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1.

 

Steve likes going to the gym. He likes the routine, the ritual involved.

 

Now that he’s back in New York, he’s back at his old gym: a small boxing club in the basement of a dance studio—mostly retired fighters, with the occasional ballet dancer.

 

It isn’t that he wants to cling to the past; he tried a more modern gym at first, back when the 21st century was still an uncharted alien landscape. In the space of a week, two guys wanted to know what diet he was on, one guy called him a hipster and mocked his canvas sneakers, and one guy tried to pick him up—which didn’t bother Steve as much as most people would think, but it did hold up his workout.

 

No one bothers him at the boxing club. The old-timers assume Steve is a dancer, the dancers assume he’s a fighter, and he’s never corrected anyone’s assumptions.

 

Lately, though, he’s been trying to get outside more. Get back in the world, as he put it to Fury once upon a time. He and Clint have been meeting in the park to do body-weight workouts; it’s a perfect routine for Steve, who is so densely muscled that he’s even heavier than his size would suggest.

 

They’ve agreed to work out three mornings a week, but on this particular day, Steve just doesn’t feel able to haul himself out of bed. He tries not to feel too guilty about cancelling, on top of everything else. It’s not like he needs to exercise. He’s doing it because it’s fun and it helps him blow off steam—but if he has no steam, he’d just as soon not bother.

 

Clint stops by in the late afternoon and invites Steve out for a beer with him and Natasha. Steve, who is feeling marginally better by that time, recognizes the invitation for what it is: friends, looking out for him. He doesn’t want to disappoint, so he gets dressed and they walk a few blocks to the local sports bar.

 

Now that it’s summer, Steve is noticing that almost every passer-by seems to have tattoos. It’s far more common than it used to be. It’s one of those things he keeps meaning to look up on the internet, but he always winds up getting distracted.

 

At the bar, Natasha is avidly spectating a game of soccer on one of the large televisions.

 

“Look what I found,” says Clint, jerking a thumb in Steve’s direction.

 

Natasha waves him out of the way of the television. Steve glances up at the screen; to him it just looks like a lot of running back and forth, though he knows better than to voice that opinion.

 

Clint takes the seat opposite her, leaving one chair between the two of them for Steve. It’s slightly transparent, but Steve appreciates the gesture. They each order a beer.

 

“Who’s winning?” Clint is obviously trying to get a rise out of Natasha. “The yellow guys or the green guys?”

 

Natasha ignores him with magnificent aplomb. It’s obvious that they’re on their own as far as conversation goes.

 

“Hey, Clint?”

 

“Yeah, Steve?” says Clint, overly jocular, like he’s setting up a vaudeville routine.

 

“Got any tattoos?”

 

Natasha gives a long-suffering sigh.

 

“What?”

 

“I did,” says Clint. “Had to get them all lasered off. SHIELD doesn’t like field agents to have identifying marks.” He rolls the sleeve of his shirt up over his bicep and points. “You can tell if you look close enough.”

 

Steve dutifully examines the mottled skin on the underside of Clint’s arm, but there isn’t much of a pattern to it that he can discern. “Did it hurt?”

 

“Nah.” Clint’s voice drops, and he pushes the word out in a grunt—the universal masculine code for, hell yeah, it hurt.

 

“What did you have?”

 

“Get comfortable,” Natasha warns—proving that, as always, she is listening to everything going on around her. It’s a thought that makes Steve feel tired again.

 

“I had full sleeves,” says Clint. “Started when I was fourteen.” He takes a napkin, unfolds it, and draws the outline of a man’s arm. He roughs in the first design: a hammer crossed over a wrench, with a dollar sign underneath. “From my travelling show days.”

 

Clint stitches his life story together in a different way each time he tells it, and Steve does his best to discern the patches of truth from the embroidery. A kid running away to join the circus and apprenticing under a stern but kindly sharpshooter seems unlikely—even to Steve, who in his youth had devoured stories of itinerant boys and reckless adventure.

 

He’s seen sections of Clint’s file. A kid orphaned at a young age, raised by a drug-dealing older brother—that seems more plausible, though there’s a lot still left unexplained.

 

Clint’s sketch is expanding into a mosaic: mythical creatures, stars, arrows and targets, cobwebs, playing cards. The spaces between are filled with wings, feathers, talons.

 

Part of Steve’s work with SHIELD involves reading briefing packets on the criminals he’s sent to intercept. He recognizes the meaning behind some of the designs on the napkin.

