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There was a pattern to nights like this.

A casa di tolleranza looked pretty much like an inn until somebody told you which door to knock on. Steve would pull Jones and Morita up to the front of the group with him, because if the Signora looked at them and frowned, then all of them would turn around and walk away. But if she smiled, then they'd go in and have a drink in the parlor with the girls, and then they’d make their choices.

Bucky liked a redhead, and Jones liked a girl with a big loud laugh. Morita liked a tall busty one, and Dugan liked a twig of a girl who could fit under his arm. Farnsworth liked them two at a time, the plumper the better.

Dernier didn't come to town with them at all, and they all pretended to believe he was losing money dicing with the cooks and not spending it at a different kind of casa in a different part of town.

And Steve bought everybody a drink and sat in the parlor gossiping with the Signora, because the serum seemed to make it easier to pick up local dialects and there was good intel to be had that way. If anybody asked, the other fellows would chime in all together: "He's got a gal back home." And Bucky would sling his arm around his girl's waist and say to Steve, "You oughta come upstairs with the rest of us, Rogers. You might learn something."

It wasn't that Steve was never tempted. A healthy young man had a strong libido, and he was probably the healthiest young man in the European theater, if not the world. Just because he was in love didn't mean he didn't want.

It just meant he had to keep faith with the promise he’d made, even if he’d only made it inside his own head.

Sometimes, like tonight, the Signora had a fellow who specially liked an older dame. But there were always people in the parlor with the piano, girls who weren't working just then dancing with fellows who looked like Steve used to look, too young or too old or too weak to fight, or fellows like that dark-haired one over there with the close-cut beard who looked just fine but somehow was out of uniform anyway. All flirting and dancing and looking for a girl to take upstairs with them and forget about the war for a while.

And tonight looked just like any other night until one of the girls opened her mouth and Steve got an earful of her British accent.

"You're not Italian," he said stupidly.

"Oh, well done. Have you got any other brilliant observations for us?" She didn't really look like Peggy at all beyond the dark hair and red lipstick, and her accent was considerably more down-market than Peggy's -- but it was close enough to send a pang through him.

"Hst, Mary," said the girl with the yellow ribbon around her neck, giving Steve an apologetic smile.

"He doesn't care. He may be a little shy, but he's so happy to hear someone speaking proper English he'll go with me no matter what I say." She folded her hand into the crook of his arm and squeezed. "Won't you, Johnny?"

"But didn't you hear?" the one with the old-fashioned bun said in Italian. "He doesn't go with anyone. He has a girl at home."

"Or maybe a boy," the one with the ribbon said. Either they thought he didn't speak the language or they'd given up caring what he thought.

Mary raised her fine-plucked eyebrows at him. "Re-a-lly," she said. "Then why are we wasting our time when we could be talking to boys who want company?"

She began to withdraw her hand from his arm, and he covered it with his hand and choked out, "Wait -- please."

The eyebrows went up again, and he taxed his brain. He certainly wasn't going to go to bed with a girl because she sounded like Peggy; that would just cheapen his feelings. He'd learned from early experience that girls in these places never believed you if you offered them money just to talk to them. He wasn't going to waste her time without paying her. But he didn't want to see those snapping eyes turned away from him.

You might learn something, Bucky's voice said in his head.

"Listen. Mary," he said. "Have you got a fellow?"

She looked down her button nose at him. "If you're looking for entertainment of that sort, you want Madama Franca’s back of the cathedral."

Nuts -- if he'd insulted her by turning her down the first time, she'd never agree to this. Better play the big innocent eyes. Scratch the back of his head, twist his cap in his lap. "See, it's like this," he said. "I've got a gal back home --"

"You mentioned," she said sourly.

"And I was thinking maybe I could find a dame and a fellow to show me how to make her happy when we get married."

For all the roughness of her voice, she had a laugh like a church bell. "We-ell," she said, giving him a considering look through narrowed eyes. "I've never had that one before. But I think I know the lad to help you."

In all the casas they'd been to, Steve had never gone beyond the velvet curtain. The stairway was dark and the room was, too, lit by a single candle far from the blackout curtain. Narrow bed. Washstand. Chest and mirror. "Wait here," she said, and after a longish time, she came back bumping along with a ladder-backed kitchen chair. The fellow with the fancy beard came along behind, scowling.

Steve scowled back. What kind of fellow wouldn't carry a chair for a dame? What was the matter with him, anyway, that he wasn't away with the soldiers? The big fellow at the front door was missing a hand, and the little one who ran messages for the Signora couldn't have been fourteen yet. But this one was older than Steve by a couple of years, and he looked like he felt just fine.

"Afraid to be a soldier?" Steve said.

