Steve stared down at the magazine cover, fingers clenching hard enough to twist the paper and threaten to tear it. When he finally forced them to relax, he frowned at the damaged edges. "Sorry," he mumbled to the newsstand owner. "Here." He tossed a handful of bills on the counter. Never looking at how much something actually cost was a bad habit he'd picked up from Tony, but it also protected him from the culture shock that inflated prices still gave him sometimes. It was easier to just drop a few twenties and walk away; then it didn't matter that the magazine cost some obscene amount of money.
And obscene was the right word for it.
"Congratulations," the man said with a grin and a wink. He scraped the money off the counter and started counting out change, but Steve waved at him to stop.
"Thanks," he bit out. He crumpled the magazine in his hand and stalked off down the road, cheeks heating. It felt like everyone was staring at him, even though he knew that was highly unlikely. He managed to blend in well, in a way the other Ultimates couldn't always seem to do. He was just a boring blonde guy in old-fashioned khakis.
He turned on his heel to see a local newscaster trotting up to him, her cameraman in tow. She shoved a microphone in his face. "Captain. How does it feel?" She grinned cheekily.
"How does what feel?" He tried to shuffle away from her, but a small crowd had formed around him. He heard Betty's voice in his head from when he'd been forced to do his first press conference in the 21st-century. Smile, be polite, take your time, make a joke, don't growl. Steve felt a rumbling building in his throat, and he swallowed it down. He smiled.
"How does it feel to be voted New York's most eligible bachelor?"
His hand clenched around the magazine again, and he could feel it crumple and screech in protest. "It's - I'm honoured," he managed to get out.
"Do you have anything you'd like to say to all the ladies of New York who are gazing at your handsome face this morning and hoping to take you off the market?"
"Um…" Steve struggled to find something to say. "No… sorry," he finally spluttered out as he shoved his way through the crowd as gently as he could.
To his immense relief, the reporter didn't follow him to press for more, but the adrenaline rush of being put on the spot followed him all the way to the Trisk, and he was feeling antsy and on-edge as he made his way to Fury's office.
If it had crossed Steve's mind before to hope that his teammates wouldn't have seen the article, he would have been sorely disappointed.
"His ideal date is a walk in the park," Clint was saying as Steve pushed open the door. "Isn't that a bit cliche?"
"He legitimately does love doing that though." Jan's eyes flicked up from the magazine Clint had open in his lap. "Oh hi, Steeeve." She drew out the middle of his name, long and sing-songy.
Steve's eyes narrowed. "Why are you reading that filth?"
"It's funny," she protested.
Clint held up the magazine. "76% of New York women think you're 'delectable.'"
"I know," Steve said, snatching the magazine out of Clint's hand and tossing it on Fury's desk next to where Jan leaned. "I read it."
"Oh come on, Steve, don't be a spoilsport." She crossed her arms and pouted at him, they way she used to when he'd ask her to join him for something "old" and "boring."
A headache throbbed to life behind Steve's temples. "Can we just get this meeting started?"
"God, to think I used to think you were fun," Jan mumbled under her breath. She pushed away from Fury's desk and crossed the room to where Thor and Fury were deep in conversation.
Clint looked up at him. "You can use this to your advantage, you know. As if you weren't hot property enough before, now every woman wants to be the one who snags New York's Most Eligible Bachelor. Make the most of it." Clint stood and patted him on the back. "I know she did a number on you -" he flicked his head towards Jan "- but you just gotta put yourself out there again, wipe the memory. Pining doesn't suit you."
"I assure you, Hawkeye," Steve gritted out, keeping his hands by his sides so he wouldn't do anything with them that might compromise the integrity of the team. "I'm not 'pining' for Jan. And I'm not interested in 'taking advantage' of this. I'm happy with my life the way it is, thank you." Steve shoved the magazine off the end of the desk and into the trash. He huffed into his chair at the large round table in the corner and looked at the others expectantly. Clint threw his hands up in defeat and claimed his own chair. Shortly after, Jan, Fury, and Thor joined them.
"So, I was looking over this security briefing -" Steve started, but Thor cut him off.
"Ah, Captain! I saw you received an award. My congratulations!" He grinned, wide and honest, and Steve tipped his forehead down until it hit the tabletop. When was this damn day going to be over?
When he'd finally managed to maneuver the team through the meeting, Steve stood. "I have an appointment."
"Wow, he has a hot date already," Clint said, winking at Jan. "I'm impressed."
Steve ignored them both, gathering his papers and walking out.
The whole thing was just so… objectifying. Like he was somehow "winnable" or that his singleness was his greatest asset. The article writers hadn't even bothered to verify the information they'd put in about him. He tugged his rumpled copy out of his bag in the elevator and thumbed through it again.
They'd managed to present him as this pillar of iconic American Dream-perfection. It all sounded so trite and uninteresting, written out like that, like white picket fences sprouted up wherever he walked. He liked to think that the people who knew him, really knew him, didn't only like him because he enjoyed "a quiet night in with his cat." He didn't even have a cat.
His appointment was at a bare-bones barber shop on a quiet street few seemed to know about. He settled himself in a chair and waited for his turn with Marco. Of course, this shop had to be the only barbers in the world whose magazines weren't ten years old and falling apart at the seams. They had the most recent issue of City Magazine, and there was Steve's face again.
His phone rang.
"Hi, Steve, how are you?" Gail said sweetly.
"Gail? Is everything alright? Is Bucky okay?"
"Oh, yes, of course, I'm sorry, Steve. I didn't mean to frighten you."
"No, it's alright. You just don't usually call much, that's all. We're still on for tea on Friday, right?"