 

“What were you in for?” The words feel awkward, movie-tough, but the more direct ‘What did you do?’ seems impolite.

 

Clint doesn’t seem fazed by either the question or the phrasing. “Bank robbery and incidental crimes. Grand theft auto. Assaulting a federal officer. Take your pick.”

 

Steve doesn't say anything.

 

“I was down for eighteen months before Fury cut me a deal. Because I had a unique skill set.”

 

“Karaoke,” Natasha deadpans.

 

“Part of the deal was that I had to lose the ink.”

 

“Oh, and laundry,” she continues, obviously trying to get a rise. “He got the convicts’ whites their whitest.”

 

Without looking up from his drawing, Clint reaches across Steve and gently covers Natasha’s mouth with his hand.

 

“What about you?” Steve asks her.

 

“I don’t do laundry. I just buy new clothes.” The words are muffled by Clint’s palm.

 

“Any tattoos before you joined SHIELD?”

 

She taps the back of Clint’s hand until he lets it fall. “Russian criminals take their tattoos seriously,” she tells Steve. Her eyes are wide and guileless, and she nods her head ever so slightly; it’s a trick she’s told him lends a person extra credibility. Of course, the only reason Steve is seeing it now is because she wants him to see it. “If you’re caught with one you haven’t earned, it gets taken off with a razor. Or a belt sander. If you’re lucky.”

 

She hasn’t answered the question Steve asked—but then again, he doesn’t expect her to.

 

“Why the sudden interest in tattoos?” she inquires.

 

“It’s not that sudden. Actually, I tried to apprentice in a tattoo shop at one point.” He’d bought a used tattoo kit from a guy he worked with at the diner, reasoning that it would be a way to make some extra money. “They told me that for the first month, I could only practice on myself. Then, once I picked it up, they’d let me work on customers.”

 

“Did you?”

 

Steve shrugs. “Didn’t have that much arm space to work with.” He’d experimented on his thigh once, a few tentative dots and lines—but the resulting infection had made him wary of trying again. After the serum, the little blue marks had disappeared. “A buddy of mine let me try it out on him, though.”

 

Bucky had wanted a saucy pin-up girl on his left bicep, but Steve didn’t feel practiced enough with the tattoo iron. In the end, they’d settled on some simple lettering on his shoulder—his name, his enlistment date, the number of his unit. In case I get amnesia, Bucky had joked.

 

Not so funny now, of course.

 

“You should ask Sam about his tattoo,” Natasha tells him.

 

Behind her, a group of men in green t-shirts erupt into cheers at something happening on the screen. Natasha curses.

 

Steve is quiet after that. He doesn’t stay for another beer. It’s just money down the drain for him, anyhow.

 

 

2. 

 

Pepper Potts calls Steve out of the blue one morning. They’ve only spoken a few times, parties at the couple’s newly-refurbished suite on the top floor of the Tower. She asks him if he has a moment to talk, which he does.

 

Her tone is pleasant, even congenial, as she asks, “Did you know that Tony was in the hospital?”

 

No. Steve didn’t know.

 

Apparently, there was a complication related to the surgery to remove the shrapnel from around Tony’s heart—Pepper doesn’t give the details, and Steve doesn’t ask.

 

Pepper’s reason for calling is that Tony is about to be discharged. “I have to go out of town, and I think it would be nice if someone could visit him while I’m away. Someone who won’t get him drunk or bring him junk food,” she adds, ruling out most of Tony’s friends in New York.

 

Steve visits every day for the week Pepper is in California.

 

It’s a little strange; he and Tony have been friendly since the attack on Manhattan, but they’ve never exactly been close. They just don’t have a lot in common, and Tony’s abrasive personality can be a bit wearing when Steve is feeling low, as he has been of late.

 

But it turns out that Tony is easier to deal with when he’s recuperating—either that, or Steve just feels more sympathetic towards him. He remembers being under doctor’s orders, and Tony doesn’t seem to be taking to it any more than Steve did.

 

The conversational well runs dry after the first couple of visits, so they take to sitting on Tony’s couch watching television. Tony takes it very personally when he discovers that Steve has still not seen a single episode of the original Star Trek series, and sets out to rectify this immediately.

