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So Alive

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“Steve, did you see this order come in?”

 

Steve Rogers, Founder and President of SHIELD Publications, looked up from his computer at Peggy, who was strolling into his office-slash-glorified-cubicle brandishing a piece of paper. He raised his eyebrows at her. “Who’s it from?” he asked.

 

“Brooklyn Heights Books,” Peggy said, reading the order form.

 

“I saw that it came in,” Steve said, sitting back, “but they’ve ordered from us before. What’s the problem?”

 

“There’s no problem,” Peggy said, showing him the paper. “Quite the opposite, actually. They’ve expanded their title request and more than doubled the number of copies they usually ask for.”

 

“Really?” Steve said, taking the form and looking at the numbers. “That’s great. Nick Fury is still the owner, right?”

 

“That’s what their website says,” Peggy replied.

 

“I like Nick,” Steve said. “The few times I’ve talked to him, anyway. He doesn’t really get comics, but he knows enough to appreciate quality and he treats people well.” He handed Peggy the form. “Feel like taking a field trip?”

 

“Can’t today,” Peggy said. “After I finish here I need to deliver amortization documents to Tony’s offices before they close.”

 

“Ah, the glorious life of an accountant,” Steve joked, shutting off his computer and standing up. He took his jacket off the back of his chair. “I’ll ask Sam if he wants to go.”

 

“Yes, please take Sam with you,” a voice cried from the next cubicle over. Peter Parker, Steve’s office assistant, said pleadingly. “He keeps throwing these weird origami birds at me.”

 

“They are not weird,” Sam said indignantly from across the aisle. “They are falcons and they are majestic creatures, you heathen.”

 

Peter turned his gaze back on Steve, silently begging with his big, sad, puppy eyes.

 

Steve laughed as he pulled his jacket on. “Suit up, Sam, we’re moving out.”

 

“See you tomorrow,” Peggy sang out, walking over to her desk.

 

“Have a good evening, everyone,” Steve replied, as he and Sam walked out into the afternoon sunshine.

 

 

***

 

The drive from Lower Manhattan, where SHIELD’s office was located, to Brooklyn Heights, while being less than four miles, took nearly half an hour. “I could run there faster than this,” Sam groused as they crawled along in traffic.

 

“We should do that one day,” Steve said, a grin stretched across his face. “Leave the car at home and just run everywhere we need to go.”

 

“You go right ahead, you big ol’ side of beef,” Sam scoffed. “I’ll stay in here and enjoy the air conditioning by myself.”

 

That summer had, as per usual, been hot and humid, and both men were looking forward to the fall weather’s cooler temperatures. Those were still at least a month away, though, so they were grateful for Steve’s cool and comfortable car interior, even if it meant being stuck in traffic.

 

By the time they got to Brooklyn Heights, it was mid-afternoon. They turned on to Court Street and found parking not too far from the bookstore they were visiting. While walking over, they checked out the neighborhood—it was an interesting mix of old, family-owned businesses and trendy new restaurants and boutiques, enjoying the upswing of gentrification that was also boosting real estate prices.

 

“This is a nice area,” Sam commented, nodding as he looked around. “I don’t get over here very much.”

 

“It’s definitely cleaned up from when I was younger, but then again, so has most of Brooklyn,” Steve agreed. He looked up at a sign overhead. “There it is.”

 

The sign for Brooklyn Heights Books was large and round, black on white, with the initials “BHB” in a bold, traditional font, with the first “B” actually facing backward in a way that was both symmetrical and pleasing to the eye. The circle was superimposed on an open book, which gave the sign a nice depth. It hung from the awning on the front of a brick-faced, two-story building that somehow managed to look both old and modern at the same time. It was very clean and well maintained, with potted plants and flowers out front, and was sandwiched between an ice-cream shop and a UPS Store.

 

When they opened the front door, a bell jingled happily overhead, announcing their entrance. After closing the door behind them, Sam inhaled obnoxiously through his nose, moaning as he exhaled, “Lord have mercy, what is that? It smells amazing!”

 

A laugh to their left pulled their attention into the small café that sat at the front of the bookstore. A man behind the counter, with short, dark-blond hair and a big smile, said, “I know, right? Our afternoon delivery of pastries just came in.”

 

“We are hittin’ that before we leave,” Sam said, to which Steve just laughed.

 

“Sure, I could use a coffee,” he said. “But let’s go have a look around first. I don’t want to leave crumbs on the floor.”

