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You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)

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Steve is nowhere close to sleep when his neighbors come up the fire escape at around one. Their feet fall heavy on the wrought iron and they’re drunk enough that Steve can smell it underneath the smoke from the cigarette they’re sharing. He rolls over in bed, watches their dark silhouettes through his billowing, moonlit sheers.

“We can’t both get in, Gary,” Michael is saying. “You know how it is for couples–”

Straight couples; Rubell would love to get his hands on you.”

“I’d never go to 54 without you, babe, you’re so gorgeous, you’re better than any of those phonies, look at me, mm, Gary–”

Steve thinks he should be used to it by now. It’s why he decided on the Village when he could have settled anywhere (Jersey City, Queens, across the East River, 42nd to be closer to that penthouse Tony uses when he isn’t staying at the Mansion). He wanted life in all its messy vibrancy. He’ll do anything to get the hum, the ambient city noise to help him sleep: a bottle smashing against a brick wall, raucous shouting. The siren song that’s supposed to drag him from complacency and lure him back into the night.

Steve’s got a Medal of Honor citation but he still doesn’t have the kind of courage his neighbors have.

“Shut up, Mike,” Gary says, breathless, as they slide their window open. “You’re gonna wake Steve up.”

Steve lies there in the dark and listens as Michael and Gary stumble their way into bed together. They’re not quiet when they make love. Sometimes, like tonight, he can make out words. He envies their shamelessness, their freedom. The gracious thing to do would be to pretend there’s nothing to hear. Shove his head under the pillow that still smells of the cold cream from the woman he fucked a few nights ago. He imagines what it is to come home to the same someone, every night.

Nothing is stopping you, some wretched part of him answers.

Michael tells Gary to scoot up, there you go – and Steve watches a roach scuttle across the ceiling. He ekes his hand under the waistband of his boxers. Harder, Gary says, and sometimes he sounds just a little bit like Tony, the edge of a growl in his voice like when he used to get angry. Their bed knocks against the wall they share with Steve, and Steve cups himself and imagines it’s him, imagines it’s Tony above him –

Mike, Mike, Mike, Gary says, and Steve is left with silence and Tony’s rapidly receding face and one hand crammed into his boxers.

“Love you,” Mike tells Gary, and Steve feels like he’s trespassing.

His suit gleams in the moonlight spilling in through the window.

He dresses in the dark, slips out of his underwear and slides into his lurid second skin. If he leaves, he doesn’t have to listen to round two. He doesn’t need to fester in his own hideous loneliness. He needs to be elsewhere. Saturday night, he’ll patrol. Maybe he finds someone who needs saving, maybe he finds someone who needs punching. Tony used to call it ‘expressing his rage,’ but Tony was joking.

He hears them talking again, murmurs, whispered endearments. He pulls on his boots. 

“…sell that, you know,” Gary is saying, hoarse and lazy enough to make Steve flush, and then someone is in the hallway and Michael’s laughter is echoing just on the other side of Steve’s door and something slides under the gap and skids to a stop on the linoleum.

Steve picks up a card that reads STUDIO 54 VIP ADMISSION .

He looks like he could use a good fucking, Mike is saying; already back in their loft, through the wall. They don’t think he’s home, maybe. They don’t know he’s listening. He tucks the card into his belt.

Always looks so sad, Gary says.

Steve pulls his mask down while his shield glints at him from the back of his closet.

He reminds himself: he wanted it this way. Anonymity. Wanted people to stop looking at the flag, at the legend. Wanted people to see him.

Turns out, now they just look through him.

 

- - -

 

Steve ends up down at street level because he sees a flash of red and shining gold and his heart leaps in his chest.

It’s not Tony, and Steve ends up standing under a flickering streetlight while three gorgeous women giggle at him. One of them reminds him of Sharon: she wears soft pink lipstick and a silk shirt and no bra. Her friend wears gold eye shadow and hoop earrings and a gold scarf around her afro. Her outfit is bright red.  “Mister, it’s not costume night,” she tells him.

It sears a little. No one ever made fun of his costume when it was the flag. It used to be different; people tended to gasp and swoon. Once a waitress asked him for his autograph. Once a firefighter winked at him.

These women don’t spare him a second glance as they walk the other way in their platform heels, pant legs billowing in the breeze. It’s late, too late for them to be out like this. There’s nothing around here until Broadway, just porno theaters and shops with bars on the windows.

Steve slips back into the shadows like a wraith. He’ll follow, for now. His costume is dark enough, his shield is gone. There’s nothing to attract the light. He can clock them from the rooftops, make sure they get where they’re going safely. They drift down 8th and their perfume follows them in a cloud, spicy and floral, like the stuff Tony used to wear. They clutch at each other’s arms and laugh. Steve thinks about standing at the gates to the mansion, arm-in-arm. Assemble.

That’s over.

He’s Nomad, now. The garishness of his costume helps a little but he still feels like a predator, sometimes. The difference between hero and vigilante stalker is the press team, he thinks. Tony’s money earned him freedoms he took for granted. He’s been careful enough that he’s only made the papers twice now in three years – blurry photo on both occasions, police blotter mentions.

One of the women is talking about Jimmy Carter. “I don’t know,” she says. “I just don’t like him.”

He rounds a corner and the women break into a jog to join a horde of people spilling out into the middle of the street.

They’re swarming the way crowds do when someone is lying on the ground having a heart attack. Tony used to say that everyone loves a spectacle. Steve doesn’t carry the kind of authority he used to; once, people would spring apart for him like he was Moses himself, but instinct sets his feet moving and he’s elbowing his way through before he can think better of it. His face is covered, he reminds himself. Don’t sweat it. People will stare, it’s fine. The crowd seems to go on forever. People are yelling. He has to get to whoever is injured, he has to –

“What’s the big fuckin’ idea,” someone is saying. Laughter, and cursing, from behind him.

No one is bleeding out on the pavement. It’s just people, gorgeous people in bizarre outfits waiting around in the chill of the fall air, flocking to the neon signage like moths. He can just pick up music from deep inside the building.

A club, it’s just a club.

He’s so single-minded. Tony would laugh at him. People are staring, well-dressed, beautiful, outlandish people, men with their fellas on their arms who would probably never be caught out like this in the light of day, tweakers and starlets and people Tony probably runs with. He thinks he sees Cher, but that can’t be right.

