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Steve had eaten his last banana as a mid-afternoon snack yesterday, a decision he was now mildly regretting. For as much as he prided himself on his organizational skills, he never seemed to plan quite far enough: if he remembered to re-stock on brushes, he'd forget the canvases (he liked juggling ten different paintings at once, thank you very much); if he remembered to drop off his prescription slip at the pharmacy desk, he’d forget to bring his insurance card.

So. No banana for today. That’s alright, he shrugs mentally, doing his best to ignore the flip-flopping of his stomach. Besides, his nerves are becoming more of a nuisance than an actual indicator of his stress. This wasn’t his first time around the block. Who needs beta-blockers anyways? As it is, he tugs a little at his shirt cuffs, wrings his clammy hands a little, and stares up at the entrance of the building in front of him. He can’t recall exactly how many times in the past few weeks he’d traipsed up and down these stairs, running around trying to get his exhibit propped up in time. If that didn’t contribute to any sort of muscle mass gain, he didn’t know what would.

He clomps his way up the short flight. As far as he’s concerned, the building is as picturesque a structure as all the other buildings in the area – Philly could hardly be called an eyesore. He’s sure Nat will have something to say about it, though. He’ll have to ask her about it later.

Even though he doesn’t mentally feel nervous, he can’t say the same for his body – his heart is beating so loudly in his chest, he’s sure the people walking by can hear it. Stop it, he scolds himself internally. This isn’t your first showing. Not even your second. You’ve been showing your art since junior year of college, he reminds himself. But it could your first important one, the voice in his head niggles. As if he didn’t already know.

Booking a showing at the Sentinel – and a solo one at that – had been the result of several years’ worth of hustling and ass-hauling, and Steve would be damned if he didn’t recognize the weight of what this particular showing meant for his career. This meant that, inasmuch as it was a celebratory occasion, it was also terribly nerve-wracking. He pulls open the door at the top of the steps, inhaling the cold, musty scent of the building.

“Interior looks a bit like a haunted hotel,” Clint had remarked, when Steve first mentioned the showing location, several months earlier. He hadn’t been wrong, Steve had thought dryly, the first time he entered the structure. Dark, carved panels, gilded support columns, a wood floor polished by years of foot traffic – a gold chandelier hanging morosely over the front desk, for goodness sake. But the more he frequented the space – which he did, partly for logistics and finding the showroom space, partly to pinch himself out of disbelief, and partly out of sheer curiosity – the more he found it glowed with a subdued sort of energy more akin to hot glass than to the unsettled dead.


 

He wanders up the tan colored stairs, zigzagging his way up to the third floor and making a calm, but purposeful, beeline for the Whistler Gallery. He flips the switch to the right of the door, and the lights flicker on as a soft, but not unpleasant, electrical buzz fills the space. Warmth blooms in his stomach as he looks around the pristine room.

Various paintings and sketches hang from the walls, or are installed on tripods in the middle of the maple floors. Splashes of color boldly intrude onto the white canvas of the room. As silly as it sounds, Steve feels like a real artist now. Not that he wasn’t one before, but somehow his work seems more official when it’s not sitting on his apartment floor, leaning against his wall. He wanders over to the back of the room, hauling out a bent cardboard box and digging the mini pamphlets out. He’s just got a few more tiny details to take care before everything is absolutely perfect.

“Looks good.” A sudden break in the long silence makes him jump and he swears softly under his breath before pivoting on his heel.

“You tread more quietly than an assassin,” he complains to the bemused redhead leaning against the doorframe. She huffs a quiet laugh, peeling herself off the frame and walking over to peer over his shoulder.

“Or you’re just highly unobservant,” she suggests.

“I’m a painter. I’m all sorts of observant, thank you very much.”

“Like the time you were studying color theory and got yourself kicked out of the chapel because you were sprinting back and forth between different stained glass windows?”

“That’s besides the point!” Steve splutters into the pamphlets. His headshot looks more like a mug shot, he thinks, catching a glimpse on the reverse side of one of the booklets.

Nat prowls around the gallery, her arms crossed as she takes in each piece. “How about the time you were nearly beaten to death by an old lady with an umbrella because you were staring at her granddaughter like a creep on the train?”