 

“Lead the way, sir,” Sam said, gesturing to Steve. To the man in the café, who was bringing a small cup of coffee and a plate of cookies over to a customer at one of their eat-in tables, he said, “We’ll be back in a few minutes—save some of those pastries for us!”

 

“You got it!” he said with a grin, waving them off.

 

Steve wandered down the main aisle of the bookstore, noting the layout—newsstand at the front, by the café, new releases and best sellers next to that. Checkout was a modest, two-register system in the center of the first floor, which was unique. Steve looked to either side of the store and saw that there were stairs on one side to take people to the second floor, and an elevator on the other side. Most of the first floor was dedicated, it appeared, to fiction and a small children’s section in the back, while non-fiction was on the second floor. It was well laid out and comfortable, with small seating areas scattered about, decorated with dark wood tones and deep red, blue, and green fabric elements, with large signs overhead to direct people to their desired subject matter.

 

“This is a really nice place,” Steve said. “Very cozy. I like it.” He pointed to a sign off to his left. “Graphic novels, right over there.”

 

They wandered past the checkout area, where a young woman with dark, red-to-black ombre hair, smiled at them. “Hi there, welcome to Brooklyn Heights Books. Can I help you find something?”

 

“Well, hello—“ Steve checked her name tag, “—Mora, we’re here to check out the graphic novels and comic book section.” He pointed over his shoulder to the area behind him. “Over here?”

 

“You got it,” she smiled. “Our manager is working on expanding that area. He’s a huge fan. I’ll be right here if you have any questions.”

 

“Good to know,” Steve said, “thanks.”

 

He and Sam walked into the aisle marked ‘Comics/Graphic Novels,’ and Steve came to a complete halt. “Wow,” he said quietly.

 

Sam whistled through his teeth. “Daaang,” he said slowly, “the manager really is a fan, isn’t he?”

 

While most bookstores—even the really big ones—might have one or two bays of shelves set aside for graphic novels, this store had an entire aisle. Ten bays, divided by publisher, series, volume, and issue, plus a separate, very large and prominent display set aside just for—Steve couldn’t believe it—SHIELD Publications new releases.

 

It was taller than the other bookshelves, due to the company logo—a large, round, red, white, and blue shield with a white star in the center—that made up the back of the display. Shelves stretched across the width of the shield, and the issues were all face-forward, showcasing the art on the covers.

 

“Holy mackerel,” he said, walking over to the display, which held the latest copies of every series they published. He looked at the display itself, which was well constructed and sturdy. The paint job was professional looking and very striking. “This isn’t one of the normal display stands,” he said to Sam.

 

“Nope,” a man said, walking down the aisle toward them. “Our manager asked one of the café guys to build that—Pietro, he’s a really good wood- and metal-worker—and Pietro’s sister Wanda painted it. She’s an artist,” the man said.

 

“An artist? For, like, murals and things?” Sam asked.

 

“Lots of things, but tattoos mostly,” the man said. He stuck his hand out. “I’m Pete, by the way. I work here.”

 

“Hi, Pete, I’m Steve, this is Sam,” Steve said, shaking his hand. Sam followed suit. “This is a really impressive collection,” he said, gesturing around him.

 

“If you like comics and graphic novels, you should definitely talk to our manager,” Pete said. “He’s, like, super-fan. Especially the SHIELD novels, those are his favorites.”

 

“Mine, too,” Steve smiled. “Is your manager around? I’d love to talk to him.”

 

“Not at the moment, unfortunately,” Pete said. “He had to run out and get something for Nick, the owner. He’ll be back a little later, though. His name is James.”

 

“I’m sure I’ll catch him another time,” Steve said. “Thanks for talking to us.”

 

“Any time,” Pete said, shaking their hands again. “Enjoy your afternoon.”

 

After Pete left to help Mora at the registers, Sam and Steve looked over the rest of the aisle, pointing things out to each other. If the new manager was the one who had put it all together, he was clearly not only knowledgeable, but passionate, too. He carried the best artists and storytellers—and not just the well-known ones, either. New and promising writers were right alongside classic series. Steve was seriously impressed.

 

“This guy has great taste,” he said to Sam as they wandered back up to the front of the store, a bag in his hand holding a new issue of a series he’d been waiting for.

 

“You’re not just saying that because he worships you?” Sam asked sarcastically.

