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When he thought back on how it began, Steve still couldn’t figure it out. Six weeks after New York, his phone had buzzed, and Fury told him there was news. Coulson. He’d made it. He was alive.

Everyone except Thor had returned within two days, Steve being the last. He’d taken a motorcycle ride across the country and had the furthest to travel. Everyone, from Hawkeye to Dr. Banner, exuded a kind of impatient energy that instilled the whole helicarrier with anticipation. Even Stark seemed at a loss for words, pacing and waiting for Fury to update them.

When Fury arrived, he filled them in. “The medics kept his heart pumping until they could get him into surgery. The artificial heart was touch and go at first, but he’s stabilized now. His body accepted it.” Fury looked proud, but there was an edge to his eyes. “Still - be safe. Go in one at a time.”

They’d lined up, Stark first. Steve was last, two hours later, surprised to find himself bouncing on his heels as he stepped into the room. Coulson gave him a chastened, weary smile that made Steve’s heart lurch, and tried to run a hand over his currently unruly hair. “Known you were coming, I would have brought my cards,” he said, chuckling lightly, not quite able to meet Steve’s worried gaze.

Steve hadn’t been able to help himself. He was so relieved to find this earnest, brave man hadn’t died that he went to his bedside, wrapped an arm around Coulson’s shoulders, and pulled him into his chest, long enough for the man’s usually hard demeanor to cave and for Phil to actually let a few tears fall on Steve’s chest before he could clear his throat and pull away.

Phil wasn’t the first man injured in the line of duty that Steve sat beside while he healed. But he was the first who reached for Steve’s hand to squeeze with every visit. And Steve didn’t just squeeze back and let go. He let the touch linger, as comforted by it as his companion.

On the sixth visit, Coulson wove Steve a fanciful tale of how he’d collected his trading cards. That usually emotionless demeanor was animated for once, Coulson excited by his own strange exaggerations, his pleasant mood infectious. Soon, Steve was working hard to find the truth among the fiction, and Coulson grinned ever wider every time Steve called his bluff. “No, seriously - that twelve-year-old had a mean left hook,” Coulson shot back, lifting his square jaw and jutting it out to show off a mark he swore the bully who tried to steal his last acquisition gave him. “That’s why the edge is bent; he tried to snag it, and I barely held on."

On impulse, Steve reached over and caught Phil’s chin in his hand, lifting it a little further to study that mark more closely. “Kind of looks like a chicken pox scar,” he replied, tapping it once, grinning victory as Coulson blushed and shrugged, caught in his exaggeration.

“Fine, he was sixteen,” the man admitted, smiling only the smallest amount. Steve caught a little twitch at the corner of Coulson’s mouth, an expression barely held under the surface. And even then, Steve knew it was a bad idea. He should have pulled back from that touch while Phil struggled silently, but he didn’t; he couldn’t, his thumb and finger not wanting to leave Coulson’s jawline, fighting even to keep still, not stroke. Coulson lost his own struggle, expression softening around the edges, and Steve’s heart clenched. It had been a long time since Steve had seen a look like that, felt a heartbeat under his fingers when he wasn’t fighting to save the life it represented. He looked away quickly as Phil looked up, hand falling again to his lap, but not soon enough. Neither could deny he’d felt...something.

Interaction between the two wasn’t much different from that point, even though the atmosphere between them felt suddenly charged. That lingering touch lay between them, a burning memory that they chose to ignore. They still clasped hands when Steve entered, and Coulson kept sharing stories about his non-spytime, often fannish escapades. Steve, in turn, still glowed and laughed and shook his head and countered every exaggeration. And despite that lingering moment, they settled into a comfortable daily banter that reminded Steve of how easily he and Bucky had once talked and connected, words simply filler for a bond that grew organically, bred of time and shared experience.

If anyone else noticed the growing connection, they said nothing. Neither, though, did they ignore it; Steve became their go-to person to ask about how Coulson was progressing. Daily updates on the deck became common, with Fury nodding and even smiling once or twice, pride in his eyes. “I’d appreciate it, Cap, if you could escort him to the rehab facility next week,” he asked after one such moment, a month into Coulson’s recovery. “He’s not out of danger until we’ve finished mopping up Loki’s allies.”

“You don’t have to,” Coulson said before Steve could mention it when he visited again. Their hands clasped, and Coulson brushed a thumb across the back of Steve’s hand as he found a seat. A hint of color came to cheeks still a little too pale for Steve’s liking, and Steve felt himself flush in response. Coulson hurried on: “You’d be an asset in the field right now, and Fury knows it. I could talk to him, get him to send one of our security teams - ”

Steve quirked a smile and put a finger gently on Coulson’s chest, getting the man’s attention, making him forget what he had been saying. “I have my orders, soldier.” He may as well have been on the field leading the charge, so firm was the decision in his voice. And yet, he couldn’t help but smile when Coulson ducked his head to hide grateful eyes.

Rehab was a veteran’s center, filled with wounded soldiers who laughed a little too loud and shared razor smiles with strangers. Cap and Coulson weren’t strangers, though; they were welcomed warmly, all handshakes and clasping of shoulders, even a few salutes. Their stories had preceded them, though Coulson’s was the one most shared in whispers as they passed. “That’s the guy that stopped the invasion,” or “Lookit - I hear that agent took a spear to the heart for us.” Coulson heard and simply ducked his head, already embarrassed by the wheelchair the nurses had insisted on (and Fury had finally ordered him to use), but Steve squared his shoulders, standing tall and proud for the man who didn’t yet have the strength to do so himself.

“Bit of a step down from your SHIELD quarters,” Steve noted as he helped Coulson unpack a bag, putting things away in drawers built into a wardrobe against the wall. “Bet the food isn’t as good, either.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Coulson responded, voice pinched with pain as he settled onto the bed, legs and arms still weak. “I like it better.”

“Oh?” Steve lifted an eyebrow, closed the drawer, and turned Coulson’s way in time to catch the nod Coulson gave to the door, then to a corner of the room. His broad brow furrowed a bit, not understanding what the agent meant.

“No security cams,” Coulson clarified, settling back onto the bed wearily, letting his eyes close, missing the color that rose on Steve’s neck at those words. “You out?”

Steve set down the empty bag he still held in one hand and settled into the room’s only chair. “I can stay a while,” he answered, and had to laugh at the grin that spread across Coulson’s sleepy expression.

Two hours later, when the nurses were gone and Coulson had been poked and prodded and examined thoroughly, Steve scooted his chair closer to the bed. Coulson was sitting up, looking pale and irritated and a little shamed, and that did something to Steve’s chest that hurt and demanded he make it better. He gripped the man’s hand to get his attention, then met eyes from which frustration bled slowly, and only because Steve’s gaze was all conviction.

Eventually, Coulson sighed, furrowing his brow, letting himself slump Steve’s direction, get caught by a strong shoulder. “I hate this.”

“I know,” Steve answered, settling his chin on Coulson’s head, wrapping his arm around the man gently to squeeze the opposite shoulder. Coulson sighed again, and just relaxed that much more into what was fast becoming an embrace.

Silence followed, stretching comfortably, until Steve thought maybe the man had fallen asleep again. But then there was a deep breath, and Phil turned his head so he could look up at Steve’s face again.

“Are you going to kiss me, Captain?” he asked, more hesitant than he’d ever been before. It made Steve smile, swelled his chest with a sense of importance. He wasn’t new to the kind of intense affection wounded soldiers often needed, nor to being the one asked to provide it. And he had, before; in the midst of war, one takes comforts where one can, discreetly and with all the passion of the soon-to-be-dead. The man Steve held looked at him with haunted eyes he’d seen a dozen times before, the eyes of one who’d known he was done, then found he wasn’t.

“If you let me,” Steve responded, acting on instinct, freed to do so by the closed door and the absence of SHIELD surveillance. “If it’ll help.”

“It’ll help,” Phil whispered back, lifting just a little, and his lips were soft and giving and tasted of mint tea and pepper. They lingered in that touch a long moment, both sighing into it with the relief of tension broken, and then Phil pulled away and settled on Steve’s chest and gave in to his weariness.

*****

Fury granted Steve leave to stay at the hospital with Phil. They needed eyes and ears there, in case anyone tried to go after his agent, and really - he couldn’t ask for better than Captain America. Steve had the hospital bring him a cot, and Clint dropped off a suitcase. Steve took the bottom drawer and part of the wardrobe (for the costume, just in case), and made the transition from soldier to healer well.

Phil cursed for the first time in front of Steve when the therapist forced him twenty more steps down the hall. “Ass,” he grunted, doing his best not to reach out to the wall for support, finally only using it for the last three steps before he slumped back into his wheelchair. “Bet you idolized Torquemada when you were in college.”

“Machiavelli was more my style,” the therapist answered instantly, beaming as Steve laughed and Phil glowered, though his eyes glinted appreciation.

“A hundred steps, and I’m exhausted,” Phil grumbled as they wheeled him back, sniffing and grimacing. “And smelly.” His shirt clung to him with sweat, and his hair was nearly soaked.

“I’ll send a nurse to help with a shower,” the therapist offered helpfully, which only garnered him another glower from his patient. “Seriously - heart transplant and prone for a month, you shouldn’t be attempting even a sitting shower on your own just yet.”

Coulson slumped a little in his chair, looking defeated, and something in Steve leapt to the rescue again. “Look, I’m in there anyway," he tried. "I’ll listen, and if he needs help...I can do it. Okay?”

“Fine by me,” the therapist said, locking the wheels on the chair just outside the bathroom. He looked right at Coulson. “There’s a nurse’s button in the shower. Do not hesitate to use if you need it; I don’t care how big of a bad ass you were. The more you work with us, the faster you’ll be that bad ass again.”

Coulson simply grunted assent, then looked up at Steve as the door clicked close. “Don’t.”

Steve headed to the chair he’d claimed as his own at this point. “I won’t,” he answered, settling there. “Not unless you ask me to.”

Phil tilted his gaze away, but couldn’t hide the color that rose to his face. “I won’t.” He used the door handle to get himself out of the chair, and closed the bathroom door firmly behind him.

Steve woke from a doze when the light started fading to find Phil mostly in bed, legs dangling off one side, head thrown back on the pillow. He’d pulled half the blanket over him, and the sheets were still wet from the shower. He was deep asleep, snoring lightly, face as ashen as he’d seen it since they arrived.

“God, Phil,” Steve said quietly, pulling himself out of his chair, caught in a stretch before he could move to get the man better situated. “Why didn’t you just call?” He lifted the man’s legs carefully, trying not to wake him.

Phil grunted and lifted an arm, but did little else. Steve got the man’s legs under the blanket, pulled it up to his chin. Phil rolled Steve’s way, and for a moment, their bodies pressed together, long enough for Phil to actually lift an arm, touch that chest lightly, and pat.

