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Must Be in Want of a Wife

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"Of course he's looking for a girlfriend!" Odin exclaimed. "Such a nice young man, and with all that money. He'll need someone to help him spend it."

"He seems to be spending it just fine on his own," Frigga tutted, eyes on her dinner plate.

"Dad, he's gay." Bucky rolled his eyes.

Odin waved his hand impatiently. "He's young."

Steve winced and tried to hide it by poking at his mashed potatoes. Peggy kept telling him he needed to come out to his foster parents, but stuff like this always made it seem impossible. He knew they'd still love him, still support him, but they seemed to think being anything but straight was a fun fad for young people. He caught Bucky's eyes over the bowl of peas, and Bucky rolled them.

"Who cares who Sam invited?" Thor piped up. "It's a party. Parties are always fun."

"Wish I could go," Wanda muttered. Everyone ignored her.

"You really think a celebrity playboy, known for having more money than sense, is going to fit in at Sam's game day party? I know Sam was just trying to be nice, inviting Tony Stark, but it's going to be awkward." Steve dropped his fork and leaned back from the table.

"Come now, Steven," Odin said firmly. "He's a wonderful connection to have. Networking, my boy! That'll get you ahead in life. His father was the richest man in most of the world, and when Tony comes of age that'll all come to him. No harm in making friends. Sam has the right idea."

And that was that.

After dinner, Steve was in his room when he heard a knock on the inside of his closet. "Come in," he called out softly, and a moment later, Bucky appeared from between his shirts. They'd discovered early on, as new foster kids who didn't know what this house and these foster parents were going to be like, that the closets of their rooms shared a wall. It had only taken a little work with an exacto knife to cut away a portion of the plywood that allowed them to slip from one room to the other. It had started as a precaution, made out of fear of the unknown, and evolved into a habit as they got older and settled in their bizarre, hand-crafted family.

"You okay?" Bucky asked, tipping backwards onto Steve's bed. 

Steve shrugged. "I wouldn't be so afraid to tell them if they weren't so completely obsessed with getting us all girlfriends. They want seven hundred grandchildren, as if the three they have already aren't enough."

"That's why they adopted so many kids. Investment."

Seve chuckled. They both loved Frigga and Odin, of course they did. They'd taken in two pre-teen brothers, together, when no one else had even wanted them apart, and Steve would never stop being grateful for that. They also continued to let Steve and Bucky - and any of their other kids who wanted to - live at the house through college. Thor, their only biological child, never got preferential treatment and had always welcomed Steve and Bucky into the home with kindness and affection. All in all, it was the best place they could have landed. But even the best parents had issues.

"I know it only gets harder the longer I don't tell them, but I just can't bring myself to do it. And the older I get, the more worried they get that I don't date. At least you've had a few girlfriends. That keeps them off your back. But it was hard enough coming out to you and Peggy, to Sam. I'm scared."

"Then don't do it yet." Bucky took Steve's pillow and tossed it in the air then caught it. "Wait til you move out."

"Then I have to keep sitting through them trying to set me up."

"Pretend to date Peggy again."

"Bucky," Steve groaned.

"Yeah, yeah, I know, pal. It's rough, but only a few more years. Or if you decide to do it now, you know I've got your back."

"I know." Steve glanced at the clock then stood. He had to get ready or they'd miss the first pitch. He undid his pants and kicked them off, pulling nicer jeans out of his dresser. "Is Tony Stark really gay?"

Bucky shrugged. "That's what the internet says. He's been spotted with a lot of guys, so either he keeps tripping and landing with his tongue in some pretty boy's mouth, or they've got something right this time."

"Huh." Steve wasn't sure how to feel about that. He'd hardly ever met any out gay men, or if he had, he hadn't known. No one at his school had come out. Thankfully, he'd made it through all four years without his secret being revealed. It was hard enough being the foster kid in hand-me-down clothes who lived in the big house on the hill full of other foster kids and "those crazy Borsons" let alone being the only gay kid in his middle school. Now, in college, he'd met some more people, people like Peggy, who made him feel less alone, but it didn't really make it any easier to come out to his parents. But Tony was out and loud about it, apparently. Steve didn't really know what to think about that. He was still pretty sure that Tony Stark would be an odd fit among their group of friends, but maybe they'd get along? Maybe Tony would have some wisdom for him, stuck as he was between a rock and a hard place.

Steve found one of his Red Sox jerseys in his bottom drawer and pulled it on over his t-shirt. "You ready?"

Bucky nodded. "Yup. You're driving."

Frigga was kind enough to lend them her car for the night, as long as Steve didn't drink more than a beer, so Bucky climbed in the passenger seat and Thor tipped himself in the back. The twins had whined for hours, begging to go, but at sixteen, Frigga and Odin weren't quite ready to let them go to a party that would skew this much older than them. In some ways, Steve would have preferred they come along. He had some idea of what those two got up to with their own friends and it wasn't much better. At least at Sam's, Steve could keep an eye on them. To the Borsons, however, the twins could do no wrong.

Sam had a house in the suburbs, not too far from the Borsons' house, just outside of Boston. They pulled up to find the drive lined with other cars. One, in particular, stood out.

"Holy shit." Thor whistled. "That model's not even out to the public yet."

Steve didn't know cars, but the sleek, red lines of the convertible screamed expensive. Inside, Sam greeted them by the door. 

"Hey guys! Welcome, welcome. Come on in, grab some snacks, grab some beer." 

Thor put the chips they'd brought on the coffee table and immediately dove into the cooler of beer, going to join a group of his friends on the sofa. Steve scanned the room. He knew almost everyone at the party, even though it was a big one. Sam had a large open-plan main floor, with the biggest TV Steve had ever seen, and so they all gathered there on as many game nights as they could manage to watch together. 

It wasn't hard to find Tony Stark, not that Steve was looking. He was sitting in the corner, tucked up in an armchair that managed to be completely separated from the rest of the crowd. He had his feet folded under him and his eyes were glued to the phone in his hand, scrolling endlessly. Every now and then he'd look up, scowling over the edge of some pricy, glass-bottled, craft beer at the gathered group. He looked disinterested and disgusted by Steve's friends. To top it all off, he was wearing a Yankees hat.

He looked a little younger than the twenty-two years his wikipedia proclaimed, and much younger than he'd looked on TV the few times Steve had seen him in the news.

Also much, much ruder.

His friend, however, who Sam pointed out surreptitiously, was the life of the party. She shook out her wavy, red hair and deposited herself in the middle of the gang on the sofa with a sly smile. Sam bumped Steve's elbow with his own. "That's Natasha, apparently. She's from old Russian money, but no one really knows where. She just showed up in Tony's life one day. Apparently, she moved in with him in his swanky penthouse condo when he decided to up and shift to Boston."

"Are they together?"

Sam shook his head. "Nope. As fair as I know, Tony only dates men." Sam shot Steve a questioning look, but Steve shook his head. Even if Tony Stark weren't radiating asshole vibes, there was something awful about being set up with someone just because you were both gay, like you weren't allowed to have any other preferences beyond that.

Steve learned the rest by osmosis, as the gossip dripped around the party, and some of it from Natasha herself, who had settled herself on Bucky's other side as the game started. The story was that Tony's parents had died four years ago, leaving Tony and his little brother, Peter, on their own and heirs to a massive fortune. Howard Stark's company, Stark Industries, dominated the world of advanced weaponry and held every military contract it was possible to have. Right now, it was being run by someone else while Tony, apparently, drank and slept his way around the world. At twenty-five, Tony would come into his full fortune, as well as his controlling interest in Stark Industries, and be expected to take over as CEO, following in his father's footsteps. It was hard to believe that someone who was currently best known for being caught naked on a balcony in Monaco could run a multi-billion dollar, international mega-corporation.

Bucky, for his part, didn't seem to notice Tony at all. Instead, he stared, gobsmacked, hanging off of every one of Natasha's words. Steve had seen that look before; that look meant trouble.

Coming into the third inning, the Sox scored two on a homer, and Steve got sucked away from the social drama and into the game. People ebbed and flowed around him, but he ignored them in favour of keeping a sharp eye on his team. At the seventh inning stretch, Steve stood, his joints popping and groaning, and he stepped over the legs and empty beer cans to make his way to the bathroom. 

Natasha wasn't sitting with Bucky anymore, but there was a clear spot on the couch next to him that he was guarding like a bulldog. Steve shot him a look as he passed and he shrugged. Steve hit the bathroom then hurried back before he missed the bottom of the seventh or lost his seat - which he was sure Bucky was less protective of. As he stepped back down the hall, Steve heard a voice that he'd only heard on TV before.

"Come on, Nat. I don't know why I'm here."

Tony Stark was talking, and for some reason, Steve stopped and listened.

"I don't know, Tones. To make friends? Socialize?"

Tony huffed. "They're drinking Bud Light and eating Doritos. Not exactly my scene."

"You could try talking to someone," Natasha offered.

"To who? The one hot guy at the party only has eyes for you, and the only gay guy isn't hot enough to be worth the effort of digging his repressed ass out of the closet." Tony's beer bottle hit the table with a clang, and Steve flinched - was he really that obvious? Or was Tony talking about someone else? "You know what, screw this. I'm out. I'll send Happy to pick you up when you're done."

Steve slipped around the corner and saw Tony kissing Natasha's cheek before he shuffled through the party and out the front door, leaving his empty bottle on the table without a backwards glance.

Natasha settled back at Bucky's side and the two talked through the rest of the game. Steve couldn't help feeling a little jealous that Bucky, who met people interested in him all the time, had been the one who had found someone new that he liked, while Steve finally had a shot at meeting another gay guy and he turned out to be an asshole. 

The car was quiet on the way home, and Steve noticed Bucky pulling out his phone to text more than once. Thor'd had a great time, completely oblivious to the tension Tony had brought with him, and the Sox had won, so he was happy. 

Steve was only alone in his room for a few minutes, back at the house, before Bucky was shoving in through the closet. "Stevie."

"What?"

"So what do you think?" He collapsed onto Steve's bed with a sigh. "She's awesome, right?"

Steve smiled. "I don't know. Someone monopolized all her time." He kicked aside the clothes he'd changed out of and switched off the light, tipping onto the other side of the bed and shoving at Bucky's arm until it un-flopped from across his pillow. "I barely got to know her."

"Alright, I'll answer it for you then. She's awesome."

"Good to know."

"I think she likes me. She gave me her number."

Steve snorted. It was pretty obvious she liked him, if the way she was grinning and flipping her hair was anything to go by. "I'm so happy for you. Too bad her friend is such an asshole."

"Was he? He seemed quiet to me."

Steve repeated what he'd heard Tony say.

"Wow. Yeah, that's an asshole." Bucky shrugged. "She said he was a great guy and she's known him most of her life. Guess old friends can be like that. Doesn't seem like he's going to be around much, though, if he thinks he's so much better than us."

"Small mercy."

Bucky was quiet for a moment. "Hey, Steve?"

"Yeah, Buck."

"In all seriousness? She's one of the most amazing people I've ever met. And I think she likes me back."

Steve smiled, and this time, it came out entirely honestly. "I'm really happy for you, bud."

Chapter Text

"Bucky has a giiiirlfriend!" Wanda singsonged as she danced around the house. Steve caught her by the arm as she skipped by and she squealed and squirmed out of his grasp, tumbling down on the arm of the couch next to him.

"She sounds like a lovely young lady," Odin said. "Friends with the Stark boy, right?"

"Not that that matters," Steve muttered to himself.

"She's not my girlfriend."

"But you'd like her to be, yes?" Thor leaned back until his chair creaked and tossed a baseball into the air and caught it again.

Bucky made a noncommittal noise, and Thor tossed the ball his way, arcing it over the couch and over Odin's head. Steve snatched it out of the air and twisted it between his hands. Odin didn't even flinch, eyes peering over his glasses to fix on his crossword.

Frigga bustled in with an armful of glads from her garden. "I think it's nice you're dating, sweetheart. And I hope Natasha is less rude than that last girl - what was her name?"

"Dot!" Wanda and Pietro said in perfect synchronicity.

"That twin shit is weird," Bucky told them.

"Watch your language, dear." Frigga dumped the flowers on the table and hustled out again, pulling on her gardening gloves. 

Odin hummed at his crossword then looked up and surveyed the room. "Listen to your mother, kids."

Bucky exchanged a look with Steve, and Steve smiled, shaking his head. Bucky stood. "Well, I'm off. You sure you don't want to come, Stevie?"

"So I can third wheel with you and Natasha? No thanks."

"Well, Tony's going to be there, I assume."

"Even more no thanks."

Wanda twisted around on the arm of the couch then tipped backwards across Steve's lap. He wrapped an arm around her middle to keep her from tumbling to the floor. "What's wrong with Tony Stark?" she asked.

Steve shrugged. "He's stuck up. Thinks he's better than us."

"Don't be homophobic, Steve," Pietro said with a teasing lilt.

Bucky snorted so loudly he had to turn it into a cough. 

"I'm not!" Steve huffed then threw the ball at Pietro who snatched it out of the air. "That's definitely not why I don't like him. He said some rude shit at the party."

"Watch your language, dear," came Frigga's voice behind him as she passed through the room again, leaving a trail of mud from her gardening boots.

"Sorry, Ma."

Wanda wriggled in Steve's lap. "What'd he say?"

"I'm not repeating it. But it wasn't nice. Plus -" Steve tapped Wanda on the end of her nose "- he's a Yankees fan."

She curled her lip up. "Ew."

"I know, right?"

Bucky stood and made for the door, catching the ball as it flew over Odin's head one more time and walking out with it. "Have a good night!"

Steve spent an hour playing catch with the twins until it was too dark to see the ball and Pietro took an underhand to the face. Thor was on the couch in the rec room, laptop balanced on his chest, yelling at a series of enormous monsters that filled his screen. "Wanna play?" he asked, and since Steve couldn't seem to get his focus together enough to do anything that required attention, like his summer college project or reading a book, he agreed. 

He turned on the family computer, since his tablet couldn't play any games, and slipped into gaming mode, letting the adrenaline and excitement of it occupy his mind. For a few hours, he didn't think of Bucky, Tony Stark, Natasha, or coming out to his parents. He just blew up monsters.

Long after he should have been in bed, his phone buzzed with a text and he dug it out to read it. It was from Bucky.

Dfraunk?

Steve stared at the text. What? He sent back.

Sooo druank home plsae

You're so drunk and you need a ride home?

Yeffffffffff

Steve laughed and pushed back from the computer. "Sorry, Thor. Buck needs me to go pick him up. He's totally wasted and he can't drive home."

Thor pouted. "But we have two more levels to complete."

"Have to be another time."

Bucky had taken Frigga's car to the party, so Steve went to Odin. He was in his rocking chair, fast asleep, a book open on his chest. Steve coughed, and when that didn't rouse him, he bumped loudly into the coffee table. Odin startled up with a snort. "Yes?"