 

Steve huffed a laugh. “He likes the books, not me,” he said. “Now let’s go get some coffee.”

 

***

 

Sam moaned after taking a bite of pastry. “Ohmygaaawd,” he sighed, his eyes rolling back in ecstasy. “This is—this is just…wow,” he finally managed to say after eating the first bite.

 

The man behind the counter—his name was Clint—had put together a sampler plate for Sam and Steve, and Sam had attacked the apple tart with gusto. It was light and flaky, the apples the perfect combination of sweet and sour, and combined with the salted caramel macchiato that Clint had created for him, he was in heaven.

 

Steve was equally enamored with the tiny napoleon that he was having with his black coffee. Unlike Sam, Steve was not a big fan of the sweet, sugary concoctions that coffee shops had started coming out with, though Clint managed to make them without using the fake, syrupy additives that other places used. “I am a total coffee snob, and I can’t stand the artificial junk that a lot of places use to cover up inferior coffee. My wife makes all the flavorings that I use here,” he explained. “She buys all the ingredients and makes them herself. All natural, all organic.”

 

“This is fantastic,” Sam said, swallowing the last bit of apple. “Is she a chef?”

 

“She’s a professional pastry chef, yeah,” Clint said, smiling broadly. “She made all the pastries here, too.”

 

“How are you not eight hundred pounds?” Sam asked, his eyes wide.

 

Clint laughed. “It’s not easy, man. I have to go to the gym religiously.”

 

“Well, please pass on our compliments,” Steve said, wiping his hands. “All of it was excellent.”

 

“Thanks, guys,” Clint said, beaming with pride. “Her business is called ‘Red Room Pastries.’ She delivers to a few restaurants around here.”

 

Steve heard the bell over the front door jingling, and when Clint waved at the person who came in, calling out, “Hey, Buck!” he glanced over his shoulder as Sam and Clint continued discussing pastries. A man wearing a light denim jacket over a dark blue shirt came into the shop, a box tucked under his right arm. Despite it being late afternoon, he was wearing sunglasses with bright blue lenses, and his long, dark hair was pulled back in a messy little bun. A few strands had escaped, framing his strong, unshaven jawline. The man looked into the café, smiled widely, and waved in Clint’s direction as he kept walking into the bookstore, and Steve’s mouth went completely dry.

 

Beautiful, was the only word to describe that smile; straight, white teeth framed by full, lush, red lips, bracketed by laugh lines and an adorable dimple in his right cheek, a charming little chin cleft just visible under the light stubble—Steve was struck literally speechless. And that was before he got a glimpse of the man’s backside. Slim hips and a round, firm-looking ass led to long, lean legs that were encased in snug, dark blue jeans.

 

“Guh,” Steve said, watching the dark-haired man continue on to the back of the store.

 

“You okay, man?” Sam asked a few seconds later, laughter on the tip of his tongue.

 

“Buh—whaaa, huh?” Steve finally said, tearing his eyes away from the man’s posterior and meeting Sam’s eyes.

 

“You might want to close your mouth before you start drooling,” Sam continued, grinning from ear-to-ear.

 

“I—I wasn’t—“ Steve began to protest.

 

“No, I get it, Steve. He was pretty cute,” Sam said, nodding happily as he drank his coffee.

 

“Sam!” Steve hissed, looking around to see if anyone else had heard.

 

Sam’s eyes softened. “Steve,” he said quietly, “you know it’s okay, right? I’m not gonna freak out because you like guys. I’ve known for a long time, remember?” He put a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “I just want you to be happy. After that mess with…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “You haven’t dated anyone in a while. I don’t like seeing you worried about what I’m going to think.”

 

“I know, Sam,” Steve sighed, looking at his feet. “It’s just,” he paused, “it’s been a while since I’ve even looked at anyone. Just kind of caught me off guard.”

 

“Sometimes being caught off guard is a good thing,” Sam said, nudging him with his shoulder. “Doesn’t give you a chance to close yourself off first.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Steve replied, blushing. He took another sip of coffee, pretending that he wasn’t keeping an eye out for the dark-haired man.

 

They finished up their drinks and the plate of treats, but unfortunately for Steve, he didn’t catch another glimpse of the man with the gorgeous smile. After thanking Clint again as they were walking out, Sam said, “You can always ask Clint who that was. Seemed like they knew each other.”

