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The Devil's Strand

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The air is hot, and the smell of garlic and onion is still heavy in the air even though the omnipresent sizzle of steam and frying oil quieted for the night nearly an hour ago. The tinny sound of jazz floats out from the kitchen as the staff cleans and closes up shop for the night. Steve taps his foot along with the rhythm as he sizes up the stubborn padlock and starts bending one of Jan's bobby pins into the right shape.

Ordinarily Steve would give silent thanks that another day is over, only he knows he's due back on the clock early the next morning for a special event. Two scientists have booked the whole restaurant for a brunch. It's Steve's fault for volunteering as an extra set of hands, true. If anything, he should probably count himself lucky he has the job, much less extra hours. Steve just wishes he didn't need the money so badly.

"Stuck again?" Luke asks from the kitchen, sliding a plate across a high counter, the meeting place of the front of the house and back. It sandwiches a narrow walk space between a staircase, under which the employee lockers—one of which bears the pesky padlock—are nestled.

"You'd think she does it on purpose." Steve smiles over his shoulder. "Thanks." It being a Friday, Luke has, very thoughtfully, saved him some salmon. Steve hasn't gone to mass in years, but some habits die hard, and his stomach growls at the prospect of finally getting off of his feet and eating.

But first: finishing up his lock-picking. He'll have hell to pay otherwise. Steve goes back to working the jammed lock with the bobby pin. He finally hears it click and yanks the small padlock off just as the floorboards of the stairs above creak.

"My hero," Jan says when she comes into view and sees Steve holding up the padlock for her. The victory rolls in her brown hair bounce as she descends the rest of the steps two at a time.

"You're going to have to get me another box of bobby pins at this rate." Even though the black metal is nearly invisible against his black pants, he gestures toward the half-dozen remaining pins clipped to his pocket. These days it's habit to put them there before leaving home, anticipating this sort of thing.

"You should really just buy another lock," Steve admonishes. Jan is much shorter than he is, and when she grabs for her lock he holds it just out of reach. "The pins in this one are awful."

"And forgo a new dress or coat?" she scoffs, sounding indignant, but a sparkle lights in her blue eyes. Often Steve thinks she was born a decade too late. She has all the airs of a flapper. "Steve Rogers, how could you ask a girl to do something like that?"

Steve sighs and surrenders the lock. "And what happens if I'm not here next time?"

"Then I may have to walk home," Jan says. "But at least it will be in cute shoes." She reaches inside the locker for her purse. "Speaking of which, I have another favor to ask."

Steve folds his arms.

"I wouldn't—only I'm going to have to run to catch the bus as it is." She smiles apologetically.

"You need a table kicked out."

Jan always hates asking people to leave. Steve dislikes it just as much but, if they aren't taking hints an hour after closing, he's willing to be blunt. And depending on the table, sometimes a six-foot man has more persuasive power than a five-foot woman. After things went south with a rowdy table two months ago, Steve has always stepped in when Jan asks.

"He's upstairs," Jan says, slinging her purse over her shoulder. "Be nice to him, Stevie. I think he got stood up tonight." She blows a kiss to both Steve and Luke, and they watch as she dashes out through the darkened front room.

"If I didn't know better," Luke teases, "I'd swear that woman had you wrapped around her finger."

Steve rolls his eyes at him. "Like Jessica has you?"

Luke clears his throat uncomfortably, pretends he doesn't hear Steve, and turns up the radio in the kitchen.

Steve, meanwhile, tucks a napkin around his neck to protect the white shirt and black vest he's wearing. Then, unceremoniously, he wolfs down his dinner before going to find Jan's customer.


Steve climbs to the top of the stairs.

The lights have been turned down low, which is always how they first hint for patrons to start packing up. The brickwork walls are a deep, dark red in the dim lighting. A faint smell of smoke lingers in the air—all of the candles on the tables have been extinguished, save for one. Its flickering light glows warm in the shadowed room.

