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Breathe and Release

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“Billionaire industrialist Tony Stark was spotted at a nightclub Saturday night, rubbing elbows with New York’s favorite trash-talking princess and notable celebutante, Chere. According to sources, he was partying hard - and drinking hard - well into the morning. Mr. Stark refused to comment on his sobriety.”

There was a long string of deleted expletives in the soundbite accompanying the report, along with a pixelated video clip of what must have been an obscene gesture from the man in question, and Steve rolled his eyes.

It was almost noon and the gym was practically deserted. There were regulars scattered here or there, a few lunchbreak heroes with their headphones on hurrying through their workouts, and none of them seemed to be paying the slightest bit of attention to the televisions positioned in front of the treadmills, all playing a highly sensationalized ‘entertainment news’ show slightly out of sync with each other.

“Do we have to watch this junk?” Steve demanded.

On the treadmill to his right, Sam let out a winded laugh. “Man, I thought you were in the zone. I thought you were phasing it out. You know I’m just waiting for The Price Is Right time.”

Which was, for the record, about the time of day that Steve usually got well and truly fed up with television interrupting his workout and headed for another machine. He always claimed it was just part of his doctor’s orders, that he had to take his runs in bursts to keep from tearing his knee back to hell, but in reality there was something about that one smug bastard who always put in a dollar over his neighbor’s bid that just killed him.

“Maybe some real news?” he suggested.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Sam countered, “but didn’t we have to turn ‘that junk’ off, too, because it was such a downer? Again, let me suggest you invest in an iPod. We’ll set up your iTunes. I’ll show you how to do the playlist.”

Steve made a noise that was more to do with his treadmill incline changing than Sam’s suggestion.

It was unclear how Sam took the noise, from the laugh he huffed out, but what he said next made it perfectly clear: “But honestly? I’ll miss these little talks, Rogers. You’re a real charmer when you’re powering through the pain, goddamn.”

Steve grimaced. When he woke up that morning, his leg had been stiff where the scar tissue was clustered around the old wound that had earned him a one-way trip home from his overseas deployment, an honorable discharge from the army, and several medals that made Sam whistle under his breath every time he happened by the shelf in Steve’s apartment bearing them. Somewhere between waking up and his morning routine bringing him to the gym, stiff had become painful without him really being aware of it, as if the ache was just too familiar for him to live without.

Of course it was Sam who noticed. Steve had met his best friend through the VA, where Sam had been one of the more cheerful - and demanding - volunteers to work with in the rehabilitation clinic. Their friendship was probably the only reason Steve managed to get over a lot of his lingering bitterness and develop a more positive attitude; it was certainly the only reason he felt emotionally well enough to go into the same line of work as Sam once his stint in physical therapy was over.

Sam had helped him find his way back into the civilian world, even if Steve - from time to time - still felt largely out of place there. He still woke up early enough to PT, even if he stowed it until their mid-morning workouts together, and still made his bed with military efficiency. It was a slow adjustment, with Sam always suggesting he just needed to give himself as much time out as he had in before he began to feel normal again.

He imagined the pain in his leg was going to double that time, though.

“Sorry,” Steve finally got out with a little effort.

It had taken them weeks of working together for him to even adopt a word like that into his vocabulary and Sam still glanced sidelong at him, taken aback by it. “That bad, huh?” Sam wondered.

“Maybe a four,” Steve agreed, recalling the ridiculous pain charts plastered all over the clinic walls with a sputter of laughter. Then, because he was more honest with Sam than he was with himself, at times, Steve added, “Five.”

“Let’s dial it back,” Sam said. He kept that air of someone who wasn’t giving an order, but certainly wasn’t making a suggestion, and changed the setting on his treadmill to a slow walking pace, patiently waiting for Steve to do the same.

Steve did, though grudgingly. It always felt like it was a little bit of defeat to admit to physical shortcomings, a weird mixture of growing old before his time and being the weak lump of a kid he’d been before basic. But he couldn’t deny he felt relieved when the incline shifted back down and the throb in the muscle just above his knee didn’t worsen.

“Better?” Sam asked, once they’d had a few moments of walking at the considerably slower pace together.

Steve nodded.

Back from commercial, the entertainment news show playing above their heads did a hard cut to the outrageous story of a monkey running amok in a department store in San Francisco. “You know,” Sam admitted, “I think I’ll take that depressing real news now.”

--

Four years ago, if someone had asked Steve if he pictured himself as a yoga instructor, he would have laughed. He would have gotten a stitch in his side laughing, actually. Not that his amusement would have stemmed from a crude place, not that he pictured himself as too tough or too macho for something like yoga, but he was a long way off from his tall beanpole days in high school and couldn’t imagine contorting the bulk he’d built up in the military into anything even vaguely resembling a pretzel.

(Sam liked to tease him that he wasn’t as big as he thought he was anymore, but that was neither here nor there.)

The more he learned about yoga, however, the more he loved it. Yoga was more than asanas -- more than the body postures everyone just assumed it was comprised of -- and the moment he began to learn about controlling his breathing, controlling his senses, universal morality, Steve was hooked. It wasn’t that it felt right, that it felt like he had finally discovered his place in the world, but it felt like it was a gateway for him to finally discover where he wanted or needed to be.

Lack of control was the biggest, ugliest problem in his life these past several years. Feeling sick with the weight of his injuries, with the physical and emotional ramifications of being flung out of the active war zone in which he had learned to survive and being shoved into a hospital, into physical therapy, right back into the civilian world, where nothing was a routine and nothing made sense and he wasn’t in the right place to be in control of his life anymore. The more he learned to control his prana, the more he felt like he was regaining the control he had sorely lacked over the other components of his life.

It was also a lot of work in the more traditional sense, which he not-so-secretly enjoyed, with his responsibilities as an instructor extending to finding and maintaining a certain number of students. When he was first hired, the gym seemed to think it was a difficult job to find at least a dozen consistent students, but Steve’s first afternoon class had gotten so large that they asked him to expand into a second class and had given him one of the larger rooms several days a week. There were always a few very eager students clustering outside the door when he arrived and several more pick-ups waiting in the back to see if there would be space for an extra mat before the class began. Steve always felt refreshed to know that there were so many people enthusiastic about the way he taught yoga; there were so many other classes in Manhattan they could choose from, after all.

On the tin, today was no different from any other afternoon. He greeted a few of his students on the way in, put on a soothing ambient noise CD to help drown out the sounds from the adjoining gym, and set out additional mats for anyone who dropped by wanting to test drive the class. There were a few questions about his new shirt -- it read you can do it! in looping script, flipped upside down so it was easily readable when he looked down at himself -- that Steve was happy to answer, because it was kind of his thing. Unironically wearing cheesy life affirming slogans on his shirts, which Sam loved to joke about, because sometimes just seeing something ridiculous and feel-good driven worked for him.

(Last July, his co-workers had gotten him one of those “Hang in there, baby!” kitten posters as a gag gift for his birthday, but Steve framed it and put it up over his drafting table at home and unrepentantly loved every single ounce of it. Because sometimes he just needed a cute, ridiculous reminder to hang on.)

Once the class settled into their usual spots, with only a spare little room at the back for any stragglers, Steve began in his usual way: the Sun Salutation. As he led the class into the cobra pose, reminding them of their breathing, the door clattered open in a jarring fashion and a man walked in, wearing sweatpants and a hoodie, his hood up to match his big aviators in a really awful homegrown terrorist kind of look. He was carrying nothing but a water bottle and a towel, possibly lost on his way elsewhere and suddenly mesmerized with the sight of more than two dozen women (and some men) in yoga pants, holding a pose that flexed muscles all down their backsides.

“Hello, sir,” Steve greeted in the pitched-high voice that reminded him of one of his elementary school teachers, trying to round the man’s attention away from possibly ogling behind his sunglasses. “Grab a mat and find a space. We just started.”

The man seemed to need just a little instruction to guide him, because he jumped right to the suggestion and found one of the spare mats Steve had set out. Within a few minutes, he was taking up space at the back of the class and trying to position himself according to the pose of his neighbor.

Convinced the newcomer was harmless, if a little strange, Steve continued through the rest of the Sun Salutation and into another pose. As he went through the set, he was able to find the center he so desperately needed after his lunchtime workout with Sam and the bitter reminder of his injured leg. It helped him guide his class toward that ultimate goal for themselves, helped him with how genuine and heartfelt he truly was with his encouragements for peace through control, helped him only startle a little when the hoodie guy in the back bent forward too far into a pose and let his sunglasses slip right off his face onto the floor.

The noise was muted by the thin rubber of the yoga mat he was using, until the glasses slid onto the polished wooden floor with a soft scrape barely audible above the soothing forest ambience CD, and Steve found he wasn’t that upset by the faux pas. He was sure everyone at one point in their lives had tried to do yoga while wearing sunglasses and a hoodie.

Really.

Steve even kept calm when, as the class wound down into a reflective moment spent concentrating on breathing, that hoodie guy seemed like he couldn’t sit still if his life depended on it and the sound of him scratching his stubbled chin resonated a bit more through the studio than his sliding sunglasses had. Steve ended the class on what he felt was a high note, still, and thanked everyone for attending, with the reminder that they would be opening advanced and Bikram classes in the future and encouraging anyone interested in it to sign up on the way out.