"Oh, good, Dad, you're still up. Can I borrow your car to go pick up Bucky?"

Odin blinked at him for a moment. "He took your mother's car."

"I know. But then he got - uh - he drank a little too much and he doesn't feel safe driving."

"Sorry, son, no can do." 

"Why not?"

"My headlights are out, only the low beams work, and it's not safe to drive into the city at night without them. That's why Bucky took your mom's car."

"Seriously?" Steve groaned and slumped off back to his room. Sorry, Buck. I can't get the car. Can you sleep it off?

When Bucky didn't text back, Steve called him, but there was no answer. He didn't sleep well at all, waking up with a jolt of anxiety several times during the night, worried about Bucky. What if he'd tried to drive home after all and gotten in an accident? But when Steve woke up for good at seven in the morning, he had a text from Bucky that he'd sent around three. Sry feel asleep. 

The sun was up now, so Steve got dressed and grabbed Odin's keys off the hook, slipping out of the house and jogging down the driveway. The highway was light on a Saturday morning, and Steve flowed through the cars on his way through the suburbs towards downtown Boston. Unsurprisingly, Tony lived in Millenium Tower, in one of their disgustingly expensive condos. Natasha lived with him, and that was where they'd been partying the night before.

Bucky had given him the address and the keycode to get in that Natasha had texted him the night before, so Steve breezed through the lobby like he knew what he was doing, trying not to look like he was too poor to even look at the light fixtures in the hallway, and typed the code into the elevator. 

He stepped off the elevator to Tony's front door, and he took a deep breath and knocked. It took several minutes and three more knocks before the door wrenched open, and Steve stared, stunned.

A tall, thin man with wavy black hair hanging around his face lounged against the doorframe with a shark-like grin. He was shirtless, an impressive collection of lean abs melting into extremely low-slung leather pants. There was a distinct bite mark on his chest, and a smear of lipstick across his mouth that either meant he'd been kissed by someone wearing it, or had been wearing it when someone else had kissed him. If Steve had to put money on it, he'd go with the latter. The man flicked his eyes up and down Steve, a blatant show of checking him out, and his smile deepened. "Can I help you?" He had a hard to place accent.

"Um." Steve cleared his throat so his next words might come out as less of a squeak. "My brother's here? Bucky?"

"Ohhh, that's who he belongs to." The man chuckled. "Come on in. You can scrape him off the bathroom floor and save me the trouble."

Steve followed him in to the apartment, unable to keep his mouth shut as he stared at the massive floorplan. Tony's doorknobs looked like they cost more than Steve had ever made in a month. "Holy shit."

The dark-haired man laughed. "I like you." He stopped and turned, making Steve nearly walk into him. "Steve, right? I think James mentioned you."

"Yeah, Steve. You are -?"

"Loki. I'm Natasha's…" Loki waved a hand randomly, which could mean anything from fiance to cousin to chauffeur. "I'm staying here for the summer."

"Tony seems to bring home a lot of strays," Steve muttered to himself, and Loki laughed. 

"Well," he drawled, eyes going dark, "he knows how to take good care of them."

Steve's heart skipped a beat as Loki's words pounded through his body. So they were sleeping together? Loki and Tony. That was. Huh. Well. Steve had never - never been that close to two men who were - He cleared his throat a few times too many, and Loki laughed again.

Loki pushed open a random door and gestured Steve into a bathroom bigger than Odin's living room with a flourish. Bucky was lying on the floor, one arm hooked around the base of the toilet. Steve sighed down at him. He kicked the bottom of his shoe. "Buck?"

Bucky groaned. "Stevie?" he slurred.

Steve helped prop him up against the toilet, but that set off a wave of nausea that folded him over the toilet, and Steve turned away, running a paper towel under the tap to offer him when he was done. Natasha appeared in the doorway, in nothing but a baggy t-shirt that failed to cover much of anything, and bright yellow underwear with a winking emoticon face on the front. She crossed her arms over her chest and grinned down at Bucky's prone form. "He's cute, but he can't really hold his liquor, can he?"

Steve rolled his eyes. "Thanks for putting him up last night."

Her smile softened into something more genuine. "He can stay here any time. Why don't you let him wake up for a minute? We've got leftover pizza in the kitchen. We'll heat some up for him and it'll take the edge off."

"Sound good, Buck?"

Bucky's head didn't reappear, but he held up a hand in a thumbs up, so Steve left him to work through the rest of the alcohol poisoning and followed Natasha to the kitchen. On the way, they passed the living room, and found Tony Stark passed out on the couch. In his underwear. And one shoe, no sock.

"Pizza, Tones?" Natasha asked as she walked back, and Tony groaned and fluttered his eyes open.

"What the shit time is it?" he muttered.

"Who cares?" Loki said, appearing with a brightly coloured slush drink in his hand. 

"I care," Tony grumbled, pushing up to his feet. "I need my beauty sleep."

Loki curled into Tony's space, twisting around him as he walked towards the kitchen. "Think you're doing just fine without it, pet."

Tony laughed and bumped into Loki's chest, tangling them together for a moment before he spun around and disappeared into the kitchen. Steve hovered awkwardly, then followed. Natasha had jumped up on the kitchen counter with an open pizza box in her lap. She offered Steve a slice when he turned the corner, but he shook his head. His stomach was churning too much with discomfort to manage food, and he didn't want to end up in the bathroom next to Bucky.

Tony followed her line of sight and blinked at Steve. "Who are you? I don't remember you being here last night."

"I wasn't," Steve said cooly. "Bucky is my brother. I'm here to pick him up."

Tony pointed at Natasha. "Your hot guy?"

She nodded. "That's Bucky."

"Oh yeah…" Tony snapped his fingers. He turned to grin at Steve and it wasn't kind. "You're the guy living deep in Narnia. I remember you from Sam's party."

Steve worked his jaw and shoved his clenched fists in his pocket. "What are you -?"'

"Don't worry." Tony poked him roughly in the chest and winked. "Secret's safe with me."

Heat flushed up under Steve's collar, but Tony turned his attention away, ignoring Steve completely as he fell back into flirting with Loki, recounting last night's "adventures." Steve was still trying to swallow back his panic when Bucky emerged, hair a rat's nest around his head. Natasha cooed at him and kissed his forehead then handed him a slice of pizza. Bucky tucked up next to her and took a bite then nodded at Steve. "You're either here very early or very late, pal."

"Odin's car lights are still out. I couldn't come get you last night. Sorry."

"That's alright. Thanks for coming at all."

"Had to make sure you were alright," Steve muttered. Bucky shot him a grateful look, but Tony scoffed, and Steve had to grit his teeth to keep from spinning around and socking him in the jaw. "Ready to go?"

Bucky's eyes cut over Steve's shoulder to Tony and he nodded. He finished his pizza and leaned in to say goodbye to Natasha. Steve slipped out of the kitchen, making for the door to wait in the hall. When Bucky met him at the elevator, he was grateful to see he was alone. "Got all your stuff?"

"Yeah. You okay, Steve?"

"I'm fine. Are we driving back separately?"

Bucky groaned. "Not sure I'm safe to drive yet." He gave Steve an apologetic smile. "But Nat said they'd have someone bring Mom's car back for us, so we can just take Dad's home."

"They'll just 'have someone' bring the car back. Jesus."

"Rich people," Bucky mused.

"No fucking kidding."

Chapter Text

Over the next two weeks, Bucky spent almost all his time with Natasha, and since that meant with Tony, and often with Loki too, Steve didn't see much of him. It wasn't until Angie came to stay, a friend of Thor's long distance girlfriend, that Frigga made Bucky stay home and spend time with the family. As annoyed as Bucky was to be bossed around, Steve was glad to get to see him. With school on summer break, Steve would usually get to see the most of Bucky, in between work shifts, but he only had eyes for Natasha. Steve was honestly happy for him, but it would have eased the sting if he had someone he wanted to date himself.

Angie had been roommates with Jane, Thor's girlfriend, their first year of college at Oxford, and now she was looking for somewhere to do her PhD. She'd had a nice offer from Harvard and wanted to check out the area. Frigga and Odin had jumped at the chance to have her stay with them, and it was only a few hours into dinner before it became clear why.

"Oh, how fascinating, Angie! Your thesis plan is so well thought out. I'm sure Harvard is very excited to have you. Steve was just telling us the other day how interesting he found his high school English classes. Stevie, what was your favourite book from Mrs. Ritter's class again?" Frigga gave Steve a too-bright smile that brokered no argument.

"Um." Steve looked to Bucky for help but he just shrugged. He tried to remember any of the novels he'd read for school. "I liked Great Expectations?"

Angie smiled and nodded encouragingly. "Dickens is wonderful. My focus is on Shakespeare though. I'm a sucker for drama. I hope to teach once I get my PhD."

"Bucky likes Shakespeare!" Steve pointed out, too hurriedly, and Bucky glared at him. But Odin gave Steve a firm look. 

"Wasn't your final essay about Much Ado About Nothing, son?"

Angie dipped her head to fork more mashed potatoes in around her held-back laugh. Steve flushed and wished right down to his core, that some day soon Frigga and Odin would find another outlet for their energy other than setting Steve up with every available woman in throwing distance. Angie was lovely, and smart, but very much not Steve's type in a rather inescapable way. 

"Maybe you kids should go get ice cream after dinner?"

"Okay, mom, sounds good," Bucky said, shooting Steve a look that said shut up and don't argue - I'm busting us out. "We can show Angie around."

Frigga and Odin beamed. 

Promising to show Angie a good time, they took Frigga's car into the city and met up at Nick's, a bar by the university where most of their friends hung out. It wasn't exactly an ice cream parlor, but they also weren't exactly kids anymore. Sam and his crew were already there, and Steve introduced Angie to everyone then grabbed a round of drinks. To Steve's relief, Natasha was busy, so Bucky came along, but Tony and Natasha didn't show up.

Angie and Steve attempted forced conversation for a few minutes, and he only relaxed when Bucky pulled her into a discussion about UK politics and they actually seemed to hit it off. The bar was pretty full - mostly with people Steve recognized, but there was a table at the back with a bunch of guys their age in dark leather that he was pretty sure he'd never seen before. He elbowed Sam. "Hey, you know those guys?"

Sam leaned back to look at them and one of them turned to look at the same time, meeting Steve's eye. Sam shrugged. "Nope. No clue."

After that, it seemed that every time Steve looked up, the same guy was watching him, dark hair, dark eyes, and a rough scrape of dark stubble across his jaw. Unable to sit still, Steve pushed up and walked over to the bar to get a refill. He was waiting, tapping his fingers on the bartop and forcing his eyes not to wander over to the back table when a shadow appeared at his side. "Hey."

Steve looked up to find the guy smiling at him, leaning back against the bar. He was devastatingly handsome and his eyes were fixed on Steve in a way he'd never experienced before: heated, interested. "Hi," Steve managed.

"You're friends with Natasha, aren't you?"

Steve tried not to sink into the disappointment. This guy was probably another of Tony Stark's strays. "I know her."

The guy smirked. "No love lost, huh? No worries. I feel the same way. I know her brother, Clint. We were in basic together."

"Oh. I haven't met him."

The guy brushed it away as unimportant. "Doesn't matter. It was only an excuse to come talk to you. Brock." He moved the drink he was holding from his right to his left and extended his hand to Steve.

Steve took it. "Steve."

"How very nice to meet you, Steve." His voice was rumbly and low, pitched just for them in the crowded bar. Steve couldn't stop his eyes from flicking down to Brock's mouth as he said his name, and Brock's smile deepened. His drink appeared on the bar by his elbow and he tore himself away to grab it. 

"Hey - sit with me for a minute? I'm new to the area, wanted to get the lowdown on things, and you seem like you know everyone. I'll buy you the next one."

"Sure." Steve followed Brock to a small table with high barstools in the corner by the jukebox. It was a bit quieter, and tucked away from the rest of the action.

Brock took a sip of the dark liquid in his glass. "So… you go to school around here or work?"

"School. I mean, I work part time at Shift Auto, but mostly school. I'm studying art at BU."

"Art? Wow. Got anything on your phone you can show me?" Brock's eye contact didn't waver and Steve was starting to feel deliciously light headed. This had to be more than friendly interest, right? He didn't know how to confirm that, short of just asking him if he was gay and that definitely wouldn't go over well if he wasn't. 

Instead, Steve pulled out his phone and flipped through his gallery until he found the shots of his end-of-term project, a sculpture. "The pictures aren't that great… but -" He handed it over. 

"No way. Wow! This is really good. You're super talented."

"Thanks. So what do you do?"

Brock shrugged. "This and that. I'm not smart enough to do something like this -" he waved the phone, still flicking through the photos "- so I pick up what I can. I was in the army for a while, but I got hurt, sent home. Been kinda aimless since then."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Thank you for your service."

Brock met his eyes. He held out the phone, and his fingers brushed the back of Steve's hand as he took it. "It was my honour. Really. Wish I could have stayed." His tongue darted out and touched his bottom lip then he glanced around and leaned in conspiratorially. "So what do you guys do for fun around here?"

"Sam hosts game day parties, if you follow baseball. We're all Sox fans around here."

"Sounds fun."

"Some of us play too, local league. Me and my brother Pietro are on a team, and my sister Wanda plays too."

"Ah, nice. Maybe I could come watch some time. I make a good groupie." Brock took another drink and when he set his glass down his foot twitched forward and bumped against Steve's leg.

"Other than that, not much. Uh… Tony Stark's been hosting a lot of parties, I guess. I don't really go to those. My brother, Bucky, he's kind of dating Natasha, I think."

"Ahh… hmm." Brock's smile twisted into a frown. 

"What?"

Brock shook his head. "Oh nothing. Natasha's nice. I get why he likes her. I don't know her super well, but we've met a time or two. Heard good things from her brother, obvious. You're - uh - friends with Stark, though?"

Steve snorted. "I wouldn't say that. We -" Steve coughed "- share some interests, but he's not a very nice person, is he?"

Brock smiled, and it wasn't at all kind. "No. He's really not. We actually grew up together - or at least around each other. He's always been like that. Thought he was too good to join the army, too good for most of the people who were his friends in grade school. He wasn't a bad kid, but when his parents died…" Brock shook his head. 

That twisted something deep inside Steve. "I mean… I know what that's like. Buck and me, we're adopted. Our parents died when we were kids."

"Ah. Sorry to hear that. It's not to say I don't feel bad for the guy, I do, but I happen to know -" Brock leaned over the table and dropped to a whisper "- that Howard Stark left a bunch of money behind that Tony was supposed to give to charity and he just didn't."

"Really? That's awful. Wasn't it in the will?"