The man at the table with the candle is indeed all alone. He's seated with his back to Steve, slouching low in his chair and staring out the window to his right. Steve wonders what the man is doing here by himself so late. He's dressed in a well-tailored, expensive suit, and even in the low light his leather shoes gleam from a recent oil and shine. This is a man who has done well in life.

As Steve approaches, his vantage point changes. He sees more of the table, and the missing puzzle piece falls into place.

A nickel is resting on the edge of the table, buffalo side up.

Steve has seen this before, usually in bars. Hell, he's done it. Steve has met too many flirts, too many people looking for something quick and fun until they find their intended soulmate not to have. The populace without soulmates is small, and people like Steve either have to accept being an interim figure in someone's life or find a way to seek out their own sort of companionship. The buffalo nickel is one among many ways of doing just that.

One of the floorboards creaks under Steve's weight, and the man glances at his watch with a start.

"I didn't realize it was so late," he says in a rough, apologetic voice. He quickly palms the nickel, ferreting it away into one of his pockets. Steve doesn't catch which one because he's arrested by the sight of the man glancing up at him. He's handsome, with high cheekbones and a dark goatee. His blue eyes are glassy in the candle's light, just a bit too bright with unshed emotion. A quiet sort of sadness is palpable on him—one born of loneliness that Steve knows all too well.

Oh. This won't be easy. No wonder Jan couldn't bring herself to kick him out.

The man blinks, eyes widening ever so slightly at seeing Steve instead of Jan, and trepidation is evident in the set of his lips—maybe he's worried that Steve saw, of what he thinks if he did. The nickel code isn't exactly the best kept secret. But Steve assumes that Jan saw, so he isn't sure why it would set the man off now.

" 'Evening," Steve says, carefully conversational. And then, in an effort to put him at ease, Steve adds, "Don't see as many buffaloes these days."

It's another layer of code. The other man’s answer will tell Steve if this is purposeful. Most of those who are unaware of the code, if they even gather that the comment is about the five cent piece, make a comment about the new Jefferson minting; once, Steve even ran into an academic-type who lectured his ear off about disappearing herds. Or sometimes the other person does know, but decides to give a naive answer anyway, a means of polite dismissal.

The man looks at him with searching eyes, taking in Steve's waiter apparel. Steve wonders if he's being judged on it.

"You just have to know where to look."

Between the nickel side the man had up and the correct answer to his comment, Steve learns a lot about the man. There had probably been an arranged date, most likely a blind one set up through letters, or surreptitious ads in the personals section of the paper. Either way, the date fell through. Perhaps the other man got cold feet, or he got to the restaurant, caught a look at this man, and walked out.

Steve can't imagine how a guy could do that to such a handsome man.

No, more likely the other man got scared. It's enough of a risk to pull the nickel out, inviting stares from those who realize what it means, proclaiming one's deficiency for all to see. It takes another level of courage to place it down buffalo side up and invite a whole new level of scorn from those who think liaising with the same sex is a sin.

"Normally I'd invite you to head down to the bar for a drink on the house to free up the table," Steve says, trying to inject some cheer into the business, "but I think the bartender's gone home already."

The man gives him a polite half-smile that doesn't reach his eyes, clearly unsure of where Steve is going with this.

Steve really shouldn't say what he's about to say. He should be going straight home, falling into bed, and preparing to wake up again to do a day of waiting tables all over again. But something burns inside of Steve and he's overcome with curiosity for this man, enough so that he swallows down the somersaults in his stomach and spits the offer out.

"I'd still like to offer you that drink," Steve says. Then his confidence falters. "If—if you wouldn't mind waiting for me to finish up my shift here, that is."

The half-smile morphs into something considerably warmer as the man reappraises Steve. "Sure. You seem like you'd be worth the wait."


The light above the restaurant's back door is a cold white pool in the night, an island in the pitch black alley.

As Steve hauls a bag of trash out the back door, the last of his cleaning chores for the night, he realizes, belatedly, that Jan probably knew exactly what she was doing when she asked him to take over for her.

The minx.

And yet Steve isn't mad. He can't be when the trap he's walked into is so attractive.

