The last train was the last hope, and it was the last place that he wanted to be.
Steve Rogers hadn't been in Boston for very long, but he'd quickly learned that particular inescapable truth: the last train of the night was to be avoided. And the last train running on the MBTA's Green Line was the one he'd do anything to avoid. The Green Line trolleys were small and cramped, too hot in summer and too cold in the winter, every stop cracking the doors to circulate the stale air, never letting the passengers cool off or warm up, and every stop made things worse. There were a lot of stops on the Green Line, especially on the B line, the one that ran out to Boston College.
The one he took to get back to his small apartment.
Usually, the problem was that it was filled to overflowing, too many people in a too small space, boisterous college students and drunks with something to prove and exhausted workers scrambling to catch the T before the service ended and they were left with an expensive cab ride home. Steve, who took up entirely too much space at the best of times and the last train was never the best of times, hated the last train, hated how obvious and clumsy and out of place he felt as the trolley rattled through the city streets. Usually on the T, he would close his eyes and pretend that he was still in New York, still in a time and place he understood; the trains were old enough that it almost seemed plausible. But that wasn't possible on the last train.
Tonight, he as he fought his way through the crowd at the front of the train, heading for the back, he was shocked to find himself mostly alone on the rear trolley car.
The reason for that was obvious a minute later, when the singular drunk occupant fixed a bloodshot gaze on Steve. He was big, and bulky, a man once made of pure muscle now running to fat, but there was strength underneath that, hard bone and enough booze to make feeling any pain an impossibility.
For a moment, Steve considered getting back off, or moving back to the front of the train, but the doors slid shut with a mechanical hiss, sealing out the cold night air, and the trolley started rolling. He flicked a glance at the dark streets beyond the windows, dirty slush coating the pavement and the occasional flash of a car going by. He considered jumping off at the next stop and walking the rest of the way back to Boston University, but he was tired of being cold. He was tired of giving ground. He was tired of not having control over his own life, even something this small.
Actually, he was just tired.
Steve grabbed the strap hanging from the car roof, and heaved a mental sigh. He'd been looking forward to sitting down for the long, jerky trip back to his stop, but that wasn't going to happen. Drunks were always fun, and if he was standing, it was much less likely someone would decide to mess with him.
He risked a glance at the front of the trolley, where the driver was paying more attention to the loud group of co-eds just inside the front door than what was happening in the back of his train. Resigned, Steve leaned against the pole and tried to ignore the way his feet hurt.
The drunk was eying him with the resentment and focus of the extremely inebriated. He swayed wildly back and forth as the train turned the corner, crashing into the edge of the seats. Behind him, Steve spotted the car's only other occupant, a bum sprawled out on the back row of seats, across the aisle. The man's thin form was all but buried in a couple of layers of sweatshirts and jackets, heavy, battered sneakers poking out from under the cuffs of stained jeans. Steve shivered; the heating on the green line was inadequate at best and nonexistent at worst, and he couldn't imagine sleeping here. It seemed like just asking to not ever wake up.
Steve felt like warning him; sometimes even if you do wake up, the cold never really leaves your bones.
The drunk stumbled forward, and Steve adjusted his hand on the strap, setting his feet and preparing himself for the inevitable. Before the drunk could do more than take another shuffling step, the train stopped, sending him staggering into a row of seats. The door between him and Steve opened, and a tired looking young woman with a scraped back ponytail and her purse clutched to her chest trudged in. She had a thin face and dark circles beneath her pretty dark eyes, and she moved towards the nearest seat.
The drunk leaned into her space, making her jerk backwards, and Steve swallowed a curse. “Hey,” the drunk slurred at the girl, who took another step back, her back hitting the now closed doors. She avoided his eyes, her bag hitched up tight against her breasts, her head down. “Hey!” the drunk repeated, and it was louder now, louder and meaner and he moved forward, and the girl was looking for some way out, any way out.
“Hey-” Steve said, and that was as far as he got before the hobo in the back of the trolley suddenly threw his hands in the air.
“Will you FUCKING SHUT UP?” he yelled, making everyone jump. Even the drunk swung around, his body carrying the momentum of the train. The hobo rolled over, sitting up. In the shadowed space in the back of the train, he glared down at them, eyes like sparks beneath lowered brows. He wasn't a hobo, and he wasn't nearly as old as Steve thought he was. He would've pegged the guy, the kid, at fifteen or sixteen, at most, thin and lithe and swaddled in a bunch of layers. But his gaze was direct, even manic, and now that he was sitting up, he looked more like a college student than a bum.
The kid was still talking, not the least put off by the fact that the drunk had about fifty pounds on him, and a couple of inches. “Seriously. You are fucking annoying. I'm trying to think, and if you cannot hold your damn booze, then don't drink. Really. No one cares. Get off.”
The drunk wobbled, blinking at him. “You-” He thrust a finger at the hobo who wasn't a hobo. “You wanna come down here an' say that?”
The guy shrugged. “Sure.” He pushed himself to his feet and jumped down the stairs, landing with a faint thump. He grinned, and it was amused and sharp and brutal, perfect teeth catching the light of the passing street lights. “See, here's the thing,” he said, moving forward without even grabbing the poles to steady himself, all easy grace and smooth strides. “I ride this fucking line, like, every night, this is my train, I don't even need to take this train, and I do, this is my train, and you're annoying me. Get off.”
The drunk's hands clenched into fists, huge hammers of force. Steve held a hand out to the girl, who looked between drunk dude, crazy not-hobo and Steve, and made a beeline for Steve. He caught her elbow and pushed her behind him. “Go try to get the driver to stop,” he said, and she was scrambling down the aisle, trying to force her way through the small but thick crowd of partiers in the front.
“You want me off? Then make me,” the drunk slurred. He took a threatening step forward, and was looming over the kid, shoulders heaving and feet scraping the floor. The kid looked amused, his head back, his hands tucked in his pockets. The drunk goon raised one huge fist, and Steve stepped in behind him, slowly trying to get an angle that he could use to jump the idiot.
“If you take a swing at me,” the young man said, sounding amused now, “you're going to regret it.”
The drunk gave a bark of laughter, and lunged forward. Steve went for him, but he was a step behind and too far away, his hand closing on nothing but thin air.
The young man didn't even flinch. His hand came up, his arm an arrow leading away from his body, his elbow locked, and there was a bright flash, like a flash bulb going off, or a small explosion, and the drunk went flying into Steve. He hit so hard that Steve's feet left the ground, and for a second, the two of them were airborne, and Steve didn't know what had just happened, but as he crashed back to the floor of the trolley, he had a horrifying thought.
That reminded him of a Hydra weapon.
The trolley stopped with the shriek of grinding brakes, and someone was screaming, high and sharp and panicked, and the drunk went rolling away. Steve scrambled to his feet, finding a fighting stance and braced for the threat.
There was a pair of rangy legs hanging over the top of the nearest set of seats. “Well,” an unsteady voice said, “I didn't expect that. That, that was a bit more kick than I expected.” There was a rattling noise, and a hand came over the top of the seat, grabbing for the bar, and the guy heaved himself into view. His hair, if anything, looked worse, standing on end, but he was grinning, his eyes dancing with a fierce, maniacal spark. “Is he down?”
Confused, Steve looked at the drunk, who was face down on the ground and groaning. “Yeah, I mean-” He leaned over, checking the man's pulse. It was strong and steady. “What the heck was that?” he asked.
The young man was untangling himself from the seats. “Uh, something I'm working on.” He held up his arm, and Steve could see there was a flat white disc on his palm, a series of wires running down under his sweatshirt. As they watched, it sparked and spat. “Can't get the power source worked out, I think I just fried it, goddamn, I think that was a one off, but this is, this is a good start, that was a-”
Steve blinked at him, still braced for an attack that just didn't seem to be coming. The guy was babbling like the proverbial brook. “What IS it?” Steve asked,interrupting. “A weapon?”
“Not really, I-”
“What is going ON BACK THERE?” the driver yelled, and Steve's head jerked in the man's direction. The co-eds were gone, and the driver was holding his radio. In the distance, there was the sound of sirens, and his stomach dropped.
“Oh, no,” he said, because no, no, he was supposed to stay out of trouble, out of sight, he was supposed to be invisible, that's the only reason they let him out, let him have a life, let him see the sun again, and he could not get arrested right now.
He had no doubt that General Ross would put him right back in the hole he'd pulled Steve out of.
“What's wrong?” the young man said, and he was pulling wires free from his arm, flinching as sparks shot to the floor. “Hey, chill. You have problems with the cops?”
“What? No. No, I just can't-” The panic was there, clawing at his throat, just the memory of that cell, that featureless box, barely big enough to let him pace, and he could remember it, remember the walls pressing in on him, caged like a sideshow exhibit, like the freak that he was, and he couldn't bear it. “If he finds out- I can't get arrested.” The words were a strained whisper, cold and hard in his ears, like a prison door slamming shut behind him.
“Okay, okay, I get it, don't worry, my father's a dick, too.” And before Steve, or the driver, could stop him, he hopped up on the seat, snagging the emergency release lever above the door. He gave it a yank and kicked the doors open. “Go.” When Steve just stood there, the cold night air blowing in his face, the kid sighed. “Go! What, are you stupid? This has nothing to do with you, run!”
He shouldn't. He shouldn't leave this kid, this child alone to handle this on his own; there was something dark and cold and resigned in his face. Steve glanced at the door, and the boy jumped off the seat, putting a hand in the middle of Steve's back and giving him a shove. He wasn't strong enough to really move Steve, but Steve was already leaning in that direction. The push sent him stumbling out to the street, almost falling. Shocked, he glanced back.
The kid leaned out. “RUN!” An order, or a plea, Steve wasn't sure, but the force was there.
And just like that, Steve was running, his feet were crashing into the early winter slush, running into the dark of the night street. Behind him, he could hear the guy yelling, “Go left, you moron! Take that one way street off of Comm Ave, they can't take the cars up that way and they're too lazy to chase you on foot! RUN!”
And Steve Rogers, who'd faced down squadrons of Nazi super soldiers with nothing more than a shield in his hands, who'd stood his ground in front of every bully he'd ever faced, Steve Rogers, who'd slept for decades beneath the ice and woken to a new world and a fractured heart without flinching, Steve Rogers ran through the midnight dark streets of Boston.
He could not go back to the labs. They'd found the way to break him, to break his courage, his stubborn will, to break his heart. He could not go back to die in the white nothing under ground, to never see the sun again, to never breathe the free air or hear the wind. He would not go back there.
He risked a single glance over his shoulder, sick and ashamed and full of self-loathing, and saw the dark haired boy framed in the light of the trolley door, lit from behind, glowing in the darkness. As red and blue lights started to fracture the landscape, he took a step back in, and his palm was still glowing, bright and sharp like a star was caught in his hand.
And Steve ran.
Tony hip checked the door, hard, putting the full weight of his body into it, not that he had that much body weight to work with. But he figured he made the best use of what he had, and that was all that he could do unless he was willing to spend hours trying to pack on additional muscle.
That prospect sounded both boring and time consuming, and he had better things to do with his time.