He quickly navigated the small sea of students rolling their mats to intercept the hoodie guy before he slunk from the studio. “Hi,” Steve greeted. “Did you roll your mat?”

The guy had hurried put his sunglasses back on, but squinted at Steve over the tops of them with shrewd blue eyes. Without answering, he turned back to his discarded mat, put his towel and water bottle down, and ducked down to roll it up.

“Thanks,” Steve said, meaning it more as positive reinforcement than anything. He reached out to accept the mat once it was rolled, then offered his other hand in greeting. “Steve Rogers. I hope you enjoyed the class today.”

Seeming almost reluctant, with the way he spent a little more time than necessary gathering up his towel and bottle, the man finally put his hand in Steve’s and shook it. “Tony, uh. Yeah, it was - good? I mean, I feel good. Which is kind of weird.”

Steve smiled and shook Tony’s hand. “Come back tomorrow,” he encouraged. “It just keeps getting better.”

Tony looked skeptical, but he was nodding. “I have no idea what I’m doing.” It seemed to Steve like words Tony had never strung together into a sentence before, the seemed utterly foreign to him as he uttered them.

“No one does, at first,” Steve assured with a bright smile. “If everyone did, I’d be out of a job.”

That, at least, seemed to break the ice and Tony laughed. “Right?” he said in agreement, looking around the studio. He pushed his sunglasses back up onto the bridge of his nose and nodded. “Okay, tomorrow.”

Steve almost wanted to suggest that he lose the hoodie and sunglasses before tomorrow, but he bit his tongue. One step at a time. “See you then.”

Tony didn’t say anything more, but he nodded and gave a little wave on his way out, seemingly back into the daze he’d been in when he came in.

By the time Steve finished cleaning up the studio, putting away the extra mats and removing the soothing sounds CD to tuck back into his bag, he could tell there was a commotion going on in the gym proper. It happened sometimes, especially when a crowd got really testosterone fueled, and he headed out to see if there was anything he needed to do to calm things down. What he was greeted with, instead, was the sight of a group of gym members practically pressed up against the glass of the large window that comprised one side of the machine room all talking excitedly.

He moved to the window to take a look, peering over the tops of heads to barely get a glimpse of what looked like a dark hoodie disappearing into a town car.

“Do you think it was really him?” one person murmured.

Someone else laughed. “What would Tony Stark be doing at a gym like this?”

Steve, meanwhile, felt his stomach sink unpleasantly.

--

“Don’t do it,” was the first thing Clint said that evening at home once Steve had explained the entire disastrous confluence of New York’s biggest tabloid sensation potentially dropping into his yoga class that afternoon.

Clint Barton was, if anything, practical. But it was a special brand of practical, tempered with either laziness or a severe lack of motivation, that sometimes led him to drink straight from the coffee pot, knowing he would be the only one having coffee and that he also did not want to bother washing a mug after he was done.

Steve gave his roommate the benefit of the doubt and chalked it up to a lack of motivation, which was not in any way something Clint could easily resolve. Steve knew for a fact how difficult it was to come home and feel like only half the man who left, like a shadow of one’s former self, like a ghost, if the day felt bad enough. He and Clint were just in two very different places with their recovery; just like he and Sam were. It was a slow process, but a process all the same, and he respected that.

“Don’t do what?” Steve wondered, bringing his food prep to the bar countertop of their kitchen. Here, he could face Clint and make sure he was heard.

“Let him into your class,” Clint clarified. “It’s a bad idea, man. You saw he’s off the wagon, right?”

Steve shrugged. “I saw a report from a disreputable entertainment news program and an anonymous source. Who knows what that means?”

Clint had long since closed his textbooks and now pulled his much-abused laptop closer to hunt-and-peck something out on the keyboard. Within a moment or two, he was turning the laptop around so Steve could see the results of a Google search.

Tony Stark drunk again! declared TMZ in the very first result.

Is Tony Stark off the wagon? asked paid-ranking site.

Beneath that, there were several grainy, unflattering ‘images of Tony Stark at various parties and in interviews, some looking completely trashed and some looking very solemn. Afterward, the questions of his sobriety plagued every entry on the first page, from CNN to BBC to Huffington Post, only a few seeming to be legitimately wondering, rather than thinly veiling their accusations.

“You have to go three pages in until you get to his Wikipedia article,” Clint pointed out.

“I think that’s sad,” Steve decided. He offered Clint the fat end of the carrot he’d been chopping, mostly to occupy him so Steve could get a word in edgewise. “Could you imagine having your whole life on display and everyone speculating what was wrong with you for the slightest little thing? ‘Clint Barton spotted without hearing aids, has he lost his hearing for good?’”

Clint made a face; Steve knew it was a low blow, but he was trying to make a point. If Clint had been in a worse mood, if he’d been drinking from the coffee pot again, Steve wouldn’t have gone there at all.

“Alright,” Clint did, at long last, concede. He turned his laptop back around and gave Steve a grumpy look as he hunched back over it, though there was little bite to the expression. “I get what you’re saying. I’m just trying to look out for you, okay? They pay you by the student there and you’ve got a good thing going with all those ladies who like to look at your ass when you go all bendy, but the minute you have a drunk guy vomit in the studio? It’s all over, pal.”

It was Steve’s turn to make a face, because he genuinely didn’t believe that any of the women in his class were looking at him like that, but Clint also had a point. Giving everyone the benefit of the doubt might one day come back to bite him in the ass, but that didn’t mean he should be more cautious with his kindness or generosity.

“I’ll be careful,” he decided. “Ground rules. Zero tolerance. That sort of thing.”

Clint grinned. “I know it’s not really your thing, but you should look out for number one more often.”

“Why do you think I started cooking around here?” Steve wondered, nudging another carrot end toward Clint. “You’re a straight up beer and pizza guy. If I wasn’t looking out for number one, I’d starve.”

--

In a surprise move the very next afternoon, Tony was the first person Steve found lurking outside the studio about a half hour before the start of class. Again, he was looking particularly shady in his hoodie and sunglasses, but he had his own yoga mat tucked under his arm and hurriedly followed Steve into the studio when Steve opened it up.

“So, I checked out some videos,” Tony admitted as he helped himself to a space at the front of the room. “Yoga videos. Not really the same, though. You kind of have this way of teaching.”

Steve knew that was a fundamental part of being a good instructor, having his own style and appeal, it was what kept his classes full and his students interested, so he appreciated the compliment a lot more than he thought he could express. “Thank you,” he said anyway, but Tony only shrugged.

Without needing any prompting from Steve, which came as a surprise, Tony removed his sunglasses and shrugged out of his hoodie, then stood there making extended eye contact with Steve, as if he was trying to dare recognition from him.

There was no denying, without the sunglasses or hoodie, that he was definitely Tony Stark. He looked a lot better than his worse Google Image search results and a lot worse than his corporate portrait or Forbes photoshoots, with a few days worth of beard growth in his usually well-kept facial hair and heavy bags under his eyes. Steve knew, because he checked after Clint got him paranoid the night before, that Tony was trying to go by an alias at the gym and had signed up for a guest pass under the name Hogan Potts. Why he proceeded to introduce himself to Steve by his real name was beyond him, except that maybe Tony wasn’t that great at purposefully ducking recognition, despite almost a lifetime of needing to.

“Want to help me with the mats?” Steve asked, rather than any question Tony might have been anticipating.

Steve could see Tony’s shoulders relax and he nodded once, then stepped over to help Steve gather up the gym’s loaner mats from the supply closet and stack them neatly by the door. Steve also asked Tony’s opinion on which soothing sounds CD he should play, then offered to help Tony with some breathing exercises while they waited for the rest of the class to arrive, like he would any new student clearly floundering in an attempt to try something new.

Contrary to Clint’s worst fears on the subject, Tony was practically a model student, barely as disruptive that afternoon as he had been the day before, with just minimal impatient fidgeting once they wound down to breathing and centering. Once the class was over and Steve had spoken to all the students who lingered behind (some to ask about the advanced class, some to comment on his shirt ‘Happy To Be’ that day), he was surprised to find Tony still taking his sweet time rolling up his mat and shrugging back into his hoodie.

“Coming back tomorrow?” Steve wondered.

Tony looked up, hesitated, then said, “I get the feeling it’s not an everyday thing for people.”

Steve shrugged, offering a hint of a smile. “It is for me. Besides, you’re on a guest pass, right? Gotta make sure the gym has everything you want for your money.”

The implication that the cost of a gym membership outweighed the cost of his time spent evaluating it seemed to strike Tony as particularly funny. He threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, yeah. No. I need to make sure this one has all the right amenities.”

Steve shook his head, but smiled all the same. “Help me put away the mats and I’ll show you the back exit?”

This was of a particular interest to Tony, so he agreed and gathered up half the mats to take them to the supply closet. He waited patiently while Steve gathered his gym bag, tucked the soothing sounds CD into it, and neatened the studio for the next class that would use it. Finally, Steve led the way out and to the back of the machine room, opening the employees only door to walk with Tony downstairs and into the narrow alley behind the building.