“‘m okay,” he murmured, a hint of a smile on his lips. “Did it.” Eyes opened a fraction, then blinked quickly to find Steve so close. “I miss something?” His eyes were soft, betraying a hint of concern, his hand still where he’d set it, and Steve’s skin prickled with the intimacy of it. So long since he’d felt close to someone, long enough that Steve wasn’t willing to just let it go.

So Steve moved closer. “Not yet,” he said, lifting and settling a hip on the bed, his face coming closer to Phil’s own, smiling as he wrinkled his nose at the moisture. “Your sheets are wet.”

“Towels here are useless,” Phil responded, lifting his chin so his nose brushed Steve’s, appreciating the intake of breath it caused. “Bed’s better.” His expression was as unreadable as ever, but his skin warmed where it touched Steve’s, pleasant enough that Steve wanted more contact.

“Can’t disagree.” Steve let his body settle more solidly next to Phil, despite the damp, and leaned his forehead against the other man’s. Chest to chest, they simply breathed a moment, both men taking time to adjust to this new possibility.

“Guess...” Phil finally started, voice quiet, too close to meet Steve’s eyes. “Guess I did do okay, today.”

Steve chuckled, proud, wrapping both arms around Phil and pulling himself onto the bed completely. “Impressed the hell out of me.” His lips hovered near Phil’s own, warm breath coming faster. Phil’s body shivered, then suddenly lifted to capture the lips so close to his own. Steve tasted salt and soap, felt the tremble in a body both worn and needy. And the hesitation; Phil hovered on the edge of that kiss, holding back, a hint of fear in the trembling of his wearied limbs.

“It’s okay,” Steve murmured against those lips, moving against them, bringing heat to his own skin from the contact. His arms stroked Phil’s back softly, chastely. “Phil, it’s okay.” He kissed back, then, licking his lips, opened them to pull Phil’s in, conjure a whimper from him. “I want to give you this.”

“I want it,” Phil managed, pulling back just long enough to say that, and then he lifted and pressed his scarred chest against Steve’s perfect one, kissing the man’s breath away.

*****

Dinner never came that night; the nurses left them alone, even marked the room to not be disturbed. The men slept curled together, Phil resting on Steve’s chest, Steve dreaming of stolen moments during the war in dark forests, the comfort of a body that wasn’t growing cold and responded to his own. He woke with a start, not sure for a moment where he was or who was in his arms, but the confusion faded quickly. Phil was Phil; he was soap and mint tea and licorice and lanolin lotion for skin chafing under sheets and drying from lack of use. And something else underneath, somehow both strong and subtle, a scent he remembered lingering on his lips after that first kiss not so long ago, that surrounded him now.

The next day brought more therapy, more bad food, and more fevered kisses when the lights went out and the hallway darkened. Steve had never had the luxury of exploration with anyone before - slow, lingering kisses, tentative touches against skin not even exposed. The tremble in Phil’s fingers as they ran down Steve’s chest made the bigger man shudder and bite his lip not to moan, and oh - he didn’t even want to get under their clothes just yet, but he was ready to rip them off and taste Phil’s skin.

“Steve,” Phil whispered, lips daring to press against his ear, teeth nipping. Steve’s grip tightened enough that Phil winced, but that only made him nip just that much harder. Steve got his strength under control, heat pooling low in his belly, and pressed lips against Phil’s arched neck, eliciting a sharp inhale that turned that heat into fire.

“Phil, have you - ?”

“No,” Phil answered, nipping at the cloth covering Steve’s shoulder, body curling closer on that tiny bed, heat against heat. “But I want to. With you.”

Steve’s fingers traced the scar that was palpable under Phil’s shirt, eyes showing concern. “How do you feel?”

“Ready for a marathon,” Phil answered immediately, but chuckled and sighed right after, settling his head on Steve’s shoulder. “Honestly? Worn. God, I want to stay up and do this more, but - “

Steve smiled and put a finger under Phil’s chin, feeling the man melt just a little more into him. “Sleep, then. I’ll be here tomorrow. And the day after. I’ll take care of you.”

Phil wrapped arms around that broad chest, took a deep breath, and settled in Steve’s arms. He wanted to ask why, how Steve decided suddenly to be...this...for him, but weariness borne from therapy and pain medication won over that concern. He was asleep when Steve slipped out of bed, scooted his cot closer, and slept with a hand on Phil’s arm.

*****

A week passed like this, Phil working himself to exhaustion in physical and occupational therapy, the men swapping stories and idle banter over trays of lukewarm food until the lights went out and they could curl together under the covers and explore one another cautiously. Steve let Phil learn the patterns of his body, stripped off his shirt a few nights later and moaned against his own arm as Phil traced lines around nipples more sensitive than Steve ever knew. Phil’s hands on his stomach, scratching tiny red lines, made Steve buck, and there was no hiding the effect it had on him then. The smile Steve’s obvious desire brought to Phil’s face made Steve grab the back of the man’s head, pull him into a kiss far less tentative and more passionate than they had tried before, leaving Phil gasping and whimpering and rocking against Steve’s side.

Phil’s shirt came next, a couple of nights later, and Steve traced the dual scars - wound and surgery - with his tongue. “Marks of a hero,” he whispered there, and Phil curled hands in Steve’s hair and clasped lips together to keep his pleasure quiet.

“Please,” Phil asked the second week, his hips pressing hardness against Steve’s thigh, hands roaming downward, daringly close to Steve’s waistband. “Even if I can’t...much...” Oh, he panted, and kissed the muscle of Steve’s upper arm before running teeth across it. “Just touch.”

Wordlessly, Steve gave in, lifting just enough to slip pajamas down past his hips, and couldn’t help but moan and thrust as a hot hand grabbed him before he was even completely free.

Phil,” Steve groaned, wrapping his own hand around the other man’s, holding it still a moment. “I...god, it’s been, heh...decades...”

“Good,” Phil responded, smiling just a little. “Because I doubt I can go for long, either.”

They both fumbled for lotion then, Steve finding it first, giving some to Phil before squeezing it into his own hand. He shoved Phil’s pants out of the way without asking, hand closing around the hardness it found, his own eyes closing as he realized how much he’d missed this. “Do it,” he said, voice forceful even in a whisper, and bucked and groaned as Phil obeyed.

A minute later, they were both panting and spent, hands wet and already growing sticky, bare chests beaded in sweat. Their scents mingled in the air, and Steve pulled Phil into another deep kiss just to taste that scent, too.

“I win,” Phil said when he could pull away, smiling softly, setting his chin on Steve’s chest and looking at him proudly.

“Not fair,” Steve responded, brushing a hand across Phil’s hair. “It’s been 70 years for me.”

Phil wiped his hand on the sheets and just smiled all the more. “Not exactly what I meant,” he murmured, and lifted enough to find Steve’s lips again, kiss them softly, hold long enough to let some of the joy he felt carry through.

Steve’s expression was soft when Phil finally pulled back, and his hands clasped Phil close. “You should rest,” he murmured, nuzzling the man’s throat a moment, appreciating the shudder the gesture engendered.

“Not gonna have a choice in about two minutes,” Phil answered, settling onto that place on Steve’s chest that was fast becoming where he preferred to fall asleep.

That night, Steve stayed in Phil's tiny bed with him, one last time.

*****

A few days later, their time started becoming limited.

Fury needed Cap for a mission, and it wasn’t local. It’d take time to pull together the team, of course, but there were briefings and strategy meetings and plans to draw up. Steve no longer accompanied Phil to therapy, replaced by a team of SHIELD security. At least, during the days; Steve still came back to the hospital each night, even if it was late, and relieved the team for a while. In this midst of this, the staff upgraded Phil to a double room - rare at the hospital - with a bigger bed and a door without a window. Phil didn’t ask, and they didn’t explain, but Steve knew; their arrangement wasn’t a secret, couldn’t be. But no one said anything, and there was no gossip; like in the war, people turned a blind eye and simply let the soldiers do what they needed to make it through. And Phil was a celebrity - the man who brought the Avengers together, who took down the alien invasion, died and lived to tell about it. He had no shortage of company.

Steve, though, was his comfort. Though Phil usually fell asleep before the super soldier returned, he always awoke when the door opened, kept his place while the man excused the security detail. Steve would ask about Phil’s progress as he undressed; Phil never asked about the mission.

Steve always checked the door, made sure it was locked, before they curled up in bed together, limbs tangled around one another’s, breathing quietly.

Some nights, Phil reached out to stroke Steve’s chest, or nuzzled in to kiss his throat. Steve always responded, eventually rolling toward Phil to kiss him breathless, sharing proper supplies that helped them stroke pleasure from one another, kissing deeply to keep from crying out.

“Ship out tomorrow,” Steve noted flatly on that last night, pulling off his shirt and draping it over a chair nearby. He swallowed audibly, settling into the chair to pull off his boots, not wanting to see whatever Phil’s face expressed. Indifference, pain - they would feel the same right now. Steve could see this all ending, and had started to steel himself for it.

“They told me,” Phil responded, sitting up slowly, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Noon, right?” Steve nodded, and Phil’s heart sank a little, though his face didn’t show it. “The plan?”

“Three weeks,” Steve answered, slipping out of his second boot, pulling off his socks. “Not undercover, but we’ll need radio silence.” He glanced up, eyes apologetic, Phil’s stoic expression not helping. He stayed in his seat, not sure that the pattern of previous nights would hold in the wake of this news.

Phil nodded, jaw clenched. “I’m fine. Really. They tell me I’m progressing faster than expected. By the time you’re back, I should be...” What? Back on duty? On permanent leave? Fury hadn’t exactly promised him his old position back yet, and there was still question whether his new heart would be able to take the stress of his old work. He blinked, once, expression blank, no idea what to say next. “Elsewhere,” he finally managed, shrugging mildly. “Not here.”

Steve’s brow furrowed, but he kept his seat, entwining his fingers. He considered asking if Phil wanted to return to duty or where he wanted to go if he didn’t. But that was tantamount to admitting this time was over, and he wasn’t ready. Phil’s blankness, his sudden distance in Steve’s presence, tightened Steve’s chest. “Well,” he said, twisting fingers around one another, staring at his hands.

“Well,” Phil replied, expression softening slowly, watching Steve’s distress. “Are you coming to bed?”

Steve’s mouth spread in a slow smile, eyes lifting, head still down, tension leaving his shoulders and chest with Phil's words. “That an invitation, agent?”

“Let’s call it...an order,” Phil answered, and pulled back the covers.

Their kisses were desperate, hands hungry, bodies responding with near-immediate need when they touched. “Please,” Phil started after only a few moments. “Oh, please, please. Before you go.” His hand worked Steve hard in just a few seconds, his own hips tight against Steve’s thigh. “I want you to. I want it.”