The door gave way under the assault, the way it always did, cranky and creaky, but yielding to the inevitable at last. He shoved it open, and spend another intolerably long time wrestling it back closed. Once the heavy metal door was seated in the frame again, he slumped against it, letting out a long sigh, grateful to be out of the damned wind.
“Daddy's home!” he announced, pulling his scarf and hat off with a quick flick of his fingers. He tossed them in the general direction of the coat rack, and he was pretty sure the scarf hit. Gloves and jacket followed, and then he hopped in an awkward circle, finally bumping up against the wall with his back to pry his boots loose. “Hey! Let's see some signs of life here!”
The workshop floor spread out in front of him, quiet and still and dark, and he sighed. “C'mon, Dummy, are we doing this again? Really?” He dropped his boot to the floor, cursing as he stepped right into the puddle of slush and melting snow the other one had left behind, and fumbled his way through the darkened warehouse. “Jarvis, give me some light.”
There was a faint, musical tone, and the lights came up, obligingly enough, Not fast enough, though, not the kind of response he was looking for from the system. He wondered if he could get it to the point of anticipating what he was going to ask for before he could ask for it. Right now, Jarvis' programming wasn't nearly advanced enough to allow for the AI to make that kind of a inference from Tony's presence, but even a series of motion sensors that he could trigger and then leave it up to Jarvis to keep the lights on for as long as he was in the room. That wouldn't take much, not really, not if he was careful about the code usage.
Still musing on the possibilities, Tony turned the corner. “Oh, for Christ's sake,” he said. “Really? REALLY?”
There was no answer, not that he'd been anticipating one, but still. Verbal explosions allowed him to vent his rage without taking a crowbar to his hapless helper bot. Dummy was currently stuck between two benches, his wheel base hooked on one of the legs. Tony could tell at a glance what had happened. Judging by the blinking warning light on Dummy's main support strut, the bot had reached critical battery levels and attempted to return to his charging station.
“Except,” Tony said aloud, “you got stuck. You steer like a cow, Dummy, you really do, there are robotic vacuum cleaners with better spacial recognition parameters than you. I suppose I should be grateful that you didn't tip yourself over this time in that you weigh like a billion pounds and I am sick of trying to shove your busted ass back up right.”
Still, he hooked one cold hand around Dummy's support strut and yanked the bot away from the impediment. Bracing his feet, he started the tedious job of returning Dummy to his charging station. “You know what you're supposed to be?” Tony said, his teeth gritted hard. “You are supposed to be a help. Helper. And yet, you are not. You are a dam annoyance, that's what you are, another bit of grunt work I've got to get through to get on with my day, with my life.” He set his feet and shoved, hard, and Dummy trundled along ahead of him, silent and unresponsive. “I should leave you with a dead battery, it would serve you right. It really would, I just- I do not need this kind of a problem.”
Another shove, and he got the bot into place, cursing and snarling until the solid click of metal on metal indicated that Dummy was in place and charging. The faint, familiar hum of Dummy's systems starting to come back online was a warm balm on his nerves, and Tony let himself slide to the floor.
He sat there on the cold concrete, sucking in quick, hard breaths, until the whir of gears told him Dummy was back online. “You,” he said, pointing a finger in the bot's direction, “are a pain in my ass.”
Dummy's long arm came up and swung around, his camera pointed right at Tony. The whine of his gearing was pathetic, and Tony reached up to run a gentle hand over the bot's strut. “Damn pain in the ass,” he said.
He leaned his head back against the wall, staring up into the dark spaces between the beams, far above his head. He listened to the wind, blowing hard off the North Atlantic tonight, as it rattled against the battered metal and brick of the building, and made him shiver. It was cold tonight, bitter and thin and dark. He was cold tonight, more than the air, more than the wind, he was cold.
But this was what he had chosen. He had to keep reminding himself of that. This, Boston, MIT, this was his choice, the first choice he'd made that hadn't been guided by some other hand, by his father's weakness, or his mother's death, or Obie's steady grip. He was seventeen now, barely seventeen, but this was his third New England winter, and he was sick to death of them.
“When I graduate,” Tony told Dummy, who was still bouncing up and down in his charging station, “I'm going to get the hell out of here and never end up anywhere cold again. Ever.” He pushed himself up. “You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to move to fucking California. San Diego. Or Malibu. Or Los Angles. I don't know, I don't care, but I am moving to fucking California.”
Dummy studied him for a moment, and then rolled off of his charging station.
“Where are you going?” Tony called after the bot. “Hey! Get back- You are not done charging! You're going to end up broken down again, and I'm not- What are you doing.”
The bot pulled a box out from under the workbench. As Tony watched, he carefully began placing tools into the box.
“Dummy. Dummy. You idiot, not now. No. Stop packing. Bad bot. Bad-” Tony buried his face in his hands, and let out a long string of curses. It was almost a benediction by this point.
“I have degrees,” he muttered into his palms. “I have inventions, and patents and most of a dissertation! And yet, most of my time is spent trying to make you less broken! How is that possible?” He let his head fall back, looking once again into the dark, hidden spaces of the rafters, appealing to some higher power of engineering. “What did I ever do to deserve-”
Something broke with a massive crash, and Tony gritted his teeth against the urge to create new swears. “I will roll you down to long wharf and I will push you into the harbor!” he yelled, stalking across the workshop floor. “Jarvis, give me some music, it's going to be another long night.”
Steve unlocked his front door, rattling the keys as he pushed it open. The small space was empty and dark, but not unoccupied. He set his bag down and bent down to untie his boots one handed. He balanced a paper tray of coffee in his other, a couple of scones wedged between the steaming cups. “Hey,” he called, setting his boots aside with military precision. “I brought you a mocha.”
There was a faint chuckle from the direction of the window, and the shadows peeled away from the wall, the familiar form silhouetted in the light of the window for a second, and then Clint was padding across the room. He caught the wrapped scone that Steve caught him, a massive compound bow slung over one shoulder. “Thanks,” he said, taking a perch on the arm of the couch. “Long day, I take it?”
“Yeah.” Steve handed over the cup, pleased beyond words that he'd lured Clint out. Sometimes, he couldn't manage it. But sweets usually did the job. Steve tossed himself on the couch, not bothering to turn on the lights. His head ached, not really a headache; he hadn't had one of those since the serum. It was a sensation of cotton wool, like dehydration, or the ache that came with too little or too much sleep, and it was happening more and more lately. He rolled his head towards the window, looking at the cold light of the streetlamp. “Long and cold.”
“You have no idea,” Clint said, a mouthful of scone making the words almost unintelligible. “You at least get to spend your days inside. I spent half the night on the roof.”
“Does the army really expect you to sit on my fire escape and stare at me through the window?” Steve asked him. His coffee was hot and bitter, stinging his throat. He sighed in pleasure.
“Cap, you know they do.” Clint grinned as he pulled the lid off of his coffee, breathing in the heavy steam. “If they had their way, I'd be sitting across the way, with an arrow perpetually held at full draw.” He sipped his mocha, his eyes sliding shut. “But that'd really be a long couple of years, wouldn't it?”
Steve studied him out of the corner of his eyes. The sniper was a mystery, a loose limbed, smart mouthed, sharp eyed enigma that hovered perpetually at the edge of his world. It hadn't taken him long to realize he was being followed, being watched, but he suspected that was because Barton let him. If Clint wanted to disappear, he did. He did it very well.
Steve wasn't under any illusions. Specialist Clint Barton was not his roommate, he was not Steve's friend. If anything, he was Steve's parole officer. As long as Steve checked in regularly, as long as Clint could see him, coming and going, day and night, from his own apartment window two floors up, then there was a status quo. But in the end, he was there to keep Steve in place. And put a hopefully non-lethal projectile into him if it looked like he was going to rabbit.
He was also the only person in Steve's current life who knew the truth. He was the only one who knew that Steve Burnside had had another name, and another life, a lifetime ago. Steve knew and liked people in his classes, but those lies were always there, holding them at a distance. Clint was the only one he could even approach honesty with. He knew that was pathetic. He didn't care.
Clint shifted his weight, leaning forward. “So, what happened?” he said, popping the last of the scone in his mouth.
“Just a-” Steve rubbed the bridge of his nose with tense fingers. “Just a long day.”
Clint chewed, his jaw working for long, long after he should've swallowed. “Yeah, I hear ya.” He sipped his coffee. “Moving kinda slow out there in the street.”
“That why you came down?” Steve asked, almost without thinking.
“Nope,” Clint said, his voice a slow, low drawl. “It was cold, and you were carrying steaming cups. Cups, plural. Seemed like I might be able to steal one from you.”
“It would serve you right if I didn't share,” Steve said. He slumped a little lower into the couch. He was so tired he ached with it, and he knew better than to try to sleep, not when his brain was buzzing this way. Nothing good would come of it.
So he came home with hot cups of coffee, and prayed that the one person who actually knew who he was, the one person Steve didn't have to pretend with, the one person he didn't have to lie to, would come in from the cold. For Steve's sake, or maybe his own.
“How're classes going?” Clint said, sipping his mocha.
Steve glanced at him, not ever sure if Clint was asking for some official report somewhere, or if he was just curious about the minutiae of Steve's every day life. “Good,” he said, because there was no real point in lying or being close mouthed with Clint. Steve got the feeling he knew more than he let on, both about Steve's day to day activities, and also what Steve was thinking. “I'm enjoying my History of Eastern Art class.”
Most days, he loved his classes. He loved Boston. The museums and the libraries, the unlimited art supplies and books and knowledge this new world afforded him. Steve read everything he could get his hands on, filled his small apartment with piles of art books and catalogs, and filled his life with oil paintings, water colors, sketches, literature, sculpture, history and comic books, everything he could find.
There was a sense of timelessness and tradition about BC that was soothing to him, the old Catholic laws that still permeated the brick of the buildings were familiar. They weren't his laws, but he'd stood beside Bucky often enough on cold winter mornings for him to know what to do, and when to do it. Sunday morning services, high mass in Latin, was strangely unchanged by the passage of time.
His days were precisely scheduled, by a hand that wasn't his. The polite and distant woman from military command, crisp and efficient in a perfectly pressed uniform, had taken his list of requested classes, and handed him back a full schedule. Classes, and extra classes, in art history and fine art, commercial art, ancient history and literature. Occasional ROTC gatherings, with all the other students interest in a military career, so the brass could keep a firm grip on his collar. Medical appointments and counseling appointments and blank faced military tribunals clutching metal clipboards in featureless white rooms. And a late night job stocking shelves after closing at a local art store, where he could quietly sort paints in colors he barely dreamed of when he was a child.
Clint was looking at him over the top of his paper cup, his eyes sharp and clear. “You going to bed?”
Steve shook his head. “I've got reading to do.” He didn't need much sleep, not any more. It was a blessing, most nights, to work until he could collapse for an hour or two.
Clint nodded. “I feel like watching something. You mind? My cable's out.” His head tipped towards the television, and the lie was trasnparent, but appreciated. Steve tossed him the remote.
“It's all yours.”
“Thanks.” Clint dropped himself onto the opposite end of the couch, and after a moment, Steve grabbed his bag started pulling out some of his materials.
This felt like pity. He was so grateful for it, he could've cried.
