“You can’t go on like this, Steve,” Peggy’s voice is soft, soothing, but underlined with a hint of steel. “You need to let go, relax a bit. Find something to take your mind off of the war. Off of him.”
“Peg …” Steve sighs, clenches his eyes closed, and swallows down the rush of anger he always feels whenever they have this conversation.
Peggy, of all people, doesn’t deserve that instinctive rush of anger and bitterness from him.
No matter how quick she’d be to put him in his place.
“No, Steve,” Peggy’s there suddenly, up in his face, hands clamped down on his shoulders. “It’s been a year now. We’ve all tried to give you space but I’m not going to allow you to brush me off again. Not this time. None of us can stand watching you go about like this any longer, day in and day out. You don’t sleep, you barely eat. You’re wasting away locked up here in these rooms. It has to stop. This isn’t what he would have wanted for you. You know that.”
“Don’t,” Steve rasps, eyes clenched closed. He doesn’t want to hear this again.
“He followed you of his own free will,” Peggy persists, loving and merciless all at the same time.
“And I got him killed,” Steve reminds her sharply, agony lacing every word. “He died because of me.”
“He died because of HYDRA, Steve,” Peggy cuts in then, “because we were at war, not because of you.”
Steve can’t help the way he flinches just a bit, shoulders curling in on themselves.
“Oh Steve,” Peggy softens just a bit then, hands sliding up until she’s cupping his face gently in her palms. “He loved you like a brother. And he knew the risks going into the war, just as we all did. But he also knew it was the right thing to do. And he knew you were the right one to lead us.”
“I should have been a better leader then,” Steve whispers, unable to bite back the truth that’s been haunting him for over a year now. “If I’d done better …”
“You did the best you possibly could,” Peggy reassures him softly. “Better than any of us would have otherwise. He knew that and he’d be so angry at you right now for how you’re letting yourself fade away like this.”
“I just … I miss him,” Steve confesses. “We had so many plans Peggy, things we were going to do, places we were going to go after the war. And now, now he’s not here and I just … he was all I had, for the longest time. And now he’s gone.”
“I know,” Peggy soothes, thumbs wiping away the trail of tears that Steve can’t be bothered to hold back. “And I’m so sorry, Steve. We all are. But you need to stop blaming yourself. Allow Sergeant Barnes the dignity of his choice, and come back to us. We all miss you and we’re all still here for you. We just wish you’d remember that, no matter how much it hurts, you’re not alone. We lost him too, Steve. So you don’t have to mourn alone. You still have us.”
Steve’s heart clenches in his chest at the reminder that he’s not the only one in mourning. The Howling Commandos, his team, the family he and Bucky had carved out in the middle of the war had lost Bucky too. They might not have known him for as long as Steve had but that doesn’t mean their grief isn’t real.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.
But Steve’s been too caught up in his own grief to really give that aspect of the situation much thought. Has been too busy being selfish in his mourning to care.
“I’m sorry,” Steve finally murmurs. “I’ll … I’ll try to be better Peggy. I promise.”
“Oh Steve,” Peggy sighs in a tired sort of amusement. “You’re one of the best men I’ve ever known. That was never the issue. But, I suppose, I should be satisfied with what I can get for the moment. At least I’ve managed to chip away at a bit of that stubbornness of yours.”
“Me? Stubborn?” Steve quirks a half smile down at her. “Never.”
“Lies and sacrilege,” Peggy says as she pinches his cheeks meanly for a moment and then finally lets her hands fall. “But I suppose I can let it slide for now.”
“How magnanimous of you,” Steve drawls dryly as he scrubs at his face with one hand.
“None of that now,” Peggy says as she steps back, reaching up to swat him on the shoulder with the fan that had previously been hanging from her wrist.
“And to think I used to think you were nice,” Steve mutters as he rubs at the side of his arm. Peggy never did learn how to pull her punches. Which, in all honesty, was probably why the two of them got along so well. And why Bucky had always looked so horrified whenever they teamed up on anything.
“I’m plenty nice, Captain Rogers,” Peggy sniffs at him dismissively. “Just ask Angie.”
