Steve’s nervous, can’t help it.
He’s done black-ops missions on all continents, then left the army, then joined the CIA, then left the CIA and finally joined up SHIELD, the world’s only international secret service—like the UN but with real guns, Sam likes to mock—and the only place he’s found that really makes him feel like he’s working towards the greater good. He’s been shot a total of twelve times, got captured twice and survived not one, but two explosions. He can’t recall ever getting scared of combat, death or pain. It’s not that he isn’t afraid; it’s that he’s usually too busy during those times to leave room for fear.
What he doesn’t like is undercover work.
The Hydra is ridiculously inaccessible, a tiny patch of rocks off the coast of Iceland that’s impossible to reach without a private helicopter, which already says something about its clientele’s baseline wealth. The whole place belongs to billionaire Alexander Pierce, who allows people to conduct their business in exchange for a substantial percentage of the resulting profits. Because it’s so small, it doesn’t actually count as land, but as international waters, which makes it the ideal place to conduct illegal deals. It’s underground—literally—to shield itself from the cruel weather; but of course it’s decadently comfortable inside, much like a luxury resort gone wrong.
Steve just got off his helicopter, moved into his room and changed into a tux. Officially, he’s Mr. Grant, a man interested in buying weapons from none other than Pierce himself. He’s staying for as long as it’ll take to complete his mission; could be a day, could be a month. His goal is to actually buy the weapons, using a money transfer that’s coded to vanish twenty-four hours later. Codename Fool’s Gold. God knows he’ll have competition, so this won’t be easy. But if he can pull this off, he’ll later be able to testify in court to the transaction, leading to Pierce’s arrest and bringing his whole business down to the ground.
Steve can’t count on extraction if things go wrong, not on this godforsaken rock where even satellite can’t get through. Rumors say it used to be a WWII bunker, though Steve can’t imagine what strategic advantage could have been found in such a desolate part of the world. He had to go in alone, because he’s a white man, and they constitute about 100% of Hydra’s clientele at any given time. Shame—Natasha and Sam both vastly overshadow him when it comes to undercover. But those are the cards they’ve all been dealt.
He finishes up his bow tie, takes a last look at himself in the mirror, then gets out into the plush hallway.
Coming down from his room into the lounge, he’s reminded again of how much he hates clubs. It’s all soft mood lighting and wine-red leather seats. The room’s crowded, the air is thick with cigar smoke; the sound of pool keeps clacking in the background. Nothing to do here but aimless drinking and pointless chatting. Steve adjusts his bowtie—that’s twice now; he really is nervous—then makes his way towards the bar. Might as well get a drink for something to do with his hands, at least until he can locate Pierce.
All men in the room are dressed just like him, in tuxedos or expensive suits, which is how, as their dark crowd parts, he becomes unavoidably aware of a blinding expanse of bare skin.
There’s a man sitting on a bar stool, wearing only black leather underwear, fishnets and heels. He looks completely heedless of his surroundings, or of the fact that he’s half-naked in a room full of besuited men. He’s leaning back with his elbows on the bar, staring hard into space.
Steve hadn’t expected that kind of entertainment to be provided—since women weren’t allowed—so the sight sucker punches him. Seconds later, he gets a hold of himself and, as he can’t change course without making it obvious, lands on the bar right next to the guy.
He has to strain his eyes not to stare. It’s odd. Not so much the fishnets—Steve’s done Pride a few times, thanks—but how they don’t match his attitude at all. Usually, feminization goes all the way to effeminate poses, or coquettish shyness or overt flirting or at the very least… make-up, or something. But this guy sits there with straightforward masculine aplomb. He’s beautiful, though, with fine features and chin-length dark hair framing his face. He’s built, and frozen, and so goddamn tense.
Fuck. Steve is staring. Enough that he knows he’s been noticed.
“Hey, I’m Grant,” he says, since he’s got to take the jump now. “What are you drinking?”
The man’s eyes dart to him—too quick, assess him with a few glances that ring bizarrely familiar. Then he looks away again.
“James,” he says. “Sorry, I ain’t allowed.”
Only then does Steve really take notice of the leather collar buckled tight around his neck.
He’s not exactly surprised to find those kind of games in such a place, but he is puzzled at such a brazen display. Whoever brought James along is someone powerful enough to be openly gay here, and inflict his kinks onto the whole room, and leave his boy toy unattended among some of the most dangerous, predatory people of the planet.
Taking all that into consideration, James should be more relaxed—he’s obviously got a powerful protector—but he definitely isn’t. Maybe he’s waiting for his partner to really feel safe. Steve can hear Nat and Sam cackling at him from beyond the mission—partner! Rogers, you’re so sweet. Fine—sugar daddy, for lack of a better term. Or maybe john, though Steve doesn’t like the word. Could be he’s not entirely comfortable doing this but needs the money. Most wealthy, powerful men like to surround themselves with young beautiful playthings. And James certainly is beautiful.