Someone is taking his picture, and the bulb leaves a halo in his vision.

That’s bad, he needs to leave, he needs to look for an exist, there are so many eyes on him –

A toady little man with a greasy goatee and an ugly shirt steps into Steve’s space like it’s his god-given right, looks at Steve’s heaving bare chest and stands on his toes to meet Steve’s eyes, his muscle shifting in the background.

Steve grits his jaw and stares back.

The man looks at him a little too long, nods, jerks his thumb. “You’re in.” His voice is straight Brooklyn.

Steve starts to say, no thanks, mister, and the crowd roars like it’s about to riot.

Jesus, he thinks. The man with the goatee grabs his shoulder and leans into his bicep and Steve thinks he’d like to deck this guy. “Don’t be an idiot, gorgeous,” he says, and gestures at the open door. “No one says no to getting into 54. You could be Captain America with those pecs,” he says.

Steve wants to leave his body.

He doesn’t have a choice, in the end – the bouncer is waving someone else in behind him, and he’s trying to look up at the glowing marquee but the ladies are chittering just behind him: we’re with him! He hears the horse-clomp of their shoes and he moves forward, just inside, so they don’t run him over, and together they float toward the audible throng inside, the sea of people and the smell of sex and sweat and alcohol.

He’s ushered through the velvet rope and through the doors emblazoned with a large 54 and into a tiny foyer. “Fifteen,” the man says with a gummy smile.

Steve snorts. “Bullshit,” he says. That’s two jobs, he wants to say, but he’s already dressed to show a little too much skin. He doesn’t want to give people the wrong idea, he feels naked in his costume, he can’t do fifteen dollars. Maybe on Tony’s budget, maybe in another time. Maybe if Steve wasn’t living from thankless gig to thankless gig. He turns to go; he’s got piles of sketches waiting to be worked on, it’s Saturday, he can catch Fantasy Island if there’s no crime between here and his walk back to the Village –

The village, where vice isn’t vice and all his worst ideas are acceptable. He fumbles for the card in his belt, runs his thumb over the stamp. STUDIO 54, VIP ADMISSION.  

The man is smiling at him.

Steve passes it over and the guy takes his time checking him out. “You one of Bowie’s?”

Steve has no idea who Bowie is, and two can play – he’s already been ogled and he’d like to just get through the goddamn door and see what all the fuss is about, so he puts on his best Captain America smile. “That’s cute,” Steve bluffs. “You really don’t know who I am, son?”

The usher stares at his chest for a moment longer and takes in Steve, drawn up to his full height, and holds open the doors.

Steve thinks, ruefully: Tony would maybe like a place like this.

 

- - -

 

Tony brings his own blow and is having a perfectly unremarkable time on the nice leather chesterfield until Steve Rubell finishes schmoozing Mick across the table and swoops over to him.

“Tony, my guy,” Rubell is saying, his maroon-jacketed arm slung around Tony’s shoulders like they’re the best of friends. Rubell is already tweaked; he looks at Tony’s tabletop project and tuts. “And to think that I brought this over here, just for you.” He tosses another vial onto the coffee table while Tony cuts his lines.

He should be gearing up. The music is thrumming upstairs, even though it’s still early – dance floor won’t be packed yet, Rubell will be back outside in a flash to continue his little admission power play. Tony’s camped out in this useless puce room downstairs for VIPs, a room that could be filled with beautiful women or beautiful men or both. Tony is a little drunk but his hands are steady enough to move smoothly over the rails, to draw his powder into four neat little rails. Tony rolls up a hundred and feels Rubell’s arm draped over his back as he leans over the table.  Rubell has a radio jockey voice. No one likes a sad sack, he’s saying.

Cheer up, Shellhead.

Tony straightens up, licks his finger. Rubs the rest of it all over his gums while Rubell presses a sloppy theatrical kiss to the side of his face. He could ask for a tip. He doesn’t think Hammer will come anywhere near this place, but it’s possible. He doesn’t know if he can afford to trust Rubell with that. “No,” he says belatedly. “I don’t need anything.” He flashes his press smile. He can’t feel his mouth but he’s had practice. Rubell bounces out the door and up the stairs, back to terrorize the hopefuls on the street.

Tony lets himself have the almost-silence, runs his hands over the silk of his vest, loosens his tie, waits for the world to recede into something better, something nicer, something less wild and sharp. Euphoria without connotation. Better to do it here than the main level; there are cameras sometimes. He thinks about the team seeing photos of him here, imagines Jan’s face. He should have talked to Rubell about that. Pepper doesn’t even tell him he needs to get out more, anymore, she just tells him his schedule and gives him his coffee and looks like she’s going to cry when he tips Jack into his cup.

He tries not to think about the face she’d make if she knew what he was doing right now.

He needs to get upstairs, where there are strangers to tell him how glamorous he looks and press alcohol into his hands. The rev is building; he needs an anchor. He can already feel his heart pounding in his chest. Dancing would be better; it would feel less like he’s dying again. He should cancel with the cardiologist, he’s starting to think he doesn’t want to stop doing this.

He waits for his nose to stop tingling and goes for his wallet and fumbles over the hard edge of his Avengers ID card as he’s trying to slide his credit card back in. He takes it out, puts it on the table, lines it up neatly with the edge. Stares at his faded signature, and – Steve’s, the dark battery indicator light, the play of the dim basement light over Iron Man’s face.

He laughs and puts one hand over his chest. He touches his face and maybe he’s smearing his eyeliner and he closes his eyes and thinks about how it felt to wear a mask and how it felt to have a home and how it is to watch it all sliding out of his reach. He feels the rev, feels the onslaught of neutral regret and what-if’s building.

Because Tony is a problem solver, he snatches the card and Rubell’s secondhand shit and turns the powder out and lines up another bump, and one more for good measure. He’s going to dance. He’s going to feel like a million bucks if it kills him. He’s going to find someone that looks like Steve and that will be enough, for a while. He’s not here to be sober.

His heart flutters, but he’s been learning to ignore that.

 

- - -

 

It’s not Steve’s kind of place.

It could be , Tony would say. It could be if you wanted it to be.