“Ah,” Steve winces, “I’d much rather not, if it’s all the same to you.”
Just the thought of asking Peggy’s wife about how nice Peggy may or may not be is enough to make him shiver. Angie’s rather famous, or infamous to be more accurate, for her willingness to overshare details about her and Peggy’s marriage.
“Well then, that’s enough of that,” Peggy’s abruptly all business again. “Now that I’ve dug you out of your melancholy for the moment I can finally get down to the reason why I came by today.”
“Not just the pleasure of my company then?” Steve asks wryly because he already knew better than that. Peggy almost always has an ulterior motive and a secondary plan of some sort. It’s one of the things that had made her so dangerous during the war.
“More like to secure the pleasure of your company later on this very evening,” Peggy counters as she moves back towards the tea tray Steve had slapped together when she’d arrived and sets about pouring for the both of them.
“Did I forget a birthday?” Steve asks as he takes the delicate but chipped cup from her, relishing the warmth in his hand. Hot tea had been a luxury they’d rarely been able to have during the war. Even now, a year out, it’s something he sometimes forgets he can have on a whim even with his now slightly more than modest means.
“Yes,” Peggy nods as she too savors the heat and steam wafting up from her cup.
“Whose?” Steve asks with a grimace as he takes a sip, guilty rearing its head once again. He’s always tried to make a point of celebrating everyone’s birthday but he’s been … off this past year.
“Yours.” Peggy says promptly and seems to take great pleasure in the way he sputters a bit on his mouthful of tea.
“Mi-” Steve hacks out a cough and tries to catch his breath, “mine?”
“It does tend to come the same time each year, dear,” Peggy tells him with a small hint of amusement.
“I know, it’s just ...” Steve swallows hard and trails off, attention diverting back down to his tea cup as he takes another large sip to try and distract himself.
He doesn’t have to say what he’s thinking, he knows that.
Peggy understands without him saying anything that this will be his first birthday without Bucky at his side. Born only months apart they’d been friends from the cradle after all, brothers in all but blood as they grew up running through the streets of Low Town together.
“I know,” Peggy says again, that soft understanding back in her voice for a moment before she drains her cup and then determinedly plows on. “And that’s why the others and I all decided that we were going to make this night special and get you a gift you won’t be able to refuse.”
“Peggy,” Steve immediately scowls. “You know I don’t need anything.”
He’s perfectly happy in the small two bedroom set of rooms he and Bucky had been living in before the war. He has a decent amount of clothes, warm tea, good food, and enough books and art supplies to keep him from going mad with boredom in his downtime. He doesn’t really need much of anything else. Even if the art supplies have mainly gone untouched since he’d returned from the war. The urge to drawn, to paint, to create has been sorely missing from Steve’s life this past year.
He’s not sure if he’ll ever get it back. It might well be one more thing the war stole from him.
“I beg to differ but that’s a matter for another time,” Peggy waves him aside as she sets her cup back down on the tray. “Either way we all decided on your gift together and you’re not going to refuse us. Not this time.”
She reaches into the inner pocket of her smart chocolate colored jacket and pulls out a sheet of thick red paper. Setting his teacup down on the windowsill behind him, Steve takes it from her warily only to suck in a sharp, surprised breath when he looks down at it.
The paper is rich, almost silky to touch and obviously expensive, and dye is of top quality. But what really captures his attention is the fact that there, on the front, embossed in gold is a well known symbol.
“This …” Steve trails off, finger tracing over the delicately etched blossom that makes up the famous sigil.
When his thumb smooths across one of the petals the gold ink flares brightly for a moment as the paper comes to life, the interwoven spell activating at his touch.
Steve can only watch as the paper moves on its own, bending and folding at will, until finally it stills.
And there, in the palm of his hand, rests a single, perfect paper lotus.
“Your present,” Peggy tells him smugly. “A night with any companion of your choosing, at the most reputable and renowned pleasure house in Brookly. Paid in full by us.”
“The Iron Lotus,” Steve practically breathes the name as he stares down at the flower in his hand in awe.
