Five minutes to five and Steve was losing himself in the crowds on the sidewalk. He checked his phone as he walked briskly against the traffic, having no destination but also not wanting to show it.
The major news stations were already covering the earlier fight a few blocks down from Midtown but looking at the unruffled faces passing him now, Steve had to wonder what would faze New Yorkers. They were a resilient lot and Steve couldn’t help but smile at this one constant in the future.
He stowed his phone (telephone, computer, and the secret little tracking setup he’d taken five days to figure out how to turn off) away and tried to walk the paths like he always had early last century.
The layout of the city was more or less the same with many new buildings abutting the once familiar skyline, but everything else was so different.
Too different, some days.
At street level, the shops had all been polished up to 21st century standards – all neons and chromes and straight lines and noise. The cars were sleek and rounded and grounded and nothing like the cars Howard had demonstrated and certainly nothing like the cars of the future in the books Steve had read as a kid.
The sounds were different, the smells were different, and the food had moved on to exciting avenues. And even though Steve loved the people, they sometimes threw him off, too. Right around him as he walked, he could count seven out of twelve people staring down at their phones, thumbs tapping away. Some of them had earphones dangling from their ears and most didn’t look like they were looking at where they were going. That last one was also a bit of a constant and Steve relaxed a little.
The 21st century was just different and not always for the good. They’d won the war and weren’t speaking German, but he’d hoped that everyone would have moved on from him as well. He had not expected to wake up to the title of Living Legend. He’d done what he had to when he’d joined the war. He had wanted to do it, sure, but the same could be said for most of the men and women who had been part of the war effort. They weren’t shipping him off to sell war bonds and dance with USO girls anymore in this peaceful time but he might as well be if it would get him out of this bubble of isolation he’d found himself in.
Almost nine million people in this city and only a handful could treat him like a normal fella. He didn’t scream superhero but his superserumed physique was still noticeably different to the civilians he wanted to interact with.
Half of it was his own fault.
Try as he might, but he found it hard to separate his civilian life as Steve Rogers from his Avenging life as Captain America. There were opportunities every day almost paraded before him, but he could never bring himself to take them. Did he present himself as Steve Rogers? Did he present himself as Captain America? The war never taught him how to deal with his dual identities because even his down time had mostly involved being shot at or kissing babies under flashbulbs. Peggy knew, but Peggy was also miles away in a rest home and only remembered him every other visit.
He found that his phone was back in his hand as he continued to walk aimlessly through the streets; he was quickly adopting the 21st century walking behavior subconsciously. His thumb hovered over Iron Man’s name and he thought for two seconds before he tapped it for a call. It was early in the day but Steve could still call to make sure the hit Iron Man took in the fight earlier hadn’t done too much damage. The phone rang for two more seconds and went through to voicemail.
Steve sighed. His some-time teammate wasn’t always around but they’d had nice conversations in the night when they’d been free from their day jobs – Steve from maudlin and SHIELD contract work, and Iron Man from his bodyguarding of rich socialite and SHIELD consultant Tony Stark. It was strange that neither of them knew each other’s civilian identities and yet they were able to strike up conversation regardless. Iron Man was the one who caught him up to 21st century technology, showing him the ins and outs of navigating the internet until Steve was a deft hand at it himself. It was also from Iron Man that Steve learnt little bits of computing and electronics so he could pick out the little bugs SHIELD liked to plant on and around him. And Iron Man was the one who would sit by Steve in his heavy armor and throw out light conversation and useful advice as Steve fixed up his motorcycle after many an Avenger’s mission.
Iron Man knew how to look past the shield and the star and the wings on Steve’s head. Steve cherished their interactions; just a normal conversation was something he craved on his lonelier days.
Steve looked down at his phone, dejected. It was just going to be him and his best friend, the internet, today.
He continued his walk, looking up the day’s list of search topics – Clifford the Big Red Dog (from Hawkeye), muons (from Iron Man), Godzilla (from Black Widow), Enya (from Bruce, the only one of them without a secret identity)—
He must not have picked up the phone-and-walk of the 21st century very well because he walked right into another person. The person stumbled and Steve reached out to steady them, having regained his own feet with no trouble. Looking around he realized he’d ended up on Park Avenue near Grand Central.
Looking at the sharply dressed man he’d steadied, he realized with a pang that he recognized the tousled head of dark hair and goateed face with the handsome cheekbones. Steve had never met him in person, but there was a thick file on Tony Stark he’d gone through and he’d seen the man’s tech in action with them on the field. And there was also the internet.
Steve opened his mouth for an apology but only grunted as Stark molded his body to Steve’s, curling his arms around Steve’s biceps. Steve stiffened as he felt the press of warm chest muscles against his arm. He tried very hard to will his heartbeat down and to stop a blush from rising to his cheeks; Tony Stark was definitely more attractive in person.
“Finally,” Stark said, his face turned towards Steve but not quite looking at him. “Was beginning to think you’d found another puppy and left me here alone to deal with the raff.”
Actually, Steve had found a puppy earlier in the day. He’d taken it right back to the flustered owner who had been walking the little fella. He’d also turned down an offer for coffee as a Valentine’s date but that was beside the point of the here and now.