Steve is all about reinvention, lately. That’s what they call it, the people writing self-help books, the gurus – find yourself, they say. He hasn’t spoken with any of the Avengers: packed up and left like he was never there in the first place. He follows their exploits in the papers. He is removing himself from what he used to be. He wants to celebrate, not be celebrated, so he renders them in his own hand, bright and smiling for the comic books. His colorist gets the color of Tony’s eyes wrong, sometimes.

He finds he’s nodding to himself, tapping his foot to the beat. Yes, this is better. This is for him.

Maybe it’s the novelty. He can’t tear his eyes away. He thinks, at first, it must be a swinger’s club – but then he realizes: there’s everything, there’s everyone. There are two men with their hands on each other, there’s a man dressed in full drag batting his eyelashes at one of those wrestler types that are becoming popular in the racier magazines. There’s a woman just feet in front of him, shirt open, nipples just visible, and she mouths the words to the song and smiles an easy, loose smile, joint aloft as she dips and twists and laughs to herself. Shameless.

Something dark curls up his spine. Envy.

The pageantry of it, the wild thrill of it all, reminds him of one of Tony’s galas. After dinner, at that point in the night when the booze was flowing freely and the men would leave their jackets and the women would quietly slide their shoes under the table. This place is flashier than any of those places, this is lights and sweat and living and those places were gilt and repressed and judgment. This place is dark and wild and alive . The lights run up the walls and hang on rails and light the floor up pink and green and orange. The balconies go up and up and up into the dark, and the people packed into them drape themselves over the rails like overripe fruit. Donna Summer is belting something over the drums, and the hall of strangers dance like their lives depend on toeing the beat, on matching the ceaseless rhythm of it all.

They’re so young, he thinks. He is so young. This is what life looks like.  

There’s a misery here, too, thought. It’s just too high to notice. You think something is going to last forever – the war, the team, the party – and it ends. Everything ends.

He’s not here as a hero tonight; he threw that excuse away the minute he let the man at the door undress him with his eyes and stepped through the doors on his own two feet. He has spent so long feeling old and he has hidden himself away and here, he’s just another beautiful body.

He wants a smoke.

He draws out a single cigarette and looks to his left. The man next to him has been watching – Steve isn’t stupid, he knows what he looks like. Knows he commands attention. This man is tall and brunette and muscular, deep brown eyes, too-tanned skin. He offers Steve a light and Steve dips his head and murmurs thanks and turns away like it’s nothing, like he doesn’t love it, like he isn’t flushing hard enough that his cheeks feel hot.

Is this how Tony used to feel before he was reborn in that jungle?

The man touches his elbow.

“Hi,” he says, Queens through and through. He takes his time, lets his eyes rove, up, down, just below the belt. “I like your outfit,” the man says, and leans closer. “We could go upstairs,” he says, low in his throat.

He has a mustache, like Tony used to wear.

“I’m waiting for someone,” Steve lies. He blows a cloud of smoke into the air and wishes the nicotine did something for him.

“Lucky guy,” the man says, and winks.

You should be dancing , the Gibb brothers sing.

A bus boy wearing nothing but tight red gym shorts walks in front of them holding a plastic bin full of wine glasses. The line of men sitting at the bar swivel their heads around.

They’re not staring at Steve, and he finds that something ugly and thrilling is rising in him.

If that kid can walk around in his underwear, Steve can attract the right kind of attention. He slides onto the dance floor and takes his cigarette with him. Fake it til you make it. He thinks he heard that first from Tony, after he woke up. He thinks about the desperate, empty way Tony was starting to smile when Steve left. He runs a hand through his hair, puts his cigarette out on the bar. He’s build like a truck. They’ll look. He knows how some men pretend not to stare when he goes to the gym, knows what he’s wearing leaves little to the imagination.

You can’t spend your whole life looking in, Winghead . He’s wasted so much time.

He thinks he needs to forget about Tony for a while.

 

- - -

 

Rubell talks about every guy he’s every fucked like the sun sauntered past one day and that was that, end of story. Happy endings for everyone.

Tony gets it now. He seems him across the dance floor and it’s over.

The man looks to be about Tony’s height, towering over almost everyone on the dance floor, his movements loose and easy and confident. He strides, people part for him. Half his face is hidden by some ridiculous mask like what Steve used to wear – and that sets off little waves of something sharp and leaden in Tony’s gut – but this man is beautiful and he dances like he doesn’t know it. Like he doesn’t notice the eyes on him. He moves like a gymnast, all loose joints and strong quads and legs for days.

Tony has to have him.

He downs the rest of his martini and angles his way through the crowd of people. The music is changing; the DJ is fading into something urgent and fast with a balalaika.

Tony comes up behind the man, takes the liberty, slides his hand onto the small of his well-muscled back, leans in to whisper in his ear.

“Dance with me,” he says, and the man spins around to look at him.

Almost as blond as Steve, Tony thinks, and eyes almost as blue beneath the mask that covers half his face. He’s dressed like that vigilante no one could track down, the one they all placed bets on. Wayfarer, or something. Rover? Tony thinks he used to have a cape. Tony’s not stupid enough to think he’s actually the same guy, probably just a lookalike – but it doesn’t stop the smirk from crossing his face. Rubell must have been foaming at the mouth.

The music is picking up now. Frantic strings. The throng of people pulses around them like a beating heart. The two of them are standing still while couples writhe and fuck and groan all around them. Tony gets a better glimpse of his quarry as the lights strobe over them and he could look at this man’s body for days. He feels his heart fluttering again, feels himself getting hard. Already wants another bump, another few, another drink, but it’s too soon. He’s thankful for the beat of the music, the lighting that disguises how fucking tweaked he is. He wonders about this man. Too wholesome for this crowd, maybe. Not dirty enough.

Tony takes his hand and the man stares for a split-second before they’re dancing.

Tony doesn’t need to try too hard – he may be a shitshow right now but he’s always been a charmer. Seduction is part of the package. Tonight he finds he wants – not the idle greed he sometimes feels when he sees a beautiful person, but the ravenous hunger he knows won’t leave him until he’s had this man in his mouth.

He feels jumpy, like he might go skittering off the floor if it weren’t for the beat – the coke, the coke, he reminds himself, but the thoughts don’t go away as they step together. Does this man want him, too? Is Tony too tweaked to be desirable? He runs a quick hand over his chest, just to make sure the edge of his scar is still hidden under the hem of his shirt. How will it happen, he thinks, and the man is moving with him like they practice together every Friday on the dance floor, matching his pace to Tony’s. Tony’s already five steps ahead – this man is new here, Tony would have remembered , obviously, but he’s a big boy, everyone in the city knows what this place is for. Maybe he’s one of those guys who wants to be ruined.