 

“That would be weird and creepy,” Steve said, shaking his head.

 

“Well, we can come back here next week, have some more of those incredible apple tarts and amazing coffee, you can talk to the manager if he’s there, maybe that guy will be around.” Sam looked at Steve as he shook his head some more, laughing. “What? It could happen.”

 

“I don’t even know if he’s, you know,” Steve shrugged, getting his car keys out of his pocket.

 

“If he bats for your team?” Sam grinned.

 

“Yeah, that,” Steve sighed. “And even if he does, I seriously doubt he’s single.”

 

“I’m secure enough in my sexuality to say that you’re a very good-looking man,” Sam said sincerely. “You got that whole, ‘sensitive lumberjack’ thing going on with the beard and the soulful blue eyes and the huge biceps. If you ever see that guy again, just talk to him. Believe me, if he’s interested, you’ll know.”

 

They had reached Steve’s car by this point, and as they buckled up and pulled out of the parking space, Steve said, “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. I got another letter from Pierce today.”

 

“Same old shit?” Sam asked, rolling his eyes.

 

“Yup,” Steve replied, his annoyance obvious. “Wants the rights to my characters, blah, blah, blah, thinly-veiled threats, blah, blah, blah, same old, same old.”

 

“Want me to send out the usual refusal letter?” Sam asked.

 

“Yes, please,” Steve said. He frowned in confusion. “I just don’t get it. Why does he keep asking when he knows I’ll never sell? He’s got to know by now that he’s not going to wear me down.”

 

“Beats the hell outta me,” Sam said. “I’m about ready to file for a ‘Cease and Desist’ order against him.”

 

“Have I ever told you how glad I am you decided that you wanted to be a lawyer when we were kids?” Steve asked, chuckling.

 

“You might have mentioned it once or twice,” Sam laughed. “Thought I’d end up a defense lawyer, though, just to keep your dumb ass outta jail.”

 

“I wasn’t that bad,” Steve responded, pretending to be offended. He knew better, though—he really had been that bad. Worse, actually.

 

Despite being a small kid, Steve had stood up to every bully he’d come across, usually at great personal peril. By the time he’d met Sam in middle school, his nose had already been broken multiple times; this had done nothing, however, to dissuade Steve from standing up to boys twice his height and three times his weight.

 

This was what had drawn Sam to him in the first place. Steve was all fire and heart and never met a problem that he couldn’t solve or fight his way out of—and this quality hadn’t changed a bit, even after Steve hit a massive growth spurt during senior year of high school. His sense of right and wrong, coupled with his determination to give everything he had for a cause he believed in had made them fast friends. The only time he’d ever seen Steve bite his tongue and bow down to pressure had been awful; Steve had tried to change who he was to please someone else, and it had been horrible. Sam never wanted to see Steve that unhappy ever again.

 

So Sam, despite having another, full-time job as a corporate lawyer, handled all of Steve’s legal work. Steve paid him hourly, kept a cubicle for him, next to his own, so he would always have somewhere to work, and Sam was usually there for a few hours one or two days a week. There wasn’t enough to do to keep him on full-time, but issues like Alexander Pierce were beyond Steve’s professional ability.

 

Pierce was the president of House of Hydra, a huge comic publisher and distributor that put out dozens of books every week. He’d been hounding Steve for over a year to sell the rights to Captain America, as well as the spin-off titles, to H.O.H. in exchange for a fancy job and a fat paycheck. Steve had refused, flat-out, not willing to consider the offer for even a second. SHIELD Publications was something he had dreamed of and worked for, for most of his life. He wasn’t giving it up, not for anyone.

 

His out-and-out refusal had displeased Pierce greatly; Pierce had tried to threaten Steve with a lawsuit claiming copyright infringement and theft of intellectual properties, among other things. It was all bluster, of course; Steve had proof that all of his creations were his and his alone, dating back almost twenty years. Sam had made sure of that, believing so much in Steve’s abilities and determination that he had personally taken Steve to fill out all the copyright and trademark paperwork to protect himself and his creations when they were still in high school. Steve had worked hard for everything he had accomplished, but he knew without the support and encouragement he’d received from those closest to him he would never have been as successful.

 

Steve’s refusal to sell out had also been the turning point in his last relationship. She had demanded that he encouraged him to take the offer from Pierce, and when Steve had turned it down instead, she had packed up her things and walked out, claiming that Steve needed to ‘grow up.’

