Steve Rogers sat hunched over in his cubicle, trying hard to ignore the rattle of the air conditioner and the increasingly noisy rumbling sounds coming from his stomach and concentrate fully on his job. Around him, dozens of his colleagues did the same, the sounds of computer mice clicking and keyboards typing filling the otherwise quiet office.
The atmosphere in the office was strained. The deadline for their current project was 20 minutes away (the launch of a new type of security software that Steve did not particularly care for or understand), and Steve and the rest of his department were busy uploading the final pieces of content in 30 different languages to Stark Industries' global website. Steve was tasked with uploading the Russian content, a tedious task made bearable only by one significant upside: James.
James was the Russian translator whom Steve was frequently paired with. Their relationship was strangely intimate, considering they had never met. Whenever James sent him Russian content to upload, once the actual job was complete, they would banter back and forth over email about popular culture – films, books, TV shows and the like. Steve frequently had to stifle a snigger as he read James' sarcastic review of the latest comedy horror film he had seen, or his joy at something completely unexpected like the newest Pixar animation. James' sharp wit and obvious intellect were a source of joy in an otherwise monotonous job, and Steve always felt a little thrill whenever James' name popped up in his inbox. At the end of their email correspondences, they would always sign off in the same way: with a new cat picture. The routine was as comforting as it was exciting.
The fact that he considered these emails to be a genuinely "exciting" part of his social life was, Steve knew, a sign that he had a problem. His problem was simple: he had almost no friends. He could count the number of people he saw on a social basis on one hand – Natasha Romanoff and Sam Wilson. His emails with James could be classed as friendly, but Steve did not think this qualified them as friends. Friendship required them to spend time together outside of work, and Steve had not even seen James' face, let alone met up with him for drinks or a chat.
His depressingly small social circle was, in large part, Steve's own fault. Since leaving the Army 14 years previously, in 2004, Steve had not stayed in any city longer than a year. He had felt unable to settle, driven to wandering from city to city, state to state, uprooting his life every year or even every 6 months, as he sought to feel some kind of belonging, some sense of home. Friendships did not have time to form or develop, and Steve's natural introversion and unwillingness to talk about certain periods of his life did not help. The result was a lonely, isolated life. Sometimes, Steve would be in the middle of a crowd – in the street, or in the staff canteen at Stark Industries – and wonder what it would be like to turn to the person next to him and start up a conversation. It had been so long since Steve had initiated any form of social interaction that he could barely remember how to do it.
Notification: 1 new email!
Steve shook himself from his reverie and quickly opened his inbox, embarrassed at having caught himself daydreaming with the deadline looming so closely.
To: Steven Rogers
From: James Barnes
Subject: Russian content – FINAL SECTION
Attached is the copy for the footer section on the new Russian pages. That should be it now! With 12 minutes to the deadline, go us ;)
Have you ever watched Supernatural? I discovered it last week and I am OBSESSED.
Steve quickly opened the attachment, copying and pasting the content at lightning speed into the relevant part of the website CMS and saving his changes. He looked at the clock. Still 9 minutes to go until the deadline. He punched the air in celebration, allowing himself to spin his chair around in victory for beating the deadline. The smile still on his face, he went back to James' email and typed out a reply.
To: James Barnes
From: Steven Rogers
Subject: Re: Russian content – FINAL SECTION
Thanks! All updated now.
No, I've not seen Supernatural. What channel is it on? I love spooky stuff.
Steve drummed his fingers on his desk as he waited eagerly for James' reply. As he waited, his thoughts began to wander. He contemplated how exactly to define his feelings for James. He liked the man, sure, but there was something else too; something more like a crush, a dalliance of the heart, drawing him to this faceless man with the beautiful mind whose emails had the power to get Steve's heart racing like a high schooler dancing with his crush at prom. He pondered asking James to meet up some time, during lunch or after work. They could go out and grab a bite to eat, or go out for drinks, maybe even go and see a film, since he knew James was a film lover. If things went well, Steve could even ask him out on a date... His courage deserted him, his mind conjuring up imaginings of supreme awkwardness and James eventually walking off with frustration when he realised how unpractised at socialising Steve really was.
He sighed. He did not know if James was single, or interested in men. He did not even know what James looked like; he could be hideous, or worse, way out of Steve's league. It was strange, to be so entranced by a man whose face he did not know. He did not know if that made his attraction better or worse, purer or creepier, more innocent or more desperate.