Steve hefts the bag into the dumpster in near darkness. But as he clangs the lid shut, Steve feels a spike of nausea, realizing he's been a colossal idiot. He doesn't even know his trap's first name. Smooth, Rogers. All of a sudden he's terrified at the prospect of going back inside and having to introduce himself to his new date properly. If the man hadn't already been stood up once tonight, Steve would be sorely tempted to sneak away through the dark alley and pretend nothing happened.

As he heads for the back door again, Steve is so preoccupied with how awkward the next few minutes will be that he doesn't hear the scuffle of footsteps in the alley behind him. When he feels hands on his back, shoving, it's too late. He goes down, sprawling face-first toward the asphalt, knees and palms torn up from catching himself. Steve starts to scramble to his feet and freezes as he sees the muzzle of a handgun jutting into the light, pointed straight at him.

"Been a long time, Steve. Too long."

A figure steps out into the pool of light wearing a black trench coat. A wide-brimmed fedora casts the figure's face in shadow, but Steve knows the clipped British accent well enough.

"Nice to see you too, Jonathan."

Steve isn’t surprised when he hears a deep American voice from the dark alley say, "Think he could do with a bit more roughing up."

"Easy, Creel."

Jonathan Drew once told Steve that he prefers the blood on other people's hands, that it's better for counting out the money. Steve can imagine well enough what they are here for.

"I don't have it."

"That's disappointing." The pistol stays trained on Steve. For a wild moment he wonders if Drew will write off the debt Steve owes and gun him down as a warning to the rest of the hard-lucks in his ledger.

"I just need more time," Steve says. "It's hard enough to keep the rent paid in this city."

"Oh, is that why you moved?" Drew's tone is cold, dangerous, and laced with suspicion. "Odd that you didn't call. Didn't so much as leave an address. Some people might think you're trying to disappear."

Heavy footsteps approach, and Creel is suddenly there, gripping Steve by the shirt, slamming him up against the alley wall. Drew keeps the pistol trained on Steve.

Steve swears under his breath. "I'm doing my best to get it."

Steve knew it was a bad idea at the time when he went to Drew. But what could he do? He'd been desperate. No one would loan him the money, but the doctor said he knew a man. Of course, the doctor had also promised the procedure would work. And it did. He had just neglected to mention up front that the fees were only for half of the work.

"You've got a month to get me what you owe," Drew says. "And that's generous considering what you've put me through to find you again. If you can't scrimp the money together by then working here? I suggest you try your luck at the Bowery. Plenty of work for a good-looking fellow there."

Creel opens his meaty hands, letting Steve go.

"One month," Drew reiterates, "And if you haven't come to us by then, we'll make sure no one will ever find you again."

Steve grits his teeth and watches as they leave, disappearing out onto the neon lit street.


Steve locks the back door and presses his back against it, taking a deep breath, willing the trembling to stop. He's boiling with anger and nerves, and the quiet music of the radio in the kitchen seems downright deafening, crowding in on him and all the thoughts running through his head. For half a moment Steve is lost in the enormity—the sheer impossibility—of what he has to do. There's no way he can come by that much money in only a month, not even if he spits all over his mother's grave and goes down to the Bowery.

It should never have been like this, he thinks, running shaking hands through his hair. He'd known dying was a possibility if he was ever to get into the army and go fight abroad. But back then he'd thought the Death Gratuity would at least go toward care for his mother.

Now it all seems so pointless with her gone and Steve no closer to enlistment.

Steve is startled from his thoughts by the crackling of the radio in the kitchen, the music being interrupted. At first Steve thinks the radio is going dark for the night, airing static until programming starts up again tomorrow morning. But then he hears a faint intoning voice, a British woman's, spouting what sounds to him like an unintelligible string of words, fuzzy like a recording. "Warnings of gale winds in Trafalgar, Irish Sea. Viking, North Utsire, easterly five or six in south." Something skips, and the audio repeats. "Warning of gale winds. Warning."

