The trading cards and the costume redesign are Steve's first clues, but he doesn't recognize them at the time; he's too new to the world, too angry at it, too busy fighting a war.
He's had fans before, people whose eyes were filled up to the brim with his image; who wanted to possess him in some way, even if only as a trading card or a comic book. Back when he was doing the shows and the films, before Bucky went MIA, Steve's fans had been mostly young boys and young women, kids really. Steve thought of them as kids even though some of them were pretty close to his own age. He remembers how strange it was, at first, to see a little boy's eyes to go wide when Steve pushed back his cowl after a show, as if he'd expected Steve to be solid all the way through, like a tin soldier with a painted uniform. How strange it had been to realize that things went missing – an old singlet, a handkerchief, one of his stubby little pencils – because someone had loved him so much that they had felt compelled to take some part of him away with them. Steve was annoyed by the losses, but he understood the motive, the desperation. He understood what he meant to those people, how his body and voice and costume combined, in their eyes, to form a talisman against the dark.
He understood because he had once wanted Bucky in that same way, wanted his tall, strong body, his uniform and the duty that it symbolized. He understood because he had once craved this new body of his as desperately as any of them did now: the way it moved, the way it looked; the things it could do and the things it could mean. He knew how lucky he had been to get it, and he reckoned that it was part of his duty to render it back to America somehow.
After Steve went to find Bucky, after the formation of the Howling Commandos, Steve developed a different kind of fan: servicemen, for the most part, who were deployed like he was. They would post letters from whatever muddy bloodsoaked field they were in, and the letters would sometimes, eventually, get to Steve in whatever muddy bloodsoaked field he was in, and when they did Steve would read them over and over, trying to soak the words into his government-issued skin.
Bucky had teased him, said he was too famous now to bother with the little people anymore, or asked if there were any young ladies writing him adoring letters and whether they'd sent pictures of themselves.
Steve had always smiled and bumped Bucky's shoulder with his own and promised him a room in his Hollywood mansion one day.
Soldiers from all over the world wrote Steve to tell him thank you for getting my buddy out of Poland, or we're all glad to hear about what you're doing. One man wrote a long letter describing how he imagined Captain America rescuing him the whole time he was in enemy hands (even though the Commandos weren't involved in that rescue op, in the end), how the idea of it had kept him going. Another wrote to say that he knew, in his heart, that Captain America would come for him if ever something happened, would carry his bleeding body to safety, lay him down in an abandoned building safe from the bombs and care for his wounds. Steve remembers them all, the words of passionate devotion from men he's never met: we think of you every day, they wrote, and my soul burns with the knowledge of you, that you are doing God's work with your two hands, and sometimes I can almost feel you in the dark, Cap, the heat of your breath as you lie next to me, keeping me safe.
What Steve hadn't understood about Phil Coulson, hadn't understood at first, was that he was the little boy and the young woman and the serviceman all in one person, that he looked at Steve with all those kinds of passion at once. That he was the fan who would steal his pencil and the fan who would lay down his life for Steve too, the fan who would imagine Steve breathing next to him in the dark. That those things were all, at the most basic level, the same.
It was only after Steve saw the blood on the trading cards that he understood that, though.
A couple of days – or seventy years – after he crashed a plane in the Arctic, Steve had sat with Nick Fury in the abandoned SHIELD mess at two a.m. and asked about the end of the war. Director Fury had told him in a slow, neutral tone about the capture of Berlin, the burning of Dresden, Operation Neptune, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When they came to a lull in the conversation, Steve rolled his head back, stretching his neck, and blinked at the unforgiving fluorescent lights. He was angry at Howard, although the man was long dead.
"I knew a Fury. Jack," he said.
"He was in the Howling Commandos."
Steve remembered suddenly, a letter from Jack's little boy back home. take care my daddy don't die or get captured again.
"You're well preserved," Steve drawled. Nick raised an eyebrow at him.
"Look who's talking."
Steve laughed. It sounded cavernous in the empty room.
"You want your personal effects?" Nick had offered, a moment later. When Steve nodded, Nick led him through the corridors to an old storeroom crammed full of musty boxes. After the deserted mess hall it was almost comforting, the press of the full shelves all around them. You could get lost in here, Steve thought, and it made him feel better to think it.
"You keep a lot of personal effects for MIA soldiers?" Steve asked, looking around at the stacks of cartons. So much history, locked in back storerooms like this one.
