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How Can You Go On With Such Conviction?

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The man in the booth at the end was going to get in trouble. Steve could smell it where he stood, the subtle scent of immanent heat, though twined with some other scent that was mostly masking it. It was not the scent of any pheromone-blocker Steve knew, and he knew nearly all of them, nor was it a scent of ill-health, the body stressing itself too much to try to go into heat when it didn’t have the resources. It was just different, and that was all that was saving the guy in the ball cap and jacket from getting a lot of unwanted attention. Steve had a very acute sense of smell, and exceptional experience in picking out pre-heat odors, but if the man stayed for too much longer, it was going to be obvious to every other alpha in the building.

So why was the man lingering over tea and staring at his laptop when he should be getting himself set up in a den? Even having crappy wifi at home wasn’t enough of a lure to get an incipient omega out and vulnerable during that time. Even if embarrassment were off the table (the man might have a kink or a fetish for starting heat in public for all Steve knew), the local police wouldn’t be amused. It was illegal in Brazil (and most other countries for that matter) to be in uncontrolled heat in public, and if the cops weren’t around to enforce it, then the man could be in danger from other unscrupulous people.

Steve craned his neck a little, ostensibly looking out the window, and took a glance at what the man was writing down in a notebook. It looked like chemical formulas, along with notations, neat and precise. The man was so absorbed in his project that Steve could have openly stared without him noticing, and Steve did steal the opportunity to at least get a better look. The man looked to be in his early forties, tanned, dark curly hair going gray, doing his best to slouch into oversized clothes and make himself invisible.

That wasn’t going to work for too much longer. Steve picked up his own cup of coffee and walked over to the man’s booth. This was his job, his responsibility, and he’d be damned if he was going to let anything happen on his watch. What he’d come here for in the first place could wait.

“Hey,” Steve said gently, with a warm smile. “Mind if I sit?”

The man looked up sharply, drawing in on himself, pushing his laptop lid down and flipping his notebook over.

“Um, yeah,” the man said, shaking his head. “Sorry, I was actually just leaving…”

Steve felt relieved; good, hopefully just a gentle nudge and reminder to get home and everything would be fine.

“I wouldn’t have interrupted you, but you’re within a couple hours of starting, and you were concentrating so hard I don’t think you noticed,” Steve said, keep his voice low.

The man blinked. “Starting? Starting what-?” He cut himself off abruptly, and all the blood suddenly drained from his face. “No. Oh no. God, no,” he moaned softly, shoving back his shirt cuff to check a watch strapped to his wrist. A little heart flickered there, some kind of fitness function built into it. The man buried his hand in the skin of his wrist, smelling his pulse point, and his eyes dilated in fear. Sweat sprang up on his temples, and his hands started to shake. The watch beeped softly at him before the man took a few deep breaths, closing his eyes until the beeping stopped.

“How could you tell?” the man demanded.

“I could smell it,” Steve confessed. “I’m a professional alpha, goes with the territory. I get used to sussing it out.”

“A professional?” The man’s fear eased slightly, but Steve didn’t want to get into a long conversation here. He didn’t know how far away the guy lived, and from the man’s reaction, he definitely wasn’t prepared.

“Is your place far? I just want to be sure you’ll make it home before anything starts,” Steve asked, concerned.

“Not too far. But I can’t…” the man trailed off, rubbing at his wrist, eyes looking haunted. “I thought I wouldn’t. I had an accident.”

“Heat is a jealous bitch, as one of my clients once said to me. It doesn’t give a fat damn about what you’ve been through sometimes.” Steve nodded towards the door. “If you need anything for the next few days, I could pick them up for you, drop them at your place, if you didn’t have anything stocked.”

Any pharmacy or convenience store had heat or rut kits available for sale, and Steve could certainly afford to make sure the man was prepared. He could have offered his services outright, but it was usually better if the potential client did that on his or her own, if they were comfortable with it. For all Steve knew, the man had a spouse, lover, or friend who would be able to help him through an unexpected heat.

“I don’t but-. I just-. I can’t-.” The man looked to be in an agony of uncertainty and fear, and Steve was beginning to realize there was a lot more here than met the eye. This wasn’t just the unpleasant surprise of an unexpected heat, but a real fear he had seen in clients who had been through truly terrible things and couldn’t stand the thought of losing control. “You’re a professional?” the man blurted out desperately.

“My name’s Steve.” He kept his voice as soothing as he could as he pulled out his wallet and fished out his license.

