The first time Steve asks, Tony says no.
It’s autumn and cold on the streets. Tony has been plying his wares anyway, because this is his life now, and anyway there’s a comfort in routine, even when everything else has gone. The cold is helpful, in its way. It reminds him that time is passing. Apart from that, the nights begin to blur: another streetlamp, another shifty-eyed john shooting down his throat in a back alley or taking him rough and quick on some plasticky motel sheets. Another drink.
The drinking doesn’t exactly help with the blur, except that’s not right, because with the drinking, the blur is the point.
But that night—there’s not enough liquor in the world to blur away that night.
It starts with a stupid mistake: like many a streetwalker before him, he solicits the wrong guy. Except usually when that happens, the wrong guy is a cop, or a raging homophobe, or even some kind of crazed serial killer. He honestly thinks that might have been preferable.
He solicits the wrong guy and now he’s standing here just outside the halo of a streetlamp wondering if maybe he died somewhere between a frosty night and a bottle of Jack because this sure as shit feels like hell to him, except he thinks maybe hell wouldn’t be this cold.
Steve’s eyes are wide enough to drown in, and still blue, still so goddamn blue, even in the half-light of the streets.
He says, come back to the mansion. He says, let us help. He says, Tony, but the name is just a signifier empty of meaning. The man Steve is talking to is gone, long gone, if he ever existed in the first place, so instead he sets his jaw and crosses his arms and watches as horror and pity kindle to anger in Steve’s eye.
I’m not interested in charity, Tony tells him, and fine, Steve says. There’s something in his voice, some kind of sepsis, black and creeping, and Tony remembers reading about old-timey field medicine. You put whiskey in the wound, if you had any, to sterilize it (only didn’t Tony try that?), and if that didn’t work, there was nothing for it but amputation. Tony tried that too.
Fine, Steve says, I can work with that, and that’s when Tony knows, really and truly knows he’s in hell.
He does the only thing he can think of.
He goes for another drink.
Steve grabs the bottle from his hands and hurls it down the alley behind them. Tony hears it shatter and, to his horror, feels tears prick at his eyes. He wipes at them roughly with the sleeve of his coat and turns his back, starts to walk away.
Steve grabs him by the arm, hard enough to bruise.
Let me go, Tony says, and we’re not finished yet, Steve says, only his eyes say, don’t you walk away from me. His eyes say, not again.
I think we are, Tony says. He hopes his eyes say that too but how could he possibly know?
The dream-fog of the alcohol is slowly lifting. He could pretend, at the beginning, that this was happening to someone else. Now sobriety comes in and out in waves, drags at him like an undertow. People talk about drowning your sorrows but honest to god liquor is the only way Tony knows how to stay afloat.
What’s changed? Steve asks. You were “happy enough for a customer a moment ago,” as the world fades back in with hateful clarity.
It’s not the only thing that’s hateful.
Tony can see it now, the way Steve is looking at him, like he wants to burn Tony alive with his gaze, and that’s right, Tony remembers. This is hell. He thought there ought to be flames, and there they are, raging away at the back of Steve’s eyes.
Tony laughs, because what else do you do in hell?
“You’re not a customer,” Tony says, “you’re—”
He can’t think what to say. An echo? A memory? A vengeful ghost?
He thought he’d rid himself of all this now, vomited up all that history in some stinking back alleyway. Alcohol is an emetic after all; it purges memory right along with the rest.
“I’ll pay,” Steve says.
“You don’t know what I’m offering yet.”
“There’s not enough money in the world,” Tony tells him, but the words are empty and he knows it. He guesses Steve knows it too, because the martial light in his eye isn’t one of challenge, but of satisfaction. Like Steve already knows he’s won, and it’s just a matter of waiting.
The next few weeks are rough. Tony gets stiffed a couple of times. Gets robbed. Goes too long without being able to afford a drink. No one wants a whore tremoring through the early stages of alcohol withdrawal. It’s a vicious cycle.
And then there’s Steve, colder than ice and twice as brittle, at least on the surface (but Tony knows what’s underneath, he’s seen those flames), and have you thought about my offer, and yeah, Tony’s thought about it. Has thought more about Steve’s blazing resentment; has spent half his time trying to remember what he did to earn that kind of hatred, and the other half trying to forget the need to remember it. He hasn’t thought about it much in the past few days, though. Hasn’t thought about much of anything apart from how badly he needs a drink.
I’ll make it worth your while, Steve says, and in the end, that’s all it takes.
“Now?” Tony asks, pressing his hands to his temples, trying to tamp down the buzzing in his skull because this stage of the negotiation is important. If it’s now, he needs to find a way to convince Steve to let him have a drink first, before the withdrawal really starts to fuck him over.