Sometimes, although he would admit it to no one, Steve liked to sit in the canteen at lunchtime and look around at all the faces and wonder which one was James. He would look at each face in turn, trying to work out if the face matched up with the emails sitting in Steve's inbox. He could discount some faces immediately – too stupid-looking, too old, too boring. In his head, based on the way James wrote, he was no older than 40 years old. He typed like a young-ish man, but Steve could glean nothing more revealing about James' potential appearance from the words on his screen.
Notification: 1 new email!
Steve eagerly refreshed his inbox, snorting out a laugh when he saw the subject line. It was not from James, but Natasha.
To: Steven Rogers
From: Natasha Romanoff
Subject: Get in bitch...
...we're going lunching!
Steve quickly closed the email before anyone could see the GIF from Mean Girls, and headed down to the canteen for lunch.
Stark Industries' staff canteen was enormous. The global software and technology company employed 5,000 people in its New York City office alone, and with so many hungry mouths to feed, the canteen took up ten entire floors of the massive building. Despite the abundance of seating, however, Steve almost always sat in the same spot. Setting down his tray of food at his usual table at the edge of the room, he pushed his food around his plate with his fork absentmindedly, using his prime vantage point to scan the crowd of faces streaming into the canteen.
He looked out for James. His eyes flitted from man to man, trying to picture each one enthusing about films, books and TV shows – or translating from English to Russian, tongue sticking out between his teeth as he typed out Cyrillic characters on a clackety keyboard. He saw dozens of potential candidates, but his mind struggled to choose between them, none of them exuding that sense of James-ness that Steve yearned for. He wondered if James ever looked for him; if he ever scanned the sea of faces looking for the one that looked like a Steve.
He was pulled from his search by the arrival of his lunch-mate. He smiled as Natasha made a beeline towards his table, her curly red hair bouncing around her slim shoulders. She sat down with an exaggerated sigh, her green eyes fluttering closed as she slumped forwards, almost planting her face directly into her mashed potato. Steve grinned, shovelling a forkful of food into his mouth as Natasha straightened back up, gracefully picking bits of mashed potato out of the angular hourglass-shaped pendant at the end of her necklace.
"I never want to translate another word about software security in my life," she declared, glaring down at her food.
Steve raised an eyebrow, trying not to smirk as Natasha began attacking her carrots with a fork.
"You might be in the wrong job," he said evenly, earning a gentle kick from under the table.
Natasha glowered as she began eating, launching into an explanation of how translation was a nuanced art that could not be rushed, not even for the launch of a super-duper, mind-blowingly excellent new piece of Stark security software. Steve smiled as she vented, a warm glow filling his chest as he listened to his friend speak.
He was not sure why exactly Natasha had attached herself to him and declared them to be friends, but he was supremely grateful that she had. She had started working at Stark Industries at the same time as Steve, six months previously – she as a Russian translator, he as a website administrator. Despite working in separate departments, they had had their induction together and Natasha had bombarded him with questions, seemingly enthralled to hear about what Steve considered to be his rather dull hobbies of painting and exercise. On that first day, she had insisted that they have lunch together, and ever since they had spent their lunch hours together, talking about anything from office gossip to gaming to politics.
When she had first heard that he had only just moved to New York City, she had taken him under her wing and helped him to settle into his new home, meeting up with him on weekends to show him the best bars, restaurants and parks. During the last six months, they had spent a lot of time together both inside and outside of work. She formed half of Steve's entire social circle, and she had shown an uncommon depth of caring in helping him to settle into the Big Apple. It astonished Steve, sometimes, to think that she had fallen so easily into his life; that they had become friends so effortlessly when friendship never usually came easily to him.
He felt a lot of warmth and respect towards Natasha. Along with Sam, she was the only person in New York City whom Steve considered to be a friend; someone whom he could trust, or spend time with without being an annoyance. She had not cared about Steve's social awkwardness, but had patiently stuck around as he slowly relaxed enough to have proper conversations. He had asked her, once, why she had befriended him, and she had looked surprised, replying that it was "obvious" that he was a good man. He had not felt able to correct her.
He would like very much to repay her for her kindness and friendship, to thank her for helping him to settle into New York City, and for making Stark Industries' canteen not such a lonely place as his previous workplace.
On one occasion, he had asked her if there were any troubles going on in her personal life that he could help with, but her reaction had been a split second of surprise, followed by an oddly polite shake of the head and a firm "no".