The man grabbed at Steve’s license desperately as soon as he had it out of its slot, holding it up to the light to verify the holographic markings and embedded designs of the International Professional Alphas’ certificate.

“I’m a five-star flex, A1A, combat trained and experienced, rated for top secret government clearance. I’ve got experience with POWs and PTSD, and I’ve worked with acute heats after dry spells many times,” Steve said without a blush. Something about the man’s stance held more than just fear, it was a fear of himself, of what his body could do without his input. Of what would happen if he lost control, even for a second.

The man looked started by Steve’s bald recitation of his qualifications. “You’re under government contract?” he asked, wary again.

“I have been, but never more than for a short-time instance. I don’t have a retainer with any government. But secrets remain secrets no matter who is telling me,” Steve added, holding the man’s eyes until he understood. He glanced over at the seat opposite the man, then considered the crowd at the diner, and the possibility that the stress was going to accelerate the man’s heat even faster.

“Let’s go somewhere more private,” Steve suggested. The man still hesitated, running his thumb over the marks on the license. The five-star rating meant Steve had a number of certified good reviews from past clients, was current on all of his training, and was in good standing with the IPA. Flex meant he was able to serve any gender he was contracted to service. The clearance rating meant he never divulged anything a client might have spilled while under the influence of heat. And the combat training… Well, if you were going to serve people who were fighting through mental demons while their bodies made hard biological and hormonal demands on them, sometimes you had to be ready to protect yourself from the client lashing out inadvertently.

Steve’s license declared him to be not only skilled and trustworthy, but that he could take care of himself if anything occurred, from a physically violent flashback to someone trying to take advantage of his client. And right now Steve hoped he was projecting everything he ever learned, because this man looked ready to fly apart and he hadn’t even started quite yet. Steve wanted to help him. The reasons he’d come down here could wait.

After an agonizingly long pause, the man finally nodded. “Okay,” he said very quietly. He swept his notebook and laptop into a bag, then paused at the sight of the long-nursed teacup. He blushed red. “I can’t pay.”

Steve very carefully put his hand over the man’s. “That doesn’t matter.”

The man looked up at him, startled. “But, you can’t-.”

“I can and I will. Let’s get you home.”

The man snatched up his bag and quickly walked out the door, uttering an almost inaudible sigh of relief, his shoulders losing some of their tension. Steve followed closely, keeping in the man’s line of sight so he would be reassured there was someone there. They paused only once, so Steve could get some supplies from a drug store, before going the last few blocks

The apartment was small and cheap and located at the back of the building. While lacking in a lot, it was private, and that seemed to be the man’s first priority. It was clean, and organized well, likely also to keep things away from prying eyes of the landlord. It was difficult to keep secrets if every surface was strewn with everything you owned.

“Did you want something? Tea?” the man asked, moving to a kettle over a hotplate with jerky motions.

“Your name?” Steve suggested.

The man blushed, and dropped his hands from the kettle. “Bruce.”

“Bruce. Nice to meet you.” Steve sat in a folding chair at the card table near the hot plate as Bruce frantically tried to be busy, putting away his backpack with finicky precision just to kill time. His scent was starting to rise now, and he was maybe an hour away from the full bloom of his heat. The peculiar scent was rising too, but it wasn’t bad, just strange. “How long has it been?”

Bruce pulled off his jacket and hat, put them away, carefully closed the windows and turned on the fans, then finally run out of things to do. He sat down at the other chair, twisting his hands together once before finally speaking. “Over five years.”

Steve’s eyebrows went up, and he was suddenly extremely glad he had the equivalent of three heat kits in his shopping bag. “Your accident?” he prompted gently.

Bruce hesitated another moment, looking as if he were in an agony of indecision. “This could be dangerous for you, deadly dangerous. If you weren’t combat experienced, I wouldn’t be doing this. And if word of me gets out then… People might come after me. And they’ll get hurt.”

“This isn’t the first time I’ve had this speech,” Steve pointed out. He’d worked with people who had the best military or assassin training in the world, sometimes taking care of their heats while they were on assignment and understandably on a hair trigger. Only the fact that they’d made a conscious effort to disarm themselves and Steve was very good at wrestling had kept the experience mutually satisfying, instead of potentially lethal.

“There’s no one out there like me. I’m… dangerous.” Another long pause, and Bruce’s hand clenched into a fist before he forcibly relaxed it. “Did you ever hear about the Culver College Incident?”