Steve draws in a sharp breath and makes a tiny, abortive movement in Tony’s direction. Then he shakes his head. “Two days from now,” he says. “I need some time to get things together.”
And if that doesn’t sound ominous as fuck.
Tony stiffens, opens his mouth—
“Don’t worry,” Steve says, and his smile barely deserves the name. “I’m not buying anything you’re not selling.”
Tony folds his arms, tugs the too-thin body of his jacket tighter around him. “You don’t know what I’m selling.”
“I know what you’ve sold already. Next to that, this should be nothing.”
“Get fucked,” Tony says, but Steve only laughs, an ugly, empty sound. Bloodless. False.
“That’s the plan,” he says.
Tony drags his foot along the filthy sidewalk and imagines walking away from this. From this fucked up transaction, whatever it is. From the way Steve looks at him, with all the hunger of flames for kindling. From the way Tony looks back, and wonders if it would really be so bad to burn.
A john would come along sooner or later, someone who didn’t care if his rent-a-hole was half dead of delirium tremens so long as he had a warm place to stick his cock, and a john would mean money and money would mean alcohol and alcohol would mean more customers.
He’s made it before. He could make it again. He doesn’t have to do this.
“Two days,” he says. “When exactly should I pencil you in for?”
Steve shrugs. “I’m not sure. But I’ll be there. The usual place,” and his face pulls into a terrible smile because this, now, is something they share. This filthy street corner in the worst part of town has been canonized in their shared history.
The usual place.
The thought makes Tony kind of sick, but he’s always sick these days: sick from the alcohol, sick from its lack.
“So, what?” he asks, getting angry. “You just want me to spend all day hanging out on a street corner and waiting for you to show up?”
Steve’s eyes are hard. “I looked for you,” he says. “You know that?”
Tony didn’t know that, or at least, he didn’t think Steve would have looked again, after the flophouse. Thought those bridges burned along with the building.
Apparently he was wrong.
“Yeah,” Steve says, “yeah, that’s exactly what I want.”
Tony opens his mouth to tell Steve to go fuck himself, but Steve’s already pulling out his wallet. A fifty. Tony shuts his mouth. Takes the money.
He found a way to live with the hooking. He can find a way to live with this.
Fifty dollars gives him some options.
Bourbon or rye?
He heads straight to the liquor store after Steve leaves. Doesn’t bother trying to turn tricks at all the next day. Gets blind drunk and passes out in an alley instead.
He’s on the street corner earlier than ever, even before the sun’s fully set behind the moldy bodegas and run-down tenement buildings. He gets an offer or two before Steve arrives, even though he’s not actually trying to pull. It’s not too surprising. He looks like what he is, and anyway he’s still not a bad-looking guy, even after everything.
He figures he could probably risk a quick suck job in the alley.
He turns them down anyway.
He doesn’t want to imagine what would happen if Steve came looking and found him gone.
Luckily, whiskey makes an awfully good remedy for imagination.
It’s just gone dusk when Steve appears. He’s wearing that godawful hat and trench coat combo he seems to think makes him look inconspicuous. It doesn’t. Nothing in the world could make Steve Rogers blend into a crowd. People used to say the same thing about Tony.
Funny old world.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Tony drawls, like it’s a joke shared between the two of them.
Steve doesn’t smile.
He looks at Tony for a long moment, like there’s something he wants to say. Tony can see it, wild and uncertain behind the bars of his eyes. Then his face shutters.
“Can you walk straight?”
“Don’t tell me you came here looking for straight,” Tony deadpans. He can do this. It’s just playing a role. He’s been doing that his whole life, one way or another.
Steve says nothing. Waits.
Tony hunches his shoulders.
“I can walk,” he says.
Steve clenches his jaw. Nods. That awful look is back on his face and Tony finds he can’t bear to see it anymore. He looks at the ground instead. At the boarded-up window in the building opposite. At the patterns of dust on the window of the bodega across the way.
Steve is breathing heavily, chest heaving, nostrils flaring like a bull preparing to charge. His hands at his sides clench and unclench. Tony knows that look. Steve is wrestling with something.
“I’ll make this worth your while,” he says at last. “But it won’t be easy on you.”
The way he says easy, Tony thinks it means something different to this newer, harder Steve than it would to the one Tony knew. He’s not sure he wants to find out what.
Too bad his wants don’t exactly factor into the situation.
He sticks his hands into his pockets and transfers his weight onto one hip. Hoists up an eyebrow. Smiles coyly at nothing. (He still can’t bring himself to look at Steve straight on.) “How much do you think my while is worth?”