"Nah, it was just a list, nothing official. He trusted his heir to take care of a bunch of things and Tony just blew it on his fancy lifestyle. On, you know, drugs and drinking and parties. I hate to say it, cause I know he's been through a lot, but Tony didn't turn out too great. Probably in desperate need of some therapy. I tried to convince Clint to talk Natasha out of hanging around with him, but he has her around his gold-plated finger."

"Jesus."

"Anyway." Brock leaned back again, and Steve found himself missing the closeness. "I hate to gossip. Just wanted to warn you, you know, since your brother knows him."

"No, yeah, I appreciate it. It's not like I was flocking to his side to begin with, but everything I hear about him is worse and worse."

"I saw some shit in the army, too. There were rumours, about SI weapons. They make fucking bank off them, you know, and they don't always care who they sell to. Shitstain of a company. And Tony just sits in his mighty tower and rakes in the dough."

"Does he even know what the company gets up to? I thought someone else ran it."

"For now. But he'll inherit it all someday soon, and he's shown no interest in changing tacks." Brock shrugged. "Like father, like son, I guess. At least Howard tried to leave behind some goodwill when he kicked it, but…"

"Shit."

"Sorry to bum you out. We should talk about something nicer." Brock bumped Steve's leg with his foot again, but this time, he didn't pull away, the inside of his calf stayed pressed against Steve's. "Unless you have to get back to your friends?"

"Oh no, they're fine." Steve looked over to see Angie and Bucky in heated argument over something and he smiled and shook his head. "See the girl with the brown hair? She's good friends with my brother's - my other brother's - girlfriend, who lives in England right now, while she's in school. Her name's Angie. She's real sweet, but she's single, so my parents keep trying to hook the two of us up. Thor's got a girlfriend, Bucky's got a girlfriend, I guess, Wanda and Pietro are too young, and all their older foster kids who moved out are settled and married. Some even have kids. So there's just me. Twenty-four and unattached. It drives them nuts. I keep telling them I'm fine, but they won't listen."

Brock looked at Steve pointedly then twisted his foot a little. Steve leaned into the pressure, holding Brock's gaze. "She's not your type, is she?" he asked gently.

Steve shook his head. "I can't tell them. Not yet."

"That's alright. Look, I get it. My friends know -" he gestured towards the booth where four guys were laughing "- but my unit in the army didn't. It's not something you can always just throw around so easily, you know? But that doesn't mean you shouldn't get to have a life. They don't have to know everything about you. They're not here now, are they?"

"No. No, they're not."

"You dated at all?"

"For real? No. Just pretended to date my friend Peggy to keep them off my back."

"Aww, come on, Steve. You gotta live a little." Brock reached across the table and covered Steve's hand with his. His palm was warm, skin rough, and it sent electric shocks up to Steve's core. "Let me take you out some time, yeah? Get the buzzards off your back for one night?"

Steve let out a heavy breath. "Yeah. Yeah, that'd be nice."

"Aright. Here's my number -" Brock reached for Steve's phone again and he pushed it across the table towards him, let him type his details into Steve's contacts. "Text me later. We'll set something up."

"Okay. Thanks."

Brock pushed up out of his seat and shifted around until he was standing between Steve and the rest of the bar. He was so close, Steve could smell his aftershave, spicy and masculine, and he'd never had an experience like this - with this much electric tension to it. He wanted to drown in it forever, but the butterflies in his stomach assured him he didn't have much stamina left to handle it. Brock held out his hand again, and Steve took it, letting himself be pulled to his feet and then into a hug. Brock's cheek brushed his. "It was really nice to meet you, Steve."

"You too."

"Text me. Promise. I gotta get back to the gang before they burn the place down."

"I will."

"Oh! And I owe you a drink, don't I?" He winked.

Steve grinned back, trying to ooze the confidence he didn't really feel. "I'll hold you to that." He watched Brock walk away, mouth dry.

Steve rejoined his table, fighting to keep his silly grin off his face. Bucky shot him a look, but didn't ask, and no one else seemed to notice he'd been gone. He tried to focus on the conversation, but his mind kept wandering back to Brock, his warm hand, and the brush of his breath on Steve's cheek.

Chapter Text

Angie and Steve walked side by side down the street, both on their phones. Steve had been texting Brock nearly constantly for the last few days, mostly about how exhausted he was that his parents wouldn't lay off him and Angie being a thing. They'd also set a date for later that night, which had Steve's stomach in a constant state of butterflies, the anxiety making his patience for his parents' nonsense run thin.

Angie had suggested they go for a walk, though, and that delighted Odin and Frigga, so Steve had agreed, as awkward as it was. Angie seemed less affected than Steve, and he couldn't decide if she was on board with their matchmaking efforts or not.

"So…" Angie said, after too much silence. "Are you going to ask me out… or?"

Steve choked on nothing. "Sorry?"

Angie laughed. "Your parents just seem really into us going out, and if you're not asking cause you're nervous, I'll let you know now, I'll say yes. So you don't have to be nervous."

"Oh, shit."

Angie gave him an assessing look. "Unless… it's not nerves that's stopping you?"

"Uh, no," Steve managed. "No, it's not nerves."

"Well, I understand the urge to resist what's being forced on you, but they seem well-meaning, if a little overbearing."

"They really are. It's not that either."

"Ah. Okay." Her face fell a little and she shoved her hands in her pockets.

"It's not that I don't like you."

"It's okay, Steve. I understand."

"No, seriously. I do like you, a lot. You're really nice and funny and…" Steve gestured towards her awkwardly, and Angie came to a halt, turning to face him. "I do like you."

"Okay… so you're just not attracted to me."

"Right."

She winced. "Fair enough."

"No! Not like that. God, I'm so bad at this." He just wanted to escape from this conversation, but there didn't seem to be a way out without either hurting Angie's feelings or revealing his secret. Angie seemed trustworthy though, and if he was ever going to come out to his parents, he needed more practice. "You're a girl," he offered, biting his lip and trying to beam understanding into her mind.

Angie narrowed her eyes at him for a moment. "I'm a girl… that's what's wrong with - Oh!" She snapped her fingers. "You're gay. Wow, that's a relief. I thought I'd lost my charm." She laughed then shook her head. "I'm just kidding."

Steve laughed too, some of the anxiety floating away. She said it so easily. "Yeah. My parents don't know, so… they keep trying to set me up. It's meant well, but…"

"I totally get it. I mean, I kinda don't cause my parents knew I liked girls from a very young age, so I never really needed to 'come out,' but even still it took me a bit to get the nerve to bring my first girlfriend home."

"You - but -?" Steve blinked at her. "Why were you trying to get me to ask you out, then?"

"Well, not just girls. I dunno. I like whatever." She shrugged. "I meet people and then I either like them or I don't. Never bothered thinking about it too much."

"Huh. Seems convenient."

"Maybe. But I'm not offended at all that you don't want to go out with me, honest. Even if you were straight, I wouldn't have been bothered. I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page. It was getting kind of silly."

"Life in my house is always silly." They started walking again and eventually reached the park where they sat on side-by-side swings. "So your parents really don't mind?"

"Eh." She shrugged. "I don't give them time to mind. I'm always jumping around. If they had any spare worry for who I was dating, I'd use it all on other things."

Steve barked out a laugh. "You're getting your PhD. That's pretty grounded."

"Yeah, we'll you're coming in at the end of the novel, skipping the whole bit where I want to be a famous actor for sixty years and refuse to consider any other line of work. They were pretty stressed for a while. But I like what I'm doing now."

Steve opened his mouth to reply, but his pocket vibrated with a phone call, and he pulled it out. "I'm sorry, it's my best friend and she's been out of town for a few weeks - do you mind?"

"Not at all." Angie waved him off.

Steve hit answer. "Hey, Pegs!"

"Steve! Oh my god, it's so good to hear your voice. I missed you so much."

"Me too! How was the trip?"

"It was awesome. But also long. I'm so glad to be home. I love my family, but, Lord, they can be a lot. What about you? How are things?"

"Well - actually quite a bit has happened. I sort of met someone…"

"Steven Grant Rogers!"

"I know. I also met Tony Stark."

"Holy shit. Look, you'd better come over. I want to hear everything and I hate the phone."

Steve looked over at where Angie was rocking back and forth idly on the swing. "Is it alright if I bring a friend? She's cool. She's just staying at my house and I don't want to throw her back to the lions quite yet."

"She? They bringing dates all the way to stay at the house now?"

"Almost. We'll explain when I get there."

"Sure, no problem. Bring Bucky too."

"Ahha. Can't do that, I'm afraid. He's with his girlfriend." 

"His what?! Come quick. I was totally fine, but now I need the gossip like a hit of heroin."

"You got it, Pegs." Steve hung up and went back to Angie. "Hey. My friend invited us over. I think you'll like her. It's okay if you don't want to go, but I thought that might be better than back into the warzone alone."

"Oh sure! I'd love to meet your friend. Sounds good."

"It's close enough that you can walk back if you want."

"Perfect." Angie shot him an honest grin.

It was only a few blocks to Peggy's house. She had the upper floor of a shared house, and Steve led the way around the back and up the deck steps to a slider. He knocked and Peggy appeared. "Steve!" She opened the door and then her arms and he rocketed into her, scooping her up off the ground and spinning her around. She clung to him and laughed, and it was such a deep relief to have her back.

"God, I missed you." Steve pressed a kiss to her cheek.

"Me too."' Peggy looked around him then paused, and Steve saw something entirely new come over her face. Her lips parted, then she tucked the bottom one between her teeth, eyes going wide. "Hi."

Steve stepped back. "Peggy, this is Angie. Angie is a friend of Jane's. She's checking out Harvard as an option for grad school, and the Borsons said she could stay with us."

Peggy extended her hand and Angie shook it. Something silent passed between them and Steve looked back and forth between the two, trying to decipher the message. "Nice to meet you."

"You too."

Peggy got them all settled on her couch with coffee and cookies, and Steve dove into the local gossip. He told her about Tony Stark and how rude he was, Natasha and Bucky, and then about Brock, which was news to Angie too. 

"We've actually got a date in…" Steve checked his watch "- an hour."

"Oh my god!" Angie clapped her hands together. "You have to get ready."

Steve laughed. "There really isn't anything to do to get ready. It'll take twenty minutes to get there. We're going to a movie. Probably grab a drink after."

"At least go brush your hair," Peggy said, shoving Steve towards the bathroom. He took a moment to run damp fingers through his hair and check for any obvious turn offs. He swished Peggy's mouthwash around and spat it out then stepped back out into the bedroom. Angie and Pegs were sitting on the bed giggling together like hyenas, and Steve crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe. 

"You want to stay here, Angie? I can pick you up on the way home from seeing Brock."

Angie looked to Peggy who nodded. "Yeah, that'd be great. If you end up wanting to stay out -" she winked "- I can walk home."

She and Peggy fell into giggles again. 

They all talked about Peggy's trip until it was time for Steve to go, then he kissed Pegs on the cheek and waved goodbye to them. The drive to the movie theatre was high tension. Steve wasn't sure what it was like dating, and dating a man no less, and he felt too old to be discovering it all now. If he embarrassed himself in front of Brock… it wasn't like there were a lot of fish in the sea, not when you were into a very specific sort of fish like Steve was.

But Brock was waiting for him when Steve arrived, and he smiled and pulled Steve into a hug. "Hey, Steve. How are you? I'm glad we made this work."

"Me too."

It wasn't awkward. Steve told Brock about Peggy, more about Angie, and about him and Bucky growing up. Brock told him some stories about the army, and then the movie was starting, and they settled in, sharing a huge bag of popcorn. The movie was a generic action flick, and Steve didn't dislike it, but his attention kept wandering to the man beside him. Everything about him was alluring, from the way he smelled, to the way he leaned over into Steve's space, holding the popcorn towards him instead of hogging it, and shooting him little smiles at breaks in the action.

After, Brock asked if he wanted to go across the street to a bar on the corner, and Steve agreed. Brock led the way to a booth at the back, sliding in on the same side as Steve, and throwing his arm across the back. "Did you like it?"

"Yeah. It was fun. You?"

"It was alright. Some of the fighting was unrealistic, but that's Hollywood. I enjoyed being there with you, though. I think they're making a sequel."

"Guess we'll have to go to that one, too." Steve smirked, and Brock grinned into his glass.

They shifted closer and closer as they talked, Brock's hand dropping from the back of the booth to rest on Steve's shoulder and toy with the collar of his shirt. It was thrilling, but also so easy. Having all of Brock's attention on him was so new and so exciting, and it was wound through with a thread of jealousy that other people had this figured out so much earlier.

But he had it now, and it was going so well - his first real date, and it was a dream date. 

When Brock leaned in a little, Steve twisted to face him and reached out to rest a hand on his chest. His stomach exploded with butterflies as Brock bent down more and brushed his lips against Steve's. Steve gave into it, leaning in and parting his lips, inviting more. Brock took it, sliding their noses together as he pressed into a deeper kiss. It was Steve's first kiss beyond the "tester kisses" he and Peggy shared as teenagers, trying to figure out what they wanted, which turned out to be "not each other." But this - this he did want. Very badly. He pushed closer into Brock's space, until he felt his heat from head to toe. Brock's tongue flicked across Steve's bottom lip and let loose another rush of butterflies. 

When he was very short on breath, Brock shifted back a hairsbreadth and smiled at Steve. "You're good at that," he murmured.

Steve hummed and stole another kiss, making Brock laugh.

"Come back to my place?" Brock asked.

A big part of Steve really, really wanted to say yes, but he knew he wasn't ready. "Not tonight, sorry." Brock looked disappointed but not too bothered. Steve took a handful of his shirt and pulled him close again. "Raincheck, though?" he whispered against his lips.

"Absolutely."

When their drinks were done, Steve stole a few more kisses outside the bar then watched Brock walk off to his bike, parked on the corner. He started her up and shot Steve a wave before pulling away. 

Steve trotted across the street to Frigga's car, heart pounding, full of so much new feeling that he wasn't sure what to do with it all. In the car, Steve pulled his phone out to text Angie and let her know he was coming, but he had three missed texts from her and one from Peggy.

Angie: Pegs invited me to stay all night - is that okay?
Ange: Think I might have stolen your best friend actually, sorry.
Angie: Shit. Cancel that. I'm in love!!!

Peggy: <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Chapter Text

The house was dark when Steve slipped back inside, his parents and the twins long gone to bed. But there was a little light leaking under Bucky's bedroom door, so Steve slipped into the closet and rapped on the divider.

"Stevie?" Bucky called out, so Steve shifted the divider and crawled through the hole. 

"Hey, Buck."

Bucky was in bed, but he had his laptop out and his bedside light on. Steve threw himself across the foot of his bed with a groan.

"How was your date?" Bucky poked him with his foot.

"I got kissed."

"Steve! Shit. Get it."