Tony moves incrementally closer, risks it: he doesn’t look like Tony Stark these days, not even to the people who know him. The circles under his eyes are a permanent fixture and he’s wearing the wrong colors. His beard is just the wrong side of sleazy, he’s been trying out eyeliner, he greases his hair and wears jewelry to distract from the circles under his eyes. He smokes cigars to cover the smell of alcohol that clings to his breath. His body is a little less muscular, a little softer. A little more exposed, without his armor. A little weaker, without those weekly sparring sessions with Steve.

That brings the ache back. What Steve would say about this place. What Steve would say about him.

The beat drums through him and Tony does what he does best, compartmentalizes for now, because it’s easy to trade in regret, easier to get lost in it. It’s easier still to get lost looking at this man’s body. The details are just wrong enough to make him feel ok about it: a bronze thatch of hair on his bare chest, bottle-blond bedhead. Tony has never seen anyone as blond except Steve, not really, not without help, but this guy is pretty enough to pull it off, and after he sticks his feet for a minute he commits , and there’s a bulge in his pants that says maybe he’s not as pure as Tony thought. Something about that puts him out of Tony’s league, and the anxiety flutters back up.

It’s fine, it has to be fine. Out of his mind, here and now, sweat and sex and this Adonis with the beautiful ass. Step, step, step, and the man dips him, twirls him. Tony is breathless and knows maybe it’s the coke, maybe he’s been pushing too hard lately, knows that his heart sometimes flips in his chest and it isn’t the romance, but this is so different from the colorless world he usually inhabits that he doesn’t even care. He would let this man dance him to death if it meant that he could keep feeling this way. The rev likes this man.

Mystery Man’s lips are moving. His words mostly slide past Tony, lost to the music, but it’s nice. Tony puts his hands on the man’s chest and feels his voice thrumming deep in his chest.

“You remind me of someone,” Tony says. “You’re so tall.”

The man chuckles, even though there’s no way he could have heard that, offers Tony a sheepish smile, then leans in to whisper in Tony’s ear. Tony doesn’t hear what he says, but it’s nice, the feeling of warm breath so close to his ear, the stubble. He shivers even though he’s sweating through his shirt. It makes something in his brain light up. He wants more of that, he wants another bump, he wants a drink. He wants this golden god to bend him over one of the balconies and take him bare.

“Why don’t you take that off,” Tony whispers back, and he tugs at the guy’s mask. He tries an arm around his waist, firm, solid, hot. Tony is hard and it’s obvious. He thinks he’d be more of a gentleman about it under normal circumstances, but in this place, it’s like a handshake.

Mystery Man shudders and his back muscles move beneath Tony’s hand. Tony’s pants grow tighter, still. He smells like Barbasol. A well-respected man. Tony wants to disrespect him.

Mystery Man shakes his head. Pulls Tony in closer, flush against his body. Looks at him, roving eyes and wandering hands. He stares at Tony’s throat. Tony wants to tear his face away but he’s stuck on the guy’s eyes, the fullness of his lips, bright and pink when the lights strobe over them. Tony wonders what color his cock is.

“Do you want to dance?” Tony says.

Mystery Man pulls his head and does something that Steve used to do, a kind of double take with his eyes and his mouth pulling up into a bemused smile. He leans back in and mouths “I don’t know how to dance” in Tony’s ear, except he’s a liar and they’re still moving together like the club will just melt away behind them if they can get close enough.

In ecstasy, Barry White sings, and Mystery Man executes a perfect spin, pulls Tony into his body, dips him back like you might do on a ballroom floor.

He must be new. Tony is fucking charmed.

“Liar,” Tony says, his heart beating out of his chest. They have onlookers; people are moving out of the way to stop and watch and kiss their lovers. Like they’re a show. Like they’re live-action foreplay. He hopes no one has a Polaroid. He misses Damage Control. The guy holds him with one arm but Tony knows that even if he dropped all of his own weight right now, he wouldn’t fall. He thinks maybe they call that trust.

The guy leans over him, dips his head to lay his lips on Tony’s neck.

He moves like he’s had training. Dancing lessons. The rev is bothered. Tony will have to ask Jan about it the next time she takes him out to dinner to tell him she’s worried about him. He must be falling out of touch, out of favor, out of circles. A New York blueblood Tony doesn’t know? Maybe not, maybe he has a wife back home in Levittown. Tony doesn’t care. He thinks he should fall out of touch more often.

Mystery Man brings him back up, and he’s rough now. Tony leans in to kiss him but he noses away, comes back with a nip of his own: I dare you . Rubs them together, cuts his feet in closer, moves his hips like a pole dancer. Lays hands on Tony like Tony is art, skims the flats of his palms down Tony’s sides until Tony is squirming.

“More of that,” Tony breathes. The guy can’t possibly have heard him, but his hands settle against the curve of Tony’s ass. Practically a first date at 54.

Tony tries again for a kiss, but Mystery Man plants a hand on Tony’s chest. Nudges his other hand up under Tony’s ass and jerks him closer, watches Tony’s face, inscrutable. Tony can’t stop looking at his mouth, at the way his lips part.

“I didn’t come here to dance,” Mystery Man says, and rolls his groin into Tony’s.

It’s not a question.

Tony wraps a hand around Mystery Man’s neck to level himself up. “Come with me,” he whispers, and he grazes the guy’s earlobe with his teeth. “I want to blow you.”

 

- - -

 

Steve feels as though he has stepped into the underworld he is certain the sweat from this man’s skin will be sweeter than any pomegranate.

The balcony levels bracketing the cavernous main dance floor are tight and dark. They step through clusters of people – couples, more than couples – in various states of undress, in various levels of penetration. A woman, in flagrante, blows a kiss at him over her lover’s shoulder. The air is so humid with the sour bleach funk of sex that Steve feels like he’ll never be able to get it out his skin. This place lures, he thinks. It makes you certain you belong here.

His quarry strides through it all like this is his kingdom and Steve should be honored to be here. Steve thinks if this were a different time, a different place, he would take him back to his apartment and spend the rest of the night in bed with him.