“It's fine.” Tony rolled his eyes at the low, sustained bout of swearing from the other end of the line. “For God's sake,” he said, not interested in hearing this anymore. “It's not the end of the fucking world, Obie.” He padded down the stairs to the Park Street station, his feet rapid fire on the stone, ducking past the tourists and the old folks, a couple of idiots with suitcases and a confused woman with a map and two kids.
“You were arrested,” Obie said, his voice full of wrath. “Tony-”
“Not arrested. I think this is something you need to acknowledge here, Obie. I was not arrested.” He swung his messenger bag around onto his back, cutting through the crowd. “Detained. It's a big difference.”
“It's a matter of semantics.”
“No, it's really not.” Tony pinned his phone between his shoulder and his cheek, cursing the lack of his blu-tooth headset. “Look, I was attacked on the T, that's-”
“You started it.”
“I did not. I did not start it.” Tony smirked to himself, and then tried to force his face into serious lines; somehow, Obie always managed to hear his smirk. “He was drunk, I was riding the train, he was bigger than me, he attacked me.” He jammed the rolled up top of his Dunkies bag between his teeth, juggling his coffee cup and his wallet as he swiped his T pass, stepping through and onto the loading platforms for the Green Line. “It's pretty cut and dried, Obie.”
“Wipe that expression off your face, young man. I did not need to hear about this a week after it happened! You should've called me.”
Tony's nose wrinkled. No. That was not happening. That was never, ever going to be happening. He had no desire to give Obie any more ammunition than the guy already possessed. And sometimes, it felt like their relationship was less about communication and more about who had ownership of the biggest ammo dump. “Look, I had it under control.”
“You had a fake ID, a bad cover story and an unknown piece of tech on you,” Obie said. “We're lucky that you didn't end up-”
Tony considered just walking a little further down. He could kill this call just by heading down to the red line. That far underground, no one got reception. For now, though, he hovered on the upper platform, staring at his watch and letting Obie rant. He leaned against a pillar, out of the way of the commuters, and pulled a doughnut out of the bag, scarfing it down in a couple of bites. Licking chocolate frosting off of his fingers, he waited for Obie to run out of steam.
“Yeah, well, it's fine,” he said, cutting Obie off. “It was fine. See, the good thing about having unknown tech is that there's nothing to show what the hell it is. And if no one knows what it is?” Tony pulled the thumb out of his mouth with a pop. “It can't possibly be illegal.”
A stony silence greeted that response, and Tony heaved a sigh. “It's fine,” he said, and he knew he sounded sharp, too sharp, too frustrated. “And there is not a cop in New England who could pick my fake ID out of a lineup and you know it.” There was a reason for that. It was official. It was printed by an official Massachusetts RMV system. He'd had to pay a king's ransom for the damn thing, but if you looked hard enough in a government bureaucracy, you'd find someone willing to break the rules for the right price.
And there was no way Tony was going through a graduate program at MIT without drinking. There was absolutely no way that would end well. He'd pay what he had to pay, but he had an ID that was legal, for all intents and purposes.
Except, of course, for the fact that it had the wrong name, DOB, and he had never, in the most technical sense, ever passed a driving test. He could drive, he just didn't want to be bothered proving that to anyone. Mostly he avoided it in Boston, but that was because driving in Boston was for lunatics and people with suicidal tendencies.
Also the parking situation was shit.
“Look, Obie, he's the upshot. I handle my life, I handle my problems. And as long as I get my assignments done on time and do not actually bring down dishonor upon the family name,” he said, sarcasm twisting through the words like a knife, “then you leave me alone to handle both of those. Right?”
Obie's sigh was faint, light, barely an exhale, but Tony could almost see his face, see the way that his eyes slid shut, the way he rubbed hard on the bridge of his nose. “Right,” Obie said, and his voice was gentle now. Warm. “But I don't want you to have to handle these things alone, Tony. You've done that for too long, and you shouldn't have to. That's what I'm here for, to make this easier.”
“I appreciate it, I do, but...” Tony took a deep breath, watching the people stream past, letting his eyes glaze over until he couldn't focus on the kids and the parents, the workers and the students, until everything was a wash of color and movement. Until it felt like he was the only still point in a sea of motion. He shut his eyes, took a deep breath. “But I've got this. If I need you, I'll call, I promise.”
And even making that promise, even saying the words felt like a weight on his shoulders, felt like it would bend him double if he tried to bear it.
“I know you will. You've always done what I needed you to do,” Obie said, affection coming through now. “You're the-” He stopped, cleared his throat. “I'm proud of you, Tony.”
Tony shrugged, his shoulders flinching up. “Yeah,” he said. “I know.” He glanced up the length of the platform, at the trains rushing through, at the people jostling for space and time, and he started walking away from the turnstyles. “Look, Obie, I gotta go. That's my train.”
“Call me, Tony.”
“I will.” He wished he could give up on that last life line, but he knew his sense of self-delusion only went so far. Tucking the phone back in his pocket, he considered the ramp down to the Red Line, but his cup was empty. He glanced up, looking for a trashcan. There was one just a little further down the platform, and he headed in that direction, wadding the bag up into a ball. His hand came up just as the doors to the nearby green line trolley creaked shut. Something moved, just beyond his line of sight, and his head came around.
Through the window of the trolley, his eyes met a pair of brilliant blue ones, wide and startled. For a second, Tony just blinked, trying to understand why his brain was screaming at him.
And the blonde man inside the trolley lunged for the doors, too late, way too late, the train was already rolling. Tony stared at him, his lips curling up in a grin as he stared up at the man from the train. The big, gorgeous blonde man who'd been on the last train, the one who'd been behind the drunk, the man with the sad eyes and the bright red scarf who'd tried to stop the drunk douchebag from wringing Tony's neck.
Tony raised a hand, waving as the train pulled away. Through the window, the man stared at him, his beautiful mouth parted on a word that Tony couldn't hear. In an instant, the train disappeared into the darkness of the tunnels, whipping up a storm of litter and air as it went.
And then he realized he standing there like an idiot on the platform, waving and holding a crumpled up bag, with chocolate frosting on his face. “Fuck,” he muttered. “Good job. Really. Way to impress.” He heaved the bag into the trashcan and headed for the red line platform, his shoulders hunched against the stale, sharp wind that whistled up from the lower level.
Wasn't that just his fucking life?
Steve resisted the urge to throw himself at the door.
His heart was pounding in his chest, the thready fast sound of his pulse thudding in his ears. “No,” he said aloud. “No, no, no, no.”
His head jerked up, his eyes darting over the transit map that was posted above the door. “No,” he muttered, and he could hear the desperation in his voice. Swallowing hard, he tried to think. One stop. One stop, and he could get off and double back.
It'd been him. Steve had thought so. Had thought the ratty coat and tousled curls were familiar, but he'd been reluctant to hope. He'd wanted too much, and he knew it. It had gotten to the point where Steve had seen him everywhere. He'd had ended up following strangers through crowds, had stumbled helplessly after men who he'd never met and boys who gave him confused looks.
Steve knew it was guilt. Guilt and frustration and self-loathing that made him see the brunette with the smirk and the brilliant dark eyes everywhere he looked.
And when he'd seen that familiar form cut across the platform, he'd told himself that it was just him making things up again. Making mistakes. Seeing things he wanted to see. He hadn't moved, hadn't let go of the strap, because Park was a nightmare sometimes, you could wait forever and never catch the right train. So he'd stayed, his fingers gripping the rubber with a death grip, and when the boy had turned around, he'd been too stunned to move.
He'd waved. He'd waved and grinned. He remembered Steve, too.
“Think,” he muttered to himself, because this wasn't helping. This wasn't helping at all. He stared at the map. Green line. Green line. Which train? Which line? Steve bit back a curse. No way to know, and all four lines rolled through Park, if he chose the wrong one, he'd end up on the wrong branch of the line. Miles out of the way.
He closed his eyes, thinking. Trying to concentrate. The dark haired boy hadn't been standing at any of the loading zones. He had been walking, walking from the turnstiles. Steve remembered the smear of chocolate on the seam of his lips, the direction he'd been walking. And a crumpled paper bag that he'd been about to throw into the trashcan.
Why was he in the middle of the platform? Why wasn't he standing at one of the loading zones?
Steve's eyes snapped open. “Red line,” he said, a grin breaking on his face. “Of course, he was heading down to the Red line, that's why he wasn't at-” He scanned the map. Two directions. In, to Alewife. Out, to Braintree or Ashmont. He scanned the stops.
Young. Smart. Riding the trains in the middle of the night. College student.
He reached up, tapping them off. Harvard. Porter, where Lesley was. Davis, for Tufts. Or- His finger stabbed on the stop. “Kendall,” he said, certain of it. “Kendall, and MIT.”
The loudspeaker overhead crackled and he turned back to the door, slipping through them as soon as they opened, pushing his way through the waiting passengers, slipping out to the platform. His heart was pounding, and he didn't know why, he didn't even think he cared to figure it out.
For the first time in a long time, he stepped into the station and didn't feel trapped at all.
He was the first one off the train when it finally ground to a halt, and he'd wasted so much time, doubling back on the green line, catching a red line train, and waiting impatiently for the announcement for the Kendall station. He was the first one off, running through the largely empty station, ignoring the escalator and taking the stairs at full speed, shooting up and into the streets.
Steve stood there, staring at the buildings, his eyes scanning the landscape, and he felt his shoulders slump. For a crisp Saturday afternoon in mid-winter, the streets were strangely deserted, tall, featureless skyscrapers marching crisply along the edges of the street. The wind moved the air around him, cold against his exposed face, and he turned to put his back to it.
A handful of people were crossing the street, dodging through the light traffic, about a block up. Carrying overstuffed backpacks and coffee cups, they clustered together, talking or laughing as they made their way through the street, and one of them was wearing a red MIT sweatshirt, the logo visible even from this distance. Steve's heart jumped, and he started in that direction, his feet moving quickly on the frozen pavement.
By the time he reached the spot where they'd disappeared from sight, he was almost running.
“You came out of the wrong entrance, didn't you?”
Steve's head jerked to the side and he found himself almost face to face with his target. Perched easily on the top of a concrete block, one leg swinging in midair and his eyes brilliant beneath the tangle of his hair, the boy smiled at him. “That is, if you were looking for me.”
Too late, Steve realized he was gaping at the boy, his mouth hanging open, his eyes huge. His face flushing with a dawning sense of humiliation, he cleared his throat. “I- Uh, wrong entrance?” he managed at last.
The boy hooked a thumb down the street. “Two exits from the stop,” he said, and his grin was warm and wicked and very self-assured, but somehow endearing. His hands were bare, red and chapped from the cold, but he didn't bother trying to tuck them in his pockets. “Come out over there and you're on the edge of the land of boring adults doing boring things. Here-” He beat his heel against the pillar, a flick of his leg that seemed to encompass the stop and the exit right behind him. “And you're let loose right in the heart of MIT.”
He hopped down. “Hi. I'm Tony.” His grin was wide and white and brilliant, and Steve felt himself smiling back, because that grin was infectious, his brown eyes brilliant and his lips quirked. “Tony Edwards.”