Steve reaches into his pocket and withdraws a wallet, angles it towards Tony. Tony doesn’t get much more of a glimpse before the wallet vanishes again, but it’s enough to see that his while is apparently worth quite a bit indeed.
“What the hell,” Tony says, as if there was any chance he would have refused this. “I can take it.”
Something flashes across Steve’s face, too fast to read. He never had trouble reading Steve before, but then, he wasn’t usually drunk at the time. He’s not exactly at optimum processing capacity.
He decides it doesn’t bother him.
He’s not quite drunk enough for the subsequent walk to be a blur, but he’s drunk enough that it does strange things to the passage of time. Time contracts for an uncountable number of blocks, only to dilate suddenly when Tony stumbles. Steve’s hand shoots out to steady him. His grip on Tony’s arm is firm, but light.
Tony jerks away.
“I’m not made of porcelain,” he snaps.
The street lights do strange things to Steve’s smile. “Oh,” he says, “I’m counting on it.”
Tony thinks about that. He thinks about the flames in Steve’s eyes that first night, about the livid bruises around his forearm that have yet to fade entirely.
At some point they resume walking.
“It won’t be easy on you,” Tony remembers.
It occurs to him shortly after that this can’t possibly be happening. It can’t be happening, and therefore it isn’t. That’s about as close to a good thought as he can muster so that’s what he focuses on.
Not happening , he thinks, when he trips again and Steve lifts him bodily from the sidewalk to set him back on his feet, his hands far less gentle than before.
Not happening , in the grimy, fluorescent-lit lobby, where Steve stands and talks at the desk while Tony stares at his feet and imagines equations inscribed within the whorls of the industrial carpeting.
Not happening, in the elevator and down the hallway, not happening as Steve presses the key into his hand, not happening as the door swings open.
And then they’re inside the room and the door is swinging shut behind them and Tony’s mind stutters to a halt as not happening is met with the ineluctable reality of bed before him and Steve behind.
There’s a door on Tony’s left. Steve reaches around Tony, flicks a switch on the wall, and opens the door.
The bathroom, at least what Tony can see of it, is clean but ugly. The tiles on the floor are cracked and the grouting around the edges of the tub is peeling away from the wall.
“I want you to look at me,” Steve says. His voice is low and very rough.
Tony turns his head but not his body. From this position, he can just about make out Steve’s left shoulder.
Steve makes an impatient noise. He grabs Tony by the shoulders and spins him bodily around. Tony stumbles a little, but Steve’s hands are there to steady him.
Tony doesn’t look at Steve’s face. He makes his eyes go unfocused, tracking off the side of Steve’s right shoulder. He isn’t quite sure why he does it, only that the distinction is important somehow, the difference between doing what Steve wants and letting Steve do what he wants with him. He has so few things left to cling to.
Steve releases Tony’s shoulder, takes a step back. Now Tony isn’t staring at Steve at all but at the doorframe behind him.
Steve is breathing heavily again.
“Last chance,” he says.
“For what?” Tony asks the doorframe.
“I could say, ‘to back out,’ but we both know you’re not going to do that.”
The thought of arguing floats across Tony’s mind but finds no traction. His brain seems to be operating on a lag. Clearly something is happening, but he hasn’t quite accepted the fact that that something is the same as the thing that seems to be happening.
“So this is your last chance to do things the easy way. Come back with me to the mansion. Let us help you, or get you help.”
There’s a strained quality to the words. It’s strange. Tony would have expected far more heartfelt a plea.
He chances a glance at Steve’s face, finds it bright and hard and cold. He thinks of sunlight reflecting off of snow. People go blind from that, he thinks.
He lets his gaze fall and drags up an answer from a lifetime ago.
“When have you ever known me to do things the easy way?”
Steve gives a kind of disbelieving snort, and somewhere in the very depths of himself, Tony feels a flicker of anger of his own.
“You think this was easy?” He drags a hand up and down his grimy, emaciated body. He supposes falling does look easy, to someone who’s never tried it.
“I think,” Steve says, “it’s about to get a whole lot harder. Last chance.”
A kind of tingle shoots up Tony’s spine. His tongue darts out to wet his lips—when did his mouth go so dry? He shifts his weight, juts out his hip, striving for a provocative pose, or at least, as close to one as he can get when he can’t even manage to look straight at Steve for more than seconds at a time.
“Bring it on.”
Steve breathes out.
“You know?” he says, and his voice is dark and rich and absolutely swimming with meaning. “I was hoping you’d say that. Here’s how this is going to work. You’re going to let me do whatever I want, tonight.”