Steve thinks he must be a businessman. He wears a burgundy suit, expensive material, just enough buttons undone to be indecent. He sniffles every few seconds, and Steve tries to quash the idea that he’s picked up a fucking junkie for the modern equivalent of a back alley blowjob in Paris. The action of the guy’s throat as he swallows is too mesmerizing for Steve to care too much. Mob, maybe, he re-assesses: he looks expensive , and wouldn’t that be a scandal if anyone made him? He can see the Bugle headlines now – Nomad caught in perverted tryst with Maggia Ringleader. 15 dollars a person, a thousand people a night – it’s a wonder the IRS isn’t swarming the place. It’s the perfect front.

But Steve doesn’t answer to anybody anymore and this man’s mouth is plush and wicked.

He wants more than a blowjob if he’s being honest. He wants to take this man, this anonymous, gorgeous man – shirt untucked, pants hiked down to his knees, gripping the balcony until his knuckles go white, pinned, the dance floor laid out below them, and Steve – behind him, maybe, one hand on the nape of his neck and his lips against this man’s spine and –

This is what the future feels like.

“Locked,” the man says. They’re outside a door with a frosted glass window and a handwritten sign taped in the corner. Paul Rubell . “Fuck,” He pulls out his wallet and feeds a black credit card into the lock, angles it back and forth, but the door stays solidly closed. He tugs a flask out of his pocket and sips.

Steve thinks he has terrible taste in men, but then the slender column of the man’s throat moves and Steve is gone.

This is what the future feels like, Steve thinks, and he presses the man up against the wall, crowds into him. He’s gonna bust a seam if he doesn’t get what he’s looking for soon. They’re of equal height, almost, and he can feel the man’s collar rubbing against his bare chest. Silk. He would know, it’s all Tony wore. This one is clearly acquainted with glamour; Steve can still taste his cologne on his tongue. Steve would paint him if this were a different kind of courtship, would have him strewn out on red silk to set off the blues in his pale skin. He nips at the man’s ear and imagines the intimacy of arranging his limbs.

Steve’s spandex leaves little to the imagination, and the man cups Steve’s balls through his pants, gently, hefts the weight of him in his palm. “You’re big,” he says, all throat, with the sort of gravel that chain-smokers have. He trails the tip of his finger over the head of Steve’s cock where it’s pressing up against the seam.

The music is making Steve mad, the relentless drive of the beat eggs him on, like time will stretch out forever if he doesn’t act, if he doesn’t find that warm place his cock wants. This place isn’t about idleness; neither of them have really stopped moving. Even now the man is running one hand through Steve’s hair, grinding up against his leg in a slow, filthy seduction, undoing his own belt with his other hand.

He’s never kissed a man with stubble before. He can’t bring himself to kiss the guy on the lips: he still feels like an island, like he’s been out in the cold too long to get it right, so he fits his lips under the line of the man’s jaw. Stubble scrapes at his lips but he finds he’s grateful for it. It’s almost warmth, almost a connection. A frisson of anticipation runs through him: how will morning find him, stumbling in at the crack of dawn with his lips swollen and his costume stained? He tries to be gentle, because he knows that his gentle is still rougher than most normal people are asking for. He could bruise, if he’s not careful. He could snap this man’s neck if he lost control.

Unaware of the danger, this man is all hands, confident and deft. They rove over Steve’s neck, his ears, tangling in the hair at his nape. He’s not as hard as Steve is but he keeps moving his hips like he’s lost in himself and Steve is deeply, fiercely envious of his freedom.

Right here, right now, with this man, Steve can almost believe that there is nothing in the world to weigh him down. He is able to forget his shame.

He is intoxicated and he knows it and he doesn’t care.

It’s so good, Donna Summer sings, and Steve couldn’t find stillness in him if he tried. The man tilts his head, considering, gently, gently slides his hand around to run the tips of his fingers through the hair on Steve’s chest. He fingers the hem of Steve’s suit, lets his fingertips trail just under the hem, over his abs, down to his navel. Steve thinks he does an admirable job of holding himself back – he doesn’t gasp, he doesn’t moan. Wants to. Doesn’t know who he’s saving himself for.

Steve’s skin is sweaty, he knows, but this man keeps touching him, tracing the lines of his stomach, down, down, feather light, before he wraps his fingers deliberately around Steve’s belt and fumbles with the clasp. The sound is barely audible, lost under the moaning, under the beat. It falls loose around his hips, and Steve thinks that he can only hold off for so long, being teased like this.

The man hooks his fingertips in Steve’s waistband and yanks down.

His costume doesn’t rip, but it’s a near thing. Steve isn’t expecting the suddenness of it, the almost-violence, and sharp panic wells in him as the wall cracks a little where he braces himself with one hand. His briefs have bunched up under his balls and it’s too dark to see, but the air on his skin feels obscene.

The man wraps one arm around the broad part of Steve’s back like they’re embracing, like they could be lovers, real lovers, and then his hand is around Steve’s cock like he can see in the dark.

“I’m gonna swallow,” he growls in Steve’s ear, and then he slides down the length of Steve’s body.

This is better than the waitress. He can’t remember her name and it was three days ago, but he’s going to remember this. He’s going to turn this over and over in his mind’s eye for months. Steve should say something responsible, VD – that’s still a thing, probably, and he doesn’t have a rubber, but he’s not the one at risk here, and all his accountability drains right into his genitals as this man slides to his knees in a beautiful controlled collapse.

“You look like someone I know,” the man is saying, and he probably doesn’t think Steve can hear. “He got away.” It strikes Steve as the wrong thing to say when he’s kneeling in glitter and filth and Steve’s cock is jutting out of his suit like he made this costume expressly to take it off and the whole thing feels sordid and miserable but somehow he can’t manage to stop touching the guy’s hair glinting in the light from the disco ball. It reminds him of Tony. Tony’s hair always started to curl when it let it get long.

The man just kneels there for a moment, breathes on the tip of Steve’s cock, and then he settles, kneels up. Takes the tip of Steve’s cock into his blazing mouth and Steve thinks more , everything, now, and then the man slides his mouth all the way down and Steve feels his nose nudging against his pubes.

The man catches one of Steve’s hands and presses it to his throat so Steve can feel.

Steve grabs the base of his balls, pulls down. Tries anything. It’s been five seconds.