“You’re expected by six,” Peggy tells him even as she gathers her cane and hat and heads towards the door. “The Grandmaster has promised to treat you extra kindly so do wear something nice Steve, perhaps that blue coat Angie bullied you into? It does bring out your eyes rather beautifully. And remember, above all else, have fun. You’ve more than earned it.”
Steve barely hears it when she leaves.
He’s too busy marveling at the flower and the matching gold lotus stamp that had shimmered into existence on the back of his right hand.
After a solid half an hour spent staring at the flower Steve’s ripped out of his haze by the absolutely obnoxious clock Bucky had bought him years back chiming the turn of the noon hour.
Which of course means it’s actually one o’clock instead.
The spell that kept the clock accurate had faded a handful of years after Bucky had bought it for him but they’d both been too poor to afford the cost of getting it fixed. Steve, never one to waste anything, had refused to throw it out.
But now, faced with Bucky’s loss, and in possession of more than enough in the way of funds to have it repaired, Steve still hasn't been able to bring himself to do it.
On the upside the clock had cured him of his tendency to arrive late and instead gotten him into the habit of arriving consistently early.
Either way it’s already one o’clock which means Steve has only four hours left to get ready before he needs to leave if he’s going to arrive on time at the Lotus. Living across the city as he does it’ll take him a solid hour to get there on foot since he’s rather firmly against hiring a coach of any sort unless absolutely necessary. Not even the clockwork horse ones that run on some mix of spell-work and steam hold any appeal for him these days.
Steve moves towards his bedroom and places the flower delicately inside of the tall glass front cabinet Gabe had brought him shortly after their return from the war. The rich crimson of the silky paper looks far more appealing than the bright bronze shine of his medals where they rest in the center of the middle shelf. He barely touches any of them but they're all shining and dust free thanks to the freshening spells laid out in the scroll-work that lines the cabinet doors.
Shaking himself out of his daze Steve huffs out a sigh, brings his hands up to scrub at his face, and turns on his heel to head towards his bathroom and a hot shower. If he’s going to make an appearance at The Iron Lotus of all places then Peggy’s right.
He needs to get himself cleaned up.
A half an hour later finds him clean and smelling faintly of apples, skin faintly pink from the heat of the water and the way he’d scrubbed himself down with single minded intent.
Now all he has to do is get dressed and wait.
It’s when he’s moving through his room, skin still damp and a towel wrapped around his waist, to head towards his wardrobe that he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror that hangs above his vanity.
He abruptly freezes, more than a bit taken aback at what he sees.
For the first time Steve is forced to admit that maybe, just maybe, Peggy’s right.
Even scrubbed clean and still flushed from the shower he’s a sight.
His hair’s an unruly mess from where he’s let it go long enough that it’s now curling against the collar of his shirt. He’s even paler than normal and there are dark circles beneath his eyes. Plus his once religiously clean shaven jaw is sporting a thick beard, something that even a year ago Steve wouldn’t have been able to stand.
He’s hardly recognizable as the Captain who’d earn a great deal of fame and acclaim in the war. Which, if Steve’s being brutally honest with himself, is probably the point he’d been trying to subconsciously make.
He looks far more like the low class beggar he and Bucky had so often been accused of being in their youth.
Grief, it seems, has truly done a number on him.
Either way Steve realizes, a faded sort of panic abruptly rising up in his chest as he looks down at the back of his hand and the entry stamp that’s embossed there, three and a half hours might not be enough time to get ready.
Not to visit a place as upscale and exclusive as The Iron Lotus.
A burst of determination surging through him, Steve straightens up abruptly from where he’d been leaning against the top of his vanity.
He’s wasting time he doesn’t have at the moment.
He needs to lay out his jacket, the blue one like Peggy had said, and then he needs to get dressed and find a barber for a cut and a shave. Maybe even take the time to shine his boots a bit more. If he’s quick, Steve reasons with himself, he might just be able to get it all done fast enough.
But, as soon as he turns to head towards his wardrobe again to get started, the determination and fire just seems to seep right out of him.
Steve sighs and sits down on the edge of his bed, shoulders slumped and face buried in his hands.