Well, that put an entirely new green complexion on things. It was damn lucky that Steve had found him, and not someone with a more violent agenda.

“The big strong green guy,” Steve said. “The one whom the Army apparently thought was a fantastic idea to try to capture.” His accompanying eyeroll spoke his opinion on that clearly. “That was you?”

Bruce looked surprised, probably at not hearing the word “monster,” at Steve’s casual acceptance of such an outrageous claim. “Yes,” he said, his voice very small.

“I remember watching those clips. And I remember thinking how damn stupid it was to try to capture a guy who was just trying to protect himself and someone he cared about. He could have done a lot more damage, hurt a lot more people, but he didn’t. As soon as the woman who calmed him down was safe, he got the hell out of there. And that time in Harlem? The green guy was the one trying to keep the Abomination down. Not his fault someone dumped the fight in the middle of a city to start with.”

Bruce’s jaw had been sagging steadily throughout Steve’s speech, until he shut it with a snap.

“Why? No one else sees that, everyone else sees-.”

“What they want to see. I’m not the only one. I’ve had… several clients who have done a lot of what some would consider terrible things. And I’ve heard their reasoning, seen their results, seen how things get better or worse in the world because of someone’s actions. What’s inside you is trying to protect someone who love and then breaking free from someone else who’d use you as a weapon. Then turning around and going back into the fight to save strangers from your evil twin? No, Bruce, you’re a good guy.” Steve stood up, crossed the room and sat down on the edge of Bruce’s bed, putting the supplies within easy reach, and patted the mattress. “Want to come over here?”

Bruce got up in slow motion, and padded over to the bed at a snail’s pace. There were decided beads of sweat on his temples, and the heat scent was rising steadily. The other scent was staying at the same level, which Steve guessed was all to the good.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s been over five years. I didn’t dare try suppressants; drugs don’t work the same on me anymore. And the last time I even saw Betty, we could barely even kiss…”

“And now? Have you tried anything on your own?” Steve lifted his chin a little, letting his own scent perfume the air. The scent of an alpha nearby was usually soothing to an omega, assuming it was wanted.

“Not really,” Bruce said, looking wretched. “If the… Other Guy shows up, I’m not sure what he’ll do. He understands protecting me, that’s his job, his purpose for existing, but I don’t know if he understands heat. I’m not even sure if he has a presentation, to be honest. It’s not exactly something I can study very easily.”

“Then we’ll go slow. If this Other Guy shows up, I’ll be careful. I have no problem running away if that’d be best for everyone. It took me a long time to learn that, but I have.”

Bruce plucked at the sleeve of his shirt, and then opened up the top two buttons.

“I know it’s been a while, but we’ll have to get a bit more naked than that,” Steve teased gently, touching Bruce’s hand.

Bruce chuffed out a laugh and shook his head, holding up his hands. They were steady, which seemed to surprise him, and he took the brief surge of confidence to take off his shirt entirely. He was strongly built under the too-large clothing, covered with dark body hair, with faint scars visible on his back. Sweat was starting on his hairline, his heat scent rising.

Steve took off his own shirt, and Bruce averted his eyes when he realized he was staring. Steve said quietly, “It’s all right.”

Bruce slowly breathed in and out a few times, brought his eyes back up, and reached out to bring Steve close. “Thank you,” he breathed into Steve’s neck. For a long time it was just that, closeness and breathing, not even touching any more than that. Bruce was breathing carefully, very controlled and precise, as he finally pulled back.

“I think,” he said, fitting his words to the same careful rhythm, “that I need to center myself some more.”

Steve waited, looking Bruce over, carefully evaluating his scent. He smelled ready, more than ready, but with the underlying strangeness that had to be Hulk still very present, Steve wasn’t going to push. “Tell me what you need, Bruce.”

“Just… just lie down? When I’m ready, I think this’ll happen fast. Please.” Bruce’s voice sounded steady, and he managed a small, reassuring smile. Steve laid himself down, discarding the rest of his clothes and resting easily as Bruce closed his eyes. He waited patiently as Bruce breathed with measured control, heat pheromones rising to fill the room. Steve let his body respond, sliding a condom over himself as Bruce’s breaths became a little deeper and more ragged.

Even with that warning, it was a surprise when Bruce moved. He abruptly opened his eyes and planted one hand on Steve’s chest, leaning back just enough to line up, and the sheathing himself on Steve to the hilt in a single motion. Steve kept himself from arching up by a thin margin, instead placing soft and loose hands on Bruce’s hips as grounding points. Without breaking the steady metronome of air to and from his lungs, Bruce braced both hands against Steve’s thighs, and slowly, so slowly, began to rise and fall with a subtle tensing of his stomach.