The man finds his hand there where Steve is clutching at himself, places it on the back of his head, then settles his own hands firmly on Steve’s thighs. Waits.

Steve’s breath is ragged and ugly and the music is loud and relentless and he rises to the invitation with a shamelessness he didn’t think he was capable of. The man’s throat makes a noise every time Steve pulls out that drives him closer to the edge. He puts his hand back up on the wall, lets the drywall crack, revels in the headiness of this place, this moment, thoughts darting in his head: not allowed and yes and fuck me fuck me fuck me. He’s savaging this man’s throat and he doesn’t care. What would Tony think of him, what would he say? The man grunts and Steve winds his fingers tighter in his dark hair and he’s so close, he’s so close, he’s being too rough but he doesn’t want to pull away, he won’t. He thrusts, once, twice, more, and lets himself slide all the way down this stranger’s throat.

A moan tears from his chest, low and ragged and filthy.

The man laps at him even after he’s done, and it’s all Steve can do to hold himself up and not fall to his knees.

“Did you have a good time, soldier,” the man asks, and the cadence of his voice is so –

Steve’s eyes snap open. The man is licking his own spend off his fingers, catching a trickle that’s threatening to run into his beard. When he turns his face up, the strobe lights up his face, hits his eyes just right, just for a moment.

It’s Tony.

“Oh, god,” Steve chokes.

He flees down the stairwell.

He is debauched. His face is burning but the couples and throuples and groups he passes don’t give a shit that he’s pulling up his briefs and stuffing himself back into his spandex pants, god, he did that, Tony did that, that’s Tony, did Tony recognize him, Jesus, what has he done –

He rips at his hair and tries to breathe. His crotch feels wet and messy and foul. An exit sign beckons and Steve kicks the door open with more force than is strictly necessary and gulps in lungfuls of foul city air. The smell of sweat – bodies – cigarette smoke – abruptly gives way to the garbage smell of New York at night.

God, Tony knew how to do that to him. Tony is a queer. Tony is –

A wet slick is blooming down the front of Steve’s uniform and his face heats at his own hypocrisy. He just had his cock in his best friend’s mouth and he liked it, he wants it again already, he wants so many things and this place is made of lies and glitter and blow, neither of them can ever have this, not really, not for real, not for permanent.

Tony spends his nights here, now, Steve realizes, and it hits him all at once, the coke, god, the coke, the bags under his eyes. Did the Avengers find out? Did Tony tell them? Oh, god, Tony can never go back, Steve can never go back –

As soon as the back door slams shut behind him, it bangs open again.

Steve doesn’t expect Tony to chase him, but he should know better.

“Wait,” Steve hears from behind him, Tony’s voice raspy and strained.

Steve turns around, because his instincts have a way of evaporating around Tony.

Tony has a sheen on his face, one perfect tiny ringlet of hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. Standing in the moonlight, the angles of his face are sharper – he’s lost weight. He skates the edge of good bone structure and junkie pall. His hair is just long enough to be rakish without looking scraggly. He’s wearing eyeliner like a rock star and a few delicate gold chains hang from his throat – more misdirections. He looks high, he looks dangerous. He looks like the kind of guy Steve might take pity on in daylight.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says, completely without guile. “I just – you look like a marine, you carry yourself – I should have thought. People come here to forget about the war. I’m sorry.”

Oh, god. Steve is a monster. He is seven kinds of liar and Tony will still twist himself into knots to take the blame for a stranger.

“I would have liked to take you home,” Tony says, and why doesn’t he use that voice all the time, they’d never have gotten anything done at Avengers meetings, that’s why – is this how Tony talks to all his lovers? Stupid, he thinks, they aren’t lovers, as far as Tony knows, they’re two strangers in an alley and Tony –

Tony steps into his space (how can Tony still not know, how did Steve not realize), and palms him. Steve can’t stop the gasp from leaving his mouth - he’s still so sensitive, it’s so wrong, it’s so dishonest – and that’s when Tony leans forward and presses their lips together.

It’s so gentle.

It’s so gentle, and then Tony is more insistent, takes the inch Steve has offered and makes it into his own mile, puts his hands on Steve’s cheeks and strokes over the stubble like he loves it, and Steve is desperately glad one of them is sober. Steve’s hands find Tony’s waist, he’s so hot through his shirt, the small of his back is so bony, god, is he sick? Was it always like this?

Of all the things Steve could be thinking, I never should have left is what runs through his head.

Steve thinks he expected Tony to kiss like kissing is a sport, like Tony does everything else, all confidence and power and that reminder that you’re in the presence of greatness. This isn’t like that; this is a seduction and Steve doesn’t fully understand why Tony would bother, Steve is a stranger, they’ve done something filthier than this already but Tony is so smooth that Steve doesn’t even realize Tony’s tongue is in his mouth until he’s pulling back. Just a taste , Tony would say, if they were back in the mansion and it were the light of day and they knew who they were, but this Tony has glazed eyes and enormous pupils and sways on his feet and traces the muscles in Steve’s neck with his fingertips.

“Oh,” Steve says, and Tony is still pressing his body against Steve’s, and Steve can see the scarring from his surgery through that big gap in his shirt if he looks hard enough –

It’s been so long, he can’t help but stare. He licks his lips, finds the taste of himself where Tony’s been. Tastes blood, too.

A trickle of red peeks out of Tony’s nose. It looks like tar; his skin is so pale in the lamplight.

“I can’t do this,” Steve says.

Tony takes it like a physical blow; Steve can see the moment it registers on his face: split-second shame. But Tony has always been clever about his face and everything is clearer now without the haze of smoke and heat and rhythm, it’s all right there, Steve would know him anywhere –

“I understand,” Tony is saying. “Really, I do, it’s – you seem very wholesome.” He rubs his hands together over and over, like he does when he’s working out a problem on the map board. Tony lets out a piteous little chuckle for Steve’s benefit, but his eyes are flat and dull. “I’m not–” He stops himself short.

“No, no, I know,” Steve says, and tries to pitch his voice higher. “I thought I could, and I want – wanted to, but I can’t.” He runs a hand through his hair. “We shouldn’t have,” he amends.

Tony stands there shifting his weight. His heart sounds fluttery. Steve aches to tell him. It’s the right thing to do; it’s what Captain America would do.