“Steve. Steve Burnside.” The fake name he'd been saddled with came easily to his lips, he was conditioned to it by now. He'd kept his real first name, he'd fought them on that. Steve was still a common name, even in this strange new world, and he refused to relinquish it. There really was no point, and no reason.
No one was looking for Steve Rogers. Even the change to his last name had seemed pathetically unnecessary, but he'd given in, too tired about fighting every single battle, too sick of the struggle to push for the last thing he had rights to.
Tony's hand caught his, and his grip was firm and warm, his hand rougher than Steve had expected, the skin carrying scrapes and callouses. He glanced down, smiling at the robot covered bandage on Tony's index finger, the battered state of his knuckles.
“You were looking for me, right?” Tony asked, and he sounded eager. Happy about that.
“Yes. I mean, I saw you on the platform. I thought, I figured, I thought you might be MIT,” Steve said, and he sounded like an idiot. “I mean, I thought you might be an MIT student. Because of the, the thing?”
“I'm an MIT student because of many things,” Tony said, head tipping to the side. His smile wasn't mean, though, wasn't disdainful or patronizing. He seemed amused. “Any particular thing?”
Steve held up his hand, his elbow straight, pointed away from his body, the way that Tony had that night on the trolley.. “The thing you had on your arm. That-” He frowned. “What was that?”
“Oh! Oh, you mean the-” Tony was laughing, his big brown eyes dancing with amusement. “Repulsor.” Steve stared at him, confused, and that must've been obvious, because Tony shrugged. “It's something I'm working on. My own, uh, my design, but it didn't work right.”
Steve felt a little of the pleasure that had been percolating in his gut die away. “A weapon?”
Tony's smile went tight. “No. A propulsion system. It's- It's not really intended to be used the way I did, but depending on the energy output, it produces a certain repelling force that can knock-” He paused, shoved a hand through his hair. “Well, as you saw, it can knock me on my ass. I clearly have some bugs to work out. And the whole works fried after a single shot, it's really not supposed to do that, the materials weren't up to the stress. But it worked out, because when the police showed up, I had a fistful of wires and some smoking chunks of metal. Kept me out of trouble.”
Steve flinched. "I'm sorry-" he started, and Tony waved him off.
"For what? It was not your problem. What, you've got an over blown sense of responsibility?" One dark eyebrow arched, his head tipping to the side. "Not everything that happens in your general vicinity has anything to do with you, and I certainly didn't expect you to stick around." He shifted his weight, his bag sliding down his shoulder. He caught it with one hand and yanked it back up, his bare fingers pink in the cold. "You okay? They didn't pick you up, did they?"
"The police? No." Steve's hands were fists in his pockets, and he resented it. He took a deep breath and released it, the moist warm air of his breath a cloud around his face. "No, they didn't even-" He ended the sentence with a shrug.
"I didn't figure they would, you weren't really involved." Tony's lips quirked. “It was fine. The police are used to out of town college students doing dumbass things, and, well, the drunk was apparently a repeat offender, the driver knew him well and wasn't a fan. They dragged me downtown, glared at me for about an hour, then sent me back home.”
“Again, not your problem,” Tony said, his eyes rolling. “Please stop.”
“It's just-” Steve started, and Tony started to laugh.
“You are not going to give up on this, are you?” He shook his head. “Okay, you want to make it up to me?”
Steve blinked. He was suddenly aware of his pulse, so very aware of the way his heartbeat was thudding in his ears. “Yes.” He was startled by how very much that was true.
“Then you can buy me an ice cream cone. C'mon.” Tony jerked his oversize backpack up over his shoulder, his back hunching a bit under its weight. He was half a dozen steps away before his words sank into Steve's brain, and then he had to scramble to catch up.
Tony glanced at him, his eyes dancing. “What, don't you like ice cream?”
“It's the middle of winter,” Steve pointed out.
“Yeah, so?” Tony tipped his head up the street. “C'mon. This is New England. One of the perks of living here is that you can get ice cream year round. No one cares how damn cold it is outside, they'll still serve you a cone and if you can't respect that, I'm not sure we can be friends.”
Steve took a step towards him, the concept more of a lure than he'd like to admit. “Really?” he said. “That's your basis for friendship? Ice cream?”
“I've made choices based on worse,” Tony said. He was laughing. “Let's go. Tosci is like half a mile away, you game?”
Steve opened his mouth, about to ask for what, and then realized, it didn't matter. He found he was game for just about anything Tony wanted to suggest. “Yeah.”
Tony grinned at him, and Steve grinned back. “Good,” Tony said, grabbing Steve's sleeve, his fingers latching on and holding tight. He dragged Steve along in his wake, and Steve found himself laughing as he scrambled along with Tony's steps.
For a few blocks, Steve just followed Tony's lead in silence, even as Tony's hand fell away from his arm. "So, you're a freshman?" he asked at last, trying to find some reason to talk.
Tony's steps staggered, just for a second, a half skipped step in his lanky gait, and he gave Steve a stony glance. "I'm getting my masters this year," he said, his brows drawn up tight and unhappy. "And I've already started my PhD work."
Steve's face heated. "Sorry," he said, but Tony was already waving him off.
"Yeah, I look like I'm twelve, I know, I've heard it." One hand came up, rubbing his jaw and chin. "I'm thinking of growing a beard." His teeth flashed. "Might improve my chances at not getting carded every fucking time I hit a bar."
He'd probably look good with a beard. Blushing even harder, Steve ducked his head. "Can't hurt," he said.
"It might," Tony said. He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Pretty sure growing a beard is the first sign that you never intend to leave academia. It's like the first signal that you're an academic hobo. Shuffling from school to school, looking to huddle in a department here or there until the tenure committee rousts you and-" Steve was laughing, and Tony gave him an affronted look. It was undermined by the way his eyes were dancing. "What? It's a reasonable analogy, Burnside."
"There is nothing reasonable about a hobo beard," Steve told him.
"Academic hobo. It's like a hobo, but with class."
"What makes it an academic hobo beard?" Steve shot back.
"I don't know, it's neatly trimmed? A Van Dyke? A Fu Manchu? Muttonchops?" He cupped his cheeks. "I'd look damn fine with muttonchops. You know, as much as a guy who wasn't a president in the 1800's could possibly look good in muttonchops. More people should try them, maybe it would work out. Business up front, conservative on the sides." He wiggled his eyebrows at Steve.
Steve was laughing too hard to answer, not that Tony seemed to notice. His delivery was rapid-fire, and scattershot, each word pinging out with an almost zen kind of randomness, and Steve was just stumbling along in his wake, trying to keep up and not even caring that he had no chance. "Of you could just grow a mustache to start," he said, almost wheezing the words out.
"What's the fun of that?" Tony asked, a distinct pout on his face. The glance he sent Steve was wicked, matching the curve of his lips exactly. "Goatee?"
Like he wasn't enough of a devil already. Steve rubbed a hand on the back of his neck, ducking his head down. "That could work."
"Yeah?" Tony's smile relaxed into something less wicked, less sharp. Almost warm. His cheeks were pink with the cold, and he gave a nod. "I can do that."
"Did you just decide to grow a beard?" Steve asked him. He reached around Tony and pushed the door to the ice cream shop open. "Really?"
"Make a decision and stick with it," Tony told him. "Besides, if I end up looking like a seventies porn star, I can always shave. Pretty quick fix. It's not like I'm getting a full face tattoo or something."
"Please don't," Steve said, before he could remember that he'd just met this boy, this man, man, he had to be in his twenties if he was a grad student. Steve glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes, and that still seemed unbelievable. But Tony had a self-confidence out of place with his young face, so maybe he was. God knows, Steve looked around fifteen until the serum, despite his actual age.
“Fine, I'll start with a goatee.” Tony was grinning as they moved towards the counter. There were more people in here than Steve would've believed, for mid-winter. Despite the cold temperatures outside, there were a good dozen people in line, students and office workers, kids and adults, in a handful of small groups, talking and laughing and peering into the gleaming glass cases.
“What're you going to get?” Tony asked, and Steve glanced up at the menu board.
The march of flavors was confusing and unfamiliar, and sure, there was vanilla and strawberry on there, but he wondered if he'd look boring if he ordered that. “What's good?” he asked Tony, trying to buy himself some time.
“Everything,” Tony said, without a beat of pause. “It's small batch stuff, homemade, so the menu's gonna change from day to day. If you like something, it might or might not be there tomorrow, so order what you want.” He grinned. “Might be your last chance.”
“That seems like a lot of pressure for an ice cream cone,” Steve told him.
“You want the good stuff, you've got to be able to function under pressure.” Tony went onto his toes, peering between the people in front of him towards the glass cases. “Or, just, you know, order what you like. The cookie dough is good. So's the French Vanilla.”
“Orange chocolate,” the girl in front of them said, tilting her head back towards Steve. “It's an orgasm in a dish.”
Steve flushed, and Tony laughed. “Sharp, crisp bite of citrus with the mellow, rich smooth sweep of the dark chocolate,” he agreed. “Or the Ginger Snap Molasses.”
“Is that what you're getting?” Steve asked him.
“Nope.” The girl behind the counter waved him forward, and Tony went.
“What can I get you?” she asked.
“Two scoops, mixed, please. Chocolate Sluggo and Sea Salt Caramel,” Tony said, leaning forward. “On a sugar cone.”
The girl nodded, and glanced at Steve, who glanced up again. “What do you recommend?” he asked.
“Lemon Pistachio,” she said, smiling. “Or the Rum Raisin.”
“Rum Raisin, one scoop,” Steve agreed, a feeling of relief sweeping over him. “Thank you.”
She handed over their cones with a smile, and Tony reached for his pocket. Steve already had his wallet out. “I got it,” he said, repressing a flinch at the price for two ice cream cones. He had the cash, but the state of his bank account was a constant obsession. It contained a sum of money that he previously would not have believed possible as a kid, but this world was expensive.
Tony blinked at him, a strange sort of confusion sweeping over his face. “I can-”
“You said I could buy you a cone,” Steve pointed out, dropping the coins from his change in the tip jar. “Did you change your mind?”
Tony's lips twitched. “Thanks.” His tongue flicked out to lick at the soft, yielding surface of the dark ice cream, and Steve felt his cheeks flush. At this rate, he'd end up looking like a lobster. “If I'd thought you were serious, I would've gotten a large,” he added, his tone teasing.
“Let's see if you can finish that one, and if you can, I'll buy you another one,” Steve told him, making Tony laugh. To his surprise, Tony headed straight for the door, his steps brisk. A beat behind, Steve hustled to catch up with him.
“Walk and eat?” he asked.
“It's nice to eat ice cream in the sunshine without worrying if it's going to melt halfway down your arm,” Tony said, and there was ice cream on his mouth, and he didn't seem to care. He ate like he was starving, and Steve took a cautious lick of his cone. It was rich and sweet, the heavy weight of the cream tempered by the flavor of the rum. He was caught between the need to wolf the cone down as quickly as he could, and the desire to savor each lick.
“So I guess you're not an MIT student,” Tony said. “Pity. It would be nice trying to TL one of your classes.”
“No,” Steve said, licking his lips. “I, uh, I'm at Boston College.”
Tony grinned at him. “Football player?”