The fellow straightened out of his slouch, elbows going out -- not quite a fighting stance, but darn close. "Weak heart," Mary said, gentling him with a hand on his arm and glaring at Steve. "Suppose we all agree that everyone is doing what he's able to support the war effort and get on with it?"

Her Italian, when she turned to the other fellow, was rapid, idiomatic, and very unflattering: Johnny, here, didn't know how to mount a mare, because he was a halfwit or a queer. The youth replied in an Italian so regional it was almost impossible to follow, but Steve got the gist: Unlike some people, he was no whore; why didn't she get Glauco or Paride or one of the other -- a hand waved at Steve, a phrase that he thought alluded to beef cattle.

And Mary turned her face away and said, yes, certainly, a fine idea, Vittorio: perhaps Paride, though he smelled of cabbage; perhaps Glauco, though he delighted in smacking her in the tail as she passed, sometimes hard enough to bruise --

"Friends," Steve said in passable schoolboy Italian, "I already know how to argue with a gal."

Mary tucked in the corners of her mouth, trying not to smile, but Vittorio, after a second's pause, let loose with a silly, snickering laugh that transformed his sullen skinny face with its too-big eyes into something almost handsome. All right, fine, he said, more or less, though with slang that even Steve could tell was breathtakingly obscene; if the American plow horse wanted a lesson, then Vittorio was just the man to give it to him.

Mary hit him a solid slap in the middle of his chest and told him to shut his filthy mouth and take off the pathetic rags he was pleased to call clothes before she called Paride and Glauco to teach him a lesson.

She pulled her flowered dress over her head with a matter-of-fact motion and minced across the room in only her high-heeled mules. Steve was acutely uncomfortable to be sitting on a straightbacked chair looking at a naked dame, so he tried looking at her with an artist's eye as she hung her dress on a hook with a care that suggested she didn't have so many dresses. She was a cute girl, shallow in the bosom and pillowy in the hips and rear, with none of Peggy's proud, careful posture.

Vittorio, down to his skivvies, paused with his hands on his boxer buttons to watch her cross the room, and dropped his eyes as soon as she turned back towards them.

In her heels, she was a little taller, but she kicked them off as he shed his shorts.

His hands went directly for her bosom, but she deflected them neatly. "That," she said dryly to Steve, "is what not to do," and then, to Vittorio, "A lady likes a little kissing first."

Dames in these places usually didn't kiss. It was Bucky's great triumph to win a kiss off his gal in the parlor as they were leaving; he thought Steve didn't know how much extra he paid for it. By Vittorio's look, this was the policy of the casa here, too, and he expressed his doubt.

"Yes, because Johnny's girl will so appreciate it if we teach him to treat her like a tart," Mary said, but Steve could see what Vittorio couldn't: the doubt in her eyes, the hope.

"Johnny certainly gets special privileges from you," Vittorio said in Italian. His fingertips barely touched down on her cheek, and she shut her eyes, mouth yearning up to his.

Vittorio was built on the lines of Morita, maybe -- not too tall, strong but not bulky. He was hollow in the belly where Morita was a little soft. The Commandos went hungry sometimes, but a fellow in a little place like this was probably hungry all then time.

They were lovely together, though, Vittorio's hands golden tan over Mary's ribs where the flesh had that luminous paleness you only got in the English. Steve was partly taking mental notes, partly looking at light and shadow, but partly he was thinking of Peggy, whether her shoulders might have one or two freckles on them, whether she would sigh like Mary and step forward to press her body against his.

Mary pulled back, laughing breathlessly with Vittorio tried to go on kissing her, and slanted Steve a glance under her lashes. "Does she look like me, then, your girl?"

"It -- she --" A pointed question from a naked dame was enough to make Steve trip over his tongue even without the sudden revelation of Vittorio's body after a kiss like that, which was in much the same state as Steve's, not to mention being caught out imagining Peggy in her birthday suit -- Steve coughed, feeling his face flushing. "She -- a little. The hairstyle. And -- the accent."

"Ah," she said, on a half-scolding musical note. "Johnny's got a war bride. Will you take her home to California, then, offer her a place in the movies and silk stockings every month?" And then, quite accurately judging which part of that Steve's mind had seized on: "Sorry. Before the war we had stockings to wear for the gents, and fancy knickers, too, but it's all parachutes now."

"I've never been anywhere near California," Steve said faintly, "but if she said yes, I'd buy her all the silk stockings she could wear," and at the same time, Vittorio told Mary, "You look beautiful without them."

"Such gentlemen you are, the pair of you," she said, and tumbled Vittorio to the bed.