Steve drove his blue 1965 Volkswagen Sedan 'Beetle'. The rust bucket was slow but reliable; a gift from his late father, left to Steve in his will when he had passed away from cancer five years previously. Steve could easily sell it – God only knew how frustrating it was to drive and park in New York City – but he could not bear to. It was one of the only possessions he had of his father's; the only thing, aside from Steve himself, to prove that Joseph Rogers had ever lived. His father had loved the blue Beetle. So, despite its slowness and all the hassle that came with it, Steve kept the car. It was his tribute to his father.
It was that evening after work, as Steve was trundling around his block, keeping a sharp eye out for an ever-elusive parking spot, that it happened.
He was just pulling into a newly-vacated spot, his thoughts already drifting to what he was going to cook for dinner, when a car driving past him backfired. The sharp bang sliced through him like a shockwave. Steve killed the engine, the hairs on the back of his neck standing rigidly on end as panic exploded in his gut. He fumbled with the car door, staggering out into the road, barely able to orient himself as he lurched towards the pavement. His breath came out in sharp gasps. His vision blurred. He almost tripped over the curb, hardly able to differentiate the black of the tarmac and the grey of the paving slabs.
He was no longer under the night sky of New York City.
He exhaled hard, suddenly roasting. The hot Iraqi sun beat down on the back of his neck, sweat dripping down his back and sides. The dusty desert air was oddly still around him. About half a mile away, gunshots, and around him, his fellow squad members. Steve moved forwards, stones and rubble crunching underfoot, clutching his rifle, senses sharp and alert.
It was 13 November 2004.
The Fallujah mission.
Ahead of him, the building they had been seeking loomed ahead of them. They approached it, weapons ready. The front door was wooden, painted red, bits of paint peeling off to reveal pale beige beneath; the wood, like everything else, bleached by the sun. He tried to turn around, to speak to the soldier behind him, but his body would not follow his instructions. Instead of turning, he was pitching forwards, the hot desert air suddenly turning cold around him as Steve tumbled forwards onto the New York City pavement.
He hit the ground hard, only just managing to get his hands out in front of him in time to stop himself from face-planting on the pavement. His face blushing crimson, he got slowly to his feet, sucking in large lungfuls of cold air, reminding himself of his whereabouts. New York City, not Fallujah. Tarmac, not dust and rubble. Cold, not scorching Middle Eastern heat. He brushed off the pavement-grime on his hands on his trousers, forcing himself to smile as he sidestepped the questions of a concerned female passer-by.
Hurrying to his block of flats, he let himself in, practically running up the three flights of stairs that led to his flat. Fumbling with the key, he finally shoved it into the lock and stepped into his home. He let the door swing shut behind him, thunking his head back onto it as he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, forcing himself to calm down. He breathed slowly and evenly, in through his nose, out through his mouth. Slowly, his heart rate began to slow; the panic eating away at his insides began to subside; the trembling in his right arm went from a shake, to a tremor, to stillness.
It had been a while since his last flashback. Maybe a month. It had lulled him into a false sense of security. For a brief sliver of time, he had believed himself free of the ghosts from his past. Fallujah haunted him, lingering like a bad smell, or the afterimage burnt into one's retinas caused by staring at one point for too long. Wearily, he pushed his sweaty fringe out of his eyes, making a mental note to book an appointment at the hairdresser soon. He almost jumped out of his skin when a knock on the front door sounded directly behind him.
Turning around, he unlocked the door and pulled it open, a tired smile spreading over his face when a wide grin greeted him from the other side of the threshold. Sam Wilson strode into his flat, toeing off his shoes as he chattered excitedly about a woman he had passed on the way to Steve's flat who had apparently been giving him "the eye". Steve watched his friend, his flashback-related jitters slowly melting away as Sam's solid, bubbly presence grounded him back into reality.
"It's this new jacket," finished Sam, shoving his shoes into the pile by the front door. "Girls love a guy in a smart jacket. Just wish I'd asked her for her number..."
Sam finally straightened up and looked properly at Steve, his brown eyes morphing from excited to concerned as he took in Steve's pale appearance. Without a word, he took Steve by the arm and guided him into the living room, both of them settling down on Steve's squashy old sofa. After a moment's silence, in which Steve silently berated himself for letting his friend see him in such a state and Sam watched him patiently, Sam spoke.
"You want to tell me what's up?" he said. "I'm guessing you're not all broken up about the fact that lady liked me."