“See you tomorrow,” Steve said as way of goodbye.

Tony already had his phone out, texting furiously, and looked incredibly out of place in a dingy Manhattan alleyway, despite the sunglasses and hoodie and stubble. “Maybe,” he answered.

“Tomorrow,” Steve insisted, over his shoulder and halfway toward the main street the alley branched off from.

Maybe!” Tony countered. There was annoyance in his voice, but Steve could almost hear the laughter it was trying to hide.

“Bye, Mr. Potts!” Steve countered as he rounded the corner. He didn’t miss the sputtered ‘Hey!’ Tony called back at him, clearly a little embarrassed to be caught out in his not too subtle deception.

--

No less than four separate text messages from Sam buzzed their arrival, one after the other, when Steve emerged from the subway station at his home stop. Clint, being as gossipy as a middle schooler, had already informed Sam of the news and they were clearly collaborating together to wring information from him.

It came as no surprise that he was immediately accosted by Clint when he stepped through the door of their apartment, having neglected to acknowledge Sam’s insistent demands through text.

“How was it?” Clint asked. “How was he? Drunk? Any barfing?”

Steve sighed. “Fine. Fine. No. Definitely not.”

Lucky let himself off the couch where he’d been ensconced next to Clint and sidled over to Steve at the slow pace of an older, more patient dog. He butted his head against Steve’s hand, on the side where scar tissue encompassed his eye, and Steve pet him -- scratched behind his ears -- until the heavy sigh he’d come in with was gone completely. Much like his owner and his owner’s roommate, Lucky had seen his share of combat as a Military Working Dog and was retired after being injured in the line of duty. He was a far cry from the specially trained service dog the VA had recommended for Clint, but he got on just fine with his new companions and was just as intuitive as one could hope for in a service animal. He would nudge his nose against Clint if the doorbell or phone was ringing, even when Clint had his hearing aids in (and on), and would always make himself available to Steve whenever he heard a world-weary sigh or sharp inhale of discomfort.

They all had similar temperaments and ailments, they were all a little rough around the edges and old before their time in many respects, but the shared companionship eased frayed nerves.

Clint seemed to get it and waited for Lucky to bring Steve to the couch before he asked any more questions. But once Steve was settled down, with the dog’s head in his lap, Clint asked, “Are you going to tell me how it went?”

Steve tipped his head back against the couch. “Only if you text Sam and get him off my back.”

“Deal.”

There wasn’t much to the story and Steve didn’t try to sensationalize for Clint’s benefit: Tony Stark was just an ordinary prospective gym member and yoga student, without any overt signs of inebriation, and Steve enjoyed having him in class.

Clint looked very disappointed, but obediently relayed the news to Sam through text message. Of course, Steve thought Clint’s obvious disappointment was a little rude. By the metaphor he used last night, it was like someone being disappointed to find out that Clint still retained partial hearing in both ears, despite being seen without his hearing aids in public. But Steve wasn’t up to the lecture explaining that entailed.

After a few rapid-fire texts were exchanged, Clint put his phone down and looked over at Steve. “Well, I’m glad he wasn’t drunk. And I’m glad he didn’t barf. For your sake.”

“You two just thought you had backstage passes for the tabloid trainwreck of the week,” Steve finished.

Clint, at least, looked sheepish.

“Dinner’s on you tonight,” Steve decided, even if Clint being responsible for dinner was more a punishment for him than Clint.

“You want beer and pizza?”

“I want not to stand in front of the stove for an hour,” Steve admitted. Another forty minutes on the treadmill this morning and his knee felt like it was on fire from the inside out. Yoga didn’t do much to aggravate the clump of scar tissue and whatever was left in him from that IED, but it certainly didn’t make things better. Breathing, honing his focus, finding his center: those were all things he could do that weren’t just powering through it, like Sam said, but at the end of the day he was still beat.

Clint was watching him, eyes narrowed. “How’s your leg?”

“Fine,” Steve answered automatically. He was anything but, and he was beginning to slowly come to that realization, more than a little sick with fear of what it would mean for him.

“Good,” Clint said, slowly, and reached for his phone again. He took a moment before ordering the pizza to fire off another, more serious, text to Sam.

--

As Steve predicted, Tony was there early the next day, waiting much as he had the day before for Steve to open the studio and set everything up for his class. He was attentive, even less fidgety than the day before, and gathered up the mats afterward without Steve needing to ask.

Slowly, they began to develop a rhythm. Tony arrived early, helped Steve set up, and got a little bit of a one-on-one lesson out of the deal. After class, Tony stayed a little later, helped Steve again, and got escorted down the stairs through the back exit to avoid anyone clustering near the front of the gym.

Tony grouched a little on Fridays, because Steve wasn’t the instructor on the weekends, and ‘accidentally’ brought in two smoothies on Mondays whenever Steve was back. Steve only assumed the first time was accidental and began to get suspicious when it seemed to have been adopted into their routine.

Eventually, Tony came off with an actual membership and the promise from the gym owner herself that his privacy, along with the privacy of all their members, was their utmost concern. (Steve had to attend a very special staff meeting about the merits of having well-known clients and how very unprofessional it was to tweet about them or, worse yet, alert the press to their whereabouts or habits.)

Over the weeks, Steve had gradually learned that the reports of Tony’s relapse were greatly, greatly exaggerated (all stemming back to a virgin rum and coke Tony ordered at a club one night), but that his really problem was anger management. It tried his patience to no end to be harassed by nosy paparazzi about something as personal and life-altering as his sobriety. Steve might not have understood the road to recovery where alcoholism was concerned, but he felt like he understood the sort of frustration that had Tony has his wits end and grasping at straws for a little inner peace.

It was a Monday and Steve was sipping his now usual Monday afternoon smoothie (his favorite, which Tony had since learned, was pineapple-orange-banana with non-fat yogurt), as he flipped through his limited selection of soothing sounds CDs for the ambient noise of the day. Suddenly, Tony sprung a question on him.

“What’s with the goofy shirts?” Tony wondered. He was leaning against the supply closet door, sipping his own smoothie while he watched Steve.

Today, Steve was wearing ‘Inhale Love, Exhale Gratitude.’ It just so happened to be pink, but Steve didn’t have a problem with that in the slightest.

“What was with that really bad alias?” Steve countered, because he got the feeling that Tony was teasing him and he usually gave as good as he got. “Isn’t that your assistant’s last name or something?”

Tony gasped and put a hand over his heart, as if he was truly shocked. “Steve, did you Google me?”

“My roommate did,” Steve admitted. He decided against pointing out how far in it took to find the Wikipedia entry for Tony Stark, where that sort of information was listed -- as if Tony and his poor executive assistant weren’t real, breathing human beings who deserved a little privacy and anonymity in their lives.

“Your roommate’s nosy,” Tony decided, but he didn’t sound annoyed. “And so are you. I don’t know if I want to answer that question. Is there such thing as yoga instructor-student confidentiality?”

Steve tilted his chin down and raised both eyebrows at that question. “There’s such thing as trusting me to be a decent human being.”

Tony snorted a rather undignified laugh. “Yeah, okay, and just how do you think I got to be paid the big bucks?”

“Well, if Wikipedia is anything to go by, you inherited the company from your father,” Steve pointed out. With the CD selected, he popped it into the player, adjusted the volume down to a soothing level, then headed over to his mat to sit down. “No corporate ladder, no backstabbing, no stepping on the little guy to get to the top -- as far as I know. You wouldn’t happen to have an unmentioned before now brother, would you?”

Tony rolled his eyes, but in a way Steve was starting to associate with fond exasperation. It was usually the soft little smile that came to his lips afterward that was a good indication and Tony was smiling as he settled down on his mat across from Steve.

“It’s easier,” he finally said. “I do a lot of things under an alias when I want to keep a low profile. You’d be surprised how many people in this town will rat you out for a twenty buck finder’s fee.”

“I wouldn’t,” Steve said with a shrug. “Times are hard.”

Tony wrinkled his nose, like he wasn’t sure sure about the accuracy of that statement and Steve couldn’t help but laugh. “Your turn, Rogers. What’s with the goofy shirts?”

“They’re not goofy,” Steve defended. It was Tony’s turn to level him with a skeptical look and Steve could only shrug. “Okay, they’re a little goofy, but I like them. Sometimes I need to be reminded to keep up a positive attitude.”

“You don’t seem to be the type who would forget to be positive,” Tony pointed out.

Steve grinned. “Well, I have the shirt. How can I forget?”

After another healthy slurp of his smoothie, Tony motioned to Steve’s shirt. “I think you’re the only guy I know who could pull off a pink shirt with a really ridiculous affirmation on it unironically.”

It was a compliment, at least by Steve’s reckoning. “It was my size and I liked what it said, so I don’t mind it being pink so much.”

Tony looked thoughtful, then nodded his approval. “Very good attitude. I should try it some time.”

“I guess it’s a little easier not to care what people think when your life isn’t getting used for entertainment on a daily basis,” Steve admitted, then immediately regretted his decision to bring that up. Tony looked -- a little distant for a moment.