“What?” Steve pauses for a second and thinks. “Oh, yeah. The lighting composition of her face was spectacular,” he hums fondly at the memory before screwing up his face in disgust at remembering the chaos that ensued. He’d nearly gotten kicked off the train. “I wasn’t staring at her,” he protests.

“Mm.” She doesn’t buy it and wanders around a corner, effectively ending the discussion.

“Didn’t think you’d stop by.” Steve strikes up the conversation again while he stands up, folding the boxes shut and kicking them under a tablecloth.

“Don’t kid yourself. I’m here on business,” she calls back immediately.

Steve smiles anyways, in spite of her brusque tone. He knew Nat was very happy where she was in Brooklyn – it was the one place, she had told him once, that, she felt could comfortably keep up with her hectic, no-nonsense lifestyle. Even if she is here on business, Steve knows out of the thousands of things she could be doing, she chose to stop by here.

“Well, glad you were able to stop by, then, seeing as you’re so busy hanging out with the bigwigs. So honored you deigned to visit me,” Steve teases her. He hears a huff from behind him and laughs quietly under his breath before turning around.

Nat ambles towards him, her movements lithe and purposeful. He observes her informally, the image sending his mind spiraling down a rabbit-hole of new ideas, even as he stands smack dab in the middle of his showing. If Steve could convince her to dance – just once – for him, he’s sure she’d give him more than enough inspiration for an entire portrait series in and of itself. But the former ballerina remains as stubbornly silent about her dancing years as she was the very first day they met, and Steve doubts she’d cave any time soon.

“Everything looks fantastic.” She lets her face soften into a small smile. And, really, that’s all the approval Steve truly needs. If Nat approves? He’s golden. His shoulders sag, relieved of the tension he hadn’t know he’d been holding.

“Thanks. Hope everyone else thinks so too.” He checks his phone. One more hour till opening.

Perhaps noticing his nerves, Nat speaks again, causing him to look up. “The circus is in town.”

“Overheard a kid talking about it earlier.” Steve nods, mildly surprised by the sudden statement, but easily jumping conversation topics with her. Somehow, she makes even conversational jumps seem effortless.

“I want to go. Wanna come?”

“You?” Now Steve can’t keep the surprise from coloring his words. The circus was the last place he’d expect Nat to want to go.

“Mm.” She hums an affirmative. “The scenic designer, Matt Murdock, is really famous, and his work is nothing short of exceptional. He’s worked with bands and singers like The Chaste, Defenders, and Elektra. He doesn’t normally work with this particular show – Kid Commandos – because he doesn’t like traveling work, so I really want to see his work in person, and maybe get to talk to him.”

Steve nodded thoughtfully. That made more sense. “Is this a temporary gig or something for him?

Nat shook her head. “Nah. The show is run by the larger parent company he works at, Shield Entertainment, but they’re based in Europe, and most of their shows are there, which is where he works most of the time. They only have a few touring ones in the States.”

“I see. Is this a new show?”

“Kind of? It’s about half a year old, I think. They started their tour on the west coast, and are just about wrapping up in the next month or so.”

“That’s cool. What do they do?”

“Your typical circus act, I think. A little bit of everything, a hodgepodge of eclectic paraphernalia. Some animals too, though I’ve heard they’ve been in a bit of a hot spot with the media because of it.”

Steve tries to picture it. He’s never been to the circus before. All he can think about are little music boxes, movie theater popcorn, and elephants with feather caps on their heads. And Dumbo.

“When were you thinking about going?” Steve asks doubtfully, rubbing his chin a little.

“This week? I’m only in town till Tuesday.”

Steve feels a little uneasy. Usually, showings take a lot out of him, and this is his first, larger showing. Had it been like any other art show he’d done in the past, he probably would have said yes without hesitation. But this showing is three weeks long. “Maybe. I can’t do any evenings because of, well,” he gestures around at the room, “this.”

“Two days from now? Sunday?” She cocks her head, looking at him. “You’ve just got a matinee showing at 1:30 that day, right?”