"Nope," Nick replied. "Just yours."
Steve blinked in shock, and when he looked more closely he saw that his name was on every box, seventy year old labels faded and peeling.
"Fan mail," Nick explained. His expression didn't give much away, but Steve understood anyway, could see why Nick Fury, world-weary super-spy, might hang on to these letters from kids and parents and long-dead soldiers, all addressed to a man they didn't know but trusted implicitly.
"Did Jack die?" Steve asked suddenly, ashamed he hadn't asked before.
"Yes. In 1983," Nick said. "He survived the war."
Before he left the room, Nick clapped a hand on Steve's shoulder and squeezed, just for a moment.
Steve stayed behind, fingers running slowly over the edges of the cartons.
After the truth about Nick's deception comes out, Tony yells a lot, and Thor frowns a lot, and Bruce goes to Lithuania and doesn't talk to anyone for a while. Even Clint and Natasha, who know Director Fury well and have been messed around by SHIELD before, get pale and quiet and angry. Steve isn't surprised; it makes sense to him that Nick Fury and Phil Coulson would, between them, come up with something like this. That they would know Steve this well, know how to move him.
He's actually down in Washington when Tony figures it out, accepting an award from the President and then battling a giant, if somewhat slow and rusty, HYDRA robot that emerges from the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool when Steve's presence wakes it up somehow. The Secret Service agents and police are all very nice about it, but it's clear afterwards, once the robot is in pieces and Mr. Obama has handed Steve his little plaque, that they'd just as soon he took himself back to New York. Anyhow, in all the commotion he loses his little cell phone, and so by the time he gets back in contact with the Avengers they've all already gone through their various reactions to learning that Phil Coulson is alive (anger, screaming, yelling, shouting, threatening to blow up the helicarrier, going to visit Phil at Beth Israel with balloons and flowers) and Steve is left to make the trip alone.
He shows up still wearing his robot-muddied Captain America suit, which he realizes wasn't the greatest idea when he walks in the front doors and is met with dropped jaws, looks of adoration, and, in some cases, looks of disdain from the patients and staff in the outer waiting room. He signs a few autographs and smiles at a few tiny cameras before finding out Agent Coulson's room number and making his way there.
"Oh, hello, Captain Rogers," Agent Coulson says as Steve walks in. "It's nice of you to come."
"You should call me Steve, Agent Coulson," Steve smiles.
"I imagine you already got an earful from the rest of the team," Steve offers, shutting the door behind him.
"Yes, although I imagine that it's nothing compared to the earful they're all going to give to Director Fury."
When Steve laughs his cheeks push against the fabric of his cowl; he hadn't even realized it was still down. Reaching up he pulls it back, baring his face and making his hair stick up a little, staticky to the touch. Phil watches him. "Director Fury deserves it, I should say, after what he's done to us. To you."
Phil shrugs. He looks small in his hospital bed, nondescript and unremarkable. "I was willing to be used," he says simply.
Steve inhales sharply, breath catching in his chest. Phil holds his gaze.
After a moment Steve steps forward, thinking that he'll sit by the bedside, squeeze Phil's hand. It's familiar, suddenly, this reaching out to a wounded fellow soldier; this he knows. But then, before their hands meet, he realizes that he's still wearing his Captain America gauntlets, and starts to pull away again.
Phil's bare fingers brush briefly against the stiff material, communicating only the most fleeing sensation of touch to Steve's skin beneath. But he's already pulled his hand back. He smiles apologetically, then sets his shield down on the bed so that he can tug the gauntlet off with his teeth.
It's a careless gesture on his part, but the way Phil's eyes lock on the shield suddenly laid across his lap gives Steve pause.
He thinks about the costume redesign, the way his suit is made to resist impact but allow movement, the way it anticipates Steve's body, Steve's fighting style.
He thinks about the suit laid out in its own little alcove on the helicarrier, neatly displayed with a placard below it like a historical treasure, lit up and glowing like an altar.
He thinks about Phil's blood smeared carefully all over his Captain America trading cards, because Phil Coulson was willing to be used.
Phil's hands twitch toward the shield, then pull back, not presuming to bridge the six inches between his fingertips and the cool disc of vibranium.
Reaching down with his left hand – the one still wearing supple red leather and kevlar – Steve pushes the shield toward him, into his grasp. Phil's fingers convulse and then grip it strongly, the way Steve has seen soldiers hold on to lifelines.