Steve shook his head, turning his gaze to the floor, shame bubbling up in his gut. The Fallujah mission was 14 years ago. He should no longer be so affected by it, let alone be having flashbacks that caused him to collapse in the street. He exhaled slowly, trying to lessen the pressure in his chest to no avail. Finally, after several long minutes, he spoke, addressing the carpet so as not to have to see Sam's reaction.
"I had another flashback," he said. "Fallujah. I thought they'd finally stopped." When Sam did not speak, Steve continued: "I have nightmares too, most nights. About what happened."
With a sigh, Sam put an arm around Steve's shoulder, pulling him into a hug. Steve closed his eyes, burying his face in Sam's shoulder. The fabric of his shirt quickly soaked through with tears, but Sam did not comment on it, silently rubbing Steve's back until he regained some of his composure. At last, Steve pulled away, roughly wiping his face and slapping his cheeks, trying to regain some of the vigour he had lost since the flashback.
"Some stuff you leave there," said Sam. "Other stuff you bring back. You've got to figure out how to carry it."
Steve wrung his hands, restless. That was precisely the problem.
"That's just it," he said. "I don't know how to deal with this. It's been 14 years. Fuck. You'd think it'd get better."
Sam rested a hand on his arm. It was warm and comforting in its weight.
"You know I'm always here for you, right?" said Sam. "I'm not going anywhere. You want to talk about what happened, you can with me. Or if you think I'm a shit listener, go to the VA. They're there for guys like us."
Steve flashed him a watery smile, his heart rate finally getting back to something approximating normal as Sam's large white teeth gleamed back at him. Steve was supremely thankful for Sam's presence in his life. Sam, who would meet up with him for jogging and pop around to his flat whenever he felt like some company. Sam understood him. He had been a soldier alongside Steve, in Iraq, in Fallujah. He was uniquely placed to understand and support Steve with his problems.
"Thanks, Sam," said Steve, hoping that the feeling behind his words could convey his sense of gratitude.
Sam waved his thanks aside, a mischievous grin spreading over his face. The time for serious talk, it seemed, was over.
"You know what else would help you lighten up a bit?" he smirked.
Steve raised his eyebrows, not entirely sure if he wanted to hear Sam's suggestion.
"You need to get laid, man!" grinned Sam.
Sam's suggestion was so unexpected that it startled a laugh out of Steve. The bubble of sadness around him seemed to burst, the mood in the flat instantly transforming from one dark and gloomy to one light-hearted and full of fun. The rest of the evening passed in a blur, as they watched a re-run of one of Steve's favourite films – Terminator – with Sam frequently interrupting with witty commentary and disconcertingly accurate Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions.
After Sam had gone home and Steve had got himself ready for bed, he found himself staring at his bedroom ceiling, pondering Sam's joke. Perhaps he did need to get laid. Not necessarily to stop his flashbacks – he doubted having sex would have any effect on those – but to help fill the yawning chasm in his life with regards to intimacy.
The last time he had had sex was about one and a half years ago – a drunken hook-up with a guy in Boston – and he had not been in a long-term relationship... basically ever. He was romantically and sexually frustrated, chronically lonely, and pined to share his life with someone. He had no family, a grand total of two friends, no love life and no sex life. He was, frankly, tired of it.
He tried to imagine himself going out to a bar and flirting with someone, or striking up a conversation in a cafe or an art supplies shop. He imagined himself kissing some faceless man, imagined taking him home and having sex with him – topping, or bottoming, whichever the other man preferred. He reached down and stroked his flaccid cock experimentally, before sighing and giving up. The fantasy felt fake, flat and contrived. He was useless at small talk, a failure at flirting and an all-round hot mess.
His conscience stirred, reminding him that he was unworthy of love. Guilt flooded through him. Suddenly, he felt ashamed for even thinking that he deserved to be happy.
Perhaps it was fitting that he was alone. Perhaps this was his punishment.
He thought about Fallujah, and what had happened behind the flaky red door.
Some things were unforgivable.
Another day, another batch of website updates.
This time, they were in English which, whilst easier for Steve, had the downside of no emails from his favourite Russian translator, James Barnes. By the time lunchtime rolled around, he was exceptionally glad to get away from in front of his screen and walk down to the canteen to stretch his legs and eat with Natasha.
He was sat at his usual table, listening to Natasha talking about a ballet that was currently on at the theatre, when he found his eye caught by his cafeteria crush. His cafeteria crush was someone whom he had noticed almost as soon as he had begun working at Stark Industries. He often ate at the same time as Steve, at a table four rows away. He looked around the same age as Steve – in his mid-thirties – and had brown hair and beautiful blue eyes which Steve had caught himself staring into on more than one occasion. They had never spoken, but Steve liked to admire him from a distance, sneaking in appreciative little glances whenever he could. Whoever this mystery man was, he was fucking hot.
