and hopping on top of the cold surface. It presses uncomfortably against his bare balls and dick, but it's worth it for the incendiary look Tony gives him. His dick twitches visibly against the fabric of his pants, and his hands flex at his sides, like he wants them on Steve's body. On this, they are in accord.

"I'm not hallucinating, am I? Because that would be a cruel, awful thing, to wake up and find I'd dreamt all this."

"You are one hundred percent awake," Steve promises, hoping he comes across as sultry rather than desperate for Tony's cock to sink inside him. "Now, how about you come closer? You gotta give me a chance to earn my money."

Tony blinks and does as Steve says, stalking over and pressing on his chest until Steve is flat on his back, legs hanging open off the table.

"I am going to fuck you cross-eyed," Tony states, one hand closing on Steve's thigh and feeling up the muscle.

"You're welcome to try," Steve tells him, smirking just a little, just enough to make Tony snap and lean over, not giving Steve a chance to protest before he's taking his mouth deep and hard and just how Steve, in his weaker moments, had imagined their kiss would go. Tony tastes of wine and caramel, delicious, and Steve gives up, groans deeply and opens his mouth for the assault, relishing the slide of their tongues together and apart again. Tony's beard catches on his lips, another texture to snag his attention, and it's all so helplessly, effortlessly erotic that Steve is dripping wet from that alone. He finds himself clinging to Tony's shoulders, firm and muscled under the suit jacket, pleasingly solid.

"Fuck me," he chants as Tony lets him up for air, as he kisses down Steve's chest, lingering over a nipple for longer than Steve ever imagined could be interesting for anyone. "Please, come on. I want your dick inside me. Don't you want your dick inside me? I'm nice and tight, I promise you."

Tony grunts, hips stuttering as his hardness rubs over Steve's, skin to wet skin. There is nothing on this planet that could stop the moan that rips out of Steve's throat at the feel of it. Tony's hands are everywhere – over his sides, on the back of his knee, sliding along to open him up so the head of Tony's dick can rub across his opening, slick and hot. Steve is this close to just flipping them over and lowering himself on Tony's length.

"Shit, let me catch my breath," Tony mutters, pushing himself off Steve with what looks like a Herculean effort and walking around his desk to press at a panel on the wall. "I'm not a young man anymore, I gotta pace myself." It slides open to reveal a box of condoms, several bottles of lube, and an assortment of sex toys Steve has never seen in one place despite his activities this past year.

"You invent them all?" he asks, raising an eyebrow at the collection.

Tony smirks, taking out a bottle of lube and a roll of condoms, which he throws on top of the desk. "Most of 'em. Some are cannibalized products of the competition, now obviously much improved."

"Obviously," Steve echoes dryly, stretching his arms over his head just to watch Tony's eyes trace over him.

"I'll give you a few for testing, if you like. Or, you can come back here, and we'll try 'em all."

"You're such a charmer," Steve deadpans. Tony grins at him, wagging his eyebrows. Ugh, why is Steve attracted to him?

Then Tony wets his fingers and slides the first two inside Steve's body, and oh, yeah, he remembers. They're quick and agile, filling him up and stretching him out at the same time, deftly avoiding his prostate except to brush against it accidentally-on-purpose until Steve is gasping and trying to fuck down on them and this close to reverting to the original plan of flipping them over and finally sitting on that pretty cock.

Some of that must have come across, because Tony pulls out at last and tears a condom off the roll, putting it on neatly despite his messy hands. The show of competence makes Steve's gut tighten and pulse, achingly empty.

"Jesus, Tony, come on," he demands, eyes rolling back into his head. He's so turned on, so desperate to be had, that when Tony finally pushes his legs up and guides himself inside, Steve is too far gone to censor the noises coming out of him, embarrassing or no.

"Do it, do it, fuck me," he repeats, just about the only words he can still muster. It just, it feels so good. It always feels good, but there's something about this encounter that is making Steve feel overheated, needy and close to begging for more of everything – Tony's touch, the delicious sensation of Tony's dick filling him up, the sound of Tony's heavy breathing and choked-off groans. He shifts, bringing his legs up and bracing them on Tony's shoulders, opening himself up completely for the invasion.

"Motherfuck," Tony snaps, following that pronouncement up with a vicious jab of his hips that nails Steve's prostate so good, it makes him keen Tony's name. It's fast and brutal after that, a race to the finish line. When they cross it, Steve admits to nothing, but he might have possibly gone just a little cross-eyed from the sheer fucking exhilaration of his orgasm, racing through him like wildfire, fast and devastating and leaving behind just the right soil for fostering new life. Tony isn't far behind him, coming with a guttural shout and stilling with his cock still so deliciously deep inside his body.

Steve lets Tony catch his breath, lying mostly on top of him while Steve cards his fingers through his thick hair. Truthfully, he doesn't feel wrecked like he sometimes gets after really intense sex. He feels rejuvenated, like he could take on the world. He breathes deeply, relishing the scent of his and Tony's sweat cooling together, weaving with the musky tang of come. He's never going to be able to smell this cologne again without thinking of him and Tony entwined like this, breathing in sync. When Tony stirs and pulls away to dispose of the condom, Steve jumps up after him, stretching to his full height and bouncing on the balls of his feet a little with the sheer joy of being alive. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Peggy used to call him when he got like that.

"You are such a freak," Tony says fondly, observing him as he tucks himself away into his mostly ruined pants. "What even are you doing?"

"I'm just happy," Steve says cheerfully. "I had fun."

"Uh huh. So glad I could be of service."

Again, even though Steve is looking for it, there isn't even an inkling of irritation, or condescension. Tony fucking Stark. Throwing a wrench into everyone's plans.

"So. Can I drive the car back?" Steve asks gleefully, rubbing his hands together.

Tony eyes him up and down. "I'll pay you triple to do it just as you are right now."

Steve throws his head back and laughs. "My plans for the evening do not include getting arrested for public indecency, Mister Stark."

"Pity," Tony says wistfully, heading over to a different section of the wall and pressing it open. A row of shirts hang pristine in plastic wrapping, recently dry-cleaned. Tony selects one at random, tossing away the one Steve ruined. Steve watches it land in the trash bin, feeling utterly content with his life. Tony catches him at it, and something passes between them, a spark of... Steve isn't sure exactly what, but it's almost like they recognise each other for who they truly are, as fanciful as that sounds. In the end, Tony is still standing there, still looking at him like he wants to get under his skin, find all his buttons and press them in as many combinations as he can think of, and that – that is even more exhilarating than the sex.

True to his word, Tony lets Steve drive them home. The Aston handles like a dream, and Steve feels himself getting hard again, something that Tony is quick to notice and delights in mocking him for all the way to Steve's apartment. He actually walks him to the front door, which makes Steve unaccountably shy. This wasn't exactly a date. It was strictly business, and Steve would do well to remember that. He is absolutely not allowed to fall in love with Tony Stark.

It's harder than it should be, especially when he gets an email from his bank highlighting a new transaction 'FOR SERVICES FULLY RENDERED'. It's for more than twice the amount they agreed on. Steve has his fingers on the keyboard, about to send a strongly worded message to his erstwhile client, when his email pings again.

"Oh shush. Consider it a downpayment for those six new suits," it says.

"How did he-" Steve mutters to himself, half-tempted to write back anyway and give Tony a piece of his mind. In the end, he sighs and closes his laptop, heading for the shower. If Tony wants to spend his money giving Steve unreasonable tips for something he'd have gotten anyway, so much the worse for him. The irritating, infuriating asshole.

Chapter Text

Of course, a mere week later, Steve has to watch as the Stark Expo goes up in flames and the TV shows nothing but blurry frames of armour suits shooting at each other. His heart swoops into his gut and twists; he paces restlessly, hating himself for being worried sick about someone who clearly has a reckless disregard for his own health.

The next morning, he gives in and calls Phil.

"I know you can't tell me anything. I just need to know. Is he alive?"

The deafening silence lasts for nearly thirty seconds, long enough that Steve pulls his phone away to check if the line got disconnected and tries not to have heart palpitations.

"You didn't," Phil says.

"I—"

"Steve. Really? Out of all those people, Tony Stark? Really?"

Steve cringes. "No?" he tries hopelessly.

"Christ Almighty and all the saints preserve me," Phil sighs, continuing for about a minute in something that sounds suspiciously like Spanish.

"Phil," Steve interrupts when it's clear that Phil intends to go on in this vein for some time. "Please?"

Phil sighs. "He's fine. Better than, actually. You should call him."

"You know that's not how it works," Steve says, knee-jerk, and immediately wishes he could take it back when Phil flat-out laughs at him.

"Really? Is that what I know? I dare you to say that to my face, Rogers. Call him or don't, I don't give a rat's ass. Far be it from me to encourage this madness."

"Don't be a jerk. I know you like him."

"Hah!" Phil barks with zero amusement. Oh boy. "You just cost me fifty bucks. Barton will be thrilled. He's gonna make a bomb off the two of you."

"You bet against me?" Steve demands, outraged.

"No, I bet on you having a better instinct for self-preservation. But that's the Tony Stark factor for you, I guess. ...On second thought, I have no idea why I did. You've always laughed in the face of good choices."

"Thanks. I think."

And that is how Steve finds himself breaking yet another of his professional rules, and pressing dial for a client's number, something he'd sworn to himself he would never do.

"Steve! I'm touched, were you worried about me?"

Tony sounds exactly like he had a week ago when Steve saw him last. It's only when something inside him unclenches and he can breathe again that Steve realises just how worried he'd really been.

"Actually, I was wondering if I could arrange another playdate with your car," he says as casually as he can. "Assuming it survived the fireball that happened to your life."

"Liar," Tony argues cheerfully. "I know you worry, mother hen. And I'm fine. Super-fine, in fact, as always. Say, what are you doing this weekend?"

"I'm going to House & Home," slips out despite Steve swearing he'd had no previous intention to let Tony know that. "It's a home décor store. Heard good things about the blankets they sell."

Tony makes an interested noise. "Nice. Wanna bump into me there on Saturday around one?"

Steve wants no such thing. "Sure." What?

"Awesome. See you later, sweetpea!"

"Don't call me—hello?"

Goddamn it, what is wrong with him? He should call back and cancel.

He does not call back and cancel. Instead, on Saturday around one, he is wandering around the section closest to the shop front, trailing his fingers over soft, soft cotton, when a very warm hand lands on his shoulder blade.

"Hello, Sergeant," Tony says very close to his ear.

Despite himself, the first thing Steve does when he turns around is look Tony over head to toe, methodically searching out bruises and other injuries his clothes might conceal.

"Called it," Tony gloats, squeezing Steve's shoulder before letting go. "Told you, I'm fine."

Steve wants to berate him for his cavalier attitude to his health, but a) it would be hypocritical to an extent he isn't entirely comfortable with, and b) see re: they don't have that kind of relationship. Tony is not his boyfriend, or someone whose health should be of concern to Steve.

Not that it makes one blind bit of difference.

"So I see," Steve says before turning back around. "What brings you to Brooklyn on this fine day?"

Tony gives him a look Steve isn't familiar with him enough to interpret, before raising his eyebrows and looking around.

"It's Pepper's birthday soon, and I appear to have exhausted my credit when it comes to handing over my card and telling her to go to town."