“What’s the use?” he mutters into his palms.
He appreciates Peggy and the other’s efforts, he really does. But it abruptly seems like too much work. Even the idea of spending the entire night with a companion of his choice only sounds marginally appealing. The enthusiasm he’d had even an hour before seems like too much to keep up for even that long.
Steve can't remember how many times he and Bucky had talked about going there one day for a show. Even if they couldn’t afford to buy a night with any of the companions the Lotus employed, just watching one of their shows would’ve been a treat.
But now, without Bucky beside him to egg him on, Steve just can’t bring himself to think about having an amazing time there on his own.
It feels wrong somehow, to have one of Bucky’s favorite daydreams handed to him alone.
For a split second Steve considers ignoring the gift, or at the very least selling his time slot back to the Lotus so he can give Peggy and the others their money back.
He immediately winces because he knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that’s not an option for him. He’s pretty sure that if he did something like that Peggy would string him up and Bucky would, inevitably, come back to haunt him for wasting the opportunity.
With a soft groan Steve pushes himself up from the edge of the bed and moves towards his wardrobe, intent on finally taking his jacket out.
A compromise seems to be the only solution to this problem.
A begrudging sort of medium where he does the best he can to look presentable on his own but still shows up for his appointed time.
Besides, there’s no real reason to go all out like some blushing young debutante at his first ball.
It’s not like one night at the Lotus is going to change his entire life or anything.
That would be ridiculous.
The grand clock in the square chimes five o’clock when Steve comes to a stop before the great golden doors of The Iron Lotus.
He’s early by a good amount of course, unable to keep sitting in his room after he’d finished putting himself together as best he could.
So all he can do now is stand where he is, blue coat firmly in place, and stare up at the building he hasn’t seen in years. Even from here he can feel the thick cloak of protective spells and enchantments that saturate the building. They seem stronger than he remembers, but then that makes sense given the fact that Brookly has spent the past decade or so firmly in war.
The building the Lotus occupies is huge, sprawling across the entire corner and standing four stories high. It stands out from the other more serviceable brick and wood buildings with its rich crimson paneling and bright gold embellishments.
The first and fourth floors have no windows at all of course. The first, Steve’s sure, in a bid for privacy for any who might come inside. The fourth is likely because, if rumors are true, the kitchens and the like are all on that level and are warded and hidden for the safety of both the companions and the patrons alike.
The rooms of the second and third floors, on the other hand, all have large arching windows. Privacy is kept there by crimson and gold gilded blinds even as attention is drawn to them by delicate strings of colored glass that catch the light as they twirl in the gentle breeze.
Each window comes equipped with a narrow balcony too. When unoccupied the companions that live in those rooms will often drape themselves artfully over the railing or on a small chaise lounge in order to gain the attention of passersby.
When they’d been young, little more than kids really, Bucky and Steve used to trudge across the city from Low Town with the other scamps just to stare up at the balconies and watch the companions flirt with the people passing by. Occasionally a few would even toss them bits of penny candy or would deliberately hold a pose for Steve on the days when he had managed to scrape together enough money to buy another sketchbook.
But that had been years ago, back before they’d joined the war, and before the peace treaties had finally been established.
Before Bucky had …
Well, that had been back before everything.
It’s been so long now that Steve doesn’t see a single familiar face in any of the companions on any of the balconies.
Steve shakes himself out of his daze and forces himself to take a deep, steadying breath. He tugs at his jacket, squares his shoulders, and strides across the street towards the front doors.
He’s still half an hour early but he does have a reservation so maybe it won’t matter too much. Better than standing outside on the street like a fool.
The woman standing guard there is tall, though not as tall as he is, and has warm brown skin, dark piercing eyes, and a shrewd expression. With the obviously be-spelled sword on her hip and the light grey armor she’s wearing Steve’s sure she’s more than enough to turn any would be trouble makers aside with a single look.
“You have business at the Lotus?” She asks, voice husky and tinged with an accent Steve can’t quite place.
“Ah, yes, yes I do,” Steve says as he holds out his right hand to show her the entry stamp that glows with a soft golden light.