A man's voice follows. The sound quality is better—different audio—but it’s distorted. This voice is also British, and maybe it's just the company he so recently had, but the voice makes the hair on Steve's neck rise. "This country is blighted. The tired, the poor, the huddled masses and wretched refuse of the unnatural: they’re a weight around America's neck. This is a warning. A storm is coming, and everyone must either sink or swim for themselves."

The odd transmission cuts off abruptly, and with a scratching noise the soft refrain of piano music and Ella Fitzgerald crooning, "Baby, baby what else can I do?" returns as though it never went off air.

Steve stays still, not sure what he has just heard—half-imagining that he dreamed the whole thing up. When no other strange transmissions come through, Steve is almost able to convince himself that that's the case. Almost. He wanders into the empty kitchen and shuts off the radio.

Then Steve begins shutting off the lights in the back of the restaurant, working his way toward the front of the house. The habit of it is comforting.

Until he reaches the foot of the stairs.

Steve thinks that he ought to apologize, send the man on his way. He fully intends to do just that.

But as it turns out, no one is on the second floor. The hardwood floors have all been swept, that lone candle extinguished. Steve feels oddly hollowed out by the man's absence. Maybe he got cold feet too.

Steve heads back downstairs and finishes locking up in a daze.

Outside, a soft mist has started, a hint of rain to come and a miserable walk home. Steve is fumbling his keys into his pocket when he looks up and sees the man from the restaurant beneath the lamp light a few doors down.

"I thought you had gone," Steve apologizes, approaching him.

The man looks damp, but curiosity lights up his eyes. Steve thinks he must mean what he said earlier about the waiting being worthwhile. "One of the cooks said, in so many words, that they were tired of waiting for me to leave." That sounds like Luke. "Very colorful staff you've got."

Steve bristles at his wording. "That a problem?" He'll head home now if the man takes issue with Luke.

The man blinks, seems to realize what he said. "I, ah, meant his language. But no. Not like it's against the law up here." No, not like in the deeply segregated South. The man rubs at the back of his neck, clearly embarrassed. "Rethinking that drink?"

Steve hesitates. The developments of the last hour are heavy on his mind, and the man has offered Steve a blameless way to bow out for the night. As he waits for Steve's internal war to play out, the man's blue eyes slide from Steve's. From the way his eyebrows knit together, Steve is sure he notes the scuffing on his palms and shoes, the rip on one of his sleeves, and the dirt on his vest. "What happened to you?"

"Uneven pavement out back," Steve blurts the first thing that comes to mind. "I tripped." And even lying about it, just the thought of Drew's promise knots Steve's stomach with unease.

The man glances at his watch. "Eleven o'clock and your clothing in shambles, you really don't waste any time, do you..." He looks askance at Steve, as though just now realizing he doesn't have a name to put to the face.

"Steve." Steve holds his hand out. They might as well do it properly.

"Tony." The man grasps his hand and gives a firm shake, like he does this every day.

It's now or never, Steve thinks. He can either let Tony walk off into the night and surely never see him again, or Steve can go with him. Tony's comment about wasted time strikes a chord deep inside Steve. And he finds he wants very badly to go with this stranger, to leave his troubles behind, at least for a few hours. If Steve only has a month before the loan shark comes back for him, then he wants to live a little.

"No. I think I'd still like to go get that drink, Tony."


Tony picks the place after Steve admits the only gin joints he knows are a several dozen blocks away. Neither he nor his date are fond of the prospect of heading so far afield on foot.

Inside it's dark and crowded, and as he follows Tony, pushing through the throng, Steve is thankful he wriggled out of his jacket and vest earlier. It would be unbearably hot with them on.

"Have you been here before?" he shouts over the din.

Tony grins. "Never."

"What can I get you?" Steve asks as Tony points toward a few unoccupied inches of table. It's all the way in the back, in an unsightly corner next to what looks like the circuit breaker.

"Nothing. I'll get the tab."

"But—" Steve begins to protest, intent on making good on his offer from earlier.

"What's your poison, Steve? Whiskey? Rum?"

"Uh, just beer."