"Getting yourself nearly killed does tend to try people's patience," Steve agrees solicitously.

Tony looks at the heavens before fixing him with a wry look, but miraculously keeps quiet, which is just as well since Steve hadn't realised just how irritated he was by recent events before Tony tried to handwave them away.

They browse together in slightly stilted silence until Steve picks up a candle to sniff and finds Tony watching him avidly, something warm in his eyes.

"Good?" Tony asks, hands stuffed into the pockets of his navy slacks.

"Yes," Steve replies, wondering how he could explain that it smells like the soap Peggy used whenever they were near a source of clean and abundant water. "It reminds me of my great-aunt's perfume."

Tony's eyes narrow; he opens his mouth and closes it, looking conflicted. Steve eyes him, surfing a spike of anxiety and wondering if his cover has been blown without anyone realising.

"Don't hurt yourself there," he tries, testing the water.

Tony rolls his eyes. "I kinda wanna call bullshit, you look squirrely. "

"But you don't know that for sure, do you?" Steve smirks. "However did you resist hacking my classified file?"

It's Tony's turn to pretend he found some very interesting smidgen of dust on his sleeve.

"JARVIS wouldn't let me," he mumbles. Steve does a double-take, before hilarity bowls him over.

"Oh my god, Jarvis has a more stringent moral code than you, this is amazing." He's safe. (He isn't sure if that's a relief or not, is the rub.)

Tony scrunches his nose. "It's not cute, it's… a code flaw, is what it is. I can't believe he thought talking back to his creator would be a good idea."

"I can," Steve grins. "I know who made him, so. Anyway, in the interest of you not rupturing something from foiled curiosity - Margaret was a friend of my mother's."

Tony looks like he wants to ask more questions, but Steve looks away and picks up another candle to distract him. It's not that he doesn't want to talk about Peggy, but - it's still hard, and he's a little worried that his emotional turmoil will leak through if he tries. He brings the candle he picked up to Tony's face.

"How about this one?"

Tony doesn't break eye contact as he leans in to smell it, shoulders flexing. Christ, but he's a good-looking fella. The room feels a little too warm all of a sudden.

"Like it," Tony concedes. "Though I might try to eat it around hour fifty of a coding binge."

"Yeah, we don't want that."

Steve offers him another candle. Instead of leaning in, Tony' warm, sure fingers circle Steve's wrist and bring it closer, holding Steve's eyes all the while. A frisson of awareness slithers down Steve's spine. Strange, since the sex was fun but hardly mindblowing – and yet Steve notices his breath quickening, and his skin tingles under the ring of Tony's fingers.

This is one reason regular clients are dangerous. Steve only accepts repeats from people he is in no danger of developing feelings for other than vague fondness. Tony Stark triggers all of Steve's proximity sensors into red-tinged alarm.

He moves away quickly, abandoning the candle and walking further into the store. Tony follows placidly, supplying a running commentary on construction and material density, aromatics and weave – a soothing tide of babble interspersed with items being handed over for inspection. Since Tony does so in an off-hand, distracted manner, Steve feels safe to give them all of his attention, fondling the edges and rubbing appreciatively over the curves, learning them through touch. Most get left behind, several with much reluctance once Steve notices the price. Even his bank account won't survive paying close to a thousand dollars for an organic two-thousand-thread Egyptian cotton throw in periwinkle blue, no matter how delightfully soft it feels on his face.

All in all, it is a surprisingly pleasant afternoon. Steve had worried about having nothing to talk about, or awkwardness setting in, since their interactions so far haven't exactly been under normal circumstances. But Tony is charming, erudite and knowledgeable on so many subjects, it makes Steve's cheeks hot. He wouldn't have supposed Tony to know about hand-blown glass, for example, and yet he had been treated to a ten minute walk through the process, complete with some very interesting hand gestures. The mercurial shifts of topic leave Steve in a strangely meditative mood, simply following along where Tony's mind chooses to lead them, content in the moment even when Tony proceeds to lambaste a particularly unpleasant example of woodcarving. It is with some surprise that Steve hears his stomach growling and realises three hours have passed in aimless exploration of the many pretty things in the store. Steve knows that it will become a favourite haunt on the strength of their scented candles alone.

"I'm starving," Tony promptly announces. "Take me to lunch."

"There's only burger joints and diners around here," Steve cautions, which gets Tony looking at him like a curious alien specimen.

"Whatever gave you the impression I wasn't a burger-and-fries kinda guy?" he demands. "Was it the snooty pants? I should never have listened to Pepper, I got a reputation to maintain."

Tony Stark referring to something as 'snooty' is not something Steve wants to forget anytime soon.

"Pepper has way better taste than you," he says, because listening to Tony's incensed squawks brings him a lot of joy.

He lets himself grin as he leads the way to the cash registers, relieved when Tony waits calmly for him to pay instead of waving his card around like Steve questioned his manhood. Tony follows him down the street, moving the conversation to cars and the petty yet undeniable pleasure of watching a super-expensive Lamborghini trying to navigate a speed bump. Steve snickers, helpless to stop himself. Tony has a way with words, painting a picture that somehow manages to transmit all of the languid, decadent enjoyment of the summer day in Italy when it had happened.

"You know, you're not at all how I thought you'd be," Steve muses, eyeing up a potential dining venue. It's on the small side, with checkered tablecloths and white wooden chairs, but most of the tables are full and the smell of marinara sauce wafting through the open doors is irresistible.

"What, an ass?" Tony counters, voice thick with amusement.

Steve laughs, nodding at the restaurant in question and quirking an eyebrow. "No, you are that. But you're also, despite yourself, a decent guy."

Tony hushes him theatrically. "Can't let that become public knowledge! Reputation, remember? I gotta stay on top of that shit."

Still, he agrees with Steve's choice and nudges him inside with a hand at the small of his back, fingers teasing ever-so-softly along the arch of his spine. Steve will be damned if he isn't helplessly charmed by the conniving bastard. They are seated right away, and Tony matches his order for garlic bread and plenty of it, followed by a huge plate of pasta, and manages to put away nearly as much of it as Steve himself.

"I'm gonna burst in two and die in a minute, but I have to finish this sauce," he moans, mopping up the edges of his plate with a leftover hunk of garlic bread. With his other hand, he pulls out his phone and taps it. "JARVIS, make a note of this place. They deliver."

"Confirmed," JARVIS' soft voice chimes from the speakers. Steve catches himself with his arms folded on the table, just watching Tony with a smile on his face that he doesn't have to see to know is much too telling.

"What?" Tony demands, catching him at it. "Do I have sauce in my beard?"

"You do, actually," Steve lies, reaching over with his napkin and wiping the edge of his jaw. He folds it over and drops it by his plate, sighing in satisfaction. Tony is right, he should make a note of this place.

He settles the check while Tony is in the restroom, then leans back into his chair and sips his coffee, thoroughly content with his lot. Maybe he had to wade through all the shit thrown his way just to get here, to be capable of sitting still and savouring the moment without the nagging urge that he should be someplace else, moving until he can't anymore.

"Hey, I was thinking, ice cream?" Tony says, sliding his damp hands through his hair and rubbing them together to dry them as he settles back into his chair.

"Already took care of the bill. Raincheck? There's a gorgeous gelateria not far from my apartment, if you fancy trying that next time you find yourself in the area." Not that he would. But if he did, well, it would be no hardship for Steve to visit Flora's place and sample whatever new flavours she's invented this time.

Tony doesn't seem to get any of that, though. He sits there blinking at Steve, head tilted curiously to one side.

"What?" Steve says, looking down surreptitiously - his shirt is clean, so Tony can't be fixating on that. "You okay?"

"You took care of the check?"

His voice is flat, expressionless. Steve frowns. "Yes? Is that a problem?"

Tony shakes his head. He looks completely bemused. "No?" he tries.

"You don't sound very sure," Steve argues, but shrugs when Tony doesn't look inclined to elaborate, standing up and gathering his fabric store bags. "I was gonna head back home. Where are you parked?"

"A block from you," Tony replies. He still looks weird, but whatever. Steve tries not to judge people for their little eccentricities. God knows he has no right to throw stones.

The walk isn't long, but it does take a good ten minutes, which Steve spends enjoying the warm air and Tony spends casting him not-particularly-surreptitious glances. Steve's fine with that. He's probably not going to see Tony again, or at least not for a while. And that's fine, he reminds himself. Steve is nothing special, no matter what idea Tony has gotten stuck in his head, and Tony is under no obligation to want to hang around outside of sex. Much as Steve wishes things were different - that Tony felt the same pull that holds Steve captive even now - he can't make Tony want things. That's up to him. And if this is it, if Tony's got him out of his system and is ready to move on to newer and better things, then maybe it's time for Steve to try and do the same. That's just the way life goes.

They reach the car, and despite himself, Steve lingers. Tony does, too, leaning back against the gleaming hood and watching him like Steve is a curious experiment Tony means to work out.

"This was nice," Steve says at last, smiling at the pretty picture Tony makes. His fingers itch for his charcoal, to capture the sweet curves of the 'Vette and the angles of Tony's elegant repose. Nothing wrong with looking, right? Steve appreciates beauty where he finds it, is all. "Maybe-" But no.

"Maybe what?" Tony murmurs. There's a faint curve to his mouth that Steve wants to taste.

"Doesn't matter," Steve says with a shake of his head, smiling awkwardly before turning towards the entrance to his building. "Enjoy the rest of your weekend."

"Yeah," is all Tony says. Steve feels eyes boring into his back all the way into the lobby, and fights to not react. He has never liked being stared at, but Tony—well, Tony is something else.

And that's that, Steve tells himself. Time to kick this ridiculous obsession to the curb where it belongs.

The next morning, the doorbell distracts him from the sketchbook bent over his knee as he traces dark lines against the pristine sheet, shading in a goatee with more care than he intends to admit to. He isn't expecting anyone, so he peers through the spyhole before pulling the door open and staring at a UPS guy with a huge package in front of him. It's got the House & Home logo stamped all over it. Steve didn't order anything to be delivered, did—

Oh, that asshole. Steve is going to kill him.

"Sign here, please," the UPS guy says, then nods to him and jogs back down the stairs while Steve manoeuvers the bulky bag into his apartment.

He tears the top open, and the first thing he sees is the damn blanket he'd hemmed and hawed over for ten whole minutes before deciding he just wasn't going to spend that much money on something which would merely feel nice and bring him comfort. In addition, there are half a dozen candles of the bergamot and lime variety that conjure the spectre of Peggy, vibrant and young, telling the Howlies exactly how the mission was going to proceed. There are also a couple of the blueberry muffin scent that Tony had liked so much, and several plump, soft cushions in a velvety red and navy blue with white stars all over them, because Tony thinks he's funny, but he has no idea just how not hilarious he really is.

At the bottom of the bag, there is one last cushion, a graphic print with the words I FEEL BAD FOR THE PEOPLE WHO NEVER GO CRAZY etched in big rectangular letters through the middle. Steve looks at it, and he's mad, he really is, furious with Tony for putting him in this situation, but he starts laughing and doesn't stop until there are tears rolling down his face and his cheekbones hurt from how hard he's smiling.