 

It had hurt, a lot, that she hadn’t believed in Steve or in SHIELD Publications, but after a few months, Steve had decided that it was for the best. Her constant hints and intimations that Steve needed to do something else, be something else, in order to be worthy of affection had begun to erode his confidence. Luckily, his real friends—Sam, Peggy, and Tony—had been there to make sure he didn’t fold under the constant pressure.

 

So Steve had thrown himself into his work, wrote new story lines for each series, created incredible artwork, and had increased his sales beyond projections. They say living well is the best revenge? Well, Steve was certainly doing well in his professional life. His personal life, on the other hand….

 

***

 

Bucky went into the office and set Nick’s package down on the small desk they shared. He was reasonably sure that Brock would be gone by now, but his heart rate shot up anyway as he walked through the break room and approached the storeroom door.

 

He hated that he still felt this way, that even mentioning Brock’s name sent him into a panic and made him feel so ashamed that he was sick to his stomach. It had been over six months now, you’d think that hearing his name or seeing his face wouldn’t scare him so much anymore; however, Brock seemed to get off on the fact that he still had that kind of power over Bucky, and he enjoyed the reactions his presence produced.

 

If Bucky didn’t have to see him anymore, it would just make everything so much easier; unfortunately, he continued to show up, every few weeks, leering at Bucky and making his disgusting comments. Today had been no different.

 

They had been receiving shipments all day, and Bucky was in the storeroom, opening boxes and adding merchandise into inventory. When the alley door buzzer went off, he opened it without hesitation, ready for the next shipment of boxes—and there he was, Brock Rumlow, smirking at Bucky like always.

 

“Hey, James,” he said slowly, eyeing him up and down, “I’ve got something for you.”

 

Bucky swallowed hard, his throat tightening up, determined not to let Brock get to him this time. “Just give me the clipboard,” he said, his voice flat. “I’ll sign for the delivery and you can go.”

 

“What’s the hurry?” Brock asked, leaning against the doorway. “I’ve got some time—why don’t you and I hop in the truck for—“

 

“Go to hell,” Bucky said, his hands starting to shake. “Just leave the boxes and get out.”

 

“Aw, c’mon, James, don’t be like that,” he said, straightening up and taking a step forward. “You’re not still mad, are you? I thought you liked it rough.”

 

“Leave me alone, Brock,” Bucky gritted out, trying to keep his voice steady as he backed up, his gut churning. “I told you I don’t want anything to do with you.”

 

“You don’t mean that,” he laughed smugly, “I know you like that perverted shit. Tell you what—I’ll even let you call me Da—“

 

“Mister Rumlow,” a loud voice said from the doorway leading into the break room, making them both jump. “Just leave the boxes and go.”

 

Bucky turned and saw his boss, Nick, standing there, looking angry, and his heart flooded with relief. Brock, on the other hand, looked anything but happy.

 

“Barnes,” Nick said, tilting his head to beckon Bucky over. When Bucky walked up to him, he said quietly, “I have a package that needs to be picked up. The information is on the desk. Would you mind getting that for me?”

 

Bucky looked over his shoulder at Brock, who had started unloading boxes from his hand truck, dropping them loudly onto the concrete floor. “Don’t worry about this,” Nick said. “I’ll handle it.”

 

“Are you sure?” Bucky asked, and there was nothing he could do to keep the hopeful tone out of his voice.

 

“I’m sure,” Nick nodded. “Take your time.”

 

Bucky gave him a small, but grateful smile. “Thanks, Nick.”

 

Bucky had left the storeroom quickly, willing his stomach to settle. He picked up the package information from the desk, grabbed his favorite blue sunglasses, and left. Walking out through the bookstore, he nodded at Mora quickly and said, “I’m picking something up for Nick, I’ll be back in a few minutes,” and then headed quickly for the front door.

 

Once he was outside he felt better. It was warm, but not oppressively so, and the humidity was starting to lighten up a bit. Still, he was glad that he’d pulled his hair up into a sloppy bun, just to keep it off his neck, and he was definitely looking forward to autumn. Long sleeves and hot weather were not a fun combination.

 

He walked at an easy pace, not exactly strolling, but not setting any land speed records, either. He knew it would take about ten minutes for Brock to unload all the boxes, so he took twenty minutes to pick up the package and get back, just to be safe.