“You all right?” he tries.
God, he does sound like he’s flirting with the guy. Really, he’s thinking anybody would be tense sitting in fishnets in that kind of place; and the fact that the people around don’t acknowledge James only makes the whole thing more uncanny.
“New here, are you?” James asks, still keeping his eyes straight ahead.
“First time,” Steve admits. “I’m not planning to stay long.”
In fact, he shouldn’t waste his time here—he’s got a deal to make. But something’s anchoring him next to James. He can’t tell if it’s the faint motion of his biceps as he adjusts himself against the bar, the fact that he’s been obviously waxed all over, or the look in his eyes. Stormy but fixed, as if caught in headlights.
Steve’s seen that look before, he’s almost sure. If he could only remember where.
Another guy sidles up to the bar, on the other side of James—and as he does, his hands drags up James’ thigh and lands on his crotch to massage the bulge he finds there. James flinches imperceptibly, but says nothing, just stares harder into space. The guy’s not even looking at him, chatting with his friend while squeezing and kneading James through his leather briefs.
“Hey,” Steve says dryly. “Do you mind?”
The guy blinks at him, slow with drink; then laughs and lets go, slurring out that he hadn’t noticed the spot was taken, or something along those lines. He’s obviously not even involved enough for confrontation—as mindless in letting go of James as he was in getting to him. Seconds later, he’s grabbed another vodka and left.
James hasn’t moved, but his eyes are on Steve again, though not quite meeting his.
“Sorry if that was over the line,” Steve says, suddenly uncertain. Maybe this guy’s living out a fantasy and he’s interrupting. “I thought—that didn’t look too comfortable.”
James lets out a faint scoff. “Comfortable’s hardly the idea.”
The explanation hits Steve like a freight train. It’s written in every line of James’ body. This is a humiliation play. He’s supposed to feel vulnerable and naked, sitting there in this get-up for others to enjoy. He’s been ordered to stay there by whoever put that collar on him.
Before Steve can say anything, someone else comes up to them, this time sliding between Steve and James entirely and grabbing James’ dimpled chin to lift up his head. “Everything all right, James?”
James looks down at once, lashes falling over his cheeks. “Yes, sir.”
“Are we learning our lesson?”
Steve has to try again not to stare, because that’s Alexander Pierce.
“He’s for public use, you know,” Pierce tells Steve with a genial smile.
He clips a leash onto the O-ring on James’ collar.
“Or he was for the past thirty minutes.” He winds the strap around his hand, making James lift his chin as the leash tenses. “You’ve missed your chance for tonight, I’m afraid.”
“Well, I didn’t want to assume,” Steve says.
Something lights up in Pierce’s dull blue eyes; interest, maybe, or amusement. “A gentleman! How quaint. And here I thought his outfit would make it quite obvious what he’s for.” He looks at James. “Maybe next time I’ll make you sit there completely naked—what do you think?”
James doesn’t answer, still looking down. Seeing him leashed is doing uncomfortable things to Steve, now that he knows this is indeed dominance at play.
He tries to focus. “So this was punishment?”
“Of a sort,” Pierce answers. “Let’s say training.”
He tugs on James’ leash and James responds instantly, getting up with his hands behind his back, eyes down—maybe also so he won’t trip and fall. His heels look definitely wrong on him, like he’s been forced into them. Which he has. He’s awkward, struggling to maintain his posture, but nothing shows on his face.
“Would you care for a more private drink?” Pierce asks, his eyes still on Steve. “I do enjoy the company of men who know how to mind their manners.”
Now that’s got to be the most double-edged statement Steve’s ever heard. It could be innocent, a play on both James’ submission and Steve’s politeness. Or it could mean Pierce wants to fuck Steve.
Steve decides in a flash that he’ll let him, if it comes to that. There’s no question about it, really; the stakes are beyond him. Nat and Sam would do the same. He’ll lie back and think of Brooklyn if it means hindering a massive weapons sale. If it means bringing this guy down.
“Lead the way,” he says.
Pierce smiles, then leaves with James in tow. The heels do look punishing, high and too narrow for James’ strong feet. Steve tries not to stare at his ass as he falls into step. He’s not stupid; Pierce noticed his interest and will be using James to test him. He’s got to be ready for that. But James’ also got thick thighs and a wonderful back, all dips and curves of muscle, and his shoulders—
Focus, for the love of God. The crowd of men in suits part just as easily as before, no one giving James a second glance, which means the sight is commonplace. Training must mean indeed that this happens regularly, James being put at the disposal of Pierce’s hosts. Steve thinks again about that drunk guy who just groped James without even looking at him, enjoying the feel of him, maybe relishing his flinch of discomfort—some nice entertainment while he was waiting for his vodka. Steve’s slacks suddenly feel a bit tight, which in turn makes him feel like an awful person. He exhales deeply.