Steve had imagined taking Peggy in his arms, laying her out somewhere -- even, embarrassingly, picking her up and carrying her, though he didn't think she'd really stand for that. But now he had to admit that Peggy shoving him down and swinging her leg over him was equally likely. Equally arousing, too: it had always gotten him going to watch her exercise that hard-won power. Mary pitched up to her knees over Vittorio's supine body, buttocks moving enticingly, and gave Steve a coy look over her shoulder. "Come closer, Johnny," she said. "You'll want a front-row seat for this."

The strangeness of it struck him anew -- hitching a wooden chair across the floor to get a closer look at a couple of strangers making whoopee -- and Steve faltered for a moment, looking at his hands on the chair, but then Vittorio made a soft sound, and Steve looked up to see that Mary had drawn his hands down to her bosoms at last. "Easy. Gently," she said, "don't squeeze too much --" and in English to Steve, "Are you getting this, Johnny?" And Steve scraped the chair leg on the floorboards in his haste to get closer.

For a man, Vittorio had pretty short fingers. He cradled Mary's milky breasts in his hands with their dirty nails, and his expression was almost worshipful. Steve watched her face closely; she caught her breath at odd things -- the sweep of Vittorio's thumb down the undercurve, his fingertips feathered up her breastbone. Steve's palms tingled with the longing to be the one touching her, imagining the warmth and silky smoothness of her skin. He was no expert, but he was pretty sure Peggy was bigger up top -- but then, his hands were bigger than Vittorio's. Her breasts would rest in his hands, her nipples pull tight against his palms --

He brushed a thumb over the hollow of his palm to see what it would feel like and shivered at the unexpected sensitivity. Had his hands always been like this, or had something changed them?

Mary smiled, breathless but still amused: "Want to touch them, then?" Her mouth tightened when Steve shook his head: "Not good enough for you?"

He reached out, stung, and brushed her shoulder in apology. "No, no, don't -- Mary." Her eyes came back up to his, surprised, pale green in their rings of kohl. "Mary, I can't. I'm in love with someone else."

Her expression softened. "Have you told her?" and when Steve stammered something: "Men. Tell her, Johnny."

"I'm sure she knows."

"We like to hear the words, we do," she said in a softer voice -- and said it again in Italian, with a sharp look at Vittorio: "A lady likes to hear you say it."

"Mary." In his accent, it came out almost like 'Marie,' plaintively, and he went up on one elbow and drew her down by the back of her neck. She resisted for a moment, looking at him, exasperated and fond and sad, and then she let him draw her all the way down for a long kiss.

When he began trying to roll her over, she broke free, pink-cheeked and breathing fast. Vittorio reached for her and she knelt up, and mischief came into her face. "You're not the client here, love," she said. "Show Johnny what to do with me."

Vittorio glanced at Steve -- not as purely hostile as Steve thought he himself would be in the circumstances, but calculating -- then raised his knees to make a support and pressed Mary to lie back against them. He beckoned Steve still closer with a jerk of his head. "Look," he said in heavily accented English. "Wait."

Naturally Steve had never seen a girl's private parts before, and looking now made him flush hotly. Mary had trimmed her dark hair short, and Vittorio smoothed upward with his thumb, and she leaned back, tilting her pelvis up to give him access to parts Steve didn't even know words for.

He lined his chair up and slouched down, head almost side-by-side with Vittorio's, as Vittorio parted her folds with both hands -- parted, and pressed together again, teasing her open and closed over and over, until she gasped, "Yes, yes," as his knuckles brushed a swelling at the apex of that unknown landscape. "This," Vittorio said in English, and then a word in Italian that Steve didn't know, but it was clear from Mary's breathing that it was a sensitive spot.

He looked up her body as Vittorio rubbed it -- her tensing thighs, her rising and falling belly, her nipples drawing tight with no one touching them, her pink cheeks, her head rolling as if her neck didn't want to hold it upright.

It was impossible to avoid rosy glimpses of Vittorio's cock, caught between her body and his belly -- and his breathing was fast, too, his spare hand tight on Mary's thigh and his eyes riveted where his fingers were working her expertly.

"Torio," she gasped, "faster, please, please," and then -- it was impossible to mistake her finishing on his hand, with high-pitched cries that Steve found almost unbearably arousing.

She rode Vittorio's hand a while longer, coming down, holding tightly to his wrist. Steve could hear Vittorio's rapid breathing so close to his ear. And then at last she sighed and released him, and he drew his hand away shiny-wet, and before Steve knew what he was doing, he'd caught Vittorio's wrist and pressed two fingers against his mouth to get the lemony-salty taste of her. Vittorio grunted, surprised, and Mary gave a breathless laugh. "If you ever wanted to lick me like that, Johnny, I'd never tell you no. No, and nor would your girl, either, once she tried it."

Steve released Vittorio's hand, too embarrassed to look at him, though he heard Vittorio snicker at the sight of him licking the taste off his lips.