“What? No!” Laughing, Steve shook his head at Tony. “Fine arts.”
The look Tony gave him was disbelieving. “Really.”
“Really,” Steve said.
“What's your medium?”
“Pencil or oil paint,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. “What's yours?”
“Giant, monstrous chunks of metal. And flame. I like flame,” Tony said, making Steve laugh. Tony arched an eyebrow at him. “Wow. You were hungry.”
Steve glanced down and realized that yes, his ice cream was gone, only the sticky remains of the cone still in his hand. He shrugged. “It was good,” he said, biting into the cone.
“Should've gotten a larger one,” Tony said. He held out his cone. “Want a taste of mine?”
Steve recoiled, just a bit; it seemed oddly intimate. But Tony's face was open and guileless, his smile warm. He leaned in, and without thinking, he took hold of Tony's wrist, holding his hand steady. The chocolate was rich and bordered on bitter, a bite that hovered beneath the creaminess.
“Good?” Tony asked, and his wrist flexed in Steve's fingers. Steve let him go, jerking his hand back as if he'd touched something painfully hot.
“Really good,” he managed, and Tony's grin looked wicked for some reason.
“Not the first time someone's told me that, but I'm always happy to hear it.”
“I wasn't aware you had anything to do with the ice cream's creation,” Steve told him, going back to his cone. He finished it in a few quick bites.
“I'm holding it. I think I can take some of the credit.”
Steve gave him a look. “You are unbelievable, you know that?”
“Not the first time someone's told me that, either,” Tony said, without a hint of shame. There was a faint, whining chirp from his pocket, and he bit back a curse. “Aw, dammit,” he said, shifting his cone to his other hand, and fumbling at his coat. “I'm late, that's- That's my alarm.” He started in on his cone in earnest. “You heading back to the T?” he asked between bites.
Steve's stomach sank. “Yeah, I mean, I just-” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “I was just trying to catch up with you.”
Tony stilled for a second, and his eyes cut in Steve's direction. “I keep thinking I know you,” he said, his brilliant eyes narrowed. The wind kicked up, pushing his hair over his forehead, and he didn't seem to notice. He tossed the empty cone towards a nearby trashcan. “I feel like I've seen you before. I know your face.”
Steve frowned, that nagging sense of familiarity churning in his gut, in the way that Tony's face had lingered in his mind. “I don't think so,” he said at last, shaking his head. “I would've-” He smiled, his cheeks hot. “I think I would've remembered meeting you.”
Tony grinned at him, his cheeks red from the wind. “In a good way?”
“In a good way,” Steve agreed.
Tony took a breath. “I'm not trying to make you uncomfortable here, or anything, but you're a little hard to read, are you flirting, or are you just-” He stopped, a smile blooming on his face as his eyes flickered over Steve's face. “You are. Aren't you?”
Steve felt like his face was on fire. But he braced his feet, and brought his chin up, as much as he could. “I thought you were-”
“Oh, I sure as fuck was, but I flirt the way that most people breathe, constantly and utterly without thinking,” Tony said, grinning. He stepped forward, one step, then another, until he was in Steve's personal space, until Steve could feel the heat from his body. “Wasn't really sure that you were flirting back.”
Steve swallowed. “I... Was.”
“Good. We're on the same page, then.” Tony's eyes were laughing, warm and sweet and so hot that Steve was almost expecting the way that Tony's hand came up, cupping his chin, sliding around the side of his neck, making Steve shiver. “God, you're warm,” Tony said, his voice low and hot and Steve wanted nothing more than to lean into his touch.
“Warm blooded,” he said, and his voice didn't sound like his any more. Of course, he didn't feel like himself anymore. And that was fine with him.
Tony's lips brushed against Steve's, and it was so light, so gentle, as if Tony thought he might startle, or take a swing, or anything other than fall into the contact. Tony's fingers were warming against the nape of his neck, his body so close and so hot, and Steve's hands were in fists at his sides to keep him from reaching out and grabbing. From clinging, or begging through touch alone.
Tony's mouth tasted like burnt sugar and chocolate, rich and sweet, with just the slightest tang of salt on his lips. Steve's eyes fluttered shut, his breath coming in a sigh, his lips parting and he had expected the touch of Tony's tongue against his lips, but it still made him shudder. The kiss was slow, and sweet, and gentle, and Tony tasted good, he tasted like what Steve had always wanted and never known he could have. He sank into the pressure of Tony's lips and wished he could drown in that feeling.
Tony's nails scraped against the back of his neck, and his mouth pulled away from Steve's. Barely. Still close enough that his breath still slid against Steve's mouth. “Well,” Tony said, the words something that Steve could feel against his skin, “I think that's the answer I was looking for.”
Steve had to struggle to breath, and then to form words. “Was it?”
“Yeah.” Tony's lips brushed against the very corner of Steve's mouth. “It was nice meeting you, Steve Burnside.”
“It was nice meeting you, too, Tony Edwards” Steve said, a shudder in his breath. “Again.”
“Are you busy this Friday?” Tony asked, and Steve's heart lept.
“No. I mean-” He swept a hand through his hair. This was stupid. This was so stupid. He couldn't- They wouldn't- There was no way he could have this, whatever this was.
Except he was standing on a sidewalk, in the middle of a city, in the sunlight, and his lips still tingled from the pressure of Tony's, and no one had given them so much as a second glance.
Because no one cared. The idea was enough to swamp him, to bring him to his knees. He knew it wasn't always like this, that there wouldn't always be this kind of peace, of, if not acceptance, than simple apathy. As if the people passing by considered it none of their business what Steve was doing, none of their business that Tony's fingers were still trailing against the nape of Steve's neck, his eyebrows raised and his smile arch.
And it didn't matter how long he had this, it didn't matter what the consequences were. Steve wanted what he could get, for as long as he could get it. “I'm not busy.”
Tony's grin was amazing to see, for the split second Steve could see it before Tony darted in for another kiss, and another, light and without pressure. “Good,” he said, even as he pulled away. “Meet me at Scully Square, old man, six pm, okay?” Sticking his tongue out, he backed away.
Steve blinked after him. “Wait, where?” he asked, scrambling to catch up.
“At the T entrance,” Tony said, still talking, still laughing. He darted back, grabbed Steve's hand, and folded Steve's fingers around a thin slip of a card. “Call me if you get lost.”
And just like that, he was gone, his feet flying, his coat and bag bouncing in his wake, pushing his way through the people coming up the road. Steve stood there, feeling the winter sun on his face, and grinned at nothing and no one in particular, his fingers locked in a deathgrip around a simple business card.
“You're spelling it wrong.”
Steve jumped, banging his knee on the bottom of the desk. Biting back a curse, he spun his chair around. “Hi,” he said, feeling a blush crawl up his neck and not able to do anything about it. “Ah, what?”
Carol Danvers grinned at him, her blue eyes crinkling. “You're spelling it wrong,”she repeated, tucking her hands in the pockets of her battered leather bomber jacket. It dwarfed her curvy frame, and she clearly had not been its first owner. But somehow, the worn artifact suited her, it suited her sharp edges and her cocky attitude, and the very proud set of her shoulders.
Steve liked Carol, liked her smile and her laugh and the flirtatious, cocksure way she interacted with everyone around her. And he liked, most of all, that she had no time for stupidity or politics or the men who treated her like she should be grateful that they were talking to her. He liked the way she jumped feet first into anything she wanted to do, fierce and proud and very smart.
Sometimes, he wondered if Peggy would've liked Carol, too. If she would've delighted in this new military woman, who stood in Peggy's footprints, but refused to stay there. He was pretty sure she would've loved Carol, and Steve kind of did, too. He had since she'd planted herself directly in his path at an ROTC gathering, and, with a wicked grin, told him a string of New York Yankees jokes that had left him open mouthed and gaping. He didn't have many people he considered friends at BC, but he had Carol, who asked nothing from him, and was always unflinchingly cheerful.
Carol propped a hip on the edge of the desk, her jeans skimming the curves of her legs. “You're spelling it wrong,” she repeated.
Startled out of his thoughts, Steve frowned at the screen. “Scully Square,” he said. “It's not spelled-”
“S-C-O-L-L-A-Y,” she spelled out for him. “Scollay Square.” She grinned at Steve. “What, you have a history project or something?”
Shaking his head, Steve leaned back, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “Oh,” he said, feeling stupid. Stupid and frustrated. “No. I was, um, I'm supposed to meet someone there, and I couldn't find it on the maps, because I was spelling it wrong.”
“You can't find it on the maps because it doesn't exist any more.” Carol rolled away from the desk. “Most of the square was bulldozed in, like, the sixties, I think. It's long gone. Some of the old timers still refer to it that way, but it's a historical thing now.” She tossed herself into the seat next to Steve, her legs stretched out in front of her, her backpack sliding down to hit the ground with a solid thump. “You meeting an octogenarian?”
“No,” Steve said, and his face felt hot, he knew he had to look like an idiot. Ducking his head over the keyboard, he picked out the new spelling.
“Oh,” Carol said. And then again, with dawning understanding. “Oh! Oh, you found yourself a date, didn't you? Burnside, you dog!” She punched him in the shoulder, her eyes dancing, her grin wide and bright. “And she's making you work for it, good for her. Things come too easily for you, you bastard Maybe you should work for it.”
Steve's hands twitched, his fingers forming fists on the edge of the desk. He kept his head down, kept his eyes averted from her face. He knew what it would show, that strange mix of humiliation, hope, anger and resignation that was churning his gut. Things come too easily to him? That was a joke. A nasty one. He struggled for everything, he struggled with everything.
Every day, every action, every word from his mouth was a struggle. Every breath was a struggle. Every heart beat was a struggle. Nothing came easily to him. Nothing had been easy, not since his childhood, and since he'd woken up, in the empty white space of the Army's laboratory, things had only gotten harder.
Until just spelling a casually spoken word was enough to break him.
“Hey.” Carol shifted, her body angling towards him, one hand reaching out, coming to rest on his arm. Steve jerked, his whole body flinching at the touch, and Carol's fingers latched on. “Hey,” she said, leaning forward. Her face swam into his vision, pale and perfect, her blonde brows like wings over her eyes. “Hey, hey, Brooklyn,” she said, her voice gentle, her hand rubbing up and down his arm. “Wow, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, that was a bad joke, that's all.”
Steve scrubbed a quick hand over his eyes, trying to ignore how his vision swam with every blink. “Sorry,” he muttered. “I just-” He swallowed. “Sorry,” he finished, the world lame and inadequate. Just like him.
Carol's hands cupped his cheeks, urging his head up. She grinned at him, warmer now, kinder. “Shut up, you're freaking me out,” she ordered. “Let's start over. You're meeting someone in Scollay Square?” She let him go, her fingers sliding across his skin, and he savored the contact, even as her hands slipped away. “Is she pretty? Is she smart? Is she-” Steve felt his face heat, and he ducked his head again, his eyes darting away from hers. Carol paused. “Is she,” she said, her voice blunt as always, “not a she?”
Steve's eyes jerked up, and shot back down again, staring at his hands. “I-” His shoulders hunched.