This is obviously horrible, however, and it has to stop. Steve schools his face and presses dial.

"Steven!" Tony chirps without a care in the world. "So soon! I know you miss me terribly already."

"Tony," Steve starts, putting as much warning into the two syllables as he can muster, but Tony, as usual, talks right over him.

"Now, Steve. You know that I know that you liked all those things, and it just seemed silly not to buy them."

"That's a fifteen hundred dollars price tag, Tony. I can't accept that. There were no services you were paying for yesterday."

"Oh, weren't there," Tony murmurs.

It pulls Steve up short. That tone has warning bells all over it. Steve is giving away much too much, and it seems to have snagged the attention of the Tony who zooms in on a tiny thread and doggedly follows it along until the whole tapestry lies unravelled before him. Steve swallows fitfully. The problem is, it's also Tony at his most attractive.

"Pepper would disagree with that assertion," Tony adds, and just like that, he's back to playful, irreverent, the boy who never grew up. But Steve knows better; he's unlikely to forget that behind the easygoing, careless exterior lies a mind like a steel trap, and for whatever reason, it has Steve in its sights. "She would say there was plenty of service in you keeping me occupied for an afternoon."

"Maybe I don't want to provide any more services to you," Steve snaps - reckless, so reckless, Tony is a client, Steve isn't supposed to want him like this - but he's so tired of feeling like this is a fight he just can't win.

"Then don't," Tony says, something in his voice that makes Steve's heartbeat hammer in his ears. "But say you'll meet me for dinner next week. Tuesday. Eight thirty, Bouley in TriBeCa."

Steve should say no. He's falling in too deep, and Tony is something he isn't sure he knows how to quit.

"Okay," he says softly.

"Good," Tony says, just as quietly. What is happening here? "See you then."

Shit. Shit shit shit.

Steve sighs and buries his face in his new wonderfully soft, silky blanket. Thank God he has a couple days to try and get his head on straight, figure out how he can keep all this neediness at bay, before he has to face Tony again.

---

"And this is Sam," Yingtai says.

The black man sandwiched between Stephen and Bob waves cheerfully. Steve smiles at him, then turns around and glares at Yingtai accusingly.

"I swear to God, you are worse than any yenta I ever met," he grits out from behind the rictus of a grin he's maintaining for posterity.

"You don't have to talk to him if you don't want to," Yingtai says reasonably, widening her hazel eyes in entreaty. "I just thought it might be nice for you guys to meet."

"Uh huh," Steve drawls. Damn meddling people too invested in his life. He should introduce Yingtai to Phil; except no, because Phil would recruit her and Steve would lose the only yoga instructor who isn't afraid to bicker him into compliance.

He goes to grab himself a coffee, opting for something with indecent amounts of sugar and cream to counter his irritation.

"Hey, man," Sam says from behind him, before he turns to the barista. "Large black coffee, please."

"Hi," Steve responds once Sam has paid. "Sorry. Steve Rogers."

"Sam Wilson." He shakes Steve's hand with a nice strong grip. He's very handsome, and Steve would give him a second glance anytime, and a third, but. "Look, is there something I should know? You looked surprised to see me. I mean, more than some random stranger."

Steve sighs, rubbing the back of his neck. "Nah. It's nothing. Sorry for being weird. I think Yingtai's been trying to hook us up for a while now."

Sam looks him up and down, raising an eyebrow.

"In a professional capacity," Steve explains quickly. No need for Sam to know that for Steve, it's practically the same thing.

"Ah," Sam says. His eyes sharpen, taking Steve in again much more thoroughly this time round.

"I'd have much preferred the other reason," Steve grumbles under his breath.

Sam hums, the corner of his mouth twitching. Steve likes him despite his best intentions.

"I assume you don't wanna talk to me about your service," Sam says dryly.

Steve nearly recoils. "Not particularly. No offense."

"None taken." Sam grins at him. "Not everybody's ready to talk about what's out there. But, for the record, you ever wanna? I'll listen."

Steve winces, hiding it behind a sip of his diabetes-inducing coffee. "Thanks. Honestly, I couldn't talk to you even if I wanted to. Classified."

"Actually, we have the equivalent of doctor-patient confidentiality," Sam says easily. His eyes on Steve are level and calm, like he's waiting for Steve's next play.

Steve shifts under the scrutiny. Sam smiles and changes the subject to the movie they're about to watch, so he's good enough to recognise closed and/or uncomfortable body language. He wouldn't be a good therapist if he didn't, but it always used to surprise Steve how many of the so-called mental health professionals went into a case thinking they knew all about the patient and expecting to have their preliminary diagnosis confirmed; which, in Steve's opinion, was a bunch of baloney and irritated the shit out of him. It may or may not've been one reason he wouldn't talk to the SHIELD shrinks beyond surface facts.

The thing is that, for a while now, Phil has been not-so-subtly pushing him to find someone to see, on whatever basis it worked for Steve. It was him that balked every time. But – he'd promised himself that he'd start taking risks again, hadn't he? If he ever wants to start dating someone for real, he needs to learn how to talk about himself beyond what art medium he prefers and how he takes his coffee.

It's just fucking hard, okay, and he doesn't have to like it.

He waits until the rest of the group are making noises about heading to the cinema, and sidles up to Sam to awkwardly ask if he's got an opening sometime next week. He's braced for mockery or digs about protesting too much, but Sam only frowns thoughtfully as he pulls out his iPhone and starts flicking through his schedule.

"Looks like I'm booked solid through the next two weeks," he says, sounding peeved.

"Oh," Steve says, trying and probably failing to hide his relief. "Well, that's fine, maybe some other—"

"Yeah, nope, that's not what's gonna happen," Sam interrupts, a steely note in his voice. "I know your type, Rogers. You've talked yourself into it now, but give you a little time and your feet'll freeze solid, and I'll never hear from you again."

Steve ducks his head to hide from one of the most knowing looks he's ever been on the receiving end of. Is he really so easy to read?

"That's what I thought," Sam says. "How invested are you exactly in watching a bunch of soldiers get slaughtered by aliens?"

"That's what Predators is about?" Steve demands, appalled.

"Uh huh, didn't think so. Here's what I'm thinking. I have a key to the community center where my VA group meets, but it's not exactly private on a weekend. The other option is we go to my place, order take-out, crack open a couple of beers, and talk."

"Door number two," Steve says immediately, shuddering at the thought of a vast room with a number of easy-access entry points. "There's—I gotta make a phone call first, though."

"Be my guest. We can walk over there, if it'll make you feel better. It's not far."

Steve nods gratefully, fidgeting with his phone before huffing a sigh and tapping on dial.

"Hey, Phil. Need a favour... Is this a bad time?" he amends when he can hear the distinctive thock of shots in the background.

"Hey, Steve! No, not at all. Hit me."

Steve blinks, then shrugs. Phil's a big boy, he can handle himself. He throws Sam a look out of the corner of his eye; but he's in this now. All he's gotta do is make sure they're both of them protected.

"Can you run a check on someone for me?"

"Potential client?" Phil asks calmly before taking a shot. There's a cry of pain in the distance.

"Uh, no," Steve says. Why is he so reluctant to say this? He told Phil he fucked people for money with less hassle from his brain. "Potential therapist?"

Phil's weapon discharges again. "Steve, that's great news! Name and social security number?"

"Lieutenant Sam Wilson, US Air Force. Service ID 62471."

"Call you back in five," Phil says. The line disconnects.

Steve slides his phone back in his pocket. Sam says nothing, though he'd be entitled to any number of questions, not to mention snarky comments. He just strolls down the sidewalk, nudging Steve in the right direction every now and again. Just under five minutes later, Steve's phone goes off. It's an obnoxious string of guitars that Steve startles at, then rolls his eyes. There is only one person who would hack his phone to change his ringtone to some guy wailing about shooting to thrill, and Steve makes an effort to bite back his smile because, just, no. There has to be a line, and he's drawing it over being charmed by obnoxious breaches of privacy for no reason at all.

"He's clean," Phil says. He sounds thrilled. "I'm emailing you an NDA I want you to have him sign, but that's just SOP, seeing as he's already managed to gain your trust somehow. Good luck, see you Thursday."

The phone disconnects again. Steve stares at it until it pings with an incoming email. He supposes he should be grateful Phil didn't gloat more. (Though, if Phil ever finds out the catalyst for him folding and agreeing to talk to Sam, Steve's never gonna hear the end of it.)

"We're good to go," he tells Sam. "Got a printer at your place?"

"Yep," Sam says, shoving his hands in his pockets. Steve eyes him askance.

"Thought you'd be more pissed by now," he admits.

Sam turns to look at him incredulously.

"Are you kidding me? Haven't had this much fun since I quit flying. No way am I letting you wiggle out of it until I know what the hell's going on."

Steve flushes a little. He's still not used to having people find him interesting. Sam doesn't even know who he is yet. Steve snorts, waving off Sam's curious look. At least if he has to talk about this, he's going to enjoy shocking Sam speechless.

---

It... doesn't go entirely to plan.

"Wait. Wait wait wait. No no no no no. Your name is Steve Rogers, and you were born in 1918. Dude. Dude. You're Captain America."

Not so much with the speechless, but Steve will take the stunned, cautiously delighted look on his face along with the stammering.

He grins. "That's what they used to call me."

"No. No way. Dude! You died in 1945!"

"I got frozen in 1945. No death."

"But then—" Sam's face falls in slow motion. "When did you un-freeze?"

"December before last."

Sam crosses himself. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," he whispers, looking sick. "Oh, man. No wonder you're fucked up all to hell."

Steve snorts. "Hence the NDA."

"Uh huh. Shit. Does everyone know? -No, they can't, it'd be all over the news."

"Just a handful of people know the truth. Almost all of them are SHIELD personnel, present or former. And you."

"And me," Sam agrees, still looking ashen. "Fuck, that's a trip. ...Oh, pardon my French. Are you touchy about stuff like that?"

Steve levels him a look. Sam cracks up, laughing until tears start streaming from the corners of his eyes. It's probably shock. Steve isn't that funny.

"Sorry, sorry. Man, your face. All the history books make you out all 'aw shucks ma'am'. They got it so wrong."

"Propaganda," Steve says, mouth curling in disgust. Phil always tells him he's preaching to the choir, but Phil was personally scouted by Dum Dum Dugan before being recruited by SHIELD. He's one of the few people who know any different. "There wasn't a damn thing any of the guys could do about it - not even Peggy, and she was the best out of all of us."

"Oh, Jesus," Sam says. He's got a rabbit-in-the-headlights look on his face.

"What?" Steve demands. He already knows he's not gonna like what he's about to hear.

Sam winces. "In the early fifties, there was this radio show, Captain America Saves The Day or some-such. Old-style. About you saving Ms Carter from the Nazis."

God. Peggy must've hated it. She'd never said a thing when Steve went to see her, even when she could remember the old times.

"Yeah, I'd steer clear of the 'history' books, if I was you," Sam says. Steve can't imagine what his face is showing. "Still, there's some good theses knocking around, written by the less indoctrinated scholars. My mother did her PhD on you – or, actually, 'the Captain America propaganda machine'. Reckon you'll get on like a house on fire."

"Maybe one day you'll introduce me," Steve says wistfully. He can't imagine a day when he'll be allowed to be who he'd been.

