“We found a new guy to replace Obie.”
“Good riddance,” Tony muttered, already slipping the buttons at his cuffs and rolling them up. Afternoon sunlight filtered in through the high windows, dust motes dancing in the golden light; Tony watched as his breath sent the air currents spinning, a subtle dance of chaos. “‘Bout time we gave that fucker the boot.”
“Tony,” Pepper said with an exasperated sigh.
“What? He tried to steal the deed from you and sell the club out. Pretty sure I’m allowed to call him a fucker for that.”
“Well, I’m not sure how you’ll feel about this new guy. He’s a little…old-fashioned, I guess. He auditioned with a jazzed up version of ‘Over the Rainbow’ and he’s a bit of a crooner.”
“Don’t tell me you hired an old fogey, Pep. I don’t know if I can put up with another grizzled white dude side-eyeing Rhodey like he’s about to call a lynch mob.”
“I hope I’m not late,” came a voice from the top of the stairs, and Tony twisted on the piano bench to look. He felt his eyebrows shoot up involuntarily.
New guy was clattering down the steps in a spindly pair of red pumps, skinny jeans, and a gray crop top with a big white star emblazoned on the front. His hair was done up in an undercut and Tony could just see the curl of a tattoo on his collarbone where his shirt was slipping off his shoulder.
“This guy?” Tony said, turning back to Pepper. “Did you get permission from his parents to have him out past ten?”
“I’m twenty-five, fuck you very much” new guy said, dropping his bag on a table and hitching a fist on his hip.
“Twenty-five and still waiting for your growth spurt. Must be rough,” Tony said, still holding Pepper’s gaze. He could feel the silent argument between them, but he was pretty sure he was losing.
“Steve,” Pepper said, her smile like a shark’s, “you’re not late at all. This is Tony, our pianist. Which maybe means,” she continued, turning to catch Steve’s gaze, “that you should be slightly less antagonistic with him.” Tony glanced back at Steve and swallowed, curling his hands into a fist.
Steve, however, looked sheepish and raised a hand to the back of his head. “Sorry, Ms. Potts. I, uh, I’m not too fond of…but that’s irrelevant. Tony,” he said, turning on his heels and mustering up the face of a five year-old about to eat spinach because his mom used “pretty please”, “it’s nice to meet you.” He extended his hand with barely concealed irritation.
Tony stared down at his slender fingers for a moment before sighing and saying, “Likewise. And sorry. I just…our last guy…”
“There was a falling out,” Pepper said shortly, stepping between them. “Anyway, you boys warm up and see what kind of a show you can cook up between you. You sure you don’t need Rhodey to come in, Tony?”
“Nah. He already said he can work with whatever we give him.”
“As long as you’re not giving him Led Zeppelin.”
“Only on the weekends, Pep.”
“Only never, Tony. I’m going to go work the books. Play nice.”
She strutted off and Tony turned to give Steve the once over. The guy really did look like he was barely out of high school. Without the heels, Tony suspected he didn’t even top five feet, and he was skinny as a rail. His gaze as he took in Tony, though, was equally unimpressed. “So you’re a rock guy?”
“Playin’ the piano?”
Steve harrumphed and then dug into his bag, shuffling papers. “I brought a few charts if you need ‘em, but I wanted to know what your sets were like before. With the old guy.”
“Oh, you know. All the Sinatra you could possible ever want and then some. Dean Martin. He’d been trying to add in Michael Buble right at the end. ‘For the young crowd.’“
Steve snorted so hard he sent some of his charts flying, and Tony found himself smiling as well. “Sounds like you were thrilled about that.”
“Well, I mean yeah. We play lounge music in a low key, high end piano bar. I know we’re not exactly gonna be rolling out Ozzy or anything. But it’s a wonder our entire clientele didn’t just fall nose first into their drinks in boredom.”
“If he was so bad, why’d you keep him around.”
“Family history,” Tony said tersely, and turned to the piano to start running his warm-up scales and arpeggios. He could feel Steve’s eyes on him, but he didn’t say anything, so small favors. After a moment, Steve started warming up with him, a low hum along the scales before he switched to oo-ing, ah-ing, chewing, and lip buzzes.
His voice was…well. It was definitely a crooner voice. Smooth and laid back like he had all the time in the world, but there was something else too. An edge. A little frizzle of gravel at the tail of each note, especially in his lower range. “Baritone?” Tony asked after a moment, sliding his hands to adjust.