“Is he pretty?” Carol asked, without missing a beat, and Steve's head came up. Her eyes were dancing. “Not pretty? C'mon, Brooklyn, he better be hot. I will be really pissed if he isn't.” Steve shrugged, his face on fire, his tongue a knot in his mouth, and Carol sighed. “You like him?”
Steve's eyes slid up. He nodded. “Yeah,” he said, the single word shy.
Carol braced an elbow on the edge of the desk. “Okay,” she said. “Does he like you?”
Without thinking about it, Steve reached up, trailing his fingers over his lips. He could still feel the pressure of Tony's mouth on his, could almost taste it. He gave Carol a crooked smile. “I think so?”
“If he doesn't, he's an idiot.” Carol leaned in. “He a BC student? A local?” Her eyebrows wiggled. “A professor?”
“Carol!” Steve stuttered out, and she laughed, full and bright.
“Oh, my God, you are such a straight arrow, it's not even funny.” Carol waved a hand in mid-air. “Fine, you're not banging our Econ professor. I mean, I would, damn, that man looks fine in a vest, but-”
“Carol,” Steve repeated, but he couldn't quite keep a smile off of his face.
“Oh, fine. So, he's a student? A local party boy from Northeastern? A Southie punk? A hippie activist from out in Entitlement Valley, c'mon, you've gotta give me a hint, I'm dying here.”
Steve found he was chuckling under his breath, just a little, but even a bit of laughter felt like a miracle. Carol, her expression warm and her eyes kind, was a miracle. Talking about this, saying these words, and not being met with horror or disdain or disgust, that was a miracle. Enough of a miracle for him to try.
“He's a student, a graduate student,” Steve managed.
“Cool, so he's closer to your age.” Carol stood, flipped the chair around with one hand and sat down again, bracing her folded arms on the back and leaning her chin on them. “Good, that's good. I mean, I like 'em young so I can break 'em in properly-”
She was laughing at him. “Oh, don't give me that face, Brooklyn, you know I'm just messing with you.” Her smile took on a distinctly wicked cast. “But you could do worse.” Her heel bumped against the floor, a quick tattoo of sound. “He's a grad student? Where? Here? BU?” She frowned. “Tell me it's not Harvard, do not get mixed up with a Harvard boy, they've got their heads so far up their GPAs that you'll never be anything more than occasional stress relief, it's not worth the trouble, it's-”
Steve cut her off. “At MIT.”
Carol groaned. “Really? REALLY, Burnside?” Her face crumbled into an expression of agony. “No, baby, no, you can do better. Don't do this to yourself.”
Steve couldn't keep his face straight. “He's really-”
“Of course you like the geeks, I can see that, really, I can, but Christ, MIT?” She rolled her eyes, melodramatic and over blown. “Tell me he's hot, at least.”
Steve smiled, just a little, his face heating again. “He's... Yeah,” he managed. He looked at her, hopeful. “I really like him, Carol.”
She reached out and punched his shoulder. “You are an embarrassment, Brooklyn.” Settling back into her seat, she grinned. “Okay, then. Scollay Square? He told you to meet him there? He'll be at Government Center. That's what the city built on top of the old Scollay Square.” She leaned in, eyes dancing again. “But keep in mind? Before the city went and wiped it off the face of the map? Scollay Square had a reputation for being a little bit of a...” She hummed under her breath. “A redlight district. If he used that term? I think he has designs on your virtue.”
Steve blinked at her for a second, until the words sank in. He felt his face flame, but the gut-punch of lust made up for that embarrassment. “Okay,” he said, stupid about it.
Carol laughed. “Okay? That's the best you can do? A passive 'okay?'” She stood. “C'mon. It's lunchtime. We can get a burger and you can tell me all about him.”
“You don't mind?” Steve asked, shutting down the computer browser and reaching for his books. “I mean, it's- A little odd. When you think about it.”
“Hell, no. And if you buy me a frappe and I'll even promise not to gossip about you and your sad, sad little love life later,” she said, sliding her backpack onto her shoulder. Steve resisted the urge to offer to carry it for her, because she'd punch him in the solar plexus for that. He knew that from experience. “Strawberry. Chocolate is also acceptable.”
He smiled at her, a strain that he didn't even know he'd been carrying disappating. “Deal.” He paused. “Carol? Can you help me pick out something to wear?”
“I thought you would never ask. Your taste in clothes sucks.”
The juggler paused at the top of the precariously balanced ladder, rolling his wrists in loose circles. The broad blades in his hands caught the light, gleaming as the tourists milled below him. “Okay, now-” The wind kicked up, and the ladder swayed. The crowd muttered amongst itself, but no one moved. “Yeah, so as I was saying-” Another gust of wind, and the juggler threw his body weight forward, then back, catching his balance again, his arms spread wide.
“You know what?” he asked at last. “Let's just cut to the chase. I'm going skip the embarrassing part where I stab myself in the face, tip off this ladder, and smash my head on the pavement. I'm just going to jump, so all of you can get on with your shopping.”
“Don't do it!” Steve called. Next to him, Tony bit his lip to keep from laughing out loud. Steve was staring up at the juggler, his face rapt, his grin wide. He looked positively boyish, that sweep of blonde hair tumbling over his forehead and his cheeks flushed in the cold evening air.
“One decent individual in this audience,” the juggler said. “One moral, upstanding man. The rest of you are horrible, horrible people.”
Laughing, Tony leaned into the shelter of Steve's side. “You just can't help yourself, can you?” he asked, one eyebrow arched.
Steve glanced down at him, his cheeks flushed pink with embarrassment or cold, it was impossible to tell. But his grin was sweet and infectious, a brilliant glint in his eyes. Tony told himself that he was not turned on by that. He was used to lying to himself by this point.
Tony could kind of excuse himself in this particular instance; Steve was gorgeous. He was dressed simply tonight, in well tailored slacks and a rather battered bomber jacket, but his shoes were freshly polished and Tony had caught him studying his reflection in windows as they passed,. For most men that looked like him, it would've been an annoying sort of narcissism, but somehow that didn't fit. Steve's glances were quick, his expression hinting at something that seemed closer to self-doubt than self-obsession.
Tony told himself he didn't find that charming. He was pretty sure that was a lie, however.
“C'mon,” Tony said, weaving his arm through Steve's. “It's not a bad walk. We can catch a cab, if you want, but we have plenty of time. Want to-”
Steve's arm slid free of his, and before Tony could register that minor rejection, Steve was catching Tony's hand, his fingers tangling with Tony's. “I'm fine with walking.” He gave Tony's hand a squeeze, his grip firm, his gaze hopeful.
Grinning, Tony tugged him along. “This way, then!”
Steve kept up with him without any apparent difficulty, his long legs making the pace easier for him than it was for Tony. They cut through the evening crowds, and across the streets, weaving through traffic and heading for the harbor. As they reached the wharfs, he caught Steve looking in the direction of the Aquarium building, an unusual tumble of angles perched on the edge of the water. Laughing, Tony nudged him across the street. “You are a horrible tourist,” he said. “Didn't you do all this stuff already?”
Steve's eyes came back to his. “No,” he said, his lips twitching. “I missed a lot of the tourist stuff. Except for the art museums.” His face was lit, his eyes dancing. “Those, I've seen.”
“All of them?” Tony asked, pretending to be scandalized.
“All of them,” Steve said.
“Do you have a fav-”
“The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,” Steve said, before Tony could even get the word out.
“Well, I guess you do. I've never been,” he said, and Steve came to a stop. Tony staggered a couple of steps forward, then turned to find Steve staring at him. “What?”
“You've never been?”
“I've never been,” Tony confirmed. He tucked his gloved hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet.
“But it's right on- It's right by you!” Steve came forward a few steps, stopping just in front of Tony. “How can you be at MIT and not go to the Isabella Stewart Gardner?”
“Because I'm at MIT?” Tony said, as if that explained it all, and apparently it did, because Steve laughed. “Why is that one your favorite? There's bigger, better museums, even here in Boston.”
It was an off-hand question, but Steve paused, his face creasing as he thought about it. They walked in silence, Steve's head down, and Tony considered him even as he considered the question. Tony didn't mind, watching Steve was quickly becoming one of his favorite past times.
“I think,” Steve said, each word weighed carefully, “it's because it still feels like someone's collection. It feels like these were paintings that someone collected because they loved them, not just because they were valuable, or noteworthy. Maybe it's the building, or the empty frames, still hanging there, but it feels less like a curated display, and more like something that filled a home, once.”
He looked at Tony. “I just like being there.”
“What's your favorite piece?”
“Childe Hassam's A New York Blizzard,” Steve said, and he didn't wait for Tony to ask him why. “It's got an amazing depth of field and a fluidity to the forms, I love the sensation of movement and the-” He caught sight of the look on Tony's face and stopped short. “Sorry.”
“What? I didn't say a word. I didn't understand a word of it, either, but I was rolling right along with you there, I promise. It's just that me and art aren't exactly best friends. I grew up around it, but my appreciation is more, well, more towards that.”
Steve followed the gesture of his hand towards the statue of the boxer on the side of the street. He paused. “Statuary?”
“Metal,” Tony said. He arched an eyebrow. “But I like a fighter. And a good looking pair of arms doesn't hurt, I'll be honest.”
Laughing, Steve moved towards the statue. “He looks like a fighter. He's got good form.”
“Do you box?” Tony asked.
“I mostly just work a bag from time to time. It helps with the frustration.” Steve glanced at him. “You?”
“It's not really my form. Too limiting.” Tony stared up at the statue, a cynical twist to his lips. He had some things in common with North End's Tony DeMarco. Like starting off public life by stealing someone else's name, and pretending to an age that he hadn't yet reached. DeMarco had fought for the first time at age sixteen, two years too young to be stepping into the ring, but had provided the birth certificate for a boy who was old enough.
The name had stuck. And was the name inscribed on the statue and the street that were part of his legacy. Tony told himself that there, the similarities would end. He also hoped to make a legacy that involved less public staggering, beatings and bleeding, but that went without saying.
“Welcome to the North End,” Tony said, catching hold of Steve's leather clad elbow and nudging him up the street. “Come on. We have reservations.”
The narrow streets of Boston's Italian district were uneven and cramped, cars and taxis proceeding at a snail's pace as people hustled between buildings and through traffic without a care for crosswalks or the rules of the road. Despite the cold, it was a Friday night, and some of the best food in town was found in these tightly packed buildings. It was a recipe for a crowd.
Tony pushed his way through the streets, dragging Steve in his wake. In a matter of minutes, they were ducking through the door of the small Trattoria. The front lobby was packed, but it was warm and well-lit, the air scented with tomatoes and garlic. Tony cut through the crowd, heading straight for the hostess stand, and she smiled when she saw him coming.
Minutes later, they were being seated at a small, isolated table in a dim corner of the restaurant. “Will this do, Mr. Edwards?” she said, giving Tony a flirtatious smile.
Tony grinned back. “It will, indeed, thank you.” He shook her hand, handing over a folded bill with an easy pass of his hand.
“Your waitress will be right over,” she said, giving Steve a curious look before disappearing through the densely packed tables.
Tony set the menu aside, watching as Steve looked around, his eyes a little too wide. “For a guy from New York,” Tony said, his lips twitching up, “you're awfully wide-eyed.”