Pierce opens the door to a comfortable room with leather seats of the usual wine-red color, forming a semi-circle. In the middle sits an odd stainless-steel stool. It’s got a large, circular base, its insides seem to be spring-loaded, and it’s supporting one massive unlit red candle.
There’s a thin chain dangling off the ceiling, too.
Steve casts a glance to Pierce, quirking an eyebrow. He can’t afford to look anything but politely intrigued.
“You must forgive an old man his quirks,” Pierce chuckles. “I like to keep James busy while I talk shop.”
Frankly, Steve had expected a blowjob to take place, or something along those lines—involving any possible combination of James, Pierce, and himself—but whatever’s slated for James looks more elaborate than that.
“Off with the heels, dear,” Pierce says, unclipping the leash, “you know they make you too tall for this little exercise. And get rid of the fishnets too, they’re a hazard.”
James obeys quickly, leaving him in nothing but his leather shorts. Steve looks away from muscles shifting under waxed skin—but then comes back to it, because he’s interested and he has to show that he’s interested. James looks even more naked without his feminine get-up—stripped bare like a face without make-up. His shorts are so tight he might as well be naked. Despite himself, Steve looks away again.
Pierce takes a classic leather harness from a cache in the wall and binds James up, trapping his arms in his back and squeezing tight enough for the straps to sink into muscle. James is looking down, long hair half-hiding his face. Pierce clips the ceiling chain to the back strap of his harness, then pulls hard on it; it reels back up by itself into the ceiling, until James’ forced to move over the miniature stool, shuffling forward and spreading his legs to accommodate the width of it at the base. Pierce crouches down and cuffs his ankles to the stool, getting back up with the pained groan of an aging man.
Sitting down on the leather seat with a noise of relief, Pierce takes out a silver lighter and leans forward to light up the candle between James’ legs. Then he sits back with a contented sigh.
“Just a little show,” he says. “Will you join me?”
Steve sits next to him, studying the whole set-up. James looks expressionless—resigned, perhaps. His ankles are locked into what essentially amounts to a circular spreader bar, so he can’t move his legs or get away from the candle, which burns high—the room clearly has proper ventilation—but not high enough to hurt him.
“You look confused, my dear man,” Pierce says. “Can I enlighten you?”
“Just wondering what the spring’s for,” Steve says, nodding at the insides of the stool, where the massive coiled spring is clearly visible.
“Ah, you’ve spotted it,” Pierce appreciates. “Good eye, very good eye.”
Above them, James’ looking down, breathing deep, like he’s trying to brace himself for something.
“The candle’s hollow, meaning the wax will trickle out of the bottom. That’s when the spring comes into play. As the candle grows lighter, the spring pushes it higher.” Pierce smiles. “Poetic, isn’t it?”
“Well, fire play is usually quite limited by the candle growing smaller over time, thus lowering discomfort,” Pierce says reasonably. “As this one melts, the discomfort grows. I like to think of it as a little symbol. There’s nothing on this earth that can’t be made to bend backwards for my accommodation.” He smiles, affable. “Isn’t that right, James?”
“Yes, sir,” James says, again.
“Quiet, now,” Pierce says, reaching under the seat for two beautiful chiseled whiskey glasses and an unlabeled bottle. “My friend, let’s talk. I didn’t catch your name?”
Steve frankly didn’t expect to be so damn successful at catching Pierce’s attention on the very first day; now he has to make the most of it, awkward circumstances be damned. The man’s more intelligent than expected—using his plaything to unbalance his interlocutors is one thing, but the sheer cleverness of the spring-loaded candle contraption is also a testimony to the structure of his mind. Organized, methodical, and cruel.
The conversation starts slowly, then picks up, a contrived dance of metaphors, implied meanings and unsaid facts. It’s like playing poker without cards, slowly amping up the stakes until one of them decides to outright bring up weapons trade. So far it hasn’t happened; they’re using war-adjacent events to evoke it. Steve has to call on everything he knows about the world’s recent turmoils, while keeping a very close watch on himself—talking about Sokovia makes sense, as it’s common knowledge Pierce was a weapons supplier in the conflict; but he absolutely cannot mention the Wakandan border incident, because nobody’s supposed to know Pierce was involved in that particular mess, and this knowledge would immediately out Steve as a counterintelligence agent.