Tony frowns and tries to focus, because that doesn’t sound—
“I promise not to do any permanent damage, and I’ll make sure you’re compensated for any… lost work—” He spits the words out like obscenities. “—more temporary damage might cause. I’ll pay half up front. You can tap out at any time, just get up and walk out of here. I won’t stop you. But if you want the rest of the money, you’ll do what I say.”
Tony rolls the concept of damage, permanent and temporary, around in his mind but he can’t seem to make sense of it. Steve—Steve Rogers—Captain America Steve—is talking about damaging him. But only temporarily?
There’s no script in his head for this situation.
Compensation, now. That’s something concrete. Something he can focus on.
“You’ll pay half of… what?” he asks, seeking to inject a little boredom into his tone, like this is just another transaction. Which it is.
“A thousand dollars.”
The sum is staggering—far more than Tony could dream of earning in a whole month of work. Just how badly is Steve planning to damage him?
Tony isn’t quite sure what makes him argue. “Fifteen hundred.”
Steve huffs out a breath. “You really think,” he says, “that’s how you’re going to get control here? By haggling over the price?”
No, Tony thinks, and then, yes .
He settles on a shrug.
“Fine,” Steve says. “We can play this game. Okay. A thousand fifty.”
“Fourteen hundred,” Tony counters.
Steve takes a slow breath in, and then out. “You honestly think,” he says deliberately, and a soldier down to his core is Steve Rogers, because every word is a weapon, “you’re worth that much?”
I think you think that. The words flash into Tony’s mind, but they—their certainty—doesn’t belong to him. “Take it or leave it,” he says, staring down at Steve’s shoes.
“I paid for this hotel room,” Steve observes evenly. “If anyone’s leaving, it won’t be me.”
He steps to the side, gestures at the door.
“You want to go? I’m not stopping you.”
Tony looks from the door, to Steve, and back to the door again. He imagines himself walking forward, lifting the latch.
“Eleven fifty,” he says, and please in his mind, please.
Let me have this. If nothing else, let me have this.
Steve stares at him. Tony doesn’t have to be looking at him to feel his gaze.
He snorts, a laugh with no amusement in it. “Fine,” he says. “Eleven fifty.”
This is Steve humoring him, Tony realizes. This is what passes for kindness now.
Steve pulls out his wallet and begins, ostentatiously, to count out bills. “Half,” he says, and reaches around to slide it into Tony’s back pocket. It’s a straightforward motion, almost impersonal—it’s not like Steve tries to cop a feel or anything—but something about it sends tension crawling through the muscles of Tony’s back. A certain proprietariness. Like Steve has the right to touch Tony however he pleases.
The thought clenches at the base of Tony’s spine, flaring with a low and sickly heat. He supposes it’s true. It’s what he just agreed to, after all.
Steve’s hand glides upwards to rest on Tony’s shoulder. There’s something almost companionable in the gesture, and Tony feels a sudden nostalgia which just as suddenly curdles in his stomach, sour and nauseous.
Steve’s hand tightens and the nostalgia vanishes.
Whatever this is is something new.
Tony’s not sure whether to be frightened or grateful.
Steve turns Tony towards the bathroom door and releases him, nudging him forward with the heel of his hand.
Stumbling, Tony obeys.
The light in the bathroom is bright and horribly unflattering, turning the golden lights of Tony’s skin to a waxen, cadaverous yellow. Steve couldn’t possibly want him. No one could. But then what are they both doing here?
Tony drags his eyes away from his reflection. Looking back at Steve is another non-starter. Finally he settles his gaze on the sink, the dark, gaping hole of the uncovered drain, the rust-stains on the porcelain surrounding it.
“Look at me.”
Tony drags his eyes up and over. It feels exhausting, the way only physical labor should.
Steve is leaning against the doorjamb, seemingly at ease, but Tony recognizes the tightness in his shoulders. He knows Steve too well to be fooled.
No. Knew. He knew Steve.
Nothing he used to know about Steve would have allowed for something like this. But then, the person Tony was then would never have driven him to it.
Steve holds Tony’s gaze in his for a moment longer. His mouth works; his tongue darts out to wet his lips. He swallows, then nods in sudden decision.
“Strip,” he says.
It feels like the bursting of a bubble, like something inevitable but no less destructive. He’s known, all along, what this was about—Steve has made no secret of it, even warned him. But somehow, to hear it stated so baldly…
His fingers leap to the buttons of his jacket, then slow. He’s a professional, right? That should give him some modicum of control here. He can make this good.
He slides a smile across his face, sly and just a little bit lascivious, ducks his head as he unfastens the buttons, fingers fumbling only a little (the alcohol again). He rolls his shoulders back and, with some vestige of barely-remembered grace, lets the jacket fall down his arms. He gathers it deftly in one hand, casting a glance back at Steve through his lashes.