“Yeah,” he agreed, vaguely, then tossed his empty smoothie toward the studio bin. “Gonna help me with that pose or what?”

Steve’s apologetic smile did nothing to help the situation, but Steve tried it all the same before getting to his feet and tossing his own smoothie cup away. “Let’s use the wall,” Steve suggested, helping Tony move his mat to be parallel with the bare wall of the studio.

Tony got into the necessary position halfway down the mat and Steve knelt next to him. He was trying Pincha Mayurasana, the feathered peacock pose, to try to balance his weight on his forearms and lift both legs into the air above him. It took a lot of upper body strength, which Tony certainly had, but it was a pose that Steve would have classified as too advanced for a beginner. Still, Tony saw Steve demonstrate it one afternoon and, maybe a little like a kid with a jealous streak, wanted to do it ever since.

He watched Tony lift elegantly from his knees to his feet, much more limber than he had been the first day he wandered into the studio. Then, Tony lifted to his toes and eased his feet closer to where he rested his parallel forearms on the mat, accentuating the curve of his ass. Normally, it wasn’t that difficult for Steve to keep a professional demeanor, but he shifted his gaze up and a little to the left while Tony lifted higher, slowly raising one leg.

“Good,” Steve encouraged gently, just there to spot Tony in case he needed it. “Stretch up, stretch up until you feel your other leg wants to lift.”

Tony remembered his breathing and followed Steve’s instructions, slowly raising his other leg a little off the floor.

“Midline,” Steve said, his voice as soft as the ambient noise he liked to fill the studio with, not wanting to rush Tony along too soon. “Bring it up to your hip, let it tip you toward the wall.”

Tony tried to lift his other leg, but wobbled and put his toes back to the mat. “Can’t,” he eventually admitted. His shirt had slid down just a little and Steve could see the quiver of his ab muscles in his peripheral vision.

“Yes, you can,” he coaxed. “You can shift your balance toward your butt and touch your foot to the wall if you need to.”

“Can’t,” Tony repeated, but he sounded like he was on the verge of laughing.

Steve had gotten to know Tony well enough to realize that Tony was the sort of person who wanted everything all at once or nothing at all; Tony felt failure a lot more easily and hurt a lot worse from its sting if he wasn’t instantly the best at everything he tried and it was an exercise in Steve’s patience as an instructor to get him to slow down and learn to crawl before trying to walk. Right now, Tony was probably thinking that he had to rely solely on his core to lift himself all the way, rather than realizing that Steve had brought him to the wall so that he could practice his lifts using it to help boost him up. He probably thought of the wall boost as cheating.

“Tony,” Steve said calmly, reaching up to place his hand on Tony’s calf. “Lift your other leg. Midline. Bring it to your hip.”

Tony hesitated, but he tried again and with the weight of Steve’s hand on his calf, rather than his foot on the wall, he was able to lift his other leg parallel with his hip. He spent a long moment just breathing the way Steve had taught him and Steve didn’t interrupt until he felt Tony was ready. He had planned on encouraging Tony to stretch each leg in this fashion, to get used to the balance and the flex of the muscles he worked just holding the pose, he could tell that Tony needed more to feel accomplished. He would accept Steve’s help to get there, because Steve was his guide in this, so Steve would help him.

“Higher,” Steve said, his voice soft, but commanding and steady. Obediently, Tony raised his other leg inch by inch, quivering muscles and shaky breath following him all the way into the pose. Steve held on the whole way up, his hand a steady warmth on Tony’s calf, and helped him hold the pose once Tony had both legs in the air.

It wasn’t until Tony’s breathing evened out, until he began to relax into holding himself that way, that Steve encouraged him gently back down from the pose. “Bring your leg down slowly, breathe out,” he gently encouraged, feeling like the air between them was charged somehow with the way he spoke, the way Tony obeyed, and the gradual fluidity of Tony’s movements as he eased past his own inhibitions and into the trust of following Steve.

Tony breathed out slowly as he lowered one leg slowly back down to the mat and Steve murmured another gentle encouragement as he helped Tony bring his first leg back down, too. In the aftermath, Tony sank to his knees and lowered his torso onto the mat, laughing in a way that sounded elated and energized to Steve’s ears. “That was good.”

Steve smiled -- until he realized his hand had slid to Tony’s hip when the other man sank down and he quickly moved it onto Tony’s back for a rewarding pat. “You’re getting better,” he agreed. “I couldn’t do that when I was on my fourth week of yoga.”

Grinning, Tony turned his head to look at Steve. “I have a great teacher.”

Of course, Steve had had a great teacher, too. One who inspired him to go so far as to become a yoga practitioner. But something told him that Tony wasn’t exactly complimenting his teaching style now -- and he couldn’t help the way his cheeks suddenly felt hot.

Luckily, the door opened and several other members of the class began to pour in, giving Steve an excuse to break apart from Tony and get back the more professional business at hand. As soon as he fell into the rhythm of his usual routine, Steve was able to lead the class without a hitch, even if he felt like Tony’s eyes were on him in a much more particular way than usual.

He shouldn’t have been surprised by the statement Tony made when the studio finally cleared at the end of class, but he was.

“I’m going to need your number,” was what Tony said.

And it startled a “Why?” out of Steve in response, something much more dangerously close to a yelp than Steve would later admit to.

“Yogi stuff,” Tony answered with a grin that showed more teeth than a great white. “You know, about flexibility.”

Steve could feel his cheeks heating up again and knew, from a long childhood of being that skinny nerd with a sketchbook, that his face was bright red. “I -- ” he began, but Tony already had a pen in hand.

“Tell you what,” Tony hedged, instead, reaching out and taking Steve’s hand to turn it over and expose the inside of his wrist. “I’m going to give you my number. Whenever you feel like I desperately need some advice about being more bendy, you can use it.”

The felt pen tip was soft on his skin and Steve watched as Tony swiped it elegantly in a few quick strokes, marking seven digits onto his skin with flourish. When he was finished, Tony leaned in and blew a soft breath against the ink to help it dry. It wasn’t exactly the first time he’d been given someone’s number teaching this class, but it just so happened to be the only time he immediately thought about actually using it.

“Alright,” Steve finally agreed, only regaining his ability to form words when Tony let him have his hand back. “I -- will keep that in mind.”

“Good,” Tony answered. And, just like that, he went back to their usual routine, moving to gather up the mats and politely waiting for Steve to finish up the odds and ends of closing up the studio before letting Steve escort him out the back and into the alley.

Steve was itching to get at the number on his wrist, to put it into his phone, to stare at it for a long while and probably not text or call, because he was very invested in maintaining his professionalism. “See you tomorrow, Mr. Potts,” he said teasingly, as he usually did when they parted ways at the alley now.

Tony smiled. “Call me,” he urged, a little more earnest than Steve had expected, and laughed softly when Steve blushed again.

--

Steve copied the number into his phone on the subway ride home, toyed with the idea of making the contact name Mr. Potts, but eventually settled on just Tony and the default contact icon. He worried his bottom lip between his teeth as he scrolled up and down his contacts list, trying to talk himself out of the ridiculous idea of actually firing off a text. (The one saving grace was, of course, having absolutely no signal on the subway.) By the time his stop arrived and he got to his feet again, the jarring ache in his knee was enough to drive the rest of the thoughts from his mind.

At home, Clint grunted a greeting from behind a stack of textbooks and several heaps of paper, steadily working his way through semester finals. Lucky was more enthusiastic with his greeting and even nosed against Steve’s thigh with a soft, almost knowing, whine. There was no escaping the instinctive nature of a dog who understood very well the pain even an old wound could bring about.

Steve found when he made his way into the kitchen that Sam, or more likely Sharon (at her boyfriend’s behest), had stopped by with more nutritional food than leftover pizza in the form of several covered casserole dishes. It was Sharon’s handwriting on the note stuck to the fridge:

Clint,
Don’t eat this cold. Reheat at 350 for half an hour.
Love,
Sharon.

(Steve,
Don’t let Clint eat this cold. I left yogurt cubes in the freezer for your smoothies.
Take care of yourself,
Sharon.)

The difference in the notes was jarring, but Steve was more embarrassed than surprised by the encouragement to look after himself. Over the last few weeks, despite the enjoyment he’d gotten out of work (his wrist felt itchy again, just thinking about it), Steve’s knee hadn’t gotten any better. In fact, the more he tried to ignore it, to keep his mind off how the scar tissue was inflamed and warm to the touch, the worse he felt it became.

It wasn’t a surprise to find that Sharon’s note was magnetized to the fridge with the banana-shaped magnet that had been holding up his the appointment card for his checkup at the VA and that she’d moved said appointment card along with the magnet, until it rested right next to the portion of the note she left for Steve.

Subtle.

Steve stared down the appointment card and the note for several minutes, before opting for a quick dinner and to leave Clint to some peace and quiet to continue his studying. His room was dark, quiet, and Steve was happy to fall into bed after a shower.