“New York doesn't mean wealthy,” Steve said, smiling. But he shifted in his seat, visibly uncomfortable. They'd left their coats at the coat check, and without his bomber jacket, he was dressed in a simple, well tailored dress shirt in a pale, clear blue, just a shade or two lighter than his eyes, and a dark blue tie with tiny red stripes. He was handsome in a way that seemed unreal, but his gaze was direct, his eyes shy when he smiled at Tony. “This is a nice place.”
Tony couldn't hold back a grin. “That's kinda the point. To impress you.” He picked up his menu, just to occupy his hands, just to keep them out of trouble. “The food's great.”
Steve blinked and he fumbled for the menu. “Ah, what's good?”
“Everything,” Tony said. After a quick glance, he shut the menu and put it aside.
“That's not, that's not particularly helpful,” Steve said, but there was laughter in his voice.
“Well, it does kind of depend on what you like,” Tony said. “Cream sauce, or wine sauce or tomato sauce? You vegetarian? Any allergies?”
“I'll eat anything,” Steve said. “No allergies.”
Tony paused in the act of sipping from his water goblet. “Anything?” he asked. “ There's nothing you don't like?”
Steve's broad shoulders rose and fell in a quick shrug. “Not really,” he said, his voice almost apologetic. “I'll eat what's put in front of me.”
“Well, that's a leading statement,” Tony said, and a flush spread up Steve's neck. Laughing, Tony folded his arms on the edge of the table, leaning forward. For a minute or two, he just reveled in Steve's obvious embarrassment, and then he took pity on the man. “Do you like shrimp?” Steve's mouth opened, and Tony held up a hand. “Yeah, I get it, you'll eat anything. Not what I asked. Do you like shrimp?”
Steve thought about it. “Yes,” he said at last.
Tony grinned. “Go for the Capellini con Gamberi,” he said. “It's good.”
Steve nodded. “Okay.” He closed his menu, and set it aside. Tony arched an eyebrow.
“Wine?” he asked. “Salad? Appetizer?”
He seemed stymied by the question. “Yes?” he said at last, and Tony laughed.
A pretty dark haired girl paused next to the table, her white shirt and black skirt crisp beneath her white waist apron. She greeted them with a voice that carried a musical lilt of an accent, and Tony grinned at her.
“We'll have the antipasto rustico,” he said in Italian, the language flowing easily. “An order of the Bruschetta all Italiana, and the Capellini con Gamberi and the Braciolettini di Vitello for the entrees, unless you'd like to recommend something different.”
She nodded. “Both are excellent,” she said, also in Italian, her smile bright. “And to drink?” Her eyes slid in Steve's direction, curiosity alive in her features.
“Thank you, but I'm fine with the water,” Steve said, in crisp, well-accented Italian, and for a second, Tony was thrown.
“Do you like wine?” Tony asked him, and Steve nodded.
“But we don't have to-”
Tony ignored him, picking an excellent red from the wine list, not the most expensive bottle they had to offer, but not a house wine, either. He didn't care, if he was going to drink, he was going to drink the good stuff, and it was better that he made that clear now.
The waitress' smile died. “I'll need to see your ID,” she said, and Tony handed it over. She frowned down at it, and then at Tony, who gritted his teeth against saying something rude.
“Is Francisco on tonight?” he asked her. She glanced up, nodded. “Just bring it to him and tell him I'm here. He was so suspicious of it he called a friend at the RMV.”
“Did he really?” Steve asked, and Tony gave him a sideways look.
“It was not funny,” he said, but he was smiling when he said it, because, yeah, it was funny.
“Thank you, I'll be right back,” the waitress said, and she headed off, Tony's id clasped tightly in one hand. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, but Tony had never been a patient man, and it seemed to take her forever to return, bearing his ID and very abject apologies.
Tony waved them off, and as he went to return his ID to his wallet, he caught Steve's eyes sliding towards it. With a faint laugh, he handed it over. Steve took it, not pretending that he wasn't curious. There was a sweet sort of honesty to him, and Tony tried to feel bad about the fake ID that Steve was now turning over in his hands. “Do I pass?” he asked.
Steve handed it back. “You pass,” he said. “Sorry, it's just-”
“Baby face, I know it, shut up.” Tony put the license back in his wallet, then folded his arms on the edge of the table. He leaned forward, studying Steve's face in the warm glow of the candle. “You don't exactly look your age, either, you know.”
Steve shook his head with an odd, strained sounding chuckle, but before Tony could ask what was so funny, he changed the subject. “Your Italian's good.”
“So's yours.” Tony made a face. “I was trying to impress you, so I resent the fact that you can speak the language, too, I just want you to know that.”
“Sorry?” Steve said, his eyes dancing. “I didn't realize I wasn't allowed to speak other languages.”
“Well, you're not. You're the pretty one on this date, that means I get to be the smart one,” Tony told him, just to watch Steve blush again. That was quickly becoming his favorite game, to see if he could make the flush extend to Steve's ears and neck. It wasn't hard. But the way Steve's head dipped, the way his eyes slid away, even as his lips curled up, it was far hotter than it should've been.
“I'll keep that in mind.” Steve's eyes flicked up, and his lashes were ludicrously long, golden-brown and thick. “Any other stipulations of what I'm not supposed to do?” he asked, his lips twitching.
“It's a first date, I'm sure I'll think of something,” Tony said, grinning. The waitress was back, the bottle of wine in a chilled bucket, and she presented it to Tony with a sunny smile. He nodded, already less interested in the booze, no matter what the vintage. But he went through the motions, trying his best to act sophisticated. Steve watched him, his eyes curious, a faint smile hovering around his lips.
Steve took the glass of wine that was placed in front of him with a shy smile, his big hand careful on the slim stem. “Thank you,” he said. The waitress inclined her head and retreated, leaving the bottle between them on the table along with a basket of steaming bread, fragrant with garlic and herbs.
“What other languages do you speak?” Steve asked, and Tony looked up, gauging the intent of the question. But Steve looked honestly curious, his blue eyes guileless and his head tipped to the side.
“A little here and there,” Tony admitted, taking a long sip from his glass before he continued. “Spanish, Italian, French. Some Japanese and Russian, and a little German.” He shrugged. “Tech talk, mostly. But I can get by when I need to.”
Steve nodded. “That was more than a little Italian.”
Tony smiled down at his plate. “My mother was Italian, that's where I got this from,” he said, flicking at the dark curl that had slipped over his forehead. “She was younger than my father, a lot younger, and she was a very cultured lady. She wanted to raise me bilingual, thought it was important, and I picked up on language very quickly, so it wasn't hard.”
“She died years ago,” Tony said. He focused his attention on his drink, swirling the wine around, letting it breathe and letting the light play over the jewel-bright surface. He stared down at it, trying to find patterns in the way the legs ran down the side of the bowl of the glass. “Car crash. My father was driving. He made it, she didn't.”
“I'm sorry,” Steve said, and it sounded like he meant it.
Tony glanced up. “It was a long time ago,” he said, with a faint smile. “Your parents-”
Steve was already shaking his head. “My father died before I was born,” he said, his smile soft, his eyes sad. “And my mother died when I was a teenager.”
“Sorry,” Tony said. And he meant it.
Tony shook his head. “My father and I don't get along,” he said. “He didn't deal with my mother's death well, and neither did I. And that is not a subject for a first date.” He leaned forward, folding his arms on the table, canting his body forward into the candlelight. “So where's your family? Still in New York?”
“I don't have anyone left,” Steve said, his smile faint.
Tony looked down. “Sorry,” he repeated, feeling inadequate and awkward.
“Thanks.” Tony looked up to find Steve smiling at him. “It's fine. It is. I'm...” Steve's words paused, and his face was shuttered for a second, his expression unreadable, but when he looked back at Tony, his smile was gentle. “I'm fine,” he said.
The slight rattle of plates announced their incoming food, and Tony jerked backwards, getting out of the way of his salad plate as the waitress slid it in front of him. She set the antipasto out, and the entire time Tony just watched Steve, watched the play of candlelight along the plane of his cheek, watched the soft smile that stirred his lips as he thanked the waitress, watched as he leaned forward, considering the platter.
Tony might be in a bit too deep already.
Steve looked up, catching his eye, and Tony shook off the maudlin thought. He reached for the serving spoons. “Want me to serve?” he asked, and Steve handed over his plate. “Tell me about your classes,” Tony said, because that seemed safe, that seemed to be what they needed to get their attention off of dead parents and moments of sadness and isolation. Judging by the way Steve's face relaxed, it was a pretty decent opening gambit.
Hours later, they were surrounded by empty plates and glasses, silverware and the remnants of their meals, and Tony was dizzy with alcohol and good food and better company. Steve was smiling, his face flushed, his hair tumbled lightly over his forehead, and he seemed just as reluctant to call the meal over. But when the waitress finally came for the check, Tony gave her a credit card and a smile.
“I can-” Steve started, and Tony cut him off.
“I asked you out,” he said, tossing his linen napkin onto the table. “You can get the next one.”
It was a chance, he knew it was, even as he said it, but Steve's face split in a wide smile, and Tony felt an answering stirring of heat, low in his stomach. He ignored it as he finished the last of his wine, draining the last few drops from their latest bottle. When the waitress returned with the slips, he added a massive tip, and stood. “Walk me back to the T?”
Steve got up immediately. “Sure.”
By the time they collected their coats and returned to the street, the crowds had thinned quite a bit, the night now solidly in place and the temperature dropping by the minute. Tony paused, just a few steps away from the restaurant, on the corner, to pull on his gloves. “So,” he said, focusing on his hands. “You going to give me your number, or do I have to wait for you to call me?” he asked, only half joking.
Steve blinked. “Oh, I didn't-” He fumbled at his pockets. “I don't think I have anything to write on-”
Tony pulled out his notebook and a pen. “Engineer,” he said. “Sometimes I've got to scribble.” He held them out, and Steve took it with a smile.
“Sounds reasonable,” he agreed, and he scribbled down his number, and then, almost as an afterthought, his name. He handed them back, but his hand stilled in mid-air. “Look,” he said, his voice quiet. “If you can... Le me call you, I'd appreciate it.”
Tony took the notebook, tucked it away. He considered Steve, not missing anything. “Usually I'd think that means you're cheating on someone, but, that doesn't fit here.” Steve's lips went tight, and Tony took a breath. “Someone doesn't know you're gay. But if you have no family, who are you-”
“The person paying for my education,” Steve said. His hands were jammed in his pockets, his shoulders tight beneath his clothes. “It's... Complicated.”
“It usually is,” Tony agreed. He shrugged. “Look, it's not my place to tell anyone how or when to come out, that's something you've got to choose for yourself. But living a lie?” His lips kicked up. “It fucking sucks, and I think you know that.”
Steve's face was oddly flushed in the cold night air. “Yeah. I do.”
“Okay.” Tony glanced at the sky. “Get a burner phone,” he said. “Makes things easier.” One look made it clear that Steve wasn't following. “A pre-paid phone, cheap model, you buy minutes on, you know, gift card like things. You can get them at drug stores and the like. Pay cash. It's untraceable.”