"She would flip out. She always said that Steve Rogers and the Commandos must've been fifty times more interesting than the official histories tried to paint you. Shit, Cap, you put together the first interracial team of highly trained soldiers. Do you know how often I've gone to sleep with stories of you filling my head?"

Steve flushes a little, biting his lip. He wants to launch back into his usual deflection, but he looks at Sam and thinks about what those stories must have meant to him, growing up. So he tilts his beer in his direction and drinks deeply, before leaning forward for another spring roll. They demolish the rest of the food mostly in silence, punctuated by Sam asking questions about the Commandos' missions and ribbing Steve about being better than a waste disposal - leftovers never stand a chance around him.

Sometime later, Sam seems to have done digesting, because he drains his beer and drops the bottle on the table in favour of rubbing both hands over his face.

"I'll be honest with you, Cap. I don't know if I'm qualified to handle your case. Might screw it up even more."

"Hah," Steve grunts. "Not possible. No way it can get worse than it's already been."

He can't quite look at Sam, afraid of what he's going to find on his face. If he sees pity in Sam's eyes, it's possible that he'll walk out and, yeah, never contact Sam again.

"Must be tough to maintain a decent sleep cycle after all of that," Sam says thoughtfully, not quite asking the question that must be on his mind.

Steve takes a deep breath, lets it out through his nose. "Well," he says, looking at the ceiling. "You either exercise yourself into the floor, or you find someone to screw the thoughts out of your brain 'till it stops churning."

Sam chokes on his beer. Steve can't bite back his grin for love nor money.

"In things I never thought I'd hear in my life," Sam mutters. "You, Steve Rogers, are a troll."

Steve laughs for maybe ten minutes straight. When he's finally winding down and wiping the tears away, he manages to croak, "Wait 'till you hear what I've been doing for a living these days."

This therapy stuff isn't half as bad as Steve thought it would be.

"No," Sam groans theatrically. "Please, no more. My brain might actually short out from any more revelations."

"If I knew it'd be so easy to get out of therapy, I'd have started with that," Steve smirks.

Sam takes his hands off his face and gives him a look. Steve winks at him.

"Oh no," Sam says, actually shaking a finger at him. It sets Steve off again into breathless giggles. He wonders if he's on a high from adrenaline that built up during his confessions and had nowhere to go. "You're not getting off nearly that easy," he hears through his gasps, and then he actually has to bend in two and guffaw. From the chair across the couch, he can hear Sam squawk about innuendos and how they won't help Steve wiggle out of this. Honestly? He feels lighter than he has for months.

"Damn," he says, once he's gotten himself (mostly) under control. He sprawls back on the sofa, waving a languid hand at Sam. "Okay, Doc, lay it on me. What's wrong with me?"

"What isn't?" Sam grumbles, then sighs. "Okay, no, real talk - nothing's wrong with you. Not a damn thing. You've gone through staggering levels of trauma. It's perfectly normal to feel unmoored and disconnected and inadequate. I would be amazed if you didn't. Truthfully? I'd be worried if you didn't, because that would slide right into dissociative sociopathy territory, and with your abilities, who knows where we'd end up. So the fact that you're in pain, and struggling to adjust, it's actually good news, sorry. Means you're still sane."

Steve has never thought of the way he feels in those terms. If he's honest, he avoids thinking about it altogether, which is why Phil had been pushing for councelling sessions so hard. But Sam's right. Pain means you're alive to feel it, so it would follow that emotional pain would be a sign of being present and aware.

"Huh," he says. He sees Sam exhale and wonders if Sam was worried about saying the wrong thing. With a potentially unbalanced supersoldier in the room - he probably was. "That...makes a lot of sense."

"Glad to hear it," Sam says. "However, you should know that it is my duty to recommend you begin therapy sessions immediately. It's not gonna be easy, and I'm not gonna lie and tell you it is. It's gonna suck a lot. And you've got your grief to get through in addition to that."

Steve shrugs, feeling self-conscious. "The guys led a good life. And Bucky, well, at least it was fast and clean."

Sam just looks at him before shaking his head ruefully. "Yeah, that's the logical approach. You can cling to it all you want, Steve, but I gotta tell you, it don't work like that. Intellectually, sure, you know there's a positive side to everything. But you lost your entire way of life, the future that you'd been planning. Trust me on this. You don't walk off that kind of loss. It would break a weaker person. Seems to me, though, your mind? Is made of vibranium, along with your spine. I'll tell you this much for free: you're coping so much better than some other people I've seen."

Steve blinks slowly, parsing through Sam's tone. "Who'd you lose?" he asks gently, because no one learns to talk about grief like that who doesn't have a personal investment.

Sam's mouth twitches and purses before turning down. "My wingman. Riley. We were on patrol doing fly-bys. An RPG took him down out of nowhere. I couldn't do shit. Felt like I was put up there just to watch."

"I'm sorry," Steve says immediately. Shit, this never gets any easier.

"Yeah," Sam replies with a sigh. "So believe me when I say, I know what it feels like, to lose one of your people. Your future. Gone in under ten seconds."

Oh, Steve thinks. Oh. "Sam," he says sadly, reaching over to clasp his forearm.

Sam looks up at the ceiling, blinking a few times. "Yeah, well. We learn to move on, even if the only motivation for doing it is because this person who was your whole life would've kicked your ass up and down the street if you up and gave in."

"Is that when you started to volunteer?"

"Yep."

Steve doesn't know why, but that is what makes him blurt, "I became an escort."

Sam's eyes bulge out. It's hilarious. "An-"

"Escort, yeah. Highly-paid hooker. That's me. Still think I'm coping?"

Sam puffs out his cheeks, see-sawing his hand in the air. "I'm betting it pays really well. Also, that comment about fucking makes a lot more sense now."

Steve smiles mirthlessly. "You took a job helping other damaged people, getting them back on their feet. I fuck people for money. Yeah, we're real similar, you and I."

"Man, shut the hell up," Sam tells him, rolling his eyes. "Do you know how long it took me before I could look another vet in the eye? Two years, Rogers. Two years and seventeen days. Sometimes, there's so much pain inside you, it don't leave space for anyone else's. You're not a bad guy because of it. It's not your fault everything was ripped from you. It's not your fault you're not ready to take on someone else's grief as well as yours. It'll get better. It won't ever go away, but some day, you'll look at someone pretty badly off, and you'll see your way to helping them through to the other side. And it ain't a problem if it takes you a few years to get to that point. Anyone tell you any different, they've never been even remotely close to where you're coming back from."

Steve grits his teeth and tells himself he absolutely is not going to cry. He honestly hadn't realised how much it had been weighing on him, that the thought of going into an orphanage or the hospital to ask about volunteering made him break out in cold sweat and gave him the kind of shakes that dumped him flat on his ass. He's been trying to be patient with himself, but it has been a struggle. To hear Sam explain it so logically and succinctly, without it giving him the slightest pause – it makes Steve feel a little less broken.

"Thank you, Sam," he says, doing his best to breathe through the lump in his throat that's big enough to choke on.

Sam shuffles closer and pats his arm where it rests on his knee. "My pleasure, man. You gotta stop beating yourself up about this stuff. You're doing just fine. It's gonna take a while, but I promise the therapy will help. Now, you want another beer?"

Steve nods gratefully, and Sam levers himself up to amble into the kitchen. He returns with two cold bottles, passing one over to Steve. Steve takes it and presses it to the back of his neck, in the hope of dialing down the flush breaking all over him out of nowhere.

"So," Sam says, after he's taken a long drink from his own bottle. "Wanna tell me inappropriate yet fascinating tales of your life as Julia Roberts?"

"Huh?"

Sam goggles at him. "Pretty Woman? You don't know—you haven't seen—fuck that." He springs off his chair, heading purposefully towards his entertainment center. "That ain't right. How am I supposed to give you shit if you don't know the source material? Sit back and relax, my friend, you're about to meet Vivian, a.k.a. you in female form."

And that's how Steve finds himself crying while Richard Gere waves roses from the open roof of a limousine, and trying his hardest not to draw parallels. He rubs his eyes dry and glares at Sam.

"Not a word," he warns, sniffling as Sam snorts at him. It's... it's just a beautiful scene, is all.

He buries his head in his hands. Sam was right. "Fuck my life, I'm totally Julia Roberts."

Sam throws his head back and laughs and laughs – which is actually hilarious, because the joke's on him and Steve tells him so.

"Oh?" Sam perks up. "You got yourself a millionaire sugar daddy?"

Steve groans, leaning into the couch cushions. "He's probably a billionaire," he corrects absently, trying to shake the melancholy that crept up on him when he wasn't looking. He can't even blame it on the alcohol. His life sucks. "So, so smart. Real easy on the eye. But he's not mine, not even close. I mean, he's... And I'm... well." He spreads his arms, looking down at himself. "He's just having fun, chasing something that won't fall into his lap right off the bat. I'm having fun, too, so I shouldn't complain. I'll take what I can get."

Sam is squinting at him.

"Who is this paragon of virtue?" he asks slowly.

"Hah. I'd hardly call him that. He's just... I like him."

"And let me guess. You think he's too good for you, or you're not good enough for him, or whatever brand of nonsense you've gotten into your head."

Steve flushes. "Don't analyse me," he growls. "You have no idea what the situation's like."

"So tell me," Sam says, spreading his hands.

"Ugh. To him, I can't be all that fascinating, okay? I'm not smart like him, I can't keep up with his brain. He doesn't know I used to be Captain America. I'm just me now, and I'm a guy of simple tastes. Don't see how he's gonna stay interested."

Sam rolls his eyes and heaves a disgusted sigh. "You're a piece of work, Rogers," he grunts. "Repeat after me: 'I'm a decent person who deserves nice things'. Now you."

Steve raises both his eyebrows. Sam kicks him.

"'I'm a decent person who deserves nice things.' Let's hear it."

Steve rolls his eyes. "I'm a decent person who deserves nice things," he repeats dutifully. It's not his fault it wouldn't convince a baby.

Sam kicks him again. Steve glares at him.

Undeterred, Sam waggles a finger. "Once more with feeling, Rogers."

"I'm a decent person who deserves nice things," Steve sighs. Doesn't mean he'll get them.

"Put that woebegone face away. If he can't see what a fucking catch you are, he's the one who doesn't deserve you."

"Yeah, yeah."

Sam eyes him suspiciously, but switches the TV over to a hockey game, and they watch the Capitals demolish the Flyers for a while. Sam cheers every time someone gets rammed into the glass, regardless of what team they play for. It's... nice. Steve lets himself smile and sinks further into the cushions. Maybe Sam would like to do this again – without the truckload of emotions, mind you. Steve feels better, no doubt, but he'd still rather jump out of the space shuttle than do this again, any day.

Sam takes the decision from him, snagging his phone and tapping in his number, then dialing it until his phone chirps.

"There. Now you can complain to me about your not-boyfriend, and I can continue your education in modern-day pop culture."

Steve smiles as he pockets it, then pats his stomach.

"Thanks for dinner. Gonna have to go on an extra-long run tomorrow to burn all this stuff off."

Sam snorts derisively, but fails to hide his interest. "Like you need it. What route d'you take?"