He plugged in his phone and left it on his bedside table for a whole two minutes before picking it up again and scrolling down his list of contacts. The numbers Tony wrote on the inside of his wrist were still faintly there even after scrubbing and, again, Steve thought about sending him a text. Then, after realizing he had full bars and remembering Tony’s earnest request, he thought about calling. It was late, but he thought Tony might still like the call.

Which was, of course, a ridiculous thought to have. But he had it, anyway.

He thought about Tony answering on the second ring, unfamiliar with his number but knowing it was Steve. He thought about hearing excitement in Tony’s voice, about that little trace of flirtatiousness that was sometimes there in the way Tony spoke to him. He thought about hearing Tony say his name, right against his ear, and wondered if Tony would do it softly, if it would be as intimate as Steve imagined it. Combined with the faint, lingering traces of ink on his skin and remembering how it felt to have Tony’s hand on his wrist, how warm his hand felt on Tony’s leg then hip, Steve was soon straining the front of his pajama bottoms.

He let his hand wander down, slowly, fingertips tracing a path from his chest to the tented front of his pants, like he was really going to take his time once he got there. He tried, really, grasping his cock through layers of fabric and feigning foreplay, letting the rough scratch of the material drag a soft, barely audible sound from his lips. That was as far as he could stand to take it, though, and freed himself from the confines of his pants for the full, warm grasp of his palm.

Steve was only a little ashamed to wonder how it would feel if Tony was the one touching him -- and, even then, the shame of thinking about it, of imagining Tony’s hand in place of his own, made it a little thrilling. He closed his eyes and tried to picture it, the curve of Tony’s mouth and the way he would lean over him, laugh against his shoulder in that soft, elated way, and whisper terrible things in his ear while squeezing his cock, rubbing his thumb over the slick head and telling Steve he must want it bad.

He did want it. He really did. Steve bit his bottom lip and pressed up into the tightness of Tony’s imagined grasp, a soft whine growing in the back of his throat. Please, he’d say, and Tony would laugh, soft and amused, and give him exactly what he wanted.

Steve grasped the pillow behind his head with his free hand, fist frantic on his cock, fueled by the wonderful, shameful little fantasy. Tony would murmur encouragements in his ear, just like Steve had softly, patiently coaxed Tony up into the pose that afternoon, then nip a little when Steve came. Just the thought was enough to bring Steve off, hips jerking up involuntarily -- and a bright, horrible spasm of pain radiating up from his knee.

He laid in bed gasping for breath for long, awful minutes, until the pain began to subside into the usual dull ache and he could think again. It was the absolute worst mixture of pleasure and pain he’d ever felt in his life and Steve finally, at long last, decided it might be a good idea to talk to his doctor.

After cleaning up, which just threw that shame into a new (and much less thrilling) light, Steve tried to find a comfortable position for himself and his knee, lying awake well into the night and waking with a start more than once when a twitch here or there sent another painful jolt through him.

--

It proved difficult to hold out on texting Tony for long, though calling him seemed downright impossible after Steve’s fantasy-fueled self-love.

The very next day, Tony was conspicuously absent from class and Steve hardly thought much of it before firing off a jokingly accusatory text.

> No point in having a gym membership if you’re not going to use it, Stark.

There was no immediate answer.

Steve went through the rest of the motions of the day, just a little worried about Tony’s absence, but there was nothing on the evening news and he refused to check any less than reputable sources for celebrity gossip.

Nearly twenty-four hours after his original text, Steve’s phone buzzed with the notification of a reply.

>> YOU ARE NOT IN CLASS

Attached was a picture of the studio, with a different yoga instructor leading the class through what looked like the beginning of the Sun Salutation. Steve almost burst out laughing in the middle of the VA clinic waiting room.

> Doctor’s appointment. Where were you yesterday?

Steve felt a little better about asking, now that Tony had finally replied.

Tony’s answer came within minutes, rather simply.

>> AA

>> Are you sick? Are you contagious? Don’t come back to class.

Steve was grinning in spite of himself and tried not to look like a madman smiling at his phone in a waiting room full of surly, uncomfortable veterans all on the line to be poked, prodded, and potentially diagnosed. He’d practically forgotten he was there for a very serious reason, himself.

> Check-up. Didn’t you just say you missed me?

The wait was a little longer, this time, but Tony soon answered.

>> Might want to reread that, Rogers. I just wanted to know your location and current status.

>> Not dying, good.

Steve left part of a text in his drafts when the nurse at the desk called his name and took him back to an exam room to have his vitals taken and to change into a hospital gown while he waited for the doctor. Afterward came the nervous wait and generally trying to think up a valid excuse for not bringing up the problems with his knee earlier.

His phone buzzed again, but Steve was obliged to ignore it in favor of greeting the doctor who entered the exam room.

“I see you’re having some more trouble with that knee of yours,” she said after their initial pleasantries.

“Yes, ma’am,” was all Steve said, until the doctor looked at him expectantly. In a rush, he added, “It’s been hurting a lot more lately, is all. I don’t mean to complain, it’s just -- I don’t think I can keep teaching my class, if it gets any worse.”

The doctor nodded, marked something on her chart, then stepped closer to lift the gown back from Steve’s knee to examine the mass of scar tissue just above it. Steve winced, if only because it looked a great deal worse in the stark fluorescent lighting of a doctor’s office. Red and puffy and far too pliant to the touch to not have built up a considerable amount of infected material while he ‘powered through it’ and let the old wound fester. The doctor’s fingertips were cool on his skin and Steve knew right away that was a bad sign.

“We’ll need to take a sample,” the doctor began, poking and prodding gently. “And a new set of X-rays.”

Steve nodded.

“From your chart,” she went on, “I see that you elected against exploratory surgery to remove all the pieces of shrapnel from your leg.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Steve answered immediately. “Doctor over there told me there was a chance I’d never get full range of motion back if they went cutting into me like that. He said the pieces left over were small and might not cause me too much trouble, so it was a decision I’d have to make.”

Although the doctor did not seem judgmental on the subject, she didn’t look impressed, either. “It’s possible the smaller pieces have begun to migrate. We’ll know more after we compare a new set of X-rays against your old. But bear in mind that we may be looking at a second operation.”

Steve wasn’t shocked, by any means, but the bracing way the doctor informed him of the possibility at least helped to ease him into the idea of surgery potentially fixing the painful problem. There might have been a possibility, however slim, that the slivers had migrated to a point where they could be easily removed, without sacrificing his mobility.

“I understand,” he agreed. The doctor pulled the gown back down to cover his knee and excused herself.

It wasn’t until after a painful needle had drained some of the fluid and several X-rays were taken that Steve was dressed, with a new prescription in hand, and the promise of notification of his next appointment date, by mail. The doctor’s orders were to take it easy and Steve’s first reaction, after months of intensive physical therapy with him, was to call Sam to complain. But outside the VA, when he swiped his phone screen to life, he saw Tony’s latest texts.

>> Maybe you don’t know how this works.

>> When I express concern you might have died ...

>> ... you reassure me that you are, indeed, not dead, Rogers.

Then, a bit later, Tony had added:

>> Steve?

He hesitated, then selected the ‘call’ option from the contact screen from Tony.

On the second ring, Tony answered, “Okay, so this is definitely the not dead call, right?”

Steve grinned. It was a far cry from his guilty fantasy the night before, so he didn’t feel terribly embarrassed about it. “Definitely,” he agreed.

“You took forever to call, too,” Tony complained fondly. “I had a lot of flexibility-related questions I needed you to answer.”

That was a little closer to the flirtatious nature of his fantasy and Steve went a little red. “Well, I thought you were dead yesterday,” Steve pointed out. “And today I had a thing.”

“Tell me about your thing,” Tony insisted. Then, because the street was noisy, wondered, “Where are you?”

“Twenty-third and first,” Steve admitted, glancing up and down the intersection. He had no idea why he was painfully honest with his next answer, but it came out simply enough: “I was at the VA. My doctor said I might need another operation. I could lose full range of motion in my right leg.”

Tony was quiet for a long moment, so long that Steve began to wonder if that wasn’t the sort of thing he was supposed to say to a busy celebrity businessman who also happened to flirt with him sometimes and had insisted on this phone call.

But it passed when Tony finally sucked in a breath and exhaled a slow sigh, “You were in the army, right?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, so soft it almost got lost in the noise of the heavily trafficked street. He wondered how Tony knew, but supposed he’d been seen taking off and putting on his old dogtags enough for the realization to click. It had been years, now, and he couldn’t get out of the habit of wearing them. Somehow, it just felt like reassurance to have them around his neck.

“Afghanistan?” Tony asked.

Steve had never -- talked about this with any civilian before. (And he realized, then, that his circle of friends consisted mostly of people he met through the VA, so it wasn’t a wonder he hadn’t. Just no one other than those friends seemed to realize he’d served or were all that interested in his service.) “Yeah,” he said again.

Tony took another deep breath, then said, “You don’t drink coffee, do you?”

It seemed like a rapid change of subject and Steve almost got angry, until he realized that Tony was probably trying to ask him out for coffee and got caught up on the particulars of Steve not drinking any. “I prefer tea.”

“Overrated,” Tony declared. “Want to go to a smoothie bar?”

Steve laughed.