 

It turns out to be a fun show, albeit a little silly at times. It reminds Steve of Astounding Stories—far-off worlds, daring space captains, alien encounters, time travel. Steve likes that he can tell how most of the effects are done; he’s never really fallen in love with CGI or 3D. He likes the focus on characters and story, rather than world-building and laser-gun battles. He also likes that it’s an optimistic vision of the future of humanity: an end to war and disease, all races and genders treated equally. The fact that it was made in the 1960s makes the whole thing even more interesting.

 

Tony’s running commentary is about 50% historic context and 50% appreciation of “hot alien babes.” Steve, who is not above admiring a shapely pair of legs, is fully on board.

 

They’re watching an episode involving an alien race that is black on one side and white on the other, which prompts Steve to ask, “Do you have any tattoos?”

 

Tony cuts his eyes in Steve’s direction. “If I say yes, are you going to ask to see them? Because that would be… surprisingly smooth of you. The doctor said only moderate exertion, though, so you’ll have to do all the work.”

 

“Forget it,” Steve retorts.

 

“No, I don’t have any tattoos. Pepper does, though.” Tony sounds equal parts impressed and envious. Off Steve’s look of surprise, he adds, “I know, right? Her rebellious college years.”

 

Steve tries (and fails) to picture mature, sophisticated Pepper as an unruly teenager. “What does she have?”

 

“A butterfly, on her foot.”

 

“Huh.”

 

“Women didn’t really do that back in the day?”

 

One of Steve’s pet peeves is the way people keep talking about back in the day, as though he has just this moment stepped off the time-train from 1945. Number one, he’s been here four years now, and it’s not as different as everyone seems to think it is; number two, movies, even ones from the period, are not real life.

 

“They did,” Steve replies. It comes out a bit sharper than he would like. “Not everyone, but I remember a lot of girls in the service getting them.”

 

“My mistake. I didn’t realize you’d ever been in close proximity to ‘a lot of girls.’”

 

Steve is tempted to cite specific examples, but he’d just as soon not remind Tony about his song-and-dance-man days with the USO.

 

“I drew a design, once,” he says instead. “For a girl I knew. She wanted an English rose, right there.” He taps the side of his thigh.

 

Tony gives an appreciative whistle. “Did you get to see the final result?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Steve remembers kneeling on the floor of the office, Peggy with her shoulder against the door to forestall any intrusion. She’d hitched the hem of her uniform skirt up just high enough to reveal the tattoo, right above the top of her stocking.

 

The colours were brighter than he’d expected, red and black, shockingly vivid against her milky skin. Steve had carefully incorporated the silhouette of Peggy’s Walther PPK into the black shadows of the rose’s inner folds, and the tattooist had followed his outline perfectly.

 

What do you think? she asked, obviously pleased. Speechless, Steve could only nod. He briefly considered brushing his fingers over the little rose, before deciding that was likely to get him shot. Peggy had let him look for about a minute before smoothing her skirt down in a single, brisk motion. Later, he couldn’t decide whether he’d imagined her exasperated expression.

 

Tony is wiggling his eyebrows salaciously. “Well?”

 

“Knock it off. It wasn’t like that.” After a moment, he admits, “It was a little like that. Only I was too dumb to realize it at the time.”

 

One of the TV characters says something about change being the essential process of all existence. Steve feels like there’s a giant hand squeezing his ribcage.

 

Surprisingly, Tony doesn’t say anything rude, but instead asks, “Is she still around?”

 

Steve isn’t sure how to answer that. Finally he settles on, “Sometimes.”

 

 

3.

 

Most weekends, Steve goes to DC. When he’s in a contemplative mood, he takes the train and reads a book; when he’s feeling restless, he takes the bike.

 

Steve visits Peggy, if she’s up for it. Afterwards, he usually takes a long walk until he no longer feels like putting his fist through a wall.

 

He always crashes in Sam’s guest room.

 

Steve’s friendship with Sam reminds him of being back in the army, but in a good way, for once. The camaraderie, the companionship of shared experience. Sam seems to instinctively get Steve. He gets Steve’s dry, understated sense of humour. He gets that Steve, despite being a national icon and the subject of a museum exhibit, is actually a very private person. He gets that Steve, despite being basically a weapon in human form, considers violence to be the absolute last resort.

 

He also gets that Steve doesn’t sleep some nights. And that he doesn’t like to be approached from behind without warning.

 

Some of Steve’s friends can be a little… enthusiastic… about his encounters with the new century. They like to watch him react to things for the first time—though he usually winds up disappointing them with his lack of awe and wonder.