“A VIP,” She dips her head in a nod and reaches out to run a hand across the large crimson lotus that’s embossed on the center of the doors. Then she steps back and to the side a bit and gifts him with a shallow bow. “My name is Hilde, and I’m at your service my lord. Please, step inside. The Grandmaster will be with you shortly.”
Brows arched high Steve watches as the great golden doors begin to slide open and back into the walls.
And then he steps forward through the threshold, the doors sliding closed behind him in an instance, and all Steve can do is stare in awe.
If the outside of the Lotus is eye catching and bold it doesn’t hold a candle to the sumptuous decadence of the inner hall alone.
The inner hall is awash with more gold and crimson decorations. Stained glass lamps throw shimmering light across the high arched ceiling while a dark black marble floor gleams beneath his feet. On either side of him numerous doors line the hall’s walls, some open and some closed. A sweeping, black iron staircase with thick golden carpet dominates the opposite end of the hall.
The air is heavy with the scent of a variety of foods and so thick with spells that it’s honestly breathtaking for a moment. Thankfully Steve, for all of his battle honed sensitivity to spells, has always been able to adapt rather quickly so he gathers his bearings after only a moment or two.
But nothing prepares him for what happens next.
“Captain Rogers,” a voice booms from above, loud and cheerful enough to cut across the low hum of noise that not even the closed doors down the hall can fully dampen.
Steve turns from where he’s been examining one of the motifs on the door beside him and blinks in shock.
The man coming down the staircase toward him at a steady clip is older with hair turned an artfully tousled silver. He’s still handsome though, skin tanned to a nice bronze and smooth despite his age. But it’s the vibrant gold of his long flowing coat and the flamboyantly bright blue paint around his eyes and on his lips that catches Steve’s attention once he’s close enough.
“You know me?” Steve can’t help but ask curiously.
“Of course,” The Grandmaster waves his surprise away. “Everyone in Brookly knows the good Captain. We owe you and your troop a debt of gratitude for helping bring the war to an end after so many years.”
Steve bites down a wince and struggles not to shift uncomfortably in his spot.
“But enough about that. I am En Dwi Gast, the proprietor and Grandmaster of The Iron Lotus,” the man says with a sweeping and elaborate bow, “but you may simply call me Grandmaster. It’s my pleasure, and honor, to welcome you to my humble establishment. I hope you’ll find all you could ever dream of within these walls.”
“Thank you,” Steve says lowly. “I’ve never … I’m not sure how …”
“The lovely Mrs. Carter-Martinelli told me this would be your first time in a House such as mine,” Grandmaster cuts in smoothly. “Rest assured, Captain Rogers, you’ll find nothing but pleasure here. Now, shall we? The sooner you decide your companion for the night the sooner you can … unwind a bit.”
“Right,” Steve gives a stiff nod, trying to bite back the blush he can already feel heating the tips of his ears.
“Excellent,” Grandmaster booms as he turns on his heel and strides towards a set of large double doors a bit further down the hall.
Steve follows along behind him, curiosity growing despite his earlier doubt that this would be more than a fleeting distraction.
The Grandmaster throws the gleaming black double doors open with a flourish and sweeps inside, Steve on his heels.
“Now then,” Grandmaster says as he spins around, clapping his hands in what seems like glee, “get comfortable Captain while I gather my lovelies for your perusal.”
Steve, more than a bit uneasy, nods and moves to perch tentatively on the edge of one delicate looking chair. Meanwhile the Grandmaster moves to the corner of the room and runs his fingers delicately across the strings of what looks like a massive floor harp.
Steve blinks as a number of the harp’s strings flare in a rainbow of colors without making a sound.
“They’re on their way,” Grandmaster announces as he glides back across the room to settle on the chaise beside Steve’s chair. “Normally I would have them all assembled for you beforehand but you, dear Captain, were rather early and I was loathe to make you wait out in the hall. I do hope you will forgive me?”
“It’s,” Steve clears his throat, “it’s fine.”
Then, before anything else can be said, the doors at the far end of the room open and people begin to stream inside.