Memories tumbled, Phil’s words bringing to mind half a dozen others who’d pulled Steve in, begged for comfort, needed it so badly that he couldn’t say no. He’d ached for every one of them, but none as much as this. He pressed lips to the scars on Phil’s chest and nodded acquiescence. “Yes,” he promised Phil, hands sliding down the man’s sides, over his hips, finding the space between his thighs to press them open. Phil was pliant under him, lifting the edge of the pillow to bite it, eyes rolling closed. “Yes, Phil, just like that,” he murmured, slicking fingers to work the man open.

Oh, Phil wailed and whimpered, rocking on Steve fingers, taking another and another, barely able to keep that pillow in his mouth to silence his groans. When Steve finally pulled back, Phil was already sweating and panting and shaking his head in that way Steve knew was meant to urge him forward. He pressed in a moment later, hands on Phil’s knees, grunting with the sensation, all heat and tight, the start of pulsation. “For you,” Steve promised, falling forward and kissing those scars again, capturing Phil’s mouth with his own as he started to rock in earnest.

Only the kiss kept them both from screaming as they came - Phil first, Steve’s hand wringing it from him, Steve following soon after as Phil clenched down tight. They cried into into each other's mouths, holding close, sweaty bodies sliding against one another in dampened sheets.

“You okay?” Steve whispered when the world righted itself again and he could catch his breath. “Phil, did that hurt you?”

Under him, Phil chuckled, limp and sated. “Only in the best ways.” But he caught the concern in Steve’s eyes, got the meaning a moment later. He grabbed the back of Steve’s neck to get his full attention, and only spoke once their eyes met. "My heart is fine.”

Steve slumped with relief at that, allowing himself the rare pleasure of settling a bit of weight on the man under him, bodies still locked together. “Thank you,” he said, and wasn’t even sure why. They fell asleep there as Steve slid out and pulled Phil into an embrace, side by side.

*****

Three weeks in the field helped Steve wash away the sense of loss he’d felt when he walked out of the hospital, squeezing Phil’s hand one last time before he went. Loki’s last allies were heavily fortified, so deep in jungles cut off enough from the rest of the world that they didn’t realize the war was over. It took a dozen agents, a little help from Stark, and some well-placed explosive arrows to get through their walls and take them into custody at last.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Fury decided a celebration was in order, and invited the team and all the Avengers to their home base to join them. As soon as the prisoners had been dropped off, Steve and his team joined the others and were hailed with cheers and high fives and claps on the back. Steve stripped off his mask, handed over shield and gloves, and posed for pictures with anyone who asked.

“So what do you think? My design input useful?” Coulson smiled at his side, in full suit and tie, agent badge clipped to his jackett. He pointed to the pockets on Steve’s hips. “For example, those.”

Steve’s face broke into a grin, and he clasped Coulson’s shoulder. “Agent.” He pulled him in for a hug, slapping his back, careful to curtail his strength. “Good to see you in your element again.”

Coulson grinned as Steve let go. “Good to be back, Cap.” His eyes lit pleasure even as he stepped away, putting a polite distance between them again. “Full bill of health; not even on modified duty.”

Steve’s smile softened, and he squeezed that shoulder he still held before letting go. “Proud of you.” Hands went to his hips, and he simply took in the sight of Coulson on his feet, looking strong, looking happy. Coulson shifted a little under the scrutiny, but didn’t seem uncomfortable.

“When the mob of fans allows,” Coulson noted once people closed in again and started trying to get Cap’s attention, “find me, and I’ll show you to the new crew quarters. Fury has asked that you remain until fully debriefed, so I took the liberty of of settling you in one of the extra rooms.”

“Thanks,” Steve called over a shoulder as cameras started flashing again, and disappeared into the throng.

An hour later, Steve managed to extricate himself from a particularly clingy young woman, the daughter of one of the commanders, and slipped out one of the main building doors. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, appreciating the sudden space, the quiet after the crowds. Even after New York and all the celebrations that followed, crowds were still hard for him; the noise, the bumping, the chaos - all put him on edge, worried about everyone’s vulnerability, what he couldn't see through the throng.

“Ready for the tour?”

The voice was closer than anyone should have been able to get to him, and Steve startled, eyes flying open and locking on the source, hands curling instinctively. Coulson settled his stance in response, and Steve could see the hand-to-hand training reflected in that deceptively calm position.

“Cripes,” Steve sighed, hands relaxing, one of them lifting to rub over his face. “Don’t sneak up on people like that, agent.”

Coulson simply quirked a momentary smile and stepped out of guard, crooking his head northward. “Cripes?” he asked over a shoulder, a hint of mirth in his tone. It grated on Steve, who already felt out of place, and now felt called out for it. But he said nothing, the need to be away from the crowd outweighing the discomfort he felt at the tease, and followed Coulson closely until they reached a building separated from the rest by both trees and a not-so-hidden set of motion detectors.

Phil put his thumb on a display, opened his left eye wide for a scanner, and the door opened. “This way, Captain,” he said, back to classic Coulson, voice nearly flat, expression settled. He motioned Steve in, the formality of the action soothing the sting Steve felt earlier.

“This is my room?” Steve asked as they passed through a door halfway down the hall, eyes widening. It was half the size of his boxing club, bigger than Steve’s whole apartment. And, though sparsely furnished, everything within was immaculate. Crisp. Honestly, perfect.

“No,” Coulson said, taking off his badge and setting it on a table as the door locked behind them automatically. “This is mine.” He smiled, taking a step closer to Steve, a hand reaching for him. “Level six clearance, which means two things: one, the building is heavily screened.” He grinned, and his expression softened, reminiscent of their nights in the hospital. “And two: no surveillance.”

A hand closed around Steve’s, fingers curling slowly around it, seeking to entwine. Steve, caught off guard, jerked back, feeling suddenly trapped.

Phil’s brow furrowed immediately in confusion, hand falling back to his side. “Steve, what - ?”

“What are you doing?” Steve interrupted, taking a step away, eyes displaying both irritation and confusion. He glanced up at the door, then back to the man in front of him. “Did...do you...” He backed away another step, mind reeling. “But, you’re fine now.”

Coulson barked a quick laugh, suddenly emboldened, stepping toward Steve again. “Okay - strange way to frame a compliment, but I’ll take it.” He was more forward this time, putting hands on Steve’s waist. “Glad to have you back.”

“Back?” Steve asked, stiffening under that touch, trying to find words for why this wasn't okay. “Coulson...despite the party, I’m still on duty. I could be shipped out any time.” He tried to step out of the agent's grip.

“You won’t be,” Phil answered quickly, hands moving to wrap around Steve’s neck soothingly, fingers stroking his hairline. Steve prickled with a sensation that wasn’t entirely unpleasant, and nearly hated himself for it. No, that wasn't how this worked. “Fury’s not back for a few days," the other man murmured, lifting off his heels toward Steve's face, "so - “

“So,” Steve interrupted, lifting his hands and pushing Coulson away gently. “That still doesn’t mean we should do this.”

Phil’s brow pursed again, reflecting the confusion Steve felt, filling Steve with a rush of relief. Okay - good. Misunderstanding. They could work past that, still be allies, have each other’s backs. He held Coulson’s hands a moment as he put them back at the man’s sides. “It’s okay,” he said, squeezing those hands before letting them go, aching a little as he did. “I’m proud I could help, proud you trusted me. We’re okay.”

Coulson frowned at that, and Steve felt unsettled again, not at all sure what was happening. He balled his hands at his sides, tense from the crowd and the awkwardness of before and suddenly being thrust into a situation he didn’t understand. “Phil,” he said, and immediately regretted using that name. “Coulson.” He frowned as Coulson flinched at the correction, suddenly angry that he’d been dragged here and now had to explain himself when nothing should require explanation.

“Steve,” Coulson said, and the shift in his eyes, the softening of his gaze, only served to fuel the irritation Steve felt rising. He frowned harder as Coulson looked around the room, back to him. “I assure you, there’s no camera; all level 6 operatives are granted privacy for - “

“Privacy?” Steve demanded, voice louder than he’d expected. Phil instinctively stepped back, which only frustrated Steve more. "We are on a military base, agent - there's no such thing as privacy here.” His jaw set. “God, what a stupid thought." He regretted the words the moment they left his mouth, but couldn’t stand to take them back.

Stupid?” Coulson’s nostrils flared, eyes flashing, and Steve could imagine the man's artificial heart suddenly lurching, trying to beat faster. He feared the new part wouldn’t be able to handle big emotions, and wished suddenly that he'd never agreed to come. “What the...Steve?” Steve watched the agent fight reaching out, trying to recalculate this moment, and didn’t know how to help. “Steve,” Coulson repeated, voice a touch plaintive. “I...thought you’d be glad for time.”

“I was,” Steve answered quickly, pulling away to move toward the small refrigerator in the room, needing distance. "And now, I'm glad to have you back as a fellow soldier. So here," he tossed a beer Coulson’s direction, a hint of a grin appearing when the man caught it. “Let's share a drink, and you can fill me in on how you got your old duties back.” He gave Coulson a winning smile, popped the cap off his own bottle, and settled into a chair at the dining table.

Coulson’s jaw set, and he looked down at the bottle in his hand, thoughtful. Steve watched him process, gave him time to draw the line in his mind that needed to, had to, be drawn. When the agent looked up, he was as impassive and stiff as ever; it brought a smile to Steve’s face, and he relaxed visibly, settling back in his chair and downing half his own beer in two swallows. “So how’d they stress test the new ticker, make sure you could still be one of their superspies?”

The edges of Coulson’s lips curled up briefly, and Steve saw the man’s shoulders settle, let go of the fight. He pulled up a chair across from Steve, twisting the cap off his beer, rolling the bottle in his hands. “Well,” he started, “It involved two tanks, a sniper, a well-known government official, and a panicking fourteen-year-old.” He paused for a sip of beer, then settled into the story, spending the next hour building increasingly comfortable banter. By the end, they were both laughing, finishing off the six-pack as they held their stomachs and slapped their thighs. Coulson did an impression of Fury popping out of the tank, yelling about protocol, and have you forgotten it, muthafucka?, and Steve roared, rocking back in his chair far enough that he nearly capsized.

“Okay,” Coulson finished, sweeping up the beer bottles. “We okay?” He tossed them into a nearby bin, wiping hands on a towel and looking Steve’s way, every bit the agent he ever was.

Steve’s chest swelled with pride. “Yes,” he said, standing and clasping Coulson on the shoulder. “Good, even.”

“Goodnight, Steve,” Coulson responded, his gaze fixed on the other man’s face, and something in Steve’s chest blossomed. More than pride. More than friendship. He dropped his hand, thinking it unfair to show that when he’d made the other man shut it down. Instead, he took his cue, nodded his head a touch. “Goodnight.”

*****

Three days passed before they saw each other again, and then it was on the deck of the helicarrier, not far from DC. A congressional committee had convened and asked for Captain America’s input on global defense. Tony had spoken to them the week before and was far too bored with the concept to go back, so Fury insisted that Coulson and one of their PR agents accompany him.