"I really like him. He's hot and funny, and we had a really nice time. And then at the bar after the movie he just kissed me and then we really got into it. Fuck. It was really hot."

"That's awesome, bud. Maybe if you guys get serious it'll be easier to tell the parents? You can bring him over for dinner and then at least you'll be happy and with someone instead of just gay and alone."

Steve burst out laughing. "Yeah, maybe." But it was hard to imagine Brock at his parents' dinner table. Steve liked him, but he had a feeling Frigga and Odin might not see him as their dream son-in-law. For some reason, he couldn't picture Brock in the back throwing around a ball with Pietro. 

It didn't matter, though - this wasn't about them, it was about him. And if he let his family run all his decisions, he'd never get to be himself. 

"How was your night?"

"Awesome. Natasha is incredible. I know she comes off kind of cold at first, but she's really warm and lovely once you get her on her own. Get to know her. And I think she really likes me. She might be the one, Steve."

"Wow." Steve sat up and stared at his brother. "Really?"

"Yeah, yeah. I mean I can't know for sure, yet. But…" He shrugged, and, possibly for the first time in his life, a flush of pink coloured his cheeks. 

Steve fell back across the bed, grinning now. "Oh, Pegs is back. She wants to see you. Get this - I left Angie at her house."

"Oh yeah? They hit it off?"

Steve shot him a look. "Uh, yeah. Like really hit it off."

"You're kidding?"

"Nope. Might never get Angie back, actually."

Bucky laughed, deep and unrestrained. "Oh my god, Stevie. Only you could get rid of a potential suitor by marrying her off to your fake girlfriend."

**

It was the last weekend before school started again, so everyone in the entire area gathered at The Lodge to say goodbye to their freedom. Tony Stark volunteered to foot the bill for his friends, and somehow that included Bucky, and by extension the rest of the Borson kids. Wanda and Pietro had told Frigga and Odin they were going to a friend's house, then begged Thor so relentlessly to take them to the party that he had agreed. The Lodge wasn't exactly known for being too diligent with IDs, but the twins had fakes anyway. Steve wanted to be disappointed, but he probably would have done the same thing at their age, and he left it up to Thor to make sure they didn't get into too much trouble. Tony had also volunteered a fleet of town cars to tote them all around, and Steve felt a bit of petty justice in planning to use it, instead of being his usual polite self and declining. Besides, that meant he could drink, guilt free. 

The club was loud but in a nice way that rumbled through Steve's chest and dark enough that he didn't have to worry about who was looking where. Steve had been handed a few shots right off the bat, and he was halfway through a followup beer, so he was feeling pretty relaxed pretty soon after arriving. 

Tony was there, but Steve made sure there were a few people he knew between them so he was able to talk to Sam and Riley and ignore him. As the alcohol hit them, their group trickled onto the dance floor, a few couples disappearing into back hallways and bathrooms. 

Peggy dragged Steve towards the dance floor, and he'd had just enough to drink that he went without a fight. They bounced around as a group, laughing and shaking in the pressing crowd. When Angie pulled Peggy into her arms and they drifted away, Steve took his chance to slide back towards the table, but as he stepped off the dance floor, he bumped into a familiar chest. 

"Hey, Narnia." Tony grinned like a shark. "Where you going?"

"To sit down for a bit."

"But you look so good out there, if a bit lonely. Dance with me."

Steve resisted the urge to sneer. Tony hated him, why would he want to dance together now? But he didn't want to be straight up rude, especially when they were all here on Tony's dime. "I'm pretty tired…" Steve managed.

Tony leaned in close. "I'll re-energize you," he breathed. He smelled like tequila. 

"You're drunk."

"So are you." Tony took Steve by the wrist and steered him back to the dance floor. "It's just a dance, Narnia. Don't freak out."

"I'm not -" Steve huffed. "I'm not in the closet, okay? It's just my parents…"

Tony laughed unkindly. "Sure. Whatever you need to tell yourself." Tony wrapped his arms around Steve's neck and all but climbed him, steering them both into the thickest press of the crowd. 

Tony was a good dancer, Steve couldn't begrudge him that, but all he could think about was how awful it was that he hadn't been able to come up with a decent excuse not to dance with him. It didn't matter how hot Tony was, or that he rolled and grinded against Steve in a way that lit up certain non-thinking parts of him, because Tony was a dick, and all Steve wanted to do was escape. 

"Did you grow up around here?" Tony shouted, pressing even closer to make himself heard.

"What?" Steve asked, not because he hadn't heard, but he couldn't believe Tony Stark was trying to make small talk right now.

"Did you grow up here? In Boston?"

"Oh. No. I was born in New York. My dad left before I was born and my mom died when I was three and Bucky was four. We've been in foster homes all over the east coast, sometimes together, sometimes apart. Never for very long. Til the Borsons, that is. Been here since I was, uhh, eleven." Steve said it almost defiantly. Take that, Tony Stark. You want ammo to mock me? Here is the worst of it. He and Bucky had both been bullied brutally all the way through high school. He'd built up a pretty good suit of armour, over the years.

But Tony just nodded. "It sucks. To lose them. It's good you got to stay together, though. I would have killed someone if they'd tried to take my brother away."

Steve remembered with a guilty thump of his heart that Tony was an orphan too, and much more recently. "I didn't know you had a brother."

Tony immediately lit up. "Yeah! Peter. We try to keep him out of the press, but he's incredible. He's sixteen and he's looking at MIT already. That's why I'm here. Or supposed to be why I'm here. He was going to come stay with me and see if he liked my alma mater, liked the area. But he got into this summer science program in Germany so he can't make it." Tony shrugged. 

"You seem to be making the most of it."

Tony burst out laughing then bounced to the beat and pushed them back into dancing again, spinning around with his hands in the air to lean back against Steve. It was heady, to be dancing so wildly with a guy, but discomfort pounded on alternating rhythm with the bass line. 

Steve made it through a song and a half before he slipped out of Tony's hold. "Bathroom!"  he yelled over the pounding music, and Tony just shook his and laughed, then turned and barnacled himself to someone else. In the hall by the stage, Steve was finally able to take a breath. It was a little quieter here, behind the speakers instead of directly in front of them, and a bit cooler too. 

"Hey there, hot stuff." 

Steve opened his mouth to tell Tony to fuck off this time, but it wasn't Tony grinning over at him. It was Brock. Steve grinned, relieved. This was who he wanted to be dancing with. "Hey, you. Didn't know you were coming tonight."

"I didn't know either, or I would have invited you. But luckily, you're already here." Brock stepped closer and Steve reached out and pulled him into a hug. Then he slumped backwards against the wall again, drawing Brock with him, and they folded together, Brock's leg tucked between his and he braced one hand on the wall next to Steve's head. "What are you doing over here?"

"Just taking a breather. We can go back to my table, though. I'll buy you a drink?"

Brock hesitated, eyes cutting back to the crowded dance floor. "Who are you here with?"

"Uh. All my siblings - Wanda and Pietro are underage, but to no one's surprise, they have fake IDs and they insisted on coming - as well as Sam's group and all of Tony's group."

"Tony Stark is here?"

"Yeah. He invited us."

Brock bent in and pressed his lips to the side of Steve's neck. "Sorry to be a buzzkill, but Tony Stark is kind of the last person I want to see. He - uh -" Brock leaned back and sighed, eyes cutting down to the floor. "He kind of treated me like dirt in high school. Bullied me a lot. I know it's petty to still be bothered by it, now, I should man up and just get over it, but he still makes me feel kind of shitty, you know? Sorry."

"No, no, that's okay." Steve cupped the curve of Brock's jaw and ran his thumb through the rough scratch of his beard. "I don't want you to feel uncomfortable. It's not like I particularly enjoy his presence either." He smirked up at Brock from under his eyelashes. "We could just hang out right here?"

"You've got a bit of a naughty streak, don't you Steve?"

Steve tugged them close together and whispered, "You bring out the worst in me," then kissed him. The dark and the noise of the club made Steve feel bold, and he pushed the kiss dirty as fast as he could, sighing when Brock pressed him up against the wall and ran his hands under the edge of Steve's t-shirt. He was sweaty from dancing, but Brock let the cool air flow up his back, drawing patterns with his fingers on Steve's skin. 

Steve was just considering ditching the others and cashing in his raincheck, when a loud thump, followed by a roar of the crowd drew his attention. He pulled away from Brock, lips tingling. "What was that?"

Brock shrugged. "Who cares?"

But Steve sighed and levered himself away from the wall, backing Brock up out of his space. "Thirteen years of experience have taught me that if there's a loud noise or a gathered crowd, it's probably -" a familiar shout broke free from the din, and Steve rolled his eyes "- Thor."

Brock half-laughed, but it was awkward and stilted and he stepped back a few more steps, smoothing out his hair. "You really think your brother is causing a fight or something?"

"That's probably exactly what's happening." Steve straightened out his clothes. "I should go see what's up."

"Why don't you just let him handle his own shit? He started it. Not your problem."

"He might need help. He's my brother."

Brock shrugged. "Not your real brother."

Steve shot him a look, but Brock wasn't looking back, his phone in his hand. Steve shook it off, leaving Brock in the hallway to go see what the Borsons were up to. He found Bucky trying to pull Thor off a tall, broad guy in a baseball hat. Behind him, Wanda and Pietro were shouting, trying to shove their way into the fight. 

Steve immediately waded in, catching an elbow to the jaw right away. "Hey! What the fuck is going on?!"

"Oh look, it's Raggedy Ann!" said the elbow, turning to reveal one of the assholes who had tortured Steve all through high school.

Steve pulled his fist back then slammed it into the guy's nose at top speed.

Chapter Text

Starting the new semester with a black eye wasn't the most embarrassing thing Steve had ever done, not by a long shot, but he still hunched down in the back of the classroom with his hat pulled low over his face. 

Possibly the most embarrassing thing about the whole thing was that Tony had been the one to get the bouncers to rip apart the fight, and Tony had been the one to pour the entire, inebriated, Borson family into a car and send them home. Steve had been just sober enough to catch the exasperated look Tony had shot Natasha as they pulled away, and it stung, low in his belly.

Not because he cared what Tony Stark thought of him, not at all, but because it sucked to live up to everyone's shitty expectations, over and over. Couldn't let a bunch of wild foster kids loose at a club without starting a fight. Nevermind that some dickwad had grabbed Wanda's ass and tried to get her to dance with him. 

Steve sighed and leaned his chin on his elbow, wincing when both parts of him twinged with pain. At least he healed fast; this wasn't his first rodeo.

"So as you know," Professor Hill went on, "this class is limited to people who qualified for the Artists of Tomorrow Grant, or those that paid the travel fees for themselves. The purpose of this class will be to get real world work experience in the form of a commissioned portrait. Now. This year, we have a selection of CEOs, politicians, and other high profile people, who have volunteered to be included in the program. You'll be spending three weeks in either DC, Seattle, Chicago, New York, LA, or Miami, where you'll be going through the entire process of designing, prepping, and completing a commission for your assigned person. You'll also be sitting in on local art classes while you're there. 

"The pieces are not due until right before Christmas break when we'll have our gallery presentation, you'll get your marks, and then the pieces will be shipped to their recipients. So the three weeks of travel is for you to get everything you need to be able to finish the piece. It's fine if you don't finish it there, in fact, we encourage you to take your time and do the best piece you can, but if you need reference pics, layout or colour approvals, sketches, thumbnails, anything, you have to do it while you're there. This is a test of your planning and business skills as much as it is a test of your art skills. Questions?"

Hands shot up, but Steve kept his down flat. He'd been over the program guide again and again. He knew everything there was to know about the program, except the most important things: who he'd be painting and where. 

When he'd won the grant last year, it had been the most exciting thing he could imagine doing, but now that he was here, facing it, his stomach churned with nerves instead. He'd been on his own before, but he had to be on his own and professional this time, and if he screwed it up, not only would he get a bad grade in a class he couldn't retake, but he'd miss out on important connections that would help him get ahead in his desired career. 

Sometimes, he felt silly, wanting to be an artist, when he was lucky to get to go to school at all. It felt like an indulgence, one he couldn't afford, to try and make his way in such a competitive field, and one that often led to poverty. But he was used to being poor, and Frigga and Odin had insisted that he follow his passion, so nerves or not, he was going to make the most of the opportunity he'd been given.

Professor Hill finished explaining the timeline - they had four weeks of classes here and then in the beginning of October, they'd head out to their assigned locations - and that led to the most nerve-wracking part of the day: finding out who they were assigned to paint.

"I'm going to call you out in alphabetical order and you're going to come up and pull a slip from this fish bowl, here, cause I'm old-fashioned like that. Every year someone asks me why I don't do it with a randomized list on a computer, and if you're that person this year, I'm moving you to the end of the list. Nina Arnott!"

Nina trotted up to the front and pulled a strip out of the fish bowl. "Marcie Andrews!"

Steve's anxiety kept him squirming as Professor Hill worked her way through the alphabet. By the time she got to Rogers, there were only a few strips left in the bowl. Steve shuffled up and snatched out the first one his hand touched. He opened it and stared.

Obediah Stane.

"What?" 

Hill looked at him firmly. "Who is it, Mr. Rogers?"

"Um. Obediah Stane." Steve crossed his fingers and hoped to god that name wasn't familiar for the reason he was dreading it was.

Hill made a note on her clipboard then waved him back to his seat. Steve dug his phone out under the desk and googled Stane.

It was exactly as he feared. Stane was the CEO looking after Stark Industries in Tony's stead. He'd been best friends with Tony's father for many years and agreed to keep things running while Tony "did a little growing up." Steve found a press conference from when Stane took over and played it with the sound off and subtitles on, keeping his hat low as the rest of the class went fishing for their assignments.

"Tony's very young and he's been through a lot of trauma. We all felt it was best that he have time to grow and heal before this immense pressure was put on his shoulders. At twenty-five, he'll come into ownership of his father's and mother's shares, and he'll have his seat on the board. Until then, I'm happy to keep the lights on." Stane grinned saccharinely at the flashing cameras, then waved and stepped away from the podium. Steve closed the tab. So that was who he'd be drawing. And that meant he'd be traveling to Malibu. 

Well, at least there was finally one good thing about having Tony Stark in Boston - it meant he wouldn't be in LA.

**

"That's my seat!" Wanda whined, and Pietro stuck his tongue out at her. "Mom!"

"Buckle your seatbelts," Frigga said, clearly distracted by fiddling with the radio. 

Steve took an elbow to the ribs and shot a look to Bucky then he turned and pushed Wanda down on the seat. "Sit down! Or we can't go." She huffed and crossed her arms, but after a brief tussle with Pietro over seatbelts, finally settled in. What had started as Bucky going into the city to see a Ted Talk on campus had exploded into the entire family going. In classic Borson nature, everyone had announced their desire to tag along, and now was making it as difficult as possible to actually leave the house.