Tony spread his hands. “Then you have your 'proper' phone for your proper calls. And your basic model for your booty calls.”
Steve took a breath. “Okay,” he said. A broad grin split his face. “Thanks.”
It was insanity, this was trouble he did not need, but all of a sudden, Tony didn't want to wait any more.
Tony leaned in, slowly, giving Steve plenty of time to pull away, to take a step back, to avoid the contact of Tony's lips. Instead, Steve leaned in, meeting him halfway, his mouth soft and warm. The kiss was fleeting, almost chaste, and when Steve pulled back, Tony almost whimpered. He leaned forward, wanting more, wanting to crawl up Steve's chest like a monkey, and before he could, Steve wrapped his arms around Tony.
Tony froze, completely thrown, his usually clever brain coming to a grinding halt. There was no sexual intent in the contact, no need or demand, just the firm warmth of Steve's body, the beautiful pressure of his arms. Steve tucked his head down, his cheek against the side of Tony's head, his breath warm against the side of Tony's neck, against his ear.
Almost against his will, Tony relaxed into the contact, his arms looping around Steve's waist. His eyes slipped closed, and Tony leaned into the hug. After a moment, Steve's lips brushed gently against his temple, and it was so nice that Tony wasn't sure he could bear it.
After a moment, Steve's arms relaxed, and he stepped back, his hands sliding down the length of Tony's arms, keeping up the contact until he had to step back, had to step away.
“Who are you, Steve Burnside?” he asked, his head tipped to the side, his heart thudding beneath his breastbone. He was having trouble drawing breath, caught between arousal and a purer sort of yearning, one he wasn't really comfortable with. Horny, that was fine, he could deal with horny, he could deal with a quick fuck. But somehow, he didn't think that was what this was. He could do sex. Sex, he understood.
He wasn't sure he knew what to do with nice.
Steve looked at him, his blue eyes brilliant in the lamplight. His shoulders rose and fell in a quick flick of his muscular frame. “I'm just a kid from Brooklyn,” he said.
“Somehow, I doubt that.” Tony darted back in, stealing another kiss, a harder one, his tongue brushing against the seam of Steve's lips until Steve's mouth opened for him. It was hot and sharp and he wanted more, he wanted so much more. Steve's hands tightened on his arms, and he pushed Tony back, breaking the kiss. Tony huffed out a shuddering sigh, and Steve chuckled.
“You,” he said, his face flushed and his pupils blown wide, “are a menace, Mr. Edwards.”
Tony laughed. “When?” he asked, leaning in.
“When can I see you again?”
The smile that bloomed on Steve's face was brilliant, sweet and beautiful and it made Tony's chest ache. “I'm free this weekend,” Steve said, the words hopeful.
“I can do that.” Tony snagged him by the front of his jacket and dragged him down. One more kiss. One more hot, hard kiss and then he backed off. Not willingly. But he backed off. “Sunday?”
“Sunday,” Steve agreed. His smile was bright enough to be painful.
This was probably the worst choice Tony had made in a while. He had trouble caring. He grabbed Steve's hand. “C'mon. I know just where to get dessert.”
“So I'm pretty sure there are worse assignments. Don't know what they could be, though.”
Clint Barton was used to being high and still and quiet, and for the most part, he was fine with that particular skill set. On occasion, though, he found himself talking to whoever would listen. In the case of the Boston landscape to which he'd found himself assigned, that pretty much meant pigeons. Which would be humiliating if he allowed himself to think about it, so he simply decided not to.
He was good at self-delusion. Very, very good at it.
“Seriously, this city is damn fucking cold. It's not Chicago, I'll give it that, but Chicago has it's own problems and one of them is that I'm really not ever going back there. Not without a warrant,” Clint explained, shifting his weight.
The bird tipped its head at him, beady little eye catching the light of the streetlamps. Clint gave it a look. “Yeah, well, you can do what you want. Ain't no skin off my ass.”
It wasn't just that this assignment was cold. It was boring. It was boring enough that he was talking to the damn pigeons, because, well, why the hell not.
He wasn't sure what he had been expecting when he'd been handed his orders. The idea was so stupid as to defy logic. The idea that a WWII era soldier, a man both benefiting from and victimized by an experimental treatment, could've survived all these years, frozen in a North Atlantic ice floe, was beyond his ability to really comprehend. He didn't question it, he'd learned a long time ago not to question anything the military put in front of him.
But he still had the occasional moment of clarity that allowed him to see just how ludicrous his life really had become. Most of those moments came when he was freezing his ass off on a Boston roof, scanning the street for a man well out of time, and hoping that Steve brought him a coffee. More often than not, Steve had.
“I think he's just lonely,” Clint said to the pigeon, who rocked back and forth on the edge of the stone railing, its feathers fluffed against the night air. “He's got sad eyes. Which, I suppose, that makes sense, doesn't it? Guy's seen some bad shit, and that was before he ended up taking a nap in the deep freeze for a couple of decades. That'd mess up anybody.”
Clint's hands flexed on the grip of his bow, keeping his fingers limber against the cold. Other than the flicker of his fingers, he was still, his chest barely flexing under the pressure of his breathing. He watched the street with hooded eyes that seldom blinked.
There was a rhythm to life on this street, a rhythm that Clint had learned quickly enough. He watched people come and go. Watched the young professionals head out first thing in the morning, and stumble home late into the evenings. Watched the students scramble out the door, dragging bags and jackets behind them as they ran for the T at all hours of the day. Watched the handful of couples come and go, often together, sometimes very much apart.
He watched middle-aged professor carry home paper bags that rattled with booze bottles every night. Watched the elderly man down the street walk slowly up the sidewalk, leaning heavily on his cane, a small cat prowling along at his side. Watched the twin girls with the rosy cheeks and sweetly rounded faces argue on the stoop every Wednesday afternoon, regular as clockwork. Watched the pizza deliveries and the Chinese food deliveries and the package handlers in brown pants and blue uniforms.
Mostly, Clint watched Steve. Watched him walk home, watched him eat quietly, a book balanced on his knee. Watched him watch the occasional game on tv, football or basketball or an old baseball game on ESPN Classic. Watched him mop his floor and fold his laundry and scrub his dishes by hand, even though he had a perfectly functional dishwasher. Clint watched him run up and down the block, and carry his gym bag over one shoulder and his backpack on the other. Watched him read and study and bend over a simple notebook late at night, and a sketchbook early in the morning.
He watched Steve, and that might be the problem.
“I knew a guy, growing up, that lived on a farm,” Clint said, watching the pretty lady with the red and yellow coat and the long sweep of black hair sashay up the sidewalk, a big golden retriever walking politely at the end of her leash, “and he said that if you wanted to keep eating well, you didn't name the animals that were gonna end up on your plate.”
The pigeon flapped its wings, and Clint sighed. “Getting emotionally attached to your meal ticket isn't a particularly bright idea, bird.” He exhaled. “Of course, I've never been particularly bright.”
The woman paused on the corner, one black gloved hand holding her phone to her cheek. She was laughing, high and bright, audible even at this distance. The dog sniffed at the light pole, and along the edge of the curb, apparently more than happy to wait. She was a distraction, Clint knew that, she was too bright, too obvious, and she lingered too obviously just below the building.
He watched her out of the corner of his eye, watching the whole of the street, watching for any movement, any sign of who she was covering for, or why. There was never any other movement as the woman paused there, seldom at the same time, always with the big yellow dog and her tall black boots.
Now, she turned away from the building, tugging lightly at the leash, and she and the dog continued up the street, her black scarf and the dog's wagging tail sweeping behind them. Clint watched them go, because it was a lovely sight, and he wasn't ashamed to admit it.
Halfway up the street, she stepped to the side, letting Steve come barreling past her. Her head swung around as he passed, her eyes tracing up Steve's impressive figure, her dark red lips curling up in an appreciative smile. Clint struggled against his own smile. If she was trolling for Steve's attention by waking her dog past the building every night, it looks like she was doomed to disappointment. Steve bolted past her as if she wasn't even there, or as if he didn't see her.
Steve was running fast up the street, his head bare and his hair gleaming in the low light. There was a white plastic bag in his hand, swinging along with the rhythm of his steps. As he got close, he looked up, towards the roof, but he didn't even pause, his long legs eating up the distance to the front door. In a matter of moments, he was out of sight.
His eyebrows arching, Clint waited, wondering if Steve was going to make the whole trip up to his apartment on foot. He took the stairs more often than not, but judging by the way he was moving, he'd run the entire way from the T stop, and there was-
The window below him opened with a bang. “Clint?”
For an instant, Clint just froze, his brain shorting out.
“Clint?” Steve's voice was a loud whisper, clearly carrying through the cold, still night air. “I know you're up there.”
Clint took a breath, expanding with it, then let it out. “Are you kidding me right now?” he asked, and the pigeon took off with a flicker of its wings. Apparently, it had a self-preservation instinct, because Clint was tempted to shoot something, anything, and the Army would probably notice an arrow sticking out of Steve's ass. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Clint rolled to his feet, leaning over the low stone wall. “Are you kidding me?” he gritted out, glaring down at Steve's face.
Steve's head disappeared back into the room, and then his arm appeared, holding the plastic bag. “I brought you a cannoli. From Mike's Pastry.”
Clint considered the bag. He considered his life. And headed for the fire escape.
“You are out of your fucking mind,” Clint said, sliding into the open window. “You know that, don't-”
“What is your actual assignment here?” Steve said, shutting the window behind him.
Clint rocked back on his heels. “You know better-”
“You don't follow me. You don't dig through my stuff. You don't attempt to get me to tell you anything,” Steve said, shaking his head. He wasn't breathing hard, but his cheeks were flushed pink and his hair was tumbled over his forehead. “You just watch. You check in on me. You load me into a car when I'm supposed to go to a medical check, or a military review.”
Clint opened his mouth, but before he could even get a word out, Steve continued. “Are they even trying to get you to inform on me?”
They stared at each other, eyes locked, and for an instant, Clint considered telling Steve to go to hell. But something stopped him. Maybe it was the way Steve was still holding the damn plastic bag. Maybe it was the way that he was leaning forward, his face tense with some unspoken or unspeakable emotion.
Or maybe it was just the way his eyes no longer seemed quite so empty and lifeless.
“No,” Clint said. “Which doesn't mean that they won't.”
Steve held out the bag. “They won't.”
Considering it, Clint asked, “Yeah? Why not?”
Steve's mouth curled up in a warm smile. “Because someone underestimates you, Clint. Otherwise, you wouldn't be stuck sitting on the roof.” His hand bobbed, the bag swinging between them. “I bought you a canolli.”
His stomach growled. Clint ignored it. “If they ask me-”
“You'll tell them the truth.” Steve's smile grew into a grin, and for the first time since Clint had started watching him, he was alive. Just like that, he was alive, the last of the emptiness leeched from his eyes.
“Shoulda known better,” Clint muttered. “But I never have.” He reached out, grabbing the bag from Steve's hand. “You better have gotten chocolate dipped.”
“And mini chocolate chips on both ends,” Steve agreed.
Clint gave up. “I'm making coffee.”
Steve held up a small metal thermos. “Espresso.”
“Fine.” Clint threw himself on the couch. “But I'm not moving in.”