"You can touch it," Steve says. His voice is hoarse.
"Yeah, okay," Phil replies, and he sounds calm like always, except his fingertips are white where they cling to the metal.
There's a long pause, and then Phil says, "Why don't you sit down, Steve?"
Steve sits, watches Phil hold on to his shield. He's had it a long time, worn it on his back through most of Europe; he once told Bucky that it was like a part of his body. It was as much a part of his body as anything else, in fact, acquired at around the same time.
He coughs. "How's your wound?"
Phil looks up at him, and if he was absorbed before, he snaps out of it suddenly and completely, his grip relaxing as a small, polite smile plays over his mouth. "As well as can be expected."
Reaching up, he pulls his thin hospital gown away to reveal the puckered, red-tinged place where there had been a hole in his chest. There are stitches all over, like Frankenstein's monster in those Boris Karloff movies.
"They had to do a bunch of surgeries," Phil says, almost sounding unsettled. "I don't remember much of it, though, I was on a lot of drugs."
"There's no worry about infection?" Steve breathes, and Phil cocks his head.
"No. There are intravenous antibiotics."
"Right," Steve says, remembering. Penicillin had been a new concept in the forties. He knew so many guys who died of infections. "Can I touch?"
"Yes," Phil says immediately, softly, as if he was expecting the question. Steve places his hand against Phil's chest, and the red of his gauntlet is reminiscent of the blood that must've gushed out of this body not so long ago. and if there were blood, you would put your hand to the wound and stop the bleeding, an infantryman named Saul had written to Captain America in 1944, you would stop me from dying out here in this godforsaken place. Steve's right hand feels naked without the gauntlet, useless where it hangs at his side.
"You made the ultimate sacrifice," Steve murmurs, stroking his thumb absently against the uninjured skin to the right of the wound.
"Well, I tried to," Phil says philosophically. "Turns out I wasn't very good at it."
Steve looks up into his eyes and smiles ruefully. "I know the feeling." He quirks his lips, pulls his hand back so that they're not touching any longer. "Now you have to spend the rest of your life trying to find something that'll top that."
Phil chuckles, his fingers slipping gently along the edge of Captain America's shield. "The thought had occurred to me, yes."
Steve wraps his gauntleted hand around Phil's. "I know you will, soldier," he says softly.
When Phil looks up at him this time, Steve feels as if he's staunched a wound.
When Steve lay down on the cold padded surface of Howard Stark's Vita-Ray machine –
When he braced himself against Doctor Erskine's hundreds of tiny needles and closed his eyes tight –
When he screamed at them to keep going, even though it felt like being ripped apart, torn into pieces, rearranged from the inside out –
When he was being made into Captain America, Steve Rogers thought: use me.
Steve goes back to visit Phil in the hospital a couple times a week. Each visit just happens to come after a fight or a public event, so that Steve is wearing his uniform. They do mundane things together – watch television shows, discuss some of the history that Steve's missed. Phil pulls out his laptop and shows Steve the places he's been looking online for replacement Captain America trading cards, since his are no longer strictly in Near Mint condition. They laugh together over the latest episode of Dog Cops, they do crosswords, they become friends.
But after the first visit, Steve usually keeps both his gauntlets on.
"You're not allowed to walk," Steve insists, pushing the wheelchair into the elevator. "The nurse was very clear on this point."
"I can walk," Phil protests. "I've been practicing. And is having Captain America wheel me out the front door in front of everyone really the most covert option we could think of?"
"We're not going out the front door," Steve says, pressing the elevator button for the helicopter landing pad.
Steve slides a hand over Phil's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Natasha's going to fly you to Stark Tower. Tony's set up a place for you to stay."
"I thought Mr. Stark was only waiting for me to recover so that he could kill me in a fair fight."
"Eh, you know Tony." Steve smiles, even though Phil can't see it. "First he wants to kill you, then he wants you to move in with him. Happened to me too."
Phil tilts his head back to look up at Steve. "I doubt that he ever wanted to kill you. I'm pretty sure he's still got a box of Captain America comic books somewhere."
Steve grins down at him. "Don't ever tell him that you told me that."
The elevator doors open on the roof. Natasha is leaning casually against an HH-60 Pave Hawk, arms folded, mirrored sunglasses covering her expression.
"Ready to go, boss?" she asks, as they wheel up towards the helicopter.