Tony doesn't look like he believes that. But a few minutes later he’s braving his way to the bar, and Steve finds himself trying so very hard not to stare.

It’s hard, though. The other man is captivating, and he can’t help but let his eyes linger on Tony’s lithe frame, on the long pale fingers wrapped around two pint glasses as he fights his way back to their slice of table.

Steve finds himself wondering what those fingers would feel like, running over his skin. He feels a surge of heat and a swell and has to abandon that thought. As is, he’s pretty sure that he’s flushed when Tony sits down opposite him with two bubbling pint glasses, one foamy and straw-colored, the other a pale cherry hue.

"That doesn't look like beer," Steve says of Tony's glass, curious, and also eager to preoccupy himself with less carnal thoughts.

"Italian soda," he says, offering Steve the glass. But Steve passes with a shake of his head. "I'm a teetotaler."

A rush of heat spreads across Steve's cheeks. "Oh. I'm sorry, I—"

"Don't be." Tony smiles. "It's only because my dear mother would turn over in her grave if she thought her son was drinking."

"Was she a prohibitionist?"

Tony's lips quirk in pensive reflection. "No, no, I'd say for her it was more of a religious fervor."

Steve smiles, thinking about his own mother. "Not so different from mine. Though it was the other way around for her. She kept a bottle of brandy above the stove. It came down every Sunday after mass."

"Catholic boy, huh?"

"A very lapsed one."

Tony grins knowingly. And as gorgeous as the man is, he’s tenfold that when his eyes light up with something devilish. "Same."

Steve rubs at the back of his neck, not sure if it's polite to ask, but curiosity gets the better of him. "Was it because of the marks for you too?"

"Oh yes. I very narrowly escaped a monastery," Tony replies, almost proudly, hiking the hem of his right sleeves up to reveal smooth, olive skin. He doesn’t have a soulmate mark. "The parish priest told me I would make a fantastic man of the cloth." He wrinkles his nose. "And I was tempted at first, but at fourteen a life of celibacy sounded awful."

"I can't imagine," Steve says, even though he can. It is lonely, longing for something more amid a backdrop of fleeting, tenuous relationships, liable to break the moment a soulmate appears. It feels momentous to find someone so like himself.

This time it is Steve's turn to roll up his sleeve to show Tony the faded gray name on his wrist, Arnie, set against light pink discoloration of the skin. It has been that way for over a decade, and Steve doubts that it will ever change.

Tony's eyes soften as Steve surreptitiously tugs the cotton sleeve back down. "What happened?"

"I don't really know. I woke up one day when I was fifteen with the name faded. My mother said we would have to inform the Domestic Relations Bureau. She said it meant that he had died, whoever he was. The DRB wrote back a few weeks later asking me to re-register if a new name appeared."

"Clearly it didn't."

"Didn't stop my parents from hoping the second one would be a girl's name." They were never cruel. But Steve can remember lying awake late at night, listening to them arguing in the next room about money and doctors. He can remember his mother crying and his father saying, It's been hard enough for me to find work. I don't want his every day to be a struggle.

Tony looks thoughtful. "Has it always been just a first name? I thought it was usually both."

"I underwent a procedure, but the fees only covered half the removal."


The surprise is evident on Tony's face. Steve realizes that he must not know what it's like to walk around everyday with a damning piece of evidence on one's body. "The army. I wanted to join up, go overseas. But they won't take guys like me."

"They won't take guys like me either," Tony says. At first Steve thinks it's because he doesn't have a name on his wrist, but then Tony thumps a fist on his chest and smiles sadly. "Rotten heart."

Steve's eyes linger on Tony's clothes again, the loosened tie that looks like it's made of silk and the starched white dress shirt. "What's a well-to-do guy like you want with joining up?"

Tony shifts in his seat at the question and rubs at the knuckles of one hand. "I don't know. It just seems like the right thing to do."

To leave a life of comfort for a battlefront strikes Steve as noble. In the space of the moment, Tony becomes something more, and that’s paired with a deep sense of respect. Maybe it shows because Tony quickly turns the conversation back to Steve. "What was your reason for going?"