“Seriously, there’s one of those hippie -- vegan -- superfood -- green smoothie -- flaxseed places.” The strung-together sentence actually made perfect sense, given all the common buzzwords it contained. When Steve didn’t immediately answer, Tony continued, “Tomorrow, if you want. Or whenever. I don’t mean right this second. I’d go right this second, I don’t have a damn thing going on, but you’re at the VA and just got some bad news and you’re probably too tired for a date, I get that.”

Steve was smiling, though. In that whole big mess, he heard Tony say date and that was all that mattered for the moment.

He let Tony ramble on like that, making all the excuses Steve wasn’t actually going to give. When Tony stopped for a breath, Steve answered, “Do they do pineapple-orange-banana smoothies?”

“You bet your ass,” Tony declared.

“I could go for one of those right about now,” admitted Steve.

“Let me text you the address. Take a cab, okay? Don’t walk.” Steve laughed, but Tony’s voice went surprisingly earnest again. “Steve, don’t walk, okay?”

It might be just as bad, standing around hailing a cab on such a busy corner, but Steve wasn’t about to throw a damper on Tony’s sincere insistence. “Okay,” he agreed.

“Okay,” echoed Tony. “I’ll see you soon.”

There it was. That soft, intimate murmur Steve had imagined in bed the other night, only better than his imagination had given Tony credit for.

He hurriedly said his goodbyes and hung up, waiting for the address to come over. As he predicted, it took a little while to hail a cab at the intersection, but Steve made good on his promise and didn’t walk down the several city blocks to the smoothie bar.

“You look great for a guy who’s about to get the chop,” was the way Tony decided to greet him when Steve finally made it inside. He didn’t know if he should be offended or put at ease by the way Tony made easy acknowledgement of what could have been the elephant in the room.

“You look -- ” Steve began, then turned to really get a good look at him. He’d never seen Tony out of gym clothes (and in anything else, for that matter) outside of a Google search, but he could tell Tony was wearing at least parts of an expensive suit. The tie was gone, the collar of his shirt unbuttoned past his clavicle, and Steve didn’t know why that seemed so nice, when he had certainly seen Tony in less. “ -- wow.”

Tony palmed his sunglasses and grinned. “You should see your face. I think it just paid for this suit.”

Steve blushed and Tony laughed, settling a hand on the small of Steve’s back to guide him to one of the booths. “Take a load off. Let me get us some smoothies. I want to hear all about this, okay?”

Really, Steve just wasn’t much of a storyteller, because he didn’t think there was much to tell about himself and his leg and his honorable discharge, just like he hadn’t thought there was much to tell about Tony’s first day in his yoga class. But once he had a smoothie and Tony was seated across from him, Steve tried. He talked about college and officer candidate school, talked about his training and deployment, skipped a good deal of what it was like over there, because he’d always heard that no civilian could really understand, and got to the good part: the IED, the shrapnel, the surgery, and getting shipped back home, useless.

“Hey,” Tony said and Steve realized his hand was under Tony’s on the table, but he wasn’t sure when that happened. “Not useless.”

“For the army, I was.”

“What do they know?” Tony wondered. He squeezed Steve’s hand. “You’re a great guy. Best I’ve met.”

Steve laughed, soft and embarrassed and tried to wash that compliment down with a gulp of smoothie. “That’s an exaggeration.”

“Says the guy who got blown up for his country and still manages to keep a positive outlook. Seriously. I had no idea and you must be in a world of hurt every single day.”

He knew guys who were worse off, guys who had gone under the knife and had whole limbs taken, who still felt the aches and pains in what wasn’t there anymore. “It could be a lot worse,” Steve pointed out.

Tony smiled. “Yeah,” he agreed, “But it’s gonna get a lot better.”

“You seem pretty confident about that.”

“You’ve kept me on the straight and narrow for weeks now with that positive attitude of yours. I think I can be confident, if the situation calls for it.”

Steve hadn’t realized, but he supposed everyone got something different out of yoga, even if it all came back around to control. He could control his body again, after months of feeling like a stranger inside it, and Tony could control --

Well. It sort of fell apart there, because he wasn’t sure and didn’t want to make that negative assumption about why Tony chose yoga, but it was fine. Tony got something important out of it and Steve was glad to be a part of that.

“I’ll try to keep up the positive attitude,” Steve agreed. He hesitated, then slowly turned his hand over beneath Tony’s own and laced their fingers together.

“Good,” Tony answered. “And you can keep that hand until we need more smoothies, by the way.”

Steve was sure that, given time and practice, he wasn’t going to always blush when Tony said something flirtatious. But he hadn’t had the time or the practice yet. “I was thinking we might want some actual food.”

“My God, you move fast,” Tony teased. “I’m not that kind of girl, Rogers. I’m the kind you take home and don’t get a wink of sleep with, just so you know.”

“We could do that,” Steve agreed -- and relished in watching Tony’s jaw drop when teasing backfired. “But I’m still gonna want food.”

--

It was a little surreal, bringing Tony back to his place, and Steve stopped to wonder just exactly what he was doing at least twice since letting him into the building and taking the elevator up to the third floor. The building was pre-war, had seen better days, and was probably not the sort of thing Tony Stark was used to. Steve jangled his keys a few times, struggling with the lock until he felt Tony’s hand warm on the small of his back again, the gentle reassurance making it easier to turn the lock over and open the door for them both.

Inside the apartment, Clint was passed out on the couch with an open biology textbook on his chest and Lucky looked up from where he was lying on the living room rug, tilting his head at the stranger Steve brought home with him.

“Nosy roommate?” Tony wondered, very softly.

Steve laughed and took Tony by the hand, leading the way toward his bedroom. Tony craned his neck to look back at Clint. “Are we going to wake him up?”

“Probably not.”

Clint was a heavy sleeper, to say the least.

Then, all at once, Steve had Tony Stark in his bedroom with the door shut and he felt nervous. All his attempts at maintaining a professional demeanor were out the window and he almost, almost, didn’t care.

Tony was looking around, taking in his surroundings, and admitted, “I kind of thought it’d be more -- minimal.”

The room was cluttered with almost too much furniture for the space, it was true. The drafting table was what did it, really, but Steve had wanted one for years and wasn’t about to give it up to save on a little space. Tony must have noticed that it was the hitch, too, but he got distracted by the fluffy kitten hanging from a wire on the poster over the table.

“Of course you do,” Tony said, tearing his eyes away to look at Steve again. “I don’t know why I’m surprised.” And, just like that, he leaned in and planted a soft kiss on Steve’s lips. No fuss, no awkwardness, just Tony’s lips meeting Steve’s briefly, sweetly. Tony pulled back to smile at him. “Was that okay?”

“Yeah,” Steve rushed to assure. “I mean, you could -- ”

“ -- yeah,” Tony interrupted, getting exactly what Steve meant and leaning in for another, longer kiss.

It wasn’t awkward. Where Tony hesitated, Steve was eager to guide, leaning in after a moment or several to deepen the kiss when Tony seemed to be skirting the issue. He put his hand on Tony’s hip, mirroring where he’d had it the other day before class, and got a gratified moan from Tony in response. Maybe Tony was thinking of the same thing, maybe Tony had spent that night the same way Steve had, imagining what this would be like.

The awkwardness came in when Tony tried to take both their clothes off at once and Steve had to step back to laugh at the failed attempt. Tony’s impatience was legendary.

In an effort to get them what they wanted as quickly as Tony wanted it, Steve peeled his shirt off and waited for Tony to catch up, not exactly trusting himself with such an expensive suit jacket. His jeans were next, and a little more difficult with his uncooperative knee, but soon enough they were both down to just their underwear -- and then nothing at all -- and Steve felt like Tony was sizing him up appreciatively.

Until, that is, his eyes wandered further down and found the mangled scar tissue on Steve's right leg. “Jesus, Steve!”

“Sorry,” Steve said automatically, as if maybe it was just an aesthetic problem he needed to excuse.

Tony, however, was busy steering him toward the bed and pulling back the covers to help him into it, his hands gentle and cool to the touch. “Don’t apologize, just -- take it easy, okay?”

Steve got a good uninterrupted look while Tony fussed and he he couldn’t help smiling, reaching out to lightly trail his fingertips down Tony’s chest. “Not gonna let something like this come between us, are you?”

“No,” Tony admitted, exhaling a shaky breath as he watched Steve’s hand on its slow progression lower. “I was planning on doing that.”

It was only a little ridiculous, how gratified Steve felt by the knowledge that Tony Stark was full of as many dirty suggestions as Steve had imagined he might be. “Why don’t you ... ?” he asked, guiding Tony closer with his hand on Tony’s hip again.

“ ... oh,” Tony answered, like it might have come to a shock, but he eased himself onto the bed and settled over Steve, straddling his hips. “Yeah, that’s -- are you sure?”

Both of his hands settled onto Tony’s thighs, bare skin so much better than the suggestion of it through the thin material of yoga pants. “This is good,” Steve assured. He’d taken his antibiotics, his pain meds, he was golden.

Tony leaned down to kiss Steve again, but pulled back just before the kiss got good to lengthen his torso and stretch his arms above his head, giving Steve an uninterrupted view of taut muscles and defined abs. He rolled his hips, just enough to tease, and pulled a low moan from Steve’s lips.