Cap was nervous; this would be his first time in front of a governing body since before the McCarthy era, and he’d read all about how they had interrogated and trapped others in the past. He wanted to believe in his country, loved it deeply, but it was a place he didn’t know any more. He was an immigrant to this time, new to her shores, only now starting to learn her ways.

“Listen to our cues,” Coulson told Steve on the plane. “We’ll help you through this.”

They landed a night early to give them a chance to talk, plan an approach. By the time dinner had been delivered and devoured, Steve had half a ledger pad of notes, and was only looking more worried for it. He kept running fingers through his hair, eyes flying over the paper, lips moving as he practiced what he wanted to say.

It got late, and Coulson sent the other agent to her room. “I’ll get him to bed,” he promised, intending to do only that. Quietly, he settled on the ottoman in front of Steve, watched the man’s face pinch with confusion and concern, listened to the pen as he scribbled out words and replaced them with others. “Cap,” he said, both gentle and determined, “it’s good enough. You’ll be great.”

Steve jerked, eyes locking with those of the man in front of him. “I’m a soldier,” he told Coulson. “Not a general. Not a politician.”

Coulson leaned forward a little, careful to keep a comfortable distance, and stared back. “You’re a lot more than that, Cap.” He paused, picking words carefully. “You’re...an icon. You’re the man who commanded the battle against the invasion.” He chuckled. “You’re the soldier that socked Hitler.”

Steve couldn’t help but grin, caught off guard, eyes dropping as he chuckled, thinking back to those performances. “Fake Hitler,” he corrected.

“To give people hope,” Coulson added. "To keep them involved, when we needed it."

Steve pressed lips together and took in a deep breath, those words like a kick in the chest. So much of what he’d done for the war hadn’t been fighting, and here Coulson was reminding him of it, of his place as one who spoke for the heroes, who ensured their country supported them. Without even realizing what he was doing, he reached for Phil’s hand, clasping it gratefully. “Thanks,” he said, squeezing, thinking back to the hospital and the room he’d come to think of as theirs. “You’re good to me.”

“I’m the best,” Coulson agreed, chuckling, and that sound went straight to Steve’s middle. He twisted his hand so their palms faced, trying to interlace fingers.

“Phil,” Steve said, the heat he felt coming across in his voice, and Coulson started pulling back. “Don’t. Please.” Steve quickly a hand to the man’s shoulders. “Please, don’t.” His hand slid to the back of Phil’s neck, his thumb sliding under Phil’s chin to lift it.

Phil’s face furrowed in confusion and pain and a worried hope. “Steve...?” He held back a moment, the question in his tone. Steve didn’t bother with an answer; he jerked Phil out of his chair and into a kiss, full and hard and as passionate as the night before he left. Phil ended up on his knees, sighing into that kiss before he returned it greedily, hands gripping tight.

“We can do this,” Steve murmured, wrapping thick arms around Phil’s chest. “Right? You want to, right?”

“We can do whatever we want,” Phil answered, groaning when Steve’s teeth found his throat. “Oh, fuck, especially that.”

“Fuck?” Steve paused, amusement in his voice, and his eyes glinted. Hands gripped Phil’s hips, wrung another moan out of him with their force. He liked the idea. “Stay here tonight, and let’s do that.” He stood up, lifting Phil to his feet, shoving him bodily toward the bed.

“I brought supplies,” Phil confessed, and both chuckled as they fell onto the sheets.

*****

They danced a dangerous line together, following one another’s leads. On base, and in front of others, Steve was all business, treating the agent just as he had before the invasion. They shook hands in manly displays, made sure not to sit next to one another, even deliberately took meals at different times. Steve insisted on all of it, declaring any other way of acting inappropriate, even selfish. “People don’t want to know our business,” he’d tell Phil when they were alone and away from cameras, “and we shouldn’t put it in their faces.”

“People have changed,” Phil responded, time and again, even pointing out a few openly same-sex couples on the helicarrier. But though Steve could see that no one seemed to pay much attention, he didn’t lose his wariness. It was one thing for the rank and file to be open; quite another, he thought, for captains and agents, leaders of teams.

When the tension got too great, Coulson would find reasons to take Cap on away missions, especially those in out of the way places with aging motels and people who minded their own business. They rented two rooms, but only ever used one, taking out the frustrations of weeks of not touching in fevered evenings that left them heady, spent, and never quite satisfied. Sleeping curled together became sleeping turned away, then eventually into someone moving to a different bed. Sometimes morning brought fresh lust, and they fed it eagerly, but the passion they’d had in the hospital, in that night in DC, started to fade.

Steve couldn’t stand losing it. Back on base, memories kept him awake at night, fumbling under the covers, remembering the taste of Phil’s lips, the scent of mint and pepper and lanolin and musk. Sometimes they drove him out of bed to pace the hallways, Steve trying hard to avoid the corridor with Coulson’s room. Still, more times than not, he’d find himself pausing in front of that door, wondering if Phil were inside, if he’d appreciate a visit. He never knocked, though; only paused, pondered, and hurried back to his own space.

Until the night the agent caught him. Phil turned the corner just as Steve turned away, and they looked at one another awkwardly. Phil was fresh from a mission, knuckles scraped and bloody, his suit jacket torn, a cut above his left brow long since scabbed over. “You should see the other guy,” he said, shoving a hand into his pants pocket to pull out his badge. “Beer?” He stepped up and swiped the card at his door, shoved it open, and waved Steve inside. Steve was too taken aback to say no.

The door locked automatically behind them. The moment it did, Phil whirled on Steve and shoved him into a wall, catching him off guard. “I hear you pacing out there at night,” he said, pressing his body against Steve’s to hold him in place, hands wandering up strong arms. “I'm doing it in here, too. So can we cut the act?”

Steve swallowed and tried to pull away, but Phil’s body pressed to his own was something he desperately wanted. Caught between his feelings that this was wrong and his hunger for the smaller man holding him there, Steve looked at Phil with pleading eyes, not even certain what he was pleading for. “Is,” he started, and had to clear his throat to get his voice back to some semblance of normal. “Is this what you want?”

“What I always want,” Phil responded, lifting on his toes to nip at to Steve’s bottom lip, causing Steve’s skin to prickle deliciously. “You, here. With me.” There was passion in his touch and his eyes, a need that went well beyond physical desire. “Please, Steve. Even if just this once.”

Steve’s expression caved, and he lifted a hand to touch Phil’s battered face. “Just this once,” he agreed, smiling softly, following when Phil took his hands and pulled him to bed.

*****

Phil’s mood was exceptional the next day, and even Steve’s insistence that they keep their distance for propriety’s sake couldn’t dull it. His joy was infectious, even from afar; Steve found himself smiling and whistling as he filled out forms, completed reports. He hadn’t seen Phil this happy since DC, and once again, his heart swelled with pride and something else. “Now that’s a happy Cap,” Fury noted, passing him in the afternoon, giving Steve a look.

Steve joined Phil the next night, and the night after, falling asleep wrapped around the agent, feeling comfortable, almost at home. Mornings kissing goodbye were wonderful, Steve happy to wait for Phil to leave first, then to take his own time departing. He enjoyed putting things away - dishes, pillows, anything that had managed to be scattered as they came together the night before - and becoming more familiar with that space. He started to think he might belong there, that this could be...okay.

A week later, a guard caught Steve’s eye as he left Phil’s rooms and gave him a smile and wink, and Steve’s heart lurched. He knew. He knew. A dozen thoughts raced through his mind - worry that Fury would have him reassigned off base, fear that no one would take his orders seriously after this. He leaned against the wall, putting his head back against it, and railed at himself for being so incautious. Dammit - bad enough that he was found out, worse that he’d implicated Phil in the process.

Shit. Shit.

Steve didn’t go to Phil’s room that night, nor was he in his own. Records showed he’d left base around noon without giving a reason, and hadn’t signed back in. Coulson was concerned, but not overly; the man was a celebrity, after all, and often got called on short notice to attend events or shake hands. He expected Steve would return later, and left his door locked with a code he’d already shared with the man.

But Steve didn’t show, and the next morning brought fresh worry. Phil called Steve’s cell, which went to voicemail immediately. “Missed you last night,” was all he said, and hung up as he called up the base records.

Steve hadn’t returned yet.

Coulson checked mission logs - Steve hadn’t been assigned to any. Nor was there anything in the higher classified files. Fury assured Coulson that he hadn’t sent Cap anywhere, and showed his own concern. “Not like him to stay out all night.” Coulson nodded agreement.

Phil didn’t want to panic anyone, and he didn’t want to pry, but Cap was an operative who hadn’t checked in. There were protocols, and he set them into motion. An hour later, a sleepy, irritated Cap appeared on the video screens, the rooms Stark kept for him in the background. Hair awry, he stared at the screen, blinking slowly, silent.

Phil looked back from the privacy of his own room, but knew better than to think Tony wasn’t watching. “You didn’t tell us where you were going, Cap,” he said, remaining stoic, though the tension in his shoulders relaxed to see Steve well.

“Didn’t realize it was a requirement, agent,” Steve shot back, lips tight. “I’m not technically assigned to SHIELD.”

“No,” Coulson responded, head tilting a bit to the left. “No, you’re not. But you’ve always said before, and this is the first time you’ve - “

“Won’t happen again,” Steve responded, running a hand over his hair and turning off the feed, leaving Phil confused and irritated. Sure, it had been an open channel, but Steve wasn’t that abrupt on base or in the helicarrier. So - why?

“Stark,” Coulson said into the phone a moment later, ignoring the irritated grumping of the man, the complaints that real human beings don’t wake up this early. “What did you put Mr. Rogers through last night?”

Tony snorted on the other end of the line. “Did it to himself, agent. He showed up, took over the gym, ran himself ragged, then dressed up and went out.” There was a pause, and a very female groan, and some muttered words. “Some gala charity thing, I think. For kids or education or gun control or something.” Jarvis’ distinct tone piped up in the background, quieter than Coulson could make out. “Ah, and apparently, Mr. Apple Pie put the city to bed last night; showed up here when the sun was coming up.” He yawned and coughed. “Why don’t you call him?”

“I did,” Coulson answered, and ended the call, only more frustrated for it. Why would Steve go out all night without telling him? Since when did he hit gala events and stay out until dawn? It didn’t sound like Steve, and he hadn’t sounded like himself on video earlier. The agent pressed his lips together, scratched his chin, and considered. Had he said something wrong? Set Steve off? The morning previous seemed...good. Great, even, with Steve waking up and making coffee, the scent of which got Phil out of bed and into an embrace. Steve had kissed him goodbye, washed up the dishes like he always did, and smiled at him when he left. So...no, it wasn’t the morning.

What was it?

Steve came back that afternoon, looking a little bleary and dodging time alone with Phil. He didn’t show again that evening, and didn’t return Phil’s calls. Coulson went to bed bitter and lonely. He frowned his way through the morning, barked a little too loudly at one of the new teams, and showed himself into Cap’s quarters before Cap himself returned.