Steve looked up from Stark’s wide grin to see where his eyes were directed towards behind his probably very expensive sunglasses. There was another person standing a few feet in front of them: a well-dressed blond man and, a little ways behind him, two burly men dressed in black – obviously bodyguards.
“Raff, Tony?” the blond man said with an arched eyebrow. “Harsh thing to say about a good friend.”
The blond turned his sharped blue-eyed gaze onto Steve and Steve felt himself being assessed like a piece of meat at the butchers.
“Care to introduce us?” the blond continued with a dismissive wave at Steve.
“Not a psychopath,” Stark replied, conversational, his fingers tight around Steve’s arm. “Unwilling to be trapped in your little Matrix world for your amusement.”
“It’s not my fault if your bedmates happen to find my bed more likeable than yours,” the blond said sharply. “Or what secrets you choose to tell them. Or that my technology is the next big breakthrough rather than your cute little energy plug.”
Steve didn’t know what was happening but his arm was hurting with every word exchanged as Stark’s fingers dug deeper and harder into his arm. From his side vantage, he could see Stark’s eyes tightening in the corners behind his giant sunglasses, incongruous with the shit-eating grin he had plastered on his face.
“You can admit that I was your best, you know, Tony,” the blond continued before Stark could say anything. “Tall, blond, and handsome you’ve got there is a poor stand-in. If you want, I can teach him how to please you, seeing how you aren't looking very satisfied these days.”
Steve wasn’t liking where this was going.
“I—“ Steve started to say.
“Stone, I know you never got over me but fucking me by proxy is a new low,” Stark shot back, apparently finding his voice. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a date with someone I actually want to be with without compromising myself as a decent human being.”
With that, Steve was dragged away from the blond man and his bodyguards. He almost tripped over himself as Stark continued to drag him off toward Grand Central. Toward Stark Tower to be precise, Steve realized.
“Mister Stark,” Steve said firmly and tugged his arm out of Stark’s death-grip as gently as he could. “You mind explaining what you’re doing?”
Stark turned around to face Steve and Steve realized then the futility of reading facial expressions when the other side was wearing giant sunglasses.
“I’d be surprised if you didn’t know me,” Stark said. “Look, sorry about back there. You were a quick getaway vehicle. Tell me what you want to not get that out to the tabloids. I’m not building you bombs but anything else, I can do. Cars, talent agent, Tuscan vacation. Pick a box.”
Stark smirked and Steve didn’t know if it reached his eyes.
“Or I could show you the penthouse of Stark Tower if you want,” Stark added huskily. He stepped forward and trailed his fingers over Steve’s bicep where he’d been gripping moments earlier. “The view’s great. Tallest building around this part.” He stepped closer still, fingers continuing to gently trace patterns on Steve’s arm and Steve could feel the goosebumps rise on his skin at the contact. “Very private, I promise.”
Steve’s mind stuttered at that and he brought up his other hand to pry Stark’s trailing fingers off his arm. Stark stepped back and withdrew his hand, smiling as if he hadn’t just physically propositioned another man in broad daylight.
“You’ve got a lot of options is what I’m trying to tell you, hot stuff,” Stark said cheerfully.
Steve stood still and gaped. He and Iron Man had talked very little about Iron Man’s boss and charge. Iron Man wasn’t very comfortable broaching that subject in any capacity but Steve knew what the news and gossip rags said about Stark. To the general public, Stark was a typical socialite – rich, carefree, and promiscuous – but even if they knew of his kidnapping three years ago, they didn’t know the full extent of what Stark had been doing after it outside of reshaping his company: namely, building and maintaining the Iron Man for the Avengers and consulting for SHIELD part-time in the name of peace.
Stark was rich, there was no question about that. He was carefree, if his disregard for SHIELD protocols was any indication. Steve didn’t know about the promiscuity but he couldn’t really see anything wrong with it if all the participants were willing. The inch-thick report on Steve’s desk said Stark was narcissistic, abrasive, proud, and had a tongue that could cut people twice over before they even opened their mouth. Difficult to work with. Controlling. Demanding. And half of those could be used to describe Steve himself and none of it told him who the man really was.
Despite all of that, there was one memory Steve had kept at the forefront of his mind every time the gossip rags had reported something inane about Tony Stark. Steve remembered the one time Iron Man had said anything positive about his boss; he had said that Stark was ‘trying to help and do the right thing even if no one wants to see it’. It had been a throwaway line, tossed out as the Avengers had been lamenting their terrible aquatic gear when battling a shoal of rogue squids alongside Atlanteans far off the coast of Florida.
And of all the information Steve had at his fingertips, Steve chose to believe in Iron Man’s words even if they hadn’t even been directed at him and were rather short tempered from the long days spent slogging through ocean and eating nothing but fish; that they had been short tempered probably spoke more of the truth than anything. SHIELD had received Stark-made aquatic gear to replace their SHIELD-issue gear and that gesture, no matter how Iron Man managed to bring it up to his boss as relevant, was what had won Steve over away from his distaste of Tony Stark. He may not know anything about Stark as a person but he knew how his own image as Captain America had been twisted into something the public could consume with glee and he could easily carry over the comparison to Stark.