“I’m not interested in the dog-and-pony show,” Steve says with measured cruelty. “Get your clothes off and stop wasting both of our time.”
Tony feels something impossibly reminiscent of shame seize within his chest. He sheds the rest of his clothes quickly and in silence. He tells himself that he’s a whore now and nudity is his natural state. Nothing to feel self-conscious about.
He still doesn’t look at Steve once he’s done.
“Stand up straight. Face the mirror.”
“Look at your reflection.”
He hears footsteps, and then Steve appears in the mirror behind him. The light does something different to him than it did to Tony—picks out the gold in his hair, highlights the paleness of his skin. He looks like something biblical. An avenging angel. The wrath of the god.
Steve makes no move to touch him. Tony can hardly blame him. In contrast to Steve, he looks hideously frail, grotesquely mortal. Half of humankind was created from a rib, by some people’s reckoning. You can count every one of Tony’s.
“Here’s the thing,” Steve says, and his voice is hard, utterly uncompromising. “I’ve known a few addicts in my time. Some of them have turned things around. The others… haven’t. And the ones who make it out? They all say the same thing.”
Steve meets Tony’s eyes in the mirror.
“They had to hit rock bottom first.”
And oh, Tony thinks, like he’s just figured out the twist in a movie, like this is happening to someone else, oh.
“Once they knew there was nowhere, nowhere further to fall, well. That’s when they started working their way back up. So here’s my theory.”
Steve leans forward, just a little, but enough that Tony can now feel the currents of his breath against the back of his head.
“You haven’t actually gotten there yet. Losing your company, your armor, your friends—” The word twists even as Steve speaks it into something animal and misshapen. Steve clamps his jaw shut, then begins again, tone measured once more. “That wasn’t enough. Your change of careers? Wasn’t enough.”
And oh god but Tony wants out, but he’s trapped between Steve and the sink, and anyway, he’s naked as the day he was born, and anyway, where in the world would he possibly go? What is there that’s left to him, apart from this?
He wishes Steve would hit him. He wonders if this is what Steve meant by “damage.”
“Maybe it’s the whoring,” Steve says, and Tony could have called his voice musing, if not for the rage still blazing in his eyes. At some point he must have moved closer still, because Tony can feel the heat of him at his back. It’s almost more intimate than touch, the way Steve can affect him through proximity alone. “Maybe you like that. You’re a businessman, or at least, you were. Maybe that means something to you, to be a commodity, to see your worth measured out in dollars and cents. Maybe it excites you, even.”
Just hit me, Tony thinks, for fuck’s sake, just hit me .
“But you are—” His mouth pulls. “—were worth something to me. So I’m going to help you. I’m going to give you what you need to get through this.” Steve leans forward, and now his breath is hot in Tony’s ear. “Let’s see just how close to the bottom we can get, hmm?”
Tony stands frozen. He thinks if he moved he would have to do something, but he can’t even begin to fathom what, so he keeps himself still. He barely even breathes.
“Get yourself hard,” Steve says. “Other than that, don’t move.”
He leaves the room.
Tony lets his eyes drift shut and slowly, slowly, wraps his fingers around his cock. He tries to remember what he used to think of, when getting off was something that actually had any meaning or value for him. He thinks he thought of old lovers, sometimes, but those memories seem far beyond his reach.
He thinks he thought of Steve, kind of a lot.
Steve, who is in the other room. Steve, who ordered him to strip, who told Tony he was going to break him down to the very bottom, give him what he needs.
To his disgust, he can feel his cock beginning to fill. He always knew there was something broken about him but he never realized quite how badly broken it was.
He’s just about managed to work himself to a full erection when Steve returns, carrying a cardboard box printed with a picture of a large rubber bag. And a hose. And a nozzle, oh god…
“You know what this is?”
Tony attempts a sneer. “I am a professional.”
Steve’s eyebrows inch upwards. “You know how to use it?”
Tony’s cheeks flare hot at the implication. He forgets that he’s supposed to be cocky and confident and provocative, gives a jerky nod instead.
Steve drops the box on the counter next to the sink.
“Take a shower. Get clean. Come out as soon as you’re done. Don’t bother bringing a towel.”
“You don’t want to watch?” Tony asks, injecting something coy into his tone.
Steve’s lip wrinkles in unfeigned distaste. “Why would I want to see that?” His eyes flick down to Tony’s erection, which is flagging a little. “Keep yourself hard,” he adds, “but don’t come.”
“I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” Tony lies.
“We’ll see,” is all Steve says.