"I've told you not to call me that, it freaks me out," Phil grumbles, getting his feet under him and preparing to stand. Before he gets too far, Steve comes around and crouches beside him.
"Want a lift?" he offers quietly. Phil blinks at him for a moment, then nods. Steve works his hands between Phil's body and the wheelchair, then lifts him easily. Phil hooks an arm around Steve's neck and laughs, sounding strangely giddy.
"This feels a little weird," Phil confesses in his usual deadpan, then kicks his feet a couple times for emphasis. His breath, when he speaks, puffs against Steve's cheek in the cool November air. It feels good to carry him, to bear his weight.
"Don't worry, Cap carries us around all the time," Natasha offers. "You'll get used to it. Thor has."
Steve has only carried Thor that one time, after a dragon chewed on his leg, but Thor had been very good-natured about it.
He sets Phil down carefully in his seat in the helicopter, immediately missing the warmth and weight of him against his chest. Phil's hand lingers against the blue of the uniform as it leaves Steve's shoulder.
"Miss Romanoff?" Steve says, holding out a hand. Natasha grins behind her shades, then, tucking them carefully into her pocket, executes a quick, showy cartwheel and handspring up into the helicopter, using Steve's outstretched hand for a boost.
Up in his seat, Phil chuckles. "I can't believe I signed up to wrangle ridiculous superheroes," he says, as Steve climbs in beside him and buckles up himself.
"We all know you were first in line, boss," Natasha calls back, as the whir of the blades begins above them.
"Damn straight," Phil mutters. Steve squeezes his hand once, quickly, then releases him as they leave the ground. The flight to Stark Tower is beautiful, the city golden beneath them, their hands almost touching the entire way.
Phil's comment about the comic books sticks with Steve, though, and it occurs to him that he hasn't seen much of the stuff about Captain America that was published after his death. He asks JARVIS about it, and before too long he has Tony's secret stash of comic books – three long cardboard boxes – set out carefully on a table in his room. He recognizes some of them from the forties when he was doing his dancing monkey routine, but it turns out that they brought the comics back in the early seventies, probably after they decided that enough time had passed since his death.
How long can you really mourn a legend, after all?
He gets engrossed in reading them, even though at first the stories are mostly the same kind of thing that they were during the war; spies, soldiers, battles, baff slam kapow. Curious, he sets down the one he's reading and reaches at random further back in the box; the comic he pulls out is from 1987, and it opens on the image of the Captain America suit lying folded neatly into the hollow of the shield, on Captain America resigning his position.
Captain America was created to be a mere soldier, it reads, but I have made him far more than that. To serve the country your way, I would have to give up my personal freedom, and place myself in a position where I might have to compromise my ideals to obey your orders. I cannot represent the American government; the President does that. I must represent the American people.
It brings tears to Steve's eyes, which makes him feel foolish, since it's a comic book about a made up character and nothing at all to do with his own life. As he laughs at himself, there's a knock on his door, and Steve wipes his eyes quickly before calling for his visitor to come in.
To his surprise, it's Bruce who pokes his head around the door.
"Hey Cap'n," he says, strolling in when he sees Steve waving him forward.
"Dr. Banner, when did you get back?"
He shrugs. "Just a few hours ago, and I wish you'd call me Bruce. I thought I'd come by and let you know I was here."
"Come in, sit down. I'm glad you're back. How was Lithuania?"
"Kernavė was interesting. I like archaeology. And I no longer feel the urge to smash all of SHIELD, so that's progress." Bruce sits down, cocking his head to one side as he notices what Steve's been reading. "What's all this?" he asks, smiling softly.
Steve smiles back, embarrassed. "You caught me reading up on myself, I'm afraid. I guess – you know, Phil's just moved in with us here, and he mentioned that Tony had these, and I was . . . curious, I suppose. It's silly."
"It's not," Bruce says absently, picking up a comic and leafing through it.
"I have the feeling these might be worth some money, so we do have to be careful," Steve cautions.
"What, Captain America #1 from 1942 might be worth some money?" Bruce laughs. "I'm surprised Tony doesn't have these in something other than flimsy plastic sleeves."
Steve shrugs. "I think I saw a Monet gathering dust next to them in the storage closet. Tony doesn't always treat his things very well."
"No, he doesn't," Bruce agrees. He looks absorbed. "God, you know, I would've killed to have even seen these when I was a kid. You couldn't get the originals anywhere. Not that I could've bought them anyway, but."