Steve rubbed slow circles on Bruce’s hips as he let Bruce set the pace, holding himself back with hard-won control. Five years the man had gone without anything, and Steve intended to make every minute worth his while. And when Bruce finally, after a very long stretch of slow riding, dug his hands into Steve’s thighs with more urgency, Steve was relieved to be able to push up into him, locking them together with a firm knot. Bruce whimpered as his body collapsed against Steve’s, a steady spurt from his cock in Steve’s hand between them to ease him through the long, slow orgasm that seemed to have released five years’ worth of tension from his body.

The strange scent that must be the Bruce’s other half still remained at a steady level, and Steve felt secure enough to tuck an arm around Bruce and let the man melt into someone else’s strength. Just for a while.

--

Bruce smiled softly, and shut the door behind Steve. He’d been very grateful, and Steve had lingered long enough after the worst of heat was over for a shared cup of tea after a quick, mutual shower. Bruce was a hell of a guy, and Steve had made sure to let him know he could call him if, well, this ever happened again. It was a small thing, considering what Bruce had been through, but Steve hoped he’d be able to do more for him someday soon. The sounds of the street, ignored until now, pressed down against Steve in a hum of traffic and conversation, music and shouting. He walked down the narrow staircase and through the small alley, intending to join the flow of people heading to and from the city center. He checked his surroundings surreptitiously as he walked; after Bruce’s perfectly-justified caution (not paranoia, because there really were people out to get him), it more than made sense for him to be certain no one was taking an undo interest in the comings and goings from Bruce’s apartment. There were a few people having beers on a balcony three stories above across the street, a blonde woman cooking dinner one level down as her boyfriend or husband laughingly helped, and some kids kicking around a soccer ball in the alley.

Normal, everyday life for people who didn’t have to worry about monsters living under their skin, or others who dared to hunt them.

A chill chased over Steve’s skin, roughing up his flesh with goosebumps.

Steve shook off the feeling. He didn’t have time to deal with that old nightmare now. He joined the flow of humanity in the sunlight, and headed towards the airport. It was time to go home.

---

“I need this fast. He’ll be back the day after tomorrow, and I have to have this over with by then.”

Steve’s eyebrows went up as the redheaded woman in her black silk robe greeted him rather… brusquely. She eyed him up and down, handed back the license she’d had him slide under the door, and waved him to the bedroom. Supplies were already laid out on the nightstand, and she was waiting impatiently.

He’d gotten the call less than a day after he’d gotten back from Brazil, and still felt jet-lagged. He hadn’t even had a chance to go home yet, diverting from Houston to Atlanta on an urgent call from the agency. And after spending a week out of touch, he really needed to keep his hours up to maintain his good standing

“Nude. Now,” she said, with an impatient wave of her hand. Steve was stuck somewhere between annoyance and awe, because while he was being ordered around like he was an automaton, she was exuding the sweet, rich scent of heat to a level that meant she was likely on her last nerve. He shed his clothes and laid them on a chair quickly, nodding at her to inspect him. She was a cautious woman, and all the circumstances of her call seemed to indicate that she had more on her agenda than just a quick heat-relief. Steve had had a couple clients who preferred to have their heat-sex with professionals, so that their romantic evenings could be enjoyed freed of the stress and necessity of a hormone storm. He’d been contracted with prostitutes who couldn’t legally afford to have heat with their own clients. And he’d been with more than one undercover operative who was masquerading as a beta, and had to keep up appearances at all costs. This has the feel of the last one, though he’d had no call from the IPA from the various alphabet soup of agencies who needed that kind of service.

And the smell of it too. As Steve took a few steps closer, the sweet scent of her heat became downright cloying. This was more than just someone in the throes of a hormone surge.

“You can call me Tasha,” she said, dropping her robe on the chair on the opposite side of the bed. She was very pale, very neat, with some carefully hidden strength below her curves and soft skin.

"You're on artificial inducement hormones. Did he dose you?" Steve was hard-pressed to keep his emotions in check. Those kinds of things were supposed to be restricted to doctors, but like a lot of medications, some people used them in all sorts of illegal ways. Tasha's smile went from smooth and professional to more genuine and sad.