Eventually, though, the whole gang was settled and clipped in, and Odin pulled away from the house. The talk was being hosted on BU campus, and Steve gripped the edge of his seat, teeth gritted, as Odin pulled out onto the highway at approximately two miles per hour. He shot a look at Bucky who sighed. Frigga didn't seem to notice, still flicking through radio stations fast enough that it just sounded like clips of static over and over.

They were just pulling into event parking, when Frigga finally settled on the same station she always settled on and pulled out her knitting bag. She blinked up at the lot. "Oh, we're here. Lovely."

The family piled out, Pietro pinching Wanda's arm as he pushed past her, making her squeal, and they all made their way towards the auditorium. 

"Remind me what this is about, love?" Frigga wound her arm through Bucky's and he patted her hand.

"The future of automotive technology," Bucky said. 

Frigga made a vague, interested noise. "Lovely."

"Self-driving cars, Ma."

Frigga laughed, and Steve fell back, letting the others get ahead. He pulled out his phone and texted Brock. Stuck with my family for the night. What are you up to?

Brock didn't text back so Steve put his phone away and shuffled in with the rest of the crowd, finding a seat near the front. It took to Borsons ages to find seats they liked, complaining loudly, shuffling around and re-ordering, and Steve shot a look of sympathy to the group in the row behind them. 

Steve's phone buzzed. Not much. Just hanging out.

We're at the Ted Talk at BU if you want to join us, Steve said boldly, heart racing. He wouldn't have to introduce Brock as his boyfriend, he wasn't even sure if Brock really was his boyfriend yet, but then at least his parents could meet him.

Oh, yeah, maybe.

Steve waited for more of an answer, but it didn't come.

"Oh, Lena!" Odin exclaimed, leaning over his seat to wave down a woman another row away. "How are you! How's the baby?!" 

The woman waved back and started shuffling her way out of the row, so Odin stood up and Steve had no choice but the exit the row to let Odin out to talk to his friend. Instead of sitting down again, when it'd clearly be a while before Odin returned - they'd be lucky if they got him seated again before the talk started, to be honest - Steve walked down the aisle towards the stage.

"Oh, ha, it's Narnia. What are you doing here?"

Steve turned sharply to find Tony Stark leaning back against the stage, smirking. "Thought it sounded interesting," Steve muttered, his back up. He knew he should thank Tony for rescuing them at The Lodge last week, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. "What are you doing here?"

Tony laughed. "Helping run it. Alternative energy sources is what I'm doing my PhD on. Well, this PhD, anyway. Half the shit they're presenting today is my research. Wanted to make sure they said it right."

God, he was so insufferable. Steve made to turn and walk away, but then an arm fell over his shoulders. "There you are, son. Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?"

Steve squeezed his teeth together. "This is Tony Stark, Dad. Tony, this is my father, Odin Borson." Though, of course, Odin had known who Tony was when he came over.

Tony extended a hand. "Nice to meet you." His smile looked entirely insincere to Steve.

"So, interested in all this car stuff, are you, Tony?"

"You could say that," Tony drawled.

"I think it's a bit silly, myself," Odin went on, without really seeming to listen to Tony. "There's no way robots can drive our cars better than we can. It takes a human to make split second decisions like that."

Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes. At the speed Odin drove at, nothing was split second. "Tony's probably got to get back to -"

"But I suppose it interests you kids, wanting to text your friends at every red light. You know, when I was a kid -"

"Dad! It's starting soon. We need to sit down."

"Oh, yes, alright. Nice to meet you, son, glad you're enjoying Boston!"

Steve ushered Odin away, but he caught Tony rolling his eyes as he turned back to the stage and his heart clenched. Sure, Odin was a bit… dad-ish, but he was still Steve's father and he hated feeling embarrassed on his behalf. He certainly wasn't going to give Tony fucking Stark the benefit of embarrassing him.

He shoved Odin back in his seat and sat down himself, pulling his phone out. Actually, Tony Stark is here. You'd better not come.

Brock texted back a few minutes later, Ok. 

When Steve looked up, Tony was standing by the stage with none other than Loki, their faces close together, giggling. When they both look over in his direction, Steve dropped his eyes to his phone and sunk down in his seat.

Chapter Text

It was another two weeks before Steve got the chance to see Brock again. He was already writhing with anxiety about his trip to California, and it had been long enough since he'd seen Brock that when he got a text saying Come over, he was instantly writhing with anxiety about that as well.

He knew what going to Brock's place was likely to entail, and it wasn't that he didn't want that, he did, it was just that at twenty-four he sort of felt like he'd missed his chance to throw away his virginity lightly. Besides, Brock had experience, and Steve didn't, and that in and of itself was stressful. He wanted to be good at all this stuff, but it felt so out of his grasp all the time. Even locker room talk - if there was any hope that any of it was true - had always been about girls. 

But still, he wanted to see Brock before he left, and it wasn't like agreeing to come over was locking him into agreeing to anything else. It was totally possible to Netflix without the chill.

He texted back that he'd be there in half an hour, changed his clothes, and let Frigga know he was going to a friend's house. She'd assume Sam or Peggy's, but he texted Bucky where he was really headed, just in case. He took a cab, despite not really having the money for it, and it dropped him off outside a high-rise apartment building.

I'm here. Do you need to buzz me in?

There was no immediate reply so Steve went to the front lobby and looked. Sure enough, the door was locked. He stood around, waiting, until his phone finally chimed.

Back door by the parking lot is propped open. Fourth floor. 408.

Thanks.

Sure enough, after picking his way around the building, Steve found the door in question, a brick stuffed at the bottom to keep it from locking. He slipped inside, making sure not to dislodge the brick, and trotted up the stairs. 

408 was at the end of the hall, but Steve could hear voices as soon as he stepped out of the stairwell. He hoped, uselessly, that it was another apartment the noise was coming from, but he wasn't surprised when he reached the door and it was clear the laughing and shouting was coming from 408. So much for getting some alone time with Brock before he left for LA.

Steve knocked, but no one answered, so he pushed the door open and came face to face with one of the guys Brock went biking with, his leather HYDRA jacket on despite the heat in the cramped apartment. Steve shot him a half-wave and wandered around until he found Brock on the living room couch.

Brock stood as soon as he saw Steve standing there. He curled an arm around his waist and drew him in. "Hey, babe!"

Steve deftly turned Brock's attempt at a kiss into a chaste cheek peck, trying to will away his blush. He was still adjusting to being out at all. PDA was still a bit of a stretch, not to mention PDA in front of all Brock's friends, most of whom he barely knew.

Brock didn't bother introducing them, though, pulling Steve down on the couch beside him and continuing a conversation he'd been having about a video game Steve had never heard of. He settled in against Brock's side and tried to look interested. A few minutes later, the guy on his other side bumped him with his elbow and held out a burning joint when Steve looked over.

"No, thanks," Steve said quietly.

"Come on, man, it'll help you relax."

"I'd rather not."

Brock snorted, his attention back on Steve. "Yeah, don't bug him. He's too good for that shit," he said, reaching over Steve's lap to grab the joint. He tucked it between his lips.

"I didn't say that," Steve mumbled, but no one was listening to him. Brock's hand curled around Steve's thigh, fingers digging in a little bit.

A familiar name in the chatter caught Steve's ear and he snapped his head up.

"- saw Tony Stark downtown the other day. What a cunt."

Brock turned towards them too. "What'd he say to you?"

"Not much." The guy shrugged. "He'd parked that dumb as shit Ferrari across the bike parking so I told him to move it and he told me to suck his dick." He scoffed. "I ain't a faggot."

"Dude." Brock chucked a beer cap across the room and it bounced off the guy's head.

"Shit. Sorry, man. You know I don't mean you."

"Watch your goddamn language."

He held his hands up in front of him. "I just mean, Stark's a dick."

"Well, I can agree with that," Brock said, knocking back the rest of his beer. He stood and gestured at Steve with the empty bottle. He nodded, not wanting to be labelled the worst prude in all of Boston, and Brock wandered off then came back with two. He slung his arm around Steve's shoulders and tucked his fingers in the neckband of his shirt. 

Eventually, a game of Mario Kart was started, and Steve managed to nurse his single beer long enough that no one offered him another, managed to pass on the joint - and the harder stuff - as it made the rounds, and only got sucked into playing one game before he was able to pass the controller on. 

He'd only been there a few hours when the feeling of something crawling up the back of his spine just became too much. He liked Brock, but he didn't like his friends, and he was distinctly uncomfortable, something Brock didn't seem to have picked up on. It was scary enough when he thought this was just going to be the two of them, but then at least he could have been himself. Steve leaned over to whisper in Brock's ear. "I have to go."

Brock turned to him with a pout. "What? No. stay. Come on. I'll kick these losers out and give you all my attention. I've missed you."

Despite Steve doubting that it would happen, he was wiped out and just wanted to be alone. "It's okay. I just have a lot of work to do to prep for my trip. I'll call you this weekend, though. Maybe we can get dinner or something."

"Alright." Brock leaned in again, and this time Steve let him steal a kiss, his skin heating as he imagined everyone in the room turning to watch. But when he pulled away, no one was paying them any more attention than they had been before.

Steve said goodbye and slipped out of the apartment. His stomach fluttered with confused butterflies as he trotted down the steps. It'd been hot inside but it was cool outside, autumn nip creeping in, and he pulled his jacket close around him and started the long walk to the nearest bus stop. 

He liked Brock a lot, but not all of the time, that was the hard thing. His friends were okay, in their own way, but Steve felt awkward around them, and Brock provided no buffer. He was openly gay which was incredible, new and exciting and tantalizing, but he didn't seem to understand how new it was for Steve, pushing him faster than he was ready. 

It was confusing, and a little frustrating, but he couldn't deny that before he fell asleep at night, a lot of the time, his mind wandered back to Brock and what it'd be like to really let go with him.

But for now, he had his trip to worry about, so boyfriends would have to wait. He'd call Brock on the weekend and hopefully get to see him the next week, and maybe when he got back from LA, everything would make more sense.

Back at the house, he found Bucky sitting on his bed, curled up around his phone.

"What's wrong?"

"Nat left."

"What?!"

"Yeah. She and Tony left town two days ago, apparently. I've been texting her but we've both been busy and she hadn't texted back in about a week. So I went over to the apartment to make sure everything was okay, and Loki was there, packing up his stuff. He told me that Tony had left and taken Nat with him and that he was leaving too. Nat also apparently has a boyfriend - no scratch that - a fiance I didn't know about. Loki assured me that I was 'fun' but she never took me seriously." Bucky tipped forward until he was facedown in his pillow.

"Shit, Buck, I'm so sorry."

He rolled to the side and held his phone out towards Steve. "So then I did some googling and found this."

Steve took the phone and read the article on the screen. It was from one of the sleazier celebrity gossip tabs.

Tony Stark and his entourage were seen hitting up L.A.'s club scene this weekend. Looks like Boston has lost its appeal. The prodigal son returns - and we can't wait to see what he gets up to this time!

Attached was a dark, blurry picture of Tony and Nat, arm in arm, walking out of what looked like a nightclub.

"Fuck. That sucks." Steve didn't think Bucky was in a place to commeserate over the other reason it sucked: Steve was on his way to Malibu and now Tony would be there too. He kept that to himself until he'd shared some of his candy stash with Bucky, tucked him in, and slipped back into his own room. "God dammit," he hissed to himself. Then again, L.A. was a big city, and Tony didn't seem that interested in Stark Industries. Maybe he never visited Obie. Maybe Steve still wouldn't see him. Tony especially had no reason to want to see Steve, after Natasha had treated Bucky so badly. 

So it would be fine. He'd go to L.A., he'd do the painting, Stane wouldn't even know that Steve had met Tony, and when he got back to Boston, he'd never have to think about the Starks ever again. 

He dug his phone out and texted Brock. I'm leaving for my trip in two days - do you have time to hang out?

Brock didn't text him back.

Chapter Text

Steve tapped his fingers on the armrest as the rest of the passengers filed onto the plane. He'd flown a few times, but he wasn't really a fan, and he'd never done it by himself. He'd always at least had Bucky with him.

Speak of the devil, his phone buzzed in his lap. Steve swiped his phone open and clicked on the link Bucky had sent with the message "Sorry…"

It was an Instagram photo from The Lodge last night and someone had tagged Brock in it. He was dancing with a guy Steve didn't recognize and it looked like they were doing the Tongue Mambo Number 5. Steve stared at it forlornly for a while then backed out of the app. He texted Bucky back.

Steve: It's not like we were exclusive or anything.

Bucky: Just doesn't seem like your kind of guy, pal.

Steve: Yeah, I know what you mean. Can't blame him for playing the field, though. I haven't exactly been fun to date, lately.

Bucky: You okay?

Steve: Yeah. It's fine. I just want to focus on school.

Bucky: Alright. You still owe me an ice cream and beer night when you get back. For both of us, crossed in love.

Steve: You're on.

The plane started chiming and the AC powered on so Steve told Bucky they were taking off and put his phone in airplane mode. The flight wasn't too long, and Steve spent most of it listening to music and sketching nervous doodles over a few pages of his sketchbook. The school had arranged for the travelling students to be put up in dorm rooms at local art colleges, and Steve took a cab to Otis College where the student coordinator showed him to his room. She knocked and a man a few years younger than Steve opened the door. He had a cheeky smile and immediately put his hand out to shake.

"Sam. Nice to meet you, man."

"Steve. Sorry to barge in."

"Nah, it's cool. I had a roommate, but they dropped out. Not like it's a single. Mi casa, and all that." Sam gestured Steve into the room and he set his bag on the bed that was clearly unoccupied. "So this program is portraits or something?"

"Yeah. I have to paint a corporate portrait for Obidiah Stane."

"Holy shit."

Steve let out a heavy breath. "I know, right."

"Well, at least it'll look good on a resume?" Sam offered.

"Yup. That's the idea."

"Well, I'm pretty laid back. Just please don't eat peanuts in here - I'm allergic - and pretty much anything else goes. If you're bringing a girl back, put a sock on the door."

"That won't be a problem," Steve shot back before he could think about the implications.

Sam quirked an eyebrow. "Got a girl back home?"

If he was going to come out to his parents, Steve needed to get used to coming out to strangers. "Nope. Had a guy, but I don't think it's going to work out. As it stands, I'm not really looking to date." He tried not to hyper focus on Sam's microexpressions, but every muscle in his body was tensed, waiting.

"Ah, that sucks. Hope it wasn't too serious?"

Phew. "Nah. We were just having some fun, but I think he was interested in a little more fun than I was."

"Bummer. I got out of a four year relationship when I moved here for school and he moved to France. I've only really dated casually since."

Steve opened his mouth at he and couldn't seem to close it again.