“I can fake being a tenor if I have to,” Steve said once he finished his last scale, “but I just don’t have the right tone color for it.” He stretched the top of his range just a little more and then switched over to a tongue twister in a minor key. Tony fumbled the abrupt change, but then caught on and added a seventh, just because he could. Steve stopped after six iterations and Tony finished out the exercise with some noodling and a blue note, turning to Steve with a final flourish and an unexpected grin on his face.
Steve was smiling, too, and Tony felt his stomach take a sudden dive to the vicinity of his toes. Hundred watt smile if ever he saw one. He swallowed and looked away, his right hand fiddling on the black keys. “So, that’s what our sets were. I’m…If you couldn’t tell, I’m in the mood for a change.”
“’In the Mood for Love?’” Steve asked, his grin growing wider, and Tony nearly swallowed his tongue. “I think it’s a great opener,” Steve thankfully continued before Tony did something truly embarrassing, like making a move on the new guy.
“Louis,” he gasped, hoping his voice didn’t belie his embarrassment.
“Yeah. Think you can do it in B flat? I’ve got a chart here if you need it.”
“No,” said Tony, still staring down at the keys and trying to reel in the unwelcome wave of lust. “I know it. Let me just…” He plunked out the playful opening and brought in his left hand after the first four bars.
“Can you slow it down just a little? About 90 beats a minute.”
“For an opener? Are you sure?”
Tony’s brain clicked and switched gears. This was work. This was music in his bones, working its way up from his toes through his gut, pumping from his heart to his fingertips, leaving his mouth with every exhalation. Permutations of harmonic frequencies, mathematical scales fashioned by genius minds for centuries, tempered with fire and passion and the all important appreciation of the reverberating silence between each note. This was what he knew.
He nearly jumped when Steve came in; he’d moved to stand in the crook of the piano’s belly, his posture easy and relaxed and his shoulders swaying with the beat. He didn’t chew his words quite as much as Louis, but there was still a raw quality to his diction, a lilt of the inner city born only in true New Yorkers. At the end of the first stanza, he caught Tony’s eye and there was electricity.
On the same wavelength, Tony brought up the tempo a little and changed his style, aiming for short and sweet, his fingers light on the keys, just as playful as Steve’s tone.
At the end of the last stanza, Steve spun his finger once in a lazy circle and Tony circled back around to the bridge, meandering through a half-remembered trumpet solo and adding a little of his own coloration to the melody before Steve added the DC, playing a game of syncopation that left Tony’s toes tapping. At the end of it all, he held the last note and then let it float away, exhaling in unison with Steve.
From their right, someone applauded and they both turned to see Pepper, leaning against one of the tables, looking pleased. “I knew you two could work well together.”
“Yeah, well. Try not to gloat too much,” Tony said, and turned back to Steve. “What else are you up for?”
Steve slid into the dynamic of the club like a missing gear into well-oiled machinery. He showed up to work every night Tuesday through Saturday at seven on the nose and he and Tony warmed-up. Then he slipped into the back room, changed out of his street clothes, and put on a suit that was, to put it lightly, as well-fitted as a burlap sack.
It frustrated Tony a little, that stupid suit. It felt like the performances Steve gave in it were never quite as raw or real as the ones he managed in rehearsal, like somehow the suit was blocking out his inner sunshine. But even at 75% of his potential, Steve pleased the customers. Their tip jar was always full, and at least once a night, some nice old lady dripping in pearls came up to tell him what a pleasure it was to hear something from her youth being sung by such a “wonderful young man.”
After closing, though was a different story entirely. Steve would change back into his street clothes the moment the last customer was out the door, throw on a quick splash of basic makeup and come back out to improv with Tony and Rhodey while doing the clean-up. They slid from mambo to bossa nova to funk to new age to experimental and back, throwing out chords and notes and playing like Pachelbel and his stupid ass four chord progression never cursed the planet with bubble gum pop. It was even better when Rhodey dropped off the trap set and moved to marimba. Sure, they missed a little of that driving beat, but the things he and Tony could create between the two of them, that was the sweet spot.
That was also where Tony got to know the real Steve, who proved to be every inch the hipster he dressed like, even though he adamantly denied it. He grew an organic garden on his fire escape, even though the landlord had yelled at him about it no less than seventeen times. He went to LGBTQ+ rallies most weekends. He practiced yoga and studied art and lived at near poverty level, supporting himself with his singing, a part-time job as a barista at some high-end coffee shop, and art and graphic design commissions on the web.