 

By the time he returned, he was breathing much easier. With Nick’s package tucked under his right arm, he opened the door to the bookstore, the bell jingling happily like it always did, welcoming him back. He heard Clint call out to him, “Hey, Buck!”

 

He looked into the café, where Clint was helping some customers—one of them, a big, blond guy, had the craziest shoulder-width-to-waist-ratio Bucky had ever seen, not to mention the nicest ass he’d seen in ages—and he waved, smiling, as he walked by.

 

Once he was in the office, and had set Nick’s package down, he took a deep breath. Walking toward the storeroom door, he was startled when it suddenly swung open. Pete walked out, carrying a stack of books. “Hey, Buckeroni!” he said, smiling. “You’re back!”

 

“Hey, Pete,” Bucky greeted him, “everything okay in there?”

 

“Yeah, why?” Pete asked, confused.

 

Bucky shook his head. “It’s nothing. Is Nick in there?”

 

“Yeah, he’s sorting out some periodicals,” he replied, then he held up the books. “I gotta take these out front.”

 

“Okay,” Bucky nodded, “I’ll be out there in a minute.”

 

“Cool,” Pete said, walking out of the office.

 

Relieved that Brock was gone, Bucky went into the storeroom. Nick had pulled up a chair and was separating piles of magazines for the newsstand. “I can do that,” Bucky said, walking over to join him.

 

“I know you can,” Nick said, looking up at him. “You alright?”

 

“Yes, thank you, Nick,” Bucky said, smiling at him.

 

Nick nodded, than asked, “How long has this been going on?”

 

Bucky knew better than to lie, or to pretend that he didn’t know what Nick was talking about. “Since I left him,” he answered honestly.

 

Nick gave him a hard look. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

 

“It’s just talk, Nick,” Bucky said, shrugging. “Really, I don’t want you to worry about it. Eventually he’ll get bored with it and stop.”

 

Nick shook his head. “It shouldn’t be happening, Buck. I don’t like it.”

 

“It’ll be okay,” Bucky smiled, trying to look convincing as he pulled up a chair of his own to help sort magazines.

 

He really hoped he was telling the truth.

 

***

 

Steve pulled up in front of Sam’s building just as the sun started to set. “See you tomorrow?” he asked.

 

“Not tomorrow,” Sam said, opening his door. “I need to file a bunch of stuff with the City Recorder, and it’s probably going to take me all day. I’ll be there Friday afternoon, though. I’ll send that refusal letter to Pierce, too. You want me to look into the C&D?”

 

“Maybe add a warning to the refusal letter that C&D will be our next step,” Steve said. “I’m tired of dealing with him.”

 

“You got it,” Sam said, sticking his fist out. Steve bumped it, and Sam climbed out of the car. “See you in a couple days.”

 

“G’night, Sam,” Steve said as Sam shut the door and walked into the building. Once he was inside—Steve’s mom always told him to make sure his friends were inside their homes before leaving, and it was a habit he knew he would never break—Steve pulled back out into the street and drove the two blocks to his own building.

 

He found a parking spot across the street from his place and went inside, saying hello to Mister Davis, the afternoon doorman, as he walked through the lobby on his way to the elevator. Once Peggy had finally convinced Steve that SHIELD Publications was actually successful and was turning a sizeable profit, the first thing Steve had done was buy an apartment. He’d found a place in DUMBO that was in a nice building, in a pretty good area, but didn’t have its own parking garage—only permitted street spaces—and was sorely in need of updating. Steve had never been afraid of hard work, and he had done a lot of the remodeling himself; well, he and Sam, really. Sam had been returning the favor from when Steve had helped him with his own fixer-upper. He’d contracted out the plumbing and electrical work, as well as the tile and counters, but they had done everything else themselves, and Steve was proud of the results.

 

He exited the elevator on his floor and walked down the hallway to his front door. There were only two units per floor, and Steve’s was the one on the southeast side of the building. He loved the morning sunlight that poured in to his bedroom, as well as the afternoon light that came into his south-facing spare room.

 

He let himself in and turned on the light, and he was greeted by warm, earthy colors and a welcoming atmosphere. When his ex had left, Steve had been concerned that his place would feel too big, too empty with only him there. The opposite had actually happened; once she was gone and had taken her heavy and suffocating presence with her, everything had felt lighter, more open, like he could finally breathe.