Natasha would breeze through this convo; Sam would at least make it look easy; but Steve has to stay focused and in character—so focused that he’s completely taken off-guard the first time James moans.
Steve’s head jerks up. James is pressing his lips into a tight line again, looking anxious and angry at himself.
“Ah, there we go,” Pierce says with relish. “I mostly do this for the background noise, if I’m being honest.” He pours himself another few fingers of rich earthy Scotch.
Steve looks at James. His legs are shaking, braced against the ankle cuffs. The candle’s melted down—and gone way up. The flame’s almost reached James’ crotch. He’s twitching in his harness, abs clenching and releasing, muscles shifting in his thighs. There’s a drop of sweat making its way down his chest. He can’t stop moving—shifting his posture, trying to find relief that can’t be found.
“Is this still training?” Steve asks, because he has to say something.
“Entertainment,” Pierce says. “I’m in dire need of it. I do get a steady trickle of visitors, but most of them are rather unimaginative. Not like yourself, Mr. Grant.”
“Honored,” Steve says, maybe a bit too succinctly, but—James’ slow twists of suffering are messing with his brain, which is probably the point.
James is obviously trying not to moan again, maybe so he won’t give Pierce the satisfaction, but—sometimes noises do make it out of his throat, mostly hisses of discomfort. Looking down at the stool, Steve can see drops of wax plopping down between the coils of the slowly unwinding spring. A few more trickle down, the flame pushes up, and James lets out another noise—sharp and desperate—when the fire gets close to his inner thighs.
“Well, this can’t go on for much longer,” Steve observes.
Pierce lifts his eyebrow. “Oh?”
Dangerous waters. James’ pain isn’t faked—there’s nothing to fake; the flame is real, the restraints too. But he’s obviously been put in this position to test Steve’s morals. Steve has to consider him an enemy, too. He has to consider everyone an enemy.
All the same, he’s spoken up already, so he has to forge on.
“I do enjoy the performance, of course,” he says, watching James contort and strain, “but I’ve got to assume you’ll want him to be operational for other sessions. You don’t have to push it for my sake, Mr. Pierce; I’m already impressed.”
Pierce’s smile comes back. “So thoughtful. Don’t worry—his shorts aren’t quite leather. He can feel the heat, but it would take a lot for him to suffer actual injuries in all the places that matter.” He finishes his glass. “On the topic of Sokovia…”
They talk for another half hour, by the end of which James is making continuous ‘background noises’, increasingly shaky and desperate, body glistening with sweat in the flickering candlelight, twisting and jerking in his restraints. The flame starts licking his crotch, tearing high-pitched noises from him.
“Sir,” he finally gasps, cutting Steve off mid-carefully constructed argument.
Pierce looks up leniently at him. “Yes?”
“Sir,” James repeats, and actually struggles against himself for another few seconds before he lets out, “please—”
Pierce goes back to Steve. “I’m sorry for the interruption. You were saying…”
“Please,” and James abruptly starts sobbing in panic, “God, God, please, no more, please—”
“Oh, very well,” Pierce says, and blows the candle.
James sags in his harness, breathing in loud wet gasps. His genitals might be intact under his underwear, but his inner thighs are shining with burns; when Pierce leans forward and digs his nails in, he bites back a scream that devolves instead into more sobs.
“James is a tough one,” Pierce says, letting go of him. “Did you see how long it took him to beg?”
“I did,” Steve says, genuinely impressed if quite disturbed. He’s never seen play so extreme before. He supposes that was the intended effect. And they do have sort of a safeword system in place after all.
“It doesn’t come easy to him, but I’m a patient man,” Pierce says. “And I’m aware humility must be taught over and over. Isn’t that right, James?”
“Yes, sir,” James gasps.
“All it takes is for you to appeal to my kindness. You know it’s there. Will you be quicker to beg next time?”
James is shaking. “Yes, sir,” he repeats miserably.
“He’s lying,” Pierce chuckles, “but that’s what makes it fun. I’ll get him there one day, you’ll see. He’s already made so much progress since I first got him—he wasn’t calling me sir back then, I can tell you that.” He lies back against the padded seat. “I think I’ll turn in for the night, Mr. Grant. Thanks for sharing a drink with a lonely old man.”
“My pleasure,” Steve says, getting up. “I hope we can speak again tomorrow.”
He goes back to his room trying to smooth down the noise in his mind. This is exactly why Pierce made him watch this—to throw him off-balance. He can’t think about any of it, he can’t wonder about what sort of arrangement they have, which parts of James’ desperation were faked and which weren’t. Most of all, he cannot think about his own uncomfortable enjoyment. He can only think about what he came for. He must.