This is an easy question. "I don't like people who throw their weight around. Don't care if it's one guy or a whole government."

Tony sits back in his chair, languid, and tilts his chin to look up at Steve. Steve feels his heart beat a bit faster when Tony smirks, eyes half-lidded. "You get a lot of that, big guy?"

"Not so much after the growth spurt," Steve admits. "Usually it's people who think they can push you around for a tip." Or when money is involved, period, he thinks darkly.

"Army probably pays better than waiting tables."

Steve makes a small noise of agreement.

"Are those two jobs really the extent of your options? You seem like a sharp fellow." Tony's blue eyes narrow, studying Steve. "Hard to believe you haven't picked up any other skills."

Steve rubs at the back of his neck again, self-conscious. "My father was a locksmith. He taught me a little of the trade before he passed, but he sold off most of his equipment during the depression. It was too hard for him to find steady work."

"What about now?"

Steve shrugs. "So much of it is word of mouth." He thinks of Jan and Luke, scraping by like himself. "I wouldn't dream of charging the people who know."

Tony arches an eyebrow and points past Steve at the locked circuit breaker door. "Think you could pick that?"

Steve eyes the small lock, takes the bobby pins he fashioned earlier from his pocket, checks the shape, and starts in on the lock.

Tony laughs out loud at the total lack of hesitation. "Why you haven't started a life of crime is beyond me."

Steve grins at him, then makes short work of the lock. It's easy, probably because electrical panel locks aren't meant for security so much as to deter the potential for annoyance. He pulls the panel open, wriggles the door back and forth on its hinges, and holds up one hand as if to say tada, allowing himself a self-satisfied smile when he sees how amused Tony is by the whole thing.

"Oh truly," Steve brags, "the world is lucky I was raised better than that."

"Very," Tony agrees, producing a scrap of paper from his pocket and sliding it across the table with the nib of a pencil. "Give me your number. I'd be happy to throw work your way."

Steve catches the paper with two fingers, sliding it closer to himself, and takes up the pencil in his other hand. He swallows, looking up into Tony’s warm blue eyes, and wonders if there's more to this than a simple business proposition. If so, then the pleasant expression on Tony's face gives nothing away.

Steve pencils down his name and a number that won't work come next month. Ignoring that for now, Steve hands the paper back to Tony. The tips of their fingers brush, and an electric euphoria tingles through him at the touch. And maybe he’s imagining it, maybe he just wants this to be something more, but he thinks that Tony lets the touch linger.

"Hey!" Whatever has just passed between them, it snaps with the word. One of the bar waitresses has an empty tray under one arm and a look that could kill on her face. "What are you doing back there?"

Steve glances at the ajar electrical panel door, grins nervously, and shuts it. The lock re-engages with a click. "I think it may be time to leave."

Playfulness twinkles in Tony's eyes, so completely different from the emptiness that Steve first saw in the restaurant. "To the next place, then?"


They stumble down the block, or at least they do in Steve's case. Tony has his arm wound under Steve's shoulder despite his protests that he's not very drunk. (But in truth, he probably is.) It's raining in earnest now, pattering off of tin gutters and drumming against windows. Passing cars splash through the puddles that have already collected in the streets.

"This is me," Tony says as they round the corner of a large building that sports shops below and apartments above. He presses Steve under the awning of a closed florist. The cloying scent of roses still clings to the space. "Let me call you a cab." Tony grins, water dripping from his black hair. Neither of them had had the sense to bring an umbrella for the night.

Tony's white shirt is soaked through, all but transparent, and clinging to his frame. Steve can see the A-shirt worn underneath and the sculpt of his lean muscles. Steve still wants so badly to run his hands over the other man and to have Tony do the same—to press his lips against Tony's and trail kisses downward, following the beads of water dripping from his goatee.

But of course Steve won't. That's a bit much for a first date. "I don't need one."

"You look like you're going to catch a cold."

Steve looks down at his own clothing, dully noting that his shirt is as drenched as Tony's, though he has the vest on again, which gives him a bit more privacy.