Steve studies Bruce's face while he looks down at Captain America #1. "You read my comics, Bruce?"
Bruce looks up from the page, a half-smile on his face. "Steve, Steve, Steve. When I was eight or nine, if I could've, I would have lived inside your comics."
Again Steve feels the prickling in his eyes, and he has to swallow before he can speak. "I didn't know that," he says softly. "What – why – what did you like about them?" That feels too personal, like he's taking the whole thing too personally, so Steve adds, like a joke, "Just a young boy's longing for adventure?"
Bruce chuckles. "Kind of the opposite, really." His fingers trail across the covers, across the images of Captain America punching Hitler, punching Stalin, punching a Klan member in full getup. "This is – I don't know, maybe you don't want to hear this. You might feel weird about it."
Steve reaches out and puts his hand over Bruce's, stilling his nervous tapping fingers. "It's okay," Steve says. "I don't mind."
Bruce looks up at him, and as always Steve is shocked by the sheer calculating intelligence in his calm brown eyes.
"I used to have these fantasies," Bruce says, after a beat. "You know, you'd – Captain America would come and save me, keep me from getting beaten up, take me away, all that kind of stuff."
Bruce doesn't say who Captain America was supposed to be saving him from, and Steve doesn't ask. Bruce pauses, clears his throat.
"That's probably why I ended up working on the Super Soldier serum. Find out what made you tick." His smile is wry now. "I got the Hulk instead, of course."
Steve is still covering Bruce's hand with his own, and he gives it a silent squeeze. "The Hulk's a pretty good guy when you get to know him."
Bruce quirks an eyebrow, but lets it pass, draws his hand away from Steve's. "Anyway, there's some good stuff in here." He pats one of the boxes as he stands up. "It's the reason people still know your name, I guess. We never stopped telling ourselves stories about you."
Steve meets his gaze for a long moment. "Thank you," he says, eventually. He's not sure what else to say. Bruce nods at him, turning to go.
"Anyway, I just wanted to let you know I was back."
"I'm glad," Steve says.
Phil's technically still supposed to be on bed rest, but he keeps refusing to stay in bed – going down to the gym with Natasha and Clint to slowly build up his muscles and skills again, running back and forth to the helicarrier to coordinate with Maria and Nick, going to lunch with Pepper almost every other day. Steve takes it upon himself to propose quieter activities for the two of them, like movies and board games, so that Phil can at least rest while Steve's around.
So it's over tea and a game of chess that Steve finds the courage to ask. Phil has just taken his knight, and Steve is starting to rethink his strategy. He takes a deep breath and looks up from the board.
"So, were you a big Captain America fan as a kid?"
Phil looks up too, then, and his expression betrays surprise. After a moment he says, "No. Well. I got into it when I was a teenager. Started collecting comics. Before that I was a lot more what you'd call bookish." He tilts his head. "Why do you ask?"
Steve moves his pawn. "Check. I – it's funny, Bruce told me that he used to read the comics when he was a kid. I know Tony did too. It's strange to think that you all knew me so well before you met me."
Phil moves his bishop to take the pawn. Steve stares at the pieces, trying to do what Bucky used to yell at him to do: see the whole board.
"I don't know if we knew you," he offers. "We knew your image."
Steve moves his rook to defend his queen. He shrugs, not sure what to say.
Phil sighs, and when he speaks his voice is very soft in the quiet room. "It was a tough time. Well, you know, any thirteen year old kid. But. Yeah. But you were what I had, Steve. I don't know why or how it happened but I – followed you." He licks his lips and moves his queen in a direction Steve didn't anticipate. "I joined the FBI because of you, then worked my way to SHIELD," Phil says, his usually calm eyes bright and feverish. "You made me."
Steve maintains eye contact, nods slowly. "I get that," he says quietly. Looking down, he can't see the board anymore; it all looks like chaos, pieces without relationships to one another. He touches his finger to the rounded top of one of his bishops.
"It – I don't know, does it make you uncomfortable?"
"No." Steve thinks about it. Carelessly, he moves his bishop to take a rook, almost certainly walking into a trap. "I don't know what it makes me."
Phil moves his queen immediately, halfway across the board, pressing his advantage. "Check."