“So, what is it?” Phil said, clasping hands in front of him as Steve entered, hiding his frustration behind stoic eyes. “I snore? Bed too soft?” He paused, not wanting to say what was most likely. “Second thoughts?”

Steve’s hands dropped to his sides, guilt and shame and frustration merging to create a ball of tension in his chest. “Phil,” he started, dropping the gym bag he carried onto the nearest chair. “I’m sorry. I messed up. Someone...someone saw me.”

“Doing what?”

Steve blinked, looked up. “You know what,” he answered. Color rose in his cheeks, and his jaw clenched. Body stiffened, ready for Phil to chastise him for being hasty, distant and cool after those last nights together. “Leaving...your room.” He looked down again, ashamed. “I left too soon after you, I guess.”

Phil shrugged, though he knew that Steve worried. “People don’t care, Steve,” he tried to explain, loosing his fingers and moving toward the man. “It’s a new millenium; new ideas.”

“Same prejudice,” Steve answered automatically. “I read the newspapers, watch the videos. It’s still around.” He gave Phil a tiny glance, but that was all he could muster, cheeks burning shame. “I’m sorry I wasn’t careful enough; sorry I messed this up.”

Phil sighed, hands rising and falling. “Steve, please.” He took a step toward the man, but Steve stepped back. “It’s...things are different now. I promise.”

Steve’s brow furrowed. He could see Phil believed what he was saying, but couldn’t help thinking the man was being naive. “They saw me,” he tried one more time, hoping the meaning would become clear. “If we were in the middle of combat, maybe they’d stay quiet, but here, on base..?” Steve shook his head, dropping his eyes, hating himself for bringing this situation to bear. “I’m not willing to risk your reputation, your career, or...worse.”

“Worse?” Phil looked, and felt, offended, both for himself and for the organization for which he worked. “What, do you think some guard is going to go blab to Fury, and I’m going to get the boot? Or that he’ll tell a few tough buds and I’ll turn a corner into a gay hit squad?” His voice got louder, frown deepened, and suddenly he was taking a more aggressive step Steve’s direction.

Steve cringed, worried that someone might overhear. His quarters weren’t as secure as Phil’s, the walls not nearly as thick, and he wasn’t even sure whether there was surveillance in the space where he slept. “Shut up, Phil,” he hissed, looking about the room, trying to give hints to his thoughts, his worries. “This is not the time or place.”

Phil’s jaw set, eyes hard, and he did his best to pinch down his voice, keep from yelling. Anger settled just under his surface, breaking through his usual stoic demeanor, making his hands clench. “You forced this time and place,” he responded once he knew his temper wouldn’t overwhelm him when his mouth opened. “You disappeared overnight, skipped out on me twice, and - “

“Skipped out?” It was Steve’s turn to raise his voice, and his own expression tensed, shoulders squaring. “Since when did I promise to come over every night, Phil?” He groaned immediately upon saying it, throwing his head back, berating himself for the outburst. Great - if they had this on video, if they were listening....stupid, stupid, to cave to emotion so easily, create a scene. He felt out of control, wanted space, time away from the other man, time like on the field to get his head back on straight and not allow this to matter so much...

Lost in his own dilemma, Steve almost missed it when Phil’s hand shoved forward suddenly, catching him in the chest and pushing him backward. “What do you think all this has been?” he hissed as Steve took a single stumbling step before catching himself. “Huh?” He lifted to shove again, but Steve put out his shield arm and blocked the move, staying in place. Phil’s nostrils flared, and jaw clenched tight. “Huh? Just...what? A little side venture? Take it or leave it? I’m not just a fuck, Steve.” It was all he could do to keep from trying to shove the man a third time, caught between conflicting emotions, feeling both cold and feverish.

“Stop it,” Steve said in a near whisper, reaching for Phil’s elbow, frowning himself now. “Not here. You’re embarrassing us both.” Phil tried to pull his arm away, but Steve’s grip only tightened, making Phil wince and snarl. Steve didn’t notice; he was already marching them toward the doors of his quarters, wanting to find a more private space in which this confrontation could happen. “If you want to talk, fine, but not in my rooms.” His voice went cold and distant, commanding officer instead of friend.

Phil planted his feet at that tone, making himself impossible for a normal person to move, maybe even an extraordinary person. But this was Steve Rogers, the super-soldier, and he merely came to a halt for a second before jerking Phil completely off his feet, moving toward the door again. Honed danger instincts kicked in as Phil lost his footing, and he flipped mid-air, planting a foot just below Steve’s Adam’s apple as he righted himself and prepared for assault. Steve choked instantly, hand going to his throat, and Phil was left blinking, caught between adrenaline and horror.

“What the...hell, Phil?” Steve tried to shout, voice more a croak as he gasped to get air back after that blow, a red mark in the outline of Phil’s shoe already appearing where Phil’s kick had landed.

Phil’s eyes went wide, and he dropped the stance immediately and hurried toward Steve to try and help. He couldn’t even remember reacting, just knew for certain he had done, somehow, lost in rage and shame and a fierce desire to get Steve to stop and pay attention. His cheeks blanched, anger bleeding away fast in the wake of his outburst. “Oh, god, Steve, I’m sorry,” he said, reaching for the man, wanting nothing more than to help, to hold him, to apologize and take it back. “I just...let me - “

No,” Steve barked, putting a hand in Phil’s chest and shoving him a few steps backward, incautious with his strength. “Just back the hell off, agent.” He glowered at Phil through narrowed eyes, coughing, pressing a hand on that sore spot, checking for blood. “And get out of my rooms.”

Phil caught himself on the edge of the desk to avoid going down. Pain blossomed where Steve had shoved him, and he was certain he’d find a bruise there later. Fair, he thought; pain returned for pain given. And besides, it was nothing compared to the sharp ache deeper within, Phil’s heart crumpling at the thought that he’d ruined any small chance left between them.

“I’m sorry,” the agent said again as he headed to the door. He looked up for a moment, but couldn’t face the anger directed his way. Eyes went to the floor, and he found the door on instinct. “For what that’s worth.”

Steve slammed the door in his face and left him alone in the hallway.

*****

Coulson woke to the sound of someone in his room. Carefully, silently, he put his hand on the gun under his pillow, readying to release the safety, keeping up his soft, slow breathing as he’d been taught.

“I know you’re awake,” Steve said in the darkness. “I heard your breathing change, just for a second.”

“Steve?” It had been three days since their fight. Coulson had thrown himself into his work so he didn’t have to think about it, but in a lot of ways he was simply going through the motions. More than once Fury had pulled him aside and asked why his head wasn’t on straight, and more than once Coulson kept his silence. Fine, Fury said, but get it out of your ass and back on the job, agent. And Coulson tried, but he’d lost his sense of duty, pride, belonging. It was as if that one action, that single instant, had estranged him from his whole world, transformed him into someone that just didn’t fit anymore. No words of apology would ever be good enough, and nothing could make it better. That understanding settled around his heart, pushing in, breaking it open as he listened to Steve approach.

“Yeah,” Steve answered quietly, stopping nearby.

Phil couldn’t turn over and look at the man, the weight of what had happened between them holding him still. He swallowed hard, fighting emotion, and tried to find something to say that wasn’t trite or stupid or just plain unhelpful. Nothing came, and the silence stretched to the point that Phil scrambled for something, anything, to fill it. “Steve,” he said again, steeling himself to let words flow, squeezing his eyes shut at the effort of not shutting down as his heart thudded and his body fought to jump and run. “Steve, I - “

“Shut up and scoot over,” Steve interrupted, and Phil nearly came apart. He managed to get his body to move a little, and tears came the moment Steve settled at his back. Thick arms wrapped around his chest and pulled him close, and Phil cried out his shame and horror silently into his pillow. When he was done, Steve turned him over gently, pressed a kiss to his temple, and settled Phil on his chest, soothing hands down his back.

“I love you,” Phil admitted, blinking upward so his last tears didn’t wet Steve’s chest. Arms squeezed him tighter, and Phil didn’t know whether to be grateful or to beg Steve to go away.

“I love you, too,” came Steve’s quiet reply, and they curled together and slept.

*****

“It’s not a difficult concept,” Steve said, one hand in the air, palm toward Phil to silence him. “When I’m on duty, we - “

“But when are you off duty?” Phil shot back, eyes pinched in frustration. “Seriously - when do you actually get to take off the Captain America mantle?” He paced the floor of his quarters, compulsively buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket, turning angry eyes Steve’s way over and over.

“It’s not like I can just set who I am aside,” Steve answered, his own voice pitching louder. “I made a promise when I signed up for this, and I can’t go back on it.”

Phil’s eyes rolled. “Right. Because this is all about appearances.”

Steve nearly growled, grabbing Phil’s arm to stop his pacing. “Dammit, Phil, I’m trying here! I can’t just...change, overnight.”

Phil jerked his arm out of those fingers, wincing, the grip stronger than Steve had intended. “I know that, Steve, but...think how this makes me feel.” He rubbed his arm, feeling the bruise already forming. “Have I given you any reason to think I would jeopardize your reputation? Go blabbing about...what we do, whatever we are?”

Yes,” Steve shot back, jaw setting. “The way you look, when I’m in the room, it’s...I swear, Phil, everyone can see it. You have to stop.” Again, his voice got louder, and Phil only glowered more for it.

“Stop doing what? Looking at you?”

“Yes, when we’re on duty!” Steve shouted, whirling on Phil. “God, don’t you get how uncomfortable it makes me feel?” He balled a fist, pressed it into his own leg, jaw clenched. “Coulson, we have to be more careful than that!”

“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is over, Steve!” Phil shot back, very nearly stomping a foot in frustration, “And all those laws allowing for the rounding up of queers are gone. There’s no need for this stupid double life!” He stormed Steve’s way and snatched up his elbow to turn them face to face, his own fury waning suddenly. “Steve, you came back to me. And now you want to go away again?”

“No, not go away,” Steve groaned, running a hand across his face. “I just want what we had. Before. Off base.”

Phil’s shoulders slumped, and his hand fell away. “What we had,” he murmured bitterly as he walked back to his drink to finish off the tequila in his glass.

A week had passed since the night Steve returned to Phil’s rooms, and though that first night was tender, each successive evening had grown more tense. Steve had tried being jovial, taking this settling back into routine in stride, but he’d grown increasingly paranoid that people were watching them, talking about them. He came later every night, conversation awkward and halting, instead all hands and lips and silent need. Every night, Steve brought Phil to climax, and every night, Phil felt it grow more mechanical. The air they shared grew colder with every time.

“Don’t go through the motions with me, Steve,” he said, rolling the empty glass on the counter. “If you’re done with me, just be done.”