Steve tells him, then adds, "You're welcome to join me, if you like. That is, if you think you can keep up."

Sam's jaw drops open, releasing the tiniest squawk, before he pulls himself together and glares at Steve. "I'ma school your ass tomorrow," he threatens. He looks like a puffed-up baby falcon. It's kind of adorable.

Steve leaves the apartment laughing. Well. This is a vastly better outcome than the one he'd been predicting, especially if someone had tried to make him play word associations. Either Sam is brilliant at his job (which, obviously), or Steve has just been waiting for an excuse to talk about all this stuff – or for a person to turn up who Steve could trust to take what he was going to lay on them.

Whichever, he knows he's lucky to have met Sam. If he believed in such things, he might have said it was predestined. But he doesn't, so it's just very serendipitous, and Steve appreciates the hell out of it – enough to take what Sam told him seriously, and maybe, just maybe, try to learn to give himself a break. He isn't going anywhere. The future is now; he might as well live in it.

Chapter Text

On Tuesday, Steve shows up at Bouley early, partly out оf nerves, partly because if he spent one more minute at home winding himself up about tonight, he might be tempted to call the whole thing off. He is already compromised, spends far too long second-guessing himself about his reactions to Tony, how they might give away how invested he is. Though, if he wants to stop seeing Tony, letting him guess that Steve is in too deep might be exactly the thing to drive him away. And yet, the thought of it has Steve's stomach clenching and his mouth drying out. He is in so much trouble.

Bouley glows warmly in the evening dusk, drawing him in with the promise of a decadent experience he won't forget. He checks that the knot of his tie lies flat and snug at his throat, and smooths a hand down the front of his jacket. It's the only three-piece suit in his wardrobe, a rather expensive Tom Ford model that Steve keeps for special occasions, like escorting a client somewhere really public and high-end. As to why he felt compelled to put it on tonight - he loves the way it fits, hugging his shoulders but not too loose over his waist, and when he'd pulled on the pants and turned to check the tuck of his shirt, well. He'd tap his ass. Even if this thing with Tony is doomed, and all he'd have to show for it is the memory of that spark of connection between them, he is just vain enough to want Tony to remember him too; to not just remain a face in the nameless crowd of Tony Stark's conquests.

Tony Stark, who is late.

Steve sips his water and sits in the opulent, aesthetically stunning restaurant for ten minutes, fifteen, thirty. He eyes the exits and checks his phone six times before he gets an alert for a commotion up on Jackson and 46th, the Museum of Modern Art. Steve had heard noise from his artist buddies about some gala going on tonight. Figures that with a lot of fashionistas gathered in one place, trouble isn't far behind. He wonders idly what went so wrong that it would necessitate the presence of Iron Man - assuming that's where Tony is, and he didn't just blow him off because he had better things to do than knocking elbows with Steve Rogers, retired Army sergeant who has very well compensated sex with rich people in his spare time.

Once an hour ticks over, Steve admits defeat and gets up to go. He leaves a few dollars for the waiter's trouble, then strides slowly outside into the cool night air. He straightens his jacket, smirking wryly at his earlier self over the trouble he took with his attire, then turns north to make his way to the nearest metro station.

He hasn't gone six steps before he hears the telltale whoosh-clank behind his back.

"Hey, come on, you aren't leaving already?"

Fuck him so much, he's pouting. Steve can hear it in his voice. He turns.

"Good evening, Tony. Good evening, Jarvis."

"Hello, Sergeant Rogers. Wonderful to see you again."

"And it is wonderful to see him again, huh, wearing that mouthwatering piece of design. You know, I spent the last three hours surrounded by fashion icons in all manner of couture creations, but no one wore it better than you."

"I'm flattered," Steve says, then shuts his mouth. He doesn't know how to ask; more to the point, he isn't particularly interested in hearing the answer.

Tony watches him quietly. Steve can see the calculations running behind his eyes, knows Tony is about to say something that will probably make Steve want to punch him in his handsome face. Wonders when it was exactly that he learned to read Tony like this.

"So, ix-nay on our date?" Tony says, attempting casual. "I wasn't that late, was I?"

"I already ate," Steve lies. Better to get out now, right? He knows where he stands.

"Oh," Tony says. Steve eyes him, because he sounded genuinely regretful. "I mean, okay, if that's what you want. I guess I can't expect you to be understanding of the whole Iron Man superhero business."

And there it is. Steve cracks up. He can't help it. It's that or really lay one on him.

"I guess not," he says a few minutes later, when his hysterics have died down to a manageable level. He can feel the bitterness of his smile like a brand on his face. "It's fine, Tony. I'm not your boyfriend. You aren't accountable to me."

Tony shrugs with a vague mechanical whir. "Yeah, but we had a date. I'm not in the habit of standing people up without a good reason."

"And you had one. So your record is unblemished."

Tony quirks his head. "Are you playing dumb, or is this a hint I'm not getting? You want me to go away, leave you alone?"

Ugh. Fuck his life.

"No. I don't want that."

"So let me take you out already."

The armour cracks open from the inside, releasing Tony like a lobster shell. He's wearing dress pants and a shirt, like he was midway to changing for their dinner when he got the call. Steve wishes he didn't feel the urge to pin him to the wall and kiss him stupid.

"I guess our reservation expired, huh. Shame, I was looking forward to David's cooking. What did you have? The duck is spectacular."

Steve shrugs. "I lied. You're gonna have to feed me, because I'm starving." He wants to play the old man card, but... Tony doesn't know about that. Might never find out, all in all.

Tony's face does something Steve doesn't look at too hard. Maybe he should've stuck to the lie. But... He wasn't lying when he said he didn't want Tony to walk away.

"All right, I'm on it. Uh, are you feeling like anything in particular?"

Oh, Tony. If only you knew.

"A burger," Steve says honestly. "I could really do with a terrible greasy disgusting burger."

"Pal, I got you. If it's a cholesterol bomb you want, a cholesterol bomb you shall get."

So that's how he ends up at Burger King at nine-thirty on a Tuesday evening, eating his weight in bacon double cheeseburgers and fries with Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, a.k.a. Genius Billionaire Playboy Philanthropist. The kick of it is -

"These are the best damn burgers I've had this millennium."

Tony stares at him, mouth half-open and full of half-masticated food. It should be disgusting, and it's a sign of how far gone Steve is that he mostly finds it endearing.

"You - Don't tell me you haven't been to Burger King since the 90s?"

Steve smirks and shrugs, letting Tony draw his own conclusions. His appalled face is the stuff of legend, and it has Steve snickering while Tony promises to take him to every burger joint and food truck with a good rating, "JARVIS can compile an algorithm, we are gonna do this shit right."

"Food truck?" Steve asks before taking another bite.

Tony stares at him for a long moment, and Steve tries to look innocent and guileless while internally berating himself for slipping up. But it does get Tony rhapsodising about street food in LA, and honestly, Steve could probably listen to him read the phone book at this point and be content. Also - food. Twenty-first century food is one of the great joys of Steve's new life.

They have, he realises when a flash of light from the left makes him jerk and sends his heart rate soaring, at some point attracted a small crowd. He doesn't know how he failed to see it until now. He can hear the clicks of a dozen phone cameras, and tries to mentally prepare himself for ending up on twitter and facebook. Thankfully, they have no idea who he is, and he's sitting with his back to the room despite how badly it makes his neck prickle. At least he can face the window this way.

Tony's phone pings. He takes another bite, makes a satisfied sound and wipes his mouth of ketchup before pulling it out and tapping on it, placing it on the table so it can project up in the air between them.

"'Tony Stark's new mystery man: can he fare better than the ladies?' 'Prince Charming tries another Cinderella'. Holy crap, they move fast."

Steve eats his burger and doesn't reply. He can feel Tony's eyes on him, but honestly, he doesn't know what to say. He never meant to be Tony's next fling, but maybe that's what Tony intended for them all along.

Tony, apparently, isn't inclined to leave it at that. He nudges his shoe gently against Steve's foot. "Come on, Steve. You gotta have something to say. You always do."

Steve shrugs. "Gonna need a larger glass slipper than your usual stock."

Tony laughs. "I'll have a combat boot made just for you. Seriously, though. I kind of wanna date you. Where are you on that?"

Steve blinks, looking up at him for the first time since the flash had assaulted his peripheral vision. "Really?"

He can't help how surprised he sounds, how hopeful. He hadn't been expecting this, and it's not just him being modest.

"Really really. Why is that so hard to believe?"

Steve slants an eye at the still glowing phone and lifts an eyebrow.

"Yeah, okay," Tony concedes. "Seriously, though. You're smart, you're funny, you're hella good looking, and you're more open and honest about who you are than 99% of the people in my life. Maybe I just want a little bit of that brightness for myself."

Something about what Tony said lodges uncomfortably in Steve's chest. He desperately, achingly wants to just say yes, to jump at this chance and let himself fall into the growing warmth between them - but.

"There are things you don't know about me," he cautions.

Tony shrugs. "I want to learn, though. You can—Steve. You can trust me. Okay? I want this. I want you. I like you, and unless you're hiding a deranged serial killer behind that pretty smile, there aren't too many things that would be a dealbreaker. Just don't lie to me, and we're sparking."

Steve sighs. But this is Howard's boy, and Steve would bet he already knows a lot of the stories - he just doesn't know that Steve is the guy in them. Maybe Steve should have that long-overdue chat with Phil. There's no reason for Tony not to be read in on Steve's identity - if anyone is used to non-disclosure agreements left, right, and centre, it's Anthony Stark. Steve grins sharply, thinking about the expression on Phil's face when Steve goes to him with this. Maybe Clint could take a picture. Phil is less likely to kill him for it.

"Okay, Tony."

Tony looks up sharply from where he'd been pretending to be engrossed in his fries. "Okay?"

Steve smiles at him, feels the fist wrapped securely around his heart unclench a little - just enough for Tony to slip inside. "Yeah. Okay. Let's do it."

Tony's answering smile is incandescent, brighter even than the new arc reactor under his shirt. "Okay," he declares, straightening in his chair with a new sense of purpose. "Now, would you like me to drive you home? I know good boys like you don't kiss on a first date."

Steve gives him a look. "Lucky for you, then, that this is our third."

Tony blinks. Steve has never seen him this flummoxed. It's fantastic.

"Care to enlighten me on how you figure that?" Tony asks, hope stealing in at the edges.

Steve puts down his burger, wipes his hands on a clean tissue, and leans back in the plastic chair. "On our first date -" He holds up his forefinger. "You fed me buffalo wings and pissed me off with your wrong opinions about baseball. On our second -" He raises another finger, talking over Tony's spluttered objections. "You let me drag you around a home decoration store for three hours, got weird about me paying the check, and pissed me off by shelling a ridiculous amount of money on useless things for no reason." A third finger goes up. Steve glares at Tony, daring him to interrupt; Tony folds his arms over his chest and glares back, lower lip sagging into a pout. "So this, by extension, is our third date. You gonna argue with me about arithmetics? Because I'm sensing a pattern here, and I'm thinking the pissing me off part is about to get started."

Tony's mouth opens and closes a few times. Steve wants to preserve this moment for posterity: Tony Stark, speechless. Maybe he should get a diploma printed. Or a big silver trophy for his mantelpiece.