“You leave all your dates high and dry?” Tony says, spinning his armor with words like the hurt isn’t spackled all over his face, but Steve knows better. He’s known him too long. This part is ugly, without the cloak of sex and drugs and anonymity. Steve is a stranger, it’s nothing. They have nothing, in this alley, on this night.

“You remind me of someone,” Steve chokes out.

Tony runs his fingers over his chest, under the collar of his shirt. Over the port where his fake heart used to be.

“Oh,” Tony says. There is something heartbreaking in his speechlessness. Tony’s always had his tongue about him. He nods to himself. He sniffs. He’s high.

“You can pretend,” Tony says, and lowers his voice to that cadence he keeps for his lovers. “We can both pretend?” Steve lets his eyes drift back to Tony’s eyes, and that’s a mistake; he can’t stop looking. Steve wants him, all of him, friend and lover and teammate and confidant, wants all of him from the eyeliner to the cut of his clothes and the hair curling over his brow. He’s wringing his hands, he’s barely hard. His nose is bleeding. “I could go all night with you,” Tony tells him, and Steve actually balls up his fist.

“Your nose is bleeding,” Steve says, finally, and Tony’s hand comes up quick as lightning to fix it.

“Sorry,” Tony says. “You know how it is.”

Steve closes his eyes. Of all possible outcomes, this is his luck. He laughs, because it’s not funny, none of it is funny.

“You seemed into it when your cock was down my throat,” Tony says, and he leans on the dumpster like it’s a set dressing put there expressly for Tony’s use. Tony smiles a sad wan smile. “Not your type after all?”

Steve’s face is hot; he feels it all the way down his chest. Part of him dies, because he had never imagined: Tony shares his own secret shame. What does he say. Thank you. Sorry. I’d do it again. I’d do it every day.

“It wouldn’t be – fair to you,” Steve croaks, and Tony’s face shifts into something hard and awful.

It’s the wrong thing to say, because Tony’s eyes are fixed on his face – not casual lust anymore, something shrewd and searching and calculated. He’s working out a problem, and Tony never stops until he gets what he’s after. “What’s your game, mister,” Tony says, his voice strangled and tight.

“Excuse me?” Steve says. His chest feels tight, Tony is between him and the exit, he owes him more than a cowardly exit and excuses, god, what does he say –

“Don’t be coy, darling,” Tony says, and there might be venom there if there wasn’t bone-deep exhaustion. “Who hired you?”

“I don’t,” Steve sputters. “What?”

“Are you one of Hammer’s?” Tony says, weary, like Steve is just one in a long line of strangers to let him down. “Am I your exclusive , did he hire you to fuck me and run, am I going to wake up to some story about what a fag Tony Stark is, was the ambassador not enough for you vultures–”

“Listen, I’m not–”

“Please,” Tony says. “Just.” He sniffs again, sways on his feet. “Whatever he’s paying you, I’ll pay better–”

“I’m not interested in money,” Steve says. “I’m.”

“Then we can work something out,” Tony says, and he slips back into that awful voice that’s for strangers and not for Steve. “I’ll blow you again,” he offers. “You can fuck me if you want, for real, I can fuck you, just, please don’t–”

Steve, in what is possibly the worst decision he’s made since leaving the team, yanks his own mask off.

The door bangs open behind them and a group of shirtless men filter out, laughing and touching and smiling. They make their way around to the sidewalk as if Steve’s entire world isn’t falling apart right here, right now. Steve ducks his head, pretends he’s looking past the dumpster and not thinking about diving into it.

“I’m not extorting you,” Steve breathes, when they’re gone.

Tony lets out an ugly laugh and runs his hands over his face. He nods to himself and bites at his lip and smiles a dead smile.

“Where have you been,” he says.

“Around,” Steve says. “Tony, is someone extorting you?”

“Around,” Tony repeats, and he’s wringing his hands again, back and forth, twisting and knotting his fingers together. “And you just happen to end up at the gayest place in the city–”

“I got in accidentally,” Steve admits.

Tony barks out a laugh. “Of course you did,” he says. “I bet Rubell fuckin’ loved you, wanted to climb you like a tree and fuck you over the balcony–”

“Don’t be crass,” Steve chides, but he flushes all the same.

“Oh, spare me,” Tony snaps. “You. Here. Steve Rogers at Studio 54, Jesus. Or should I call you Nomad?

Steve blinks. “You know? About Nomad?”

“I fucking know now,” Tony says, and he’s flushing. He shoves his hands in his pockets, but not before Steve can see how they’re shaking.

“You didn’t know, it’s–,” Steve says. “It’s ok, I’m sorry, it’s, Tony–”

“I should have known, you move like a goddamn ballerina, Steve,” Tony says. “You blush like no one I’ve ever seen. What the fuck did I do to deserve this, why now, why this, why like this–“

“Calm down, Avenger,” Steve says, and Tony’s eyes dart away.

Oh, no.

It comes out too confident, too defensive, like he’s sure of himself. Like he’s not sorry for any of it. Tony’s whole body goes stiff and he picks his head up and sneers , and it’s wrong on his face, it’s cruel and callous and nothing like Tony.

“You know, we had bets for awhile, before they asked me to step down ,” Tony says. “My money was on Batroc. And it’s not, it’s you. You’ve been in Manhattan this whole time and no one knew where you were–”

“Batroc? Before they – what? Tony, back up–”

“You leap,” Tony says, like that’s any kind of explanation. “You have a gymnast thing going on–”

“Don’t do that,” Steve snaps. “You stepped down? Who’s leading the Avengers?”

“I don’t think you get to ask me that,” Tony tells him. “Thanks for keeping in touch.”

“Tony,” Steve says. “I didn’t–”

“Yeah,” Tony says, “you didn’t.”

Steve shifts on his feet and looks anywhere but at Tony’s face. “How long,” he says.

“Right after you left, actually,” Tony says, strangled and relieved all at once, like he’s been dying to say it to someone. “It’s been a shitty few years, Steve,” he tells his feet.

Steve sucks in a breath. He can’t stand it, not knowing. “Did someone do this to you,” he says. “Is someone – geez, Tony, you look like hell–”

Tony’s face is wet. He presses his lips together and doesn’t quite make it to a smile. “Thanks, Cap,” he says.

“Tony–”

“I think I liked you better when you were a stranger,” Tony tells him, and Steve loses some of his breath.