Tony,” he murmured, in that way he’d shamefully imagined he’d beg just a little, and watched with elation as Tony exhaled a low, pleased moan, himself.

“I thought that’s how you’d say my name when you wanted something,” Tony admitted -- and Steve was grateful the room was just dim enough, with only the streetlights filtering in through the windows, to hide his blush.

He leaned back down and caught Steve’s mouth with his own again, licking past his lips for a much deeper kiss. Steve closed his eyes, lost himself in it for a drawn out moment, and let his hands wander, pleased to find that Tony was just as receptive, if not more, to repeats of the same, steady touches he gave when helping with a pose. Tony had been thinking about this, too, and Steve was thrilled.

When he broke the kiss, Tony put his head down on Steve’s shoulder and exhaled a soft laugh. “I want you inside me, Steve.”

It threatened to break Steve’s brain and he reluctantly took his hand from mapping the curvature of Tony’s ass to reach for his bedside table drawer. He was just he had -- something.

Tony laughed again and sat up, brushing Steve’s hands away to rifle through the drawer, himself. “I don’t think art supplies are going to be helpful, gorgeous,” he admonished, accompanied by the hollow wooden sound of what must have been a whole pile of pencils being shifted around.

“In the back,” Steve insisted, but he could tell by Tony’s wicked grin he’d already found the box of condoms and embarrassingly old bottle of lube. Steve wasn’t exactly the most active guy in the world, in that regard.

Careful of where he put himself, Tony eased back onto Steve’s thighs, watching him carefully, as if to make sure Steve didn’t react in pain to even the slightest brush. Steve reached for the condom Tony removed from the box, but Tony pulled it out of his reach. “Take it easy, soldier. I’ve got this.”

Steve didn’t know if he was supposed to feel put at ease or feel like he was about ninety, but he elected for the former and settled back against the pillows to watch Tony open the wrapper and take him in hand. Tony took his sweet time with it and the way it felt was -- different from what Steve imagined, actually, but also so much better. His own hand and overworked brain couldn’t really match the intimate contact of another person or the new, unique way it felt to have someone else touch him, learn what he liked, gradually take into account all the noises and encouragements to make it just right for him.

Tony brushed his thumb through the bead of precum at the tip of Steve’s cock and Steve tensed, practically writhed, and tried to thrust up into the tight grasp of Tony’s hand as Tony circled his thumb slickly around his head. “Please,” Steve begged, perfectly shamelessly in his need. “God, Tony, please.”

“Easy,” Tony murmured again, but he did relent and roll the condom on. “Remember your breathing.”

Steve laughed and draped an arm over his eyes, biting back a louder moan when Tony took him in hand again, this time with lube-slick fingers and palm. The soft, wet sound of Tony’s hand working him, the almost perfect way it felt, was wonderful and terrible and Steve was on the verge of begging again when Tony finally relented and pulled his hand away.

“Steve,” he said in a steady voice that had no business being in the bedroom, it was so goddamn confident and aroused. He drew Steve’s attention out from under the crook of his elbow and smiled. “Don’t you want to watch me?”

Tony made a show of dripping more lube onto his fingers and twisted elegantly in a limber way Steve recognized from class. He moaned low in his throat and Steve knew Tony’s fingers had found their goal, that Tony was pressing them inside and working himself open, slicking himself for Steve. He was so glad Tony encouraged him to watch.

He brushed the backs of his fingers up from Tony’s thigh, over the sharp jut of his hipbone, and watched a shiver run through him. Steve rested his hand warm and steady on Tony’s hip, kept his hand just there when Tony turned back and shifted forward again to position himself over Steve’s cock. He tightened his grasp just a little when Tony began to sink down onto him, all tight heat and eager little moans.

“Tony,” Steve gasped and felt the way Tony shivered, full body, in response to the sound of his name. “God, Tony. Tony, I need you to move, baby, please.”

Tony did move, raising up and sinking back down with a slow, almost languid, roll of his hips. Steve bit at his lower lip as he watched Tony develop a rhythm, molasses slow and unrushed. He kept finding excuses to say Tony’s name, to beg him, and each time he was rewarded with Tony’s shiver and just a little bit more until Tony was breathless above him, fucking himself on Steve’s cock with quick, needy movement.

“That’s it, Tony,” Steve encouraged and he could tell by Tony’s soft whimper he’d hit a little close to the voice he used in class. Wickedly, Steve circled his fingers around Tony’s cock and murmured like he would if he was helping him into a pose. “Just like that, Tony. Breathe. In, out, you’re doing so well.”

It was probably the closest Steve Rogers had ever been to outright kinky and it worked marvelously well. Tony bent forward, angling his hips to thrust into Steve’s hand and work himself back hard onto Steve’s cock, his moans increasing in pitch and fervor until Steve could tell he was right there, right on the edge.

“Breathe,” Steve said again, someone wrangling his own voice into that of soothing instruction, “and release.”

Tony exhaled a long, shaky moan as he came, striping Steve’s stomach and chest messily. The way Tony tensed around him was more than enough and Steve gently eased him down fully onto his cock, letting the rhythmic clench of Tony’s muscles bring him off with a much softer, needier sound.

Unlike at the end of his fantasy scenario, thanks largely to the healthy dose of prescription pills he’d received, Steve's leg muscle didn't seize up. Instead, he was treated with the sweet warmth of Tony slumping forward against him and breathing out a quiet laugh against the crook of his neck.

It was several long minutes before either of them felt like moving and, even then, Tony might have only moved due to the soft grunt and subtle shift of discomfort Steve gave. Soon enough, they were disentangled and Steve had tossed the condom, but slung an arm around Tony’s waist as he tried to edge out of bed. “You can stay,” he murmured. “If you’re into that kind of thing.”

“Not usually,” Tony admitted -- and Steve felt a little sting, even if he understood and couldn’t begrudge Tony his independence. He was on the verge of loosening his grasp when Tony added, “But this isn’t exactly usual.”

With that, he relaxed back against the pillows and obligingly allowed Steve to cuddle up against him. “This okay?”

Tony smiled and carded his fingers through Steve’s hair, as if that was all the answer he needed to give. It was good enough for Steve, in the end.

--

If Clint had anything in particular to say the next morning, when Tony Stark was seated at their kitchen table for breakfast wearing nothing but one of Steve’s ridiculous positive affirmation shirts and boxers, he kept it to himself.

And Sam. Who kindly relayed whatever it was back to Steve, when Tony started to become a fixture at their apartment, with his bed-hair and smug grin and coffee drinking.

Tony claimed not to be a cuddler, but pulled Steve’s arm over him until they were spooning more often than not. He snored quietly and liked to sleep in and sometimes rolled over in the soft light of early morning to wake Steve up with little kisses that turned into a gentle lovemaking before Steve knew it. They never really talked about what it was they were doing together, never put a label on it, but it was nice and simple and not even always sex, if they happened to fall asleep on the couch together watching a movie or Tony recognized the barely concealed hurt in the knit of Steve’s brows when his knee was giving him a hard time.

With the combination of pain medication and antibiotics, plus Sam refusing to hit the treadmill with him at the gym, Steve found it manageable most days. He was able to teach and find his center through doing that, which was what was most important to him, but treating the symptoms did nothing for the cause. He ran through the first filling of his prescription and was halfway through the first refill by the time the VA contacted him -- with a letter reminding him of his six month check-up.

Steve called about the consultation visit he should have, but didn’t receive any suitable answer from the clinic. When he asked about the lab work being done on the fluid from his knee, there was nothing on file. He eventually requested his doctor’s direct line, when all else failed, but her voicemail was perpetually full. And while part of Steve wanted to make excuses for the lapse as just another facet of government bureaucracy, another part of him had to wonder it he wasn’t just becoming another veteran falling through the cracks of a chronically failing system.

As weeks wore on into months, the pain medication did less and less for him. He woke up with spasms, put off taking his meds until right before class, and the dose usually wore off before he managed to get home, then it was several long hours before he could take more just to get to sleep. The strangest thing was that it was frustrating to the point of tears, but Tony stayed. As ill-defined as they were, Tony stuck with him.

“You can see my doctor,” Tony suggested one night, speaking softly against Steve’s bare shoulder as they lay in bed together.

“I don’t have insurance,” Steve countered. He tried to keep the bitterness from his voice, but it was hard. He knew that wasn’t what Tony was offering.

Tony seemed content to let Steve play dumb and nosed against his shoulder blade. “I have a private doctor. My own personal HankMed sort of thing. He can give you a surgical consult and we’ll -- ”

“Tony,” Steve interrupted. “I’m not a charity case.”

“I’m not saying you are, Steve. But you’re in pain, I can see you’re in pain, and if I can do something to help you, I want to.”

It would have been easy to say yes. To accept the help. To see Tony’s private doctor, to get a surgical consult, to let Tony write a big, fat check for it all and stop being one of the hundreds of thousands of veterans the VA screwed on a daily basis due to budget cuts or whatever convenient excuse was being plastered all over the news these days. But what about every other veteran still waiting? What about the ones who had died waiting? It was the sort of solidarity that Tony wouldn’t understand, would call stupid, and Steve wouldn’t blame him, but he still couldn’t help but feel that solidarity with his fellow soldiers all the same.