Steve can’t help the way he perks up a bit in interest because there’s just so much to see. The companions that stream into the room run the gamut. Tall and short, younger than Steve and older, men, women, curvaceous, slender, or heavy with thick muscles.
All of them are unique and beautiful, dressed in fine silks and dripping with jewels and golden chains, dressed to entice, to entrance and intrigue.
“So much beauty to choose from,” Grandmaster murmurs from beside him as he pushes his way up off of the chaise and waves for Steve to follow him again. “But no matter who you choose you’re guaranteed a night of sublime pleasure, Captain. Whether you chose someone as hard as iron or as soft as a petal all of my lovelies are as bewitching and divine as the lotus itself. There are no wrong choices here. Just ... paradise.”
Steve follows along behind Grandmaster as he walks to one end of the line of companions, stopping before a broad shouldered blond man who makes even Steve feel small.
“May I present the divinely handsome Thunder,” Grandmaster waves a hand in the man’s direction, what’s obviously a stage name of sorts rolling off of his tongue. Bare chested and wearing a pair of tight black leather trousers, thick biceps wrapped in gold cuffs and muscles shining with oil, Thunder grins down at Steve, blue eyes alight with good humor. “He’s an electrifying choice, Captain. Sure to have you seeing sparks in no time.”
“I’m sure,” Steve manages to say evenly.
“And here we have the deliciously playful Mischief,” Grandmaster gestures to the man at at Thunder's side. Mischief’s just a bit shorter than Thunder, all slender grace and long dark hair, a swath of rich emerald silk wrapped around his waist. There’s a gleam of cunning in his eyes that Steve immediately decides means he most certainly lives up to his name. “He’s a tricky one but you’ll love the trouble he gets up to, I swear it.”
Steve shakes his head softly in denial. They’re both gorgeous but he doesn’t feel any sort of pull towards them.
“No worries, no worries,” Grandmaster waves a hand in his direction, “still plenty of lovelies to choose from.”
Grandmaster moves down the line a bit, stopping in front of a buxom woman with gleaming golden hair and a sweet grin whose green and gold silk wrap barely covers her.
“This, is the gorgeous and talented Enchantress,” Grandmaster announces. “Don’t let that sweet smile fool you, Captain, she’s quite the witch.”
An amused but quickly muffled snort from further down the line grabs Steve’s attention then. Intrigued Steve can’t help but look around the Grandmaster’s shoulder to see who, exactly, had made the sound.
Judging by the low hissing noises coming from the wiry blonde in purple who’s elbowing the person beside him not so subtly, it’s easy enough to pinpoint the culprit.
And when he does Steve feels everything inside of him go still.
He’s short, is the first thing Steve notices, and dirty. His thick dark hair is sweat soaked and messy where it’s pushed up and away from his face by a pair of welding goggles. He’s wearing a dirty white vest over a pair of low hanging black pants, a tool belt with a pair of gloves tucked into them settled with familiarity on his hips. His arms and shoulders ripple with muscle that looks hard earned instead of developed solely for looks.
But even as soot streaked as his face is it does nothing to detract from the fact that he’s absolutely gorgeous.
With a pouty pink mouth, and a sparkle in his bright blue eyes that screams intelligence when he glances up and meets Steve’s gaze head on, he takes Steve’s breath away in an instance.
“Him” Steve hears himself croak, interrupting the Grandmaster’s speech to point towards the man who’s watching him, head tilted to the side and brows raised in what looks like surprise, “I want him.”
“Who?” Grandmaster turns to see who, exactly, Steve’s pointing towards.
“The one at the end,” Steve manages to say, “with the goggles.”
“Ah yes,” Grandmaster laughs, “that’s our sweet Mechanic. A good choice Captain, despite how unkempt he looks. He’ll know exactly how to fix you up.”
Heart pounding double time in his chest Steve can only swallow roughly as the Mechanic looks at him in surprise.
And then he smiles, a slow almost sweet grin that lights up his face and makes the faint laugh lines at the corners of his eyes crinkle.
And just that easily, Steve is gone.