But then he was so much more than a hipster, too, and Tony fell like a sack of lead in the Mariana Trench. Steve was never ironic about his likes and dislikes. He was fucking honest as a boy scout, and when he said “I love flaxseed yogurt” he genuinely meant it, and Tony couldn’t understand how he’d held onto that weird enthusiasm for life and kept it from being crushed out of him by New York’s unforgiving fast lane. And Steve didn’t have that air of elitism about him that so many of New York’s art scene did. He didn’t think he was better than anyone else for having an organic garden or being almost entirely vegan; he just was who he was.
And his flaws were almost more endearing than his virtues. Tony could probably write a whole god-damned rock opera about Steve Rogers’ amazing temper, which he had been on the receiving end more than once. His favorite explosion was probably the one where Steve stopped mid-song to deck a guy who was pulling a sobbing girl toward the bathroom. The guy decked Steve right back and laid him out flat, but it was still the most amazing thing Tony had seen in years.
It was probably a good thing Steve was so damn bold, because left to his own devices, Tony would probably have never made a move. Three months into his stint at the club, they were wiping down tables together when Steve looked up and said, “So are you ever gonna gather up the nerve to ask me out or are you just gonna leave me hanging out to dry?”
Tony gulped, freezing with the rag still in mid-swipe, and stared across the table at Steve with wide eyes. “Ask you out?” he finally managed, his brain moving at approximately the speed of a snail.
“Yeah. You know? On a date? I just…You’ve been ogling me for three months now and from the way Rhodey spins it, you’re never shy about this kind of things so I had just expected…”
“Ogling? Who says ogling anymore? Nobody. That’s who, Steve. Nobody.”
“Wanna do lunch on Sunday?”
Steve grinned, teeth flashing, and circled around the table. He was barefoot, and even on tiptoes, he didn’t quite reach Tony’s mouth. “Seal it with a kiss?” he asked, eyes twinkling mischievously.
“Why, Steven,” Tony said, heart pounding in his chest, “I do declare.” But he bent his head to close the two inches between them and kissed Steve and felt his dumb heart stutter, stop, and then start again. Steve wound a hand around his bicep, grounding him and pulling him a little closer. His lips were soft and tasted of cherry lip gloss, and Tony wasn’t entirely sure he’d ever again be able to eat anything cherry flavored without thinking of Steve Rogers.
As it turned out, Steve was a big fan of kissing, and Tony was not about to object to that. It seemed like Steve would take just about anything he could get. He planted small, barely-there pecks before shows, walking out the door, first thing in the morning and struck up longer more involved kisses while watching movies together, over romantic dinners in his miniscule kitchen, or once, very daringly, during their mid-show break on work hours.
Tony soaked it in like a sponge. His last relationship had been with Ty Stone and that had been an absolute disaster. Ty didn’t give physical affection, unless one counted painfully rough sex as affectionate, which generally speaking, Tony did not. He felt like he hadn’t been touched the way Steve touched him in years, and he worked damn hard to return the favor.
And generally speaking it was the best relationship Tony had been in in…well, ever. They fought with the force of a summer thunderstorm: fierce in the heat of it, but quick to blow over, and afterward it was always clear skies. But that fucking suit. Every time Steve put it on, he turned into a slightly different person. A person who didn’t want to kiss Tony or play around by mashing up Prince and Duke Ellington, and it drove Tony crazy. It wasn’t until they’d been dating for another three months that he finally gathered up the courage to ask about it, and even then he cheated because he waited until they were lying in bed together, having a post-coital snuggle, trading those sweet little butterfly kisses.
“I have a question for you,” Tony said slowly, shifting so that Steve’s head fit better into the hollow of his shoulder. “And you don’t have to answer if you don’t want. In fact, I’m just going to assume you won’t answer it. You can pretend you overheard me talking to myself or something. This was never addressed to you at…”
“Tony,” Steve said, voice already heavy with drowsiness, eyelids drooping.
“How come you never wear your heels for performances? Or even makeup?” Tony waited a beat and then tripped onward. “Sorry. That was terrible of me. It’s your prerogative. I shouldn’t…you should definitely forget I said anything. I am a shitty boyfriend. You can go to sleep now.”