"Don't look so surprised, man," Sam said with a laugh. "This is art school." That just set Steve off laughing too and before long both of them were camped out on Sam's bed, watching a movie. There was something intensely comforting about Sam's presence, similar to the way Bucky or Peggy made Steve feel. Like he understood everything about Steve fundamentally and easily, without judgement, so Steve never had to package or alter the way he presented himself. He was in another state, where no one knew him. He could be whoever he wanted to be, absolutely freely. That thought made the pressure of tomorrow a little easier, and when Sam invited Steve to go to dinner with his group of friends, he felt perfectly comfortable saying yes and tagging along.

Steve woke early the next morning and took a shower then got dressed. He'd struggled to find a balance between looking presentable and wearing something he could get paint on, but he'd found khakis at the thrift store and he folded up an overshirt in his bag to pull over his button-down once the paints came out. He moved a few sketchbooks and the rest of his supplies to his tote bag, folded his travel easel into his carry case and slipped out of the room while Sam was still snoring. 

Stark Industries had arranged for a car and Steve fidgeted in the back all the way over to the company headquarters. He was made to wait in the vast, imposing lobby for almost half an hour before a harangued looking aide collected him and brought him to to the top floor of the building. The aide knocked them opened the door. "Mr. Stane? The artist from the college program is here for your sitting."

"Ah, of course, let him in," rumbled the same honey-smooth voice Steve had heard in the press conferences he'd watched. 

Steve stepped inside and forced himself to walk up to the desk and extend his hand. "Steve Rogers, sir. It's an honour to meet you."

Obidiah Stane smiled benevolently. "Rogers. Welcome. Come on in and have a seat." Stane gestured to the chair opposite his sleek, modern desk. "What an opportunity this must be for you." He steepled his fingers in front of him. "Now, I really want you to learn from this experience, so I'm going to treat this like a business transaction, okay? I think it's important that you young people learn how to handle the business world. I know art seems like a hundred miles away from the kind of thing we do here, but it's all about pitching yourself, right? So why don't you go ahead and pitch yourself to me, Steve."

Steve gaped across the desk, scrambling for something to say. He should have prepared something, but it hadn't occurred to him. "Well, I'm - uh - I brought my portfolio. I think my work speaks for itself, sir." He tried not to look as terrified as he felt.

Stane held out a hand. "Alright then. Let's see."

Steve fumbled his bag open, pulled out the wrong book, shoved it back in, and pulled out his prepared portfolio. He handed it over. What if Stane didn't like him, said no? Was he allowed to do that?

Stane flipped through the book, expression unreadable. Finally he turned the last page and folded his hands over it. He smiled. "You're very talented Mr. Rogers."

"Thank you, sir."

"Are you a hard worker?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. You're going to have to be. Alright, let's get started. How do you want me?"

Steve spent the next ten minutes fiddling with lighting, his position, and Stane's position. He set him up in such a way that he could see his computer screen and even type without moving too much. Steve took as many reference photos as he dared, though he'd have to take more when the light was different, and set to work on his base sketch. Stane continued to work.

At first, Steve was stewing in too much anxiety to give Stane any direction, but when he got stuck on the position of his arm, he cleared his throat. "Sir? Would you mind moving your hand to the left? Just for a few minutes?"

Stane obeyed. "Like this?"

"Perfect. Thank you." Steve hurriedly worked out that section of his piece. "Okay, that's good."

Stane returned to his emails.

The rest of the day went by in a blur of sketching and erasing. Before he knew it, Stane was ushering him out of his office. Steve went back to campus and collapsed into bed. Sam turned up an hour later and they played video games until exhaustion took over and Steve nodded off. The middle of the week was spent in classes at Otis. Sadly, none of Steve's classes were with Sam, but they spent the evenings hanging out or going to get wings or fries with his friends. It made Steve miss Bucky a little less, having someone like Sam to talk to, but he still texted his brother constantly throughout the day.

He also texted with the rest of his family. Wanda and Odin were in endless conflict, these days, arguing about almost everything. Her teenage fury propelled her to talk back no matter what, where her brother was more likely to just sulk around playing video games and ignoring everyone else. When Steve wasn't in Stane's office working on his piece or hanging out with Sam, he was putting out fires at home, getting Thor to take Wanda out and entertain her or letting Bucky vent about the chaos the house was in.

Painting Stane was exactly as stressful as Steve had expected it to be, and it didn't help that two full days a week, he sat in Stane's office and listened to him work. More than once, Stane sent him out of the room for a sensitive conference call, but there was a lot Steve haplessly eavesdropped on, and most of it was lip curling. He had no fundamental issue with a weapon's manufacturer - though it seemed like there were better things SI could do with their money than simply make more weapons - but Stane was all about profit and nothing else.

Steve had always heard that you could judge a man by how he treated his waiter, and while Stane was schmoozy and sweet-talking to the other board members, his military contacts, and the department heads, he was rude, snappish, and dismissive with the girl who brought him coffee, the kid from the mail room, and at least four different junior engineers.

Steve was starting to see where Tony's attitude came from, raised around this guy, by a guy who could be best friends with someone like this. Over the next two weeks, Steve sat in on a lot of uncomfortable conversations, his painting slowly taking shape as he bit his tongue.

"Well, it's run by the charity now, sir."

Stane frowned at the man in the chair opposite his. "So? It's just money, Landley. Handle it. We'll be improving the area."

Steve snorted. "If by 'improving' you mean knocking down the last affordable housing in the area and pricing out all the people who have lived there for generations."

The room went very still and quiet and Steve stared at his painting and wondered if he could claim the fumes were addling his brain. What on earth had he been thinking? He'd just let his thoughts roll right off his tongue.

"You have an opinion, son?" Stane asked, with the air of a teacher who was about to make someone stand at the front of the class and embarrassing himself.

"No, sir. Sorry."

"No, no," Stane said, mock-graciously. "By all means. Share your worldly wisdom with us, Mr. Rogers."

"I just - I grew up not far from that part of Brooklyn, the area you're building in, and for a lot of people that housing complex is all they can afford. If you turn it into SI offices, they won't have anywhere else to live."

Stane leaned back in his chair, then he smiled patronizingly. "Well, son, I'm afraid that gentrification is going to happen whether we buy the property or not. This company not only helps keep our soldiers safe, but also stimulates the economy. We'll be creating jobs. We'll be paying taxes that pay the welfare cheques those people are currently mooching off of. They're going to be priced out anyway - doesn't help us any to miss out on getting a foot in the door just to let some people live cheaply in an area where in two years they won't be able to buy groceries. Understand?"

"Yes, sir," Steve gritted out. "I'm sorry for interrupting."

"Maybe we should call it a day. I'll be in and out of meetings for the next few hours."

"Alright." Steve hastened to pack his things, nearly smudging his painting as he rushed to get his brushes gathered up. "Goodnight, sir."

That night, he paced back and forth across Sam's tiny room, with Bucky on speedial, and vented about Stane - nothing that would get him in trouble with the NDA he'd just signed, but everything else. Sam was mostly focused on his video game, occasionally murmuring "Amen," or "you tell 'em," when Steve got particularly riled up, and as far as he could tell, Bucky wasn't listening at all, but it still felt good to get it off his chest.

When he was done, Bucky called out, "Hey, get him drunk, will you?" to Sam, and Sam obliged.

**

Steve woke up with a start and fumbled for his phone. He'd forgotten to turn his alarm on for his last day at Stane's, but thankfully he'd only overslept by ten minutes. He scrambled out of bed and the lump of blankets that was Sam groaned. Steve got ready in a whirlwind and blasted out of the dorm and into the waiting car.

At the office, he flashed his badge and took the elevator up. The edges of a hangover were creeping in now that he was standing still, but it wasn't anything that two Advils and a glass of water couldn't stave off. He was feeling pretty good about his progress with the painting. A few more weeks with the reference photos and he'd be done. Besides, as much fun as LA had been, and as interested as the classes were, he certainly wasn't going to miss the sittings in Stane's office. He was looking forward to this one being the last one. He barreled through the door to Stane's office after a perfunctory knock. He could hear voices, but assumed Stane was on a call until he stepped inside and saw two people standing by Stane's desk.

"Ah, just in time. Rogers, there's someone I want you to meet. This is my son, Ty, and his boyfriend - practically my nephew, though not by blood -" Stane chuckled "- Tony Stark."

Chapter Text

Tony looked as startled as Steve felt. "Oh my god, it's Narnia!" he said. Ty and Stane both looked at him, but he didn't elaborate. Tony shoved his hand towards Steve. "How's it going?"

"Um. Fine. Nice to see you, Tony," Steve said as politely as he could muster, shaking his hand perfunctorily then releasing it.

Tony sniggered, like he knew Steve didn't find it nice at all. Ty's arm was thrown around Tony's shoulders but he reclaimed it to offer his hand to Steve. "Nice to meet you, Rogers, was it?"

"Yes. Steve Rogers. Nice to meet you, too."

Ty set Steve's teeth grinding immediately. There was something about him, something smarmy and stuck up - much like his father - that irritated Steve right off the bat. His first thought was Tony deserves him but it was followed up by a twisted feeling in his stomach that was either guilt or indigestion. He didn't like Tony very much, but god this was such a depressing environment to grow up in. So oppressive and controlled. And rich. 

Stane dropped his hand to Tony's shoulder and squeezed. Steve could see his fingers dig in hard enough that Tony winced. "Where are you boys headed tonight?" he asked.

Tony shrugged, sliding out from under Stane's grip with the movement. "Dunno yet."

"You should take Mr. Rogers with you. I'm sure he doesn't know anyone here."

"Oh, actually the guy I'm rooming with -" Steve started, but Tony cut him off.

"Yeah, sure. Come with us, Steve. You don't want to be shut up in this musty old office with this relic all night." Stane laughed and tousled Tony's hair. "We'll show you a good time."

"You don't have to do that," Steve muttered.

"Now, Steve," Stane said. "You're never going to get ahead in business if you don't learn to be gracious to your host. It's quite a kind offer from Tony and Ty. Not everyone gets to see LA with the heirs to the Stark Industries throne, do they?"

"No, sir, they don't. Thanks, Tony. That would be nice." Surely, Tony wanted Steve to come along as much as Steve wanted to go along, so as soon as they were out of Stane's hearing, he could back out. 

"Great. We've got some shopping to do, but we'll come back and pick you up at the end of the day."

"Alright." Steve sat back on his stool, putting brush to paper again. Tony and Ty exited, bumping shoulders and whispering together, Tony no doubt giving Ty the lowdown on how he knew someone like Steve. Steve's focus was half-split the rest of the day, but it hardly mattered. He'd worked out everything he needed to, and combined with his reference photos, he'd be able to finish the painting from home. As five o'clock approached, Stane shook his hand and told him he'd better go get ready.

Steve didn't have time to go back to the dorms, and he didn't have Tony's number to text him and tell him to pick him up there instead, so he changed back into his street clothes - jeans and a faded, blue button-up - in the SI bathrooms and washed off as much paint as he could manage.

Tony met him in the lobby with a crowd of people, including Loki and Natasha, who Steve said a stiff hello to then proceeded to ignore. Thankfully, Natasha didn't seem that interested in talking to him either, turning away to talk to the tall, fair redhead Steve hadn't met yet.

Tony introduced everyone hastily as he ushered them outside to where two cabs were idling. Steve bit back the urge to say he was surprised it wasn't a limo and instead, told him, "You don't have to bring me, you know. Stane wanted you to, but I don't mind if -"

Tony tipped his head like a curious golden retriever puppy. "This is your going home party, though! Wouldn't be the same without you. Come on." He pushed him towards the cars.

"Where are we going?" Steve asked as they packed too tightly into the back of one of the cabs,  Tony snugged up awkwardly against his side.

"To The Cockpit!" Ty proclaimed from the front seat, to both Steve and the driver.

It took a full three minutes after having his ID checked and crossing through the curtain into the club for Steve to realize that The Cockpit was a gay club, though his cheeks flushed when it hit him how very obvious that should have been. It was at least eighty percent men, and most of them were dressed wildly, skin and glitter flashing on all sides as they danced and laughed together. Steve tugged at his shirt, aware that he was overdressed, but knowing he wouldn't be comfortable in… leather straps, either.

He broke away from Tony's group and made for the bar. This kind of thing called for liquid courage. The bartender was a tiny woman with neon green hair and fake eyelashes that looked like they took immense eyelid strength to hold up. She was so short, she needed to stand on a box to reach the cash register, but she was yelling, waving bottles, and mixing drinks with confidence, even as the raucous crowd pushed close and tried to catch her attention.

She caught Steve's eye and hopped up so she was gripping the edge of the bar, holding herself at eye level. "First time, sweetie?"

Steve grimaced. "That obvious?"

She laughed and nodded. "What-da-ya want?"

"Rum and coke?"

"No problem." She mixed the drink then took a tube of lipstick out of her pocket. She smeared it roughly on her lips, somehow haphazard and yet not disrupting her careful look at all. When Steve handed over a ten, she hopped back up on the bar and leaned over to press a kiss to his cheek, no doubt smearing her lipstick across his skin. "There! Now you look like you belong. Have fun, honey! You're only young once."

Steve laughed with her, her enthusiasm infectious and tipped his glass towards her in salute. "Thank you!"

Steve found Tony again, opting for the asshole he knew over risking talking to any of the gyrating, scantily clad strangers filling the club. Tony saw him walking over with his drink and pulled away from the group, catching him before they were within hearing distance. "It's okay, right?" Tony asked, looking surprisingly uncertain, like Steve's answer really mattered. "Cause if it's not, we can go. If you're not going to have fun here."

Briefly stunned by Tony giving him the power to oust them, Steve blinked for a moment then shook his head. "No, it's fine. It's… it's actually kind of nice. If a bit overwhelming. But I like the idea of being…" Steve didn't know how to finish the sentence. The pounding of the music was heavy in his chest, but he didn't flinch when his eyes caught on the planes of a beautiful chest or the sway of masculine hips. He didn't feel the need to grit his teeth and look away here.

"Yourself?" Tony offered, and Steve ducked his head.

He felt invited here. "Yeah."

"Yeah, I thought this might be a good fit. But, uh, if you meet someone who wants to take you home, just let me know first? Kinda responsible for you not getting murdered in the back of a cab."

"Sure. Unlikely, though."

"We have onion rings?" Tony gestured towards the table.

"Much more my speed." Steve took a seat and a mozzarella stick and tried to show an interest in the conversation. Tony had moved to the other end of the table, so Steve found himself sitting with James - who everyone seemed to call "Rhodey" - Pepper - which apparently was a nickname, but no one had mentioned her real name, so Steve assumed it was alright if he called her that too - and Clint, who turned out to be Natasha's brother.

"You're from Boston, right, Steve?" James asked, turning the group's attention on him.