"Yes, of course. I just wanted -" she paused, as if calculating her words. "I saw the article," she finally said, bluntly. "I wanted to make sure you were okay."
Steve pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. His head was really throbbing now. Could super soldiers get migraines? "I'm fine, Gail."
"Okay… it's just - I'm sure it must be lonely for you. And things didn't work out with that girl you work with, which I don't mind, I never liked her anyway."
Steve smiled up at the ceiling, rolling his eyes. Gail had loved Jan, until she'd broken his heart by cheating on him with her ex. But that was over two years ago. Why did everyone think he was still hung up on Jan? Surely there were other reasons a man wouldn't date.
"But I just want to make sure you're okay with it. I think it's rather cruel to throw your singleness in your face like that. And I'm sure there are tons of nice girls who'd love to go out with Captain America."
"Don't worry about me, Gail," he said. "I appreciate it, but I'm fine. And it's not meant to be cruel. It's meant to be flattering." Apparently.
"Well, as long as it's not bothering you, dear."
Steve tugged at a loose thread on his pants and lied through his teeth. "It's not."
"Alright then. I'll see you Friday."
Gail hung up, and Steve sighed down at his phone. Maybe he should just leave, cancel his appointment and come back another day. All he wanted was to be at home, in his own peace and quiet. But of course Marco chose that moment to appear, his previous client finally dispensed with.
Marco ushered him into the chair and threw the cape around his shoulders. "So," he said, shooting Steve a wink in the mirror. "Most Eligible Bachelor, huh? You know… I have this daughter…"
Steve groaned. "Oh no, Marco, not you too."
Forty minutes later, Steve approached the counter at Java Jive with a tense jaw. He could see the baristas gasping and giggling at each other. They pushed a young, dark-haired woman up to the counter as he arrived, and she smiled at him too brightly. "What can I get you, Captain Rogers?" She was practically vibrating. Steve was sure he'd never get used to that.
"Black americano, one sugar, and a soy latte, sweet, please."
She grabbed two cups off the stack and tugged a sharpie out of her bun. "Congrats on the win, by the way. Well deserved." She giggled, marking up the cups.
Steve resisted the urge to sigh. "Thank you."
"Not a fan?" She fluttered her eyelashes and leaned towards him, over the counter. "You know… I could help you with that. Make you… ineligible." She bit the corner of her bottom lip and looked up at him.
Panic and revulsion fought for first place in Steve's gut. He forced himself to take a steady breath and say, "No, thank you," instead of turning tail and running out of the coffeeshop. Couldn't he go three feet without this being thrown in his face?
She pouted but didn't say anything, merely handed him his receipt and passed the cups off to her coworker. Steve fiddled with his phone while he waited. Tony had set up some kind of calendar… thing on it, but he couldn't figure out how to get it open.
"Captain America?" a chipper voice called out, and Steve looked up to see a young man with stars in his eyes holding out two coffee cups with shaking hands.
"Thank you." Steve took them and fled. He power-walked down the street, around the corner, and three more blocks until he reached his destination and relief finally flooded through him. He pushed through the double doors and a profound sense of home washed away all the stress of the day.
Steve made his way upstairs, following a soft lilt of music he could hear drifting down the hall. Tony was in his robe, draped elegantly over the chaise lounge by the window. One hand loosely held an empty martini glass and the other was tapping out the rhythm of the song against his thigh.
Steve crossed the room and replaced the empty glass with one of the coffee cups. Tony brightened. "Just what I needed. Thank you, darling." He moved to take a sip then stopped. "Why did Brandy give me her number? Not that I'm complaining, I just don't know who -"
Steve snatched the cup back, blushing, and traded it for the other. "Don't," he growled. He took a sip of his own coffee, Brandy's number defiantly turned outwards.
"Don't what?" Tony purred. "Don't ask why sweet Brandy was giving you her number? Don't worry, I can guess." Tony reached behind him and pulled a magazine off the top of the stack on the end table and threw it at the foot of the chaise. Steve's own face scowled up at him. "It's a nice picture," Tony said, "and the article is very flattering. Who knew your favourite food was fettuccine alfredo?"
"You know it's not," Steve shot back. "They didn't even ask me."
"Would you have talked to them if they had?"
Steve turned to look out the window with what he knew must be an impressive pout then brushed the magazine onto the floor and sat in its place, turned away from Tony to watch the clouds puff by. He didn't answer.
Tony shifted behind him, then strong, steady arms curled over Steve's shoulders and draped across his chest. Tony's cheek pressed against the back of his neck. "Is it really upsetting you that much, sweetheart?"
Tony's fingers danced up to the top button of Steve's shirt then slid underneath, tangling in the chain that looped around his neck. Steve reached up to cover Tony's hand with his own, through his shirt, pressing Tony's palm flat over the ring that hung from the end. He could feel Tony's ring too, the firm, unforgiving edge of metal biting his palm. Tony wore his blatantly on his ring finger, said no one would believe it even if he told them, and sure enough, after a few questions that he had brushed away with delighted laughter, no one had cared. Of course, if Steve changed his goddamn socks in this century, the press wanted to hear all about it, so he had to wear his under his clothes.
"You're not bothered that the world doesn't know who I belong to?" Steve nudged the magazine with his foot.
Tony stroked his fingers along Steve's jaw then used them to turn Steve's face gently towards his. Steve leaned in for a kiss, firm, confident, unquestionable. "No. As long as you know who you belong to," Tony said.
Steve pulled him closer, wrapping himself up in Tony, in home, in safe. As long as he had this, nothing else mattered. "I do," he said. "You. Always you."