“No.” But there was a wealth of information behind that simple word. Steve repressed a frown; he didn’t like to play twenty questions with his clients, but Tasha seemed like she was waiting for him to put together the pieces. He had a hunch she was undercover, though if it was the police, a government agency, or something else, he wasn’t sure. But she hadn’t dared put her call through her superiors, instead contacting him directly through his file on the IPA website.

"You dosed yourself." A nod. "To have an excuse to get out." Another nod.

"I need to be back by tonight, Steve. I don't have much time."

"He won't go after you for going to a professional for your heat?"

Tasha's whole carriage changed, her hips tilting in a flirt, chest thrusting forward, head tilted to the side, expression very earnest but with her finger at the corner of her mouth. "Oh Jerry, baby, you know I want this to be real!" her voice had slipped into a strong New Jersey accent, her eyes wide and guileless. "Don't want you to see me all messy with heat and then me sayin' dumb stuff and making stupid promises. I always wanna be honest with you baby. You always give it to me so good, and I wanna know that it's YOU I gotta have, not just because my body's goin' all crazy. I wanna be your girl, Jerry, not just a heat-bimbo." Abruptly the ditzy broad vanished, and Tasha sat down, breathing out slowly.

"You've got it, Tasha," Steve said, and sat down on the bed next to her.

“Good.”

“Tasha-”

“I don’t have time for nice right now.” That was said quietly, with resignation, as if the time for “nice” had passed her by a long time ago. Steve curled his hands around Tasha’s elbows and lifted her up, setting her on his lap. She didn’t look surprised, just put her hands on his shoulders, readying herself like a longtime dance partner just hearing a familiar melody.

She fit herself around him with a satisfied sigh, very hot and exquisitely tight. Moving with coordinated rhythm she picked up on immediately, she had her and Steve pushing towards orgasm, chasing after his knot with almost tactical precision. He followed her lead as her breathing became more frantic, as she flushed with need, pushing herself harder and faster until Steve helped her pull herself down on his inflating knot. She clamped around him hard enough to make him gasp, frozen together with her for several long moments, her too-sweet scent breaking into something much more subtle.

“Feeling better?” Steve asked, when the first intense minutes had subsided into just the mutual tension of their tie.

“You mean well, Steve.” She laid her head on his chest, breathing already almost back to normal.

“I try.” He heard another question in her simple words, and tried to answer it. “What is it you really need?”

She tilted her face up to arch an eyebrow at him.

“Unless you need to stay…?”

“Sonya.”

“Sonya for a while yet.”

“You seem like a nice guy, Steve.”

“I try to be.”

“But Jerry isn’t a nice guy.”

Steve kept his hold her on her, but loosely. She was probably feeling the need for comfort and security, but there was enough tension in her even now for Steve to know she’d hurt him, badly, for cornering her.

“Is Jerry going to get an uplifting final chapter to his story?”

“Depends on what you mean by uplifting.”

“The one were Sonya walks out of his life, and a week later he gets invited to be a guest of the federal government?”

“So uplifting. Nearly Hallmark.”

“Or maybe more cathartic, where Sonya fights back and beats him?”

“Very Hollywood.”

“Or when Sonya dies and Jerry goes on with his life, but is slowly falls to pieces around him as he’s haunted from beyond the grave?”

“Ah, horror. My favorite professional genre.”

Steve smiled against the back of her neck as she relaxed against him.

“Does he know you went to a professional? Do you want him to know?”

She put her hands on his arms. “He wants to keep Sonya. As far as I implied, I’m riding out heat at my apartment.”

Steve usually tried not to leave marks, but sometimes it was inevitable. She hadn’t asked him to make an extra effort not to.

“Do you want him to take a claim after, or think you’ve found someone else?”

She chuckled and patted his arm. “This’ll be easier if Sonya is dead. It’s a better plot twist with a secret lover. He’ll be so fixated on finding out who it is, he’ll forget what he’s supposed to be guarding against.”

This, then, was something he could do for her. It sounded like Jerry had long-since outlived his usefulness, particularly if she had to manufacture excuses to leave him. “Then, if I may?”

She smiled at his understanding, beckoned him forward, and he laid in bites in just-visible places, soothing the sting after.

----

Sam looked up from Steve’s couch as Steve walked in, hair still damp from a shower. Darcy had opened a root beer for herself and was sliding a real beer across the table. Sam sat up to catch it, and took a deep, appreciative swallow. He tipped the bottle to Steve, raising an inquisitive eyebrow.