 

There was a table inside to the left of the front door with a bowl on top to drop his keys, and a good-sized coat closet to hang up his outerwear along the wall to the right. Opening up to his left was the living room, with two overstuffed chairs and the leather sofa his ex had hated but Steve loved, with his big TV and sound system to watch all the baseball, football, and basketball he could stand. Straight ahead was the kitchen, with the dark cherry cabinets, white countertops, and stainless steel appliances.

 

Past the living room to the right was a hallway that led to two bedrooms, a laundry closet and the guest bathroom, which didn’t seem like a lot of space—until you saw the size of the rooms. The rooms were huge by current standards, allowing him to make them multi-purpose. Steve was also a big fan of non-traditional furniture. His spare room, for example, which he used as an office-slash-studio, had a bed that folded up into a built-in cabinet when it wasn’t being used. Steve had spent a few nights on that bed while his last relationship was crashing and burning, and found that it was rather comfortable, all things considered.

 

He’d re-painted in the colors he wanted—with more thanks to Sam, who had been overjoyed to help—and now it felt cozier, but more masculine at the same time. The living room and public area walls were a creamy chocolate brown, the bedrooms were both a soft, sage green, and the two bathrooms were done in shades of blue and gray. Honey-finished wood floors ran throughout, with jewel-toned, geometrically patterned area rugs scattered about, and he had brightened it up by painting all the ceilings, trim, casework, and doors off-white to tie it all together. It was soothing and relaxing, and it was his.

 

Steve walked down the hall to the master bedroom, which was through the double doors at the end of the hall on the left side. He’d used exclusively dark woods to furnish, which looked incredible against the sage green walls; his bed linens were all in shades of cream and dove grey, and the area rug and curtains were dark greys and browns.

 

The master closet ran the entire length of the wall to the left of the doorway, and the master bathroom was around the corner to his right. He’d considered doing the tile and stonework himself, but after watching several how-to videos, he and Sam had decided that it was beyond their expertise. They had painted and put in the cabinets, but left the rest to the professionals. The light blue walls were in the same hue family as the sage green of his bedroom, and the cherry cabinets and white counters matched those in the kitchen and the guest bath. The extra-long soaker tub he had insisted on was white, but all the rest of the tile and stone, including those in the large walk-in shower, were in varied shades of grey. His towels and bath mats were a golden, sandy brown that Sam once joked matched his hair color.

 

He changed out of his work clothes, dropping his button-down shirt and slacks into the basket for the dry cleaners, and put on his favorite cotton lounge pants and old Dodgers t-shirt before padding barefoot back out to the kitchen to make something to eat. There was a baseball game on that he wanted to catch—the Dodgers were on an East Coast swing, so he would finally be able to see a game that didn’t end after one o’clock in the morning. It was hard being a fan of a West Coast team when you lived in New York—all their home games started so late he rarely stayed up to watch. Food in hand, he made his way to his favorite leather sofa and turned on the game, which was just starting the second inning. It was still 0-0, so he hadn’t missed anything yet.

 

It was during the commercial break between the third and fourth innings that his mind started to wander back, thinking about the man with the gorgeous smile. He wondered what color his eyes were, behind those bright blue sunglasses; were they a deep, soulful brown, so rich that you could feel yourself drowning in them, or were they blue, like the ocean, carrying you away on their sparkling waves? Maybe they were green, or hazel, or any combination of shades thereof.

 

And his hair…. Steve kept his hair cut fairly short on the sides, only slightly longer on top—for ease of maintenance being his official story, but the truth was that he thought he looked strange with longer hair. He didn’t think it fit his face very well. He’d always secretly envied men that were able to get away with longer locks, and the mystery man had hair that looked so soft that it practically invited your fingers to comb through it. Comb through, curl your fists in, tug on gently….

 

Steve took a deep breath and exhaled, pressing the palm of his hand into his crotch, willing his sudden semi to go back down. He knew it was silly (correction: ridiculous) to spend so much time thinking about someone he didn’t even know, had only seen for a few seconds, really, but he couldn’t help it. He hadn’t had a physical reaction to anyone like that in years; the man literally took his breath away.

 

He shook his head and tuned back in to the game. Top of the fourth inning, Dodgers had men on first and third, no outs. This was looking promising.

 

Later that night, when Steve took himself in hand and brought himself to a sharp, quick orgasm that made him stare at the ceiling, breathing hard and wide-eyed in wonder, he told himself he was celebrating a Dodger win, nothing else.