“Is that all?” Steve said, laughing into Tony’s shoulder. His eyes were still half-lidded, but he was looking at Tony, a tiny sad smile playing on his mouth. “It’s fine. That’s not an invasive question. It’s…well, it’s the stage, right? I just…You’re not supposed to be yourself on stage. You’re supposed to be who they want to see, right? So that’s who I give them.”
“You give them Steve and the suit shaped like a potato sack?”
Steve slapped at Tony’s pec with a hand gone so limp he might as well have been using a noodle. “You try finding a suit for a guy my size.”
“Right,” Tony hissed, and then ran his free hand through his hair. “I guess…to me, being on stage is about being your real self. Your truest self. So I guess that’s hard for me to imagine. Becoming who I think the crowd wants me to be.”
“No,” said Steve, nearly asleep. “That’s what you do the rest of the time. The only time you’re really you is on stage. And when you’re with me. I like it.”
“You could try that,” Tony said softly, running a hand down the ridges of Steve’s spine. “You could try being you on stage.” Against his skin, Steve snored very softly, his weight completely boneless. “I think I’d like that,” Tony whispered into the dark of his bedroom, and slowly drifted off.
“Where the hell is Steve?” Tony hissed at Pepper. “We’re on in three and he’s literally never been late before. He’s not answering his texts or his phone, either. Fuck. What if he got mugged? What if he was in an accident? Pep…”
“Breathe, Tony. He texted me. He’s fine. Get out there and introduce yourself.”
“But Steve’s not…”
“He’ll make it, Tony. Trust me.”
Tony gave one last frantic glance to the employees’ entrance and then ventured into the club, clearing his throat into the mic. Normally Steve introduced them, his smooth little good boy persona winning over the crowds like all-American apple pie.
“Ladies and Gents, thanks for coming to the Pepper Pot tonight. It’s always a pleasure to see you all here. I’m the house pianist Tony Stark and our house singer is…is…” Tony blinked and blinked again as he caught sight of Steve, sashaying out from the back room.
He was decked out in a twenties-style flapper dress, a sea of glistening blue and red fringe, and his perfect legs were accentuated by a strappy pair of silver heels. He’d even gone all out with the make up, a gentle application of smokey blue eye shadow that made him look mysterious and sultry. “Steve,” Tony managed to breathe into the mic, and the crowd gave a polite round of applause.
Tony stumbled back to the piano bench as Steve gave a wink, and something in his chest twisted, a pain so sweet that he thought he might just die from it. “Evening folks,” said Steve, his voice smooth as silk. “We’re hoping to give you all a fine night tonight, and we’re gonna start it off with ‘I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm’.”
Automatically, Tony’s hands fell to the keys and he started picking out the tinkling swing without really registering that he was playing. Rhodey was tapping out the beat with him, and it was probably the only reason he was managing to keep up with Steve at all.
There was something sparkling in him, something that somehow refracted through the layers of beads on his body, becoming even brighter than it had been before. This. This was what Tony saw when they were noodling after close, or sometimes when he caught Steve singing in the kitchen early in the morning, hips wriggling to a phantom beat. And now everyone could see it. How amazing he was.
Tony played the night away in a daze, the whole of his focus on Steve and Steve alone. When they closed the set and the last of the patrons had trickled into the chilly night, Tony stood and took Steve by the hand, spinning him slowly. “God you’re beautiful,” he said, still caught in the spell of it all, and Steve ducked his head.
“I about had a heart attack right before I came out,” he confessed, drawing into Tony’s arms. “Had to use my inhaler.”
“You were amazing. I never would have guessed.” He caught Steve’s chin and tilted his head up for a kiss, and the knowledge sunk into his gut, suffused his being, and he had to say it out loud. “I love you,” he whispered as they parted, and Steve’s eyebrows jumped.
“Well,” Steve said, a blush dusting his cheeks. Behind them, someone started playing “Cheek to Cheek” and Steve leaned into Tony, pressing his cheek to Tony’s chest. “Can’t quit manage ‘Cheek to Cheek’, can we?” he asked with a soft chuckle.
“Guess not,” Tony said, and started swaying with the beat, rotating them on a tiny axis. At the piano, Rhodey gave him a wink and a nod and worked his way into the bridge.
“I love you, too, you big nerd,” Steve confessed after a moment, his face still tucked away. It didn’t matter. Tony could feel his smile, even through his shirt.