"You're an asshole," Tony settles on.

Steve shrugs. "Well, you did say you wanted to get to know me better."

Tony stares at him some more, then drops the rest of his food back on the tray and piles their used paper towels around it.

"It wasn't for no reason, it was because you liked them. Also, I was trying to remember the last time I'd been out with someone who didn't expect me to pick up the check. Also, the Dodgers suck and that's a fact. Also, we should go."

He gets up and snags his jacket, heedless of the two dozen people recording his every move, and looking at Steve like he's missing something.

Steve gets up, good mood plummeting. "If that's what you want," he says neutrally, shutting down whatever emotions are trying to make themselves known, because he refuses to mope in the middle of a fast food joint over his crush wanting to cut their date short.

Tony reaches up and grabs the lapels of his jacket with both hands, yanking him closer so he can press his mouth to Steve's ear. "We should go, because otherwise I'm going to lay you down on top of this table and suck you 'til you scream my name, and I'm thinking my new boyfriend has this thing about privacy."

Steve's heart trips over itself, slamming into his chest and nearly deafening him with the rush of blood to the head.

"Unless you think our third date is too soon to put out?" Tony purrs, and closes his teeth gently over Steve's earlobe.

Tony Stark is an absolute dick, and Steve is in love with him.

"Okay," he says breathlessly, grabbing for Tony's hand and turning them towards the exit. "You win. Let's go."

---

"Well," Phil says. In the corner of the room, Clint is doubled down on the couch, shaking with laughter. "Can't say I'm particularly shocked."

"No? I am, a little."

"Then you haven't been paying attention. Did you realise you never asked me to keep tabs on you when you were out with him? You trusted him from the start, even when you knew nothing about him but his name. Also, and don't jump down my throat, but he's an asshole and you have a type."

Steve… wants to argue, but. Phil has a point. He does have a type - hyper-competent, effortlessly confident charming assholes with a hint of vulnerability and a good heart under the hard shell make him a little weak at the knees. He slowly lifts an eyebrow at Phil as he sips his drink, and watches in delight as Phil blushes across the bridge of his nose.

"I can't believe you're Tony Stark's boyfriend," Clint giggles. "This is amazing. He's going to buy you a diamond the size of a grenade and a tiara to go with it."

"Are you saying those are relationship goals?" Phil asks blandly. Steve chokes on his drink and tries to pretend he wasn't laughing.

"You're always welcome to throw bling at me, baby, you know what I like," Clint winks at him sleazily.

Phil sighs and rubs his temple. "I need to have a word with Natasha about this before you go waving an engagement ring in her face. I like to keep my bones intact, call me old-fashioned."

Clint freezes, mouth dropping open. Phil observes him for a second, then gets up to walk across the room and into Clint's space. Clint stares up at him, caught in someone else's crosshairs for a change and, surprisingly, looking quite happy to be there.

"Are you serious?" Clint demands, voice gone thin and high-pitched.

Phil shrugs. "I like it, so I wanna put a ring on it. Do you?"

Clint makes a sound not unlike a stepped-on squirrel. Then he launches himself up from the sofa and into Phil's arms, wrapping all of his appendages around him.

Steve takes that as his cue to go.

---

He decides to tell Tony over dinner on Thursday. Tony flies back in town on Wednesday after a long week of meetings in Tokyo, so Steve wants him to have a chance to catch his breath before he springs the metric shitton of baggage he comes with on his unsuspecting boyfriend.

(Sidebar: calling Tony his boyfriend? Yeah, that's never getting old.)

Because it's Tony Stark he's dealing with, that is not how it goes.

What does happen is Steve's doorbell ringing at ten-thirty at night, startling Steve from a light doze in front of his TV. When he opens the door, it's to a bleary-eyed but smiling Tony propped on the door jamb, reaching to pull him into a deep and very delicious kiss. Steve lets it happen, insinuating himself closer in Tony's embrace. He missed this, and not just because he made the executive decision over the weekend to let his escort business come to a gentle close. It isn't just the kissing he missed, or someone's touch; it was Tony's, specifically - Tony's kisses, Tony's smell, the way Tony fits in his arms and makes him feel like he is adored.

Steve just hopes he'll still have this after what he has to say.

"Mmm. It's good to be home," Tony murmurs against his throat, placing a last kiss that makes Steve shiver delicately before he steps back.

"Did you just get back?" Steve asks, taking in the rumpled clothes and mussed hair that isn't a result of Steve pushing his fingers through it, honest.

"About an hour ago. Why is traffic still a bitch at nine pm? I need to start leaving the suit on stand-by at the airport."

"I trust Jarvis more to fly you home safely than I trust you when you're this tired," Steve chides gently, taking Tony's hand and leading him to the couch. Tony drops onto it with a sigh, letting his head fall to the back cushion.

"Want a cup of tea? I was just about to make one."

"Tea," Tony mouths to himself, then shrugs. "Sure. Why not."

Steve flicks the electric kettle on and opens the cupboard to rummage inside for mugs and teabags. He's grateful for it when he hears Tony say, mid-yawn, "Hey, d'you know why I got an NDA in my email with your name in it? From Coulson, no less. I didn't think you had anything to do with SHIELD anymore."

Steve slowly puts down the two mugs he'd fetched.

"I was gonna talk to you tomorrow about that," he tries, busying himself with setting the teabags to stew and pulling the milk out of the fridge.

"Talk to me now instead." Tony's voice comes from very close behind him. Steve turns to find him standing a couple of steps away, dropping his jacket over the top of one of Steve's kitchen chairs. Then he steps closer, and the soft tenderness Steve sees laid bare across his features makes him quake right to his core.

He reaches out, needing desperately to feel the grounding touch of Tony's hand in his.

"I told you there were things you didn't know about me," he starts, surprised at how rough his voice sounds. "I'm ready to talk about them now. Will you sign?"

Tony doesn't answer; instead, he reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and takes out a stack of pages folded in three. Still using his left hand, he flicks to the last page where his signature is scrawled across the bottom.

Steve exhales shakily. "Okay."

Okay. This is - he can do this. Even if it absolutely terrifies him to know that with just a few brief words, he can shatter something that - as expected - has come to mean the world to him in just a few oh-so-short days.

Dating Tony has been incredible. The whole experience is completely different from what Steve had, shamefully and in secret, fantasized about. He had thought, maybe, that there would be more banter, more butting of heads and trying to learn how they fit together. And there is that, sure; he and Tony talk like they can't bear to accept that they are two separate people outside of each other's heads. They argue about ridiculous things - like the travesty of cilantro in tacos (Steve happens to like it, but Tony maintains it tastes like soap), and why Tony should not buy Steve a Porsche, like that's a serious question. They also share memories from their childhood, Tony endlessly curious and always so eager to know everything Steve chooses to impart.

But there are also the quiet times, and it is those that surprise Steve the most. The way Tony leans into him when they sit on the couch to watch a movie. The endless, casually affectionate and increasingly possessive touches Tony bestows on him every moment they spend together. How much Tony enjoys being in his physical space, for someone who professes not to like to be handed things and shies away from unexpected skin contact. These moments are all priceless to him; Steve hoards them like gemstones, and it makes him ache inside to think that he might be about to lose them all - that Tony will take offense at Steve not telling him this earlier; that for all his jokes about Steve not being able to take the duality of Tony Stark/Iron Man, it will be Tony who can't accept that Steve belongs to an alter ego himself.

That Tony would hear 'Captain America', and look at Steve, and Steve will see confusion in his face, because those two things can't possibly coexist.

The fractured thoughts and feelings chase their tails inside Steve's head, making cold sweat prickle down his back and his heartbeat spike. But it all comes down to this small fact - he trusts Tony. He trusted him when Tony was just a potential client, and when he was something Steve didn't think he'd be allowed to have, and when Tony smashed all his expectations to pieces and wanted him anyway. He has to trust that Tony has thought this through; that Tony wants him enough to understand and accept this part of him, too. And yes, it's scary as hell, but also Steve has no choice. He has to do this. He has to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop, because it hurts, and he's tired, and he doesn't want to do it anymore. He needs to know he can be enough.

He takes a deep breath and tries to hold Tony's eyes while Tony stands there, quietly patient, giving Steve the courage to open his mouth.

"Well. You know how I told you Captain-America Steve Rogers was my grandfather?" He waits for Tony to nod and tries to smile. "That's not… strictly speaking true."

Before he can say more, he finds himself pushed back into the counter, Tony's palm tipping his head down so Steve has nowhere to look but into those already-beloved eyes trying to bore through his skull.

"I fucking knew it," Tony says vehemently. "I knew something wasn't right. You ripped a Kevlar-lined undershirt with your bare hands; your file is encrypted with more protection that I've ever seen in SHIELD's database - you don't know what food trucks are, you - Margaret Carter's your mother's friend? Give me a break. You're the source code, aren't you? The original Steve Rogers."

Steve nods, trying to hold his gaze. It's one of the hardest things he's ever had to do.

"How?" Tony demands.

The thing is, he sounds pissed, but he's still holding Steve's hand, and that is the only thing that really matters. Surely if he was that disgusted and disappointed, he'd have stormed out by now? At the least, he wouldn't still be touching Steve like he wants to keep him.

Steve braces himself and lets the floodgates loose. He talks about the ice, and waking up decades in the future, and being told there's no place for him anywhere anymore, that he needs to make his own way now. A muscle in Tony's jaw ticks rhythmically; Steve's hand aches a little with how hard it's being squeezed. He shifts his fingers tentatively and Tony's grip slackens, starting to let go. Steve isn't proud of the desperate noise he makes, the way his fingers try to latch around Tony's - but it works. Tony's hand closes around his again, thumb stroking reassuringly across his wrist.

"So that's the big secret, huh. You really are that old fossil."

Steve winces, shrugging. "Pretty much. Took me a while to get back up to speed with the world, that's for sure."

Tony looks like he's chewing on words that Steve knows are going to be a punch in the gut.

"I'm going to rip Coulson into tiny little shreds," is what Tony says. The tone is conversational, but his eyes reveal the fury inside.

"No," Steve begs, grabbing for Tony's other hand too. "Tony, no, you shouldn't. Phil has been great. For a long time, he was the only friend I had. It's not his fault. He hated this too."

"He should've done more," Tony roars, pulling away to shove one hand into his hair. "I can't believe - they just left you, threw you out into the cold with no support system, who does that to anyone, let alone a war hero?"

Steve grinds his teeth, looks Tony dead in the eye. "I'm not him anymore. I'm not Captain America. I'm just Steve Rogers from Brooklyn, New York. Okay, Tony? I was born a hundred years ago, but that doesn't make me special. Everything special about me came out of a bottle."

"Don't you say that," Tony snaps, grabbing the front of Steve's t-shirt and getting in his face. "You're special. You're plenty special. Just because SHIELD can't see out of their own asses doesn't mean you didn't do great things, saved countless lives. You've been my hero since I knew who you are, Cap."

Steve flinches. He doesn't mean to, but to have Tony calling him 'Cap' - like knowing who he used to be inevitably trumps little Steve Rogers, erases him under the weight of someone else's identity - he isn't sure he can deal with that.