Steve is running late; Steve hates running late. He hops on one foot, trying to get one of the big red boots on, but he's concentrating so hard that he doesn't see the gauntlet lying on the floor, so that before he knows what's happening he's falling over onto his side. He manages a neat little tuck-and-roll to get back up to his feet, purely on instinct, but in the process of doing so bumps into a little side-table and knocks the stack of books down onto his head.
"Ow." For some reason he's grinning, perhaps because he hasn't had the opportunity to be ungainly in a long time.
"Steve? You okay?" Phil pokes his head around the door and looks in at Steve, who's ruefully rubbing his head, even though it isn't sore.
"Uh, hey, hi," Steve says.
Phil looks around the room. Steve notices that he's got his gun drawn. "Did someone attack? What happened?"
Steve sighs. "I fell over while trying to get my boots on."
"Wow." Steve already knows what Phil looks like when he's trying not to laugh, but usually that look is directed at Tony or Clint, not at him. Phil at least tries to hide his face by concentrating very hard on putting his gun back in its holster.
"Yeah, I know. Don't tell America." Steve takes the hand that Phil offers and is pulled to his feet.
"You have my word of honor," Phil promises gravely, bending to pick up the gauntlet that Steve had tripped on. He holds it out rather than handing it to Steve, and after a moment's confusion Steve blinks and slips his hand into it, letting Phil tug it up his arm and tighten the straps.
"I'm late for that thing at the hospital," Steve explains, as Phil moves quickly and efficiently to hold out his other gauntlet.
"For the volunteers," Phil says, nodding. Phil always knows Steve's schedule, though whether it's part of his job to know Steve isn't sure. "They never start on time anyway. You'll be okay."
"I suppose." Phil's hands make short work of the second gauntlet, fastening it perfectly into place. Usually Steve struggles with the second one; while he likes the impact resistance and the grips, the motor control he has while wearing them isn't all that fine.
"Thank you," Steve says, as Phil fastens the last buckle. To Steve's surprise he doesn't stop there, instead moving across the room to pick up the boots. "I guess you must know the suit pretty well, since you had a hand in making it."
Phil gives him a pleased half-smile. Then, suddenly and gracefully, he goes to one knee in front of Steve like it's nothing, absolutely nothing. Steve looks down; Phil looks up at him. "You know what this reminds me of?" he asks.
Steve swallows. "No." He places a hand on Phil's shoulder for balance and slides his foot into the boot.
"It reminds me of those medieval knights. You know? They had servants to help them get their armor on, since it was so heavy and bulky."
"Squires," Steve says, as Phil fastens the boot around his calf. His touch is warm, professional, never lingering.
"Yeah, squires. I always liked those stories, knights and squires."
They move together to get the second boot on, Steve shifting his balance and placing his other hand on Phil's other shoulder as Phil slides the boot under him.
"You know what story I liked," Steve says slowly, an idea taking shape in his mind.
"What?" Phil isn't looking at him, is focused on the little buckles and straps.
"Pygmalion," Steve says. "You know that one? Pygmalion is a sculptor, and he makes a beautiful woman out of marble – Galatea – and then he prays to Aphrodite to bring her to life. Aphrodite answers his prayer, and Galatea becomes real."
Phil gets slowly to his feet. "I know that story," he says. He walks over to the table and picks up Steve's belt with its little utility pockets; Steve doesn't even try to take it from him, just lifts his arms passively, allows himself to be dressed. "It makes sense that you would like it, since you're an artist. It's a beautiful idea. Bringing your art to life. Creating the perfect – lover." The slight hesitation where most people would've said woman makes Steve's heart beat faster.
"Yes," Steve says, as the belt buckle snaps closed.
"You wanted to be Pygmalion," Phil says quietly. He's standing very close; Steve inhales an anticipatory breath as Phil puts his arms around Steve's shoulders, gathering the cowl in his hands and pulling it carefully up over Steve's head.
"No," Steve breathes, as Phil tugs the cowl into place, fingertips brushing against Steve's face. "I wanted to be Galatea."
Bending his head, Steve kisses him. Phil's mouth is lush, soft and accepting, like he was waiting for this.
Like he's always been waiting for this.
"That's how you make me feel," Steve says, voice almost a whisper as he pulls back. "Like I'm real."
Phil holds his gaze, running his hands over the red white and blue of the uniform from Steve's shoulders down to his wrists and back up again. Steve takes a deep breath and feels the way his skin is warm against the material of the suit, the way his blood pumps steadily underneath the stars and stripes. He holds still and lets Phil feel him living and breathing within this shell he's created.