"I'll be fine," he promises. Bad enough that Tony cannily managed to foot the bill every place they went when Steve is the one who invited him out. But Steve isn’t complaining. They’ve spent the better part of the night out, which he would never have been able to afford. And even though they’ve spent it in a teasing dance, Steve has loved every moment of being with Tony.

He’s fallen hard and fast.

"If you're sure..." Tony leans in close, close enough that Steve can smell the sugar on his breath. He feels hot all over despite the cold brick wall at his back. A few more inches and they could be kissing. Here. Where anyone could see.

No, I'm not sure, Steve thinks, a terrible certainty that once they go their separate ways, he will miss the man's easy smiles and the sound of his laughter. He's known Tony for only a handful of hours, but in so many ways, tonight feels like he's spent it with a long-lost friend, someone who understands so much with so little said.

Maybe this is a shade of what it feels like to meet a soulmate.

Despite Steve's reservations about first dates, he really wishes Tony would invite him up instead of offering to call a cab. His heart hammers in his chest as he works up the courage to ask the next question even though it's selfish with the sword hanging over his head—the very real threat that things between them can't go farther without one or both of them getting hurt.

"Can I see you again?"

Tony blinks and his eyes shift subtly, searching Steve. For a terrifying moment, Steve thinks he'll say no, that's he's misinterpreted camaraderie for something more. But then Tony swallows, nods his head, and a broad grin steals back across his face.

"I'd like that a lot."

Tony withdraws, and they continue down the street toward the apartment's lobby. Steve feels like he’s floating, and Tony looks like he’s come a million miles from that moment Steve first set eyes on him in the restaurant.

Steve has never let himself hope too much—not since the name on his wrist faded. But tonight has been so unlike other dates. It’s hard not to be swept up in the thrill of it.

“Until the next night then?” Tony smiles. Then he looks up, absently, and in an instant his features shift from calm and at ease to inscrutable. He glances at his watch. "I'll call you," Tony promises, one hand going to the pocket where the slip of paper with Steve's number is. "Something that won't sound too obvious over the party line." His voice is light and relaxed, but it's at odds with the way he holds himself, like a snake coiling in on itself, preparing to strike.

Confused, Steve nods as the other man abruptly leaves his side, heading up the stone steps. "Goodnight, Tony," he calls after him.

Tony turns. "Goodnight." His smile is polite, but his eyes are distant, his thoughts drawn elsewhere.

He turns to greet the doorman, and like that he's gone.

Steve lingers for a few moments more, just long enough for the doorman to turn a suspicious eye on him. It's late and the rain is worse now; as he leaves and rounds a corner to head home, Steve has to hold a hand up to shield his eyes. Come tomorrow morning, sick or not, the next day will be a slog through hell.

Even so, the prospect of hearing from Tony warms Steve, makes him feel lighter in a way that is distinct and separate from the tipsiness.

Though it's late, it's still New York, and after a few blocks several cars have already passed by Steve. So when a dark-colored Cadillac pulls close, slowing down to keep pace with him, Steve doesn't initially give it much thought. Until he realizes that it's driving on the wrong side of the street.

He freezes, but by then it's too late. Two men as big as Steve climb out, dressed in tailored black suits. One of them is holding a length of rope, the other a burlap sack. From the car, a third man points a gun at Steve.

"Get in the car," he hears.

Steve doesn't move, and the man with the rope advances on him.

Steve raises his hands and takes a swing at the man with the rope, but the guy catches both of his wrists, twisting Steve so that he's between the man and the car. The one with the sack seizes the opportunity, and everything goes dark as the cloth bag is pulled down over Steve's head. He's wrestled bodily into the car by the two men, and Steve's struggles are momentarily stilled as one lands a vicious blow to the back of his head, rendering Steve helpless as they bind his hands behind his back. They tie his feet next. Between the rope and the way he's pinned between their bodies and the leather seat, Steve is effectively immobilized.

"Drive," someone says, and he feels the car accelerate.