The hold on his shirt loosens and then Tony's hand is on his face, gentle fingers stroking his cheek. Steve hadn't realised he'd closed his eyes until he opens them to see Tony standing so close, looking at him with the same tenderness Steve had unknowingly grown used to.

"I'm sorry," Tony whispers. His thumb traces Steve's eyebrow. "Steve, you're not - you're Captain America, yes, but you're also Steve. My Steve."

With a sob, Steve curves his body around Tony's, burying his face in Tony's neck. The other shoe has dropped, and it turned out to be as soft as a leaf on the forest floor. Tony's arms wraps around him, keeping him close and safe, Tony's fingertips stroking the nape of Steve's neck.

"Were you worried I'd want to fuck Captain America, not date Steve Rogers?" Tony asks quietly.

Enfolded in Tony's arms, Steve feels safe enough to admit, "Maybe."

Tony sighs, but keeps stroking Steve's back soothingly.

"I still want to murder every single SHIELD agent who made you think you weren't a hundred times more important than Captain fucking America. You know, I kind of hated that guy? I admired him for all that he did, but I tuned out every time someone mentioned him. Cap was all Howard would talk about. He went sailing on expeditions eight months out of the year, trying to find you, and I resented him for it. I was a kid, I didn't know any better, but by the time I was ten years old, I knew all the stories about you by heart, but not how my own father drank his coffee, or what it felt like to be hugged by him.

"So don't think that I'm going to obsess over your alter ego. I've got my own, you know."

Despite the ache in his heart, Steve laughs. "He's way hotter than mine."

"Mm, that's a matter of opinion, but the suit's pretty fly, I'll give you that."

Steve could make a crack about Tony learning humility at last, but his heart isn't in it and it shows. Tony doesn't say more, either, just stands there watching him quietly. It makes awareness prickle all over Steve's body, the hairs on his arms rising in response to the intensity of the moment. People who think they know Tony would be amazed that he is capable of holding still for so long, narrowing his focus to just one person - but Steve has had a year's worth of experience showing that the public and private faces of people don't always intersect. The easy acceptance in every line of Tony's body is astounding, thoroughly unexpected and all the more precious for it. Steve had prepared himself for the worst - he'd thought there'd be a lot more yelling, for a start - but he can be nothing but grateful that someone up there thought he deserved a break at last.

The scent of black tea in the air reminds him that the cups are maybe a little overstewed by now, but he can live with that if he adds some extra sugar, so he makes up both cups and brings them to the table. Tony sniffs at his and takes a cautious sip - honestly, has he never seen tea before? But he seems to like it, because he doesn't immediately go dump it into the sink.

"Can I ask you something?" he says, once he's around halfway through the cup.

"Of course," Steve says. "I know I owe you some answers."

Tony shakes his head. "This isn't about that. You don't owe me anything. Uh, the sex thing. Was it - did you need money that badly?"

Steve watches the way his fingers flex into the table, like he could have typed the problem away if only he'd known. He shakes his head.

"Not really. I think… I've been talking to someone about it, and I think it was more of a rebellion thing. I was trying to leave a mark on people's lives, if not the world. Be seen, I suppose, even just as a pretty face."

"I saw you," Tony murmurs.

Steve shrugs. "You saw me as a mystery you wanted to solve."

"Maybe at the beginning. But the more I found out about you, the more I wanted to know. Steve, even if never expected you to be some larger than life icon, I always knew there was more to you than met the eye."

Steve sips his tea, watching him back. "But now you know who I am."

"So?"

"I don't know. I guess I wondered if you'd be disappointed. You know, Captain America is this huge mythical figure, there's been so much propaganda about him, that you'd expect him to be… something spectacular."

Tony blinks, incredulous. "You thought I'd be disappointed? With you? Oh my god, you are an idiot. Steve, Captain America is a construct. It's the man behind the mask who's important. It's you who made Captain America a hero and a legend; you who wouldn't stop until HYDRA did. You are what made Captain America special, not the other way round."

Steve stares at him. "Oh."

Tony rolls his eyes. "Yeah, 'Oh.' You dolt."

"But -" Steve starts, and is met by Tony's hand raised in his face.

"Nope," he sing-songs. "I'm not interested in your delusions."

Steve rolls his eyes.

Tony gapes. "You - you wanna start with me, Mister Maybelline?"

"Uh. What?"

"It's a - look, nevermind, the point is, it's not the serum. You were born with it, okay? That's all there is to it."

Steve blushes. He's - this is the happiest he has felt since the ice. He has this real swell guy, who thinks he's pretty swell himself, who knows exactly who he is and hasn't run away yet. He hates what he had to lose to get here, but the payoff is - yeah. Pretty damn great.

"Um," he says, feeling shy in a way he hasn't for well over twelve months. "Do you wanna go to bed?"

Tony lights up. "I thought you'd never ask," he beams, springing off the chair and starting to fiddle with the buttons of his shirt. Then he stills, looking at Steve from under his lashes.

"Darling? I have a problem."

Steve's heart is so full of joy, he wonders if it would burst from his fingertips.

"Oh? Something I can help with?"

Tony nods earnestly. "Yes, I think so. You see, it's this shirt. The fabric is really stiff, and it, it itches! Yes, and the colour washes me out, it's just terrible all round." Pause. "I don't like it at all."

Steve throws his head back and laughs until tears sting the corners of his eyes. When he looks back at Tony, they're both grinning like fiends.

"Poor baby," Steve soothes, getting up and cracking his fingers. "Let me help you out with that."

Steve - 2, shirt - 0.

Having sex with his boyfriend Tony is - it takes Steve by surprise how different it feels from having sex with his client Tony. He is used to holding himself a little separate at all times, never actually being out of control even if he does play the role. But kissing Tony as someone Steve loves, someone who possibly loves him back - it takes the experience to a whole new level.

The touch of Tony's hands on him brings his entire body to humming awareness. Tony's fingers press into the skin over his sides, creep up his back as Tony slides his hands under Steve's shirt, sensual and typically greedy. He kisses Steve like he could do it for days and never get enough. Steve shudders to have Tony focused on figuring out all of the places that make his breath hitch, get him to try to press closer, aching for more. Steve has spent the past fourteen months or so having a lot of sex, but he never remembers it being so tender, so deliciously unhurried. Like they have all night - or the whole of their lives - to spend discovering each other, and it's that thought more than anything that has Steve clutching back, delighting in the knowledge that Tony is his, and he is Tony's, and sex isn't some great political engagement with too many hidden agendas, but just the physical expression of their need to be close to each other.

Tony lays him on the bed, smiling up at him as he slinks lower and braces his elbows on either side of Steve's hips. His brown eyes are so, so warm, full of desire and a shared understanding - they're in this together, and there's only the two of them here in this room. Steve feels very warm, overheating from being still in his clothes. Sweat slicks the small of his back, and he wastes no time torquing his upper body to strip his shirt and throw it somewhere in the corner of his bedroom.

"My god," Tony says, awed. He's staring at Steve's abs, his chest, like he's realising for the first time the strength that lurks in those muscles. "Welcome home to me."

Steve laughs joyously. "Welcome home, baby," he murmurs, sitting up and arching his spine so he can kiss Tony without him having to get up. Steve kind of likes him in that position, hovering over Steve's hips like he has plans for them and he won't be deterred. Tony kisses back eagerly; Steve moans high in his throat when he feels Tony's fingers undoing his fly and starting to push his jeans down his thighs.

"Come on, help me out here," Tony mutters with a frustrated expression. "I need to get you naked now."

Steve acquiesces, helping Tony strip him in a few economic motions. Tony lies back over him, staring at Steve's dick rising towards his face in fascination.

"You have such a gorgeous cock," he says dreamily. "Don't know if I mentioned that before. I want to get to know it very, very well."

Steve flushes a little, gasping when Tony leans in to lick at him. Blowjobs have not been something Steve experienced too frequently in his business. The friendlier of his clients had done that for him, and Phil, but it is still a novelty in a present filled with Steve focusing on other people's pleasure first. If he had ever felt neglected, Tony looks like he wants to erase each and every memory of that from Steve's head. His technique is flawless, like Steve should have expected; he is also deeply attuned to Steve's reactions, gathering feedback and using it ruthlessly to push Steve ever higher.

Too soon, he pulls off, taking Steve in one clever, sensuous hand and looking up at his face. His lips are red and a little puffy; the sight sends a thrill of lust right into Steve's balls, because he's the reason for that sight, and he selfishly wants to see it all the time.

"So, I have a question," Tony says conversationally, ignoring Steve's incredulous glare. "Refractory period. Bet it's pretty snappy, huh?"

"I don't really have one," Steve says pointedly, watching Tony's hand stroke leisurely up and down his spit-slick cock.

"Outstanding," Tony says, lowering his head to brush his lips over the frenulum and drive a keen out of Steve's throat - before he lifts up again.

"What?" Steve demands pitifully, so on edge that he can feel the throbbing of his pulse along his dick.

"Here's the gameplan," Tony says seriously. "I'm gonna blow you until you come in my mouth, then you're gonna prep me while you get your breath back, and then you're going to fuck me until we both come again. Sound good?"

Steve is going to die. "Okay but you said something about blowing me f-oh God," he stutters as Tony licks his lips, waggling his eyebrows lewdly, and wastes no time taking Steve deep into his throat. Then he hums, and yeah, that's all she wrote.

Tony swallows, which Steve isn't sure he expected. There's something fastidious about the guy even at his most debauched; but Steve decides against counting his blessings and takes the liberty of holding Tony up and kissing him hard, tasting his come on Tony's tongue, which is… Yeah. Very probably one of Steve's most erotic experiences to date, and that's really saying something.

"Thank you," he murmurs against Tony's hot lips, kissing them again.

"Are you crazy?" Tony says, muffled into Steve's mouth. "You're thanking me? I wanna do this all the time, do you know what you look like-"

Steve decides there will be time for talking later, after he's held up his part of the deal. Truthfully, there'll be time for talking for years and years, whole decades stretching in his mind's eye with the lovely, soft glow of anticipation. Steve was lost for a long time; for even longer, he had wondered if everything he'd been through was for nothing, just so he would make a pretty picture, look good in the spotlight as he pretended to punch Hitler in the face. There is much about his past that hurts, a pain he isn't sure will ever disappear.

But here, in this time and place, he has sunshine, and freedom, and the affection of someone extraordinary. He might always worry that all of this happiness is too much, undeserved, to be taken away at the snap of God's fingers - but he'll grab the chance, he'll lean into it and fight to keep it, because he already knows life isn't worth living without taking that risk.

For as long as he can, he'll jump with both eyes open, hold on tight to the gift he's been given, and put this love firmly where it belongs - on top.

Chapter Text

Three months later

It's not that Steve is blindsided - Phil has been dropping more and more pointed hints for the past few weeks - but he's still pretty shocked to be woken up at three in the morning by Jarvis' insistent light pulses and low tones of alarm.

"Sirs, you have an urgent call from Agent Coulson," Jarvis says.

Tony buries his head in Steve's shoulder and grumbles incoherently for a moment before he rolls away to paw at the side table for his phone.

"What?" he rasps, rubbing his eyes with one hand. "Did something explode?"

Phil is wearing a Kevlar-enforced suit that Steve has only seen on one previous occasion. He looks drawn, stress lines radiating from the corners of his mouth and eyes.