When he turned back, Mary had a rubber in her hand. "You've films to teach you this part, I think? But then, maybe you won't need them. Maybe your girl will want babies right away, and you're doing so well at staying clean, she'll take you bare." Steve bit his lips, confused and aroused at the idea and at the sight of Mary's pink fingers expertly rolling the rubber over Vittorio's cock.

She rocked onto her knees, sliding Vittorio's cock where she was wet in a way that was frank and filthy. "Let her go on top the first time, if she's not too shy. And have her off with your hands first, once or twice. It won't hurt her as much that way." She was rocking now, Vittorio's cock half in and half out -- Steve glanced over to see his hand clenched on the mattress, his white teeth biting his lip in an effort to be still. "Tell her to take you slow, like this, because you're probably big and she's probably small --" There was no mistaking her happy little sigh as she settled, taking him in fully at last, and Steve was so hard he ached; he held onto the chair seat with both hands, watching Mary move as if she was dancing.

She took Vittorio's hand and pressed his thumb just where she split. "Look, Johnny. If you don't know how to diddle her proper, you can just press here for her to move against," and she sighed breathlessly and rolled her hips, and Vittorio's hand opened her folds again and went back to the same spot. Her cries were theatrical, intended for an audience, but from the flush on her face, Steve thought she was probably going to finish again -- so soon, too.

"Can every girl finish twice?" He hardly recognized his hoarse voice.

"Most can," she said, "if you know what you're -- oh, oh," and that was the end of words for a bit.

When she was done, Vittorio pulled urgently on her shoulders and she pitched down onto his chest, kissing him, inches from Steve's face, so close he could hear the sound their tongues made.

Vittorio's head fell back onto the pillow, panting. "Sì," she said, watching his face, and he shut his lips tight, finishing in her without a sound.

Steve had leaned in, gripping the side of the bed. He shut his eyes, head hanging, just for a moment; he could still see their faces in his mind. He tried to think cold thoughts to get him to a bathroom or someplace without embarrassing himself. He could hear whispering, now, and Mary laughing --

He didn't know whose hand undid his khakis, whose sudden pressure on his cock sent him crashing into a spasm that was like getting the air punched out of him. But there was no mistaking that the mouth that his own mouth opened for -- unhesitatingly, gratefully -- was free of lipstick and prickly with whiskers.

In the aftermath he kept his eyes shut so tightly it was almost painful. God, he hadn't meant to do that, any of it, my god --

"Hey," Vittorio said in English, and then punched him in the shoulder: "All friends, yes? All friends only."

Mary giggled. "Your very good friends, Johnny," and she popped up without an ounce of modesty. Steve looked away, blushing more, so as not to see what happened to the rubber, while Mary gave him a pair of skivvies that smelled clean enough -- "Can't go back to base looking like that, eh?"

The worst of it went out with the shorts. He changed without raising his head, while Mary and Vittorio cleaned up at the washstand.

It took more courage than he'd imagine to raise his head, but he couldn't make them think it was because he thought he was better than they were. But when he did up his belt and looked up, Mary -- with her dress back on -- was perched in Vittorio's lap, kissing him and whispering to him.

Vittorio winked at Steve over her shoulder, and Steve touched his forehead and let himself out.

The parlor was empty, the fire burning low. Steve poured a whisky and knocked it back, then sat down, feeling as if he'd taken a blow to the head. He swished the harsh stuff around in his mouth in a vain effort to wash out all the things he remembered. Maybe soon he'd be able to kiss Peggy, and her mouth would be little and taste of her lipstick, which he already knew the smell of.

Could he be sorry he'd done it if it meant he could make it good for her, make love to her without hurting her, even the first time? Wasn't that the whole reason he'd done it?

He was pretty much pulled together again by the time the others began coming down the stairs in their usual moods -- Dugan generous and expansive, Jones glum, Morita and Farnsworth tipsy and ready to laugh at anything or nothing, arm in arm with their girls doing the last task their professional hospitality required of them before they could go to their baths and their beds.

But last down the stairs came Bucky and his girl with her red curls spilling over her collar, and the familiar drama of the kiss begged, stolen, or bought. Bucky's mouth, his clean-shaven face, his familiar wheedling smile, his lips --

Oh, no.

Steve turned away, face flaming, but he had seen Bucky's mouth now as a mouth a person might kiss.

"Rogers!" Farnsworth laughed. "Still being a stick-in-the-mud. You know that girl of yours doesn't expect you to spend the war in a tower like Rapunzel."

The familiar weight of Bucky’s hand fell on the back of Steve’s neck. It took everything he had not to move, away from it or into it.

"One of these days I'll convince you to live a little," Bucky said. He gave Steve's collar a squeeze. "Who knows. You might learn something."