Steve winced. Done was the last thing he wanted, but he couldn’t accept all this as easily as Phil did. He wished, not for the first time, that he could get drunk, find that fuzzy space that made it easy to shut up, accept, and take the life he wanted. Ashamed, he dropped eyes, even as he took a step closer. “That’s not it.” he answered quietly as Phil picked up the bottle to pour another. He took another step so he could settle hands on Phil’s shoulders. “I told you. I love you. Don’t I say that?” He was sure he had, the night he’d come back, and every night since. ”Don’t I say I want to be with you?” He stroked where his hands sat until he felt shoulders relax a little, Phil leaning into the caress. Steve took a deep breath at that; his chest expanded, hope rising along with desire that, when he was honest, felt more like need. “Just...for my own comfort, I need a boundary on this."

Phil tensed again, and Steve’s jaw clenched. “That’s exactly the kind of bullshit line that leaves me feeling used,” Phil threw over his shoulder, voice like ice as he shoved the cork back into the bottle. He downed half the tequila in a gulp, pulled back lips from his teeth and hissed. “Boundary. Which roughly translates, I’d say, into fucking in dirty motels and pretending that makes us happy.” He barked mirthless laughter, pulled himself away from Steve’s hands, and started pacing again, piercing eyes staring Steve down, voice dangerously quiet. “We’ll be over in a month, and you know it.”

“How?” Steve shot back, forgetting for a moment his desire for privacy, voice loud enough to carry in any normal room. “How do we know that? We never gave it a chance, never...” Teeth pressed together, jaw flexing, and he fought not to say awful things, to turn this in the direction he wanted. If he could just get Phil to understand how much he needed him, how much he was trying... “We could leave the base, take quarters elsewhere, maybe - “

Phil slammed his drink down on the table, hard enough to nearly empty it of the remaining liquor, eyes hard and cold, bleeding anger. “Your dirty little secret, Cap?” His voice was quiet, low, nearly a whisper, whites of knuckles showing how hard he fought for that control. “Super-soldier’s piece of pie on the side?” He blinked once, slowly, and wondered how many of those glasses he’d had that night. It didn’t matter, because he was tired of being jerked around, tired of guessing what Steve meant, tired of feeling dirty and ashamed because he cared, because he wanted. And there was a part of him - real and strong - that wanted to be sure that his lover had some idea how he felt. “Love the idea.” He shoved his glass away and stood, buttoning his jacket again, “We’ll set up a little love nest in the city, and in between missions have blow job competitions.” It was spiteful - hateful, even - but Phil didn’t care. It made Steve tense, even flinch - a triumph.

Please, Phil,” Steve pleaded, those words going to his middle. Had he really treated Phil so badly? Belittled him so much? Did he deserve this? “That’s not what I meant. I want you...but - ”

That word got Phil to bare teeth, and Steve’s muscles pulled taut as if readying for attack. He recognized the adrenaline surge, felt instinct kicking in, and let training guide him as Phil picked up the glass as if to hurl it at Steve’s head.

The next thing Steve knew, they were both tangled tightly in a sheet, Phil’s face red and splotchy, one lip busted, one eye swollen shut. He had an arm up protectively over part of his face, jacket torn at the shoulder and pulled halfway off. He growled and shoved with the other arm and both feet, trying to get Steve off him, but the sheet kept them together.

Fuck you,” Phil spat, blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth, teeth red. “Fuck you and whatever this is that you consider love.” He wriggled and shoved and tore at the sheets, snarling and bleeding, his lip swelling bigger even as Steve watched.

And Steve couldn’t watch for long. A moment later, he tore the sheet that had twisted around him and rolled away, blank about both what happened and how he felt about it. He pulled himself to his feet using the window ledge, unable to look back in Phil’s direction, eyes falling instead on the darkened base, its precisely spaced lines of street lights dotting the pavement. He felt numb, the world moving slow, his head refusing to register a thought. “Fuck you, Steve Rogers,” he heard behind him, and listened as the door flew open and slammed again behind him.

Sleep took Steve there at the windowsill, propped against the wall, and kept him in a void until morning.

*****

Fury didn’t question when Steve asked for leave the next morning, signing the papers without comment. Steve wondered if Phil had beaten him to it, and if Fury already knew what had happened.

“There’s no running from it,” Bruce told him, taking off his glasses and setting them on a nearby table. The rooms he’d taken in the city were sparsely furnished, but clean. Immaculate. It reminded Steve of Phil’s quarters, only with more art and less weaponry. And tea, which Steve watched settle in his cup, leaves still moving lazily at the bottom to the vibration of trucks passing four stories down.

“There’s no putting it right, either,” Steve responded, looking from tea cup to window, watching the woman across from them step onto her fire escape and stare down at the street below. She smiled when a figure down there waved at her, returned the gesture before she climbed back inside. Steve wondered who it was - son, boyfriend, father, maybe a friend? - and envied that look of comfort, of ease, she had in blowing him a kiss before disappearing.

Bruce took a sip of tea and settled back in his chair. “No,” he agreed. “There isn’t.” He was quiet long enough for Steve to wonder if he’d run out of words, worrying through his own numbness that he’d have to a find a way to close the distance. “But - there is learning from it.”

Steve sniffed, turned his head slightly to look Bruce’s way, meeting eyes that didn’t flinch from his scrutiny. “Bruce, I don’t even remember it. I was just...so...” He tried to find words for how he felt. Wound up? Wrung dry? Lost? Hopeless? All of those and none of them, because emotions fell away once his fists flexed.

Bruce snorted, breaking Steve’s reverie. “I know the feeling.” He finished off his tea, careful not to drink the dregs, and put a hand out for Steve’s cup, eyes questioning. Steve waved fingers, inviting Bruce to take it, still unable to get himself to eat or drink anything.

Bruce added honey, taking his time forming his next words - a habit Steve remembered from on the helicarrier, where Bruce was almost always calm and methodical. Finally, once he set down his spoon and lifted the cup to his lips, Bruce continued. “Steve...why come to me with this? I mean, I’m not exactly the expert on anger management.”

Steve raised an eyebrow at that, but didn’t question. No denying that Bruce Banner was famous for his lack of impulse control. Still, that wasn’t why Steve had come. “Maybe not,” he agreed, though his voice suggested he’d reserve judgment, “but - you’re the only person I know now that isn’t...military.” He thought a moment. “Or a crazy billionaire.”

Bruce smirked, setting down his cup. “Fair enough. Though, I admit, I can...kind of see the escalation.”

Steve’s brow furrowed in confusion, eyes studying Bruce. “Surely you don’t think what I did was okay?”

Bruce shook his head quickly, leaning forward. “No,” he answered, elbows on the arms of his chair. “No, not at all.” He picked up his glasses from the table, folded and unfolded them as his mind worked. Steve worried about the conclusions Bruce might make, found himself standing and pacing as the man sought the right words, taking his time. “Though, I think I understand it. How it happened.” He twined fingers together, used one thumb to push his glasses up on his nose. “I think.”

Steve’s throat went dry. The better part of him didn’t want to hear any reason, didn’t believe in any excuse. What he’d done was unforgivable, and he didn’t want to understand. He just never wanted it to be possible again. He couldn’t ask Bruce to continue; he couldn’t ask him to shut up. All he could do was sit down again, silent, waiting to see what Bruce had to say. He couldn’t even look up; eyes stayed on his hands, folded in his lap, as if they were innocent. He knew they weren’t.

Bruce watched quietly a moment, leaving Steve to his struggle. Eventually, though, he left his tea and stood, going into the kitchen and opening a drawer. He pulled out a battered book, pages barely hanging to the spine, the title long since worn away. He set it in front of Steve, pushing it close, and waited.

Something in Steve rebelled against picking up that book and taking a look inside. It was so battered, so worn; it reminded him of how he felt after long battles, how Phil had looked when he’d been trapped underneath him. “What’s that?” he asked instead, leaning back in his chair, putting some distance between himself and that stained cover.

Bruce mirrored Steve’s movement, settling against the back of his chair, taking another sip of honeyed tea. He licked his lips, chewed the bottom one thoughtfully as he picked words. Finally, he set his teacup aside and cleared his throat. “The...first change, into the Other Guy. The first one I can remember.” He rubbed a knuckle across his lips, eyes going distant, pulling up the memory. “This couple...they were fighting. She was leaning out the window screaming at him, and he was screaming right back. I didn’t know enough of the language at that point to even know what the fight was about, but...it was loud, and the street was crowded, and I...” He paused, swallowing, eyes focusing on Steve again. “I felt...trapped.”

Bruce leaned his head on the back of the chair, then, staring at the ceiling. “I wasn’t, of course. The crowd was moving, after all, and I wasn’t even involved in their fight. I didn’t know either of them, and they certainly didn’t know me. Didn’t matter; the situation was intimate for me anyway. It hit home. I knew what was coming next before it happened, that she would storm down the stairs and get in his face, and he’d make a fist, and no one would intervene.” He sighed, lifting his head off the chair, taking off his glasses to rub his eyes with one hand. Even now, the memory was fresh and painful, and he had to pause to collect himself. “And...that’s what happened. I stood there, knowing...fuck, knowing that I needed to get out of there, for everyone’s sake, and I was just rooted the the spot. Frozen. Lost in the feeling of having seen this a hundred times before, and not being able to take it even once more.”

Bruce leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees, and caught Steve’s gaze. “He threw a punch. She went down. And I...well. The man was lucky he survived. Papers reported that police were on the next block and came with shotguns; I guess that was enough to get the Other Guy - me - to back off long enough to get him to safety.”

Steve shook his head immediately. “No, Bruce. That wasn’t you.”

Bruce smirked. “Yeah.” He leaned back again in his chair, looking at the book on the coffee table between them. “No, Steve - I don’t get a pass just because I managed to give my Daddy issues a big green body of their own.” He met Steve’s eyes again, holding his gaze a moment before finishing his thought. “There’s no running from problems like that. They grow, and they chase, and they only get harder to handle.”

It was Steve’s turn to break the gaze. He looked down at his hands, mulling over what Bruce had revealed, questions forming that he couldn’t bring himself to ask. How did you deal with it? Why didn’t you turn yourself in? How could you just keep going after that? All those and more, but the one that tumbled out was the one Steve had to hear answered, for his own sake. He had to know, before leaving that room, or he didn’t know if he could ever face the world again. Ever trust himself again. “Did...did it happen again?”

Bruce barked a mirthless laugh and picked up the book, opening it to a random page, putting it in Steve’s hands. The pages were filled with Bruce’s tight handwriting, so meticulous and precise that it could have been typeset. Steve turned a page, found more, and more on the next page, some words highlighted in various colors, all the print in black. Languages mixed - Steve recognized Spanish and German, but nothing else save the words blocked off in color; those were names, every single one of them. Dominic Cessure. Antonia de Nova. Edie DiFranco. Josef H. They went on and on, marked yellow, green, red, blue.