(It didn’t help that, despite their best efforts to the contrary, they had been spotted together several times and were romantically linked from tabloid papers to celebrity gossip blogs. How could Steve look a fellow veteran in the eye without wondering if the accusation of using his sugar daddy would always be there?)

When Steve didn’t answer, couldn’t bring himself to answer, Tony sat up a little. “Steve,” he began, seriously, “I ... you know that I ... “

“It’s fine, Tony,” Steve cut him off. “I’m fine. Three more months and I’ll be back in there. They can’t give me the runaround forever.”

Steve wasn’t looking to see Tony’s brief, hurt expression, but it was fleetingly there. He settled back down behind Steve and let the subject drop.

--

Today, the Maria Stark Foundation announced its intent to tackle the controversial VA issue head on: by urging veterans to visit their numerous clinics around the country -- free of charge. Experts say the monumental effort will cost in the billions to implement, relying entirely on donated funds.

The news broadcast rambled on, seguing into a conservative politician who admonished the outrageous waste of money with a none-too-subtle reference to current healthcare reform, but Steve wasn’t paying attention. He was staring at Sam, who looked like he was having a hard time keeping a straight face, while Sam spotted him at the weights.

“Don’t say it,” he urged.

“Steve,” Sam countered.

“Sam, really. Don’t.”

Sam looked delighted. “Your boy’s breaking the whole damn system for you. You should be flattered. Are you flattered, Steve? Because you should be.”

Having been one of the biggest proponents of Steve just taking the offer of that big, fat check Tony Stark wanted to write for his operation, Sam had reason to gloat a little. But, at the time he’d brought up the initial argument, his casual drop of Daddy Warbucks into the conversation killed in the crib any possibility of him convincing Steve.

Steve hefted the weights back up onto the rack and sat up on the bench with some effort. “You can’t just fling money at something and hope it resolves itself.”

The smug look disappeared from Sam’s face, as if Steve had wiped it off. “Yeah, well, the problem of a lot of our brothers and sisters in arms not being looked after properly has been taken care of and now the big boys in Washington can see about who gets to shoulder the blame for the shortcomings of the system. If that’s what throwing money at this problem gets, then he can keep throwing money at it all day long.”

Admittedly, Steve didn’t have a logical counter-argument for that and Sam seemed to know it. His smug look didn’t make a reappearance, but Sam urged, “Go see his doctor, okay?”

“I’ll think about it,” Steve grudgingly conceded, then looked around to make sure Tony wasn’t even earlier than usual and lurking near the weights to overhear his agreement.

Sam clapped him on the shoulder and gave him a hearty shake. “That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said in months, I just want you to know.”

Steve narrowed his eyes. “I think I told Sharon to drop you like a bad habit a couple of times. She seemed to think it was pretty sensible.”

Unruffled, Sam offered Steve a hand up from the bench, perhaps knowing he relied more heavily on it now than he had before. “Whatever, man. Fight dirty all you want. You know I’m right.”

He accepted the help, let Sam do most of the work hauling him up, and rolled his eyes once he was on his feet. “Hit the showers. I got a class to teach.”

They parted ways fondly, the same old argument doing nothing to dampen their friendship, and Steve let himself into the studio to begin his usual set-up ahead of the class. He was slower these days than he had been and needed more time to get out the extra mats, to select one of the soothing sound CDs, and to ready himself, even if he was planning on letting some of his more longstanding students lead the class -- under his instruction -- for the next few weeks, leading up to his scheduled ‘check-up’ at the clinic.

“Hey,” came a meek greeting from the door, just as Steve dropped an ambient forest noise CD into the stereo and adjusted the volume down. It was Tony, behind a pair of huge aviators and beneath a hoodie, clearly having snuck in past a renewed herd of paparazzi who were no doubt following him after the morning announcement. They must have had a lot of questions about the dubious, possibly attention-seeking motivations, behind the Maria Stark Foundation’s move toward veterans philanthropy.

Steve smiled, but it was wan. “Hi.”

“Sorry I missed class last week,” Tony admitted. “Had a lot of work to do.”

“Noticed that,” Steve answered. “Half of Capitol Hill is calling for your head.”

Tony waved it off. “I just floated the the idea out there. The Foundation took care of the rest. I might have made a large charitable donation to make sure it all got off the ground, but that’s tax deductible.”

Steve just stared at him for a long moment, then laughed. “Okay.”

“Okay?” Tony wondered. “I thought, maybe, this might be the best way to get my huge, martyr-complex boyfriend to see reason and all you’re going to say is okay?”

“Yeah, okay,” Steve said, laughing again. Then, after a beat, added: “Boyfriend, huh?”

Tony shrugged, but he was trying hard to hide a grin as he stepped across the room and gently grabbed the front hem of Steve’s shirt. (Today, he was wearing Tough Times Don’t Last, Tough People Do.) “Sounds better than ‘this yoga instructor I fell for,’ right?”

Steve leaned in, close enough to brush his lips against Tony’s as he spoke. “I kind of like that, though.”

“Too bad, Rogers,” Tony countered. “I’m going with boyfriend.”

“Fine,” he agreed. “But we’re going to revisit that martyr-complex comment at a later date.”

“Maybe after you finally agree to getting that surgery consult.”

Steve knit his brows in annoyance, but it didn’t last long once Tony leaned in and pressed their lips together in a soft kiss.

Fine,” repeated Steve, half-muffled by the kiss.

--

The speed of private medical care was astounding compared to what Steve was used to and he found himself scheduled for surgery within a week. His nerves were shot to hell at the prospect of being back under the knife, recalling his original surgeon’s warning about range of motion loss, but Sam was on hand to remind him not to cry about it and Tony fussed around him until he was taken off to be prepped for surgery.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, Steve found himself groggily coming to in a quiet, dimly lit room, the steady rhythm of a heart monitor lending him reassurance through the fog of anesthetic.

He found Sam dozing in a chair nearby, feet propped up on the edge of his bed, and smiled. Steve closed his eyes again, for what felt like just a minute, and when he opened them again Sam was replaced with Tony and there was sunlight filtering in through the window.

“Hey,” he said, finding his voice scratchy in his dry throat.

Tony got to his feet and poured a cup of water, helping Steve to gulp down a portion of it. “How are you feeling?”

Steve settled back against the pillows and thought about it. Thanks largely to an IV drip, he wasn’t feeling much of anything, let alone the constant pain he’d been getting on with for months, and it was almost surreal. “Good,” he finally decided.

“Drugged out of your mind, more like,” Tony pointed out and Steve couldn’t stop himself from laughing. Tony grinned, very pleased with being responsible for that reaction, and settled back into the chair beside Steve’s bed. “Good, then you’ll probably really appreciate your get well present.”

‘Get well present’ didn’t seem to make much sense to Steve, but he had a hard time working his mouth around a question. Tony, meanwhile, produced a t-shirt from somewhere and unfolded it to hold it up for Steve to see. It took Steve a few tries to focus on it, but he eventually honed in on a great big star in the middle of the shirt, above text that read Reach for the Stars.

It was just the right amount of cheesy and inspirational, but his mind produced a somewhat unexpected question: “Is that a pun?”

Tony blinked. “A pun?”

Steve couldn’t even piece together his own logic to explain what he meant, but after a moment, Tony tossed his head back and barked out a sharp laugh. “I’m a star now, huh? I’ll be sure to call the papers. They’ll want to run a full page announcement for that, sweetheart.”

He huffed indignantly in response, but didn’t attempt to escape Tony leaning in to steal a kiss.

--

The studio was practically empty, apart from the two mats spread out in the middle of the floor and their owners, who had lingered behind the last class of the evening. The soft, soothing sound of the ocean tide lapping up onto a beach filled the room around them.

“Gonna help me with that pose, or what?” Tony asked, not waiting for Steve’s acknowledgement or answer before settling down with his weight on his forearms. He lifted up onto his toes and inched forward, elegantly kicking off with one foot to lift his right leg straight up above him.

Steve padded on bare feet over to Tony’s mat, his Reach for the Stars shirt now well-worn and almost threadbare in places, with continual use as motivational tool in his slow physical recovery. He kept his distance at first, watching as Tony eased his other leg up into place and held himself in the pose, breathing in and out slowly.

“I don’t think you need my help,” Steve teased, but rested his hand warmly on Tony’s thigh nonetheless.

Tony huffed out a soft laugh, but lowered his legs slowly into a split until Steve realized where he might need an assist. He settled both his hands on the inside of each of Tony’s thighs and added a minute amount of pressure to help him stretch fully apart and maintain the pose. “You’ve improved a lot, Tony,” Steve assured, his voice humming with approval as Tony’s muscles tensed beneath his palms.

After the span of several breaths, Steve helped Tony back into his starting position, then stepped away to watch him lower his legs down and settle back onto the mat.

Tony turned his head to look at Steve, smiling softly. “I’ve had a great teacher.”


--