"Oh. Uh, yeah. I live out in the suburbs, but I go to school in the city."

"I miss, Boston," he said. "Tony and I had good times there. I almost died on a daily basis, trying to keep him out of trouble, but it was good times."

"Yeah, I bet he was a handful," Steve said, imagining Tony passed out in bushes or sneaking out of other guy's dorm rooms late at night with his clothes on backwards.

James leaned back in his chair, fingers laced behind his head. "Oh, he was. It was hard enough getting him to eat in the lab. Getting him out of the lab to, you know, socialize, and relax, and sleep, was almost a full time job."

"The lab? Figured he'd have been out every night having fun. He didn't party back then?" Steve took another mozzarella stick.

"Oh, god no. I mean this is all just showing off for you -" James waved at the club as if Tony had summoned it into existence. "And for the paps. Mostly that kid just works twenty-four seven. I once found him asleep under the centrifuge and he couldn't remember anything that had happened in the last three days. What Tony lacks in self-preservation he makes up for in work ethic. One might call it obsession, actually. Only thing Tony loves more than solving a science problem is that kid brother of his."

Completely at a loss for what to say, Steve chewed his food and nodded, trying to look like that revelation was completely at odds with the Tony he knew.. 

"He seemed to be doing a fair share of partying in Boston, though," Clint supplied. "Nat told me there was a fight at a club. Ended up all over Twitter, too."

"Well, that was started by that guy she was really into." Pepper popped a fry in her mouth. "Apparently, someone said something mean to his sister and he just went fists flying."

"Tony did a good thing for her, getting her out of it," James supplied.

"What?" Steve asked. There was no way they were talking about Bucky, was there? If they were, they didn't know he was Steve's brother.

"Oh, yeah," Pepper explained. "Natasha fell for this guy while they were in Boston. I know she seems really cool and put together, but she was head over heels for him. Texts about him were just a bunch of emojis. But the guy was one of those, you know. She's as rich as she is beautiful so…"

"So, Tony made sure he wouldn't get the chance to gold dig," James finished confidently. "He's a good friend."

"He broke them up?" Steve asked. His heart was pounding in his chest.

"Oh yeah. Loki was on board with them breaking up too," Clint added. "He looks out for Nat. Anyway, they gave her a talk, helped her see how one-sided the whole thing was and by the end of it, she was booking a plane ticket back here. She doesn't fall often, but when she does, she falls hard. I worry about her."

Steve felt sick, but he couldn't show them how affected he was. He took two big gulps of his drink, focusing on the way it burned down his throat. "Well, you must be rich too," he said to Clint with as friendly a smile as he could muster. He just wanted to change the subject. "Don't you have your share of gold digger stories?"

"Oh no, the money's all hers. We're half-siblings. Her mom was a Russian ballerina princess or something and left her all her riches when she died. Our dad was pretty useless so I get nothing!" He laughed. "But she takes care of me. So does Tony. If anything, I'm the worst gold digger of them all."

Steve forced out a hollow laugh. "I'm sure she doesn't mind taking care of you. You're her brother."

Clint grinned and tipped his glass towards Steve then took a sip.

James leaned forward to call across the table. "Hey, Tones! How's the solar panel thing going?"

Tony shrugged. "Pretty much done."

"Are you showing it to Obie?"

Tony waved James off, and Steve had the impression this was a well-trodden argument. "Nah, he doesn't care."

"Tony -"

"I'm gonna save it, okay Rhodey? I won't scrap it. But it's gotta wait."

Ty curled an arm around Tony's shoulders and drew him in close. "You gotta stand up for yourself, babe."

Tony shrugged again and brought his beer to his lips. "It's fine, Ty."

Ty sighed dramatically then stood up. "Dance with me?"

"Yeah, alright." Tony took his hand and let himself be led away. 

Steve's gaze followed them out onto the dance floor when Natasha and Loki joined them, watching the four twist and spin around each other. Tony had broken up Bucky and Natasha on purpose. It was like a bucket of ice water being tipped over him. Just because Bucky was poor, Tony had assumed he couldn't make Nat happy, that he was only with her for the money. It was horrible. Steve had the visceral urge to march across the club and slam his fist into Tony's nose, but apparently that too would end up in a magazine, which would almost certainly get back to his school somehow. He'd be lucky if he wasn't expelled. 

So Steve forced himself to grip his drink and stay where he was, the exhilarating fun of his first gay club doused into sullen retreat. He sat close enough to James, Pepper, and Clint that he looked like part of their conversation, but he stopped listening, just rolling the news over and over in his head. Nat had liked Bucky, maybe even loved him, and Tony and Loki had just decided he wasn't good enough. 

Steve nursed his drink, refusing another when James offered. He was relieved that James didn't push, merely accepted his no and went off to the bar with Pepper for a second round. Clint was on his phone, and Steve - embarrassingly - was so distracted by a gorgeous, shirtless man dancing on a raised platform beside the bar that he didn't notice Tony slipping into the seat next to him until he spoke.

"It's hot out there."

Steve startled and turned sharply to find Tony grinning at him. Steve made a non-committal noise.

Tony followed the path his gaze had been making and his grin turned sharper. "See something you like?"

Steve shrugged. "Just admiring the scenery," he said briskly.

When Tony didn't reply, they sat in awkward silence for a while, Tony picking at the label on someone's beer. Steve wanted to ask him about Bucky, wanted to accuse him, demand an explanation, but he knew he wouldn't be able to without the conversation getting heated and he couldn't risk it. Not here.

"So Ty's your boyfriend?" Steve asked, for lack of anything to say, when Tony didn't leave.

Tony grinned. "Jealous, Narnia?"

Painfully, he kind of was. Not that Ty was in the place he wanted to be in, but that they were so comfortably out and so recklessly enjoying each other. "No. Just trying to make conversation." Steve sighed. "It seems like a good match, I guess - you'll both be running SI someday?" Plus Ty seemed like a prick so he and Tony deserved each other. 

Tony shrugged. "Ty isn't my boyfriend. We've been on again off again since puberty, but our parents wanted us together so badly that I never seem to know whose idea it was to be on-again."

"And right now?"

"Off. He's dating a Victoria's Secret model, but he won't tell his dad that so he lets Obie believe we're still together. Obie thinks it's frivolous for him to fuck around but who gives a shit? We're young, right? Not going to be able to have fun, soon, better have it now."

"I guess…"

"And, you, my dear, have had next to no fun at all. Come dance with me."

"Tony…" Steve warned. 

But Tony didn't heed it; he grabbed Steve's hand. "Come on!"

Not wanting to start something, Steve let himself be led away. He actually hoped that the anonymity of the dance floor might give him a chance to ask Tony what the fuck he was thinking. The loud music and flashing lights would hide an argument from prying eyes, and it got them away from Tony's friends, who would surely turn on Steve in protection of Tony.

But Tony didn't lead Steve to the centre of the dance floor where things were dark and loud and busy. He guided him around the edge, close to where the man was dancing on the platform and pushed himself bodily into Steve's space, his hands grabbing two fistfuls of the front of Steve's shirt.

"God, look at this thing," Tony said, this thumb rubbing over one of the buttons. He ground forward. "You are so fucking straight-laced."

Steve opened his mouth to argue, but Tony pressed in closer before he could, bringing their mouths mere inches apart. "Come home with me," he purred. "I can show you stuff you wouldn't believe. You know you want it."

Steve stared, completely at a loss. "You're drunk," he tried, almost desperately. But Tony's voice was steady and his eyes were clear. His body was an unavoidable heat grinding up against Steve's and he wanted to pull away, but he couldn't, not without dumping Tony on the floor or tripping over his own feet.

"Come on, Steve." Tony backed them up, away from the stage, until Steve's back hit the wall, and Tony's hand landed next to Steve's shoulder. "You're going back on Saturday. No one needs to know. Let me give you a proper sendoff."

No one needs to know. Like it'd be so horrible if someone found out that Tony had deigned to sleep with someone like Steve. Why was he even asking, if Steve was so beneath him? Even Steve had to admit that someone as handsome as Tony didn't need a nice personality to pull at a club like this. "You don't even like me."

Tony shrugged. "I don't have to like you to give you the best blowjob of your life. Look, I'll admit we make no sense at all. We come from completely different worlds. Can you imagine the articles they'd write about us? But… I can't get you out of my head. It's - I don't know. But I need to get you out of my system, Rogers. This is the only way I can think to do that. And I can certainly make it worth your while." Tony laughed sharply. "Don't worry, I'm good at staying under the radar." He shifted even closer. "No one has to know…"

"What are you talking about?" Panic was crawling up Steve's throat and twisting his tongue. He was so confused. Tony hated him - why on earth would he want to have sex with him? Was it a trick? A plan to humiliate him somehow?

Tony's expression twisted into sheer frustration. "I can't get you out of my head! Just - just - come on. Have a little fun for once in your life. Come home with me. Let me treat you good. I'm really good," he added, almost desperately. He pushed closer again.

Tony's breath on Steve's cheek snapped him into action, panic crashing into anger. "Are you fucking kidding me?" Steve braced both hands against Tony's shoulders and shoved, startling him enough that he staggered back several feet. "You couldn't pay me to go home with you, Stark. I could maybe forgive how disgustingly rude you've been to me and my family, I could even look the other way on all the horrible shit I've heard about you - how you were a rich, entitled bully in school, how shitty you were to Brock, the charity donations. But I will never forgive you for breaking my brother's heart. I thought Natasha left because she didn't like Bucky as much as it seemed like she did, but I found out it was you. You told her to leave, to ghost Bucky, not even so much as say goodbye. Fuck you, Tony Stark."

Something almost like hurt flashed across Tony's face then whipped away just as fast. He jutted his chin out and sniffed sharply, turning away from Steve and back towards the crowd. "Yeah, okay. Whatever. You're right, it was a stupid idea, anyway. Suit yourself."

Steve watched Tony walk away.

Chapter Text

From: tstark@starkind.com
To: stevearts@uboston.com
Subject: Please read this before you delete it

Steve -

I got your email address from Obie from the art program thing. Don't worry, I'm not stalking you or something. I got the message loud and clear last night that you find me utterly repulsive. And you're on a plane by now, anyway, so you won't have to see me again. There's just a few things I need to clear up from the last time we talked and I'm pretty sure if I called you, you'd hang up on me.

You should read this email, though, if not for me, then for your own good. Seriously.

First of all, when it comes to Nat, I won't apologize. Everyone I talked to told me Bucky was good with the ladies but never dated them for long. I don't want to go into a bunch of detail, but when Nat and I met, she was in a really shitty place and the last thing she needs is some fuckboy hanging around trying to get her to buy his drinks. It happens everywhere we go. And I could tell Nat really liked him, but he didn't seem that into her. He followed her around and went to all the parties and stuff but he didn't say anything to her about something more serious, and when I saw hearts in her eyes, I got really scared. She's hot and she's rich; no one is genuine with her. And that's not even mentioning what a shitshow your family is. Thor literally can't leave the house without getting in a fight, your parents are unbelievably loud, the twins are totally unmanaged, and even you and Bucky feel like a PR bomb waiting to go off. If Bucky really did like her and was serious about dating her, it didn't show. And I'd rather embarrass myself than let Nat suffer so I told her it was probably best if she got off the hook and Loki agreed. Besides, last we talked, he hadn't texted her in like two weeks. I get that he's your brother, but come on. If someone had treated him like that, you would have told him to get out too.

As for the other thing, the Rumlow thing… I feel like I should be surprised that he told you I bullied him in high school, but I'm really not. If I did, it was only in retaliation for all the bullying he did. Brock has been an asshole from day one. He spent all of high school getting high and driving too fast. A kid even ended up in the hospital when he rolled his mom's van, but nothing bad ever happened to Brock…

I'm about to get really fucking personal, but I think you need to know this if Brock is going to be in Boston, hanging around your people. 

My parents died three years ago in a car crash. Peter was thirteen, I was eighteen. I fought to keep guardianship of him and I won, on the condition that I hire a fuckton of care for him and his grades stay good, etc. That's never been a problem for Pete - he's smarter than me, and that's saying something. I had just finished getting a few master's degrees, so I went back home to help Pete grow up. Obie let me tinker in the SI labs. 

Pete hit That Teenage Stage, and he got kind of distant, but it was to be expected. Poor kid had lost all his parents and was fast tracked in high school - two years younger than his classmates. He talked about a "Brock" now and then, but I didn't realize at the time that it was the same Brock who'd been a grade lower than me when I was there. He'd stayed on a few extra years, cashing in that school for all it was worth. I was worried, but it seemed like normal teenage stuff.

Then, just before Pete's sixteenth birthday, I got a call from the hospital. Pete had OD'd on LSD, had a seizure, and some of his "friends" had dumped him at emerg. I won't get into all the dirty details of what it's like to find out that your happy, loving, A+++, kid brother is in the hospital for taking too much of a drug you didn't think he'd ever touched. I feel like you can imagine that well enough.

He recovered, and he came clean to me about everything. I found out that his friend Brock was Brock Rumlow, who had built a posse of kids to follow him around, sell his drugs, and spend their money on him. He'd gotten Pete into a whole slew of things, none of which were good. I got Pete cleaned up, paid a huge sum of money to have his hospitalization stay out of the press, and brought him home. He promised never to talk to Brock or his gang again, and I believed him.

But he's a teenager, and teenagers screw up. This time, it wasn't the hospital - it was jail. And that was where I made a decision that I still wonder about every day. I had the money and the power to get the kids out without a record (I know you're rolling your eyes right now and muttering "rich people" to yourself, so I'll just give you a second to get that out of your system), but if Brock went to trial, Peter would have to be involved. There was no way to leave him out of it, but no case against Brock if Pete wouldn't testify. 

I covered it up. All of it. I gave Brock money to fuck off and told him the next time I saw him, it would be in hell, and I sent my kid to rehab, and I put it behind us. Brock blew the cash, joined the army, and left town, Pete got clean for real this time, spent the summer at science camp with kids his own age, and came back a new person. Or rather, the old person he used to be before our parents died. 

I was terrified that this one story would haunt Peter forever. That the fact that his parents were famous would mean this one mistake would get dragged out everytime he went anywhere, all through his school years, when he tried to get a job - forever. And I know what that shit is like, and I couldn't bear to see him go through it.

I wonder all the time if I made the right choice, and seeing Brock hanging around Boston, not even scared enough of me to keep out of my way, makes me wonder even more. I'd hoped that the army might teach him some self-discipline or something but...

If you don't believe me, you can ask James Rhodes. He's my best friend, sure, but he'd never lie for me ( warmachine88@gmail.com ). Or, if you really need it, I can show you a copy of the arresting officer's report. I have the only one and I keep it in a safe. I can trust you won't sell it to the media, partially because I don't think you're that kind of guy, but also because you're smart enough to know that I could ruin you completely. And I will, if you come for my brother. You know what that feels like. I know you do.