Steve flipped until he found a page in English and read a few words out loud. “Beggar tried to move out of way. Man shoved, and he fell. Thought he looked like he planned to kick, and couldn’t hold back. Patrick Anselmo, 51. August 23, 2003.” He looked up to see Bruce looking at his hands. “This one’s marked in red.”

Bruce nodded. “Dubious reasoning on my part, perhaps, but...he did deliberately hurt someone. The Other Guy threw him into a dumpster, apparently.”

Steve looked down the page. “Lisa Stewart.” There was no explanation as with Patrick above. Just the name, highlighted in green, and a date nearly three months later.

Bruce’s face blanched, and had to take a deep breath, let it out slow. “She....she was unfortunate enough to be in our way.” The memory rose unbidden from his subconscious, a huge green hand swiping her out of the way, into a wall. She’d screamed and crumpled; he could still hear the crunch. He squeezed his eyes shut. “Four weeks in the hospital, fourteen fractures. Docs thought she’d been hit by a car.”

Steve stared at the page, dumbfounded. “Bruce,” he started, but couldn’t find words to finish. He set the book back on the table, flipping another page and finding another color. He didn’t want to know, but Bruce carefully turned the book around and tilted his head, reading the name to himself, smiling sadly.

“Oh, yes. Andrew Tong.” Bruce tapped the name highlighted blue, and blinked eyes trying to leak. “He was 23. Just...jogging.” Bruce cleared his throat and closed the book slowly, sniffing, taking another deep breath. “Oh, that one was hard.”

Steve heard the past tense Bruce used, and didn’t have to ask. He wondered how many blue names Bruce had in his book, how often he must have picked it up and thumbed through it to leave it this broken and worn. “I...I didn’t know there were so many,” he said quietly, still staring at that stained cover, wondering why Bruce would keep such a thing, torment himself with it.

Bruce slipped his glasses back on his nose and stood up from his chair, returning to the drawer from which that book had come. He pulled another one, not quite as worn, from its depths. And another, until he had five books stacked on the counter, the top one very nearly pristine. He picked it up and brought it to Steve, pointing to the date he had carefully stenciled on the cover: April 19, 2012 - . “I hope never to put an end date on this, but...I have on every other before it.”

God, Bruce,” Steve said, overwhelmed at the thought of all those names, all those circumstances, so carefully captured and carried with him as he moved from place to place, hiding from his own government and any others that wanted to use the monster inside him for their own ends. “This is...morbid. It’s cruel.”

“No,” Bruce answered immediately, picking up the book from the coffee table, setting oldest and newest back on the pile on the counter. “This...is memory. My way of remembering why I fight, so hard, against myself.” He put a hand on the pile. “A lot of these I didn’t start collecting until years after they happened, after I kept having...incidents. I realized that I had no idea what kind of a trail I left behind me, and I...needed to.”

“For God’s sake, why?” Steve asked, horrified. “I mean, this collection...doesn’t it haunt you? Doesn’t it make you hate yourself?”

Bruce smiled sadly, looking up at the other man. “Steve - this is how I stopped running. I had to make a decision: run from myself the rest of my life, or face who I really was.”

Steve blinked hard, hands tensing on the arms of the chair enough to make the wood creak as Bruce’s intentions started to clarify for him. “No,” he said automatically, looking from that pile of books to Bruce and back. “No, no way am I that -”

“No,” Bruce agreed, settling back in his chair, voice gentle. “No, Steve, you’re not like me.” He leaned forward then to touch Steve’s hand and offer comfort, but Steve pulled away, standing suddenly, needing to move. He paced away from the kitchen, from that pile of memories Bruce had stacked so neatly there, each name a failure. He felt sick; there wasn’t enough air, and his hands twisted at his sides. He wanted out - out of these rooms, out of this conversation, out of thinking...thinking...

“Bruce,” Steve panted, a sweat breaking out on his forehead. His collar felt too tight. “Bruce, you were...weren’t you experimenting with the same stuff they used to...” Oh, he really felt sick then, hand going to his stomach, his free hand finding a wall. “I mean, I’d only been...this...for a few months, before the ice -”

“Stop,” Bruce said, voice calm but firm. “Steve, you’re not going to sprout a big green rage monster of your own.” He stepped over to Steve’s side and pulled him by the elbow away from the wall, though Steve wouldn’t budge any more than that.

“How do you know, though?” Steve asked, pulling his elbow free, eyes a bit too wide. “I mean, what if this is just the start of -”

“It is,” Bruce interrupted, groaning when Steve took a step back, eyes widening even further. “Not like that! Dammit, Steve, please - just come sit down.”

Heart still beating too fast, hands clammy, Steve moved back to his seat slowly. Bruce went past him to the kitchen, tucking the books away, setting the kettle to boil once more. Silence stretched as he prepared two fresh cups of tea, setting one down in front of Steve. “Rooibus. Calming. Try it.”

Steve did, and so did Bruce, and they both waited for Steve to settle and breathe freely again. When the soldier’s shoulders finally relaxed a touch, Bruce put his cup down and sat up straight. “Steve,” he said, steeling himself just to come out with it, “look. My problem isn’t the Other Guy. My problem is that I had a shit childhood, and I never dealt with it.” He rolled eyes at himself. “I know, sounds cliche, but...it’s no less true for it. If I’d had the Norman Rockwell perfect family, who knows? Maybe the Other Guy would be pink and give out flowers.” He leaned back, pulling off his glasses again. “He’s an aspect of me. A big scary mean as hell aspect, sure, but still...me. He was in me long before my accident. You follow?”

Steve nodded slowly; he followed, and he thought he saw where this was going. “So you’re saying this...what I did....was in me all along.”

Bruce rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m so not the right kind of doctor for this,” he murmured, running that same hand through unruly hair. “No, Steve, that’s not what I meant.” He voice reflected his frustration. “I meant...I went through bad stuff, and it messed me up. So,” he leaned forward, fixing Steve with his sharp stare, “What messed you up enough to make you lose control and beat the shit out of your lover?”

Steve’s mind froze, and he just gaped, barely hearing it when Bruce told him not to worry about it, that everyone knew and everyone was really okay with it. Except a few agents who’d really wanted a chance at Steve for themselves, but...Steve lost track of words, ears ringing, unable to get past the thought that they knew. They knew. A moment later, he was on his feet, grabbing his jacket from the hall automatically, throwing the front door open hard enough to dent the wall.

“Steve!” Bruce cried, hurrying after him, but Steve didn’t stop. He couldn’t talk about this, couldn’t sit in a room with someone who trotted out his affair like it was yesterday’s news. It was too...casual, too easy. And how could they know? Had Phil told them? Had that guard? Did someone follow them on a mission? Oh, his cheeks burned to think that someone might have pictures, or even film, and he hit the door to outside hard enough to snap the lock, storming out into the evening carrying fresh anger and humiliation.

******

“You should see the other guy,” Phil joked, wincing as he tried to smile.

Fury studied the agent’s face - five stitches over one eye, two under the other, both of them swollen nearly closed. A lip busted open, swelled to the size of his thumb. Bruises on his shoulders, his wrists, his back. But no, not his chest - that was clean, and that made Fury’s eyes narrow.

Phil knew that look. “Sir, I can explain.”

“There is no explaining something like this happening on my base, agent,” Fury answered, arms crossing over his chest. “You tell me who did this. Now.”

A dozen scenarios played out in Phil’s mind in an instant. An intruder hacked their security. One of the guys in lockup got out, and Phil put him back in. A fall from a moving vehicle. No one in medical had asked; they simply cleaned him off, stitched him up, and let him sleep until morning, knowing the story would have been captured on one of the thousand cameras on base. Only, it hadn’t been, and no reports had been filed, and Fury came storming in to wake him up half an hour after Coulson didn’t show for morning roll. “Now, agent,” Fury repeated, and another dozen excuses ticked through Coulson’s head, every one of them inadequate.

“Oh, you have got to be...” Fury’s eye burned as Phil hesitated. “And I gave that fucker leave an hour ago.” He whirled on one foot, coat opening behind him, and marched back through the medical building doors, already barking orders into his headset. “Hill! Cancel all leave and get everyone back on base before -”

“No!” Phil interrupted, moving on instinct. He closed on Fury in a few quick steps, hand reaching automatically for Fury’s earpiece, flicking it away. Fury snarled as it skittered across the floor, dark eye fixing on the man. Coulson took a step back, surprised at his own actions, searching fast for words. “It...sir, that will just make the situation worse. Give me a chance to -”

Fury’s eye hardened, and a finger came up to point in Coulson’s face. “That is some textbook shit right there,” he nearly growled, jabbing that finger Coulson’s direction. “You are going to stay here, agent, and let us handle this. Got it?”

Coulson’s jaw set, and his eyes would have burned holes in Fury’s forehead if they were less swollen. His thoughts went white, and only training kept him from doing something monumentally stupid. “Yes, sir,” he answered, voice cold, hate settling in his veins that he didn’t even understand yet. He saw Fury both sense and dismiss it as he turned his back and went for the earpiece a few steps away. A minute after Fury left, the agent stalked out, snatching a jacket from a hook near the door and pulling up the hood as he slipped it on. He took out his phone and sent a quick message as he sorted out his plan.

*****

The last thing Steve expected was a call from Phil. From Hill - yeah, he’d expected that, and the clipped message she left for him to report back immediately told him they all knew, and he was in trouble. He’d been wandering the streets of Brooklyn for an hour, debating what to do, torn between duty, guilt, and anger. He knew he’d return eventually, but he needed to feel more in control before he could face anyone. Hands shoved deep into jacket pockets, Steve wandered streets that had once been familiar, feeling more isolated than ever.

The buzz of his phone, then, caught Steve off-guard, and the name that appeared on its screen surprised him even more. He answered it without thinking, wincing at that choice the moment the phone touched his ear. “Phil,” he said quietly, steeling himself for the barrage of angry words he expected to follow.

“Steve,” Phil answered on the other end, not angry at all. In fact, he sounded relieved. “I didn’t know if you’d take my call.”

“I don’t know I deserve to,” Steve answered, turning into an alley, voice kept quiet. “God, Phil, if I could take it back -”

“Don’t,” Phil interrupted, voice tight. “Just...don’t. It happened, and...and we’ll deal with it.”

A long pause followed as Steve backed up against a building, leaning his head back, letting his eyes close, caught between conflicting emotions. No hate, he thought, heart clenching. I don’t hear him hating me. Why doesn’t he hate me? “But - not here,” Phil finally started again. “Not now. You can’t come back here.”

“Ah. Fury knows.” Steve slumped against the wall. He’d known it before, but now the understanding settled on his shoulders, his legs weakening with the weight of it.

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Steve - Fury knows everything. He runs the biggest spy network in the world.”

“Which means someone’s informing him on us,” Steve shot back, heart beating faster. “Who’s spying on us, Phil? Why?”