His attention had slipped from Natasha only momentarily, watching his cafeteria crush's lips wrap around a hot dog – holy fuck – when Natasha's fingers snapped in front of his face, making him jump.
"Earth to Steve," said Natasha. "Are you listening to me?!"
Steve blushed guiltily, trying to rearrange his face from one that had just been imagining his cafeteria crush's lips wrapped around to a very different kind of meat, to one that had been diligently listening to Natasha talk about ballet. He floundered for words, his eyes darting guiltily back to the man in question, causing Natasha to twist around in her seat to get a better look at who Steve was ogling.
Looking excited, she turned back around, apparently no longer offended that Steve had not been paying full attention to her discussion about ballet.
"Are you checking out Bucky?" she said.
Steve almost choked on his mouthful of food, kicking her gently under the table as she twisted around to stare once more in the man's direction. He sat rigidly, mortified, convinced that the man in question would turn to find them staring and demand an explanation.
"Stop looking," he hissed at Natasha, jiggling his foot insistently against hers under the table.
Natasha turned around, a smug expression on her face as she smirked at him flirtatiously. Her green eyes were shining excitedly as she leaned towards him with a conspiratorial whisper.
"The fit guy with brown hair and blue eyes and the black t-shirt, four rows back," she said. "Is that who you're checking out?"
Steve cast a longing glance towards his crush, who was now finishing off his hot dog and was indeed wearing a black t-shirt. He briefly considered lying to Natasha, but quickly decided to do so would be fruitless. When Natasha wanted to know something, she was like a dog with a bone: determined, single-minded and relentless. Sighing, he nodded minutely, unable to repress a smile when the single nod elicited a kind of strangled screech from his friend.
"His name is Bucky," said Natasha excitedly. "He works in Linguistics with me. Shall I call him over?"
Steve quickly shook his head. He could imagine nothing more excruciating than having his cafeteria crush – named Bucky, apparently – come over and watch as Steve made a complete fool of himself by attempting to flirt. He would die of embarrassment. He would take one look at that beautiful face, make an innuendo, choke on his traitorous tongue, and die. He could picture his gravestone: Here lies Steve Rogers, embarrassed to death.
"No," he said firmly. "I don't need to flirt." Then, remembering Sam's words the previous evening, he added, as joke and an afterthought: "I need to get laid."
Rather than laughing, as Steve had expected her to, Natasha instead became pensive. Her previous excitement melted away to something subtler and, dare he say it, scheming. Natasha tapped her chin thoughtfully, one painted red nail rubbing against her pale skin.
"You're the second person to say that to me today," she said. "And I'm going to ask you the same question I asked the first guy: Fancy going to a kink club with me this weekend?"
Steve stared at her. He had misheard, surely. Or he had suffered some kind of break with reality. Perhaps he had suffered a stroke. Surreptitiously digging his finger in his ear in an attempt to dislodge any earwax, he tentatively asked for clarification.
"I might have misheard you there..." he said.
Natasha smirked. Apparently, she was unaffected by the sudden bout of shyness that had overcome Steve.
"A kink club," she repeated. "There's one called The Underworld that I go to sometimes. This Saturday night they're having a fancy dress and masquerade party, which means guests have to wear masks and use nicknames. I thought it could be fun. We could just enjoy the music and drinks, or we could try to find you Mr. Right. Or Mr. Right Now..."
Steve stared at her, his mouth hanging open in shock. His first instinct was to laugh, until one look at her face showed that she was being deadly serious, and he swallowed hard. A kink club? With Natasha? The idea sounded completely insane. He thought about the sheer ridiculousness of it – going to a kink club with his strictly platonic friend (and colleague – HR would have a fit) – and almost said "no" immediately, out of instinct.
But, for whatever reason – perhaps shock – he stayed silent.
Instead of dismissing the idea forthwith, he thought about it. He thought about his sad, lonely, isolated life. He thought about how he would spend the weekend otherwise: out jogging in the park or painting, by himself of course, in a desperate attempt to distract himself from how lonely he felt. Taken by a sudden surge of desperation, he clenched his fists and swallowed back his anxiety. Fuck it. Why not?
Taking a deep breath, he made a decision that, unbeknownst to him, was a tipping point, a moment in time that would change his life forever.
"Yes," he said.