 

With Sam, things are easier. Sam doesn’t try to arrange any outings to museums or other points of interest, and he doesn’t insist on exposing Steve to music or movies at every turn. He doesn’t even expect Steve to talk, if he doesn’t feel up for it.

 

In the evenings, more often than not, they sit on Sam’s porch. Usually with beer, occasionally with a bag of chips or some other snack between them. The silence is easy, as if they’ve been friends for a lifetime.

 

Natasha calls it a “bromance.”

 

One evening, Steve is halfway through his second beer when he says, “Natasha said I should ask you about your tattoo.”

 

Sam groans. “Aw, shit.”

 

“What?”

 

“You know I’m honour-bound to show it to you now, right?” Sam stands and unbuckles his belt.

 

“No, I—you don’t have to…”

 

Sam turns to face the front yard, hooking his thumbs into the waistband of his cargo pants.

 

“Whoa,” says Steve, throwing up his hands. “Okay, uh...”

 

It’s not like Steve has never seen another man’s backside before. But he doesn’t exactly make it a habit of asking his friends to drop trou—let alone in front of the entire neighbourhood.

 

The light is dim, but there’s still enough of it to clearly illuminate the pair of bright green cartoon footprints emblazoned on Sam’s left buttock.

 

“Not what I was expecting.”

 

“It’s a PJ tradition,” Sam explains, seemingly unaffected by the cool breeze on his bare cheeks. “You know the HH-3E? The helicopter? They call it the Jolly Green Giant. So someone got the idea that green feet were gonna be the symbolic PJ tat. Gotta be the ass, though. If you see the bottoms of my feet, it means I’m about to swoop down from above and save your ass.”

 

“Can’t argue with that,” says Steve mildly. “You mind putting that away, though?”

 

“I feel like you’re not fully appreciating the majesty of the booty.” Sam inches closer, wiggles his hips, cooing, “You wanna touch it? Yeah, you do. You do.”

 

Steve slides back on the bench so quickly his head hits the wall. He hopes the siding isn’t damaged. “Stop,” he commands, using the most authoritative tone he can muster. He tries to find a place to put his hand and shove without touching his friend’s bare behind—but Sam’s still moving around, actually dancing a little, grooving to a beat only he can hear.

 

“It’s okay, Cap. Those feelings you’re having? Totally natural.”

 

Steve cracks up completely. “Get your—green-footed ass—outta my face!” he manages, in between whoops of laughter.

 

Feigning indignance, Sam yanks up his pants and drops down onto the bench. “Yeah, you got those old-timey manners,” he grumbles. “I guess they didn’t have please and thank you where you came from?”

 

For the first time in days, Steve can feel the knot of sadness in his chest starting to loosen a little. “At least now I’ll be able to tell one end of you from the other,” he teases, giving Sam’s shoulder a gentle push.

 

Sam laughs.

 

“I had one once,” Steve confesses.

 

“An ass?” Sam glances down dubiously.

 

“A tattoo, wise guy.”

 

Steve had been out on the town with the boys one night—there had been some kind of clear liquor involved, he remembered that part quite distinctly—and they’d decided to get inked together. The group had voted in favour of Steve’s shield; not the vibranium one, but the original, the starred-and-striped tin number he’d used to batter his way into the factory at Azzano. The colours worked for everyone—England, France, and the good old U.S. of A., all represented.

 

Our escutcheon! Falsworth had proclaimed, triumphantly, downing his drink.

 

The fellows unanimously agreed that the sight of Steve, with his costume helmet and his little heater shield, was the single most ridiculous thing they’d ever seen in their entire lives. They wanted something to commemorate that.

 

“So? Where’s it at?”

 

“It, uh. It didn’t stay for long.” Steve rubs his bicep absently. “Few days, maybe.” He hadn’t even gotten to show Peggy before the ink had disappeared completely.

 

Sam nods thoughtfully.

 

Steve doesn’t say anything for a while. He takes out his phone and gives his best guess at spelling the word escutcheon.

 

Google doesn’t disappoint: In heraldry, the main or focal element of an achievement of arms. A symbol appropriate to a knight.

 

Sam cracks the top off another beer and holds it out to Steve, who takes it.

 

“There’s one thing I need you to explain for me, Sam,” says Steve solemnly.

 

“Sure.”

 

“How does Natasha know about your ass tattoo?”

 

Sam just grins.