“Sure, hit me.” Darcy slid another to him, then took her own first swallow, moaning in ecstasy. “Oh God, that hits the spot. Who bruised you up, Steve?”

“Client,” Steve said. He took a frosty gulp of beer, and sighed. “I’m fine, and they will be.”

“Who was it this time?”

“Contract from Vegas, for one. Acrobats, and a couple magicians too.” Steve took the bottle cap in his hand, held it in his palm, closed it, and opened it to reveal an empty hand. Darcy grinned and Sam laughed; more than once a contracted client had found it awkward to be tied with a stranger, and some of them came up with all sorts of things to keep themselves busy. Over the years both Sam and Steve had picked up a grab-bag of party tricks and trivia. “Then I took a few days for myself, but ended up with a few jobs along the way, including that one I got diverted for. Emergency sorts of things.”

“You’ve got some hard cases, man,” Sam said, shaking his head. “Don’t think I could do what you do.”

“I doubt I could handle yours either. I only have so much patience.”

Sam was a fellow professional alpha. The majority of his clients tended to be veterans too, but he worked more with unconfident or maimed omegas and betas, people with less violent cases of PTSD and more insecurity. It took a deft touch to help people get their mojo back as well as their bodies on track, and Sam was one of the best.

“And neither of you could even dare try what I do, so I win. Come on, Daily Show’s about to start.” Darcy was a rare professional omega. She handled cases of rut, which was fairly unusual outside of an established bonding. But when death or separation from one’s partner happened, some alphas went into rut anyways. And professional alphas, with their constant exposure to heat pheromones, went into rut regularly. Darcy kept them on an even keel, which was funny considering anyone who knew her and her sense of humor.

“We all bow before the master,” Sam and Steve said together, obediently. Darcy grinned and claimed her spot on the sofa as the ads and trailers yammered on and on. Their apartment was fairly nice for New York City, the three of them pooling salaries to get a place that was bigger than a shoebox, with thick enough walls and good enough ventilation to avoid incidents with the neighbors. Steve had been in a few places, pre-Sam and Darcy, where his alpha pheromones had caused some very awkward late-night conversations through closed doors. More than one professional had similar stories.

“Must have been a hell of a client, Steve” Sam said. “You weren’t even in until after 3am.”

“No rest for the wicked,” Steve said. “Just trying to bring some justice to the world.” He rubbed his left arm and sighed.

“You did pro bono work too on that trip?”

“Pro boner!” Darcy crowed, not even looking away from the TV. Sam didn’t groan anymore at the inevitable joke, but he still smiled.

“Yeah, some.” There were a lot of professional alphas who offered their services free of charge, or at least cheap, for those who needed but couldn’t afford it, and Sam was amongst them. But Steve rarely put his name on the publicly-available lists, instead heading out to places he rarely specified. “There are some people out there who don’t always ask. Besides…”

“You’ve got your other stuff, I know.”

“Yeah. Went to Riverside Retirement Village today, and those guys are always so sweet when I show up in costume. I love talking to them, and it’s easier answering questions behind the mask.”

“You should’ve gone into movies. Seriously, you could have ended up with a nine-movie deal with your face,” Sam teased.

“I’d rather be playing Captain America on my own time, thank you very much,” Steve said, trying to look prim and sending Darcy into a short giggle fit. “You ought to get your own costume, Sam. We can go down to the Veterans’ Home together.”

“I’ve got enough trouble living one life,” Sam said, laughing.

Steve laughed too, but it was short, and he was saved from having to talk more as the show started.

--

Darcy stroked Steve’s head as they cooled down, tangled together in the spare bedroom from dealing with Steve’s inevitable case of rut from working so many clients back-to-back. “Hey, where’s your brain at, big guy?”

“Hmm?”

“You were calling someone else’s name back there.”

Steve sighed into her hair. “Tell me the date.”

“Friday, June 30th, 2017. Man, jet-lag gets you hard.” There wasn’t even a joke behind her words, and Steve just sighed.

Steve kissed her throat softly, then sat up. “I’m okay now.”

“You go really far away when we do this, Steve. I almost feel like I have to bring breadcrumbs to help you find your way back.”

“Sometimes it’s just a lot. It’s a big load and everything that’s happened comes back at you and you wonder if it was all worth it.”

“Hmm, dunno what ghosts you’re chasing but…” She pulled back and gave him and ample view of her charms. “Was I worth it?”

“Yeah, Darcy, you are.”