"We have a situation," Phil says, looking at Tony and Steve in turn. "We could use you gentlemen's assistance."

"Shit," Tony mutters, while Steve leans closer to the holo hovering in the air before them.

"Has it started?"

Phil and Tony shoot him remarkably similar looks of surprised respect. What, like Steve is stupid or something? He'd known something was coming for a while now. He might be out of the field, but he can still read the signs just fine.

"Yeah," Phil says on a sigh. "And you're really not gonna like it."

Steve and Tony exchange a look, then Tony says, "Be there in half an hour."

"Bring the suit," Phil says before the call disconnects.

"It's like he doesn't know me or something," Tony complains as they both roll out of bed. "I mean, I would hate to think I've become predictable, but come on!"

His muttering trails off as he yanks the underarmour over his head, popping out with a tangle of ruffled strands dandelioning around his face. Steve longs to push his hands into it and tame them, but there's no time for that now. He puts on a button-down shirt and a pair of slacks - he has no idea what's happening, but people are more likely to take him seriously if he isn't wearing a t-shirt and jeans.

He pauses for just a second as he buttons the cuffs, distracted by the tenderness of the skin of his wrists even in the midst of a potential crisis. It's still faintly red from earlier, when Tony had laid him out on the bed, carefully tied him to the bedposts, and proceeded to absolutely blow his mind with pleasure, winding him tighter and tighter until Steve hadn't known what to do with himself except come all over them both. Steve hadn't been sure he'd like the restraints, but - oh, he had. He really had.

He looks up, catches Tony's eyes dilating as Steve's fingers press into the marks. He feels his cheeks heat, wishes this was an ordinary morning when Tony could roll him over and circle them with his hands, and they can find out if Steve could come just from that and Tony's hot body pressing him down.

"Goddamn idiot bad guys," Tony growls, yanking his gaze away like it causes him pain and reaching into their closet to throw Steve's leather jacket at him.

"Later," Steve promises, catching it out of the air and pushing his arms into it, squatting down to lace and tie his boots.

"I'll hold you to it," Tony yells, already sprinting down the corridor into the lab, where the newest incarnation of the suit is ready to be assembled around him.

By the time Steve jogs over, the faceplate is lowering into place and Iron Man's eyes light up. He opens his arms, and Steve steps into them without hesitation, placing his feet into the footholds Tony installed specifically for this purpose. They slide back into the armour when not in use, and so do the handholds at the back of the suit's shoulderplates. Tony grips him securely, head tilting back to make sure the skylights have opened fully before he blasts them out into the city's nighttime glow.

"Jesus," Steve mutters, both of them turning to track the faraway flashes and plumes of smoke surrounding the SHIELD headquarters in lower Manhattan.

"Well, this isn't good," Tony agrees. "Suggestions?"

"Set us down on the roof, let's take it from there. Phil's office is close to the landing on the second-to-last floor."

Tony doesn't reply, but the thrusters fire harder and their trajectory adjusts accordingly.

"I have Agent Coulson again," Jarvis says, before he feeds the sound into the faceplate for Steve's benefit.

"Be careful when you get here, there are hostiles and friendlies everywhere. Clint will fetch you from the roof, south-east corner."

"Roger," Steve says as Tony dips them again. "ETA five minutes."

"Copy," Phil says, then the line cuts off again.

"So hey, wanna read me in on what's going on?" Tony says conversationally.

"I don't know everything," Steve demurs. "But Phil's been making noises about there being a mole in the agency. They've been trying to flush it for years, except it's looking like it's less of a mole and more of an ant farm. My guess is that they finally figured out the brass was onto them and decided to make their move."

"Do we know what to expect? Double agents? Foreign power spies?"

"That's as much as I've figured out. Phil is very good at hinting just enough."

"That he is," Tony agrees as he brings them to land softly on the rooftop, close to the stairwell into the building.

The door cracks open and Clint's head sticks out, blond hair streaked with sweat and what looks like ashes.

"Hey, guys," he calls, waving like a dork. "Thanks for coming. Phil's down on the fifth floor with Nat, we set up a stronghold."

"Hey, pal," Tony replies, faceplate rising. "Does this stronghold have windows? Be easier to fly us down."

"Ooh, good thinking! There's one at the end of the corridor on the floor above. We can scout the sitch there too. Hey, d'you mind if I - are those handholds? Neat!"

Clint climbs on Tony's back; Steve tries to smother a laugh at Tony's expression.

"What am I, a jungle gym?" Tony whines, but closes the faceplate and lifts off, flying them gently along the seam of the building and around to where Clint directs him.

They take out a couple of hostiles in full body armour as soon as they crash through the window, then collect one of theirs on the way. Steve can't see their face, but Clint appears to know who they are, so Steve doesn't question the intelligence of the move. They hustle down the stairs - some with more clonking noises than others - and stop before a part of the wall Clint taps a series of knocks on. It swings open to reveal -

"Well," Steve says, staring at Natalie's face. "I probably should've seen this coming."

Natalie - or Natasha, Steve supposes, and he really should have connected the dots by now - grins at him before she ushers them inside.

"Hey, Cap," she says, patting his shoulder. "Don't be mad, someone had to make sure those guys were friendlies."

"It was an art class!" Steve argues, before he rolls his eyes and shakes it off. "We'll talk about it later. Where d'you want us?"

The door seals behind them and the friendly agent removes her helmet.

"We've got most of the hostiles contained on levels nine and ten," she reports, pushing sweaty hair out of her eyes. "The boss is secure on level twelve. They've knocked out our communications, but I managed to grab these."

She distributes a handful of old-style walkie-talkies amongst them, and Steve has to fight off a wave of nostalgia at the sight.

"Casualties?" Phil demands.

"Minimal. Agents Triplett and Mackenzie are with Director Fury, they're handling the entry points. Listen, Coulson." She pauses, making a face. "Ward is one of the hostiles."

Phil's lips thin. "Damn it," he mutters. In the corner behind him, Clint winces. "I suppose you're enjoying that," he throws behind his shoulder as he turns.

"I didn't like the guy, but even I didn't have him pegged for a traitor," the woman says sourly.

"What are we dealing with here, exactly?" Steve asks, since no one seems inclined to elaborate.

In unison, the four agents turn to look at him. Yeah, Steve is not gonna like this, he can tell already.

"They have identified themselves as HYDRA," Phil says, no-nonsense.

Steve blinks at him. No - they're wrong. This can't be happening.

"What the fuck," Tony explodes. "Really? Really? We've got Nazis running around SHIELD now?"

"We're not happy about that either," Natasha says, crossing her arms next to the other female agent. "We suspected it might be those guys. That's why we sent you away, Cap. Didn't want them to get their hands on you."

"Thanks," Steve says. He still feels like he's drifting out of his body, trying to find the way back in. HYDRA. He'd spent so many years fighting them, and another year trying to convince himself the fight was over when apparently it wasn't at all.

Tony looks furious; Steve is almost worried about what might come out of his mouth when it opens. Phil preempts that.

"Hill, we got a plan?" he says. turning to the other agent. Oh. So that's Maria Hill, Fury's right-hand woman.

"The Army and Air Force are trying to get involved," Hill supplies. "Don't know how much help we can accept from them before this turns into a military stand-off. They're not exactly being loquacious. We don't know what their positions are, and Colonel Rhodes is away on assignment right now so he's out of the loop."

"Maybe I can try to find out," Steve says slowly. Stacker is pretty high up the foodchain. He might have heard a thing or two.

Phil's looking at him when Steve raises his eyes; he nods, understanding and approval in one.

"Go for it. Can't hurt."

Steve pulls out his phone and scrolls through his contacts. The phone rings for a while, five long tones before the click of connection.

"Steve." Stacker sounds fully awake; apparently Steve's guess wasn't that far off. "If you're calling why I think you're calling, I'm not sure how much I can give you."

"I'm at SHIELD right now," Steve says. "They just want to know the motives for your people coming in. I know I'm putting you in a tough position, but… can you tell me anything?"

The silence lasts for a few long moments before Stacker sighs.

"If they can do this on their own, they should," he says quietly. "I need to go. Be safe, you hear?"

"Thanks, Stacker," Steve says, terminating the call. Phil raises an eyebrow, and Steve shakes his head.

"This complicates things," Phil muses, turning towards an old-fashioned drawing board - probably to keep their operation offline. "If we have to keep the military out as well as HYDRA…"

"How many can there be? How much infiltration can they do without anyone realising?" Tony asks, annoyed. "Honestly, you guys, my faith is kinda shaken right now."

"They've been trying to shut it down, Tony," Steve argues gently. "SHIELD is a huge organisation, no one can be everywhere all the time; and HYDRA are sneaky, they don't play by the rules."

The SHIELD agents are looking at him intently when he turns back to them. Steve narrows his eyes. "What?"

"It might be time," Natasha says slowly, "for you to pick this up again, Cap." She walks over to Phil's desk, reaches under it, and pulls out the shield.

Steve stares at it like it might jump up and bite him. He is aware of emotions rushing through him - apprehension, denial, but also a deep current of familiar yearning to hold it. Whatever else has happened, whatever anyone says, it's still his.

The thing is, it was never just a shield. Attached comes a heavy mantle that Steve isn't sure belongs to him anymore.

He looks up. The SHIELD agents seem hopeful, and a little reverent. The thing is - he was Captain America. He did those things that have fallen into legend. He led those men who stood with him. Complicated as his emotions are about the whole thing - he can't deny it happened.

A small movement brings his gaze to Tony, standing a little to the side, not quite between him and the agents. The look on his face is strangely defiant as he stares them down; but as if he senses Steve's attention, he turns and his expression immediately shifts. There's something comforting in it, an unending river of support telling him that Tony will stand beside him in whatever he chooses. Through the months they've been together, Tony has told him in so many ways that Steve is the man he loves, and that Cap is a part of him, not the other way around. He can do this, if he chooses. He can become the symbol again, even if just for a little while - time enough to do the job, then step into the shadows again.

The summer soldier never wins the war, Steve reminds himself; and this is a war, he won't make the mistake of thinking otherwise. There are lives on the line, and if that weren't enough, there are values under threat that Steve cannot, in any incarnation of himself, stand by and watch erased.

Despite the risks and sacrifices involved, there is no version of Steve Rogers or Captain America anywhere that will not face a Nazi assault head-on, plant himself like a tree against it, and say, "Not on my watch."

He takes a step closer and lifts the shield from Natasha's hands. In the background, he hears the agents exhale.

"I'm not signing up for any more posters," he warns. He is surprised to feel a smile stealing across his face as he pushes his arm through the leather straps. The vibranium is cool under his fingers, humming faintly - alive.

"No posters, I promise," Phil says; he sounds pleased, and when Steve looks up, he gives him a blinding smile. "Welcome back, Cap. If it had been up to me, you'd never have left."

Steve looks at Tony again, who is watching him with soft eyes. He looks a mixture of proud and supportive, and it surprises Steve how nice it is to be certain that Tony has his back - that with everything he knows, he stands beside Steve in the choices he makes.

With this kind of assembly, HYDRA doesn't stand a chance. Steve looks at his people and smiles with all his teeth.

"All right, team. Let's get to work."

 

THE END