Anyway, I guess it's unlikely we'll ever see each other again, but I just couldn't stand the thought that Rumlow - that absolute shitstain - was out there telling lies about me, and by proxy, lies about Pete. Loki said you two were going out at one point, so maybe you'll believe him over me, but maybe that also means you've seen what he can be like. He starts out nice…

Take care of yourself.

Tony

Steve stared at the computer screen in horror. He read it three times, all the way through, his heart crawling up into his chest. He believed it. He didn't want to believe it, but he did. He slammed his laptop closed without reading any more of his emails and dropped his head between his knees, hands over his face. 

He'd kissed that asshole, had his tongue in his mouth. His stomach rolled. It probably said something, which he should have realized earlier, that it was so easy to believe all that of Brock. He'd kissed him. He'd been ready to do other things with him too. All because Brock had smiled and given him attention, the male attention he'd craved so much, and he'd ignored all the red flags like an idiot. He groaned into his hands.

The door bounced open, and Steve heard Bucky's footsteps cross the floor. "Hey, what's wrong? I came to ask if you wanted to quit unpacking to play ball. You sick?"

"I'm not sick." Steve pulled himself out of his hands and met Bucky's eyes. "I just… I got the craziest email from Tony and now I feel like shit."

"He emailed you? Oh my god, obsessed much? I'm gonna kick his ass. What a dick - can't take no for an answ-"

"No, Buck. No. Not like that. Look, I - just - here." Steve opened his laptop again, brought up the email and turned the screen to face Bucky. He watched Bucky's face transform as he took it in, eyes scanning back and forth. Finally, he stepped back and ran his hand over his face, whistling. "Holy shit, Steve. Do you believe it?"

"I do. I really do. I don't know why he'd lie about something like that, especially when it puts Peter at risk to get it out there at all. It must have been a hard email to send…"

"Not that you care what he thinks," Bucky offered.

"Just because I don't personally like him doesn't mean I want his brother to suffer, Buck. Besides, if there's one thing I got to see in LA it's that the rich playboy thing is a harder reputation to carry around than I was giving him credit for. But it hardly matters - what do we do about Brock?"

"I don't know. Should we tell anyone?"

Steve pondered it. "Tony didn't give me permission to tell anyone else. And I'm sure he's scared for Peter. If the gossip starts getting around, and then Peter comes here for MIT… I don't like putting him in that situation. But without names and dates, we can't really prove anything. No… I think we have to keep quiet. I can make it clear that I know, if I ever see him again, and maybe that'll make him think twice about acting up. It was years ago, anyway. I know some of his friends are still into drugs, but maybe he's clean. At least with the hard stuff. I've seen him smoke weed, but that's it."

Bucky snorted. He sat down on the end of Steve's bed. "I doubt it."

As they sat, mulling that over, Steve watched Bucky's expression shift from incredulous to heartbroken. "Hey, Buck, I'm really sorry about Nat."

"Shit. Me too." He scrubbed at his face. "I don't know if I should be pissed at them or pissed at me. I wanted to tell her how much I liked her, I really did, I just… I'm not good with words."

"I know. It's okay. He was way out of line deciding that for her, but I kinda get his perspective. I just like to think, if it were me, I would have asked you first, before deciding to implode her relationship."

"The only thing I don't get is why Tony said I hadn't texted her for two weeks. I texted her almost nonstop up to her leaving, but she stopped writing me back." He sighed. "I guess she didn't want to talk to me anymore so she told Tony I wasn't texting. Easier to write me off that way than give a reason why she wasn't into me." Bucky's face fell further. "Damn."

"I'm so sorry."

He shrugged. "It happens. Don't think I'm going to date for a while, though. Not really feeling it."

"Me neither." Steve wrinkled his nose. "Maybe never. That'll show the Borsons."

"Oh, god. They think I'm still seeing Nat. Please don't tell them otherwise."

"No way. If I have to suffer them, you have to, too."

Bucky laughed. Then he pointed to the laptop. "So we're keeping this to ourselves?"

"Yeah, for now at least. I'm glad you know, though. It was too much to hold in on my own."

Bucky stood and clapped Steve on the shoulder. "Wanna play ball then? Put this whole Tony Stark nonsense behind us? I'm ready to move on."

Steve nodded, accepting Bucky's statement at face value, though he could still see the way talk of Natasha made his shoulder curl in and his brow furrow. They went out to the field in the park down the street and played ball - the twins and Bucky vs Steve, Thor, and the kids down the street, until their breath clouded in the cold air and even the light from the streetlights wasn't bright enough to see what they were swinging at anymore.

Chapter Text

The holidays came and went and Steve had to focus on his second semester of schoolwork. With his commission course over, he had twice the workload and every spare minute he had was spent on thumbnail sketches, colour theory, and anatomy studies. He'd unfollowed Brock on all his social media, but every now and then, when he lay awake in the dark, unable to fall asleep, he'd slide open Brock's instagram and flip through photos of him having fun with other people. 

Brock had texted him, a few days after Steve got back from LA, and he'd just texted back I have to focus on my schoolwork. I think you're a bit too much fun for me, and Brock seemed to get the hint because he hadn't texted again. Steve couldn't lie and say he didn't miss the attention, but even if Tony had blown what Brock did out of proportion, Steve still didn't want to touch that mess with a ten foot pole. It wasn't like Brock had never tipped his hand and shown his shitty side; the more Steve thought about it, the more he believed, and the more his stomach rolled at the thought of Brock's tongue in his mouth, his hand around his shoulder.

He didn't write Tony back, and Tony didn't try to contact him again. Celebrity news stopped talking about Peter going to MIT, and Natasha didn't say anything to Bucky, either.

As Spring Break, approached, Wanda began a relentless campaign on their parents.

"Maaaaa," Wanda whined, "all my friends are going!"

Frigga peered at her over her glasses. "If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?"

Wanda rolled her eyes. "No, but they're not jumping off a bridge, they're going camping. Lillian's sister is seventeen, she's driving us all in the van. It's fine." 

The name pinged something in Steve's memory. He knew Lillian's sister. She'd been at Brock's the one time he'd gone over there. She knew Jack's little brother, Steve thought, or one of them. He couldn't remember if she'd joined the guys in doing drugs at that party and that worried him. But it wasn't Brock's group going camping, it was Wanda's friends from school, so getting a ride from her was surely fine. As long as she drove sober.

"Hmm." Odin spooned a mouthful of stew in. "I suppose it would be fine if your mother agrees."

Frigga frowned. "You're awfully young to be on your own, even if there is a group of you."

"Sixteen isn't young to go camping, Ma, come on. Lillian's sister is practically eighteen! And we won't be that far away."

"It's a six-hour drive, Wanda. If you get scared or don't like the group of girls, it's too far for us to come pick you up."

"I know, I know. It's okay. I like them all. Kamala said she'd share a tent with me."

"Well. I suppose it would be fine."

Pietro perked up. "Can I go?"

Wanda curled her lip. "No. It's not 'Bring Your Annoying Brother to Camping Day.'"

"Bet they'd have more fun with me than with you!" Pietro stuck his tongue out at her.

"Kids!" Odin clapped his hands together. "Eat your supper. And listen to your mother."

"She didn't even say anything," Pietro grumbled at his bowl. 

Steve fretted that night, while Wanda danced around, elated. He went to Frigga. "Hey, Ma? Do you really think it's a good idea to let Wanda go off on her own for a whole week? She's got homework and stuff."

Frigga smiled kindly and patted the couch next to her. When Steve sat, she put her legs over his lap and he patted her ankle idly. "Sweetheart. Wanda is an energetic child. She has a lot in her, and it needs a way to come out. I'd rather she get drunk off half a beer around a campfire, with seven other girls who care about her, than she start sneaking out and keeping things from me. She'll be okay."

"If you're sure…"

She patted his arm. "You're so sweet to care about her so much." She stretched out on the couch. "Now, your old Ma wouldn't mind a foot rub."

Steve chuckled. "Of course…"

**

Steve pushed through the door, weighed down by his art bag, his backpack, and his portfolio. "Hey!" he called, "How's the - oh. Hello."

A pretty blonde woman about his age was just coming down the hallway and she stopped in surprise when she saw Steve. "Oh. Hello! I'm Sharon. I just moved in down the street and your mom was kind enough to invite me over for dinner."

Steve kept his smile pasted on through sheer force of will. "Right. She does that."

"You must be Steve." She held out her hand, and Steve fumbled his armfuls to shake it. 

"Yes, Steve. Uh - if you'll excuse me, I just need to put my stuff away."

"Oh yeah, of course!" She smiled, eyes going soft. "I'll see you in there." She tipped her head towards the dining room.

"Right." Steve took off for his room. He dumped everything on his bed then knocked on the divider in the closet. "Buck?" When there was no answer, he checked his phone calendar. Bucky had a shift that night. "Shit." He was on his own. "Shit, shit, shit."

Steve shucked his jacket and trotted back downstairs. Sharon was at the table with Frigga, Odin, and Thor, who was focused intently on his fish, always immune to any awkwardness.

"Look who joined us, Steve! A new neighbour."

Steve took his seat at the table. "We already met."

"Oh?" Frigga sounded altogether too excited.

"Just in the hallway here, Ma."

"So, Sharon," Odin started, "what did you say you were studying?"

"Criminology. My two roommates and I have a townhouse in the complex down the road. They're both studying psychology."

"How interesting. What would you like to do with that?"

"I'm not sure." Sharon shot Steve a kind smile. "Maybe forensics? What about you, Steve. Art, right?"

"Uh, yeah. Art. I'm probably going to end up in the illustration track, but my program lets you be pretty broad for a long time. Maybe design…"

"That's really cool."

"How are you liking the neighbourhood?" Frigga picked up a bowl of potatoes and offered them to Sharon. "And your new place?"

"It's lovely. Very quiet. I'm from D.C. so it's nice to be in the suburbs. Except the washer in our house doesn't work." She laughed quietly. "Been carting everything to the laundromat."

"Oh, you can use ours, dear. Not a problem at all."

"Well, gosh. Thank you." She turned to Steve. "Guess that means I'll see you around."

Steve tried not to choke on his broccoli. "Guess so." God, this was so entirely unfair. It was unfair to him, putting him through all this nonsense, but it was also unfair to Sharon, who thought Steve was available, interested, because Frigga or Odin had no doubt put that idea in her head. But there was nothing he could say to make it clear that he wasn't interested without either hurting Sharon's feelings or coming clean.

Steve suffered through the rest of dinner, making polite small talk. He tried to pull Thor in a few times, but as soon as his plate was cleaned, Thor excused himself and ran downstairs to the computer room. Steve attempted to follow.

"Oh, dear, don't leave. I was thinking you could use my car and take Sharon into town for ice cream. Wouldn't that be nice?"

"Um." Steve shot a look to Sharon who was smiling politely. This was Angie all over again, but this time, Steve had no Bucky for backup, and he was pretty sure Peggy could only handle one of his girlfriends at a time. "I can't, Ma…"

"Oh come, now. Don't be rude. It's just ice cream, Steve."

"No, Ma. I don't think that's a good idea," Steve said between gritted teeth. "I have stuff I need to do tonight."

Frigga tutted. "Oh, why not? You need a night off from homework, sweetheart. You're working too hard. College is about learning balance, too."

"I just don't - I don't think that I - Sharon won't -" Steve cut himself off. "I think she'll have a better time with someone else."

Frigga huffed and rolled her eyes.

"Oh, Steven, why are you always so rude to your mother's guests. Just take the young lady for ice cream. I'm sure you'll have a wonderful time," Odin said with heavy emphasis.

"It's okay," Sharon said hurriedly. "I don't -"

"Steve why won't you just let me help you find -?"

"Because I'm gay!" Steve yelled, pushing back from the table with a screech of wood-on-wood. "I'm sorry, Sharon, I'm sure you're lovely, but you're not my type. Because my type is men." Steve took a deep breath, eyes on his plate, unable to look at Odin and Frigga's no doubt shocked faces. "I know you mean well, but even if you were bringing home people that were my type, I still wouldn't want your help. I can find someone myself - and that's if I even want to find someone at all! So please… stop. Just stop. I can't do this anymore." Steve gave Sharon one last apologetic glance. "I'm really sorry." 

He bolted.

Up in his room, Steve slid down to the floor with his back against his bed and dropped his face to his knees. "Fuck." That was not how he'd planned it. And it didn't matter that they would still love him, even though he was gay, now he'd been rude not just to them, but to their guest, and that wouldn't go over well. He dug around in his pocket and pulled out his phone. 

His first instinct was to call Bucky, but he'd be at work and Steve didn't want to make him think it was an emergency. He scrolled through his numbers and one popped out. One he hadn't called recently enough. 

It rang twice. "Steve?"

"Hi, Hope."

"Oh, baby, what's wrong?" 

Steve sucked in a tight breath. "I just came out to Odin and Frigga."

"Oh. Wow. What did they say?"

"I didn't really give them a chance to say anything," Steve muttered. "It kind of… happened. I was upset and didn't mean to say anything. So I yelled and then came up to my room. And now I feel like a heel."

"Oh, Steve, I'm so sorry. You know they're still going to love you, right? They might have to… readjust a bit, but they'll get there."

"I know… I just." He sighed. "I waited so long to do this right and now I've made a big mess of it and I feel sick."

"Sweetheart," Hope cooed. Just hearing her voice was a comfort. Steve missed her and Scott desperately, but they'd moved out to San Francisco two years ago, despite Frigga and Odin being utterly heartbroken at losing easy access to their granddaughter, and he rarely got to see them.

"Hey… here's a thing," Steve tried. "And you can say no, but if I can rustle up a plane ticket, can I come spend part of the summer with you?"

"Hmm. Give me one second."

"Okay." Steve stared up at the ceiling while he waited for Hope to come back.

"Okay, bud, let me do you one better," Hope said, a moment later. "Spring break is next week, yeah? Cassie's got her break at the same time so we booked a trip to NYC. But you know what eight year olds are like. She's done nothing but whine and complain about it. She says all we want to do is look at old buildings. So! Here's a thought - come with us to New York and we'll leave Cassie in Boston. She'd rather spend a week with Grandma and Grandpa than her parents." Hope scoffed. "Maybe she'll grow out of it by the time she's thirty. Anyway! We have the rooms booked and everything. You wanna tag along?"

"Wow, really? No, Hope, that's way too much."

"Nah, Steve, it's fine. Cassie's going to be a preteen grump anyway, we might as well bring someone who will enjoy the old buildings. She'd rather spend the week chasing Thor around, anyway. Plus Odin and Frigga will love to have her back, and it'll take the heat off you. You in?"

"Absolutely!"