Steve is ninety-nine percent certain that that information is correct, but just for posterity’s – and his anxious mind’s – sake, he pulls out his phone to check the Sentinel’s confirmation email, his showing flyers, and his Google calendar. “Yeah,” he nods, scrolling through the tiny screen.

“Perfect. Then it’s settled.”

“I haven’t even said yes!”

“But you will.” Steve glares at her, and she allows him the tiniest, smug smile. He’s lost before they’ve even started.

“How do you know?” Steve challenges her again anyways, just to be obstinate.

“Cuz you’ve never been, and even if curiosity kills the cat, with you, satisfaction will definitely bring it back. Besides, you need something to take your mind off your showing, and with the showing you’re not going to have much time to start new pieces anyways.” She says this all with an air of finality, and even Steve, ever the fighter, knows when he’s lost, however small the battle.

“Is it far away?”

“Thirty minutes. SEPTA station at 6. It’s a date.”

“Do you do this with all your boy toys too?” Steve grumps at her.

“Only the ones that are pushovers.”

“Are you saying I’m a pushover?”

“I’m not saying you’re not.” Steve huffs and checks his phone again. Thirty minutes.

“You’ll like it. I know you’re into bodies and stuff.”

“Okay, that just sounds wrong.” Steve wrinkles his nose.

“It’s not factually wrong.” Nat responds, quirking one side of her mouth up in amusement.

“I know,” Steve grouses, giving her a friendly shove. He’d always been interested in the way the human body moved and looked. Perhaps it was because he grew up a sickly child – still hadn’t managed to fully shake off the asthma, thanks very much – and didn’t have a body he felt proud of. Or maybe because his mother had been a dance instructor, and the way she moved, even if it was to grab a soup spoon from the drawer, or bend over to clear the lint from the clothes dryer, had always held an air of elegance, poise, and secrecy to it. Whatever it was, Steve found himself inexplicably and helplessly entranced.

“Where do you get tickets?” He finally asks Nat. “I’m not completely saying yes, though,” he warns her. “This is a big showing, and I want to see how tonight goes at the very least.”

“Online. Search Kid Commandos in Philly. It should be the first thing that pops up.” Nat touches him lightly on the shoulder. “I’m going to duck out of here – I’ve got a meeting to run to, but you’re going to rock it. I trust you have plans for going out tonight to celebrate – “ She arches a brow when Steve awkwardly laughs, “so I’ll see you on Sunday.”

“Thanks Nat. See you.”


After she leaves, Steve does as she prompts, googling the show, and clicking on the first link. The webpage pops up in a bold splash of black, blue, and red colors. Steve can’t quite place the design – it doesn’t scream modern, to be sure, (which he appreciates) but isn’t quite what he associates with traditional circus design. The smiling face of a shirtless man dangling from a duo of straps adorns the right side of the page. He’s not heavily done up in makeup, Steve observes, a small detail that he decides he appreciates. The simplicity lets him revel in the man’s shockingly blue eyes and mop of messily tied up hair. He allows himself to entertain a second or two of admiration and longing for the man before he continues scrolling, There’s something pleasing and symmetrical about the website design, but the comfort traditionally associated with a clean design feels oddly disturbed and distorted. Not in a bad way, Steve decides. More like Wes Anderson meets Willy Wonka, he decides for the time being.

He scrolls to find the Sunday showing and puts the adult ticket in his cart. Fifty dollars. He clicks the automatic credit card information filler – who even remembers their credit card information anyways – and hits the process button. A small pop-up appears on the screen, and his phone buzzes in his hand, notifying him of the email confirmation.

Steve stares at the screen for a second more before turning off the screen and tucking his phone into his pocket. He doesn’t know how to feel about going. Part of him wants to, because – as Nat so helpfully pointed out – he is curious. But on the other hand, he’s all caught up in this showing, and doesn’t want other things sidelining him – he’s got enough additional side projects and commissions on his hands already as is. Steve sighs. Sunday is far away. He has time to cancel if he needs. And, he takes comfort in the small fact that he is to date the only person he knows who’s been successfully able to say no to Natasha and walk away (emotionally) intact.