Steve’s words came a little too fast, a little too pinched, and Coulson’s skin broke out in a sweat in response. He’d refused pain medications, so his face already hurt; now it throbbed, and only training kept him from pinching his face with the pain. He didn’t want Steve getting any more worked up over this, and yet he didn’t know what to say to Steve’s accusation. Spying? Anyone who’d seen them together in the past months had to have an inkling of what was going on between them, and no amount of distance Steve tried to put between them would remedy that. People knew. And now, if Steve came back and Fury took him to task, people would know that the lovers had fought, and Coulson lost. No. No, he didn’t want that; he kept his hood up, thanked Thor for the unseasonable rain, and continued moving toward the base gates. “Let’s not talk about this on the phone,” he finally responded, and hung up before Steve could say anything else, approaching the nearest vehicle and flashing his badge.

“Gonna need to commandeer this for a bit, soldier,” he told the private behind the wheel, and returned the salute when the boy - too young to be considered a man just yet - scrambled out of the driver’s seat and hit attention. He didn’t look back as the gate opened and furrowed his brow in concentration as he took off.

*****

“I swear, I have no idea where he went,” Bruce said again, watching Coulson pace across the one scrap of carpet his apartment had, furrowing his brow as the man dripped still more rainwater into it.

Coulson had gone from upset to angry himself during the drive to Bruce’s place. He knew, somehow, that Steve would have come to Banner first, maybe because he’d felt the urge himself when he’d given Cap a solid roundhouse kick not so long ago. He remembered that moment vividly - emotion falling away, the world going gray and slow, his movements carefully measured as if he were taking on an opponent. Steve’s gasp, his wide eyes, had broken what felt almost like a spell, like another person taking him over for just an instant. Who better to talk to, then, than the scientist whose body betrayed him when his emotions were pushed over the edge? In the end, he hadn’t come here, only because he couldn’t figure out how to open the discussion. And now he wished he had, so he’d have some idea what Bruce had said, could try and figure out where Steve would go after hearing it.

“You know he told me,” Bruce said flatly after Coulson made two more turns on the carpet. “You can put the hood down, take your jacket off.” He stopped watching his carpet get ruined and went to the kitchen to put on the kettle. “I’ve seen stuff like this plenty. From both sides.”

Coulson wiped water off his face and immediately regretted it, hissing as he caught stitches. Bruce spoke truth - Phil had seen Banner’s files - but that didn’t make it any easier to take off his jacket. He stared at Bruce’s back a long moment, fighting shame that only served to fuel the anger that already welled with this situation. At last, he shrugged out of the jacket, letting it pool on the floor.

“Ouch.” Bruce’s face pinched as he took in the damage on Coulson’s. He looked away when Coulson’s cheeks colored, focusing on the tea to give the man time to adjust. “Fury saw?”

Coulson nodded. “Which is why I need to find Steve first.” He picked up the jacket and hung it on a hook by the door, his passion to find Steve ebbing in the wake of being seen. He felt drained, suddenly, enough so that he found a chair and slumped into it. “God, Bruce,” he found himself saying, and couldn’t stop what came next. “What went wrong?” He fought the urge to rub his hand across his face again, used it instead to take the cup of tea Bruce offered. He wanted to say more, to let confusion and pain and anger and worry out, to purge himself of them, and he didn’t want to say anything. He took a sip of the tea to cover his indecision, wincing as it burned his tongue.

“It’s hot,” Bruce said, too late, eyebrows pinching as Coulson winced. He set his own cup aside and pondered a response to what went wrong. “Do you want me to try and answer that?”

“I don’t know,” Phil answered automatically, putting his head back on the chair, letting out a soft sigh. “Not sure there is an answer.” Stuff like this happened to other people; not to him, not to people who had their shit together. And Coulson had believed he had his shit together, until…

“Oh, there is,” Bruce responded, blowing on his tea. “But I doubt it’s pretty. Or one either of you want.”

“Do you think he hates himself?” Phil asked, looking down at his hands, curling them together.

“Shouldn’t he?”

“No,” Phil answered immediately, looking up with surprise. “No, he shouldn’t. He…” What? Didn’t mean to? Wasn’t in control? Anything he could think of sounded like an excuse, and he couldn’t help but remember Fury calling it textbook shit. He fell silent, shaking his head, unable to finish that sentence. “I don’t want him to.”

Bruce touched the side of his teacup, let his fingers linger a moment. “I doubt that changes much.” He picked up the cup carefully. “Steve’s afraid of himself now. I’ve felt that. It’s pretty...isolating, knowing how dangerous you really are, and how little you can control it.”

Something fell into place in Phil’s head at that, and he knew suddenly where to go. He looked at Bruce, even reached over to pat the man’s shoulder. “Thanks,” he said, and then was up and sweeping the jacket over one arm. He threw open the door, slamming it behind him hard enough to rattle the hinges.

Bruce stared at the door a long moment, cup still in hand. “Well, shit,” he finally said out loud, and set the cup down, mind in half a dozen places, none of them good. He sat there in silence as the room went dark, letting his tea go cold.

*****

“Thought I’d find you here.”

Steve wiped rain from his face and looked up. Light had dimmed, and he was thankful for it; he couldn’t see Phil’s face distinctly, could only see that it was misshapen, swollen. His heart wrenched hard enough that he was thankful he couldn’t see more. “Here?” he asked, though that wasn’t what he wanted to say. I’m so sorry, yes. Or Please, stay away. Don’t let me hurt you again. But those words wouldn’t come. “Where’s here?”

Phil leaned against the car he’d commandeered, keeping his distance, both for Steve’s comfort and his own. “Today? Nothing. Space is being renovated for offices. But in 1943…”

Ah. Steve remembered the doors now, though the distinctive glass was covered in paper. The steps were far more worn than they’d been the last time he was here, and the building had lost its luster. The whole area looked old, and tired, and out of place, but - yes, he knew it. “It was a recruitment office.”

“It was your recruitment office.” The place had been famous when Phil was still a boy, playing in the streets not terribly far from here. The plaque commemorating it as the spot where Captain America had been recruited had long ago been stolen as the area declined. He’d been lucky enough, as a boy, to snap a picture of it just a few months before it had disappeared, and it still held a place of pride in his photo album. He must have visited the place a dozen times when he still lived in the city. Before Fury. Before SHIELD. Before those things changed Phil’s life irrevocably.

And showing here, so long ago, had changed Steve equally. “Wow,” he said quietly, amazed he’d found his way here after all this time, even more impressed that Phil had known to look for him here. His heart swelled with appreciation, then withered as he recalled the damage he’d done the night before. “I’m...surprised you came looking for me.”

“I am, too,” Phil answered honestly. Now that he was in front of Steve, he didn’t know what he hoped to accomplish. Staying together would be a bad idea, his trained mind told him. When something like this happens once - and, let’s be honest, it’d been twice now, once on either side - statistics suggested it would happen again. But dammit, they’d found each other, against every odd: time, and death, and neither of them having even tried a relationship like this before, and it felt wrong to give up on it this easily. Steve’s concern, his paranoia, wasn’t exactly misplaced; in his own time, he’d have been locked away for a long time if someone discovered their relationship. And when he was honest, Phil knew he shared some of that fear, afraid that people might change their attitude about and approach with him when they found out, when it became more than rumor. He ducked his head, tucking hands deep in his pockets, and tried to determine what could come of this exchange.

Steve, meanwhile, curled tighter and tighter against the wall, wishing he could disappear into it, become the slip of a man he’d been before, closing in on a century ago, the one who’d hold his ground but couldn’t have hurt anyone, much less Phil. There was no going back; what they’d done to him, in fact, was more permanent than anyone had expected. And there was the crux of it; he couldn’t go back, and he’d already lost so much: Peggy, and Bucky, and his own time and everyone he’d known. Baseball games and kids and saying goodbye to Mom. Watching the lunar landing. The Red Scare. God, he’d missed it all - Hitler checking out and the cold war and the Berlin Wall coming down and Chernobyl, and he didn’t have it in himself to lose anything more. Not one bit more.

Shoulder it, soldier, Steve told himself. “You’ve been through worse.” And then he realized he muttered those words out loud, and everything suddenly felt too heavy, too hard. Impossible. Knees gave way under the pressure, and Steve sank to the ground, planting fists on the wet concrete, thought disappearing in a sudden rush of feeling that he couldn’t comprehend, much less set aside.

One whimper. One whimper escaped Steve, and Phil’s paralysis broke. “Don’t,” he said before he even moved. His heart sank to the ground with Steve, held him at a distance for a moment longer, then demanded action. Shit. Shit, shit, this was stupid and bad and they shouldn’t do it and Phil splashed through the alley anyway, going to a knee next to Steve, putting a hand on his shoulder that caused the man to recoil, then lean heavily in his direction. “Don’t do this to yourself, Steve,” he said quietly, lifting another hand, wrapping arms around Steve’s shoulders and dragging him close. “You’ve been through too much already.”

Steve’s throat made a choked sound, and Phil tried to pull him closer. “No,” Steve objected, holding his ground, not capable of pulling away fully. “Phil, I…” He sighed, fast and hard, and put a hand to his eyes. “You can’t forgive me.”

“You can’t give me orders,” Phil answered instantly, and Steve couldn’t help but snort. But he couldn’t look up; no, not yet, still horrified of the damage he’d caused. “And I’m not giving up this easily.”

“Easy?” Steve looked up before he even thought about it, and Phil’s face - swollen, broken and bruised, was right beside his own. His throat closed again, and he couldn’t make any noise, couldn’t do anything but look away. God, he wanted to beat his own head on the wall, tear out his hair, do anything to pay back the pain he’d brought down on the man holding him now. He shoved his way out of Phil’s arms and clambered to his feet. “Don’t you do this,” he said, pushing off the wall and pulling his coat closer in the rain. “Don’t you dare give me another chance.”

Phil watched with far more compassion than he knew he had. “Steve,” he started, then figured out he didn’t have words for what was going on inside him. “I’m...I don’t really have a choice.”

The soldier in Steve woke up, then, hard, ready to take charge. He nodded once, almost imperceptible in the growing darkness. “I’ve got it,” he responded, allowing himself one last glimpse Phil’s direction. A moment.

And then he let it go and made his decision.

Steve disappeared down the alley faster than Phil could follow, and the rain covered his tracks. One call to the man’s phone confirmed what Phil feared; he’d destroyed it. Phil found pieces of it further down the alley. No GPS then, not even a dead phone to track, and Steve had left Cap’s outfit behind. He wouldn’t go back to his apartment, or to Bruce’s, or to anyone’s. Steve had a duty, now, in his mind, and Phil knew how doggedly he’d chase it, because he knew how doggedly he’d have done so himself.

“Dammit,” Phil said, lifting his face to the rain, letting it cool and soothe the aching spots, as determined as he expected Steve was in the moment. And then he turned back to his vehicle, jaw set, and started his own planning.