"You're more real than anyone," Phil says softly, and lifts his face to kiss Steve again.
Steve tears himself away with a promise to return soon, and Phil nods, accepting.
"I'll be waiting," he says simply.
The reception for volunteers at Beth Israel is nice and doesn't take all that long, but before it's over his Avengers card buzzes in his pocket and he's called away to help with a fire that's broken out Little Italy. The firefighters can't seem to touch it, have never seen anything like it. Tony and T'Challa are huddled up with Wanda and Thor desperately trying to figure out whether it's some kind of technology or some kind of magic (or something inbetween), but in the meantime there are people to evacuate and Steve's suit is, as it turns out, fire-resistant in addition to everything else. He mutters a quick thank you to Phil as he ducks in and out of burning buildings, carrying out as many people as he can. The smoke doesn't affect him too badly, so he's able to make a lot of trips before one of the paramedics makes him sit down and take a little oxygen for himself.
By that time the fire's mostly out, and he can see the red of Wanda's magic and the white-blue of Tony's unibeam beating back what's left of it. Good; they got it figured out. That's good.
He checks in by comm to make sure that everyone's all right; the others assure him that they've got it under control and that he can head home.
"Do you require aid, Captain Rogers?" Thor asks, landing next to him and looking much less sooty than Steve feels. Sometimes Steve really wishes he could fly.
"When I need you to carry me home I'll let you know, Thor," Steve smiles. "Thank you."
"Oh, just accept a lift home, Rogers, it won't kill you," Tony's voice comes over the comm. "What else are you going to do, take the subway?"
"Walk," Steve replies, amused. "It's not that – " Before he can finish his sentence, Thor has scooped him up and is in the process of flying him home. Steve sighs and wraps his arms around Thor's neck.
"There is no use resisting," Thor teases, as Steve tucks his face against his neck to reduce the windburn. Does Thor really have to take them into space to get back to midtown? "As you care for others, so you will be cared for."
"Thanks, Thor," Steve tries to say, but he gets a mouthful of Thor's cape and it's mostly muffled.
He's pretty sure Thor got the gist anyway, though.
When they get back home Thor says something about going to watch Power Rangers and invites Steve to join him, but Steve refuses politely and heads back towards his part of the tower. When he passes through the common area that's near his suite, he finds Phil there waiting for him, working with one of the Tower's touch-screen computers. He's wearing a pair of slacks and a polo shirt, as casual as he gets unless forced into a hospital gown. Steve wants very much to touch him.
"I was wondering what was taking so long," Phil explains, "and then I saw about the fire, figured you were there. Looks like it might be a new player."
"What did the science and magic types figure out?" Steve asks.
"T'Challa says it's like this Wakandan thing he's seen, Thor says it's like this Asgardian thing he's seen, best guesses right now are for some kind of Earth-based technology making use of magic in a way we haven't seen before." His fingers fly over the screen. "There have been pieces of the original incendiary device recovered from the scene, though, so we can at least start tracking them down the old-fashioned way."
Steve smiles ruefully and pushes his cowl back. "Old-fashioned. Right. So this was just a test run, you think?"
Phil turns away from the display, then cocks his head when he sees Steve, slumping a little against the wall and lightly singed. "Yes, I think we'll have to be on the lookout for this person's next move. Try to stop them before they try anything big. Are you all right?"
"Fine," Steve sighs, wishing he could just collapse down into a chair. He doesn't know how much these chairs cost, but he knows that his mother would never have let him sit on the oldest, most worn-out piece of furniture they owned in a state like he's in now. Flying with Thor, as it turns out, handily removes most particulate matter – and, Steve's not sure, but possibly your eyebrows as well – but he's still a little gritty, and damp from the flight through low-flying clouds.
Phil's at his elbow in a flash, reaching for Steve's arm and chest to steady him, but then something stops him, and he hesitates with his hands almost on Steve's body.
Steve smiles. "You can touch," he says, and Phil smiles back, maybe remembering the way they had held Captain America's shield between them. Steve grasps Phil's wrist and pulls him in, resting Phil's palm against the star on his chest.
"Can I kiss you?" Phil asks, not taking his eyes off of the place where his hand curls over the fabric of the suit.
"Yes," Steve breathes, and they kiss slowly, mouths slightly open, warm and wet.
"This was it," Phil murmurs against him, and Steve is surprised to feel him shaking in his arms. He pulls back a little, looks at Phil's face.