“Did someone do this to you,” Steve repeats. “Tony, does Bethany know you’re-”

“I don’t want to talk about Bethany,” Tony says. “I didn’t come to 54 to think about women, Steve,”

“Don’t say that,” Steve says, hideously embarrassed, Christ, he can feel the blush all the way down to his chest.

“Say what,” Tony presses, “That I’m a fag, steve? That Tony Stark is a cocksucker and Captain America cruises 54-”

“Tony, don’t,” Steve says.

“That we just fucked, Steve? Should I not say that?”

He’s so naked in the face of Tony’s ire, so defenseless, his hot shame on display for Tony and the rats to see.

“Am I your first,” Tony says, and his venom is gone away and he is so timid that Steve wishes they were inside so they could scream at each other properly.

“No,” Steve says to his feet.

I wish you were , he doesn’t say.

“I hate seeing you like this,” he says.

Tony looks at Steve like he despises him.

“No one did this to me, no one – I don’t have a fucking – pimp, or whatever you think. It’s my business,” he says, and his voice is harder now. “It’s my business who I fuck and what I put in my body and I’m perfectly capable of driving myself into the ground without your help.” His eyes go unfocused and slide up away from Steve’s face. “Not that you were around,” Tony says.

The clouds are breaking up. Steve can almost see the stars. “You didn’t need me,” he says. “I was bad press, Tony, I didn’t – you know how I felt at the end of it. I couldn’t wear the flag on my chest like that, not in good conscience–”

“Fuck your conscience,” Tony says, his voice piteous and small. “I missed you.”

Oh.

Steve presses his mouth together and shoves his feelings down as fast as they try to bubble up. Distance. This is why he doesn’t come to Midtown, this is – a disaster.

“I was trying to do something for me,” Steve chokes. “I didn’t know,” he starts. I didn’t know it was so bad. I didn’t know about any of it.

I didn’t know you wanted me.

“I needed a change,” he says hoarsely. It’s so thin, they both know it. Tony’s face is completely blank.

“Whatever keeps you warm,” Tony says, his voice quiet and seething. “I guess that’s me, tonight.”

Steve’s face burns . He deserves it. It’s more than fair.

“I just wish I’d known it was you,” Tony says, drained and completely without guile. He looks Steve in the eye. “I don’t regret it.”

Steve aches. Wants to beat back Tony’s demons for him. Watches him sniff and fumble and wipe his nose and lick his lips. Witnesses the disaster he is, and still wants him.

“I should go,” Steve says, and turns.

“Coward,” Tony throws out.

“Maybe,” Steve concedes softly.

“No, no, no, Steve, Steve, wait,” Tony says, and clutches at his arm. It’s so blatantly affectionate, so unlike Tony, that it staggers him for a moment.

Tony’s eyes are glistening. There’s a red streak where he’s wiped at his nose, a tear track that shines in the lamplight. His shirt is open, his breath clouds in the air.

He smells like Steve.

“Tony,” Steve starts, and he wants to be mad but all he can focus on is the way Tony’s hands are kneading at his arm, the way his chest feels gaping and open.

“I don’t know if I’m gonna remember this tomorrow,” Tony mumbles, and he moves closer to Steve like he’s magnetized.

Steve wants to tell him maybe it’s better if he doesn’t, but that would be cruel. Out of character.

The moon is breaking through the clouds, now, the sky has cleared. He can see how deep the blue of Tony’s eyes runs. A traffic light at an empty intersection behind Tony flips to green.

“You were gonna kiss me before,” Tony says. “Do you still want to?”

Like he’ll be heartbroken if Steve says no.

“What do you want with me, Steve,” Tony presses. “You don’t have one night stands.” Steve wishes Tony would have always been this open and unfiltered and hates himself for it: it’s the coke, it’s the alcohol. Tony’s loose-lipped and rough and he swallows and his Adam’s apple bobs –

“How would you know what I want these days,” Steve says. “You’re high, Tony.”

Tony’s face crumbles faster than he can put his walls back up. “So?” he says, his gaze slack somewhere over Steve’s shoulder. “We can pretend, you can pretend I’m the stranger you thought I was and I can–”

Steve’s hand is trembling as he rests it on Tony’s cheek. A simple, forbidden thing.

He wants to cry with the unfairness of it, that it has to happen like this if it happens at all, now.

“I can pretend this never happened,” Tony breathes. His eyelashes are very long. They’re face-to-face, chest-to-chest.

“What’s the harm,” Tony is whispering, and his breath ghosts against Steve’s lips, and Steve is weak and heartsick and he leans into it.

He tries to imagine Tony is in his armor, that they’re somewhere else in a better time. Tony’s kiss is so gentle, so tentative, so different than Steve imagined. Tony kisses like it’s the last one he’ll ever get. He nips a little, nibbles at Steve’s bottom lip, soothes the edge of it away with his tongue. He tastes like Steve’s come and the martini he was drinking and the pit in Steve’s stomach widens and –

He pulls away, chest heaving. He’s flushing again. Always so transparent. Tony looks at him, dazed and hungry.

Like Steve is the only thing in the world worth living for.

Steve’s eyes sear with unshed tears, and somewhere, deep down in his bones, he feels terror for the first time in a long time.

“I’m sorry,” he says, because the list is long. Abandonment, failure, heartlessness. He doesn’t know which one he’s apologizing for just now.

He wishes he could blame it on his better judgment. He turns on his heel and pretends he’s brave and walks away.

Tony doesn’t stop him.

 

- - -

 

Tony doesn’t remember ducking into the bathroom until someone is telling him to fucking move.

He pulls himself the fuck together. Freshens his face, wipes his tears away. Smudges his makeup, runs a hand through his hair. Does three shots in a row back at the bar to get the taste of Steve’s come out of his mouth.

Tries to feel nothing.

He slides onto the dance floor and tries not to think about the feel of Steve’s body on his and the gaping hole behind his ribs and his garbage legacy.

Acquaints himself with the idea that the unrequited love of his life just abandoned him. Again.

Tony finds a nice blond man by the bar, slides onto the stool next to him. His eyes are the wrong color. It’s fine. He has a body that puts Robert Redford to shame. He’s got a Semper Fi tattoo on his bicep.

Perfect.

“Hi,” Tony says. “How would you like to fuck me over the balcony, soldier?”