Even as Stark had just displayed half those supposedly “unpleasant” traits, Steve had held back his instinctive gossip rag thoughts and summoned up the patience Iron Man liked to jokingly wax about.
“I don’t want anything other than an explanation of what happened back there,” Steve said with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder. Maybe he was being selfish in wanting to find out about Stark’s personal life, but he was going to take this chance.
Stark sighed and crossed his arms, looking away. Steve wanted to be able to see his eyes.
“Tiberius Stone, CEO of Viastone – yeah the media and tech conglomerate,” Stark said woodenly. “I should rub it in his face that you know mine and not his but then he wasn’t the rich American CEO who was held in a dingy Afghan cave for three months.” Stark turned back to face Steve, fingers tapping against his own biceps, mouth thin. “Us rich kids know each other. We used to, hm, date is a strong word but we had a thing. Fell out. I hate him. He wants to hate me. We dig at each other when we see each other. It’s all good fun. You’re not going to go to the nearest journalist with that information are you?” Stark tacked the question on as Steve was still processing the answer. There was a hint of panic in Stark’s voice that was probably supposed to have been masked by the smirk.
It probably wasn’t Steve’s fault that Stark would think that of him. Even so, Steve was a little miffed at having his words from earlier brushed aside as if he hadn’t mean it. “It’s not their business and all of that is history as I see it,” he said shortly.
Stark snorted. “You’d be surprised what passes as gossip for the sharks.”
Steve knew. He sighed. “I wouldn’t have told. Not going to. Why would I?”
“Not like I know you,” Stark said, and Steve sensed a roll of eyes.
“But you would have taken me up to your penthouse to shut me up?” Steve said instead, changing tack.
Stark shrugged. “Would you have said yes?”
“How do you know I wouldn’t have?” Steve retorted.
“I knew you wouldn’t,” Stark said, and Steve felt himself being eyed critically from behind the sunglasses. “You don’t quite look the type. Didn’t like the pet names, and you know who I am; believe it or not, I’m not usually the one dishing the groping when I’m draped over someone.”
Revelations of Stark’s social practices aside, the rest of what Stark said was what Steve hated the most about the 21st century, even coming from someone who didn’t even know him: people have preconceived images of him. At SHIELD in his Captain America persona, all the agents fawned over him, idolized him and idealized him. They judged him and put him in a box. It was stifling and it was restrictive and Steve wanted to get away. Steve knew he wasn’t only Captain America – the title, the “Legend” – but all his meaningful interactions have been with SHIELD and the Avengers as Captain America and he really wanted to get away from fronting that persona all the time.
Steve thought over his options and picked his own box. It might be a terrible idea which could blow up in Steve’s face later given who they both were but it was something he wanted as Steve Rogers and not as Captain America. “I take it you don’t have a date,” he began.
Stark seemed to be eyeing him still, assessing, but he shook his head slowly. “I don’t.”
Steve felt a little bud of something take root inside him. It was a long forgotten feeling but he knew what it was. It was purpose and it was the desire to take something just for himself. He smiled his best smile - the goofy, toothy smile that he kept untangled from his propaganda smiles. He hoped Stark would like it and he was charmed in turn when Stark returned a small, shy smile so different to the public images plastered all over the media. He wondered what Iron Man would say to that if he was watching this stealthily from a distance.
“Since we’re both single fellas on Valentine’s Eve,” Steve continued, palms sweating a little as he ploughed on, “want to join me for dinner? Or we can plan something nice for tomorrow if you think you’re up for it.” He stood still and waited for Stark to come to a decision, hoping he didn’t just make a huge damn idiot of himself.
Stark stood with a cocked hip and continued to study Steve, and Steve tried hard to keep his worry out of his face, to push forward the earnest happiness his chest was pumping out to the rest of his body.
As they stood staring at each other with random pedestrians passing them by without a second glance, Steve saw Stark’s hands uncurl and his arms unfold. Stark reached up and plucked his sunglasses from his face, revealing the bright, brown eyes that the internet liked to focus on. They’re filled with emotion now, widened in something like wonder, and they crinkled a little in the corners as Stark smiled at him like he was glad for having misjudged Steve. It was an honest and trusting expression and Steve found that he liked it.
“You went backwards with that,” Stark said. He tucked his sunglasses into his pocket and stepped towards Steve with an outstretched hand. “Anthony Stark, but you should call me Tony.”
Steve had stiffened at the first words but laughed as Star—Tony had continued speaking. Steve braced himself and reached forward to grasp Tony’s hand, taking the opportunity he had all but crashed into. The contrast of soft skin and scars and calluses tickled his palm and he held on, feeling a surge of heated excitement he hadn’t known he could feel anymore.
“Steven Rogers, but you should call me Steve.”
It was Tony’s turn to laugh, eyes sparkling with mirth. Steve had known he would like the expression in those eyes of Tony’s.
“C’mon, I’ll make it the best date you’ll ever have,” Tony said, the laughter still in his voice.
Tony tugged and Steve followed. They walked down the street, hand in hand, and no one was fazed by the sight.