"What was it?" Steve asks quietly.
"This was – " he lets out a short puff of air. "This was my fantasy. When I was – " he cuts himself off.
"When you were a kid." Steve takes his hand and leads him into his suite, into his bedroom; he worries about the sheets for just a moment before forcing himself to stop. The sheets will wash.
"Yes," Phil says. He sounds choked. Steve touches his face, kisses him softly until he stops shaking.
They sit down together on the bed. Steve unbuckles his boots quickly and slides them off, but leaves on his gauntlets and the rest of the suit; Phil watches him with hot, intense interest, but doesn't reach forward, doesn't touch. Steve lies back on the bed and pulls Phil up on top of him.
"Tell me about it," Steve says, breathlessly. "Tell me your fantasy."
Phil looks down into his eyes. "You want to know."
Steve cups his jaw, kisses him briefly. "Tell me the story."
"I – it's just." Phil looks down at him, swallows once. "You show up at my door," he says slowly, and runs a hand down Steve's chest, pressing hard enough to be felt through the kevlar. "Weary from having done service for the nation."
He says it with a quirk of his lips, and from anyone else it would sound ironic, but Steve can feel the sincerity in his voice. Phil pulls open the frontspiece on the uniform, baring Steve's chest beneath, and Steve shivers at the cool air against his skin.
"You smell smoky," Phil says, getting distracted.
"I've just come from a fire."
"And you need someone to look after you," Phil agrees. His hands play over Steve's chest, kneading the muscles, like he's trying to feel through Steve's skin and right down to the bones.
Steve runs his gauntleted fingers through Phil's hair at the temple. "How do you look after me?"
"I clean your wounds," Phil replies slowly. "Mostly just scrapes – one here," he cups his palm against Steve's right side, below his ribs. "And here," he kisses Steve's brow. Steve smiles fondly at the small blasphemy.
"And do I ask you to touch me?"
Phil laughs, pulling down the zipper to Steve's pants and folding the plackets aside carefully. With his pants and jacket both open, Steve feels like he's being slowly shelled, like Phil has cracked open his outer casing and is peering at the soft parts inside.
"Of course not," he says softly. "You wouldn't. I give you what you need, without you having to ask. I know just what to do." He pulls out Steve's dick and starts working it slowly; Steve gasps and grips Phil's side with one hand, his shoulder with the other.
"Yes," Steve manages. "Yes, and you – you keep me safe from whoever's after me – "
"I turn them away when they come to the door," Phil murmurs, kissing Steve's belly. "I feed you, and I bring you water, and I wash the dirt off of you."
"We'll have to save that one for later," Steve grins, too aware of the grime that snuck in under his suit. Phil smiles back.
"And when I offer you this," Phil says, shifting down the bed to put his mouth over Steve's dick, "when I do this for you, you put your hand on the back of my head – "
Steve does it, cups Phil's skull in his America-red gauntlet. Phil takes him in, sucking him down, and Steve can't help but grunt and twist his fingers against Phil's short hair.
"That's – that's just right, Phil," Steve gasps out. "That's just what I need, oh, you're so good – " Phil moans around him. The hand not wrapped around the base of Steve's dick grips hard at Steve's thigh, digging in to the tough, flexible material of the suit. With a cry, Steve shifts his hips, shivers all over his body, and comes helplessly into Phil's mouth, his whole body arching up towards him.
Phil wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. "That's it," he says, softly. "That's my fantasy."
Steve grasps his hands, pulls him back up the bed. "It ends there?" Steve reaches down to rub his palm against the outside of Phil's slacks.
"U – usually," Phil stutters. "Though when I was younger you used to always thank me for my service to the nation."
Steve laughs, delighted, and kisses Phil full and lush on the mouth. "A grateful nation thanks you, then, Phil Coulson," Steve says, as straight-faced as he can manage. "There may be a Presidential Commendation in this for you."
Phil buries his face against Steve's neck and laughs, then moans as Steve reaches into his slacks and takes him in hand. Steve's still wearing his gauntlets, and it must feel rough, impersonal, to be handled in such a way by Captain America.
"Thanks, Cap," Phil manages, still chuckling. Then, sobering, he looks up into Steve's eyes. Steve waits to hear what he needs to say. "Anything for you, Steve. Anything."
"I know, soldier," Steve says softly, and Phil shivers. "Me too."